Now reading Carmen Maisonet’s Smothered Mushroom Chicken

Carmen Maisonet’s Smothered Mushroom Chicken

Smothered mushroom chicken with a crispy crust has us already dreaming of dinner.

wemomWe love mom. Which is why, starting this month on, we’re introducing a brand new recipe series celebrating the best in Mom cookery. It’s called WE LOVE MOM. We’ll hear from kids about their favorite things their moms cook, and we’ll hear from moms themselves about those dishes, in interviews conducted by their kids. Since May is MOM month, we’ll feature a mom a day for the entire month. After that, you can expect to find WE LOVE MOM here on the website every Friday. —Rachel Khong

I am an only child, raised by a single parent. I grew up in the barrio of South Sacramento—a wrought-iron-laced neighborhood where evenings smell like roasted chilies and charred tortillas. When I was small enough to fit under the Kmart shopping carts we’d push home from a day of accumulating first-of-the-month provisions, my mom would stop along fences to pinch leaves of spearmint and pluck sprigs of rosemary. She’d knock black walnuts, almonds, persimmons, and figs from their limbs in the ghost gardens. She was an urban forager before the hipsters labeled it.

In 1953 my mother was born in Vega Baja, Puerto Rico. Vega Baja is equal parts rural and town, with narrow streets sandwiched between cotton-candy-colored Spanish colonials. In the late 1950s, my grandparents left PR and headed for a neighborhood in Sacramento less than a mile from where my mom currently lives. They worked in the fields harvesting seasonal produce. Eventually, my grandpa started his own gardening business, my nana gave birth to seven more children, and a 1957 tropical turquoise Bel Air sat in the driveway. It was a traditional and devout Catholic family, where my grandpa worked and my nana took care of the house. Working with a strict budget, nana often fed nine people with just one whole chicken. If you were late, your chicken ration was forfeited. But you were always guaranteed rice and beans. They always sat at the kitchen table. My grandpa would eat first, the children second, my nana last. Every special occasion saw a homemade pineapple upside-down 7Up cake. The recipe was attained by an Italian neighbor, and it was my mother’s favorite.

My mother worked at what is now known as Blue Diamond. It was a factory job where she sorted nuts on an assembly line for almost twenty years. Then she worked at UCD Med Center, dragging herself through twelve-hour shifts as a unit coordinator. On weekends, she’d make Bisquick pancakes, bacon, and eggs. She’d cook the eggs in the bacon grease until the eggs puffed up like a soufflé, the edges brown and crispy. She’d also cook boiled yucca, yautia, bacalaítos, arroz con gandules, carne guisada, and fried chicken with white rice. But, I mostly loved her pumpkin fritters. She’d only make them around Halloween, drying out the seeds in the sun and then roasting them in the oven, using the leftover flesh from my jack-o’-lanterns for fritters. She’d add vanilla, cinnamon, salt, eggs, and flour, mix and fry. She and I would sit in the corner of the kitchen, in our one-bedroom casita, and consume them piping hot.

My mother is calm. She cooks calmly; she solves her problems calmly; her food is calm. She is the oracle. These days she only makes two things from back in the day: smothered mushroom chicken and Christmas balls.

Smothered mushroom chicken is one of the simplest things to make, yet I can never get mine to taste the same as hers, even though I have watched her make it. I am not the oracle. I am not calm. It’s a dish that’s umami-heavy: it’s meaty, it’s earthy, it’s dark. My mother and I are polar opposites. It’s been said my personality matches my deadbeat father. Where my mother is calm, patient, and approachable, I am skittish and make babies cry. We both have the ability to wrangle stray cats into our lap, turn the bullshit detector up to eleven, and offer people advice with a warning. (“You want the nice version or the honest version?”) We both love nature, are artists, and we’re both romantics. While my mother had dreams of traveling to Europe, being an exhibiting artist, and going to college, I actually did all of those things.

I went home and asked my mom to make mushroom chicken. We sat down to eat afterwards, and when I bit into the forkful, the crust of the chicken was so crispy it shattered under the pressure of my teeth. My mom looked up at me and said, “Hear it?” —Illyanna Maisonet

RECIPE: Carmen Maisonet’s Smothered Mushroom Chicken

Photograph by Eugene Ahn

Photograph by Eugene Ahn

When and where were you born?

1953. Vega Baja, Puerto Rico.

What was your favorite food growing up?

My favorite thing was this upside-down pineapple cake my mom made with 7Up and maraschino cherries. I think she got the recipe from our Italian neighbor. During the holidays everyone busted out with their traditional stuff and swapped recipes.

What’s your earliest childhood memory involving food?

Being four, at my grandma’s, and my father coming home and giving me his leftovers from his work lunchbox. This is when we first came from Puerto Rico.

What’s the story behind this dish? When did you start making it, and why did it stick? Is this a traditional dish or something that you made up?

The recipe came from coworkers at the factory, but it was from the can of Campbell’s. I revamped it to stretch it out by adding fresh mushrooms, and soy sauce to give color. It was kind of on the dry side and I wanted something more wet to stick to the rice. And it has to be sticky rice, not long rice.

Can you describe a typical family meal when you were growing up? What was your favorite thing that was cooked in your house? Who did the cooking?

My mother always did the cooking—it was that type of old-school style. She had to feed nine people off a strict budget, so often it was one chicken for all nine of us. We’d always sit at the kitchen table, but my father ate first. We ate after. Never together. My mother ate last.

How did you learn to cook?

I learned cooking from watching my mom. Then she made me start cooking—one of my chores was making beans for dinner, every day. I was around eight years old. Mama would make persimmon cookies. I learned to bake in home ec. I signed up for woodshop, but they wouldn’t let me take it because girls weren’t allowed. So I had to take home ec, where I learned to use an electric stove and an electric sewing machine. 

Do you like cooking? What do you like about it?

Yeah. I guess I like the process of figuring out what you’re gonna eat, thinking about how it’s gonna taste, and then making it. The final is eating it and sharing it with other people and they say, “Mmm, that’s good.”

What do you have in common with your mom?

Besides physically resembling each other, we were both born at home by a midwife. Other than that, I don’t think we have anything in common.

What do we have in common?

I think we’re both creative. We enjoy different music and meeting quirky people; we both have lifelong friends. We don’t open up to everyone and anyone. We’re strong-willed; we know what we want and go after it. Even if we don’t succeed, we still go after it.

Illyanna and Carmen

Illyanna & Carmen

Born in Vega Baja, Puerto Rico, Carmen Maisonet raised her only child as a single mother and went from working in the fields to working as a unit coordinator at UCD Medical Center in Sacramento. Illyanna Maisonet is an Oakland-based editor @brokeassstuart, and is currently seeking a publisher for her recently finished Puerto Rican cookbook.