When I was a kid growing up in the Inland Empire, my idea of Mexican comfort food was a flour tortilla plucked from a plastic bag, lined with one square of American cheese and zapped until bubbly in the microwave.
Now, as a third-generation Mexican American woman living in Mexico City, I'm slowly getting to know the foods of my ancestors. My new comfort food — what I choose to cook at home most days of the week — is a dish I never knew as a child: guisado.
The word guisado is an umbrella term for a stewed mixture, usually meat or vegetables simmered in chile sauce or tomatoes. Most guisados contain a short list of ingredients (they're not like moles), but when done well, they're unforgettable. Chile sauces coax out the flavors of the meat. Vegetables, mixed with garlic and onion and broth, taste like the universe intended them to: hearty and unadorned.
The most interesting thing about guisados is how all-encompassing they are. Like a Chinese stir-fry or an American casserole, a guisado can really be anything, as long as it's served with tortillas.
"They're really just home braises," says Armando De La Torre, owner of Guisados restaurant in Boyle Heights, which carries 15 guisados daily served with the requisite tortillas. "The ingredients are readily available anywhere around town. I make my mom's carne con chile colorado, which was my favorite meal growing up. Even today she asks me what I want for my birthday, and I say carne con chile colorado."
For me, guisados were a gateway into the richness of interior Mexican cuisine. At fondas, or at stands on the street, I'd see women scooping vegetables from clay pots. When I finally worked up the courage to ask for a taco in my halting Spanish, the taste was a revelation.
Under the guidance of my local market vendors, who gave me detailed cooking instructions, I started whipping up my own one-pot guisados: oyster mushrooms with chipotle, native tender greens called quelites with tomatoes. Even chili, the thing I used to eat canned, became a homemade "guisado de pavo molido con frijol," or ground-turkey guisado with beans.
My crowning moment as a cook came six months ago, when I bought a bag of quelites at my local market. A Mexican woman asked me how to prepare them.
"Los guisas," I said nonchalantly. You make a guisado and stew them.
Lesley Téllez is a freelance writer living in Mexico City.