Mom was a great straight ahead cook, able to whip up something delicious from whatever was handy. She could make a great meal starting with, say, a can of soup, some noodles, and, as far as I could tell, magic. Some her best stuff came out of cans, always with some kicker added that made it different – we didn’t eat straight up canned food but rarely – but she could also make a great meal starting with vegetables right out of the garden – or even a live rabbit or chicken. (1)
She taught all 9 of her kids how to cook in the best possible way: anyone who wandered through the kitchen when she was cooking was immediately drafted as an adviser/taster. “Does this need more spice?” “Should I put more X in this?” “How does this taste?”
By simply asking us kids questions and respecting our answers, Mom invited us into her cooking world. All of grew up thinking our palates were good, our decision about cooking were good – and so, that we could do it.
Mom of course also let us help when we wanted to, and turned us loose when we were ready. By the time I was around 13, I’d make kid staples for me and my two little brothers: pancakes, chocolate chip cookies, that sort of thing. Mom was cool with it, and the little bros totally didn’t complain.
So 9 out of 9 Moore kids could cook up a storm.(2) No matter which brother or sister we visit, fresh quality grub is not an issue. (And plenty of it – there were 9 of us after all. Still trying to learn to scale back, now that we’re down to one resident kid in our house. Old habits.)
The big difference was this: Mom grew up during the Depression – for most of her life, mom cooked under a strict budget. The idea that you’d buy expensive stuff and fool around with it was completely foreign to her. So, while the cooking was good, it tended strongly toward what an East Texas Czech girl would think of as normal American cuisine.
This inherent thrift, sad to say, has not been passed along. Once I got settled and had a real job, I would occasionally try stuff that mom would never or very rarely try – like fresh salmon or crab, or fancy soft cheeses (the kind of stuff I first encountered in college events like art show openings. It should go without saying that we weren’t doing many art show openings when I was a kid.)
My kids have taken this practice to the extreme. Once a few years back, we rented a SoCal beach house for Thanksgiving (off-season – cheaper than motels for 7 people). This house had a nice TV and cable – two things we didn’t have at the time. (3)
So what do these 5 TV deprived kids watch, when the entire cable world is their oyster? Cooking shows, of course.
Earlier in the week, I had bought the large value-pack of chicken breasts at Safeway, because I needed 2 but buying 6 or more is cheaper. (Did I mention this scaling back thing is difficult?). Had these chicken breasts that needed cooking up.
Yesterday, I ask David, age 12, what would you like for dinner that involves chicken? I listed off the usual: fried, breaded and fried, chicken Caesar salad, chicken stew, chicken soup – and he says “chicken cordon bleu.”
Ooo-Kay. Had no idea what chicken cordon bleu even is, but I googled it, saw how easy it is – so, yesterday, made chicken cordon bleu for the first time for dinner.
David had no idea what chicken cordon bleu was, either. It was just the fanciest named thing involving chicken that he’d ever heard of. My son was messing with me, in other words.
He went with me shopping for Swiss cheese and ham, and looked over the recipe with me. He critiqued my chicken breast pounding technique – Alton Brown uses a glass pie plate and *presses* the chicken thin. Silly me – I was wondering what the recipe meant for me to do to ‘gently pound’ the chicken flat. Gently pound? Huh? David watched me mangle the first breast (it cooked up fine, especially when covered with breadcrumbs and cheese – sheesh!) until he could stand it no longer – he’s a polite kid – and started coaching me.
Well. The remaining three turned out lovely.
Anyway, it came out delicious, and really is easy. The consensus: it was pretty good, but my buttermilk Panko-crusted fried chicken is way better.
- Those days, thankfully, were in the past by the time I would have been old enough to notice the bunnies getting it – I’m 7th of 9 kids, 18 years younger than the oldest.
- Grandma Brilliant, who was a classic Irish matron, when she found out I was raised by a Czech-American mom, took that as a complete explanation of why I, despite being a man, could surprisingly cook. No explanation for this view was ever offered.
- Still don’t have cable – PAY for that stuff? No Thanks.