Estela Calzada is a native of Vicente Guerrero in the State of Durango, Mexico. She has cooked at several area Mexican restaurants including Somerville’s Tu y Yo and now runs a small catering business, Comida Autentica Mexicana, as well as teaching Nibble cooking classes. We sat down for this interview over some delicious ensalada de nopales (cactus salad) and chicken mole tostadas. Estela filled me in on how she became a cook, the mystery of grasshopper tacos, and her love of Thanksgiving. Cook with Estela at her upcoming Nibble class: a Day of the Dead tamale-making fiesta on Oct. 24. —Catherine Aiello
Nibble: So what can you tell me about how you started your career cooking?
Estela: I started because of necessity! (laughs) I was living in the Mexico City and had 6 children. When they got to be teenagers, I decided it would be better for us to go back to Vicente Guerrero, in Durango, where I was originally from. The capital is a very dangerous place for young people, so we went back to Vicente Guerrero. My family was there and they could help me out. And in Durango, I had a friend who owned a hotel; they hired me there to cook. In Vicente Guerreo there are also a lot of teachers, who when they get done working just want to go home and eat, they don’t want to cook. So I would sell food ready made, by weight. Like they could buy a liter of beans, a liter of rice, a liter of chicken. And then go home and heat it up.
When my kids got a little older, they wanted to study in the University, but there isn’t one in Vicente Guerrero, so we went to Durango, the state capital. So I continued my business there. Since it was the state capital, there were lots of offices, government offices, mining offices, schools, so they would buy my ready-made food as well.
Nibble: What foods did you sell the most of in Durango?
Estela: Chiles Rellenos (poblano peppers stuffed with cheese), red chile tamales, beef soup, caldillo duranguense.
Nibble: What is caldillo duranguense?
Estela: It’s a stew made of beef with tomatoes, peppers and potatoes.
Nibble: And when you came here to Massachusetts, how did you get your start?
Estela: Well, I had come to help take care of my brother who had gotten sick and a woman I knew found out I was a cook, so she brought me to Tu y Yo and introduced me to the owner. He asked me if I knew how to make tamales and I said, “That’s my forte!” But I didn’t hear anything back from him for a while. And living here is so expensive! I was about to leave and go back to Mexico when he called me and asked me to come in for a cooking trial. So I did and they hired me.
Nibble: What other restaurants in the area have you worked at?
Estela: Jose’s in Cambridge, Mi Salvador Mexicano in Chelsea, I started the buffet there; and Angela’s in East Boston, for a little while.
I love to cook and I love when people enjoy my food. It motivates me to make it the best I can, the most authentic I can, even though there are ingredients that are difficult or impossible to find here.
Nibble: Are there any foods that you really miss that you can’t find here?
Estela: Of course. Verdolagas and quintoniles, they’re greens that you can’t find here. And chapulines.
Estela: (laughs) They’re so good in tacos. You boil them with garlic onion and salt, and then fry them.
Nibble: Do you cut them up first or do you eat them whole?
Estela: Oh no, they’re whole. Also I miss the masa for making tamales. In Mexico you can get it ground from fresh corn. That’s impossible here. You have to buy the flour and mix it with water. It’s not the same.
Nibble: What’s a food that you’ve come to love living here, that you didn’t eat in Mexico?
Estela: Thanksgiving foods! I love Thanksgiving, when I go back to Mexico I’ll continue celebrating it there! Except I’ll make my turkey with mole! (laughs)But pumpkin pie, that’s my favorite, and beets. I just love all the flavors that come together for the Thanksgiving meal. And it’s so important to take a day and give thanks.