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When two families become one, over the dinner table

Addie Broyles
EJ and Emma help their mom, Beverly, with support from 8-year-old Atzir. [CARLOS GARCIA/AMERICAN-STATESMAN]

It’s a lot easier to make a pan full of enchiladas than it is to blend a family, but Beverly Acosta makes both look easy.

The 32-year-old divorced mother of two remarried three years ago. Her sweetheart, Mario, already had two boys.

“I literally prayed that I would meet a man that A) would let me cook whatever I wanted and would eat it without complaining and B) would be adventurous,” she says.

“I prayed for the same thing, for someone who could cook and love my kids the same way I love them,” he says.

Five years later, their lives revolve around three things: church, family and food. She takes cooking — and teaching their four kids how to cook — seriously. Mario gave her a set of Cutco knives for Mother’s Day; he always washes the dishes; and when they travel, the first thing they research is where they are going to eat. And when the custody schedules line up for all four kids to be at home, they never miss a meal around the table.

Everyone plays a part in the dinnertime routine. Mario's kids, Leo, 11, and Emma, 8, chop vegetables. Beverly's 8-year-old Atzir helps set the table, and her 11-year-old, EJ, is her right-hand helper.

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“We’re at the point that when we go out to eat, EJ will ask me to pick out a new dish for him to try, and now he helps me figure out what to cook at home,” she says.

On this night not long after the end of the school year, the kids gather around the kitchen island to shred the rotisserie chicken that Beverly picked up at H-E-B. They are making enchiladas verdes con pollo and one of Beverly's specialties: cilantro and lime quinoa.

When three became six

Blending the family hasn’t come without some hurdles.

Beverly’s kids were eager for her to meet someone. “EJ would ask me, ‘When are you going to go get a boyfriend?’ I’d tell him, ‘Well, Walmart doesn’t have them on sale this week,'” she says.

After she and Mario started dating, she didn’t introduce him to her kids until they’d been together for six months. “And now people tell us that, at least by their behavior, you can’t tell who belongs to whom.”

One of the first times that Mario’s eyes really sparkled was when she cooked a meal and “went overboard,” Beverly says. “I made a chicken breast stuffed with ricotta and a lot of spices and spinach and wrapped it in bacon and then made spaghetti sauce with spaghetti noodles.”

Mario, who is an estimator for a painting company, grew up in Mexico eating anything he could catch, including snakes, squirrels and rabbits. His kids have a very different life in America, but just because they have access to things he didn’t doesn’t mean he’s going to go easy on them.

Consistency is how he says he built trust with his own kids and his stepkids. That means showing up for them when they need him, from school functions to those quieter parenting moments at home, but also disciplining and setting boundaries.

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The kids are responsible for cleaning their rooms and doing their own laundry. Mario does his own laundry, too, and he’s in charge of the dishes.

He knows that children thrive with structure, but he and Beverly build in plenty of fun, too, with trips around the state to visit family and frequent pool parties with friends and neighbors. (Disclosure: My kids and Acosta’s kids went to the same elementary school, which is how I met them initially.)

Mario says that when he first became a single dad, food was one of the areas where he struggled.

“They ate a lot of macaroni and cheese, grilled cheese, chicken nuggets. I would find simple stuff to cook, but I hated giving them that stuff,” he says. “When I was single, I asked my mom, ‘How do you make refried beans?’ I was by myself, and it was one of the things that’s simple and the boys love, so we’d have bean and cheese tacos, and beans and rice.”

When Mario and Beverly married, she slowly started to introduce new foods to Atzir and Leo, who were hesitant at first but started to warm up to the idea when they realized that this new relationship with food was a new layer of this new family.

Food has been one way to build trust with the kids and between their extended families. “On our first Thanksgiving together, I cooked the whole dinner for his family, and now his brother likes to cook, so for the holidays, we cook together,” she says.

A big breakthrough earlier this year was with Mario’s ex-wife. Mario says their divorce included more court dates and lawyers than anyone wanted, but when his ex-mother-in-law died last year and he and Beverly reached out with condolences and offers of help, it softened the space between them.

Several years ago, Mario says he couldn’t have imagined being in a place where they could all share a meal, but earlier this summer, after Leo’s fifth-grade graduation, Mario’s ex-wife and her boyfriend joined the blended Acosta family for dinner at a restaurant. “That was the first time we’d all been together like that,” Beverly says. “It was really special.”

The house rules

Mario might be the disciplinarian, but Beverly has her own rules.

“We are not going to a Chinese restaurant and ordering chicken nuggets,” she says. “And if I make something different here at home, they have to try it. For the most part, we don’t really struggle with it. They might stare at it for a bit, but then they’ll try it.”

She is a fourth-generation Austinite whose family has lived in South Austin since the 1910s, and she grew up watching her grandmothers take pride in what they could accomplish in the kitchen. “They’ve always cooked for their families, and I knew I wanted to cook for mine.”

(As a South Austin native, she’s already starting to mourn the H-E-B at South Congress and Oltorf, which will be redeveloped in the next few years. Long before she was an avid cook, she worked at the store when she was in high school.)

Her dad was also an early influence on her cooking. When she wasn’t much older than EJ, “my dad would call on the way home and say, ‘Can you brown the meat?’” she says. “I remember the first time he said that and I had no idea what he meant.”

Her grandmothers wouldn’t recognize some of the nouveau ingredients in Beverly’s kitchen, such as quinoa, but she also loves to use old-school products like the powdered Knorr Caldo de Pollo con Tomate, which she'll use to season said quinoa.

Mario, who is passionate about fitness, has inspired her to be even more health-conscious, but when she is thinking about what to cook, she’s also compensating for the budget and their schedules. She also factors in making enough to have leftovers so she doesn’t have to spend money on lunch at work, where she is an image technician for Travis County.

During the summer, she plans all three meals for at least a couple of days at a time, but during the school year, it’s usually just dinner that she’s planning.

Even though she doesn’t keep track of what she cooks, she rarely repeats dishes. As the kids’ interest in cooking grows, she’s thinking about starting a recipe collection or other way to pass down the details so they can refer to it once they live on their own.

For inspiration, she’ll often turn to “Jamie's Quick & Easy Food” on Hulu, but the majority of her adult culinary education came from “The Chew,” a daytime food show that went off the air in 2017.

She was a dedicated viewer who paid close attention when the hosts would share cooking tips, many of which she still uses today. “The hosts (Carla Hall, Clinton Kelly and Michael Symon) had a Facebook Live recently, and I was laughing like I was there and they were my friends, and I was a mess.”

Beverly says that the key to expanding her culinary skills now starts in restaurants, where she seeks out new dishes so that she can try to re-create them at home, but with a twist.

“It gives me a sense of accomplishment when I can come back and make it, but whether it’s from a restaurant or something I get passed down from my grandmothers or my dad, I still try to make it my own,” she says. “I tell the kids, it’s the technique I want you to learn.”

Making the dream work

For the outgoing Beverly, hosting friends and family for dinner was another non-negotiable when she met Mario. He’s more of an introvert, but he now looks forward to having people over.

“When we have company, they all come here,” he says, and if family with younger kids come, they’ll give them their bed and sleep on the couch. “I can’t wait until we have our big house so they can all crash.”

Buying a home is the family goal for the next year, but until then, they’ll continue to host romantic dinners and sleepover dinners and big holiday dinners in their South Austin apartment.

On this night in May, as the enchiladas finish cooking in the oven, the kids start to set the table and Mario opens a bottle of wine.

Before they can eat, however, Beverly has one more task to finish: She takes the food out on the patio to get a photo with nice lighting for Instagram. She is a millennial, after all.

With everyone seated at the oversize table, Mario asks EJ to lead the family in prayer, and then everyone digs into the enchiladas topped with the homemade green sauce and melted queso asadero.

Mario is quick to credit Beverly for her cooking, and she is eager to acknowledge his support, in and out of the kitchen. “He’s always giving me that extra confidence, like, ‘It’s not the end of the world if we eat late or if it doesn’t turn out,'” she says.

And, like most uncertainties in life, it usually turns out OK.

Tomatillo Salsa

Beverly Acosta loves to make her own enchilada sauce, including this salsa verde, which you can serve with anything from tortilla chips to chicken enchiladas. Simmer the tomatillos until they have lost their bright color. Beverly's tip: Store a bunch of cilantro in a jar of water on your countertop so it stays fresh all week.

2 pounds tomatillos

1 yellow onion, peeled and cut into large chunks

2 cloves garlic, chopped

1/2 to 1 serrano pepper (depending on spice preference)



Cumin, to taste

1 handful of chopped cilantro

Remove papery husk from the outside of the tomatillos and then wash them. Cut into halves or quarters. Place in pot with onion, garlic, serrano and spices. Cover with water. Bring to a boil and simmer until the tomatillos are tender and onions are translucent, about 20 minutes. Remove part of the serrano pepper if you are sensitive to heat. Drain most of the liquid, reserving a cup of the water to thin the sauce. Pour tomatillo mixture into a blender, and blend with cilantro. Season to taste. Serve with anything from tortilla chips to chicken enchiladas.

— Beverly Acosta

Cilantro Lime Quinoa

Acosta says that quinoa has practically replaced rice entirely in her kitchen. She loves it because it has a similar texture but has more fiber and nutrients, plus you can flavor it however you like. Her favorite is with cilantro and lime.

2 cups chicken broth

1 cup quinoa

Juice and zest of 1 lime

1/4 cup chopped cilantro

1 clove garlic, minced

1 pinch cumin

1 pinch salt

Bring broth to a boil. Add quinoa and lower heat to a simmer. Cover and cook until the quinoa is soft and the broth has evaporated, about 15 minutes. Fluff with a fork and stir in lime zest, about half of the juice from the lime, cilantro, garlic, cumin and salt. Serves 4 to 6.

— Beverly Acosta