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Wednesday, December 23, 2009

My Mother’s Cooking

“No one can cook like my mother.” How often have you heard that one? Lots? I have. But the truth is, no one can cook like my mother did. My mother would not share any of her recipes. An Italian-American, she made her own sauce (when she was young she would pick her own tomatoes and can them) and many southern Italian specialties. Her stuffed bell peppers were out of this world. Meatless, they were a combination of secret ingredients and sacred cooking traditions that no one will ever be able to replicate. That has kind of annoyed me. For 40 years.

In addition to not sharing, she pronounced Italian words in a mystifying dialect shared by the dozens of relatives that appeared at my grandparents’ home on Sundays and holidays. Apparently, no one else in the United States or Italy speaks or understands this dialect. The ones who did are all dead now. Example: you say “canoli,” we say “gah-nools.” Well, we don’t anymore since no one has a clue what we’re asking for when we order. “Pasta” was “bost,” “lasagne” was “la-zyne.” Prosciutto? Prah-joot. Mozzarella? Mutz-a-rel. This shouldn’t be a problem, but it is. There were dishes I enjoyed when I was young that I’d love to make now. Since spelling and pronunciation were in no way related, if I ask someone (and I’ve asked many people) if they’ve ever had anything called gock-yole…well, believe me, no one has.

“Beetz-ock-gain” turns out to be an Italian grain pie that looks like a cake. It is meatless. My mother made a killer “Beetz-ock-gain” but I was lucky enough to discover it was actually Pizza Rustica, another tall Italian pie that is made with lots of egg, mozzarella, ham, and pepperoni. Fifteen years ago, I visited an Italian deli in Palisades Park, NJ, that offered it. It was fabulous. Just like mother made.

The truth is, I don’t want to cook like my mother. I’ve asked my brother about this, and neither of us knows what she did when she went into the kitchen, but it always took hours. And hours. And hours. Several years ago Chip* and I frequented (as in every Saturday night) a particular restaurant in Maggie Valley, NC. With your dinner you could get soup or salad; the soup was pasta e fagioli (or, in my family, bost-a-fazool). This is a soup I have never attempted to make because it is so labor-intensive. Or, so I thought. I looked it up on the ‘Net, found a quick recipe from Rachel Ray, and can make it in less than half an hour. Of course, I don’t exactly follow Rachel’s recipe, but I do turn out a delightful pasta e fagioli. And it’s not a major production. (I will not include the recipe here; since you’re already on the ‘Net, if you want it, Google “Rachel Ray pasta e fagioli.” The recipe is on both the Food Network and Rachel Ray sites.)

For my mother, making lasagna (which was excellent) involved an entire day, every pot and pan in her kitchen, and incredible stamina. This is why she had children. Someone had to clean up when she was done. Cooking was too exhausting an activity to be followed by anything other than eating. And lots of drinking.

I do know that the stuffed pepper recipe included bread crumbs and anchovies (the only way I would ever eat them) and that the gock-yole was made in a heavy fry-pan with coarse cornmeal, milk, and maybe eggs. She poked a hole in the middle to let steam escape and cooked it with olive oil. The resulting product was a large round circle (with a hole in the middle) that was somewhat shiny and hard on the outside. You cut it into pieces, put butter on it, and it was a great accompaniment to lentil soup (which we pronounced len-til-soop). And, no, for the billionth time, it was not polenta.

*Chip=my perfect husband

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

High Priestess of Pancakes – Part One (or, how you, too, can make perfect pancakes)

First, the confession: I like pancakes, my husband likes pancakes, my brother likes pancakes, etc. throughout the family tree. When I would make pancakes, from a mix or from scratch, they always came out horrible. Not horribly. Horrible.

I’d try different fry pans and different recipes or mixes, and ALWAYS make horrible looking pancakes. Scary looking pancakes. They were edible, but…

After Hurricane Katrina, we moved to North Carolina and there I learned the secret to perfect pancakes. The secret is so simple, yet it works with expensive pancake mixes, scratch pancakes, and cheap pancake mixes (my favorite is WalMart’s Great Value Extra Fluffy pancakes). Now, this is not a North Carolina secret, this is a master pancake-maker secret. Or secret-no-more, thanks to me. I learned this when I won a silent-auction item—a gift basket from a very popular pancake/breakfast restaurant in Maggie Valley (okay, so it was Joey’s). This wonderful secret was included in the instructions, for all the world to see. Yet, no one I ever met knows this secret. Until now.

Okay, two ingredients for perfect pancakes: time and a Presto grill (the $20 model is also perfect). I haven’t tried this with other electric grills, though I expect you would get similar results. I have never ever ever gotten pretty pancakes out of a frying pan or even that grill that covers two burners on the stove. Forget them.

Once you have your Presto (or whatever) grill, you will want to set the temperature at 350 degrees. You know, the same universal 350 degrees that we perfect cooks use for all our baking. You do not want to grease, butter, or spray the grill.

And, now, for the secret ingredient: time. Yes, time. A whole ten minutes. After you mix your pancake batter, set it aside for 10-15 minutes. Just let it sit. This allows the ingredients to incorporate and you get a better batter. Seriously!

Preheat your grill for about 5 minutes, pour your batter, and when the pancakes look dry on top flip them. In about one more minute they will be done. And fluffy. And perfect.

Give Someone You Love a Yes

Okay, I am now sixty. Those are very hard words to say all together in one sentence. Unless the sentence is something like: Okay, sixty, I am now. Then it’s just silly.

I still feel that sixty is the first day of the end of your life. That’s not true for people who don’t make it to sixty. However long I live, I know my spirit will go on for many years because it is still 35 and shows no sign of budging. Now that I’m sixty, though, I have become philosophical. And as a philosopher I feel it is my duty to share my ruminations with you, my reader. Since I have a huge following (well, of one, and it’s me at a different e-mail address), I will try not to make my wisdom too personalized. Does that make sense? No, of course not. I’m sixty and losing it. Be that as it may, the philosophy I am sharing today is, “ask yourself why not?”

Stop Saying No. Here’s a hard one. I don’t mean stop saying "no" to yourself, and I certainly don’t mean stop saying “no” when you mean “no” (especially after trying so hard to say “no” when you meant “no” and said “yes”). At some point a few years ago, my husband or my granddaughter (I’m not sure which, but not because I’m senile but because I did this too often) asked for something and I said no. I thought about it, and asked myself “why is the answer ‘no’?” And really the answer was “no” out of habit. As parents, we learn from experience that “no” is a very good answer and should be used in every instance that someone asks to do something in the least bit out of the ordinary. Such as, “Can I take a throw pillow from the couch with us in the car?” Automatic answer: “no.” Now I ask myself, “why not?” Why can’t a little girl take a pillow on a car trip? So I immediately reverse myself, saying, “sure, go ahead, take it,” which causes this darling ray of sunshine to cry, sobbing “I don’t know what you want from me.” Ooops, bad Grammy.

Now, before I say “no”, I examine the upside of saying “yes”. In other words, “can this possibly have a bad outcome if allowed?” Saying “no” was really a punishment for people who didn’t deserve it. After spending a lot of time with losers (the men in my life), I had gotten used to saying “no” because everything they asked was stupid. So when I got married at 51, my poor new husband, who happens to be perfect, was often told “no” when the answer was more truthfully “I don’t care” or “it doesn’t matter.”

My parents were excellent teachers; their philosophy was “if a child asks for it, it can’t be good.” Asking for anything was asking for trouble. Therefore, I carried that lesson into adulthood and automatically nixed anything anyone younger (or older) than I requested. I sound like a regular Scrooge, don’t I? Well, at my age it’s nice to be regular. Having spent half my life saying “yes” to my parents (and other parent-figures) when I wanted to say “no,” I took it out on the wrong people. So, very, very wrong. Of course, now I can’t say “no” to my parents, they’re dead. But when I started to say “yes” to the people I love, I was better able to say “no,” to others when the answer really should be “no.”

So, in a nutshell, here’s my philosophy: say “yes.” Or, at least say “yes” as much as possible. If you can’t bear to be that agreeable, try these alternatives to “no”:

Why not?

It doesn’t matter.

If you want.

Go ahead, knock yourself out.

I don’t care. (or the more formal, I have no preference one way or the other.)

Have fun.

That’s a good idea.

There is something liberating when you let go of the controlling “no” and let yourself, and others, enjoy. I recommend trying it. And don’t tell me “no.”