Monday, July 20, 2009

Why it's all a matter of taste

While for the last year or so I've been mostly uninspired when it comes to cooking, subsisting mainly on pasta, cheese, and hunks of baguette while in France, ever since I returned home I've been cooking up a storm. It's amazing what being stuck in the suburbs with nowhere to go and nothing else to do all day can do for one's motivation. I made this on Talia's recommendation, this on Les Cadeaux's recommendation, this and this from The Pioneer Woman because she understands my deep-seated need to cook everything with a lot of butter, this, this, and this because my parents buy a ridiculous amount of chicken, and this because sometimes you have to try to be healthy. I've had mixed success, mostly due to our local supermarket's sadly limited selection and the last-minute substitutions that it necessitates. In fact, I can send my mother to the store with a list six items long and pretty much guarantee that she will call home at least five times before she enters the checkout line. (How people went grocery shopping before cell phones, I'll never know.)

Ten minutes after my mom leaves the house, the phone rings: "They don't have chicken thighs today, will breasts be ok?"

Five minutes later, the phone rings again: "I don't know what these panko bread crumbs are, but I can't find them anywhere."

"Well can you ask someone then, Mom?"

"I did, and first he said they were in the international foods aisle, and then someone else told me they were in the bread aisle, but I'll keep looking."

Three minutes later, the phone rings again: "Well, I found where they are supposed to be. In the international aisle after all, ha! But they're all out. Will regular bread crumbs be ok?"

One minute later: "They don't have jasmine rice..."

"Ok, Mom, can you please stop calling? Can't you just...figure it out? Or else save up more than one question at a time? Jeezes..."

But, no matter how mediocre the results, my parents, and my mom particularly, respond to each new dish with unbridled enthusiasm. "This is delicious!" they'll say. "You know, I really think you have a gift," says my mom.

"Meh, it could use more chili powder," I'll say. "And next time I'll cook it a bit less. It's really just ok."

My biggest success to date would have to be the Roasted Striped Bass with Chive and Sour Cream Sauce, probably because my parents consider any fish not in stick form to be an exotic delicacy. (Served with the Spicy Garlic Potatoes and Zucchini, but substituting normal-sized zucchini and Yukon gold potatoes because I couldn't find any in the baby and fingerling varieties. And without the garlic chive or onion sprouts* as garnish (*"available at farmer's markets"), because, haaaa, please.) "This is good!" my parents raved. "You have to give us the recipe before you leave. I!"

I shrugged. "Yeah, it's pretty good I guess."

"No, really," my mom insisted. "You could have your own cooking show! You could be the next Julia Child!"

"Mom, Mom," I cut in before she could get any more carried away. "I didn't invent it or anything, ok? I just thought the recipe sounded good, and then I followed it. I'm not going to be Julia Child so just stop already. God."

If I had to pin-point the origin of my new frenzy of domesticity, I'll have to admit that it's due less to my generous, giving nature, and more to a spirit of self-preservation. As a kid, I was raised on a diet of soupy Hamburger Helper made with too much water (on a good night), and on a bad night something my mom called a "skillet dinner." Skillet dinner, or poor man's Hamburger Helper, as I liked to think of it, varied widely based on what ingredients were at hand, but was most often comprised of ground beef, tomato sauce, and green beans all cooked together in a large pan, and served in a bowl. And that's it. No rice, no potatoes, no pasta. Just a bowlful of hamburger, green beans, and tomato sauce. Usually eaten with a spoon. It tasted exactly how it sounds.

You see, the problem is that while I get my recipes from reliable sources on the Internet, complete with photos and user reviews, my mother has always preferred the forty-year-old cook books of her youth, containing recipes submitted by honest, church-going folk, for dishes with names like "Mystery Salad" (stewed tomatoes, raspberry Jell-o, and hot sauce), "Economy Meal" (cabbage, elbow macaroni, onion, bacon), "Teenager's Favorite Hot Dish" (ground beef, onion, cabbage, tomato soup), "Poor Man's Barbeque" (hot dogs, tomato soup, onion), "Chili Con Caso" (containing only onion, chili peppers, cheddar cheese soup, and Velveeta, but no beans or meat whatsoever, though for some reason it's classified as a main dish), "Chicken Shortcake," and (oh gag), "Hot Frankfurter and Potato Salad." Which may in part explain the scene I walked into in the kitchen last night:

"Hey Mom, what's this?" I ask, peering at a platter of three sad-looking, greasy porkchops. "They're already cooked?"

"No, I just browned them, and then they go back in the pan with the sauce to finish cooking."

"But, do realize that when you brown meat it's supposed to actually be brown, right? These are just sort of...gray."

"Well I just did what it said and..."

"High heat, Mom, you have to use high heat. The point is to sear it to keep in the juices, otherwise you might as well not do it." I sigh. "You should have let me do it. And what's going on in here?" I ask, pointing to a pan filled with a goopy beige liquid.

"That's cream of celery soup, and then I'll add some frozen lima beans and the pork chops."

I back slowly out of the kitchen, suddenly wanting nothing more to do with this meal. She's on her own with this one.

Half an hour later she calls my dad and I to dinner, and I head back to the kitchen, hungrily suspicious. I hope against hope that that somehow it's turned out edible. And there they are, on each plate a sad, gray porkchop with lima bean sauce, and alongside a generous helping of...those crunchy La Choy chow mein noodles from a can? Bwah?

"Really?" I ask. "Chow mein noodles as a side?"

"Well it said you can serve it either with rice or chow mein noodles, and since we've been eating so much rice lately..." We all sit down, and the next few minutes are filled with the sound of forks against plates and loud crunching.

My dad pushes his chow mein noodles around and finally says, "These really aren't good for my diet."

"They're not good for anyone!" I explode. "You know, I don't understand. You tell me I'm such a good cook, but really, I just choose recipes that sound good! But this...this..." I sputter.

"Well it sounded good on paper," my mom says.

"It does not even sound good on paper!" I shout. "It sounds awful on paper! I just, I don't understand."

"I like lima beans," my mom says in a small voice, looking at her plate, and then everyone feels bad.

But perhaps not bad enough, because don't even get me started on what she did with my smoked salmon (my smoked salmon) while I was at the beach. Sacrilege, people. Sacrilege.


  1. Oh my gosh, your Mom's cooking sounds like a recipe (no pun intended) for a diet.

    I'm curious (and scared) about what she did to the smoked salmon, though.

  2. This post made me laugh. My mom was a pretty good cook, so I love hearing other people's horror stories. It's almost like I feel left out because my mom had the nerve to cook edible stuff, thus depriving me of childhood stories of gag inducing meals.

  3. Mystery Salad eh? Sounds MOST interesting. Actually, it sounds appalling!
    Could your new-found culinary skills get you back to France? Restaurant work? (I don't know what the Visa requirements are, as you, like me, are a Non-EU person. Tricky no doubt.)

  4. You are so funny. I like this post!

  5. Two comments:
    - First, Skillet Dinner sounds pretty good. Maybe without the greenbeans, but there's nothing wrong with cooking whatever's in your fridge in one dish, provided you spice it right. :-)
    - Second, those crunchy chow mein noodles are fine as a side. Although I've never had them as a side, I have on occassion had them as a main dish, with blueberries on the side. Actually, you can maky tiny little noodle blueberry lollipops (for when you're really lazy)

  6. Ew, ew and ew. I think the hot frankfurter and potato salad was the best-sounding thing on that list. Oh you poor, poor dear.
    You will be reading this from my house, but let me just say we will be off to peruse the not one, but two or three international aisles at Wegmans (one for each cuisine) and I'm sure we can find seven varieties of panko bread crumbs. And we were planning on making chicken tikka masala. From scratch.

  7. stumbled accross your blog and laughed out loud. The skillet dinner is hilarious.Your mom cooks a lot like my mom. I don't think there is a ground beef recipe out there that mine hasn't tried. That's all I remember eating as a kid...ground beef with whatever was in the kitchen.