Food, Lifestyle

An ode to ensaladilla rusa

Growing up, I used to hate cooking. I hated getting messy and the outdated stereotype that women belonged in the kitchen, so I always avoided that section of the house. 

This all changed when my grandmother moved in with us during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. The pandemic was hard on my grandmother. In a span of two months, she got COVID, was sent to the hospital for a week and began to feel isolated from her other children and grandchildren after she left Mexico to move in with my family in Chicago.

Lila Baltaxe | Senior Graphic Artist

When my grandmother moved in with us, we tried everything to cheer her up. For months, she missed what she called her one and only home. She had lived in Mexico for all of her life, and the thought of leaving her childhood home completely broke her heart. 

I didn’t know how to bond with her or make her feel comfortable in my own house in Chicago, so I did the only thing I knew she could never deny — I asked her to teach me how to cook. 

My grandmother adored cooking in Mexico. It has always been one of the ways she radiates love to the people she cares about. I still remember when she first started teaching me how to cook. 

She would tell me that I needed to cook with love, or rather, cocinar con amor. According to her, if you don’t cook with love, your food will lack taste and passion. 

Since I was a beginner at cooking, the first recipe that my grandmother taught me was the Ensaladilla Rusa, also known as the Russian Potato Salad. It’s easy to make and highly personalizable, so I didn’t have to stress about precisely following the instructions. 

Yet, with such straightforward ingredients, I was still nervous to jump into this new hobby with my grandmother. 

My mind was stuck thinking about the worst case scenarios. What if the chicken doesn’t boil correctly? What if the potatoes are still raw after boiling? What if my grandma hates it and disowns my cooking? Of course, with my grandmother, none of that happened. 

She was guiding me right by my side, maybe so my family wouldn’t get salmonella if the chicken was still raw. Even if I did something wrong with the recipe, she would never get disappointed and abandon a potential bonding moment. After all, she loved and continues to love me with all my flaws. 

So, I put my hair in a bun, tied my apron on and washed my hands. In all honesty, my grandmother can be scary when her recipes aren’t followed the way she wants. Luckily, every time that I was on the verge of tears, she would give me a kiss on the cheek and reassure me that I was making her proud.

Once the salad was finished, my grandmother did the final taste test. I was nervous when she lifted the fork to her lips, but once I saw her face light up in a smile, I instantly knew how proud she was of me. 

Since then, whenever I come back home, I ask her to teach me another one of her beloved recipes. 

Now I’m the one living many miles away from home, so whenever I miss her, I remember how cooking made her feel close to home. So, I tie my apron, wash my hands and cook the Ensaladilla Rusa while singing along to songs that remind me of her. 

I’m sharing this story so that you, too, can experience that same degree of love that my grandmother shared with me at home and continues to share with me vicariously through her recipes, no matter how many miles away. 

The recipe

For the salad, you’ll need two potatoes, two carrots, peas, a quarter of a white onion, a garlic clove, mayonnaise, two celery sticks and chicken breasts. 

First, in a large cooking pot, add the chicken breast along with the diced garlic and onion. Let it boil for 25 minutes or until the chicken is perfectly cooked, which you can tell by its white inside with no glaring textures. Once it’s ready, let it cool down so that you can touch it without burning yourself, and start shredding the chicken. 

Second, clean and peel the potatoes and carrots thoroughly. Cut them into tiny, diced squares and add them to a separate, smaller cooking pot along with the peas. Add a pinch of salt and let it all boil for 15 minutes or until the vegetables are tender. 

Third, once the vegetables and chicken are ready, combine them in a large bowl. Then, clean and dice the celery and also add it to the bowl. Little by little, incorporate mayonnaise until all the ingredients are well-covered. 

Finally, serve the salad and complement it with some salted crackers!

I hope you enjoy these recipes as much as I did with my grandmother and find it to be easy to cook as your semester picks up. 

Happy cooking!

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