Thursday, July 24, 2008

Cooking is a Gas!

Time over the stove is great – now
if I just didn’t have to clean up my mess!
by Charlie Leck

A reader wrote to ask where my love for cooking came from and when it began.

I loved to watch my mother cook. She was so intense about it. There was no pantry full of pasta sauces by Paul Newman’s famous company, with 40 different flavor combinations from which to choose. No, a great pasta sauce was an all-day process, done with love and great care. She began her peeling and chopping early in the morning. The herbs and spices were as fresh as possible. The onions and mushrooms were picked out carefully in the produce section of our local grocery store.

I can hear my brothers chuckling as they read that line. There was no local grocery store. We lived in such a little, hick town, in the farmlands of central New Jersey, that there were few resources for the creative cook. We had a fine, talented and creative butcher, but groceries and produce were another matter. The A&P in Netcong was nearly 10 miles away – a pretty long trip in those days.

How I enjoyed, as a little kid, going on those shopping trips with her. When she shopped for a leg of lamb, it had to be the left hind leg, of course, because “lambs always lie down on their right sides” my mother would tell the astounded butcher. These days, I live with lambs all around me, baaing early in the morning like an invading army. I take notice of how they rest. With apologies to my mother, there’s no consistency – left side – right side.

She knew the produce manager in the big supermarket personally. She often asked for some of the produce that may have been removed from the shelves that morning because it was “too” ripe. Most produce was never ripe enough for her. Peaches, tomatoes, avocados, artichokes – the better stuff was probably removed from the shelves that morning and was only waiting for someone like my mother to ask for it.

By afternoon, our home-business – house-general store-luncheonette-soda fountain – was filled with the incredible aromas of my mother’s pasta sauce that was cooking gently and slowly on a low flame in our kitchen. Fresh, totally home-made bread would be baking in the oven.

Businessmen arriving home from their day’s work in the city, miles away, would stop in for the afternoon paper (yup, we had them in those days) or a quart of milk (in a bottle with real cream floating on top) and they’d catch a whiff of the simmering sauce and the baking dough!“Oh, my,” they’d say with a broad smile, “any room at the table for a guest tonight?”

How often I think of my mother’s skills in the kitchen? Is it a hyperbolic memory of every child? Was mother really not that great a cook at all?

I can only say I’ve never had a Yankee Pot Roast again, since the last one mother prepared for us that could come close to hers. I can say the same of those left legs of lamb; and the lapin allemande; the baked ham with that black, black, thick gravy; the fried chicken that drove us all wild with anticipation; the borscht soup served with thick, heavily crusted slices of home-made white bread; the roasted duck served with stuffed, baked apples; the pot pies with perfectly browned, bosomy crust; and the red, rare, thick slices of prime rib and mashed potatoes and the most delectable gravy you ever tasted. There were many other meals that I didn’t care for so much, but which Father loved with ecstasy – the kidney pies, the big, white, milky looking hunks of fresh, baked cod with boiled red potatoes, and also the liver and onions. I keep searching for the perfect split pea soup, like Mother’s, but I simply can’t find it. It was so thick one’s spoon would stand up in it. It had flavors that left you floating in delight. How she did it, I’ll never figure out. Her lentil soup and all her various stews were just as good.

She was fully Bohemian. Her mother and father and all her grandparents were Bohunks. Her cooking leaned toward the cuisine that is so identified with that part of the world. For instance, she made the best kolache I’ve ever eaten – bar none – better even than those I’ve tried in the Czech communities around Minnesota. Unlike the ones out here, my mother’s were in a triangle shape and flipped closed. The crust was lighter and flakier, somewhat like a croissant from Paris, than the crust I’ve encountered here.

My father was thoroughly German and that fact motivated my mother to adventure in that direction for some of her recipes as well. Her hassenpfeffer (deutsches kaninchen) was outstanding.

The ethnic influence remains with me now. Today I’m preparing a Grand Borscht – thoroughly Russian, but adopted with pleasure by both the German and Slavic parts of the world. It’s cooking right now, boiling slowly on the stove-top and it smells the way heaven must smell.

“A little too much vinegar,” my wife said, when she tasted the borscht. Tastes vary! To me, the sour flavor was pungent, but just about perfect.

Fully retired now, I turned to cooking because my wife works awfully hard all day long and deserves to just be able to crash when she returns home. She says, stroking my ego, that the food in her home is better than that of any restaurant in the region. High praise! She’s a sweetheart and loves me, however, so I don’t take it completely literally.

My problem is that I can’t stand the pressure of doing a dinner party. Cooking for more than two and getting several courses all to finish on time, and getting them to the table at the appropriate time, is too much for me. Cooking for two is something else completely and I love it.

I have an advantage over my mother. She didn’t have the resources so near her that I have. One of our kids is teaching me about Asian supermarkets and the extraordinary new flavors that are available there. Mix and match some of them with plain old American cooking and you can come up with an extraordinary essence. I grilled some bratwurst the other night that I had rubbed with Japanese miso paste. Oh my, the diners who bit into them couldn’t believe how incredible they tasted. Miso paste works great on barbequed spare ribs, too. I use miso paste and Japanese fermented black beans in lots of my cooking now. I sautéed some uncooked, large shrimp with those beans a few weeks ago and it was sensational. Bak Choy, which has become a regular feature in dining at our house now, was in the pan with the shrimp, along with some minced garlic. Wow! It was great! Hoisin sauce creeps into lots of my cooking as well. Now I’m venturing south of the border and I’m trying out South American and Mexican flavors and dining ideas. Mix and match and you can create some wonderfully unique and interesting meals. Soon I’m going to venture into some of the Mexican markets that are springing up all over town.

Last night I did short ribs, using an extraordinarily simple recipe from Mark Bittman. The key to it, and Bittman was correct about this, is in the browning. Brown them properly and the rest is easy. Another successful idea is the way Bittman skewers lamb and fresh, whole figs on rosemary stems and grills them outside [watch this very short video]. I tried this last week and it was a big hit.

Bittman has really influenced me. His scheme is to cook wonderful meals with a minimum amount of work. His video podcasts are wonderful and so is his cookbook, How to Cook Everything.Check out Bittman’s blog. I go to it regularly.

I also go to the dining section of the New York Times at least once a week and review everything that has been published that week and watch nearly all the videos. Today there is a wonderful story about how so many people are almost cultishly devoted to the in-season tomato. These beauties will be showing up at market stands and farmers’ markets almost any day now and I can’t wait. The great tomato, in season, is nature’s most perfect and wonderful food as far as I am concerned. A friend of ours has a farm near here, called Two Pony Farm, where she produces the most wonderful organic, heirloom tomatoes – better, I tell you, than steak.

Today’s edition of the Times also has a story about the return of the lost Jersey tomato. It is very worth reading. The story has a photograph of an enormous tomato sandwich. Do one of those correctly and it is heavenly eating.

Lynne Rossetto Kasper’s Splendid Table web site and blog on National Public Radio is extraordinary. I check this one out at least once a week, too, and I’m on their email list for notification about special recipes.

My copy of THE 150 HEALTHIEST FOODS ON EARTH arrived and I’ve torn through it. I read nearly 100 pages of it this morning, stumbling over a lot of the scientific terminology (methylhydroxychalcone polymer), and I’m finding it a very valuable book. You can find out plenty about it on its author’s, Jonny Bowden’s, web site. I bought the book on the American Book Exchange (ABE), where I buy most of my books, and got it (including shipping) for under $15 (brand new). I can’t tell you how delighted I was to see coffee on the list and to learn there are substantial benefits in drinking a few cups each day. I just paused to have a sip from my pleasant mug of Sumatra blend. If I’m disappointed with the book, it has to do with my own unreasonable expectations. I’d been led to believe that Bowden was going to provide tips on how to use some of these herbs, spices, vegetables and foods. He rarely does that, but one more step into a few cookbooks won’t be that difficult for me. I’ve set a goal to try to use most of these foods in my daily cooking and in our snacking. For instance, I’ve learned that pumpkins seeds are actually very good for you, providing beta-sitosteral for lowering cholesterol and some help with prostate problems as well (perhaps reducing the number of trips to the bathroom at night).
“Pumpkin seeds are a rich source of minerals, especially magnesium, potassium, and phosphorus. Interestingly, the roasted kind have far more protein, at least according to the USDA food database. (They also have a lot more calories.) The roasted kind also have way more magnesium, phosphorus, and potassium, as well as more zinc, fiber, and cancer-fighting selenium. Both have a nice amount of manganese, an important trace mineral that’s essential for growth, reproduction, wound healing, peak brain function, and the proper metabolism of sugars, insulin, and cholesterol. Ultimately, both the raw (dried) and the roasted are nutrient dense.”
That's just to give you a little taste of the book. Below are a list of some of the web pages I regularly look at when searching for a recipe or trying to find out about some food.

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