We love going out to eat as much as anyone, but sometimes nothing beats a home-cooked meal. Whether you call her grandma, nana or abuela, grandmothers seem to be the masters of foods that can take you back to childhood with just one bite. TAMPA Magazine asked three local grandmothers to open their recipe boxes and share their most-loved dishes with our readers.
Tuky Vargas’ Flan
There is a science to making flan, and Tuky Vargas has it down pat.
Though she’s had to alter the recipe a bit to account for the difference in altitude between her native Bolivia and her home in Tampa, Vargas makes her flan much like her mother taught her. She uses condensed and evaporated milk in the custard — no sugar — only real vanilla extract, a small orange blender that is reserved exclusively for making flan, and one special ingredient.
“I use a little cognac; it gives the flan a little kick,” Vargas said.
Actually, make that two special ingredients. Vargas said her mother included a soft cheese in the recipe to make the flan extra creamy but never explained what it was. Today, she uses cream cheese.
“But only Philadelphia original cream cheese,” she said. “Not one that cuts down the calories.”
Vargas said her four grandchildren look forward to her flan for their birthdays in lieu of cake, and they can even spot a less-than-perfect flan from a mile away.
“My mom said the flan shouldn’t have holes or bubbles,” she said. “If my grandkids go somewhere and have flan with holes, they come back to me and say, ‘It had holes, it wasn’t good.’”
Tuky Vargas’ Cream Cheese Flan
1 cup white sugar (for caramel)
5 to 6 eggs
1 8-ounce package cream cheese
1 can sweetened condensed milk
2 cans evaporated milk
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon cognac (optional)
Preheat the oven to 350°F.
In a small saucepan over medium heat, cook 1 cup sugar and ½ cup of water. Bring water to a boil, stirring constantly until the sugar dissolves. Continue to cook sugar mixture, stirring constantly until golden brown and caramelized (about 15 minutes).
Quickly and carefully pour hot caramelized sugar into a 2-quart heat-proof flan dish. Using oven mitts, tilt dish to evenly coat bottom and sides of the dish before the caramel hardens. Set aside.
Whisk together eggs, cream cheese, condensed milk, evaporated milk, vanilla extract and cognac in a large bowl. Whisk well to blend, or use a blender. Pour custard over caramelized sugar into the prepared dish. You may hear some cracking of the caramel.
Place flan mold in a larger shallow pan filled with water up halfway up the sides of the flan mold to form a bain-Marie, baño Maria or water bath. Cover with aluminum foil. Bake for about approximately 45-60 minutes or until set and firm just in the center. Remove dish from water bath and cool completely on a wire rack. Cover and refrigerate until well chilled (at least 3 hours).
To unmold, run a knife around the edge of the flan to loosen; invert onto a serving plate. Cut into 12 pieces.
To serve, pour some caramel for each serving.
Note: You can use a round glass dish, rectangular cake pan or ramekins. Divide the mixture among multiple ramekins and set them inside a larger pan. Add enough warm water to the pan to reach halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Cover pan loosely with a sheet of foil and bake until custards are just set (still slightly wobble in the center when tapped) — about 45 to 55 minutes.
Mary Jane Ramos’ Chicken and Yellow Rice
“You have to have the Vigo — it’s my secret in everything!” Mary Jane Ramos explained to senior photographer Gabriel Burgos while he photographed her.
Judging by the way Ramos’ kids and grandkids hovered around the kitchen as she finished cooking, the secret is working.
“My mother used to cook all the time,” Ramos, nonna to 13 grandchildren, said. “I have five sons, and they can all cook. They picked it up from me.”
“I’d let them roll the meatballs — do the dirty work,” she added with a smile.
While her sons were growing up as fifth-generation Tampanians, Ramos made dishes that reflected both her Italian heritage, like her handmade marinara sauce, and their father’s Spanish heritage. She gave TAMPA Magazine a taste of both, preparing breaded palomilla steaks with marinara sauce and chicken and yellow rice with the help of granddaughter Abby and grandson Aiden.
Aiden said he loves his grandmother’s steaks with pasta, while Abby raved about her nonna’s Christmas sausage rolls.
“My older cousins and I will sit on the couch and eat fistfuls,” she said.
As the years have passed, Ramos said she has not changed her family recipes one bit.
“I do it the same way my mother did it, and the boys are doing it the same way,” she said.
Mary Jane Ramos’ Chicken and Yellow Rice
8 pieces of chicken — thigh, drumstick or breast
¼ cup olive oil
3 cloves of garlic, peeled and chopped
1 large onion
6 small peppers — red, yellow and orange
1-2 envelopes of Vigo Flavoring & Coloring
4 cups of chicken broth or 3 chicken bouillon
6 plum tomatoes, chopped
- In a large skillet, heat olive oil on medium temperature. Add the chicken and brown on both sides.
- Add the garlic, onion, peppers and plum tomatoes. Sauté, then simmer for 20 minutes.
- Add Vigo Flavoring & Coloring and liquid broth. Bring to a boil, then simmer for 10 minutes.
- Bring the skillet back to a boil and add rice. Stir and let the skillet return to a boil. Stir again and cover, putting the temperature on low.
- Let cook for 20-25 minutes.
- Take the skillet off the stovetop and let stand for 10 minutes.
- Uncover and fluff with a fork.
- Garnish with pimento, peas and asparagus. Serves 8.
April Moreno’s Collard Greens
There’s one very simple reason April Moreno’s barbecue is so consistently delicious.
“No one touches my grill but me,” she said.
Moreno owns B.J.’s Alabama BBQ in South Tampa and spends 14 hours a day cooking up pulled pork, their best seller, ribs, collard greens, mac and cheese, and everything in between. She learned her recipes from the best in the business — her father opened East Tampa’s Big John’s Alabama Barbecue in 1968.
“Everything I know I learned from him,” Moreno said. “The only thing I do differently is my barbecue sauce. My sauce is sweet-spicy, and his was hot-spicy.”
Her two granddaughters, Nena and Savannah, help out around the restaurant after school and are partial to Moreno’s ribs, baked beans and mac and cheese. While the rest of the family knows to only expect special meals on Thanksgiving and Christmas, her grandkids have it a little differently.
“I’ll cook for my grandkids any day,” Moreno said.
While she didn’t want to give away her barbecue secrets, Moreno did share one piece of advice.
“I cook with lots of love — and heat,” she said. “Most people work just for the paycheck, but I put in the love.”
“I have the calluses to prove it,” she added with a chuckle.
Use three bunches of collard greens. Wash them twice, ensuring they are completely clean. Chop the greens. Boil them in a pot with a cup of water and either smoked ham hocks or neckbones. Add ¼ cup of Crisco to tenderize. Cook for about 2 ½ hours.