From the time I was a tiny tot, I learned that the very best, comforting foods were simple. No matter where your family is from or what your ethnic background is, our "foremothers" always had staples on hand and somehow knew how to create food magic with 3 or 4 ingredients. One of the biggest food (and humor) influences on the women in my family was our neighbor, Conchita.
Originally from El Paso, Conchita lived down the street from us in Alexandria, Virginia, in the 1970s and early 1980s. She and my mom became quick friends and ate and laughed together all the time. They reminded me a lot of Carol Burnett and Vicki Lawrence, the way they would laugh and carry on, even though their lives were not easy. But man, could she cook some great food! Conchita and her husband worked their way up from just about nothing (I recall her telling me she would make "ketchup soup" to get by when they got married), but by this point her witty and shrewd husband was an officer at The Pentagon, and Conchita even had her own Mexican cooking show on our local PBS affiliate. It was called "Conchita's Electric Chalupe"!
While my mother and Conchita carried on in the kitchen, I would wander about her living room as five-year-olds do, and everything was so different from the things in my house, but very interesting to me. I remember Spanish language books, a big, sturdy, wooden dining table, a thin oriental rug that was maroon and black and violet, a black and white wedding photo of Conchita many years before, with her raven black hair contrasting against a lace veil, silvery white silk gown and a massive, cascading bouquet of white flowers. The house always, always smelled like cumin-- something we never tasted until we started hanging out at her place. Funny the details you remember after all these years. Conchita and my mom would be always be talking in hushed tones at the counter about "grown up things," or howling about a snobby neighbor or her sister's misadventures in El Paso. There was a lot of gesturing and mimicking. Sometimes Conchita and I were alone, though. When my dear grandmother died and my mom and sisters were very upset, Conchita kept me close and fed me well. And even when I knew I was being a brat, I never got my way and she gently put me in my place. She passed away just a few years ago after struggling her whole life with Type 1 diabetes. I was surprised at how hard it hit both me and my mother, and my eyes are welling up just typing this.
All I have left of Conchita are a few video blurbs in my mind, the memory of her voice, and her recipe for Spanish rice. She never really taught me, I would just watch her and in later years watch my mom make it. Everyone loves this rice: you can't go wrong. Note: use a wooden spoon to stir this. It just works better, I don't know why. And that's the way she always did it.
a few glugs vegetable oil
1 onion, diced
1-2 cloves chopped garlic
1 green bell pepper, minced
1.5 c white rice
2 c water
1 can diced tomatoes
1 tbsp. ground cumin
salt and pepper to taste
Heat oil in skillet, then add the onions. Cook and stir until onions are translucent, then add garlic and green pepper. Cook for a minute, continually stirring. Add dry rice to oily onion mixture, and cook until only very lightly browned. Then add tomatoes (There will be steam: Conchita would laugh maniacally behind the steam and say "I am the Wizard of Oz"!). Add cumin. Stir until liquid starts to disappear and rice begins to stick, and then add water and stir, a little at a time, until rice is tender but not mushy. Add salt and pepper to taste.
This rice dish is good with chicken, fish, with grilled shrimp-- well, it's good with just about everything! But here's what I love it most with: tortillas and a cheat's margarita.
Anne's Favorite Tortilla
Fresh soft corn tortillas
Refried beans (homemade or Amy's with green chile)
Salsa (fresh or if I have to buy a jar, I like Salpica brand)
Crumbled Feta cheese (or queso fresco)
Pickled onions (if you happen to have any)
Puff the tortilla up on a skillet over low heat and heat up your refried beans. Put the tortilla on a plate and smear the beans on top. Then smear a spoonful of salsa on the bean layer. Then sprinkle your cheese, radishes, and onions on top.
Cheat's Cadillac Margarita
8 oz Simply Lime limeade or Newman's Own Limeade
1 shot tequila
1 shot Cointreau
Ice for glass and kosher salt for rim (rub lime juice on rim, pour salt on a plate, and salt the rim)
Enjoy this when you need some "Me Time." And watch some Carol Burnett for Conchita and Mom!