Mexican Brunch Food, Baby

Food styling and photography by @dianemorrisey

Food styling and photography by @dianemorrisey

By Lindsay Sterling

Even though my Mexican cooking teacher, Azminda Cansino, knows my name is Lindsay, the text I got from her was: “Nena, what is the plan?”

“Azminda,” I responded, a little giddy at the confusing message, “Was this for me? Who’s Nena?”

Azminda: “Nena is baby.” (It’s pronounced NEIGH-nah. And it’s what girlfriends call each other in Mexico.) Little horsie? Little neigh-er? Whatever, I love being a nena! Warm Latina terms of endearment are like nectar to this cold, Northern WASP. Dear readers, nenas, let me tell you our plan. Azminda is teaching me (and therefore you) how to cook Mexican chilaquiles (pronounced Cheela-KEEL-ace), a popular brunch food, at Azminda’s apartment in Yarmouth, Maine, on Wednesday at 11am.

For days I looked forward to this. “Life is good” shirts and spare tire covers didn’t look sarcastic anymore. We’re going to get to learn chilaquiles, whatever they are, and I know they are going to be out-of-this-world amazing because real immigrant food always is. On Wednesday an hour before we were to cook, I was in downtown Portland when I got a foreboding email from Azminda. “I have two drawbacks,” she wrote. Her blender broke, and she couldn’t find green tomatoes at Hannaford, Shaw’s, or Walmart. Of course she couldn’t, poor thing! I had to save our cooking session. I went to LeRoux Kitchen on Commercial Street to buy a blender. When I came face to face with a real, live $500 Vitamix, desire seared my eyeballs and wrapped its claws around my heart. I could have the smoothest smoothies in all the land! My brain punched back. Or I could spend way too much on a blender. The cheapest blender was the very model I’d blown out on lemongrass last year, so I forked over $150 for the slightly more powerful 700-watt Cuisinart and prayed against all forecasts of appliance life spans in America, that this one last at least two decades.

At the Monument Square Farmer’s Market I scanned the under-tent displays like a lion scanning the savannah. “I know you’re in there somewhere.” After about ten minutes, in the heart of the vegetable hullabaloo at Uncle’s Farm Stand, I pounced on a basket of green tomatoes and ripped them apart with my teeth. Or rather, excuse, me, paid for them and headed to Yarmouth. At Azminda’s, my new blender liquefied 5 serrano chilis and a pound of green tomatoes pretty well, but Azminda broke it to me that a twenty dollar blender in Mexico would have made a smoother blend. Blenders have more blades in Mexico, she says. We started planning our Mexican blender import business while the light green tomato-chili-puree cooked in a large pot. She added water, chicken bouillon and salt. When the color turned muted, more like pond scum, she did something totally crazy. She poured a mountain of tortilla chips into the green liquid. “Oh my _od they’re going to get all soggy!” I cried like it was the end of those little chips’ lives. But nenas, trust your Mexican girlfriends. Tortilla chips come back reincarnated as wonderfully thick, tangy, zippy chilaquiles. You eat a generous mound of this deliciousness with a thin plank of pan-fried chicken breast and sour cream. It is, I kid you not, the best brunch ever. If you do one thing for your pleasure sensors this week, get the recipe and cook this dish.



A Good Soup to Know

A Good Soup to Know

I was in my state's capitol for the day, trying to get a better grip on how our government works. My representative in the Maine State Legislature, Sara Gideon, graciously introduced me to many people who work there. When she mentioned to the representative of a neighboring district that I write an online cookbook called Immigrant Kitchens, he encouraged me to connect with his wife. “She’s from Colombia,” he said, “and she loves to cook!”

Love in Three Days

Love in Three Days

When I told my new neighbor, Lily Ou, about my project, Immigrant Kitchens, she immediately said she would love teach me how to make her favorite dish from China. A couple weeks later she invited a Chinese friend and me over to cook, and I watched them make Kung Pao Chicken, a spicy stir-fry with dried chili peppers, green onions, and peanuts in a dark sauce. Theirs was by far the best Kung Pao I’ve ever tasted, and far different from what is served in Chinese-American restaurants.

Busted up Flatbread

Busted up Flatbread

One Saturday night, twenty people were gathered in a Portland kitchen for a hands-on cooking class. As head chef and host, I shared with the attendees my quest to learn how to cook an authentic dish from every country in the world from a native. Thanks a whole bunch of kind immigrants in the Portland area, I was about 70 countries into my journey around the world, and had about 130 or so more countries to go. When the attendees broke into groups to make components of the Bolivian meal I was teaching, a gentleman in his thirties came up to me and offered, “I’m from Trinidad. I can teach you a dish.” I was thrilled. Trinidad and Tobago (rhymes with Sebago) would be the next country in my culinary journey, thanks to South Portland resident, Steve Fortune, a software engineer at Tyler Technologies in Falmouth.

Pomegranates and Poblanos

Pomegranates and Poblanos

Last Thursday I was delighted to find gorgeous poblano peppers at Andrew’s Farm stand at the Yarmouth Farmers’ Market. Shining with earthly energy, they reminded me something that a Mexican chef once taught me: September through November is the best time of year to cook chiles en nogada. It’s a Mexican classic: deep fried poblano chili peppers stuffed with pork, thyme, apple, and plantains, and topped with walnut cream sauce, fresh parsley, and pomegranate. 

Grinning Ear to Ear

Grinning Ear to Ear

Three Chileans taught me how to make their favorite dish from Santiago, Chile, called pastel de choclo. Benjamin Sepulveda, a Chilean high school student on exchange at Casco Bay High School, admitted that this was the first time he was cooking the dish by himself. “I have watched my mother and grandmother do this a million times. It’s not something we cook alone, only with family.” Javiera Alvarez, a student on exchange at Freeport High School, agreed. “The whole family cooks it together.” Marcela Naveas, the students’ chaperone, chimed in, “Pastel de choclo is a traditional food in our country that’s served for lunch in summer when the corn is fresh.”

If You’re Not Sweating, Something’s Wrong With You

If You’re Not Sweating, Something’s Wrong With You

A sculpture on display at Filament Gallery in Portland, Maine, memorialized one of Jamaica’s great cooks. Her likeness is carved out of wood, sanded and polished with butcher’s wax. Her lips are closed in an understated smile of sublime satisfaction, as if saying to her numerous children and grandchildren, Mmm. Look what you’ve become. One of those grandchildren is the sculptor, Alva Lowe. 

Freedom Chicken

Freedom Chicken

Parivash Rohani heard about Immigrant Kitchens from a friend and reached out to see if she could be involved. In her home in Portland, Maine, she taught me how to make her favorite Iranian dish, called fesenjoon. It's chicken breast cut into cubes and cooked in a nutty sweet and sour sauce that's kind of like Persian bar-b-q sauce, but without the tomato base. Ground walnuts give the sauce body, richness, and a touch of bitterness. Pomegranate molasses adds dark red color and pungency. 

Pass the Pierogis

Pass the Pierogis

The last time I attempted to make Polish dumplings was a disaster. I was at our family’s Christmas Eve party. Thirty people were dipping pretzels into honey mustard, shrimp into cocktail sauce, and getting drinks from the bar. My mom was running the kitchen. The white fish was in baking dishes ready to be put in the oven. The ends of the beans were picked; the sauerkraut was bubbling.

Fork Foolish

Fork Foolish

I met twenty-seven-year-old Herson Peraza by the tomatoes at the supermarket. He was speaking in Spanish to an acquaintance of mine. I asked him where he was from. When he said, “El Salvador,” I just about invited myself over to his house for lunch. Well, actually I did invite myself over to his house for lunch. How embarrassingly forward. My only excuse is that I am on a cooking quest to learn how to make a favorite dish from a native of every country in the world. And I was on the cusp of completing Central America.

Love at First Soup

Last weekend a friend in the neighborhood, Marco Caceres, taught me how to make his favorite dish from his childhood in Ecuador: sopa de pescado. It’s made of a simple set of ingredients: white fish, fresh tomato, red onions, garlic, cilantro, olive oil, and lemon. I was delighted to see how easy it can be to make a fantastic seafood meal, and I was touched by the story of how Marco came to make this soup here.

The African Gala

The African Gala

The young man at the front desk of my office building had an accent. He was from Rwanda. I asked him if he’d teach me how to cook a dish for Immigrant Kitchens. He shook his head, but he knew an African friend who liked to cook, and he’d ask her. In the meantime, he suggested I go that Friday to the African Gala, a festival of African food and entertainment. There would be a big buffet of African food and I might meet someone there who could teach me how to cook.

So Far, So Good

So Far, So Good

I met a young Guatemalan couple at the grocery store. The young man, E., was fair-skinned and dark-haired. The young woman, D., was exceptionally short and had the brown skin of indigenous Mayans. I asked E. and D. if they’d teach me how to cook their favorite Guatemalan meal from home. To my delight, they said yes.

A Tablespoon of Rose Water

A Tablespoon of Rose Water

When my physical therapist, Amin Saab, in Brunswick heard about my quest to learn a dish from every country in the world, he connected me with his Armenian mother in Cape Cod. In August, she and I sat together on her back porch, overlooking a beach packed with orange parasols. Over the sounds of distant waves crashing and kids playing, Maggie Saab told me the story of the foods she was about to teach me how to cook.

From the Mountains of Colombia, A Revelatory Soup

Leonor Londono McGinn, the Colombian-American grandmother of my daughter’s schoolmate, taught me how to make her favorite food from her childhood. It’s a popular soup called sancocho, made with chicken broth, carrots, celery, whole sections of corn on the cob, whole pieces of bone-in chicken, and big chunks of potatoes, yuca root, and green plantains. My favorite part was the slices of avocado and fresh cilantro on top. After forty years of serving avocado room temperature or cold, it was liberating to eat avocado warm, melting into soup.

Brilliant Move

Brilliant Move

The man delivering my new bed had a foreign accent. I asked where he was from. “Cape Verde,” Alberto said, pleasantly surprised. Perhaps no delivery recipient had ever asked him that. Cape Verde is a group of ten volcanic islands 350 miles off the coast of West Africa. Alberto came here to the U.S. to find work. He is happy how things turned out. He said he would be glad to teach me a dish from Cape Verde for Immigrant Kitchens, but he thought I should really cook with his cousin, who was an amazing cook. He gave me both of their phone numbers and drove off in a truck with the logo on it: “Brilliant Move.” 

What to do with Winter Squash

What to do with Winter Squash

Over green smoothies upstairs at the Public Market House in Portland, Maine, I asked Iman Lipumba, a 22-year-old photographer and writer from Tanzania, if she’d teach me how to cook her favorite dish from home. “I don’t really know how to cook,” she confessed. “In Tanzania, it’s common for most middle class, working families to have a cook. For someone to come every day and cook, clean, and do laundry, you would pay the equivalent of $30 a month.”

A Call for Coq Au Vin

Last spring a French woman I met in my spin class at the YMCA taught me how to make authentic coq au vin. Ever since then, I’d been on the look out for the requisite coq (that means “rooster” in French) for the full experience. A promising lead: one of my neighbors acquired twelve baby chicks, and five turned out to be roosters.