Food and My Mother

It’s difficult to even type ‘mother’ into the title as my mother became ‘Maman’ to me at some point during high school French, when I suppose I simply liked the sound of it. Even still, my two sisters and I each call our mother something different. And she rolls with all of her names without missing a beat.

My Maman. She loves food. And flowers and plants. And family… though not necessarily in that order. She cooked every meal every day as I grew up, as well as glorious chocolate chip cookies, cinnamon rolls and egg breads. I didn’t realize the uniqueness of that phenomenon until I was at least in high school.

And she always had a vegetable garden. Wherever we lived, she managed to turn something- from small plots of Florida’s sandy soil to an absolutely enormous pasture in Alabama- into literally an entire year’s worth of squash, tomatoes, greens, countless varieties of peas and beans… and okra. I still don’t understand how even three boiled okra pods can ‘slime’ an entire family’s worth of peas. But it’s true. She froze or canned extras of everything and we lived on it for the rest of the year.

My Maman, I believe, always wanted to live on a farm. We had a Jersey cow- Molly- that she milked for a few years. Molly had two calves that somehow found their way into our freezer in many small white packages. That trauma will be saved for another day. But my Maman wanted chickens too- and I distinctly remember my middle school self-conscious mind being horrified by the thought of living in a yard full of clucking feathered ‘friends.’

It’s truly amazing how some pieces of life come full circle. I learned from my Maman in the kitchen to some extent, but mostly by accident. I remember trying to cook a meal for a college crush and having absolutely no idea where to begin. Actually having a kitchen would have been a fine start, but even then, I truly had an embarrassingly meager knowledge base.

And I cannot even pretend that I learned a thing from the hours upon hours she spent outside in our yard. She frequently offered to share her little dirt-ridden wonderland with me (and all her tricks of the trade), but she never forced… and I never obliged. Her flower and vegetable gardens are not at all unlike ones featured on a Southern Living magazine cover, but I was focused on an entirely different world and different dream.

Years pass, and my Maman still has a lovely- albeit slightly smaller- vegetable garden. Her yard is pleasant hybrid of fruit trees and roses and flowering window boxes. And chickens. She is the proud Maman to six hens that lay eggs enough to share. And she cooks for my father… three meals a day. The cookie tin is never empty, and everyone looks forward to her rolls during the holidays.

Years have passed for me as well, and I’ve found myself desiring exactly what I always resisted, pursuing a different dream. It’s beautiful thing when we allow life to create change. Now I cannot learn enough about food. And I want nothing more than to get my hands dirty in any local farm that will teach me everything they know. Breads and treats frequently make their way into my neighbors’ mailboxes or doorsteps; and I have a patio full of flowers, herbs and vegetables.

My Maman has graciously supported all of my career choices, but I have to think her smile is a bit larger these days. And I don’t have my own chickens yet, but I think I am going to mix up a quick batch of cookies…

Happy day to the Mamans of the world, present and future. And a special ‘thank you’ to my own~

How to make a perfect cookie

Maman’s Chocolate Chip Cookie Recipe

Captivated by a Squash Blossom?

Markets of fresh local produce are completely captivating. And a sunny Colorado Saturday piled high with greens and seedlings, flowers and sprouts was definitely welcomed after what my neighbor has wittingly dubbed “Cake Week 2012.”

And I’ve heard rumors that he’s made quite an incredible cake this week himself, so I’m feeling lucky to be living where I do. And I could probably squeeze in one more bit of cake this week. You know, if I had to.

But to be honest, a market can lure me in no matter what I’ve been eating. Or what else I probably should be doing.

Last October, I spent an entire day wandering through Mercato Centrale– a mind bogglingly huge and well-stocked farmers’ market in the center of Florence, Italy. As the first time I’d really traveled anywhere on my own, I had the leisure to do exactly what I wanted. And change my mind on a whim without consequence.

I’d planned to take a quick stroll through the market and consume most of the day in the Uffizi Gallery, as any self-respecting cultured visitor on her first trip to Florence should.

But I was fascinated in the market by whole chickens with their talons stiffly and eerily waving from the cold cases. All parts of cows and pigs were available to turn into dinner- snouts, tails, organs, tongues, ears, tripe.

Cheeses made from sheep, cows and goats from farms I’d ridden by on my bicycle just two days earlier were neatly stacked around a hanging scale. Red currants, plump and fresh, were still lined up like little soldiers on their tiny branches. Heirloom varieties of vegetables and fruits so unique I couldn’t even place them all were around every corner. Squashes and zucchinis still had the blossoms attached. Incredible.

I never made it to the Uffizi. I stayed at the market that day until it closed. And I left with a mildly unsettling confusion. And cheese, and oils and fruits. But I also left knowing something in me had changed. For the first time in far too long, I’d unconsciously chosen to do what captivated me instead of what I thought I should be doing.

So I’m a different person because of a market. Yesterday as I bought arugula for dinner and red onion starters for a few patio pots, I couldn’t help but also leave with a reminder to do what captivates. And somehow, I think everything else will fall into place~

Fond food nostalgia

Foods have an intrinsic, powerful ability to take us to a specific time and place- a flavor nostalgia of sorts. The smell of yeast bread- no matter how many I’ve made or tasted since- will forever drop me right into my Maman’s kitchen.

A slow-cooked beef shoulder roasted in its own juices with starchy potatoes, carrots and yellow onions- so tender it doesn’t even demand a knife- will always be Sunday ‘dinner’ in my mind. Sundays were one of the many constants in my childhood. My father was- and is- a pastor; and a roast was my Maman’s perfect solution for having a large noon meal ready when we were away all morning.

There will never be a chocolate cake that is too large or too rich. I’m fairly certain I must have somehow been nursed on chocolate milk as an infant. I haven’t discussed that theory with my parents yet, but there could be no other logical explanation.

And one sip of a classic root beer float sits me in a small Pensacola kitchen with my two older sisters. My Grandma’s across-the-street neighbor was a tiny, Southern lady every bit as sweet as the floats she would dish up on any given hot Florida day. It was many years later before I even knew her real name- she was ‘the float lady’ to us. I remember her house was made of stucco- a new word in my six-year-old vocabulary, her colossal oak trees were even older than she was, and she made the best root beer floats I would ever taste.

The Hoback Hefeweizen at Snake River Brewing Company in Jackson, Wyoming was the single drink that convinced me- well into my twenties- that I actually did like beer. Good beer, that is. And I can’t drink one without feeling the satisfaction of a day well spent backpacking in the stunning Tetons.

A coffee bar at a college sorority mixer party began my love affair with fine coffees: an affair that has persisted through various hospital coffee carts, local study hideouts and charming outdoor Italian cafes.

I’m all set to test out a few new recipes this weekend. And every day of school is flooding new entries into my memory bank of all things flavor. I can’t help but wonder how each will shape the taste nostalgia of many tomorrows. Sweet, sweet life. Cheers-

Green beans, frizzy hair and a darn good chocolate chip cookie

Thirty-four years of chocolate chip cookies and I’m not even close to growing tired of those little rounds of chocolatey-studded comfortable heaven.

Well, thirty-four years might be slightly inaccurate. I’m not entirely sure I was fed a chocolate chip cookie in my first year of life. But it wouldn’t surprise me if it made the First Five Solid Foods list. At all.

Chocolate chip cookies have been my Maman’s go-to dessert as long as I can remember. And for good reason. Hers are completely perfect. I say ‘dessert’ but they have certainly counted as countless breakfasts, lunches, dinners and any time of the day or night snacks over the years. Not for lack of real food. Just my lack of discipline with her cookies.

Vivid memories of a certain day, about three years ago, go on record indisputably as my worst food day ever. And I use ‘worst’ strictly on principle. I decided to bake cookies. Not unusual. But for whatever reason on this day- between raw dough, warm out-of-the-oven cookies, and cooled ones still waiting on wire racks for their rightful resting places- I ate between sixteen and eighteen cookies. As close as I could figure. And I’d probably already eaten my usual Oatmeal Squares breakfast.

Quick mental math kicked on in my head: adding the ridiculous number of calories I’d just consumed, plus breakfast I’d already eaten, subtracting for the (thank goodness) about three hours of exercise I was doing daily at the time… and the sum equalled my eating only a can- yes, a southern seasoned can– of green beans for the entire rest of the day. Worth it? Every last mushy, olive-color bean… yes.

And I’m fairly certain these same chocolate chip cookies scored me friends all through middle and high school. My Maman was subtly brilliant- she brought them to every football game, every band competition… everyone knew- and loved- her cookies. But she would argue to this day that I had incredible friends- which I did- solely because I was a perfectly lovely teenage girl.

I’m compelled to disagree here. I was the quintessential nerd in every sense of the word. If I did bloom, it was most assuredly late. I played saxophone in the band, wore glasses and braces, was plagued with worse-than-average teenage acne, and had utterly untamable frizzy hair in the Alabama humidity. I probably reached my adult height of 5’10” by the age of fifteen. And I was smart. Really smart. Generally, a socially deadly combination for any teenage kid. But somehow, I had friends. And my friends had cookies.

As strange as it sounds, I don’t remember ever actually making cookies with my Maman when I lived at home. But I do remember having her recipe, neatly copied on a 3×5 card and taped to the inside of my kitchen cabinet door. The door closest to the mixer, of course. And every time I’ve moved, that little card, now yellowed with transparent spots of butter stain, has followed me.

And I may have tweaked this or that over the years, but essentially, here is Maman’s Chocolate Chip Cookie.

Yeilds 5-6 dozen cookies. I guarantee it won’t be too many, but you can halve the recipe easily if you really don’t like to share. Or you’re afraid of a can of green beans.

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup butter, room temperature
  • 1 cup butter-flavored solid vegetable shortening
  • 1 1/3 cups sugar
  • 1 1/3 cups dark brown sugar, packed
  • 2 tsp vanilla bean paste or vanilla extract
  • 4 eggs, room temperature is best
  • 5 cups all purpose flour
  • 2 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1 1/2 tsp salt
  • 4 cups chocolate chips (milk, dark, mini, chunks… or combo of whichever you have)

Method:

  1. Preheat oven to 350F.
  2. With a mixer, cream the butter, shortening, sugars and vanilla until light. Add eggs until mixed well.
  3. Add the rest of the dry ingredients, except chips, and mix until evenly combined.
  4. Stir in chips, and scoop or portion into balls. Dough can be chilled at this step for a few days. Chilled dough will also yield a taller cookie.
  5. Bake at 350F until edges just begin to brown but centers still look not quite done. Carry-over cooking from the hot pan will finish the center for a few minutes after removal from the oven.

For a comprehensive description of the science of the chocolate chip cookie- how to make a thin crispy one or a taller cake like one or various other tweaks to create YOUR perfect cookie- check out this brilliantly written blog, complete with incredible cookie photos: The Science of the Chocolate Chip Cookie. I don’t know Baker Bettie, but this article is a winner.

Candied orange peel

How many times has the initial bite- or even the first faint smell- of a certain food immediately launched you right back to a different time or place? For me it happens all the time.

Yesterday it was candied orange peel. We grilled breasts of duck and were finishing a sauce that included orange rind. One of my classmates had the brilliant idea to candy some of the leftover orange peel to add some needed flair to our green salad. Without a thought I popped a small piece in my mouth.

And I’m no longer in a bustling commercial kitchen in Boulder. It’s early December and I have all the time in the world. I’m sitting in a quiet Alabama kitchen, chatting with my Maman about everything Christmas, and eating a piece of her candied orange peel. We’re probably watching the birds and squirrels on her deck, or we might be planning and scheming about what to “fix” for dinner. I reach for a second piece. And I don’t even love the orange peel. I like it. I like the flavor and color, in small doses. But more, I like the familiar feeling I get when I eat it. Every December. For the past thirty years at least.

It usually lives in a particular cookie tin- a round light green metal one with tiny intricate multi-colored designs all over the outside. For the past few winters it has made its way, carefully tucked in plastic wrap, into boxes of cookies and fudge and other homemade candies that have arrived on my doorstep. And I’m pretty sure my Maman knows the orange peels would lose in a battle to chocolate any day of the week. But I think she also knows I need that little mouthful of her kitchen now and then.