Today my co-worker asked me how I became such a great cook. He has been privy to taste some of my experiments from the kitchen. He says they were always really awesome and he wants me to share my recipes, unfortunately I usually bastardize recipes.
My mother was not at all a great cook. My brother said she had only 5 actual meals she made. Pork Chops, Fried Chicken, Crab Salad, Swiss Steaks, and Pizza. Anything else was a variation of these. Oh and let us not forget what my ex-husband dubbed, Mutt soup. Mutt Soup is, one large can tomato soup, one large can of vegetable beef soup, and one large can of vegetable soup. Add three packets of ramen, any flavor all crushed up and cook until ramen is soft. As a kid this was a favorite meal. As I said, my mother is not a great cook.
Her idea of crab salad was to take imitation crab meat broken up and spread atop iceberg lettuce, with some radishes sliced up. Oh do not forget the Ranch dressing, which I had no idea what it was called. For years I knew it as Uncle Dan’s Dressing, some kind of packet she made it up from. Pizza was from a box. She took this box of Shake and Bake pizza mix, I think. Made up the dough and covered it with Ragu. She topped it with black olives, strips of cooked bacon and cheddar cheese. She would cook it in an electric skillet. In fact almost everything was cooked in that damn skillet. Almost all dinners included salad, some veggies (frozen: peas, corn, broccoli, cauliflower with carrots) cottage cheese and a potato. My mother was not a rice person. Pasta was not really allowed because my dad hated spaghetti. Well actually he hated her spaghetti, to be nice he just told her he didn’t like spaghetti at all. My mother would make us spaghetti for lunches during school breaks. It consisted of ramen noodles, any flavor, cooked and drained and topped with Prego spaghetti sauce. We thought we were in heaven, until we tasted real spaghetti. We used to get the boxed Kraft Mac and Cheese with the can of velveeta type cheese sauce. Fruit salad consisted of fruit cocktail and coolwhip. I look back and think oh how disgusting and limited our menus were.
She did try. We always had dinner at the dining room table. When I met my ex-husband, his family ate in front of the TV with no table. They did have TV trays. I had never had Hamburger helper until I met him. So unfortunately, when I was on my own I used them, a lot. I could not wait to try Spaghettio’s and Ravioli, which as an adult I found repulsive.
I am ashamed to admit it, but similar to my mother my cooking lacked zest. The one thing I can salvage is that I cooked a huge Sunday dinner every Sunday. I would cook a turkey or a pot roast, maybe a ham or a roasted chicken. It would be a feast. I even baked my own homemade bread. And the left overs would become the basis for soup. Which is where my love for soup comes in.
So where did my skills come from? I like to think of it was my artistic license. So several years after my husband left me and I lost my job, I had to learn how to survive on almost no food budget and the food bank. I learned that meat is expensive, so is cheese. These are luxuries. I learned how to use dried beans and make a very tasty meal. I also learned how to get all the protein needed outside of meat sources. I was on my way to becoming a vegetarian.
I later dated a guy that was a vegetarian. He introduced me to soy products. Now I was making hamburger helper type things with fake meat. My son hated the fake meat. He liked tofu, just not pretending to be meat. I cut back on the fake meats but I was fully embellished into a veggie by then. I was still not a great cook. I burnt food often, and it tasted weird. One day my boyfriend informed me that my biggest problem in the kitchen was that I feared the spice rack. I only used salt, pepper, red pepper flakes, paprika, garlic powder and oregano. Seriously what the hell is Marjoram and when am I supposed to use it? So now the experimentation began.
Later on I joined a gym and eventually signed up for a personal trainer. In my training sessions I was advised to buy this book of calories. I did and found out the most unsettling thing ever. Fake meats are considered a high fat high caloric meat product. What the hell????? I would have been better off with a chicken breast. That was my first leap into food advocacy. Things that you think are good and health are not. Anything that is a substitute for real food is most likely bad for you. Margarine is a great example. It is worse for you than butter could have ever been.
I also had been exposed to cultural foods. My idea of chinese was to eat at this restaurant, the only chinese one in Chehalis, that had all of the food covered in sauce made with MSG. Yellow to gray colored food, unidentifiable as to what it may have been before it was suffocated out. Indian, Thai, Japanese, Vietnamese, even real Italian were all foods I had never experienced. I learned how to be a veggie without compromising my calories with fake meat and tofu that is unsustainable.
This was my catalyst. I came home determined to recreate many of the dishes that I had experienced. My first real success was hummus. Seriously just cook up garbanzo beans with fresh garlic and mash up, adding lemon and some tahini if you want. Oh and a drizzle of olive oil. This was my kids favorite for a couple of years. I tried to recreate this restaurant experiece for them. We would have the hummus warm with the thick soft pita bread, some feta and clamato olives. I would often add tabouli, which I made from a box. Remember I was still learning.
I learned to use yogurt for more than just breakfast and coconut milk was a godsend. My biggest triumph was eggplant parmesean. I sliced up the eggplant and cut each slice into quarters. I dunked them in whipped eggs and tossed them in bread crumbs. I found that putting these pieces onto an olive oil lined baking dish and baking them at 325 for about 25 minutes made them crisp on the outside and tender melt in your mouth inside. Do not forget you have to flip them all at some point. I cook them until the fork no longer has resistance in the middle of the eggplant pieces. I like to plate them atop a spoonful of marinara sauce and topped with shredded parmesan cheese. My neighbors loved it. I could announce one evening that I had a couple of eggplants and word would spread. Someone would offer up their home, another would provide a salad, someone else would bring bread. Someone would always bring a bottle of wine or two. We would all eat a meal together and it felt so much like a family.
I think the one thing you cannot learn is love. Being a great cook requires love. If you have no reason to make it special then it may as well come from a box. So remember even dinner alone requires love, you have to love yourself. I love to cook. I did not always. I used to hate it, would prefer a restaurant to dinner at home. I think it take not only love but recognition. To have people tell you that you are a great cook feels good and makes you want to expend energy on the process. My mother was not ever told she was a great cook, so she never put forth the love into her cooking. Not that she didn’t cook because she loved us, but she did not love to cook. Everyone can cook, and everyone can cook a tasty meal. Not everyone is going to want to cook or love to cook. So remember when someone makes you a meal, even if it is not the greatest, if they are excited to feed you, show appreciation, for one day they may bloom into a great chef.