I think the turning point for my relationship with cooking was in college. I get asked this question a lot, and it’s something I’ve thought about carefully. I used to make cookies and brownies with my mom growing up, lick the beaters or the bowl and play with her pots and pans. But that was when I was 4 and 5. There was a departure from the kitchen, for me, between about 7 and 15. I think I always loved food and eating, but then again, who doesn’t? I don’t especially remember liking to make cookies when I was 13 and reading Cosmo Girl, searching for the perfect nail polish and taking quizzes about what my style was. No, cooking and I didn’t really get along again until about 18 or 19. I was in college, living at a girls co-op at Oregon State University, and eating most meals out of the kitchen at Azalea House.*
The cook at Azalea, or AZA as we called it, while I was there was named Kevin. He was a man probably in his 30’s (this was 2002 or ’03), with a booming voice that traveled through the small kitchen and out to the dining room. So many times I padded across that room to get something from the kitchen in the afternoon and could hear the voice of Kevin, long before entering the kitchen, chatting with someone, but it sounded more like a one-sided conversation. It is things like this that were a comfort to me in a way, when being away from home for the first time. Being on your own at 18 doesn’t feel so strange when you are in a house full of 50 girls and a guy like Kevin you could talk to like a big brother.
The dining room was really a white tiled room with a row of 6 foot by 2 foot tables put in a row down the left side. The front of the dining room, near a bank of windows, was where the food went, buffet style. When the food was put out, at 5pm every evening, is when Kevin’s work day would end. I don’t think I thought too much about the food beyond: me. hungry. brain. need food. But one night there was this salsa. I couldn’t stop eating it. I got seconds and thirds. The thought that kept going through my head was, what if I never have this again? I HAVE to know how to make it. I HAVE to eat this again. And that was it.
That’s where my love affair with cooking started.
The next morning I begged Kevin for the recipe. “It’s called Pico de Gallo” He said. He was pretty free with this recipes, but I don’t think very many girls asked him for them. So he told me the basics and I scribbled them down on a piece of paper. That weekend I went home and made the salsa for my family. I, again, couldn’t stop eating it. I think my parents were happy to have something made for them, but probably have eaten pico de gallo before. I was mesmerized. I couldn’t believe that I could make these flavors with just produce, and that the only thing standing in my way was a bunch of chopping. It was from there, that I started. I made more things, I discovered what I liked to eat and how it was made. I moved out of AZA in 2004, and in 2005 I was living in a small house off-campus with two other girls (who also lived in AZA with me). It was while living in the house that I really got the cooking bug. I started watching Food Network, reading Real Simple and cooking whatever meal they deemed “simple for a weeknight” and becoming obsessed with Martha Stewart.
It’s really funny, what one salsa can do to change the course of your life.
Through all that has happened, I never forgot about Kevin. He was a sounding board, a guy you could vent to, tell your problems to, commiserate with, and get advice from. He knew us. He could tell when something wasn’t right or when something had gone SO right we were beaming. Kevin probably got a little more then he bargained for when he took on AZA, but we were lucky to have him. And I am lucky to have this recipe. It brings me back to my roots and reminds me why I do this. For the love of food.
So, the recipe is simple. I think you could even just throw everything in to a bowl and lightly toss it and it would turn out as good as that day in the dining room. But here I’ll offer you a little more instruction then that.
Make the dressing:
Mix lime juice, chopped cilantro, chopped jalepenos, serrano, garlic and cumin.
Add chopped tomato, onion, pineapple and gently toss.
This is so great for a big crowd!
*Azalea, or AZA, has since shut down. But many of the girls and the old cook, Kevin, still keep in touch through Facebook.
- 1 small jalepeno, seeded and minced
- 1 serrano, seeded and minced
- 2 limes
- Pinch or two of salt
- 1/2 teaspoon cumin
- 2 minced garlic clove, minced
- 1/3 cup fresh cilantro, chopped
- 5-6 medium sized tomatoes, diced into 1/2” pieces
- 1/2 a fresh pineapple, cored and chopped into 1/2” pieces
- 1/2 cup red onion, chopped
- In a large bowl, combine the jalepeno, serrano, juice of the two limes, salt, cumin, garlic and cilantro. Mix to combine.
- Add the pineapple, tomatoes and red onion. Toss everything together and serve with lots of chips.
- This is also great over chicken or fish tacos.
Good ol’ AZA:
More info and an article about the co-ops at OSU and their closing: Gazette Times