Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Now We're Cooking...

Since being home and looking for full-time work -- a project, by the way, that is just about to hit the six-month mark, which has me on the outer edges of either absolute panic or absolute dread -- I have become chief chef of the household.

Eileen cooks well -- very well, in fact -- but her schedule now puts her home late in the afternoon, whereas I am home for the major portion of each day.

So I have taken over KP duty. And I'm okay with that.

When my mother, an RN, went back to work nights (I was in fourth or fifth grade), after her shifts were over, she bundle us off to school and sleep during the day. When we arrived home, there were chores to be done that she couldn't do, owing to her sleep cycles. So she taught her sons -- all three of them -- the finer arts of cooking, laundry, vacuuming, bed-making (hospital corners!), and other household skills.

They have all held me in good stead.

Truth be told, cooking was not Mom's strong suit. She was very much into culinary convenience, and the shortest distance between an empty table and a full belly often meant a trip through leftover-land. 

When the Crock Pot entered our lives, Mom was in heaven. She could assemble a meal, set it to bubble, go to bed, arise late in the afternoon, and have a hot dinner ready for when Dad got home.

Trouble is, she fell into ruts.

The Crock Pot came with a recipe booklet, and one of the dishes was some kind of bean and ground-beef concoction that was supposed to have a hint of BBQ flavoring to it, thanks to a dash of Liquid Smoke. Recipes for my mother, however, were best-case scenarios, and in a pinch, she found it perfectly acceptable to substitute. Especially if the substitution meant she could clear a leftover from the refrigerator.

So sometimes the ground-beef was supplanted by remnants of a pork loin that we'd had a few days prior.

Or some chicken, shredded off the bone.

All of which were fine variations.

Until they got out of hand. Occasionally, we'd find resurrected spaghetti in the pot, swirling in Liquid Smoke. Sometimes it was veal. Or Scrapple in there.

Also in her vein of recipe-as-suggestion-only mode, she stopped measuring seasonings like salt and pepper. And Liquid Smoke. I guess she thought that the more Smoke, the less likely were were to notice that we were really eating the Lo-Mein that we hadn't finished the weekend prior.

Gradually, we began to dread this dish. Upon coming home from school and finding it burbling in the pot begat sighs of resignation. And then eventually out-and-out protests.

I think the end of this dish in our weekly rotations came when we re-christenened it from "BBQ Burger -n- Beans" (or whatever its original title was) to "Bean Crud" a name that sticks with it to this day, even though we haven't had it in years.

In all fairness, though, my mother was magic with a pie. Using a "recipe" that was never written down (I suspect it was her mother's), she could weave fruit and dough into the most delicious pies imaginable. Apple. Peach. Strawberry. And my favorite in summer: Rhubarb.

But entrees? Not so much.

So I think to protect himself from biweekly servings of Bean Crud on the menu, Dad started cooking.

And interestingly enough, he was darned good at it.

So at his elbow, I learned a lot about seasoning and braising and savory flavors. Sunday afternoons, with Mom asleep upstairs, was our time to cook together.

The adventure, however, wasn't without its challenges. He got the notion one weekend for us to make homemade soft pretzels. We worked on the dough for hours, kneading and yeasting and dusting with flour. And I don't remember exactly what the problem was (I suspect some issue with the rising process), but when we were finished, we had exactly two pretzels to show for our labors.

He ate his. I ate mine. End of cooking session.

One other of his culinary pursuits was Pepperpot Soup, which his mother used to make. The recipe for this Philadelphia staple was a long and complicated series of steps involving tripe and little balls of dough, and by the time he finished making it, he had already declared the effort to be futile, not as good as his mother's."Maybe it's the water," he suspected. "Needs to come from those City reservoirs."

Christmas meant Springerles, a complicated and time-consuming German cookie that his grandmother used to make. I've inherited his love of these -- and the special molds necessary to create little images on their puffy surfaces. Their creation has been made a little easier thanks to an industrial mixer we purchased a few years back, but they still require a lot of attention and can go wrong at any number of points along the way.

But when they're right, oh, they are delicious. Springerles remain one of our most treasured holiday traditions.

So I'll be cooking tonight. I'm thinking Fettuccine Alfredo with grilled chicken. Maybe a small salad to go with. And a simple but sweet dessert. Later in the week, I'm looking at chili, especially as the weather turns damp and cold in these early days of fall.

Anything but Bean Crud!

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