Know Your Neighbor: Paul Mondragón

A man and his culinary skills take on the turkey

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Yes, guys can cook the Thanksgiving turkey. If you don't believe it, ask Paul Mondragón.

"The family gathers at the home of my parents (Lipio and Sylvia Mondragón) in Llano Quemado," Mondragón said during an interview at Las Pistoleras in El Prado. "In the past, my mom prepared the turkey, baking and cooking some of the trimmings. The rest of the family completes the meal preparations by bringing additional food. A few years ago, Mom told me, 'I've had enough. From now on, I'll do the baking and you cook the turkey.' That became my role and my job from then on."

At one point in his life, Mondragón considered attending the Scottsdale Culinary Institute. He researched the school and was shocked by the cost. Mondragón wanted to attend for personal knowledge as opposed to professional work, so the cost wasn't conducive to his interests. He didn't let that stop his enjoyment of cooking, though. Instead of dealing with cookbooks, Mondragón watches "The Cooking Network" which includes "tons of ideas." He also enjoys experimenting with food.

"My mom is the best cook. Sometimes, I watch her. She'll tell me how to make something, saying, 'You use a pinch of this; you need a pinch of that.' When I try, it's not the same," he said.

When it comes to making tortillas, for example, the process isn't precise. "She took flour by the handful, added Crisco and mixed them together, advising me 'When you mix in a little bit of this, remember - not too much.' She didn't measure the ingredients."

Mondragón talked turkey preparation plans next. "I love to cook turkey," he said. "First, I separate the skin from the top of the turkey and place a 15 to 20 pound turkey uncovered in the refrigerator for a day after the thawing to produce a crispy skin during cooking. My rule of thumb is to cook for 15 minutes per pound. I tried rubs, brine and injecting, but those treatments didn't please me. My own personal rule is - simple is better."

"I don't cook stuffing inside the turkey; it's cooked as a side dish, as a casserole," he said. "Instead, I cook vegetables (carrots, celery, cilantro and onions) inside the turkey. I leave some room when stuffing the turkey because overstuffing may cause uneven cooking. Prior to cooking, I rub oil on the outer skin; the rub consists of dried thyme, sage and rosemary with the slightest bit of garlic salt. My mom doesn't like garlic, so I use very little. In preparation, I use small cubes of herb butter, chives and fresh cilantro with fresh squeezed lime, and place it under the skin. There's nothing worse than an undercooked turkey, so I monitor when the temperature reaches 165 degrees."

"No matter what side dishes we eat, there's always a turkey, and many of the people sharing with us enjoy seconds," said Mondragón.

The side dishes, or fixings, rate a discussion as well. It's a family effort. Mom Sylvia Mondragón still prepares a large portion of the meal such as mashed potatoes, red chile, stuffing, pumpkin pie and bread. Paul Mondragón's niece Karla lives in Albuquerque, and on her way to the Thanksgiving meal in Taos, she stops at Trader Joe's and purchases unusual tasty items. Her uncle refers to this action as "loaded for bear."

The typical Mondragón family table includes traditional fare such as cranberry sauce provided by the rest of the family. Sometimes, tamales also grace the table. As for all of these goodies, Mondragón declares that if he ruins the turkey, "it won't be a big deal" because of the abundance of other foods.

The meal is only part of the day's blessing. "Thanksgiving is not just another day. This is all about family, and we are blessed to still have both our parents. Some of my children will also attend, so this is very special," Mondragón said. He added, "This is a chance to reconnect and share."

When asked who plans to attend the Mondragón family dinner, Paul talked about his relatives. The youngest of five children, Paul listed his siblings: Martha; Norbert (Felicia); Alipio Jr.; and Theresa, also known as Terry. Single dad Paul shared the names of his five children: Elizabeth (Justin) Johnson, an ER nurse, resides in Fort Collins, Colorado; Stephen, a New York resident, attends acting school and works in a restaurant; Amanda, a second year nursing student, attends the University of Wyoming at Laramie; Michael, 11, attends sixth grade at Taos Charter School; Jonathan, 7, is a second-grader at Taos Charter School.

Besides Thanksgiving, Paul Mondragón immerses himself in career and activities which pique his interest. Like his smoke-jumper father, Mondragón works at the Forest Service. A number of years ago, he was in a Forest Service office when he spotted a photo of two men, both ready to jump out of a helicopter to fight a fire. He was amazed to learn that one of them was his father and felt a huge sense of pride at his dad's bravery.

The younger Mondragón serves as Battalion Chief, providing oversight to the fire organization at the Questa Ranger District. Mondragón began seasonal employment with the agency at age 18, in 1987. For six seasons, he worked with the Palomar Hot Shots on Ramona Helitack at the Cleveland National Forest in Southern California.

"These are initial-attack firefighters who respond to wildfires in helicopters. It's a pretty awesome experience. I was there for three years before applying for a job that would get me back to the Carson. I loved Southern California, but I missed the four seasons, the mountains and my family," Mondragón said. "I wanted to be where I enjoyed the outdoors. I love my job, but beyond that, this is where I grew up. This is my back yard. The forest I have a chance to protect and care for is the same forest I fished and hunted as a kid. I have a very personal interest in the work I do."

In 1995, Paul became a member of the Southwest Fire Fighters for the Carson National Forest. He moved up to squad boss and then crew boss and now Battalion Chief. Before the program ended in 2011, Mondragón's duties included helping to train and mobilize the firefighters, each part of a 20-person crew.

On a personal level, Paul Mondragón likes bow hunting and fishing. He also enjoys woodworking - making beds, doors, tables and cedar crosses. He comes by his craft honestly, as he watched his dad make amazing furniture. Lipio Mondragón built the family home, and unlike his son, also carves and makes cabinets.

Thanksgiving turkey chef Paul Mondragón concluded the interview by sharing that for which he is thankful: "First, I appreciate my amazing family. I'm lucky that we get together pretty often; we need no excuse to do so. With all that's going on, we're fortunate to be able to gather and give thanks. I'd like to wish a happy Thanksgiving to all."

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