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I was obsessed with cooking, but my mother couldn’t care less. Boy, has she come around.

The author with her mother. (Family Photo)

I still remember the first gift I bought for my mom with my own money: a white porcelain soup tureen. It caught my eye immediately upon walking into the store, eliciting images of the carrot potages, sopas de pollo, minestrones or pepianes that could be ladled from it.

Make the recipe: Chicken Smothered With Onions (Pollo Encebollado)

With its intricate, flower-shaped lid, it was just like those tureens I saw in Spanish-dubbed American films I watched on television in my Guatemala City home in the 1970s. In those movies, there was always an elegant English butler (although he usually sounded more Mexican than British), donning a tuxedo and ladling soups with gloved hands. My 11-year-old self was convinced that anyone presented with such a gift would be ecstatic.

My mother liked her tureen all right and displayed it proudly on the side table. Alas, it remained unused and forgotten months — even years — later. It seemed like a crime to me, because I was obsessed with cooking. As a teen, I would ask to cook in my grandmother’s kitchen on weekends. During school vacations, I relished invitations to help my aunt — a famous caterer — prepare thousands of hors d’oeuvres for her clients. I loved to bake cakes for my boyfriend, make fancy dinner parties for my friends and help my nanny cook while she learned her way around the kitchen. In short, I was a food nerd.

But my mother, a pencil-thin, pearl-donning, chain-smoking beauty, didn’t cook. She didn’t even like to eat, unless it was to satisfy a sudden craving for street food. Or caviar.

To her, cream of asparagus soup started with an envelope of powder, speckled with bits of dehydrated green stuff. Tuna salad sandwiches were her specialty, although buttered spaghetti with bottled Ragù was her showstopper. She only cooked when she had to: on her staff’s day off, when she wasn’t managing the family business, finishing an economics degree or teaching at a university. The majority of the time, mi mamá had no idea what would be offered at the table — she simply showed up to meals, ate without appetite, pushed her plate away and lit a cigarette.

I don’t know what happened when I left home to go to Smith College. No one has been able to tell me. But one winter, I left for the first semester, and on spring break returned to find that someone had switched my mother with someone who loved to cook, if not to clean up the messes she created in the process. She had discovered gelatin molded salads (her favorite was made with caviar, of course), emulsified vinaigrettes in which to dip her beloved canned asparagus, and phyllo pastry.

She made elaborate pasta dishes, creamed artichokes, Indian curries, French sauces, madeleines and rolled cakes. She discovered Martha Stewart — indeed, she remains obsessed with everything that is “a good thing.” Today, she’s besotted with Ina Garten, adores Jacques Pépin and owns the entire DVD collection of Julia Child’s television shows. My mother is now a bona fide foodie.

Decades later, I am raising a family of my own in North Carolina, and I remain grateful to the cooking muse that eventually seduced my mother’s palate and that opened her soul to the delights of the kitchen. Finally, we have a shared interest that pulls us closer together, even when other pastimes may push us apart. When I got married, she taught me a recipe that my grandmother had taught her — it still remains in my cooking repertoire. It’s for chicken braised in a sweet and tangy sauce made with ketchup, so addictive that my friends request it when they come over. Its smoky aroma permeates the air like an invisible cloud of deliciousness that whiffs throughout, calling people to eat — so evocative that my family knows what I’m cooking before they even get to the table. Not bad for a mom who didn’t know how to cook.

Oh, and that tureen? It’s used to serve all sorts of soups and stews found in my mom’s celebrity cookbooks. Now all she needs is an English butler with a Mexican accent.

Gutierrez is the author of several cookbooks, including “Empanadas: The Hand-Held Pies of Latin America” (Abrams, 2015). She lives in Cary, N.C.


Chicken Smothered With Onions (Pollo Encebollado)

4 to 6 servings

Serve with steamed white rice or rice pilaf, sliced avocado, and with warm corn tortillas to mop up the sauce — just the way her mother serves it.

Adapted from cookbook author Sandra Gutierrez.

4 dried pasilla, guajillo or ancho chiles, or a combination of all three

3 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 large white onion, thinly sliced (2 cups)

Leaves from 2 sprigs fresh thyme (may substitute ½ teaspoon dried thyme leaves)

2 bay leaves

2 large cloves garlic, minced

One 3½ - to 4-pound chicken, preferably locally grown or free-range, cut into serving pieces

1½ cups tomato ketchup

1¼ cups fresh orange juice

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

½ teaspoon salt, or more as needed

Freshly ground black pepper

Place the dried chiles in a medium bowl; pour enough boiling water over them to cover. (Keep them submerged in the water by placing a heatproof dish over them.) Soak for 10 minutes, then drain, discarding the water. Seed, devein and chop the chiles into bite-size pieces.

Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a high-sided skillet that’s large enough to eventually hold all the chicken over medium-high heat. Once the oil shimmers, add the onion and cook for 5 minutes, or until softened. Add the thyme, bay leaves and the rehydrated chopped chiles. Cook for 5 minutes, stirring a few times, or until the onion turns golden.

Stir in the garlic and cook for 1 minute, then transfer that skillet mixture to a plate.

Add the remaining tablespoon of oil to the skillet; once it shimmers, add the chicken pieces (working in batches, as needed) skin sides down. Sear until lightly browned on both sides.

Whisk together the ketchup, orange juice, Worcestershire sauce, salt and a good pinch of black pepper in a large liquid measuring cup.

Return the onion mixture and all the chicken to the skillet, plus any accumulated juices. Pour the ketchup mixture over the chicken; once it starts bubbling, reduce the heat to medium-low, cover and cook for 15 minutes.

Uncover; increase the heat to medium and cook for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the chicken is cooked through. The sauce will have thickened a bit; if not, you can remove the chicken pieces and increase the heat under the remaining sauce so it boils down.

Taste, and add salt and/or black pepper as needed. Discard the bay leaves before serving.

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