Friday, April 24, 2009

Stir fra-jitas

I have a theory on growing up. When you're a kid, the way your mom makes something is the right way. If you eat dinner at your friend's house and her mom puts mushrooms in her chili, then that's wrong, because that's not how your mom's chili tastes. When you get a little older, you start to realize that people make things differently, but you're still sure your mom's is the best and most logical. So when you start cooking on your own, you try to make it taste right, just like your mom's. Then you get a little older yet, and you evolve your own cooking style; you make things different from your mom's, and that's okay. Neither is wrong, but just different. Finally, you go home one day and have your mom's chili and you are struck with a sense of wrongness because you obviously make chili the right way.

I'm not sure where I fit in this.

When I was growing up, my mom made chicken fajitas that were fantastic. I loved them; it was easily one of my favorite meals. She cut chicken breast into cubes, marinated in soy sauce, stir fried onions and green peppers, flavored with chicken broth, cooked the chicken, and served it all with flour tortillas and a side of sour cream. (At least, this is the closest I can come to remembering her method, considering the taint of my own cooking and memory. She is free to comment and correct me.)

Then I got married and realized that everyone didn't make them this way. Oh, sure, I knew in restaurants they were different, but that's the whole point of restaurants, right? They try to put their own spin on things. Not that I thought about it, because I never questioned it. Darling Husband, however, had grown up thinking fajitas were a southwestern sort of thing, and to have soy instead of cumin was a very strange thing, indeed. I liked the fajitas he made, but they weren't really fajitas to me... they were wrong. Or, maybe not wrong, but different and when I needed the comfort of that familiar taste, they didn't cut it. He was pretty sure I was crazy calling this stir fry on tortilla creation a fajita, and in fact made a rather hurtful remark, as I recall, which was spoken entirely from the "but the way my mom makes it is right" sort of camp. (Although, come to think of it, I'm not sure his mom made fajitas because I can't imagine my father in law eating fajitas. Hmmm... Must ask him about this.) It was a momentary disagreement, or, rather, we decided to agree to disagree and make it a non-issue.

As time went on, we have made fajitas both ways. My stir fra-jitas, as we've dubbed them, might have broccoli or zucchini in them, might be made with beef, might have a little ginger and red pepper flakes, or they might not. The flavor profile remains asian and understated. Darling Husband's southwestern-jitas are usually made with the help of Wegman's fajita marinade. They might contain any of the above additions/substitutions, but also might include okra or jalapenos. I can make both kinds, and so can he. When it comes to making fajitas, we just clarify which we're in the mood for.

Last night we used a different marinade, the Wegman's Santa Fe. I was surprised how light the marinade was (not as thick or assertive as the fajita marinade) and also how strong the lime flavor. Frankly, I was surprised how different it was from the fajita marinade (though that seems silly). I was vaguely put off by the smell, and it was a while before I realized why. Years ago Darling Husband worked as a supervisor for a company that made salad dressings and marinades. They didn't make this one, but he came home smelling like... well, I guess like this marinade! Like pepper and oil, maybe? I'm not sure, but the smell permanently embedded itself into his clothes, shoes, the leather of his wallet and even his cell phone. He worked 2nd shift and often had to work until after 1 am, even though his shift should have been over at 11. It was a hard schedule and a tiring job, and he'd come and collapse into bed, this scent rising up as if in a puff. We didn't see each other very much, except late night, early morning and weekends--when he wasn't called in to work, that is.

Truthfully, I'm not sure which part of the marinade reminded me of that smell, because I realize it wasn't the whole of the smell. It is certainly a reminder, though, how strongly our memories are tied to our senses.

The fajitas were good, but different. I had used chicken, vidalia onion, red and green peppers, garlic and chayote squash. I ended up needing hot sauce on mine, but I believe Darling Husband tried his straight.

They were good... not right or wrong.


  1. I think, sweetie, that you have a slightly different take than I do on the whole 'the-way-my-mother-makes-things-is-the-one-true-way' thing.

    No offense, mom, if you're reading this. ;-)

    There are certainly things my mother makes that I'm very fond of. Like, off the top of my head, her roast beef. Her meatballs, the ones that poach forever in sauce and stay magically pink in the middle.

    But, unlike you, I mostly never learned to make things the way my mom made them. I taught myself to make things the way that *I* make them. In fact, a lot of the things I make are things that I can never recall my mother making at all.

    Like fajitas. My issue with the soy oriented fajitas had nothing to do with the fact that they're not my mother's, cause there's no such thing. It was that they're a Mexican dish, with a Spanish name and everything, and what does any of that have to do with soy sauce...? ;-)

    But they're delicious that way. Totally different, but yummy.

  2. And we DID make the Wegmans Santa Fe at North Coast by the way... The Santa Fe, the fajita marinade, the stir fry sauce, the sweet and sour, the wing sauce, and a couple others that I forget...

    And I'm still not exactly sure what the particular smell I brought home was. Black pepper, soybean oil, vinegar, garlic, onions. Marinated in Italian dressing was basically how I smelled. Lol.

  3. I grew up in a very small WASP town. I did not know any Italian-Americans that I can remember and we never ate spaghetti. But, my Pennsylvania Dutch grandmother, on whose farm I spent summer vacations, sometimes made spaghetti. The sauce, if I remember, was ground beef in its own gravy, with a few fresh tomatoes, peppers and onions. Sort of a thin chili, very light on tomato, without beans. It was delicious. Imagine my shock when I went to college and discovered Marinara.

  4. Wow, Lance, I bet! Do you think you would like that sauce if you had it again? Would you like us to try to make it and see? Did you like the marinara you tried in college?

    You're right, honeybear, my theory doesn't hold up in every home. But I guess, if you take it more broadly, there are things that work that way for you, too.

    Like the proper storage place for maple syrup being in the fridge, or what sort of cheese goes into lasagna, or even (this one is a guess) if you cut your sandwiches in rectangle or triangle shape. Just a thought... might not hold up under scrutiny.

    I sometimes forget that you forged your own culinary road, sometimes in reaction to the food of your origin and sometimes independent of it. Many men in your situation would never have learned to cook. I'm glad you learned and you enjoy it, too.

  5. Would I like it now? I suppose so. One would have to accept it for what it is. That is, not compare it to the thick tomato/meat spaghetti sauces made by our Italian brothern,but appraise it as a different food. Might be fun to try. As for marinara, its marinara.