The Served

Like most reasonably well-off white Americans, I’ve hired aliens. Most have been Mexican or Central American. Some have been legal, some have not. All have been good people with families and hopes and dreams, with warm smiles and senses of humor, with dignity.

One of the small but important joys in my life over the years has been serving the help, usually in the form of lunch. They honor me with their time and services; I honor them with a home-cooked meal.

Homemade chicken, tarragon and tortilla soup

For seven years, three to five days a week, I made lunch for our nanny, Karina. She came from a Oaxacan Mexican family and had never eaten much other than Mexican fare or fast food. When she began to work with us — when my 8-year-old son, Flynn, was not yet a year — she would poke at whatever I served and politely choke down as much as she could. By the time she left us just recently, her favorite food was Japanese baked scallops. And she would often trail around behind me in the kitchen asking what I was making or how to prepare a certain dish she’d had with us.

I remember around the same time Karina started, we were renovating our first house. Every day around 8 a.m., our laborer, Apolinar, would show up. He and I would work around the house and yard, digging holes, tearing things down or putting up other things. Around noon, I’d head in to the kitchen, and emerge a little while later with lunch and freshly made lemonade. We’d settle in the shade of a tree and eat together, conversing as we could in my broken Spanish and his broken English. We never said much, but those were good and important times.

I take a particular joy in making a good version of a dish someone working for us might be familiar with, one from their own culture. Once I prepared a pozolé for Karina, and she said, “It’s better than my mom’s!” That was a fine day.

Today I made lunch for the first time for our new housekeeper and babysitter, Faviola. Homemade chicken and tortilla soup with broccoli greens, tarragon, chopped avocado and Mexican crema — perfect for a cloudy, cold fall day. Faviola looked surprised when I served it to her, spoon set on folded napkin. She ate for a few moments, looked up and smiled. “Excellent,” she said.

I volunteer at the elementary school where my son and daughter go. I help run a program called “We Give Back,” which is all about service. Each grade pairs with a charity, and the kids, teachers and parents create a plan for the year about how the kids can give back. I want my children to understand the importance of serving. And to experience the rewards of lifting up someone’s spirits, even if just in a small way. Put a lot of small ways together and they add up to big things.

Next time you’ve got someone working for you on a cold fall day, serve them this soup. Don’t forget to fold the napkin.

*   *   *

Homemade chicken, tarragon & tortilla soup
serves 6-8

1 chicken
1 onion
1 bay leaf
1 tbsp. salt
2 cups roughly broken tortilla chips
1 cup chopped broccoli rabe, swiss chard or other firm green
1/2 cup chopped fresh tarragon
1/2 cup masa harina (corn flour)
1 tsp. red pepper powder
1/2 cup chopped onion
1/2 cup chopped cilantro
1 large avocado, cut into small chunks
1 tbsp. Mexican crema for each bowl of soup
salt to taste

Make chicken stock: Place chicken in a large pot, cover with water. Add onion, tablespoon of salt and bay leaf, and slowly bring to a boil over medium-high heat, skimming foam and scum off the top as it forms. Turn heat to medium and cook, simmering, for 1 hour. Remove chicken and cool. Strain broth through a fine sieve into another large pot.

Remove skin from chicken. Using your fingers and a fork, pull meat from the carcass and shred as you go. Place half the meat into the pot with the stock; reserve the rest for sandwiches or whatever you choose.

Place the pot over medium heat and bring to a simmer. Add half the tortilla chips, reserving the rest for garnish, and the chopped broccoli. Cook for five minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the masa harina, tarragon and red pepper powder. Cook for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove pot from heat. Season to taste with salt.

Mix together onion, cilantro and avocado. Ladle soup to bowls. Top each with a tablespoon or so of the onion/cilantro/avocado mixture, then a sprinkling of tortilla chips, and finally a tablespoon of crema.

6 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Andy
    Dec 16, 2011 @ 00:17:29

    I don’t mean to be a cornball….but that brought little tears to my eyes.


    • scolgin
      Dec 16, 2011 @ 00:29:12

      Ahh, that’s nice, thanks! I had another post all ready to go for today… and then I was making this gal lunch and started thinkin’… 🙂


  2. g
    Dec 16, 2011 @ 02:49:15

    I think I gave Faviola directions to your house this morning while I was out walking Jack – if her first day was today. I hope I didn’t throw here for a loop by saying “It’s just past the alligator.”


  3. Lori Koefoed
    Dec 22, 2011 @ 01:30:07

    I made this tonight…omg YUM. I didn’t have fresh tarragon and substituted some kale from the garden, but amazing nonetheless 🙂


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