Maritza Cook makes enough food to feed an army … and their families.
Maritza, her husband, Maj. Sean Cook, their two children, son Cayo, 3, and daughter Catai, 1, and Martiza’s mother, Irma Lima, live in the Infantry Barracks at Fort Leavenworth.
Together, Maritza and Irma prepare authentic Mexican dishes for their family and newly found friends. Originally from Tepic, the capital city of the western Mexican state of Nayarit, Maritza grew up near Palm Springs, Calif., but keeps her mother’s traditions of authentic Mexican cooking.
“Food brings people together, and I love when people ask me for my recipes,” Irma says. “I cook the same as my grandmother and my mother, and now I give the secrets to my daughter and grandchildren.”
Q: As an active Army family, does Memorial Day weekend have a special significance to you?
A: Many think of Memorial Day as a fun start to summer, but as a family that is active in the larger armed-services family, we are all aware that this is also a time to honor those who have died in active military service. We understand that the freedoms we enjoy aren’t free, and those come at the cost of many people making the ultimate sacrifice.
As an adult, I’ve never really known a civilian-only life, as I enlisted in the Army and ultimately met Sean at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., where I worked at the Soldier Family Assistance Center with wounded warriors.
We’ve been married six years and have lived in Fort Leavenworth since June 2016. This Memorial Day we will be getting settled in Syracuse, New York, as Sean attends Syracuse University through the Defense Comptrollership Program, as he works toward his MBA.
Q: It must be so difficult to move around as much as you do. Is the food you make a taste of home, no matter where you live?
A: Yes, it can be hard to move, but this is the life we have and I’m very proud of it. My mother is such an incredible help. After Catai was born, Mom helped us make the move from Mississippi to Fort Leavenworth, and she has just stayed on with our family. Everything my mom touches is magic, and that is especially true when it comes to food.
My mother’s food is so fresh and delicious, it is an instant ice-breaker and it has been a way to make many friends. Everyone appreciates her tamales, burritos, beans, guacamole and Mexican bread pudding or capirotada — the list of her recipes goes on and on. The secret to authentic Mexican cooking is to use fresh ingredients.
Q: So are three generations regularly mixing it up in your kitchen together?
A: Food is so powerful, and it literally unifies any cultural or age differences between people. In our kitchen, we dance and cook to mariachi music. We’re not only making food, we are also telling stories and making memories together.
My mom talks about cooking with her own mother, Uvaldina Ocampo, and her grandmother, Paula Garcia. This is such a blessing to be able to have my children in the kitchen with my mom and me, too. I have recently noticed that when Cayo and Catai eat, they hum out of contentedness and happiness with every spoonful.
The Mexican food we enjoy means eating beans that have been cooking on the stovetop, not out of a can. We make our own tortillas and use fresh corn, limes and cilantro. Flavors are layered gradually in Mexican cooking and in the end, there shouldn’t be one spice that stands out.
Q: The ceviche you make certainly is a stand-out. Why did you choose this recipe to share?
Q: Mom and I chose this ceviche recipe because it’s one of our favorite meals during warmer weather. It’s quick, easy, healthy and the perfect dish on a sunny day and so yummy that the kids can’t get enough of it.
Ceviche is made when the acid — found in the lime juice — coagulates the proteins in the fish. This process effectively cooks the fish without using heat, but it is also a complete dish with the freshness of the onion, pepper and cilantro.
We are not fans of bland food, so everything we make tends to be well-seasoned and as spicy as the kids like it. We like to take each meal one day at a time and decide what we’re going to cook depending on how we’re feeling, what the weather is like and ingredients that are available. We try to eat as healthy as possible and love to cook with fresh ingredients and vegetables.
As we move to our new post, I know that food is a way to start to make new friends. I love when people are eating and happy. As an introvert, making food for others is a way to share a part of myself without having to address large crowds. My mom and I let the food do the talking.
Mary G. Pepitone is a freelance writer who lives in Leawood. She also writes a nationally syndicated home column. Email her at email@example.com to nominate a cook.
Makes 12 servings
For the fish:
3 pounds tilapia, cut into 1-inch pieces
7 large limes, squeezed yielding about 3/4 cup juice
1 medium red onion, minced
For the peppers:
1/2 pound serrano or jalapeño peppers, washed and seeded
1 small cucumber, peeled
2 limes, juiced
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1/3 cup fresh cilantro leaves, roughly chopped
Peppers, washed, halved and seeded
To prepare fish:
Place fish into glass mixing bowl and cover with lime juice, ensuring every piece is submerged in liquid.
Cover bowl with plastic wrap and place in refrigerator for 2 hours. Every 30 minutes, stir fish with plastic or wooden spoon, ensuring every piece is evenly marinated in lime juice.
The fish is finished when the rosy hue of fish becomes opaque in color. Add minced onion to fish and return to refrigerator.
Place peppers, cucumber, lime juice, salt and pepper into the bowl of a food processor. Pulse mixture until very small pieces of pepper remain. Pour liquefied mixture into fish and stir until well incorporated. Add cilantro leaves and serve immediately, consuming while mixture is still cold.
Ceviche can be served in seeded half peppers, on tostadas and garnished with additional cilantro and/or avocado slices, as desired.
Per serving: 138 calories (11 percent from fat), 2 grams total fat (trace saturated fat), 42 milligrams cholesterol, 6 grams carbohydrates, 24 grams protein, 144 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.