*First posted on January 8, 2008 on Letters
Once upon a time, not to long ago, one of the most hated things in my life was the sight of a can of Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup in the trash when I came home from school. I hated those mushrooms, their texture was squishy-boogie, their flavor a kind of dirt like bland, the soup a matrix of ookie. It didn’t matter that under normal circumstances I liked macaroni and cheese, tuna noodle casserole and that thing where you bake chicken over rice with a can of random cream of something dumped over top with water. No dish could earn my scorn faster than to have the dreaded soup stirred in. Mom, however, loved it, so, on those occasions when I wasn’t there pleading for a release from fungi hell, in it would go.
It’s not that my Mother’s cooking was generally awful, though it could be, or generally good, that too could be. It was just generally blah, boring, basic depression, war and post ware fare, long on canned soup sauces and short on flavor. Unless you count essence of boogies a flavor. I used to joke that I learned to cook out of self-preservation. I think it was more that Mom disliked cooking so much she forced us into it. She could, and did, cook several very tasty dishes, like Ham and Shell Macaroni. There were other dishes that to this day cause me to shudder, like Succotash. I’d have gladly eaten an entire can of cold cream of mushroom soup if it would have gotten me a get out of Succotash free card. It was a mushy amalgam of overcooked and undercooked vegetables that I’ve yet to understand, from both flavor and texture perspectives.
Both Grandmothers were excellent cooks, each producing specialties, like Nanni’s Goulash or Grandma’s Creamed Fresh Peas. Nanni, my father’s mother, could produce a heavenly Apple Cake that was neither cake nor pie. Grandma, my mother’s mother, made a Chocolate and Walnut Cake that was a thing of true grace and beauty.
Though my father’s father was a cook on several ships and in several households during his long career, he didn’t teach my father to cook, preferring instead that he get an education and wear a tie instead of an apron. My mother’s father wasn’t so much a cook as an inventor who liked to eat what he caught in Dungeness Bay. He built a smoker and a steamer out of a pair of discarded laundry machines. I have to say, the smoked salmon they mailed to us was a treat.
Some of my siblings are fish haters, some not very adventurous with food, some fabulous cooks, or like my Mom, more of assemblers of food than actual cooks. All of us, though, can get a decent cooked from scratch meal to the table, most of us much more than that. Even though my Mother hated to cook, she did teach us all the basics. We each, then, went off to have an epiphany of food, or for me, I had one right in the house.
It was ultimately Madeline Kamman who did it to me. She had a show on PBS back when I was in high school, I watched it every chance I got. Her approach to food was loving, scientific and French. Julia Child was fun to watch, but I learned so much from Madeline. I wanted to try everything, I tried as much as I could. Her Making of a Cook is still my go to guide for everything.
Then came the day when I stepped into this kitchen store in Annapolis Mall. I’d never imagined such a place, but drawn by the implements I’d seen in Madeline’s hands on TV, it was irresistible. My attention was arrested halfway into the store by the massive wall of cookbooks. Barnes and Noble have nothing on what this place had, and that was in the 80’s. They offered books on every cuisine imaginable, even one on Transylvanian Cookery (I bought it promptly.) The littler Mexican cookbooks were collected as well. Then Chinese, Indian, Thai, African, Peruvian and Caribbean followed quickly. I read them as much as use them.
These days it’s the spice markets that draw me with the power of a thousand suns, I want to at least attempt to make that ridiculously complicated lamb curry with the absurdly difficult to find ingredients. Why? Because, it’s an adventure. So, in the end, I’m grateful for those horrid cans of mushroom soup. Without them I’d have been content with what Mom put on the table. Except for Succotash, of course.
Mom’s Ham and Shell Macaroni *
2 tbs olive oil
1 Ham Steak, cubed
2 cups Shell Macaroni
1 onion, chopped, finer than not
2 – 3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 bay leaf
Fresh herbs to taste (oregano, thyme, basil and marjoram), chopped fine
Freshly ground pepper
1 large can stewed tomatoes
1 tbs tomato paste
Put the water on to cook the noodles. Cook the noodles to al dente. Can be done the same time as below. Drain the noodles as soon as they are done. Set aside.
Sauté the ham and onions in some olive oil until the onions and ham caramelize a bit.
Add a sauté the garlic and bay leaf.
Add the herbs, except the basil, sauté for about two minutes. Don’t burn!
Add the tomatoes and tomato paste, salt and pepper to taste. Correct the flavoring.
(If I were adding a bit of wine, this is where I would do that.)
Cook on medium just until everything has lost that ‘raw’ flavor. About 5 minutes. A bit longer if it is too watery.
Mix the noodles and basil in with the sauce. Serve with garlic bread and vegetables or a salad.
*This is my interpretation of my Mother’s recipe. She didn’t write it down and recipes weren’t among the things we talked about during her brief battle with cancer.