Culinary Mantra

A few years ago, I was in Raleigh and dropped by Penzeys, a spice store offering seasonings from all over the world–Madagascar vanilla, Ceylon cinnamon, and spice blends (Sunny Paris is my favorite). At the check-out, the cashier gave me a bumper sticker with a yellow crayon-drawn heart, over which was written: “Love People. Cook them good food.” 

If you are reading this column, you probably know that cooking is about feeding the soul as well as filling the stomach. Food isn’t just food; it is interaction and connection.

When I recall the 12 dozen home-fried doughnuts my mother made each fall for my brother, me, and our friends, I know the experience was about much more than eating fried dough. My mother was showing her love for us in one of the few ways she knew how. 

Picnic tables were covered with newspapers. Small bowls of toppings and icings were set on the tables. Fifty years later, my good friend Carol still talks about those doughnuts. Imagine! 12 dozen doughnuts! Every topping imaginable! Self-serve! No one counting calories!

Think back to the food highlights of your childhood. The hamburgers your uncle grilled in late summer when the last of the tomatoes had just been picked. The caramel apples your mother made each fall while your father burned leaves on the back lot. The pot roast with gravy and mashed potatoes your grandmother served on Sunday after church.

Of course, you recall the images, aromas, and flavors–the lemon-powder sugar icing with fresh lemon zest on hot doughnuts, for example–but what your memory really stirs up is a warm nostalgic feeling that says “somebody loved me.”

“Cook with Love” has always been my mantra. In the restaurant, I asked the cooks to “see the face of God in every plate.” I took that line from Mother Teresa who might be rolling over in her grave to hear her phrase applied to a plate of food rather than the face of a leper.

These are hard times, which makes preparing food for our loved ones even more important. The time you spend brewing soup or cooking for family and friends is worth the effort. So is removing seeds from a watermelon or the membranes from oranges and grapefruit for winter ambrosia. It all says, “You are important.”

A few years ago, Ruth Reichl, famed food critic and former editor of Gourmet Magazine, posted a food entry on her blog. She received the following email: “What planet are you on? The one WITHOUT thousands dying from an earthquake??!?!?!” 

It seems that hours earlier, an earthquake had devestaqted Japan. Reichl responded that although she had been unaware of the disaster, she wondered if she would have posted something different: “There is no time, ever, in which a terrible disaster is not taking place somewhere on the planet. . . .”

“But in the face of ongoing disaster, it is our moral responsibility to appreciate what we have.  That is why cooking good food for the people that I love is so important to me; in a world filled with no, it is a big yes.”

Broccoli SoupBroccoli Cheese Soup. Sauté 3/4 C. diced onion in 1 TB. olive oil until translucent. Add 1 clove minced garlic, stir, then set aside. In small stock pot, make a blonde roux by adding 4 TB. flour to 4 TB. melted butter, whisk constantly for 4-5 minutes. Add 2 C. milk (or half and half). Whisk until smooth. Gradually pour in 4 C. chicken broth. Bring to boil, then reduce to simmer.

Add 16 oz. chopped fresh broccoli (and diced stems), onion, and garlic. Simmer 20 minutes. If you like, you can puree part or all of the soup using an immersion blender or processor. Return pot to stove with burner on medium low and add 8 oz. cubed sharp-cheddar cheese and 8 oz. cubed Velveeta cheese. Stir until melted. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Important note: Hot liquid in a blender/processor will explode so work with very small amounts at a time.

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