Chef Hector Boiardi, a Cleveland restaurateur, accidentally taught me how to cook.
I’m not sure how this happened, but I’ve been making the best darn food lately. It makes me wonder how a person gets to be a good cook.
Chefs are trained at schools like the Culinary Institute of America or even the local community college, but most home cooks don’t have the time or money for that. Maybe they want to take a cooking class, but mostly they just want to feed their family and friends, not whip up a banquet for 500. College programs are not very useful for the home cook. What makes some people really good at foodmaking, while others can’t even chop an onion?
I think it’s mostly a matter of experience. It takes a lot of cooking (and a lot of mistakes) to get any good at it. And even then a person still has to practice certain skills or she’ll forget.
It shocks me to realize this, but I’ve been cooking about 50 years now; I started when I was 7 or 8. No one taught me; I used to watch my grandmothers cook, but I was too little to trust with a knife. I’m sure I picked up some tips from them by osmosis, but otherwise I’m self-taught. My mother wasn’t much of a cook, although she played a crucial role in my learning, because she left home to go to college when I was in second grade, leaving my father, my two older brothers and me to fend for ourselves. My father couldn’t cook either, but my brothers and I ended up with some real skills. We’re all glad we learned, me especially, because I’ve never had a lover who could boil water. Hunger—and responsibility for others—make good teachers.
In second grade my father used to hand me a $20 bill and say, “Buy us a week’s worth of groceries.” As the youngest, I always got stuck with the jobs no one else wanted. But okay, Dad; I’d never even been in a grocery store before. And you can imagine, $20 didn’t go very far, even 50 years ago.
I’d buy bologna; that’s what we ate for sandwiches, one little slice apiece. I’d buy bread, which was often on sale at 3/$1, or 4 or even 5/$1. Today on sale, bread is $1.69 a loaf. I learned to watch my pennies and do all the adding in my head so I never “went over” at the checkout stand and had to put things back; it’s humiliating, and announces to the whole store that you’re poor.
I bought cereal for breakfast (Rice Krispies, Frosted Flakes, Cheerios) and a gallon of milk; a pound of hamburger, but then what? We ate a lot of mixes, convenience foods really, something we called “Kraft dinner” (mac and cheese, the same ghastly stuff kids are still eating today) and “au gratin potatoes.” I’m not sure we ever had any meat on those nights, supper just came out of a box. But on a nearby grocery shelf I found Chef Boy-ar-Dee spaghetti with meat sauce: half a pound of pasta, a little can of parmesan, a can of sauce. I bought that a lot. Friends of my parents, an Irish-American who married an Italian girl, introduced us to spaghetti when I was six; noodles and red sauce and copious amounts of grated cheese, which scared us half to death. In those days kids hated cheese, this sour, awful, foreign stuff, and Mr. Paddock threw it everywhere. But we ate it to be polite, and it was okay, and then one day a couple of years later, I made my first big Grocery Discovery…
A few feet away was a one pound box of Mueller’s spaghetti, twice as much as came in the Boy-ar-Dee dinner. I kept looking, and found a can of Boy-ar-Dee meat sauce, again bigger than the mix. Eventually I found a bigger can of parmesan—that green box that isn’t really cheese at all, but I didn’t know that then. And I realized that I could save money by buying each thing separately—if not right at first, then surely in a week or two, because the spaghetti and the cheese would last for another meal. So that’s what I did.
I can’t tell you how proud I was the first time I was able to buy an extra package of lunchmeat with the money I saved. I felt like the Family Hero.
One day I noticed that the Mueller’s spaghetti box had a recipe for meat sauce on the back: hamburger, onions, herbs, tomatoes, paste and water. The directions told me me how to make my own sauce from scratch. So I tried it, the sauce came out okay, and for the first time I was cooking.
My Grandma used to make an excellent potato soup, and one day I found a recipe for that, too. Wow, it was great, just like hers, except I put little parsley flakes in mine, just like the book said!
I didn’t perfect my own spaghetti sauce until I was in my 20s, but now my recipe card says, “Joshua’s Patented Spaghetti Sauce.” I never deviate from it.
What makes a good cook? It’s not just following recipes, of course. It’s learning to invent your own stuff. “Hmm, I wonder what it would be like if I threw some of this in?”
Some people never make a dish the same way twice; I’m not that way. I learned by recipes and I still have a card file full of them. When I invent something, I write down what I’m doing as I go along, and if it turns out okay or I get a better idea, I write that down too. When Jack and I were together, I used to solicit his feedback after every meal. He was the kind of guy who would say (about anything), “It’s good.” But I had to pry out of him what was good about it; eventually he got better at critiquing. I also revise my recipes when something works better than usual.
I’m currently on a campaign to make every recipe I’ve gathered over the years; like a lot of home cooks, I tend to stick with the tried and true, making the same things over and over. But I decided, either make new things or throw the cards out, it doesn’t help to carry them around for decades if I never use them. So for the past several months I haven’t made any of the old standbys for dinner. (I do have a weakness for my apple muffins, though.)
Two nights ago for the first time in my life I made bread pudding; found a highly-rated formula on Recipezaar and tried it. Man, is it good! Grandma would call it a custard, and of course she’d be right. I decided to top it with homemade lemon sauce, and found a recipe for it in an old Herald-Tribune cookbook, 3rd edition, 1945, With Wartime Supplement. Grandma gave it to my mother for Christmas that year; my parents were married three months before. That’s the same book I got my potato soup recipe from all those years ago; I never knew my mother to use that cookbook, but I made sure I inherited it.
Tonight I made Joshua’s Mushroom Burgers, which I’d tried a couple of times back in the ’90s but was never satisfied with. Tonight I lit a fire in the charcoal grill, used my wire grilling basket so the burgers didn’t end up in the ashes, and mixed my ingredients. Mom used to have a wooden contraption for making hamburger patties a uniform size, but it’s long gone; I remember the principle of it, so I put down a sheet of waxed paper, stuck a ball of meat on it, covered it with more waxed paper and flattened it with a salad plate, which works just as well with no cleanup. On to the grill; I remembered to spray the wire basket so the meat didn’t stick to it, and decided on 5 minutes per side. The first burger was so good I ate two of them, and I never do that; I weigh 125 pounds soaking wet and it doesn’t take much to fill me up. But one quarter-pounder wasn’t enough, I ate two.
I also had a canteloupe from Florida that I took a chance on, and it was juicy and luscious, not like those awful melons from California. This one was almost as good as a Vincennes muskmelon, and those are the best in the world. (Knox County, Indiana grows incredible produce.)
Still, that recipe card for mushroom burgers is on its way out. It calls for chopping the mushrooms and working them into the ground beef with chopped onions, basil and sour cream, but I couldn’t taste the mushrooms at all, so it just doesn’t work. I’ll write a new card, Josh’s New Mushroom Burgers, with sautéed mushrooms on top so you can taste them. (I also make Ranch Burgers that are to die for.)
All in all I’m proud of my cooking finally. When I was with Jack and he was so sick, cooking was work, not something I enjoyed. But now it’s almost fun. That’s another sign of a good cook, having fun with the process of making a meal, not just the eating.
I’m a lot more sophisticated in the kitchen than I was when I was in grade school, but one thing hasn’t changed since I outgrew Chef Boy-ar-Dee: I make almost everything from scratch. I grow some of my own food and can my own tomatoes. In fact, I’m pretty old-fashioned; both my Grandmas would be right at home in my kitchen. I feel sorry for people I see at the grocery store today buying all this packaged junk with the chemicals and sodium. Home cooking has become polarized since the introduction of industrial packaged stuff, with high-end foodies turning out fabulous meals for 5% of the population, 10% who can still make something out of nothing, and the other 85% losing all ability to feed themselves without a microwave. No wonder America’s so fat.
I spend about $35 a week now on groceries, which is pretty low. It’s not $20 a week for four hungry guys, but I’m eating better than ever and the rest is inflation. I haven’t had a bologna sandwich in years, but if I did, I’d make it with two or three slices, plus cheese. And mayo, not ketchup like when I was a kid—Hellmann’s mayo, the good stuff. Accept no substitutes.
If you’re interested, here’s the new burger recipe.
Josh’s New Mushroom Burgers
1 lb. ground round
2-3 oz. sliced mushrooms
1/2 T butter or margarine
1/3 C chopped onion
3 T sour cream + 1 T sour cream later
1/2 t dried basil, crushed (or 2 t fresh)
1/2 t garlic salt
fresh ground pepper to taste
4 hamburger buns
Mix beef, onion, sour cream and seasonings in large bowl. Form into patties and grill over medium-high heat; turn after 5 minutes or so. Sauté mushrooms in butter in small frypan over the fire as burgers cook. When burgers are done, remove to plate; butter and toast buns, cut side down, for a minute. Top burgers with mushrooms, spread sour cream on bun tops. Enjoy!
And just for my own benefit, here’s a list of my permanent recipes; the others I’m still testing. You’ll see how traditional I am; I always was a Grandma’s Boy.
Josh’s Apple Muffins (big chunks)
Applesauce (homemade and warm, almost dessert)
Josh’s Better Baked Beans (vinegar & hot sauce)
Baking Powder Biscuits
Josh’s Banana Muffins
Peter’s Banana Oatmeal Cookies
Josh’s Bean Soup (with ham hocks)
Josh’s Basil Beef and Noodles
The Greatest Beef Stew
Beef Teriyaki Stir-Fry
Scott’s Blue Cheese Dip/Spread
Bread Pudding (brandied raisins!) and Lemon Sauce
Josh’s Cream of Celery Soup
Blue-Cheddar Cheese Ball
Cherry Cheese Bars (great at Christmas)
Chicken à l’orange
Chicken and Noodles
Josh’s Chicken and Rice Casserole
Chicken and Rice Soup
Chicken Fried Steak (a Hoosier Specialty)
Lemon Chicken Marinade
Josh’s Chicken Noodle Soup
Barbara’s Chicken Parisienne
Josh’s Chicken Salad with dill
Josh’s Chicken Tarragon (my first real invention)
Coq au Vin
Josh’s Bacon Corn Chowder
Martha’s Sweet Corn
Croutons with Herb and Garlic; Homemade Bread Crumbs
Josh’s Cucumber Soup (perfect for a summer day)
Cucumbers and Onions
Eggs à la Wild Mushroom (a defunct New York restaurant, 9th Ave at 23rd)
French Toast (a childhood recipe, with jam and syrup)
Hoosier Fried Chicken (secret: cast iron skillet)
Josh’s Fried Perch
Josh & Mom’s Fruit Salad
Josh’s Potato Frittata
Grandma’s Goulash (both Grandmas)
Evie’s Southr’n Style Green Beans (pronounced suth-run)
Green Bean Casserole (so sue me, it’s good)
Grilled Chicken Quarters
Grilled Potato Slices
Ham and Mushroom Crepes
Mom’s Hoosier Chili (Jack called it Tomatoburger Soup; not hot)
Josh’s Hungarian Goulash
Italian Chicken Rolls
Kessler Cocktail (virgin mary)
Leftover Pot Pie
Macaroni and Cheese Not From a Box
Mashed Potato Casserole
Mustard Meat Loaf
New Meat Loaf
Mom’s Onion Dip (best thing she made, so filed under M for Mom)
Moo Goo Gai Pan
Vincennes Muskmelon Shake (OJ and protein powder, stunning)
Oatmeal Raisin Cookies
Martha’s Pan Gravy (my mother’s was this cream stuff, tasty but leaden, the opposite of kosher)
Peach Cobbler (cherry, blueberry)
Evie’s Peas ‘n’ Cheese
Pork Chops & Vegetables
Slow-Cooked Pork Chops with Apples
Dave’s Baked Pork Chops with Dressing
Grilled Pork Tenderloin Sandwiches (another Hoosier classic)
Pot Roast in Foil
Pot Roast with Vegetables
Mom’s Potato Salad (she did a few things well, this was one)
Grandma’s Potato Soup
Josh’s Ranch Burgers
Josh’s Red Beans and Rice (key: soy sauce)
Stovetop Rice Pudding
Salad Dressings (vinegrettes – Dill, Italian, Sweet & Sour, Tarragon Italian)
Josh’s Salmon Casserole
Ed’s Grilled Salmon Ponzu
Jamie’s Sausage Gravy
Josh’s Marinated Shrimp Kabobs
Joshua’s Patented Spaghetti Sauce
Steak Diane Flambé
Josh’s Steak Soup
Josh’s Stuffed Peppers
Stuffed Pork Chops
Cheese- and Meat-Stuffed Shells (conchiglione)
Sweet and Sour Meatballs
Sweet and Sour Pork, Chicken or Shrimp
Josh’s Swiss Steak
Grandma’s Tomato Juice
Josh’s New Tuna Mac
Tuna and Noodle Casserole
Slow-Cook Tuscan Beef Stew
Josh’s Grilled Veggie Kabobs
Martha’s Whiskey Sour
* * *
A gardening note: the deck is done, with five urns of petunias. I like petunias, but they’re a pain in the ass because you have to deadhead them all the time. I used to plant dozens of them in the ground, which meant sitting and bending constantly, and the flowers are sticky; no fun. Maybe they’ll be less work in the urns, I’ll walk past them all the time and won’t ignore them, and with only 3 plants per urn to deal with, they’ll be less of a hassle. The colors are pretty and they cheer up the deck, which also has boxes of marigolds and begonias.
Meanwhile here’s a Petunia for you to look at.++
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