Food

Sotera Jaime always has a lunch date

Sotera Jaime and her trusty 10-quart stainless steel stockpot have seen a lot of mileage over the years. As the matriarch of one of Southern California's most popular farmers market families, almost every day Jaime cooks up a hearty hot lunch for an ever-changing cast of a couple dozen extended family members, farmhands and part-time sales employees.

The 61-year-old co-owner of Jaime Farms hits the road before dawn, driving from her home in Chino to one of the farm's 20 or so farmers market stands, scattered across Southern California — at the Pasadena market on Tuesdays, to Santa Monica for the Wednesday market, even all the way out to Palm Springs on Saturday.

There, in addition to delivering her homemade lunch, she spends much of the day working the stand — reorganizing leaning towers of collard greens, helping customers choose the just-right jewels for churning into strawberry sorbet, and resolving any errant parsley problems along the way.

Then, hours later, she pulls back into her driveway and spends the afternoon and early evening cooking the next day's lunch.

These aren't your average workaday cold-cut creations but hearty slow-cooked braised meats and stews. Even after a long workday, this silver-haired abuela isn't keen on shortcuts. She eschews conveniences like canned tomatoes (she makes her own stewed tomatoes from market rejects) and scoffs at the idea of canned chicken broth. To get that puerco con chile negro finished on time, Jaime relies on good old-fashioned recipes that are fuss-free, loaded with flavor and amenable to her make-ahead schedule.

"Puerco?" she asks Alex Weiser, co-owner of Weiser Family Farms as he wanders the back alley where wholesale farmer-to-chef sales go down at the Wednesday Santa Monica farmers market. Market regulars such as Weiser, along with a few lucky chefs, always seem to somehow follow their noses to the Jaime Farms stand right around noon.

Before Weiser can respond, Jaime scoops a few spoonfuls of the chopped pork bathed in thick pasilla chile sauce onto a small plastic plate. She hands him a bolillo, the Mexican equivalent of a French roll, and motions with her hands showing how to scoop up the smoky, brick red sauce with the bread. She turns back to face the large stainless stock pot that is resting atop a folding table and gets right back to assembling another plate.

"Bueno?" she occasionally asks, checking on her growing crowd of sidewalk eaters. The answer is always yes.

Such is the typical Jaime Farms lunch, be it at one of the farmers markets where the family sells produce or at picking day at one of the farms. Even when Jaime can't make it out to serve herself, she'll pack lunch for the farmhands to send with whichever of her three thirtysomething sons is in charge (she typically leaves the 200-mile treks to the family's new Santa Maria farm to the next generation).

Soon after Jamie and her husband, Jose Luis Jaime, immigrated to the Los Angeles area more than 30 years ago, he went to work for Joe Taguchi, owner of what was then Taguchi Farms. Taguchi sold them the farm in 1997. She helmed the family stove, stuffing the yellow crookneck squash that her husband brought home with mushrooms, onions and whatever Mexican cheese she had on hand.

Today, Jaime's cooking style may be rooted in the chile-spiced chicken, pork and vegetable dishes of her native Morelos, a state in south-central Mexico, but in her home kitchen, she adds whatever is ready for the pot that week (her backyard serves as the family's small farm).

Her recipes never go so far as calling for only the youngest, perfect baby radishes — she leaves the finicky cooking to chefs. Instead, Jaime is drawn to those dishes that are easy to make for a crowd and reheat before the 5 a.m. commute, like that pork with black chile sauce.

She starts by sliding a whole pork butt straight into a pot of simmering salted water, not even bothering to brown it first. It's a step most of us would probably never skip, as searing gives meat that essential caramelized depth of flavor. Or so we think.

But two hours later, when she removes the cooked meat to cool, then pulls it apart and chops the pork into uniform pieces, the lack of browning isn't missed at all. The sauce, a straightforward combination of pureed dried chiles, garlic and chicken broth (she uses homemade, of course, but canned works well) steals the show with every fantastically smoky bite. It's even better the next day.

Many of Jaime's vegetable dishes are every bit as workday-friendly. To make stuffed squash, she blanches yellow crookneck squash, then slices them in half lengthwise to scoop out their meaty centers. She mixes the pulp with sautéed mushrooms and onions, chopped parsley and queso fresco or Cotija (a hard cow's milk cheese) and mounds the filling into each boat-like half before wrapping them up for later. They're brilliantly simple edible to-go containers waiting to be baked and passed out to outstretched hands.

There's always a bounty of freshly picked condiments, such as cilantro, sliced jalapeños and red onions available to dress up whatever is for lunch. But most days the family eats their puerco con chile negro straight up. The best part about Jaime's home-cooked street-corner lunches is squeezing in the time to eat it together.

food@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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