NEW YORK, NY -- The holidays are an important time for the Elizalde-Hidalgo family. That’s when my Abuelita Mariana starts planning her empanada-making strategy. My grandmother's succulent, puffy creations are stuffed with chicken, olives, eggs and raisins and then fried to perfection. Abuela's empanada recipe dates back to her life in Ecuador, and she has passed down her cooking recipes to my Mami and me over the years. It's one of my favorite traditions.
My Abuelita grew up in the city of Manta, Ecuador, where she was one six children raised by my great-grandmother Angelica. Impoverished conditions led my Abuelita to drop out of middle school at age 14 because her family didn’t have enough money to pay for her education.
Though she longed to become a teacher, my Abuela put her dreams on hold and became my great-grandmother’s full-time helper instead. She learned how to crochet and eventually sold her handmade tablecloths, blankets, and church veils to customers so she could earn some sucres, Ecuador’s old currency.
My Abuela also learned how to cook, and she taught herself how to make empanadas from watching my great-grandmother. They couldn't afford many ingredients, she recalls, but they always made enough to feed the family on special occasions.
The kitchen became my Abuela's sanctuary, a place where she could be the master of her craft. Teaching was still her passion, but food became an important aspect of her life because it was also the way she bonded with her mother.
Abuela came to the United States from Ecuador in 1969. She cared for my Mami while my grandfather worked at a piano company in Queens, New York.
Decades passed by; I was born in 1993. Some of my favorite childhood memories include tasting my first empanada. Savoring its creamy stuffing and biting into its crispy golden crust convinced me that my Abuelita was a gifted cook. It also made me curious to learn more about my Ecuadorian heritage and to discover more of our traditional foods.
I would shadow my Abuelita in the kitchen and watch her make four entire trays of empanadas, 75 in total, while Mami assisted her with prepping the ingredients. At family parties, they’d be gone fast, because people would have two or three at a time. They are that good and mouthwatering.
My Abuela is our resident foodie, and thanks to her, I am too. I’m always amazed at how little she relies on measuring cups or cookbooks. Two or three pinches of salt are enough. “Abuelita, how do you do it?” I asked her. “It’s all practice, Mi'ja,” she told me.
Aside from making empanadas, Abuelita taught Mami and me how to make other Ecuadorian delicacies such as torta de choclo, a corn pie baked with cheese, peppers, and onions, and caldo de verde, a soup made of plantains and peanut butter.
To me, her empanadas represent love, family, culture, and tradition. “Me da alegría que ustedes quieran aprender a hacer empanadas,” she told me in Spanish. “It gives me happiness that you and your mother wanted to learn how to make empanadas.”
My Abuela is now 92 years old and fragile, and doesn’t cook as much when she was younger. But at 4’11 she’s still the same sassy matriarch of the house. Now at holidays, whether it be Thanksgiving, Christmas, or New Years Eve, Abuela watches as Mami and I prepare the dough and cook the stuffing, following Abuelita’s directions.
Cooking the stuffing is an important step, my Abuela has always said. First we make a chicken stew or pollo guisado as we call it in Ecuador. We incorporate chopped onions, green peppers, and cilantro into the stew as it boils.
After the stew is done, we take a package of white wonder bread and douse it with chicken broth in a separate bowl. A cup of water is added to smooth out the bread. Abuelita says wonder bread gives the stuffing a thick texture.
Between making trays of empanadas, I've learned from my Abuela a lot about about life, love and my Ecuadorian roots.
Once both the bread and stew are done, the cooked bread is put into the stew and stirred until it’s thick and creamy. The dough is made from scratch.
While we wait for the empanadas to fry, we squeeze in time for our “girl talk.” We talk about love, and she talks of how she met my grandfather. She tells me the time will come for my Mr. Right, and she gives me love and career advice, stressing the importance of family and values.
When she talks about her immigrant experience, her raw emotions - sometimes tears - seep through her light brown eyes. Adapting to a new American life was tough for her, especially not knowing English, battling stereotypes and learning a new culture.
Every day our relationship grows stronger, but it’s those kitchen moments that make me appreciate her company and wisdom. She is beautiful to me and I respect the sacrifices she’s made to give our family a better life.
A proud mother, grandmother, wife, cook, and Latina, Abuelita Mariana has fulfilled her dreams of teaching my generation about our Latino culture. While my empanadas may not be as great as hers, I’ve become the strong woman I am today because of her and Mami.
Elizabeth Elizalde is a New York City based journalist. Follow her on Twitter: @EElizalde5