“Who would drench 1 pound of chicken breasts in 2 cups of cornstarch, Juju, are you sure?”
“Ma, he is specifically calling for it,” Juju replies. “Look at all his reviews and five stars and comments. It is supposed to make the chicken super crunchy.”
I am assisting, helping peel and mince, trying to teach some knife skills along the way. Then we go back to coating the chicken with a mountain of cornstarch that I stare at skeptically, while I teach him how to safely fry. We move on to the sauce.
“Wait, don’t you think it needs more ginger and garlic and a lot more chile to have a tasty amount of heat, Juju?” I ask.
No concessions. “If you don’t want to follow the recipe as he says, then don’t help me, Ma,” he says. “I can do it solo, but I wanted you to make it with me and spend time in the kitchen together.”
Well, that’s that. Sold. I take a step back, shut it and really just assist.
I love it when my boys, all young men now, jump into the kitchen. Alan, now in college, started to cook following outrageous recipe videos, the bacon-wrapped-over-pancakes-over-pizza-over-a-burrito kind of a thing, when he was 7 or 8. He sketched drawings and plans on Post-its. It got messy for a while. Sami, who just graduated high school, relished in being our picky eater. Slowly, he started helping cook, as he went from eating three things (bread, noodles, chocolate milk) to almost everything (while trying not to show it), whipping up marinades, mixes for pancakes, cookies and crepes, and then taking on precise and challenging desserts. Juju, now entering ninth grade, since very young had been mostly into baking and all things chocolate, luscious sweets and indulgent treats — but that was another era.
All the while, as I turned my career toward food, they have been my most loyal supporters and most sincere critics. Every year, with a new season of my public-television series “Pati’s Mexican Table,” I come back from a different region of my home country full of new ingredients, techniques and dishes I am eager to test. And my boys help. The rules: Never say something is good when it doesn’t work, and only offer praise, along with all the reasons for why, when something really does. Then the dish becomes part of our family’s history and meals: a treasure to share with whoever will listen, a dish that comes from somewhere, that has a story.
That’s exactly what happened when I came back from filming in the northern Mexican state of Sonora, where I learned to make Double-Stacked Shrimp and Cheese Tacos, a.k.a. tacos bravos, from the man who invented them. They are irresistible from top to bottom, and everyone in my family loved them so much that they started asking for repeats.
The amazing thing now, though, is that we are all bringing things to the table. In the middle of this lingering pandemic, our kitchen has become a place where we are rediscovering one another as the people we are today and as we evolve, sharing a crazy curiosity and hunger to explore the world. From home.
I thought I knew my kids, and their cooking and eating ways, but nope. I was wrong.
Alan, back from college and not able to return for several months, started cooking for us the foods he and his roommates love, with ingredients we don’t usually have at home — tofu, soba noodles, lots of bell peppers (which I used to resist) and tahini — with flavors and cooking techniques from other regions and cultures. And many vegetarian meals. He has also perfected the use of one of our family’s favorite ingredients of all time: anchovies, making the meanest and spiciest pasta with them. We continuously ask for repeats. Sami has wanted to hone the basics to be able to cook for himself and others, wherever he may be. So we have tackled rice, potatoes, beans and a whole lot of eggs.
At this point, Alan and Sami are away at school. As sad and hard as it is to see them go out on their own, one of the best feelings is when they text me for the instructions to make a dish that they miss from home and they really want to share with their new community. And then they bring their world to us.
Meanwhile, Juju has moved from cooking mostly sweets to taking on the world by making classic savory dishes from every possible cuisine that is not Mexican.
Much to my shock, those insane amounts of cornstarch (by my Mexican standards) did give his fried orange chicken from the YouTube star a ridiculously delicious, irresistible crunch. And that sauce, after it simmered and became more subtle and sticky, with the judicious amounts of garlic, ginger and chile, perfectly coated the chicken.
I liked it so much that I started to think about the day, only a few years from now, when Juju will be out of the house, too. When I miss him, will I get a craving for tacos bravos, or for orange chicken? If it’s the latter, I know just who I’ll text for the recipe.