After a lifetime of putting up with what I dish out (in more ways than one), my husband is expanding our meal horizons by taking a local chef’s cooking class. Coming here made cooking much more interesting because of the Food Co-op and Farmers’ Market, and Washington growers who provide fresh and local in abundance.
My mother was a 50’s career woman, really good at what she did which was social work, and seemingly indifferent to cooking. Looking back, maybe she was just realistic about the challenge of “doing it all.” I know a treat dinner, or maybe the busy-night-fall-back-alternative, involved hamburgers at the local A&W (featuring inexplicably but memorably, a caged lion in the parking lot).
I married knowing how to make tuna casserole (heavy on the potato chips), and cooking for young children became a steady rotation of the easy and the easier. Only when the sons grew up and became more eager eaters did I pay any attention beyond nutrition.
Books held the key once I learned to use them to suggest alternatives and encourage. The cookbooks I like best help find the place to start in, and along the way they teach about life. I first encountered one-pointed concentration in “Laurel’s Kitchen,” and still think of slowing down dishwashing to enjoy hot and sudsy water. The bindings of the Moosewood cookbooks cracked and fell apart long ago as I explored new grains and once (only once) made an enchanted broccoli forest with a six-year old. Birthday cake at our house is still yogurt-oatmeal cake (perhaps that is why we are rarely together for birthdays).
Mollie Katzen (most lovable for me because she cooks and draws) moved on with “Vegetable Heaven,” and I saw the light. I love vegetables – and not just as side decorations or afterthoughts. Making vegetables the main event was a proclivity filled with uncertainty until I encountered “Vegetable Heaven.”
Katzen suggests small portions of intriguingly prepared vegetables, a variety of grains, a nightly potluck on a plate. Several tastes, several colors, squash with apples and onions baked inside, next to something red – cranberry relish or beets – a salad of something crunchy.
There is no doubt that when one is faced with sink full of a growing pile of peelings and bits and ends of parsnips or carrots or celeriac, vegetables seem like a lot of work. That’s where one-pointed concentration shows its strength. Focus, pay attention. Alternately, listen to NPR and be grateful for cooking dinner with electricity and water and no disaster.
When I took my current favorite, the hefty Deborah Madison (1400 of her favorite recipes) from the bookshelf last night – full of sticky notes, a left-behind silver butter knife marking vegetables for Thanksgiving – I noticed those signs of much pleasure in cooking. My new, my only, daughter-in-law introduced me to Debbie, as she calls her, but the daughter-in-law is a much better cook than I, and on more familiar terms with this expert.
And you are wondering about that salsify – how it was part of a more artfully lived life? I boiled them with lemon and sautéed with shallots a la Deborah – but found the salsify most delicious cut up and tossed into a salad the next night. My memories of peeling those brown sticks had faded, and it surprised me to encounter their solid flavor with chilly salad greens and frilly cabbage.