Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Being an "Until It Looks Right" Cook

I’ve always described myself as an “Until it Looks Right” cook, but never realized until recently why or how I became a non-measuring cook.


I grew up the oldest of six kids in the days when Stay-At-Home-Mom was a given and not a job title. No matter what your income was, raising six kids was expensive and we were no exception.

Hand-me-down clothes were not a sign of poverty or embarrassment. It was just how things were done. Neighborhood moms frequently exchanged clothes when their youngest outgrew them and there was no younger sibling to pass them down to.

I explain frequently that we had perfect attendance at school because that’s where the food and the heat were. We lived in a couple of places that heated by wood and if there was no wood then we had no heat. Having heat stoves or furnaces that required fuel oil was no guarantee either. When the choice had to be made between buying fuel oil or food, we usually put on our coats and doubled up in the beds at night to keep warm.

I don’t look back on these days with resentment or regret. On the contrary, I’ve often shared that growing up dirt poor taught me things that many people never comprehend in their entire life. I learned there’s always a way to get by ….. and sometimes just flat out survive …… during the bad times. I learned there is a lot you can do with nothing.

And that segways into being an “Until It Looks Right” cook.

We rarely had food enough to feed eight people in our house, let alone all of the “fancy dancy” ingredients listed in recipes found in a Betty Crocker cookbook. The meals we made were invented on the spot based on what we had in the cabinet.

Another reason we just threw things together, other than never having all of the ingredients that a recipe called for, was because most recipes were never big enough for our family. We were a family of hearty German appetites and recipes to “serve 4” were cute to read about but never came close to being able to feed our clan.

I remember the day we pretty much only had tomato juice and flour in the house. Our homemade version of Tomato Dumplings were born. Another favorite was a chicken-bread casserole, similar to Thanksgiving stuffing except it was just baked in the oven. Canned chicken, onion, mixed with torn bread pieces, covered with a heavy coating of sage and baked until the top was crispy.

My family only knows potato salad as “Mom’s Mashed Potato Salad”. As a kid, all we had were some generic instant potato flakes and those were turned into a unique form of potato salad made with mashed potatoes. (To this day, the idea of biting into a piece of cold, unmashed potato just grosses me out!).

There are many people who, without having a bag of real potatoes in the kitchen, would have thrown up their hands and said, “No food tonight …. We’re out of potatoes.” But at our house we learned to improvise and adapt to what we had. Throwing things together to see how they turned out was just standard operating procedure.

So when I was learning to cook, we didn’t have cabinets of spices and a variety of ingredients. We didn’t own regular measuring cups and measuring spoons! (A coffee cup was “one cup” and a cereal spoon was “one teaspoon”). We made do with whatever was available.

And that, my friends, is a life lesson you can’t buy in a culinary school. It’s how I learned to throw things together to create my it-will-go-to-my-grave chocolate chip cookie recipe. It’s how I developed my signature Lemon Chicken Rosemary in a buttery Chardonnay sauce that became a mainstay of my catering business. It’s the science (so to speak) of my Potato-Pepper dish that is not only delicious and healthy but just colorfully beautiful!

So don’t ask me how much chili powder goes into my chili that my kids beg me to make. I just pour it in until it covers the top. Don’t’ ask me how many onions I chop. I chop enough until the red in the meat and the white in the onion look balanced.

You know ….. until it looks right!

"The only real stumbling block is fear of failure. In cooking you've got to have a what-the-hell attitude." — Julia Child

"Once you have mastered a technique, you barely have to look at a recipe again" — Julia Child

1 comment:

  1. This sounds so familiar. We grew up dirt poor as well. I shared a bedroom with 3 brothers, my parents had the other. Even today, when the budget gets tight, I make dinner and will be asked "What are we having for dinner", and my response is "I guess you can call it whatever you like...what shall we name it." I loved this post. I don't know what the future holds for cooking. It seems, no one can cook anymore, and no one is interested in learning how.