ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
Donna and Ernie Luna’s wedding, some 11 years ago, resulted in more than the union of two people. It also was a merger of two cultures. And, if the couple’s achievements in the kitchen are any standard, the merger has been a whopping success on both counts.
“We’re a good team,” said Donna, who grew up in a typical Anglo-American home in Illinois before making her way to Kansas 13 years ago. While living in Marion, she met and married Ernie, whose parents moved to Lost Springs from Mexico City.
Not only do the couple like working together in the kitchen, Donna has mastered the art of authentic Mexican cooking, according to Ernie, a self-proclaimed connoisseur of his family’s native cuisine.
“When he told me my mol? was as good as he had in Canc?n (Mexico), I knew I had it licked,” Donna said.
It took some time, though.
“I didn’t know the difference between a burrito and a tostada when I married Ernie 11 years ago,” she admitted. “I just got in the kitchen with Julia, my mother-in-law, and watched how she did it and learned from her. She cooks the Old Mexico way.”
Learning to cook in the Mexican tradition was never forced upon her, Donna said, but neither did she ever consider not pursuing it.
“I wanted to learn,” she said. “I love to cook. I grew up eating German and Southern-country cooking. I’m versatile. I can pick up other ethnic dishes fairly well.
“Plus, I wanted to learn because a cook wants to please her husband and her kids and give them what they like,” she added.
The knowledge and skill she has picked up along the way has even changed her own eating habits.
“I couldn’t even touch any hot sauce, or anything hot,” she said of her life before marriage. “It was just awful for me. Now, I’ve acquired it and I like everything hot.”
Donna picked up her basic cooking skills at a tender age while working in the kitchen with her mother, Madeline. She has memories of making meat loaf from an illustrated recipe when she was 5 or 6 years old.
“My mother was the best homemaker,” she said. “I remember her pushing a chair up to the stove because I was too short to see inside the pot. She had me stirring gravy, and I can make a mean gravy today because I’ve been cooking it since I was little.”
She said she enjoyed cooking from the beginning-or at least as much as a small child can.
“I think when you’re a child, everything is a chore unless it’s play,” Donna said. “I would have much rather been outside playing, but in reality, I enjoyed it very much. Those are the fondest memories of my childhood-of my mother and me in the kitchen together.”
Learning from her mother-in-law did take some extra effort because Julia does not use written recipes.
“All the recipes I’m giving (the Free Press) I came up with because Julia doesn’t measure anything,” she said. “She’s a pinch of that and a scoop of this.
“So, when I taught some cooking at classes (in Hillsboro), they had to have specific quantities and how many it serves and all. Once you’ve done it, you don’t look anymore. It’s sort of in your head.”
Donna said some of the techniques in authentic Mexican cooking surprised her. For instance, her rice recipe requires frying the rice, not boiling it. On the other hand, she discovered “the only way” to prepare taco meat is to boil it rather than fry it.
“That’s how you get that perfect texture,” she said. “You boil it when it’s raw, and kind of separate it with your fingers. Then you take a potato masher and go at it. It comes out real crumbly fine.”
She’s also discovered that the best way to prepare enchiladas is to boycott traditional enchilada sauces and use authentic mol? instead. Mol? is a Mexican condiment that combines assorted peppers with cocoa, sugar and other ingredients.
“Cocoa and hot peppers complement each other very well, believe it or not,” she said.
Ernie’s speciality, meanwhile, is his homemade tortillas, which the Lunas keep in stock and eat at most meals.
“He’s real particular about his tortillas,” Donna said. “I’ve tried to help, but I don’t do it right. He gets them to puff when they’re cooking and he knows just how long (to cook them) before he flips them.”
Ernie said he didn’t do much cooking while growing up, though he watched his mother do it.
“It really wasn’t until I married Donna that I started to get into it more,” he said.
In addition to the tortillas, Ernie developed a hot sauce that he says Donna has since perfected. The sauce became a hit among Ernie’s coworkers at his job in McPherson-and now those coworkers are regular buying customers.
The famous hot sauce is becoming more widely known in Hillsboro, too.
“I give samples away and it gets people hooked,” Donna said.
The circle of customers has grown to the point that the Lunas might heed the encouragement of others and make it the basis of a business enterprise someday.
“When the time is right and we get it perfected,” Donna said, “maybe we’ll start the business and just make hot sauce.”
Despite their success with Mexican cuisine, it’s not a daily staple in the Luna household, which includes Jason, Justin, Jamey, Jandy and Jessica.
“People think we eat it a lot, but we don’t,” Donna said. “We have tortillas all the time, and I probably make the rice and beans pretty regularly. But as far as them having enchiladas, burritos, tostadas and stuff like that-maybe twice a month. On special occasions, we always make pork burritos and enchiladas. They love that.”
The holiday season brings memories of one Mexican tradition that Donna and Ernie have not pursued: preparing tamales.
“At Christmas, it was always tamales,” Ernie said. “But they are so time-consuming to make. Probably seven hours in a big stock pot.
“My fondest memories of Mexican tamales was at my Uncle Adolf’s in Lost Springs,” Ernie added. “We kids would take the corn kernels and drop them into the top (of the grinder) and someone else would crank it. Then we got to wash the corn husks in big old tubs, dry them, and put the stuff in. Then we’d stack each one in the pot with a little water at the bottom, and put wet towels over the top. They’d cook for six or seven hours in the steam. When the top ones were done, they were ready to eat.
“We had fun doing that.”
Besides meeting the needs of her family, Donna is motivated to cook the foods of her adopted tradition because of the joy she sees in the faces of friends and family when they sample the results.
“It’s that right there that blesses my heart,” she said.
From the Luna kitchen
Each of the following recipes comes from what Donna Luna has learned from her mother-in-law, Julia, a first-generation Kansan from Mexico City. The ingredients were quantified and occasionally adapted by Donna.
“If you follow these recipes precisely,” Donna said, “you, too, can cook a good Mexican dinner.”
1/4 cup oil
2 cups white rice
4 cups hot water
2 teaspoons instant chicken bouillon
1/2 cup tomato sauce
2 teaspoons salt
1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
2 jalapeno peppers
Heat oil in large heavy saucepan on medium-high heat. Add rice and fry until brown, stirring constantly so as not to burn. Slowly add water, bouillon, tomato sauce and spices. Stir. Bring to a rapid boil. Stir. Reduce heat to low and add peppers. Cover and simmer 10 minutes. At the end of 10 minutes, stir, replace lid, and cook another 10 minutes until liquid is absorbed and rice is tender. Garnish with peppers and cilantro.
Yields 14 to 16 servings.
2 tablespoons shortening or lard (hot oil)
1/4 cup flour
21/2 cups water
3 tablespoons William’s chili seasoning
8.25-ounce jar red mol? (Mexican condiment)
3 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt
In a heavy saucepan, melt shortening, add flour, and stir until smooth and thick. In a measuring cup, stir together water and chili seasoning. Slowly add to flour mixture. Over low heat, whisk together. Add one-half of the jar of mol?, sugar and salt. Continue to cook over low heat, whisking until thick and smooth.
Yields 11/2 to 3 cups.
May be put in jars and frozen.
3 cups flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/8 cup oil
1 cup warm water
Stir dry ingredients together. Mix in oil and water to form a stiff dough. Cover and let rest 10 minutes. Form dough into three-inch diameter balls. Roll each ball out onto a lightly floured surface to about a six-inch circle. Pre-heat non-stick skillet on medium heat. Cook tortilla about 15 to 20 seconds on each side. Let tortillas cool about one hour. Store in Ziploc bags.
Yields about two dozen.
1 pound pinto beans
1 tablespoon salt
2 tablespoons lard
Sort, wash and rinse well the dry beans. In heavy pan cover beans with plenty of water, and add salt and lard. Cook two hours with lid on or until beans are tender. Transfer to hot skillet, mash with potato masher and serve. When reheating refried beans, always preheat skillet.
1/2 cup oil
mol? (recipe follows)
cooked taco meat
shredded cheddar cheese
In a small skillet add oil. Heat until just warm-not hot. You do not want tortilla to fry. Dip tortilla in oil, turning once, until soft. Drain. Transfer to paper towels. Repeat process to all tortillas you’re wanting to serve. If you are making just a few, you can make them on a dinner plate. If you’re making more, use a cookie sheet. Spread a thin layer of mol? on plate or cookie sheet. Lay out a tortilla, spread mol? on it, fill lengthwise down middle with beef or cheese, and roll. Repeat with rest of tortillas. Spread another layer of mol? over filled tortillas. Cover with cheese. Microwave if on plate just until cheese melts, or if on cookie sheet, bake at 400 degrees for five minutes.