Thursday, August 28, 2008

Culinary (Mis)Adventures

There is no doubt that food and flavors play a huge part of our lives. Memories of mom standing in front of the stove, churning out food for the family are etched in our minds and imprinted upon our psyche. And it is easy to see that this experience can easily lead us to either absolutely love or merely just tolerate food.

My own memory conjures up the acrid smell of canned spinach, heartily doused with distilled white vinegar, boiling away on the stove. It subsequently took me several years to be able to subdue the automatic gag reflex from that particular culinary memory. Coincidentally, it also took several years for me to realize that I do in fact love spinach. Raw spinach. Preferably paired with some red onion, sliced Crimini mushrooms, a few pieces of crisp bacon and dressed with a warm bacon vinaigrette.

Likewise, it has taken me half my adult life to learn to truly appreciate mushrooms. But, given that my entire childhood experience with the fungus came in the canned form, you must forgive my reticence for embracing the ‘shrooms. Nowadays? Give me some lovely Criminis on a fresh salad or lovingly sautéed in a bit of good olive oil and butter, and I am in heaven. Even better yet, sauté some morels when they are in season, and you will understand my new found joy.

We did not have a lot of money growing up, so we had to make do with what we had. My parents were either very fond of beef heart or it was dirt cheap, because it was a common dish in my house. My parents would try to pass it off as steak, but I always knew. How could I not know? What can I say about beef heart? It is a strongly flavored meat, tasting more of beef than even the most pungent aged piece of steak. Beef heart is also incredibly tough. No surprise there, given just how hard the heart must work to keep the creature alive long enough to reach the slaughter house.

Oh, and then there is the aromatic dish of liver and onions. I know of no other dish that is more likely to chase vermin and loved ones out of the house than that one. One of the first things I told my husband 25 years ago was that I would never make him liver and onions. If he wanted the dish, he’d have to go elsewhere for it because he would never have it at home.

I do know of one dish that might give liver a run for its money, though. Occasionally, we’d camp with a large family who were known for one dish in particular. Boiled beef tongue. Early in the morning the father would start the fire while the mother prepped the tongue and cut the vegetables. The tripod would be set up, with a large kettle of water hanging over the fire. The tongue and the various veggies would then be tossed in and the fire would be tended throughout the day, as the tongue needed that long just to become palatable. That particular shade of grey is forever etched in my mind and not in a good way. Perhaps it was good, but the color combined with the smell of the cooking dish was more than enough to turn me away from enjoying the experience.

Looking back now, I realize that my mother seemed to have been oblivious to the fact that vegetables came in any other form than canned. We only had fresh corn on the cob when it was given to us or we children were directed to snatch some field corn from some unsuspecting farmer’s field. Potatoes, iceberg lettuce, carrots, celery, cucumbers and onions are the only vegetables I can recall us having had fresh back then. Though it certainly could be that more simply wasn’t available in the grocery stores thirty or forty years ago.

Likewise, the only fresh fruits I can recall from my childhood were bananas, grapes, oranges and grapefruit. Lemon juice came in a bottle, while peaches, pears and pineapple resided in cans.
There is also the matter of spices and herbs. Never did my mother’s kitchen cabinet contain more than iodized table salt, ground black pepper, ground cinnamon, garlic salt, onion salt, ground nutmeg, oregano and whole cloves, which were only used to stud a whole ham. Today, my kitchen contains no fewer than sixty different herbs and spices. In addition, I grow several herbs and harvest them for use in making my own Herbes de Provence blend.

As a child, eating out was a rare treat. I could count on one hand the number of times a year we did go out to eat. But even then, the ‘treat’ was to eat industrialized cafeteria food that was worthy of any hospital. To this day, green Jell-O has a special place in my heart.

Now that I have finally grown up, I have come to appreciate food in a way I never could have imagined as a child. Now I will hunt out new vegetables to try. Now I watch hours of cooking shows, hoping to learn new techniques and recipes. Now I read food blogs and learn how other home cooks approach the matter of food. Now I will search diligently in books and on line for any way to put a new spin on an old favorite. I can also tell you that I am the proud owner of sixty-three cookbooks, including two that I have written. In addition, I have two books on culinary adventures written by Anthony Bourdain.

I will admit that the journey to culinary awareness is not always easy. For instance, I recently purchased broccolini for my family: we hated it. Despite assertions that it has a milder taste than traditional broccoli, we found the opposite to be true. And while I liked the roasted Brussels sprouts I made, my family begged me to not ever make them again.

There have also been times when I have wanted to try a new recipe, even going so far as to purchase all the necessary ingredients, only to chicken out and return to the familiar. It can often be a leap of faith to mess with what already works.

Reality also jumps up and plays havoc with our culinary experience. Learning that chicken was causing most of my asthma attacks has greatly changed my eating habits. It’s no longer a matter of simply ordering whatever sounds good on the menu or blithely picking out a packaged product at the grocery store. I have learned that I must ask questions and demand answers when eating out. And given that I absolutely adore Asian foods, the language barrier can present a bit of a problem. I strain to read the fine print on packages at the grocery store since I really don’t want to go to trifocals just yet. But I somehow manage, and I am learning that there is indeed life beyond chicken. Who knew?

At about the same time, my college-age daughter began to develop an aversion to processed foods, resulting in many upset stomachs. Thus, between my allergy and her aversion, very little in the way of processed foods now finds its way into our home. I make my own stocks or buy the better quality boxed stocks. I use herbs and spices rather than seasoning packets. We make macaroni and cheese from scratch rather than from a box. Sauces are often assembled rather than poured out of a can or jar. Salad dressings are usually made from scratch and lemon and lime juices come in round containers that must be squeezed and that can be zested rather than the top unscrewed. I use kosher salt or sea salt for cooking and table salt is reserved just for the table. Semi-Homemade Cooking with Sandra Lee is regarded as the last true sitcom on television rather than a real cooking show.

Then, there are the precious times like last night. That morning I seared a beef rump roast in olive oil and seasoned with kosher salt and black pepper before placing in a slow cooker. A bit of chopped Vidalia onion and garlic cloves were added along with homemade turkey consommé. The beef happily simmered away for several hours before I removed the roast to a plate and the consommé to a saucier. The consommé reduced over high heat while I pulled the beef apart by hand. Once the consommé had reduced by 2/3, I added catsup, Worcestershire sauce, red wine vinegar, white wine, hot sauce, brown sugar and ground cayenne pepper. By a happy coincidence, the sauce was finished cooking by the time I had finished burning my hands, er pulling the beef. Everything then went back into the slow cooker for another couple of hours. My daughter told me that this was one of the best things she had ever eaten. She said it was so good that the beef could be eaten as is, without the bun. We have subsequently been put on notice that she has laid claim to the remaining beef. Believe me when I tell you that it is best to just walk away at this point. No point in risking one’s life here.

And still the desire and the need to improve and broaden our culinary horizons beckon and we keep reaching. There are always new foods, new techniques, new recipes to try. What will be our new favorite food?

In the end, food is the great unifier in life. It is what brings us all together and it transcends language barriers, political and sociological differences.


Rosie Hawthorne said...

That was a lovely post.
Thank you for sharing.

Marilyn said...

And thank you for being my sounding board. It is most appreciated, dear.

xmaskatie said...

I really enjoyed your post, it made me think about growing up and the foods my mom cooked; those I loved and the ones I hated. Thanks.