Adelaida from Mexico & Her Lasting Impact on America {Plus Two of Her Recipes!}

Adelaida Cuellar photographed in 1901 with three of her children. photo courtesy of D Magazine.

In 1892, two young lovers crossed the border from Mexico into the United States and got married in Texas. They spoke no English but were very fluent in the language of love. They were dreamers yearning for better opportunities then their home country could provide, and they were determined to work hard to create a beautiful life that would bring them all  they desired.

The newlywed years of Macurio and Adelaida Cuellar led them through a myriad of jobs on ranches around the Texas countryside. For five years they moved about before they settled down in Kaufman, Texas, a suburb of Dallas, where Macurio started sharecropping and Adelaida started a family. As the seasons passed, their family grew, eventually producing twelve babies.

This is an unidentified farm photo from the Cuellar collection. It may have been the farm where Adelaida and Macurio raised their family. If not, it gives an interesting perspective on what farm life looks like in Texas during the time Adelaida and Macurio lived and worked there.  Image courtesy of the University of North Texas Digital library.

Ranch and farm work weren’t the most profitable of jobs, so Adelaida took a stall at the Kaufman County Fairgrounds in 1926 selling two things…  chili and tamales. It was her hope that her homemade recipes, so loved by her family, would bring in a little extra income to help support her children.  To her surprise, the food stand was an instant success.  The profits she made from her entrepreneurial endeavor were much larger than farm or ranch work earnings, so Adelaida kept at it, turning her stall into a tidy little family business.  Some of her children helped her cook while others formed a family band playing Mexican music to entertain the eaters.

During the 1920’s, Tex-Mex cuisine was a new style of cooking that combined traditional recipes from Mexico and Spain but with toned down spice factors which were more appealing to American palates. Adelaida’s chili and tamales debuted at just the right time – exotic enough for adventurous eaters and flavorful enough without being too spicy to dissuade repeat business. With every taste of tamale and every cup of chili, Adelaida’s reputation for preparing delicious Mexican food began growing.

Adelaida’s Cafe – simply called Cuellar Cafe – opened in  1928.  Image courtesy of the University of North Texas Digital library.

In her mid-fifties, Adelaida opened her own restaurant which did well until the Great Depression hit and she was forced to close due to the terrible economy.  Each of her grown boys inspired by their mother’s own entrepreneurial spirit opened their own independent Mexican restaurants in different cities throughout Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana using the recipes that Adelaida made for them growing up.

Each of the sons, enamored with cooking just like their mom, quickly realized there was something missing from their independent ventures… family love and support. From the beginning, in the county fairground days, the Cuellar family was successful at the tamale and chili stand because they all worked together towards one common goal. But now the family was spread over many cities, and their restaurants couldn’t be as successful because they all weren’t working together.

This is one of the original porcelain neon signs from the first El Chico restaurant in Dallas. It’s now for sale on ebay here.

So in 1940, five of the brothers banded together to form one restaurant in Dallas, which they named El Chico. The entire family and extended family worked there together, each bringing their own unique talents.

Opening night of El Chico featured a Mariachi band to entertain the crowd. Image courtesy of the University of North Texas Digital library.

Everyone who worked at the restaurant was fluent in Adelaida’s style of perfection when it came to selecting quality ingredients and blending the spice mixtures in the correct way, so the food was authentic and consistent, which kept customers coming back. And the Cuellar family was proud of what they were accomplishing.  At the heart of their restaurant lay the heart of Adelaida and all that she stood for.  Her children wanted to extend that same level of love and devotion with all who dined at El Chico.

A popular dining place indeed! This photo was taken in 1945. Image courtesy of the University of North Texas Digital library.

Just like Adelaida’s chili and tamale stand, El Chico became phenomenally successful, making the Cuellar family and the El Chico brand one of the greatest American success stories. They went on to open more than 40 restaurants throughout the country, built a successful packaged food division for the retail market, and offered franchise opportunities for budding entrepreneurs. By the 1970s, they were the largest full-service Mexican food company in the world. They cooked for United States presidents at the White House, for princess Grace Kelly at her palace in Monaco and entertained movie stars like John Wayne in Dallas. The family stayed together through all these years and all this growth, never veering from what they knew – good food taught to them by Adelaida.

A Cuellar family portrait with Adelaida and Macurio in the front row center. Image courtesy of the University of North Texas Digital library.

Adelaida passed away in 1969 at the age of 97, not before experiencing the overwhelming success of her family and seeing how her humble tamale and chili stand at the Kaufman County fairgrounds grew into a multi-million dollar corporation over the course of forty years. The Cuellar children credit both their mom and their dad with teaching them about the value of working hard (and quickly) toward their goals and the importance of taking chances.

In 1970, El Chico published a small, spiral bound cookbook of some of the family recipes that they used in the restaurant, along with some others collected from their travels. Hailed as one of the most authentic Tex-Mex cookbooks ever published, it’s now a hard-to-find treasure.  It is in fact, so special and represents such an importantand  integral part of the ethnic American food landscape, that it’s held in special collection at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. We are also very pleased to offer a copy in the kitchen shop. 

Since Cinco de Mayo is coming up this Saturday, on the same day as the Kentucky Derby, we thought it would fun to highlight two vintage recipes from the El Chico cookbook to ring in the festivities. A general crowdpleaser with a ton of creative toppings, these recipes are fun party foods so whether you are celebrating Mexico or Kentucky, or both this weekend, there will be something edible for everyone.

On the menu it’s El Chico’s Homemade Beef Burritos & Ranchera Sauce. Both are really easy to make. You’ll have the whole thing whipped up in under 30 minutes. Each recipe features fresh ingredients with generous amounts of spices, so you can skip buying the taco seasoning packages and the taco sauce at the grocery store. There’s plenty of flavor between the two recipes.  In addition to ground beef, you could also incorporate ground pork, turkey or chicken if you wanted to offer multiple variations.

What’s especially great about the Carne Mexicano recipe is that it includes vinegar which gives it a little bit of tang and de-greases the pan all at once so you don’t need a thickening agent like cornstarch or flour which is included in most commercial taco seasoning packets. As with many vintage recipes, we cut down the salt by 2/3rds, so we recommend starting with our measurement first and adding more to taste if you feel it needs it.

Carne Mexicano for Burritos

2 lbs. ground beef (we used grass-fed beef)

2 tablespoons chili powder

2 tablespoons paprika

2 tablespoons salt (we used only 2 teaspoons)

1 teaspoon garlic powder

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1/2 cup vinegar

1/4 cup chopped onion

In a cast-iron pan over medium-high heat brown the beef and onions until cooked through. Add the spices and cook for 1-2 more minutes. Add the vinegar, scraping the bottom of the pan to deglaze it. Remove from heat and serve immediately or store mixture in a covered dish and keep warm until ready to serve.

El Chico’s Ranchero Sauce (A La Caballero)

2 cups fresh chopped tomatoes

1/4 cup chopped onions

1/4 cup chopped hot green peppers (we used serrano peppers)

2 tablespoons shortening (we used olive oil)

Salt and Pepper to taste

Saute the onions and peppers in shortening (or olive oil). When the onions are translucent add the tomatoes and simmer over a low fire for five minutes.  Serve it immediately or at room temperature.

Obviously, the hotter your peppers, the spicer your sauce is going to be. This recipe makes about 1/2 cup of sauce so if you are cooking for a crowd you might want to double or triple the recipe. We used serrano peppers which were quite hot so a little bit spooned on top of your Carne Mexicano goes a long way!

There are so many topping options when it comes to burritos, so your creativity can really shine here based on your preferences.  El Chico suggested that their burritos include only cheese, refried beans, Carne Mexicana and the Ranchero Sauce. But we added a bunch of our favorite toppings too which included sour cream, spring lettuce, red onion, mango, tomato, cilantro, avocado and lime juice.  Other possibilities re guacamole, green olives, rice, etc etc. The sky is the limit. Can your burrito ever really have too much stuff?

Coming up tomorrow on the blog, we’ll be sharing our picks for the Kentucky Derby winner as well as our table decorations for the Derby Party with tie together both the Mexican theme and the horse theme. If you are planning a party for either event, we’d love to hear how you are celebrating.

In the meantime, cheers to Adelaida and the Cuellar family for sharing their long-time favorite family recipes with all of us. We will definitely be sending a toast their way on Saturday!

Explore more information about the El Chico cookbook here. And learn more about the restaurant chain, still in operation, here. 

Between Seasons with Jacques: Hominy, Cilantro and Cumin Stew

Shhh… don’t tell Julia, Ms. Jeannie’s got another favorite French chef!

Julia & Jacques
Julia & Jacques

Practically equivalent in the incredibly delicious food category, the culinary wonders of Jacques Pepin are a constant source of inspiration when it comes to time spent well in the kitchen. In a lot of ways he’s the opposite of Julia Child. She was an American that moved to France. He was a Frenchman that moved to America. Julia learned the classics of French cooking, Jacques created original recipes. She developed her interest in cooking later in life while Jacques grew up in his family’s restaurant in Lyon. But for all their opposites they shared many things in common – their passion for food and fun being two.

Claudine & Jacques in 1994.
Claudine & Jacques in 1994.

Like Julia, Jacques had his own cooking show on PBS which aired every Sunday afternoon in the late 1990’s. Jacques was not only fabulous in the kitchen but he was funny too! The whole precipice of the show was him trying to teach his adult daughter Claudine how to cook. Claudine was an everyman (everywoman?!) in the kitchen, and although she was the daughter of an FFC (famous French chef) she didn’t know much about cooking.

For her, techniques were troublesome, flavor pairings were confusing and certain preparations were downright intimidating. But In Cooking with Claudine, Jacques was there to teach and Claudine was there to learn, sort of. They were cute together. She’d make her own shortcuts, he’d quibble with her about the proper way to cut an onion or smash some garlic. Often times she’d humor him and then do it her own way. They laughed with each other and in the end they both learned from each other. Dad and daughter cooking up some fun. This camaraderie turned into quite a few television appearances over the years. If you are lucky you can still catch dad and daughter whipping up something delightful at a food festival or special event.

Here they are sharpening knives in Aspen in 2012…

Jacques maybe French by birth but his heart and home are here with us in the States.  He has surrounded himself with American culture and cuisine since he first came to the U.S. in the 1950’s. And guess where one of his first jobs were, dear readers? Before earning his masters degree at Columbia University, Jacques helped develop menus for the restaurant of this famous mid-century travel icon…

Howard Johnson's
Howard Johnson’s Motor Lodge and Restaurant circa 1960’s!

Immersed in the everyday palate of the American culture, Jacques’ recipes pull from cultures around the world. They may have French foundations but they are built with a variety of different cuisines which make for unique arrangements in the flavor department.

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Hominy, Cilantro and Cumin Stew

One recipe Ms. Jeannie tried recently featured an international concoction of ingredients. Pulling from Mexican, Mediterranean and Middle-Eastern staples, this springtime stew is perfect for the hot/cold/hot/cold temperatures of March. When the weather is as indecisive as your appetite and you can’t choose between something warm, light, fresh or substantial –  Jacques’ Hominy, Cilantro and Cumin stew is the way too go.

hominy1

It utilizes three springtime ingredients – onions and herbs – yet is packed with the warm, smoky flavor that suits a sweater and a scarf. It also involved this most mysterious ingredient…

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Hominy, thought Ms. Jeannie, was the same thing as as polenta which is the same thing as grits – a Southern staple here in the South. But not so, dear readers! Hominy is actually a corn kernel plumped up to the size of a chickpea and sold in cans not at all like its flour sacked cousins.  A whole  lesson was to be had at the grocery store. Polenta and grits are the same thing. Hominy is an entirely different matter altogether. Same family, different form.

Hominy comes in two varieties – white and yellow. And as you can see from this picture – when compared to a popcorn kernal it is quite plump. The recipe calls for both colors which gives it an attractive color palette.

hominy4

Because of its distinct flavor, there is not a lot of variety when it comes to cooking with hominy. Ms. Jeannie was surprised to find just a few different types of recipes online. Jacques loves to cook with these little corn puffs, and now thanks to his delicious recipe, Ms. Jeannie does too!

Hominy, Cilantro and Cumin Stew

(serves 6)

2 tablespoons canola oil (Ms. Jeannie used olive oil)

1 medium onion

6-8 scallions – washed, trimmed and chopped

2 small zucchini – washed, trimmed and diced

5-6 medium mushrooms – washed and chopped

5-6 cloves of garlic – peeled, crushed and finely chopped

1.5 teaspoons ground cumin

.25 teaspoons crushed red pepper

1 can (15.5 oz) white hominy

1 can (15.5 oz) yellow hominy

1 medium tomato, peeled, seeded and chopped (because it is not tomato season here yet Ms. Jeannie used 7 oz. of canned diced tomatoes)

1 cup loosely packed fresh cilantro leaves, chopped

hominy5

Heat the oil in a large pan. When it is hot, saute the onions and scallions for one minute. Then add zucchini, mushrooms, garlic, cumin and pepper flakes: cook for 3-4 minutes.

hominy9

Add the hominy (with liquid from can) to the pan and bring mixture to a full boil. Reduce heat to low, cover and simmer for 10 minutes. Check the consistency after 10 – you don’t want it to be soupy, nor do you want it to be dry. If it is too liquidy – let it simmer until mixture is just moist. If it is too dry add a few tablespoons of water.

Stir in tomatoes and cilantro, and let the mixture come to a boil again. Let it cook for one more minute before ladling into serving bowls.

hominy2

Jacques makes this as a side dish but you could also have it it on its own as a vegetarian lunch or dinner, which is what Ms. Jannie did here. Serving it with a few tostadas gives it a nice bit of crunch but also it would be great with poached chicken or a simple white fish. You could even serve it as a chunky dip for your Cinco de Mayo party!

Happy hominy dear readers! If you have any great recipes featuring this flavorful fella please post it in the comments below.

PS. If you are loyal to Julia Child, Ms. Jeannie has one of her vintage cookbooks for sale in her shop. Click the photo for more info!

julia_french