I was brought up by three women: my abuela Ines, my tía Lucia, and Monica, the mother who bore me. They raised me lovingly, differently, simultaneously. It’s all knotted together, their magic taking different shapes, their power woven into me. It is from them that I learned to taste, to eat, to host, to cook.
(Grandma, Mom, me, tía Lucia)
If you ask my mother Monica where I learned to cook, she’ll always say from my grandmother and my aunt, never giving herself any credit. I wonder if she sees her effect on my path to becoming a chef. She speaks of her own cooking as utilitarian, and always in comparison to my grandmother and my aunt’s food–the measuring sticks of her culinary skills. It probably didn’t help that at a certain age, I started rejecting her recipes for those of my grandmother, and began vocally comparing notes on what her own dishes needed: less salt, more acid.
My aunt and my mom were into macrobiotic cooking in their late twenties. They hosted parties at my mom’s downtown loft, welcoming friends with a pot of brown rice and kidney beans stewed with wakame (seaweed) and sprinkled with gomasio (a sesame condiment). For the first six years of my life, I ate only the cleanest foods–no sugar, meat, or dairy, and my favorite childhood snack was steamed watercress.
By second grade, when lunchtime became a measurement of social capital, I envied the Lunchables my classmates brought to school, their silver Capri Suns and sliced salami somehow reigning over my delicately hand-rolled sushi and miso soup. At the time, there was shame attached to my “weird” vegetarian Japanese food, but today I count my blessings.
My grandmother had arrived in New York as a young Ecuadorian immigrant and worked her way to becoming the private chef for a prominent Jewish family. When she retired after more than 35 years, the Newhouses still requested her cooking for their High Holiday celebrations, and she happily agreed, year after year. Eventually, she began asking me to help her execute these elaborate, glitzy functions; it was an honor to be her sous-chef and trusted accomplice. In my family, she was known for her comforting traditional Ecuadorian dishes such as llapingachos (soft and gooey potato and cheese pancakes) but she was equally renowned for her matzo ball soup.
I started cooking professionally a couple of years after graduating college, working my way from dumbed-down French bistro food and re-imagined Spanish tapas, until meeting my creative partner and carving out our own space where food, art, and community could co-exist. It hasn’t been until recently that I’ve connected the dots between my strict early childhood diet and the choices I make in my restaurant now, introducing earthy ingredients like umeboshi, hijiki, and burdock, and mixing them into our vibrant palette of tropical comfort foods.
When I ask my mother for a recipe, she calls my aunt. Their food memories and practices are often slightly different—a shift in order of operations, a preferred style of slicing a vegetable. It goes without saying that if my aunt is the teacher, my grandmother is the master. I see my mother’s view of herself as floating between two higher culinary powers, deferring her abilities to her two elders. But it was my mom who made my rice milk, who steamed the bok choy to perfection every time.
As I write this, my mother is in the hospital for open-heart surgery. It is my turn to offer care. I call my tía Lucia for her macrobiotic recommendations, her deep knowledge of healing foods. My abuela and I bring my mom containers of lovingly prepared broths, which I spoon-feed her while my grandmother stands watch. I’ve always considered myself to be a caring person, but this is my first time care-giving in a direct, intense, and dire capacity. I bear witness to myself doing what my mothers did for me: cooking to provide comfort, laboring to offer love.
When my partner and I opened our restaurant, I could feel my mothers’ pride, as if finally they understood where my strange artistic pursuits in life had taken me. My grandmother cried when she saw her name on our menu: “Abuela’s Flan, Ines’s secret recipe.” My mother offers critiques at every turn, on the service, the cleanliness, the flavors. My aunt just quietly observes it all behind wise eyes. My matriarchs. It has been one of the most gratifying experiences of opening my own space to watch them taste and respond to my experimentation with their homemade classics. Llapingachos are on our menu, but we serve them with a peanut salsa, pickled pineapple, and herbs.
But I suppose that’s what we do, how we explain what we know, where it all came from. We learn and imitate our elders, the women before us, who stirred the pot and stirred it well.
Carla Perez-Gallardo is the co-owner and chef of Lil' Deb's Oasis in Hudson, New York.
We have become so used to cooking in large quantities that when we are given the chance to cook for smaller groups, it almost becomes a challenge to think small. For this recipe, handed down by my grandmother’s sister, tía Rosario, and reinterpreted by us at the restaurant, we’ve kept the quantity generous, because in her spirit, it is a dish eaten in her living room with cousins and friends and grandchildren, everyone balancing plates in their laps. Invite your friends over. First feed them some hot chicken soup. Then the llapingachos (pronounced ya - pin - ga - choz), crisp and gooey. For dessert, let them help you wash the dishes.
2 cinnamon sticks
1 t. whole cloves
2 t. whole cumin seeds
2 t. whole coriander seeds
1/4 c. annatto seeds
8 cloves garlic
1/4 c. canola oil
5 pinches salt
1/3 c. orange juice, plus zest of the orange(s)
Toast spices in a pan over medium flame until aromatic, about 3 minutes.
Combine with garlic, canola oil, salt, orange juice and zest.
Put all ingredients in a blender, and blend thoroughly until smooth.
(You’ll have some left over; use it to season grilled chicken, add color to soups or sauces. Can be refrigerated for one month.)
20 medium Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled
2 T. achiote
12 oz. muenster cheese, grated
2 bunches scallions, cut into fine shreds
Place potatoes in heavily salted boiling water until fully cooked.
Strain and allow to rest until they can be safely handled (not until cold; potatoes become gummy if they sit for too long).
Mash and mix thoroughly with achiote.
Allow mixture to cool.
Mix cheese and scallions.
Form evenly sized balls of potato, and make indentations with your thumb to hold the scallion//cheese mix.
Shape the filled balls into flat, round discs, and place on a parchment-covered sheet tray.
1 c. salted roasted peanuts
1 c. milk
1 c. orange juice, plus zest of the oranges
1 T. achiote
1 T. sugar
salt to taste
Blend all ingredients together until smooth and close to the consistency of maple syrup.
Warm slightly before serving.
Quick Pickle Slaw:
1/2 fresh pineapple
1/2 red onion
2 T. freshly squeezed lime juice
salt to taste
chile flakes to taste
small handful each fresh mint and cilantro, chopped
Brunoise (finely dice) pineapple.
Using a mandoline or sharp knife, thinly slice red onion.
Shave radish into half moons.
Combine pineapple, radish, onion, lime juice, salt, and chile flakes.
Add mint and cilantro leaves right before serving.
vegetable oil for cooking
chile oil, to taste
Warm a large pan or pancake griddle up to 325 F.
Lightly coat surface with oil, placing formed llapingachos in neat rows.
Allow each side to brown and form thin crust, about 8 minutes on each side.
After the first flip, press down lightly. If cheese begins to ooze out, you’re getting close.
(Don’t be afraid to let it get crispy as it oozes; the cheese crust is one of the best parts.)
Cooked llapingachos can be held in the oven at 250 degrees until they’re ready to share.
Place the llapingachos on a plate, slathering with warm peanut sauce.
Have someone fry eggs as you do this, one egg per guest.
Place a fried egg on top of each llapingacho, and serve with a spoonful of pickle slaw.
Drizzle chile oil over everything.