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Comfort food and books for comfort

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Christina Stock Photo Steak tenderloin with latkes — a great choice for a dinner for two.

Copyright © 2021 Roswell Daily Record

The year of the white plastic Christmas tree, steak with latkes and “Pecans In Her Pockets” by Robert Wayne Gonzales

By Christina Stock

Vision Editor

There might never be a time like this: A Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa or any holiday season like this year’s. For many who are single or alone, having lost a dear family member this year or are struggling to get by, it is going to be hard. And even those who have a job and know that their loved ones are still safe, it is going to be tough because most are social distancing to protect their elderly family members, friends and neighbors. The only joy and hope we have is for the next year to bring us back together and, of course, thinking of the holidays past.

Today, I’d like to share with you one of the most miserable, yet joyful Christmas memories I have.

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My father had survived the Vietnam War, having been an Army medic chopper pilot on one of those iconic “Hueys,” the Agusta-Bell UH-1 Iroquois, when he was honorably discharged after another year of service in Germany. There are not many who remember that the helicopter was a joint product of the American company Textron who had bought up the Bell Aircraft Corporation in 1960 and the family-owned Italian aircraft company Agusta.

It was January 1971, I was only 5 years old, when my father, my mom and I met Dominic Agusta, the head of the company. Of course, my memories are fuzzy, I just remember his deep voice with an Italian accent letting me sit on his lap, giving me candies while he talked with my parents. It turned out that he hired my father to be an instructor to teach the Saudi Arabian military on how to fly the helicopters that they had sold them. The two-year contract was well-paid, a great opportunity for a small family. Much later, when I was an adult, I learned that Agusta died of a heart attack, only a couple of days after meeting us.

From 1972 to 1974, we were put up in a cute little family home in Taif, Saudi Arabia. The first winter was hard for my mom and me. My father was busy with work while we were stuck at home. The law said that women were not permitted to leave the home unaccompanied. There was no internet, no international phones, the radio and TV only played Arabian shows, disrupted five times for prayer services. The biggest excitement came when my mom got a package from Germany with fashion magazines — until she opened the pages and saw that text and most pictures were blackened out, censorship ruined that tiny spark of joy.

We coped by walking in the walled-in garden pretending to be back in Wiesbaden, Germany, on the fanciest street looking into the window displays. On the weekends, Fridays was the day off for Muslims, and we would get together with the other families at the company base, so we lived for the weekends.

That first year, when Christmas was approaching we knew already it wouldn’t be the same. No Christmas in a Muslim country; no decorations available; no Christmas markets, cookies or shows on TV. However, my father brought a surprise to us on Dec. 1. “I have a Christmas tree,” he said when he came in the house. “It’s outside in the car.” Oh, was I excited. I missed the sweet scent of pine trees, the dark green needles smelled wonderfully when my mom held them to a candle to burn them. It was a symbol for everything good and everlasting, just like the song says, “Thy leaves are so unchanging. Not only green when summer’s here, but also when it’s cold and drear …” Then my father brought in the tree and our jaws dropped. We tried to hide our shock, but I fear not too well, because I remember my dad losing his big smile. He had brought us a small white plastic atrocity of a “tree” with neon baubles and electric lights.

Christmas came fast and, despite the plastic Christmas tree, which we now think of quite fondly, the Christmas barbecue we had with new-made friends was the beginning of a strange and wonderful time in Taif, Saudi Arabia.

If you are looking for something different this year for a holiday meal or for New Year, how about an unusual steak combo?

Steak with latkes

Serves 2

Ingredients:

2 filet steaks, at least 1 inch thick

1 shallot, sliced

1 garlic clove, lightly crushed

1 sprig rosemary or half a tsp dried rosemary

3 Tbsp balsamic vinegar

1/2 cup red wine

1/2 cup beef stock

2 tsp butter

Salt and pepper

1 large potato (cooked for 10 minutes and grated)

1/2 onion, grated

1 Tbsp flour

1/4 tsp baking powder

1 egg

1/2 tsp salt

1 Tbsp olive oil

Preparation:

Remove the steaks from the refrigerator at least 30 minutes before cooking. Heat the oven on a low heat. Heat a heavy ovenproof (preferably cast iron) frying pan over medium-high heat, add 1 tsp of the butter and place the steaks in the pan. Brown each side 4 to 5 minutes for medium-rare, 2-3 minutes for rare.

Move the steaks in their pan in the oven to keep warm until ready to serve; the steaks should rest for at least 4 minutes.

Sauce:

In a nonstick pan, over medium heat, add the butter until melted. Add the shallots for about 2 minutes until lightly translucent, stirring continuously. Add the garlic, rosemary and the balsamic vinegar, stirring all the time so it doesn’t burn, another 3 minutes until the vinegar evaporates. Add the red wine and beef stock and bring to a boil. Turn down the heat and simmer until the sauce is reduced to about two-thirds. Remove the garlic and rosemary twig (you can sift the sauce to remove the shallots too). Add salt and pepper depending on your taste.

Latkes:

Mix the grated potatoes and onion and put in a dish towel or cheese cloth. Wring out until all juice is out. Add the flour, baking powder, egg and salt. Mix well. In a deep pan, heat up the olive oil until it shimmers. Drop the batter in and fry on each side until golden brown.

Serve the steak with the sauce and the latkes.

Books for comfort:

Submitted Cover Art
Roswell native Robert Wayne Gonzales shares memories of Roswell and his late mother in his newest book “Pecans In Her Pockets.”

“Pecans In Her Pockets”

The author Robert Wayne Gonzales has a new book out where he honors the memory of his late mother. Gonzales is originally from Roswell and his love for New Mexico and his mother shine through in “Pecans In Her Pockets.” The dialogue is snappy, entertaining and warm as a homemade biscochito on a cold day. The only complaints I have is that as a native, he should remember to spell chile with an “e,” not with an “i” as in the bean and meat stew that the Texans favor. Local New Mexicans will forgive him, because he has been living for quite a while outside of New Mexico, first in California and today, in Austin, Texas with his wife.

The story is a walk of love, of memories, of having to say goodbye to his mother; and each chapter pulls the reader deeper into it.

Having to acknowledge that one’s beloved parent, in this case, mother, will soon be gone is one of the last steps in adulthood, which Gonzales gradually reveals. The author balances the dialogue between his mother and himself in Spanish, while he answers in English — even if one doesn’t know Spanish it is easy to figure out what is being said without looking it up.

Locals will especially enjoy the many memories of food and locations in town and the area, but there is more. Gonzales really captures the soul of Roswell, of its people and the importance of faith in his family, reflected on page 54, when his mother urges her son to sing: “God inhabits in the praises of his people.” The stories include some hilarious moments, when the mother asks what a snowbank is. Of course, these stories came to be many, many years before Roswell found out what snowbanks were when the snowstorm Goliath hit.

Reading about Gonzales’ mother makes one long to have met her. Her wit and wisdom is perfectly put into writing by an author who knows his ways with words. And like every good mother, she tries to prepare her children toward what will come when she says, “Mira mijo, there are going to be things you are going to have to face — big things that might scare you. But you’re going to take control of those fears and put them in their place and will do what needs to be done …,” referring to life and that her son may face problems that may seem larger than mountains. “… you’ll take control of it one shovel full at a time. …”

The author shares moments in time, when a coyote takes off with his pants at Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge where he walks one night with a friend and cools off in the water.

The book is truly a kaleidoscope of snapshots and images, faded, yet crystal clear like the skies over New Mexico. The book does what the best stories about Roswell and its people should do: paints a picture and makes one smile.

Gonzales trusts the reader with his heart in this book. It is an intimate treasure that may be overlooked in the flood of published books during the pandemic. However, there is no doubt that it will not be forgotten by anybody who reads it, a testament of love in its many forms.

“Pecans In Her Pockets,” was published by Page Publishing and can be purchased as paperback or eBook anywhere books are for sale.