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updated: 2/13/2013 8:43 AM

Cook of the Week: Teacher shares recipes from Mexican upbringing

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  • Video: Green Enchiladas

  • Catalina Aragon has lived in the United States 23 years and continues to cook dishes she grew up with in Mexico.

       Catalina Aragon has lived in the United States 23 years and continues to cook dishes she grew up with in Mexico.
    photos by JOE LEWNARD | Staff Photographer

 

By Sally Eyre

Daily Herald Correspondent

Twenty-three years ago, Catalina Aragon, a young kindergarten teacher from a small town outside of Mexico City, came to the United States to visit. It wasn't long before she realized she wanted to stay.

"I am happy here because of the different opportunities. There is more money to pay the bills," she laughs. "In Mexico it was a problem in my profession."

Catalina, who now lives in Palatine, is a bilingual teacher's assistant and loves working with children. She is known in the school for her warm smile and friendly positive attitude and for being a tremendous cook. In fact, Catalina was unanimously nominated by a chorus of her co-workers for our Cook of the Week.

"If I had money I'd open a restaurant for her," says one co-worker, "her guacamole is the best in the world."

Adds another, "her cooking is authentic and delicious."

Catalina learned to cook when she was very young.

"I was little when my mother taught me. She had problems with her health so she needed help with cooking and cleaning. 'You put this in and then these,' she would tell me. I was in the kitchen a lot and now I know how (to cook.)"

Catalina is a busy working mother of four; she has three daughters, ages 22, 20 and 15, and a 6-year-old son. Because her time is jam-packed with activities, Catalina tries to shop for groceries only once a week. In her pantry you will always find onions, rice and beans. Her refrigerator is always stocked with limes, oranges, tomatoes, avocados, a variety of lettuces and something many of us rarely have on hand -- cactus.

"I put (cactus) in salads; this is very good for your body," she says.

There's also always plenty of fresh cilantro

"I can put cilantro in a lot of things, pico de gallo, salsa, guacamole; it's yummy."

Catalina also keeps olive oil, oregano and garlic on hand for those times when her mood turns Italian.

The one thing that disappoints Catalina is that she and her husband have been unsuccessful in their attempts to grow their own vegetables.

"The raccoons come to eat all our plants! They love my peppers and cucumbers. My husband will ask, 'What happened to my tomatoes?' 'It was the raccoons,' I tell him."

Catalina is the first to admit that sometimes she gets carried away when cooking for her family.

"They will ask me, 'who is coming over?' And I have to tell them, 'Nobody, only our family!' I make everything and my son will say, 'oh Mommy, this is the best -- a big celebration.'"

Today, Catalina shows us how to make her enchiladas, a classic and versatile Mexican specialty made with fresh tomatillos and chicken.

Perhaps the most difficult kitchen task for Catalina is writing down the recipe, because she doesn't usually measure when she cooks.

"I use my hands and fingers to measure," she shrugs with a smile, "this is the way my mother taught me."

• To suggest someone to be profiled here, send the cook's name, address and phone number to food@dailyherald.com.

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