August 26, 2011

In the Kitchen with Pueblito

Pueblito making Thai green curry chicken
I have long wanted to get myself into a situation where my cooking abilities made a difference. I mean, yes, there is good in what I do now. My clients are generally people for whom the task of cooking is simply beyond them–whether this has to do with their abilities in the kitchen or daily time pressures.They want to eat healthily and I make it happen. I shop with a conscience, buy local and seasonal and shop from small suppliers or direct from the farms as much as possible. Good stuff; pat on the back for me and some money in my pocket. But is there more?

In my work in Mexico, I befriended Pueblito, the housekeeper of one of my clients. She would hang around the kitchen while I was working, wanting to help and asking about the ingredients, which often were out of her reach price-wise being imported for the local gringo palate. When there were recipes I thought she could afford to make, I'd share them with her. Thanks to Pueblito, I developed a pretty good command of  kitchen Spanish.

I came to consider Pueblito a friend. She helped me often by dashing out to pick up the ingredients I may have forgotten, or she'd bring me jugos (juices) or treats from the nearby panaderia. I wanted to do something for her, so I invited her to come to my house and cook with me. I thought I'd teach her some of the recipes she'd asked about, things that were simple and inexpensive for her to cook for her family.

Once we started, she was right on it. Her knife skills were far and away the best I have seen in any home cook. I had worked with a group of women in their 60s not long before as they'd volunteered to help prep for their friends' housewarming- my clients- which I was catering. Sure, I'd work with volunteers to keep their costs down. What a mistake. That these women still had all their fingers a miracle, the way they handled a knife.

I know she's a good cook in her own right, but she wanted to stretch beyond the traditional Mexican recipes her mother taught her. So I started off by teaching Pueblito a simple Carrot Ginger soup. All the ingredients are readily available to her and the process is simple and includes using the ubiquitous licuadora– the blender–that appliance even the most basic Mexican kitchen is never without. She'd never used ginger, aside from medicinally, in a tea for tummy-aches. The soup was a simple revelation.

After the soup, we moved on to a pesto. Again, something she could relate to; being on a very basic level, similar to pipian. To make it more accessible to her, we used pepitas (pumpkin seeds) and almonds instead of pine nuts, and a mix of parsley, mint and the local basil which is more like Thai basil than Genovese. We tossed the finished paste (also licuadora-ized) with some blanched brocolli, chopped tomatoes and pasta. She was thrilled. I later gifted her some Thai curry paste because she'd many times swooned over the scent of curry simmering in her employers kitchen and had only ever tasted a spoonful. Together we made a Thai green curry with chicken, green beans and mushrooms, and wrote out the recipe. I know she's not reading this, but I hope there's been a pot of curry simmering on her own stove since then.

I want to do more of this; women in Pueblito's position just need a little instruction to both feel more fulfilled and empowered. I may "lose" some potential clients, but then again, there's not enough of me to go around, and I'd rather see Pueblito feeling a little more excited about her job (she is really not in love with ironing and vacuuming...)

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