I enjoyed inviting friends over to dinner, and my confidence level had grown dramatically having sliced and diced for our chef turned engineer friend so many times over the years. I grew up in a family that shared regional cuisines of Eastern and Southern Europe, and I gravitated to the Italian recipes.
Cooking was never scary. Well, not in the way you think. My mom and dad were adept in the kitchen and dad especially enjoyed the process, and we kids were expected to pitch in and help. Dad loved to play-up a mannerism that my mother and I found maddening. Dad talked while holding a knife. He would be telling us a story, and inevitably my dad would stop slicing or dicing or carving and start walking around the kitchen, swinging his arms and making his point, drawing circles in the air with the small razor sharp paring knife, or full-sized carving knife. I knew Dad used keen-edged blades; I watched him sharpen them on a stone before every cooking session.
“Carl,” my mother would call with exasperation. “Put down the knife!” Dad would be wandering around the kitchen, fully engaged in his story. My mother and I focused our eyes on his dominant, knife-wielding right hand as it cut through the air like a magician’s wand. He gesticulated wildly while nonchalantly forging ahead with his humorous story. He reacted to his own yarn, and smiled and laughed all the while seemingly unaware of the momentary kitchen angst he created. How Dad loved to tease! In his defense I have to say he never once dropped the knife; Dad’s grip was too strong to let that happen. My mother and I would look at each other and shake our heads as Dad wandered over to the sink, where I might be rinsing iceberg lettuce, or strolled the few steps to the stove to check out the pots my mother was stirring, still talking and waving his hands. At the conclusion of his story, Dad would return to his thick wooden cutting board wearing a broad smile, and dive into his work with great skill. We’d still be shaking our heads and he always pleaded innocence. Dad would look up at us and say, “What?” “What did I do?” My mother and I would sigh, maybe even roll our eyes in exaggerated exasperation, and then Dad would pull out his signature expression, contorting his mouth downwards to reveal his ridiculous “look ashamed” visage. Laughter erupted.
So while I’ve never been afraid to dive into a culinary project, I don’t remember recreating our friend’s fabulous Coquiles St. Jacques, those sumptuous scallops he made for us one Sunday night years ago. It was the first time I had ever eaten scallops, but I wasn’t going to confess that to our friend as I washed and cut vegetables. Nor did I tell our host and hostess that I had never before tasted barbecued ribs, let alone purchased them at the supermarket. I worked on the salad that night. The ribs were great and I became a fan. My comfort zone was in roasts and pastas and meatballs and chicken and fresh water fish and potatoes and vegetables in season and soups and stews. My mother was allergic to seafood, and we just never ate ribs; barbecues were for hamburgers and hot dogs and sausages. Pesto was a dish new to me, as well. My Italian grandparents hailed from Southern Italy, and pesto, traditionally a Northern Italian recipe, was not part of my family’s legacy. But I liked cooking and I liked my food processor and my gadgets, and so I dove into new recipes with enthusiasm.
I prepared dishes for our family of friends, and for loved ones who visited from the East Coast. I remember making homemade linguine for pasta Carbonara. One evening I spent a long while at a bookstore, searching for just the right cookbook. I purchased it and a paella pan and tried my hand at the dish I had enjoyed while living in Spain for a summer when I was in college. That book also taught me how to make Spanish tortillas; those potato and egg skillet dishes that can be eaten alone, or put between two slices of fresh bread for a great sandwich. When my study-abroad group took weekend bus excursions to tour different parts of Spain, the kitchen staff in our dormitory made these tortilla sandwiches for the ride. I loved them. I also tried my hand at my dad’s fabulous rolled steak, an Italian dish that takes a fair amount of prep time. The results were satisfying.
Frequently I called home and chatted with my folks, asking them how they seasoned or cooked different things. When I called for clarification of my father’s recipe for potatoes (all these recipes are passed to us by doing and watching – nobody writes them down), my mother bristled at my request. I wasn’t surprised. Dad made these roasted potatoes with fresh parsley and garlic and cheese. “The Good Kind Of Potatoes,” we called them. The cheese would crust on the edges of the roasting pan and we’d love picking out the charred pieces. How tasty! Mom used to ask, “What about all the other kinds of potatoes?” She made delicious cabbage with boiled potatoes, and dumplings stuffed with a potato mixture, and fried potatoes and yams and roasted ones. And she made tasty mashed potatoes. “Are those the ‘Bad Kinds’?” Again, there was the familiar head shake back and forth and accompanying sigh. Dad did his playful best to keep this recipe name game alive. “Kids,” he’d yell upstairs to us in the house on Sundays, “Do you want me to make ‘The Good Kind of Potatoes?’” Naturally, the phrase, “The Good Kind of Potatoes” received particular emphasis. Our response was always an enthusiastic, “Yeah!” I just knew my mother was wincing. If Dad or we kids said the phrase “The Good Kind of Potatoes” more than a couple of times, inevitably, Dad would catch my mother shaking her head or sighing, and then would don his trademark expression, and we’d all laugh as he looked ashamed again.
The California chef turned engineer friend taught us how to make roux. I didn’t have the heart to tell my mom that this technique was better than hers for making gravy. No more stirring and stirring the pan drippings, trying to attack each little lump of corn starch or flour with the back of a spoon. This was a revelation, as was white pepper. A bowl of mashed potatoes seasoned with white pepper was beautiful.
So it just seemed natural that I would host Thanksgiving dinner for however many friends and family would be joining that day. What was the big deal?
Stayed Tuned for the third and final part of Homeward Bound!
November 13, 2013