Researchers say smell is the human sense that is most closely tied to memory. I find this to be an almost unmistakable truth every time I am suddenly jolted back in time by a particular scent. Orange blossoms and jasmine take me right back to my childhood home. I am 6 all over again, riding my bike down a dirt road lined with blossoming orange trees, the sunset glowing behind me and the wind carrying dust and sweet, summer smells that leave an indelible imprint in my developing mind.
The musty smell of rain floating up from the hot pavement and I think of my children as they played in the hose on a sweltering day of dry, desert heat, lying on their backs, splashing in the warm puddles that have formed in the low spots. Sierra gives me a side-long glance as she rolls onto her stomach and slurps at the water.
A whiff of my husband’s cologne as it lingers on a shirt he has left behind and I can hear his voice, see his face, even sense his presence in the room, though I know he has left for the airport hours ago.
For me, nowhere is this tie between smell and memory more obvious or more poignant than in the kitchen because I learned the love of cooking from my grandfather. My mother always hated to cook so meals were never much of an experience at our house as she chose to express her love in other ways. It was the same dishes, cooked pretty much the same way. Sitting down as a family at dinner was perfunctory, and more a chance for my father to teach us manners and for us to talk about our day than it ever really was about the food. But my grandpa, he loved to cook, and it seemed he put all of his character, all of his wisdom, into his dishes. It was like an unspoken telling of secrets stirred into a sauce. It was a confession of who he truly was and how he really felt sprinkled into a skillet. He was never much for a deep conversation but he didn’t need to be, especially when he could just show up on my doorstep with my favorite dessert in hand. He could hand me over a specially prepared treat and kiss my cheek and I knew that all of his love, worry, and hope for me were cooked into the rice pudding he had brought.
Throughout my childhood, I would visit my grandparents’ house on the weekends. I would sit in the kitchen, watching my grandpa cook, trying to help, and learning whatever I could. How glad I am that I had this time with him, and grateful that he was a willing teacher, who never scolded or criticized. I am also glad that I am able to do the same for my children, filling the house with the aroma of treasured recipes that will create a lasting connection to happy childhood memories.
Disclaimer *I have modified and changed some of the recipes, but I am confident that I have left the integrity of each dish in tact and that my grandpa would have enjoyed my version just as much as his own*
Grandpa’s (Vegetarian) Tortilla Soup
2 tablespoons of oil
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 large onion, chopped
2 medium zucchini, chopped
3 celery stalks, chopped
6 red potatoes, chopped
Sauté all of the above ingredients in a large pot (I prefer a Dutch oven) until tender. Then add:
1 28oz. can of whole tomatoes, roughly chopped and all the liquid
1 10oz. can of Ro-Tel diced tomatoes with Lime Juice and Cilantro (buy mild if you are a gringo)
4 cups of vegetable broth
2 teaspoon of chili powder (or more if you like it spicy. I actually use more like 2 tablespoons)
1 tablespoon paprika
1 tablespoon dried cilantro
1 tablespoon dried thyme
Simmer for 20-30 minutes until the vegetable are tender.
Meanwhile, prepare tortilla strips. Using fresh corn tortillas, cut into 1 inch strips and fry until crisp in a pan with hot oil. Lay out to drain as the soup finishes cooking.
Ladle soup into bowls, topping with fried tortilla strips, grated jack cheese (we like it spicy, so we use pepper jack), and a sprinkle of freshly chopped cilantro.
This recipe makes a generous pot of soup, suitable for a large family or for several meals. Reduce quantities if you don’t want to make such a large amount. It is also a great make-ahead soup as it seems to taste even better the next day.