Cooking with mom

Sunday, May 8, 2005

Making a meal every day for a family can be challenging -- trying to find foods that fit everyone's taste and your budget can be tough. But Mom seems to do it often.

And, for the most part, what we've learned about the kitchen and food preparation comes from our mothers. On a day when they're being recognized for all they do, wouldn't it seem fair to share a few stories about what we learned from our mothers about cooking?

After all, we wouldn't have eaten our vegetables without them.

Local food writer Susan McClanahan learned to cook in bulk from her mother, who usually made meals for eight. "It was simple, not anything fancy, but there was always lots of it."

Mary Spell has memories of her grandmother in the kitchen throwing handfuls of this or that into a bowl and "making something out of nothing."

Her mother, by comparison, was a very meticulous cook who followed recipes exactly.

"The secret to mom's baking and cooking was that she was so patient," Spell said. "She wasn't in a hurry. She was very particular and hers always tasted so good."

Mary Ann Pensel remembers how her mother prepared dressing for nearly every special meal. "And hers always included chicken."

Pensel recently prepared the dish for a church banquet where women were asked to bring a dish reminiscent of their mother or one that she often prepared.

Pensel said her mother also was a fantastic baker. "We always had a pie on the table."

Pat Allen, of Celebrations Restaurant in Cape Girardeau, has fond memories of her mother teaching her how to peel and boil potatoes.

She remembers her grandmother, who died at age 90, easily recalling recipes and ingredients from memory. "My mother would go to the nursing home once a month and record what Grandmother would say. I remember once asking her how she learned to cook."

The answer: She taught herself using a cookbook bought from the Watkins salesman, who came around selling spices.

Memories of food cooking always take people back to special times and places. For Spell, it's peanut butter sandwiches and Campbell's Chicken Noodle soup that remind her of childhood. Every day after school, Spell would arrive home to a snack with soup and a sandwich. "It was very comfortable and safe," she said.

Pensel remembers coming home from school to counters lined with donuts rising. "They were always good when they were fresh but you ate them until the very last. There was no such thing as a stale donut."

Food writer Barbara Albright smiled as she prepared a cassoulet dish for her family, in Wilton, Conn.

Barbara Albright has been writing monthly food features for The Associated Press for 14 years; she began soon after her daughter was born. She's tested hundreds of recipes and has compiled some of her favorites for readers. The recipes are dishes she would feel confident serving at a dinner party or for her family.

As a working mother who cooks for two children and her husband, she is constantly seeking recipes that are appealing but not offensive to everyone in the household. (Aren't we all?) And she sticks to the rule of only serving one meal for everyone, not separate fare for adults and children.

The recipes in "Recipes From Home" by David Page and Barbara Shinn (Artisan, 2001) are for the most part easy, delicious and acceptable to almost anyone you serve them to. The following recipe for Mom Page's Scalloped Potatoes was loved by all who tasted them and there is no pesky sauce to prepare ahead of time.

Page and Shinn own the restaurant Home in New York City.

Mom Page's Scalloped Potatoes

5 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened

8 medium russet potatoes, peeled and sliced 1/8-inch thick

1 large yellow onion, thinly sliced

1 cup heavy cream

2 teaspoons kosher salt

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/2 cup grated hard cheese, such as Parmesan, Dry Jack or pecorino Romano

2 tablespoons chopped fresh herbs, such as thyme, parsley, and-or chives

Preheat the oven to 350 F. Grease a 12-by-9-inch ceramic or glass baking dish with 1 tablespoon of butter.

Toss together the potatoes, onion, cream, salt, pepper and nutmeg in a large bowl. Line the bottom of the baking dish with an even layer of potatoes and onion. Dot the surface with 1 tablespoon of the remaining butter. Repeat layering until the dish is full and pour any remaining cream over the top. Press down on the potatoes so that they are an even thickness. Dot the surface with any remaining butter and sprinkle with the cheese.

Bake uncovered until the potatoes are tender, the cream is absorbed, and the cheese is golden and crisp, about 1 hour. Sprinkle the herbs on top of the dish just before serving.

Makes 6 servings.

Forty-Minute Cassoulet

4 cups chopped tomatoes, with their juice (canned are fine)

1 tablespoon chopped garlic

4 cups white beans, nearly fully cooked, drained if canned

1 cup stock, dry red wine, bean-cooking liquid, or water


1/8 teaspoon cayenne, or to taste

1 pound Italian sausage, preferably in one piece

1 pound pork tenderloin, cut into 1-inch cubes

1 boned duck breast (see note)

Combine the tomatoes and garlic in a large saucepan and turn the heat to medium. Bring to a boil and add the beans. Bring to a boil again, stirring occasionally, then reduce the heat so the mixture bubbles regularly but not furiously. Cook for about 20 minutes, add the liquid when the mixture becomes thick. Add the salt and cayenne when the beans are tender and flavorful.

Meanwhile, put the sausage in a skillet and turn the heat to medium-high; brown on both sides, turning only once or twice. Add the sausage to the tomato-bean mixture, along with the pork. Raise the heat a bit if necessary to keep a simmer going. Stir the beans occasionally so the pork chunks cook evenly; they'll finish cooking in the time it takes to prepare the duck. 3. Cut a 1/2-inch crosshatch pattern in the skin side of the duck breast, right down to the fat layer. Put the breast in the same skillet in which you cooked the sausage, skin-side down, and turn the heat to medium-high. Cook until nicely browned, pouring any rendered duck fat and juices into the bean mixture. Turn the duck and brown the meat side, then crisp up the skin side again for a minute or so, once more pouring any juice into the beans. The total cooking time for the breast will be 6 to 8 minutes. When it is done, add the breast to the beans.

To serve, carve the sausage and duck breast into serving pieces, and put some on each of four to six plates. Top with beans and pork.

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

(Barbara Albright's note: When finding duck was difficult, I used 3 or 4 chicken thighs.)

Keys to success: Unless you have a lot of time, start with frozen beans, which are now being sold in most supermarkets. If you can't find frozen beans, just use canned beans, but drain and rinse them first.

Although the pork tenderloin need not be browned before further cooking, the sausage benefits from a quick browning, which is definitely worth the 5-minute effort.

If you can get duck confit, just brown it lightly on both sides, adding both it and its fat to the stew in place of the duck breast.

With minimal effort:

Start with dried beans, cooked with a few sprigs of fresh thyme, 1/2 head of garlic, and a piece of salt pork or bacon. Cook the garlic in a little duck fat (don't let it brown) before adding the tomatoes and beans. Finish the dish by toasting some bread crumbs, seasoned with salt and pepper, in the fat remaining from browning the duck. Sprinkle these on top of the stew, then run it under the broiler to brown just before serving.

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