Sunday, September 13, 2009

- In my Mother’s Kitchen: A recipe is just a suggestion

My Mom was generous with her kitchen ... she actually let my brother and me learn to cook by getting our hands dirty. We learned the basics early on by making chocolate chip cookies, but the pièce de résistance was my first solo effort at making dinner for the whole family when I was 11 (in 1967). Boeuf Bourguignon a la Julia Child, culled from Mastering the Art of French Cooking, was the chosen dish. No wonder … we loved watching the French Chef together on Channel 13 (which never needed a laugh track to get us going).

If you have Julia Child’s epic tome, please turn to page 315. If not, you can link to a reasonable facsimile of the recipe. Knowing my Mom, this is probably close to what she said as I learned how (not) to follow a recipe:
  • 6 ounces of bacon sounds like a lot … we’ll use 4 slices and that will be plenty
  • Never mind that part about simmering the bacon rind, we’ll skip that
  • We’ll use chuck rather than lean beef … it’s got much more flavor
  • Rather than dry the beef, we’ll just salt it and coat it with flour, that will save a step later
  • You won’t need a whole onion, and why don’t you cut the carrots into sticks
  • 3 cups of wine?! We’ll cut that in half … burgundy will do
  • And here are the Herb Ox bullion cubes, dissolve them in 2 cups of boiling water
  • Tomato paste yes, garlic no … you know how I feel about garlic and we’ll never miss it
  • Thyme, check … bay leaf, check … aren’t you glad we skipped the bacon rind step?
  • 18-24 small white onions? Not necessary, we already have enough onion in there
  • Let’s put the mushrooms in at the end, so they won’t get soggy
  • Parsley? I just don’t think that’s necessary if it’s just for decoration

Followed as directed, what we ended up with was my Mom’s excellent beef stew with a red wine kicker. I learned my lesson well, and have rarely followed a recipe to the letter ever since.

For the next 41 years my Mom and I shared our love of cooking and our recipes. As a young newlywed I would call her at dinnertime for directions. When we went up to Shelter Island, I watched her cook, although there were certain recipes I never mastered, chief among them her oatmeal cookies and her strawberry jam, both of which relied on her intuition for their realization. As the Internet developed, we moved from phone calls to emails, the better to record our efforts.

Yesterday I went back to an old stand-by for leftover rotisserie chicken, a recipe Mom sent back in 2001. In her email, she started with “Hope Melissa is fine – let us know when she has completely recovered (Meliss had pneumonia that summer) … I tried a new recipe tonight and thought you might like it.” After detailing the recipe ingredients she continued, “Actually, I forgot to buy a red pepper so I did without … maybe you could add good olives [instead]. And I served it on arugula. Of course, I never follow recipes exactly, but you get the idea.”

Of course I did.

Chicken Orzo Salad

Leftover rotisserie chicken, cut into bite-sized chunks
Juice of one lemon
Olive oil in equal measure
1 tsp. dried thyme (I’ve never used fresh, but it would be great)
1 garlic clove, minced (or pressed, which is what I usually do)
½ tsp. kosher salt
2 cups of cooked orzo
4 oz. feta cheese (please don’t get pre-crumbled, it’s so dry)
8 oz. fresh mushrooms, sautéed in 1 Tbs. butter
Fresh dill (my contribution, strictly optional)

While the pasta and mushrooms are cooking, dice the chicken and place in a serving bowl. Whisk the lemon, olive oil, thyme, garlic, and salt for dressing the salad. When the mushrooms have sweated out, add them to the chicken. Drain the pasta, and add to the serving bowl. Stir in half the dressing, and taste before adding more (or not). Crumble feta over the top and serve.

This can be served plain or on greens … my favorite accompaniment is fresh arugula.

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