Felices Dia de los Muertos

Today I am sitting in the dark thinking about my dead relatives. My father’s mother was a Yacqui, from Mexico, where for centuries people have honored the dead  with little dolls, later photos,  and luscious food piled around shrines and in the burial yards. She left Mexico with my grandfather, a man from Kentucky who had come with Black Jack Pershing to chase Pancho Villa around the desert. The Americans found out, the Mexican government was systematically wiping the Yacqui’s and other indigenous people off their lands. My grandfather met the little refugees in their camps in Arizona, and when he went home to Kentucky he took my grandmother, who he called “Josie”. I have no idea what her real name was. My father said she never spoke Spanish or English, and died when she was only in her 40’s, before I was born. 

Add this tidbit to a mix of Scot, French, Native American, and for some reason, a Methodist around every corner, and you have a pot of Juanita soup. Don’t eat too much, you’ll get sick! 

I knew it was going to be a long blustery weekend, so I made a pot of chicken noodle soup. Yeah, it’s way better than canned, cause you don’t taste a can. This time I started properly with a chicken back – I saw Martha Stewart cut up a whole chicken on tv one day, so I decided to try it her way. This leaves you with four “quarters” (when they are actually fifths, go figure)  and a long section of thick, greasy back meat wrapped around a bunch of tiny bones. There’s your soup meat.

I usually just cut a chicken into quarters, it’s easier. When we cook it that way we eat every bite of skin and meat, but this way, I get meat for soup and a ton of skin and fat for dog food. So I threw that long back bone into my soup pot, covered it with cold water, threw in a dash of salt, and set it on simmer for about 30 minutes. Don’t boil it, and don’t cook it too long, or it gets tough and stringy. The meat should still be a little pink when you cut it up.

Let it cool and then comes the messy part, which isn’t really that bad – take a little paring knife and go about cutting off the good meat. You’ll find several nice medallions tucked into the bones around the leg sockets. At this point I also cut off the tail and fry it in a little pan for a snack. I like a little tail now and then.

There’s a lot of skin and fat, if you don’t have a dog, I guess that goes in the trash. I wouldn’t eat it, but the dogs need a lot of fat for Winter. I add this to oatmeal, rice,chicken liver and vegetables like peas and chopped celery and carrots and my dogs love it. 

The good meat goes back in the broth, which is very thick and floating with fat. I guess if you are worried about that fat you could cool your broth – overnight in the fridge is the easiest – and simply spoon off the congealed fat before you start cooking again. I’m not worried about it, certainly not in Winter. So, I just dump the chopped meat back in, add a couple of teaspoons more salt, onions, garlic and chopped celery. Once you have a gentle boil, add chopped potatoes and carrots, and once it’s up to a “rolling boil,” add your noodles and leave it boiling for 8 – 10 to get those all puffed up. 

At this point you can add more celery and onions if you like, I do, but it’s essentially done. If you’re in a hurry, you can have a batch of good soup in about an hour. And it’s not like slavery, it’s really easy. The key is planning – I had that chicken back left from another meal, I was just waiting for this kind of weather. I could have used some of the frozen boneless chicken thighs I always try to have on hand.  I also had a batch of home made noodles left over from another meal, but noodles from the store work just as well. I always try to have noodles in the cupboard, and onions, garlic, celery, carrots and potatoes in the fridge, they are staples of many meals. 

Last night we added a couple of pizzas made with some leftover bacon, sweet peppers from the garden, and red onion. The smell of fresh pizza bread and chicken soup were enough to, well, bring back the dead!

Cooking and eating were always important in my family, the more people the better, bring out the card table for the kids! Now the old people are all gone. the young ones have scattered, but whenever I stand over my stove or gather my husband and children at the table they seem to come out of the woodwork to join us. 

Felices Dia de los Muertos, mis amigos muy buenos. Here’s to Sandy Denny – that cold north wind will blow again…





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