e_moon60 (e_moon60) wrote,

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While we're on the subject of food...

...and I'm waiting for the Excedrin to kick this headache off the porch, I thought I'd talk about How I Cook.  It won't take long, because it's all pretty simple.    My mother cooked (of course--or we'd have been eating out of cans) and her friends cooked (some had maids who also cooked) so the concept of preparing food from scratch was familiar from early on.   I started cooking very early, on the kind of child's stove that isn't made anymore because somebody might get hurt...a little one-burner, one-tiny-pan-oven electric stove that got, you know, HOT.  But by then I knew stoves got HOT and was never burned by my little stove.   I could boil water in a little saucepan on top (yes, HOT) and make s'mores or bake a little pie in the oven--my mother gave me beautiful little pie pans with fluted margins--still have them.

Since I learned to read early, I was introduced to cookbooks as well.   My mother had several, including one from a Presbyterian church in Dallas where her aunt had been a soloist for a time.  In the margins of the older cookbooks were careful notes in beatiful penmanship, and slips of paper were tucked in with recipes from friends and relations.  I had a cookbook of my own, intended for children, with an impossibly pretty little girl in a ruffled apron, every curl perfect, as she made things I didn't want to eat, mostly.  And then there was the kitchen's working cookbook, a big fat tome explaining everything from how to arrange the table for breakfast, lunch, a company lunch, tea, a casual supper, a company supper...and so on.   It was called The Encyclopedia of Cooking.   At eight, I cooked my first real company dinner (roast, potatoes, green beans) and had started making things out of the "big book."   I didn't want to be a cook (being a test pilot, a scientist, a horse breeder, etc, etc. all seemed more interesting) but I enjoyed messing about in the kitchen.  (Not, however, cleaning up the messy kitchen, which my mother insisted on.)  

Some of my experiments were successes (that first batch of cream puffs) and some were duds (substituting vegetable oil for melted shortening in the second batch of cream puffs...the addition of yet more allspice to the hamburger mix) and some reflected my own preferences to a ridiculous degree ("shrimp sandwiches" that were boiled shrimps on bread.  Just shrimps.  Just bread.  My mother ate them without complaint, but suggested that 'shrimp salad' might help hold the shrimps on the bread next time.)  But by the time I went to college, I could cook well enough to survive, with the aid of some prepared foods...I could cook meat, poultry, fish, potatoes, rice, pasta, make soups and stews, etc.  I thought ever female could, but learned (once away from the cluster of cooks I'd grown up with) that some people thought you made chicken soup by putting a chicken in water and boiling it.  Just chicken.  Just water.  Ick.  Some people didn't know cherries came with pits in them.  

One thing I learned from the ladies of my home town was flexibility.   Recipes were all very well, but what if you didn't have ingredients four and seven?  What if one component was too expensive?   How much could you stretch this recipe with that extender-stuff?   The women were always tinkering with recipes (and discussing such tinkering in front of me.

I didn't cook much in college, but once in the military and living in an apartment on my own...it was back to cooking, this time in my own kitchen.   With my own pots and pans.   My own cookbooks.  A tiny kitchen, with hardly any freezer space, which meant that cooking in large batches meant waste.   I learned to move in the tiny space and cook small--but I also had my own garden for the first time, a little space outside shared with the elderly couple who, like me, had a basement apartment.   In a climate different than the one where I grew up, I grew lettuce and parsley and tomatoes.  

I'm not sure where I was living when I picked up a copy of the then-new The Impoverished Student's Handbook of Cookery, Drinkery, and Housekeepery...but that book, so much less dictatorial than the typical cookbook of the era, turned off the sound of home-ec teachers, nutritionists, and "experts" and gave permission (encouragement even) to the adventurous experimental cook.   I can't find my copy (I do know it's old, discolored, and spotted with adventures during cooking)  but if you find one, or the reprinted version done by Reed College, get it.   In the cookery section, at some point, the author gives the basic recipe for a casserole: a meat something, a starch something, a vegetable something.   I remember the lightbulb going off in my head.

That basic recipe works for a lot more than casseroles, and combined with the wisdom of cooks I knew in my childhood (onion, garlic, celery, carrot) and what I'd already learned about herbs and spices....it meant no two one-pot meals ever had to taste the same (though there are two dishes I won't mess with:  chili and my mother's apple pie.)   I started calling my stuff "concoctions" and (as friends warned me would happen if I didn't write things down)  I would forget exactly what I did last time, this time.   But unless you're a restaurant promising patrons the same thing week after week...so what?   Of course I also used recipes...and then tinkered with them...and sometimes came back to the basic one.

I already knew (from my step-grandmother's  recipe that included ham and chicken in a cream sauce, and my mother's ham-and-beef pie--and of course vegetable soup) that adding more in a given category added more flavors...so the basic meat/starch/vegetable wasn't just a threesome...it was "strings, woodwinds, brass, tympani" of an orchestra, with an infinite variety within each section, from a little ensemble to covering the stage with musicians.  I'm still learning, from better cooks than I am...but the basics of one-pot cooking haven't changed, just the enhancements.

Why one-pot?   Because, much of the time, I don't have time for multi-pot meals and (being the lazy writer I am) I don't want to wash more pots than I have to.   So I have few recipes (real recipes, with things measured out) to share...for stock, yes, but then it's the same (I found out afterwards) as nearly all the stock recipes you find elsewhere.  I learned it from my mother.  Otherwise, with soups and stews and other one-pot things...it's tinkering, playing, composing, judging by nose (mostly) whether this (whatever) would be an interesting partner to that (whatever.)    Does it need a tad more rosemary or what would it be like with a dab of mustard?   Cilantro or parsley or both?  (sniff, sniff...)   Maybe a gluggle of Worchestershire sauce?  Wine?  Steak sauce?  (sniff, sniff...)   Some ideas wear out...some new ideas come in...eventually they connect in interesting ways (or not.)  I use short-cuts when I feel like it (the canned mushrooms in the stew, the purchased stuffing mix.) 

And that's why I'm not a foodie or a serious cook, even though I sometimes watch cooking shows on PBS and am still learning (I actually did the correct onion-dicing method yesterday, and lo--it works!)  I'm a dabbler.  I like to think I'm proof that a dabbler can produce edible, even delicious, food on a regular basis.

Tags: cooking
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