BY MAT CLOUSER
SALISBURY — The path to the heart runs through the stomach, or so the English proverb goes. And when that heart is heavy with nostalgia, as it is for many of Vermont’s scattered Mexican population, only the taste of home will do.
In Mexico, they also have a saying: Las penas con pan son buenas, which translates roughly as ‘all grief is less with bread.’
Whether for love or loneliness, chef Mari Verduzco of La Catrina 802 in Salisbury has set a few pots to simmer in recent years, bringing her simple Baja cuisine to the eager mouths of Vermonters, native and transplants alike.
Verduzco, a former hairstylist who moved to Vermont in 2017 to be closer to her wife’s family, grew up watching her grandmother and mother (the latter ran a restaurant) cook for family and community alike. She knew immediately when she moved that she wanted to cook for a living.
“I really love the feeling of cooking for people,” she said. “The feeling of seeing someone taste something for the first time.”
At first, she dreamt of a food truck, and although she says she’d still like to have one someday, she realized how much time and effort that would take and that it might come at the expense of living her life and enjoying her time with loved ones.
She worked for a time in the kitchens at OVUHS and the Middlebury Co-op to get a feeling for how larger-scale food production works, all the while plotting pop-up dinners and catering gigs, the first of which was a collaboration with Chef Robert Baral and Café Provence in Brandon.
Today, her empanadas and enchiladas are for sale at the Middlebury Co-op; she fixes 200 meals weekly, which are distributed for free via Everyone Eats at the Rutland farmer’s market to anyone in need, and she continues cooking at public and private events throughout the state. She cooks everything by herself out of her home kitchen under the name La Catrina 802.
The name comes from the sketch “La Calavera Catrina’ by Jose Guadalupe Posada, although most Americans will recognize the iconography of her logo from the sugar skulls and skeleton sculptures now associated with the Mexican holiday Día de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) and the vibrant, almost gleefully macabre iconography that’s meant to remind us to enjoy life and embrace mortality.
Verduzco says she misses Mexico and her family immensely but that she’s found community in Vermont via her wife’s family—she says they’re “just like Mexicans” in the way they see one another every day—as well as through her ongoing efforts to connect and advocate for the migrant Mexican and Latinx farmworkers who help power Vermont’s agricultural business.
She says many workers suffer from depression, loneliness, and isolation, and there is racism too. Sometimes the living conditions are less than humane, and the workers can be taken advantage of—often receiving pay beneath the minimum-wage threshold due to their legal status.
“I’m spoiled,” she said, speaking of her access to family and free time. “Sometimes [farmhands] work 12-14 hour days, six or seven days a week,” she said. “Some only one [day off] per month.”
There are also issues with certain advocacy groups, according to Verduzco. “[They are] not working very well,” she said, citing what she views as too much administrative overhead. “They don’t put the money in the hands [of the people who need it].”
It’s not all bad, however. Verduzco says that many of the farms do provide excellent working conditions for the workers and that the workers frequently have access to much better health services than they would have at home, services that are free in some cases and offer cultural sensitivity as well as empathy.
“Addison Allies does good work,” she said, urging anyone interested in helping improve the lives of migrant workers to make donations there.
Fostering community is essential to Verduzco and will always be a part of her mission. It’s one of the things she loves about cooking; she says, “It brings people together, no matter what, to be human.”
“We didn’t grow up rich,” she continued, “but my mother always had enough for people. Whatever is in my hands—that’s what I’m gonna do.”
Mari’s Pipián con Pollo y Arroz Mexicano (chicken in green mole with Mexican rice)
Pipián, or green mole (from the Nahuatl ‘mōlli’ or sauce), is one of the great Mexican moles. No one knows for sure where the recipe originates, but it fuses elements of Aztec and Mayan cooking with African, Middle Eastern, and colonial European influences to create a versatile sauce that keeps and freezes well.
Despite its somewhat lengthy list of ingredients, with just a bit of care, Pipián is an easy recipe that can be prepared in advance and doubles as a sauce or marinade for nearly anything, including enchiladas. It is naturally gluten free and can be made vegan simply by omitting the chicken.
2 1/2 lbs chicken breast, cubed
1 cup pumpkin seeds
½ cup toasted peanuts (in case of allergy, sub pistachios, pecans, or pine nuts)
½ cup sunflower seeds
1/3 cup toasted sesame seeds
4 tomatillos, quartered
1 bunch cilantro, washed
1 white onion, large dice
1 poblano pepper, large dice
1 serrano pepper, stem removed
2-3 jalapeños, halved, stem removed (remove seeds for less heat)
2 cloves garlic, slivered
1 T fresh oregano, rough chop
1 tsp thyme, fresh or dried
¼ tsp whole coriander seed
¼ tsp whole clove
¼ tsp cumin seed
¼ tsp white peppercorn
1 pinch fennel seed
1 bunch red radishes, thinly sliced (for garnish, if desired)
1 bunch radish greens, washed (omit if radishes aren’t desired)
2 T lard or preferred cooking oil
4 cups water or chicken broth
- Add lard to a large, heavy-bottomed pot or casserole dish over medium heat.
- Add garlic and sweat until it browns slightly.
- Add chicken and 1 T salt, stir and cover. The chicken should steam, not brown.
- Steam chicken until fully cooked, 5-10 minutes, being careful not to overcook.
- Remove chicken from pot and set aside.
- Add the nuts and seeds to the pot and toast slightly. Stir constantly to keep it from burning. 3-4 minutes.
- Add the oregano, thyme, and spices, and stir until they release their aroma.
- Add peppers, cilantro, radish greens onions, and tomatillos, and sauté for 1-2 minutes.
- Add liquid and simmer for 15-20 minutes until vegetables are tender. Remove from heat.
- . Blend ingredients until smooth and creamy.
- Add the sauce back to the pot with the chicken and bring to a low simmer—the sauce may scorch at higher heat.
- Simmer for 15-20 minutes, or until chicken is tender. Add more liquid if the sauce becomes too thick.
- Season with salt to taste.
- Serve with rice, sliced radishes, and warm tortillas.
For the rice:
2 cups white rice (jasmine or basmati)
2 T lard or preferred cooking oil
1 large tomato
1 white onion, diced
1 clove garlic, slivered
3-4 cups water or stock
- Combine onions, tomatoes, and enough liquid to make 4 cups.
- Blend until smooth and set aside.
- In a heavy-bottomed sauce pot, bring lard or oil to medium heat.
- Add rice and garlic and sauté until slightly toasted.
- Add liquid and bring to a boil.
- Reduce to a simmer and cover.
- Steam as you usually would, approximately 20-25 minutes, or according to the rice’s packaging.