“I get into the spirit of things,” says Sandra Sanchez as she takes out red, white and green plates and unwraps a bundle of red, white and green napkins.
In the family room, the table that she will fill with Mexican dishes is trimmed with panels of red, white and green papel picado, the intricately cut paper banners that are strung up for parties in Mexico.
Sanchez is getting ready to celebrate Cinco de Mayo. Husband Luis is playing traditional Mexican music on the sound system. Daughters Tiffany, 4, and Cynthia, 2, are hopping about in mariachi outfits that Luis bought for them during a trip to Zacatecas, his family’s place of origin. In the kitchen, Luis’ mother, Teresa Sanchez, and Sandra’s mother, Ana Herrera, are working on enchiladas, gorditas and chiles rellenos. Teresa Sanchez has also produced a fiery salsa to go with chips. Helping them is Sandra’s sister, Elizabeth Herrera.
Sandra Sanchez has made nopales salad, rice and beans. For dessert she has decided on a carved watermelon holding a bright assortment of fruit, as well as traditional candies such as jamoncillo (milk fudge), alfajor de coco, which is a white square of coconut paste, and dulce de calabaza (candied squash). Afterward, she will serve cinnamon-flavored cafe de olla.
“I was trying to come up with something that people would like,” says Sanchez as she runs through the menu. Although the dishes sound familiar, they are nothing like what you might find in Mexican restaurants in Southern California, except for the chiles rellenos, which are the same kind Ana Herrera serves at her East Los Angeles restaurant, Tila’s Kitchen.
The large family room in the Sanchez home in Lakewood looks out on a garden that could have been plucked from a resort in Mexico, adding to the illusion that all this is happening far south of the border. Fountains splash into the brilliant turquoise pool, surrounded by warm brick paving and terra-cotta figures.
The buffet table, which faces this view, is set with cazuelas and dinner plates of Mexican pottery. A sauceboat shaped like an avocado holds guacamole. Teresa Sanchez brought it from Zacatecas, along with avocado-shaped salt and pepper shakers.
In the adjacent dining room, where the family takes a break from preparations for lunch, the table is covered with a cloth from Guadalajara, where Ana Herrera’s husband, Serafin, was born. It is as traditional as the food, a collection of squares printed with brilliant flowers, held together by lacy crochet-work.
They sample the enchiladas, tortillas dipped in red sauce and rolled around tiny portions of cheese and onion. These are served as soon as they are rolled rather than baked and then smothered with sauce. The effect is light, and you want to eat a lot of them. Teresa Sanchez puts an astonishing number of chiles de arbol into the sauce, so the taste is hot, though not overpowering.
To make gorditas, she pats masa by hand into thick circles, which she cooks in a skillet until they puff, then slits the puffy part to add the fillings. “You build them like a taco,” says Sandra Sanchez. The fillings are shredded meat, beans, cheese and tomatoes. “They are super-good, those little gorditas,” adds her husband, recalling that his mother often made them for breakfast when he was growing up.
Ana Herrera makes her rellenos with fresh chiles, inserting the cheese through tiny slits at the top. She coats them with flour and an egg batter, then fries them until they are golden brown. The rellenos can be eaten plain or with any sauce. This day, Herrera has brought salsa ranchera from her restaurant, a mild-tasting combination of tomatoes, onion and strips of fresh chile.
Sandra Sanchez is a skilled cook because she worked in the restaurant for many years. Her rice is perfectly cooked and richly flavored, each grain separate. When making refried beans, she fries onion in oil until charred, then removes it, adds cooked beans and simmers them until they absorb the flavor. She makes her nopales salad with fresh cactus because, she says, the canned variety tends to be very salty. Her own touch is to add a liberal jamount olt oof lemon juice.
After sampling and approving their work, the group ends with fruits like those in the watermelon--blackberries, strawberries, pineapple, kiwi and grapes. Teresa Sanchez brings out a plate of cookies. These are an experiment. She is trying to copy a cookie made with masa that she has tasted in Zacatecas. This, her third attempt, is successful. The texture is smooth and light, rather than heavy with masa flour.
Sandra Sanchez says that younger generations of Mexican Americans are losing touch with traditional Mexican cooking. This is not happening in her large family, thanks to women like Teresa Sanchez and Ana Herrera. Herrera was born in San Salvador but cooks Mexican food as if she were born to it. “With everything, I put in more flavor,” she says.
Not only do these women and their daughters cook well, they also scout out the best places to buy ingredients, the freshest chiles, the finest masa, the best pan dulce, the best bolillos, so that when they organize a dinner, the food is always spectacular.