Every year, Alice's mom makes menudo for their family's New Year celebration. Shiho and I went to her house to watch the painstaking process as she made a special poquito batch for "Girl Meets Soup!"
When we arrived around 1 p.m., Mrs. Picado - who is also named Alice - put six pounds of beef tripe on to boil in a 20-quart pot, the kind that people use when they make tamales, another traditional holiday dish.
But while tamales involve an army of revelers to prepare, the menudo was less labor- intensive. The waiting was the hardest part, but it allowed us to sit and chat leisurely with Alice, who was home from Wichita for Christmas and her mom. And since it takes four to five hours to prepare, we had plenty of time to catch up, eat tamales that a relative had made, and work our way through a platter of cookies that I had brought. The assortment of sweets included my latest endeavor, rainbow cookies made with almond paste and Jolene's adorable and tasty chocolate gingerbread 3-D kawaii Ultraman cookies.
After a couple of hours, Mrs. Picado put the tripe (which is also called menudo) in a smaller pot. The slow cooking had made it tender and it showed pale pink vestiges of meat clinging to it. She then put in a half of a gallon can of Juanita's hominy and more water.
Mrs. Picado said that she uses the whole can of hominy and leaves the menudo in the huge pot that the tripe is cooked in when she makes a big batch for New Year's Day. She also started to kick it up a notch with the spices.
Like any good cook, I know what I cannot possibly improve. In this case, that would be the main course of the day: precious and rare time spent with old friends and the laughter that ensues. What follows is part of the afternoon's conversation we had: Mrs. Picado's menudo tutorial, family lore, the melting pot of international similarities when it comes to soup, and how we "Spice Girls" like it hot!:
Girl Meets Soup: Is this similar to pozole?
Mom: Pozole, a lot of people make it from other parts of the little piggy, like ears and snout.
Alice: They do?
Mom: Yes, but I don’t. You can cook [menudo] with pig’s feet too. I like it better with beef [feet], because it’s richer. (to Alice) How does that look with the hominy?
Alice: My favorite part is the broth. If I could even just make a big pot of that, and just throw some onions in there… (laughs)
GMS: Did you learn how to do this from watching your mom?
Mom: No, my dad cooked it. Mom never made menudo.
Uncle Ray (coming in from the living room): She didn’t know how… according to Dad.
(Mom is reaching for large Costco-sized bottles of Mexican oregano, California chili and New Mexico chili in the cupboard)
Alice: I can get it down for you, I have longer arms.
Mom: (crushing oregano into the pot against her palms) I’m going to finish off this chili (pours remaining 1/8 cup of California chili powder into the pot)
Alice: The California chili is mild, but the New Mexico is really hot.
(The broth is turning a deep brick color)
GMS: That's gorgeous.
Mom: But to me, that’s not red enough. I’m going to put a little bit more. And then my "Jewishness" comes out (laughs, putting in a healthy pinch of kosher salt). It's more mellow and you don’t need to use as much.
Alice: So that was like a tablespoon of kosher salt...I like it really spicy.
GMS: And a cup of chili powder... I love it!
Mom: I’m going to put in a little bit of the New Mexico chili. You guys like spicy? I don’t want to make it so hot that you guys can’t eat it.
GMS: We like spicy!
Mom: I’m going to bring it back to a boil and let it finish cooking.
GMS: What part of Mexico does menudo come from?
Mom: I’m not sure. My parents were from northern Mexico, so that’s how they ate it, that’s what we were brought up with. What do you think, mija?
Alice: Looks good…
Shiho: So you go by color, basically?
Mom: Yeah. It looks a little white to me because when I make the broth with the [beef] feet, it looks a little bit darker. That was a little over five pounds of menudo and it shrinks down a lot. You could put maybe a couple of those one-pound cans of hominy. You could start with two, and then maybe put more in it. Some people like lots and lots of hominy.
GMS: Does the starch from the corn thicken the soup?
Mom: It kind of thickens it a little more.
Alice: The [beef] feet make like, a weird gelatinous thing that sticks on your lips.
GMS: This is almost like a stew…
Alice: The way we make it. I kind of like just having a lot of broth. Before, I used to like having a ton of hominy.
Mom: (Mom is putting little dishes of condiments on the counter) Then we serve this on the side: the oregano, minced onions… Some people like to put cilantro in it. I personally don’t like to put cilantro but some people like it. And lemons or limes.
Alice and GMS in unison: “The lemon!…” (reference to an old Winchell’s Donut commercial from 1980)
Mom: I like it with lemon. If you try it with lime, it really tastes different.
Alice: I don’t like it without the lemon or lime. It’s okay, but it’s plain.
Mom: This menudo (she means the tripe) is really good because see how it doesn’t have fat. It’s very lean. It was very well cleaned.
My nephew’s wife is related to the Juanita’s. I think her father’s great-aunt or something like that… you know, Joanne. My brother was telling me they had gone to a family reunion – it’s funny – he says there were cans of Juanita’s menudo.
Alice: That’s funny… So she’s not like Rosarita, she’s real. But when I eat that out of the can, the meat’s all chewy and weird. I end up picking out most of the meat and just eating the broth.
Mom: Do you want more hominy in here?
Alice: No!... No, that’s fine… I like the broth…
Mom: We can put more hominy. I can put a little more water in here…
Alice: No! (laughs)
GMS: How much longer do you cook it?
Mom: Just long enough to cook the chili [powder]. See how it’s kind of gritty? You can see it in there, the chili is still raw. Then it will kind of blend and dissolve.
GMS: Will that make it thicker?
Mom: I hope so. I haven’t made it like this in years without the beef feet. So when you make it, get some beef feet and precook them.
Alice: It’s like when you make the chicken soup with the bones versus just… chicken. It would be thin.
Shiho: There’s an Okinawan recipe with pig’s feet too.
Mom: I would just get one foot for this. When you use that, that broth comes out really rich because of the bone marrow.
Alice: How are you supposed to clean that? It’s already got to be super-clean when you buy it…
Mom: You wash it and cut off any…
GMS: (horrified) Hair?
Mom: Yeah, you shouldn’t have that. You have to watch what store you buy it at. At this place, it’s really runny…
Alice: Running? (laughs) Gross…
Mom: If you have a pressure cooker, it’s good to put the beef feet in the pressure cooker because it cooks real fast. I put garlic and salt when I cook it in the pressure cooker.
Alice: So you didn’t put any garlic in there?
Mom: I put five cloves. If they’re big cloves, then use less. The bigger the pot, the more cloves you use. For my big pot, when I make 20 pounds of menudo, I put at least six to eight cloves, good sized cloves. It gives it a good flavor. I don’t mess around with the little ones. They just dissolve anyway...
GMS: What typically is served with menudo?
Mom: Corn tortillas. A lot of people have salsa at the table and they put more salsa in it.
Alice: I like to put salsa in my albondigas now.
Shiho: You make albondigas?
Alice: Yeah, I haven’t done it in a long time. It’s pretty easy. It’s just making meatballs and cooking it. You just put water in it and it cooks the meatballs and makes the broth. As far as I remember. I don’t think I’ve cooked it in about three years. It has tomato and onion just chopped up, you put it into the meatball. I think I put tomato and onion into the soup pot too.
Mom: You can.
Alice: I don’t remember. I just get on the phone [to Mom] and go, ‘What do I do?’
Mom: My grandmother never made it like that. Just the meat and the rice.
GMS: What’s caldo?
Mom: Caldo means ‘soup.’ It’s like caldo de res is the beef soup with pieces of beef and potato, maybe chayote and carrots and onion. Or like chicken soup.
Alice: It’s like the soups we had at La Especial, just basic soups.
GMS: What did we have, some chicken soup?
Alice: They have a soup called Tlalpeno, T-L-A-L-P- en-yo (laughs)... But it’s just like, their chicken soup. They put chipotle in it, and some avocado.
Mom: It has garbanzo [beans]in it too. Know where I got that recipe? From Martha Stewart. I saw it on her show. I remember I made it first and then we had it at that restaurant.
Alice: That’s their best one, I think. The other ones are okay. I don’t like the albondigas there because it tastes like meatloaf. They put green bell pepper in it and between that and the beef, it has flavors like meatloaf. It doesn’t taste bad, it’s just not what I’m expecting to taste.
But when you guys ate albondigas that your grandmother made, did you put salsa in it? Or did you just eat it plain?
Alice: I have to have something spicy in it. Janet took me to… I don’t even remember why we were there but we went to Green Burrito or something in Long Beach and at that particular one, they made albondigas. It was cold and raining and I was like, ‘Ooh, let’s try it.’ They must have put salsa in it, that’s what it tasted like to me and I said, ‘This is good, I’m never going to eat albondigas without salsa again.’ But I think I just like spicy soups.
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