Tacos are a comfort meal that is close to my heart. Both Mom and Grandma made them, but eating Grandma’s tacos is a rare occasion. She lives five to eight hours by plane in California. Growing up, my family would visit her every couple years. To a kid flying for that long, it seems like an eternity. Back then; the airlines gave kids airplane pins, playing cards and other games to pass the time. Once the plane landed, Grandma with my aunt and cousins, would wave to us from the windows of the waiting lobby as our plane approached the airport.
We would spend an average of two to three weeks of shopping, talking, hugging, driving and playing throughout Southern California, and sometimes we visited Tijuana for bottles of tequila. My aunt and Mom would spend hours shopping at fancy malls. Back then, large malls were only in select areas, not in every major city or small suburb. Mom saved her money throughout the year to shop in California, because the merchandise was apparently better than what the stores offered in Virginia. Again, back then, regional stores had different merchandise. There wasn’t a national advertising campaign calling for “Everyone in Skinny Jeans.” These days most stores have the same merchandise no matter where anyone travels in the states. Casually, we shopped in aisles upon aisles of clothes, racks of shoes, adored displays of glossy accessories, and glass encased cosmetics. Remember when makeup companies didn’t make shades for women of color? It was only 20 years ago. Urban areas had a larger selection colors, but women of color still had to mix various shades to get that perfect color foundation, blush, or lipstick for their skin tone. Colorful conversations of debates, gossip, and encouraging each other to spend that last dollar on a beautiful skirt or a pair of designer shoes were exchanged. We would be the last customers in the stores beyond the closing hour. The next day, we would shop again, or spend all day at an amusement park.
As anyone can imagine, we arrived home late from the mall. Sometimes, we had to wake up early for a two to three hour drive to either Disneyland or Six Flags Magic Mountain. Did we visit Los Angeles? Yes, our car passed through the blessed city at 60 miles per hour en route to an amusement park. Of course, it was a fun and tiring day. The day was spent in long, winding lines before being seated for twirling rides, and deep-diving, speedy roller coasters. Way pass sunset, my cousins, sister and I would fall asleep in the back of the car as our fathers drove another two to three hours back to Grandma’s home.
Occasionally, when Dad was able travel with us to California, Grandmother would take him deep-sea fishing. I once went with them and caught a huge fish. Who knew that a fish that is smaller than me, and it was last seen swimming effortlessly in a large tank seen the day before at San Diego’s Seaworld would be so strong. My line tricked the fish, and the first pull nearly dragged little me into the ocean. Dad and Grandma helped flip it into the boat. That evening, Dad removed the scales and skin to clean the fish. Grandma made a cornmeal batter to dredge the fillets that were deep-fried to a golden crisp. My grandparents, especially Granddad, loved fishing. They met at a waterhole in Arkansas, where grandma’s family owned a ranch. A few years after Granddad passed away; Grandmother gave Dad his fishing boat. Dad drove it across the country, calling us every day to check in so we’ll know he’s safe. Before leaving, he would ask me several times to travel across the country with him. It was a difficult choice: Spend time with Grandma or waste a possible once in a lifetime experience of driving across country with Dad (at least that was what the adults said). Of course, Grandma won.
A few days later, our families would take a trip to the zoo. To this day, I can’t just go to any zoo, because San Diego’s zoo is well… quite large. There are two animal parks: a zoo and a safari. The safari imitates an animal’s natural habitat, for its miles of acres of land. A safari truck would drive on planned road paths that have deep trenches and high fences on both sides that would separate the lions and tigers from visitors. A family can spend the whole day walking around and getting lost in a wannabe wild animal kingdom. As a snack, Mom would buy churros from the street vendors. Churros are long, slender fried pastry covered with cinnamon and sugar. I’ve noticed Mexican ladies selling churros in New York, too. The griminess of the subways doesn’t quite equal the experience of randomly buying churros in San Diego’s seaside, sunny environment.
Of course, when visiting families for two to three weeks, not everyone can have the luxury of taking that amount of time off to entertain their out-of-town guests. On days, that my Aunt worked and Grandma had daily errands, Mom would take my sister and I to the art museums. Traveling with mom is always fun, because she made little discovery stops en route to destinations. Once she stopped by an artisan Southwestern, Native American inspired village that sold handcrafted vases, sculptures, jewelry, rugs, textiles and clothes. Another time, she made a detour to a taquitas stand. They’re rolled corn tortillas filled with meat. They’re topped with tomato sauce and cheese. I never forgot how Mom brought one order for us to share, but she ended up buying more. They were too delicious.
If I remember correctly, The San Diego Art Museum has three, grand buildings surrounding a courtyard. Our visit was an all day event. We moved from painting to sculpture to prints from ancient to turn-of-the-century to modern art eras. To this day, I remember staring and adoring a painting by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, called the The Young Shepherdess. Today, my memory is quite selective, but it is amazing that I remember the title of this painting (honestly I had to look up the artist). Toward the end of the visit to the museums, it was time to go home. Grandma usually had dinner ready when we arrived.
Everyone who was everywhere in California would descend on Grandma’s two-story, grand Spanish home for her famous tacos. It’s a large, two-story house with two verandas in the front and the back, and it sits on top of a steep hill. I remember my cousins, sister and I rolling down that hill. Driving through the gates, toward the garage, the incline would cause us to lean back in the backseat of Grandma’s pale butter yellow Cadillac. We were too small to see over the edge of the car doors to look out the window. What we did see were the top of peach trees that lined her driveway. On another visit, the trees were gone. Unfortunately, mischievous kids playing with fire accidentally burned them and the grape vines that curled around the fence that separated the property. In the back of the house, was a kitchen that faced a large, vegetable garden of soul food ingredients, such as collard greens, tomatoes, green beans, cantaloupe and squash. Californians eat well, don’t they?
In the kitchen, Grandma would stew either shredded beef or chicken. She would fry corn tortillas in a large black skillet. Individual pans and bowls of torn lettuce, grated cheese and diced tomatoes were placed on the counter for everyone to build their own taco. Grandma asked us how many tacos did we wanted to eat, and if we preferred hard or soft shells. Four was a large number for my sister and I. She asked if we were truly sure of our request. We glanced at our cousins to see them filling individual roasting pans lined neatly with ten to twenty tacos for their own consumption. They swiftly made their way toward the large pot of shredded meat, filling each taco shell with grand spoonfuls. Then, they grabbed handfuls of lettuce, tomatoes and cheese to place onto each taco. If that wasn’t enough, I swore they each used a bottle of hot sauce in one meal. They moved and ate fast. My sister and I tried eating six tacos, but the four placed on my plate was enough. The hot sauce was too hot for my taste. To this day, I still don’t have my grandmother’s recipe for the ground beef or shredded chicken meat used in the tacos.
Toward the end of the trip, my family would leave Grandma’s house for an early flight back home. Hugs and kisses were exchanged in the lobby right next to the exit leading to a rolling staircase leading to the airplane’s entrance. I always loved the airports in California, because we boarded the planes from the outside, instead of through a corridor leading to the entrance. The trip back home to Virginia would begin with the plane slowly rolling back and toward the nearest runway. As the plane exited away from the airport, Grandma, my Aunt, and cousins waved goodbye from the lobby’s windows. We would see them again in a couple years. Each year my sister and I visited, we were older and wiser with sharper memories. Relations that would widen over time and distance would become closer in a couple of weeks.
Fast forward to today, the boyfriend and I have a favorite Spanish restaurant in Brooklyn. There are a few celebrities that cross the Brooklyn Bridge for their simple roast chicken. It’s not fancy. Half a chicken cost six dollars. These celebrities are famous for their expensive style, not for living on a dime. The portions will satisfy a masculine appetite, but the plating will please a design eye. The taste is vibrant. It’s quite a yummy restaurant. Try their Brazilian collard greens; it’s sautéed fresh with a slight garlic crunch. Once a week they have a taco night. We rarely go during the weekday, but on that night, the boyfriend brought a few tacos home for dinner. They were simple and savory, but this time the portion–three tacos–was pricey. Ironically, earlier in the day, I was reading a New York Post article about tacos being the hot ‘new’ dish of the moment. The chefs used non-traditional ingredients, besides shredded meat, lettuce, tomatoes and cheese. I longed to be in Grandma’s kitchen eating one of her many savory tacos in California. Tacos are not a trendy dish to me. It’s my version of soul food. However, the restaurant and the chefs inspired a unique version of making tacos. I’ve already made plenty of the traditional method sans Grandma’s shredded meat recipe. Until, I can get to California to see her, this Cornmeal-Crusted Flounder with sauté Swiss Chard, Tomato Salsa and Cilantro-Almond Sauce Taco is my consolation recipe.
At the time, who knew choosing to spend time with Grandma instead of driving across the country with Dad would be the right decision. The last time I visited California was the summer before eighth grade. I was a teenager who earned a place on the cheerleading squad. Now, only the telephone protects our relationship. I miss and love you, Grandma… and your tacos, too.
1/2 cup cornmeal
1/2 cup flour
Salt and fresh black pepper; to taste
Ground red pepper; to taste
The juice of one lime
3 to 4 Wild-caught Flounder fillets; cleaned
1. Preheat oven to 150°F to 200° F with the door cracked open. Season Flounder fillets with lime juice, salt, black pepper, and red pepper.
2. Heat olive oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Mix cornmeal, flour, salt, black pepper, and red pepper together.
3. Dredge seasoned fish fillets through the cornmeal mixture.
4. Add cornmeal fish fillets to the heated olive oil in the skillet. Depending the thickness of the fillets, Cook on each side for 3 to 5 minutes, until the fish done. Do not over cook the fish.
5. Place fish on a paper towel lined plate. Place plate in the oven to keep the fish warm.
Sauté Swiss Chard
One bunch of swiss chard; cleaned with stems discarded
1 small red onion; thinly sliced
1 small garlic clove; minced
Crushed red pepper; to taste
A dash of balsamic vinegar
salt and fresh black pepper; to taste
The juice one lemon
1. Warm olive oil over medium heat in a skillet.
2. Add red onions and cook until they’re translucent. Add garlic and red pepper. Stir for 20 to 30 seconds.
3. Add swiss chard, balsamic vinegar, salt, black pepper and lemon juice.
4. Stir until just wilted. Place aside.
Get Tomato Salsa recipe here…
1 handful of cilantro; cleaned
1 small garlic clove
1/8 cup almonds; toasted
The juice of one lime
1/4 to 1/2 cup Greek yogurt
Salt and Fresh Black pepper; to taste
Crushed red pepper; to taste
3 to 5 tbsp. olive oil
1 tbsp. white balsamic vinegar
1. Place all ingredients in a food processor and purée until smooth.
2. Set aside.
Directions for frying tacos are here…
Plating Cornmeal-Crusted Flounder with Sauté Swiss Chard, Tomato Salsa and Cilantro-Almond Sauce Tacos
1. Place one taco shell on a plate. Place a Cornmeal Crusted Flounder (roughly chopped) on top. Using a spoon with holes, place Sauté Swiss Chard on top. Using another spoon with holes, place Tomato Salsa on top. Spoon Cilantro-Almond Yogurt Sauce on top. Fold taco shell over to create a half-moon shape.