Remembering one who loved to eat

Hi friends and dear readers,

Alex here. We have some sad news to share with you today. My maternal grandmother, Martha Schneider, passed away late last week. You may have heard her mentioned on this blog before. Martha Schlesinger was born in Budapest in 1923, moved to Tampico, Mexico at age 4, to Mexico City at age 18, to New York at age 24, back to Mexico at age 27, and finally to Los Angeles at age 41, where she lived and raised her 3 children (including my Mom, Susie) until she passed away on January 13th. If you caught the NPR story I did involving my grandparents, you got to hear her voice.

Martha Schlesinger, left, and her little sister Edith, c. 1928

My grandmother, like me, was not someone who particularly enjoyed cooking. She was fiercely focused on work, deciding to go to college at a time and place where it was unusual for women to do so. Eventually, she built an impressive career in fashion, first opening her own retail shops in Mexico, and later as a buyer for Bullocks near the company’s peak. Preparing meals wasn’t a big priority for her.

When I’d drive up the mountain to my grandparents’ home, with its bright blue pool and views all the way to the beach, my grandma would heat tortillas, warm some refried beans and whip up a bit of guacamole — similar to what  you might find me eating when I’m sitting in my apartment starving away. But, like me, she loved to eat. Some of her favorites were steak and veal, standard old tacos, slowly sipping on a little shot glass of tequila, and the Hungarian dishes that my mother prepares, chicken paprikash and nockedli. When we’d have dobosh for dessert at Shabbat, it was always a cause for celebration.

Of all the places my grandmother lived and the cuisines she sampled, Mexican food was perhaps the strongest through line for her. I don’t think that’s too surprising. While much Eastern European food certainly is delicious, there’s a whole other rainbow of colors in Mexican cooking that can open up your palette. Those colors were scary  for my grandmother at first, as the little girl and her littler sister, Edith, stepped tenuously into the streets of the Mexican port city where her family docked. But eventually, she found she couldn’t imagine life without those tastes.

There are so many “takeaways” from my grandmother’s life, but when it comes to food, here are mine:

You don’t have to be a gourmet chef to be a big part of the food life of your family, and you don’t have to enjoy cooking, either, for food to mean a lot. Loving food is a sign of someone who loves life and, in my grandmother’s case, it was a proxy for love of family. To her, a meal was always an excuse for us to “enjoy” — which, come to think of it, is one of the words she said most throughout her life.

Grandma, I’m remembering you and the food you loved — today, and always.

Chicken Tortilla Kugel

Recently, as part of a World Hunger Fundraiser, my daughter Amy recruited me  to teach a cooking class to a small group of U.S.C. (University of Southern California) students in the university’s Hillel kitchen  (see short video below).  I opted for a simple recipe, which would be quick, easy and delicious, and which would allow for several short cuts if desired.

Many cultures have some version of a casserole — chilaquiles are Mexican one, while kugel is Jewish from Eastern Europe. Chilaquiles are layers of crunchy tortilla chips covered in a spicy (usually green) sauce, and then smothered in cheese and cream.  Kugel is layers of noodles, often sweet. Guess there’s something universal about putting a bunch of stuff in a deep pan and baking!

My version here is made with chicken, so it doesn’t include any dairy products.  Instead of using chicken, you do have the option of using cheese where you would the chicken.  My guests always rave about this dish…but little do they know how simple it is to make. Now I am giving all of my secrets away.  It calls for either freshly made tortilla chips (by frying your own) or store-bought chips.  Also, it calls for tomato sauce, which you can make fresh, or you may use the canned stuff if you are short on time.  I don’t know about you,  but I have a lot of tortilla chips left over from New Year’s Eve and other recent celebrations.  So this Friday night, before the chips go stale,  I am going to use them to make a delicious Chicken Tortilla Kugel.

Chicken Tortilla Kugel

Ingredients and process for Step I

  • One bone-in whole chicken breast
  • a small piece of onion
  • 1 whole garlic clove
  • Salt and pepper to taste

As if you were going to make a simple chicken soup, boil the chicken breast along with onion and garlic, and season with salt and pepper.   When it is tender and well cooked remove it from the broth, allow it to cool, and then shred it. It should provide about 2 cups of shredded chicken. Set it aside, and preserve the broth for the sauce.

Ingredients and process for Step II

  • 18 corn tortillas or store-bought tostadas or tortilla chips
  • ¼ – 1/2 cup canola oil, if you are using the fresh tortillas

Warm the oil in a small frying pan, over medium heat.
Fry each tortilla one at a time until it becomes golden and crisp.
As you remove each fried tortilla from the oil (which is now a tostada), place on a paper towel and wipe off excess oil with another paper towel.

Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees.

Ingredients and process for Step III

  • 15 oz. can tomato sauce or 4 small ripe tomatoes
  • 2 cups chicken broth chicken broth
  • ¼ of a small white onion
  • 1 garlic clove
  • 1 jalapeno pepper (or more if you want a spicier sauce)
  • 1 tablespoon of fresh cilantro
  • ½ teaspoon salt

Place all of the above ingredients in a blender and liquefy until very smooth.
Place 1 tablespoon of canola oil into a small saucepan and heat very well until oil begins to smoke a bit, add the sauce from the blender and bring it to a boil. Allow the sauce to boil for 2 minutes and then lower the heat so that sauce continues to simmer and stays hot. When the tostadas have cooled, break up 6 of them (each tostada should make about 4-5 pieces) in a rectangular oven safe baking dish, and spread them out evenly.  Sprinkle about 1/3 of the shredded chicken evenly over the tostada pieces or chips.  With a ladle, spoon the sauce evenly over the first layer of tostada pieces and shredded chicken. Repeat the process and form a second layer, or even a third layer, ending with a layer of the shredded chicken.  Cover tightly with foil and place in hot oven for 30 minutes.

Remove from oven and garnish with diced onion, cilantro and avocado pieces if desired.

Serves 8-12