Cooking advice from the master, my mom

BlogHer Original Post

Cross-posted at Simply Recipes 

My mother is one of those intuitive cooks in the kitchen. 73 years old, and having raised six kids, she doesn't follow recipes anymore. If you watch her while she cooks, the timing just appears to happen seamlessly. Whereas I'm good for only making one dish at a time, mom can coordinate a whole meal for 8 - a main course protein, one or two veggie sides, a starch, and a salad - without getting remotely flustered. She's always tasting whatever she is cooking, and adjusting the seasonings. She cooks from memory and a well developed sense of what works together well, and how flavors come in balance.

If you ever get the chance to meet my mother you'll quickly learn that she loves nothing more than to give advice. About everything. If you work with her in the kitchen, she'll continue to give you the same advice, over and over and over again, until it is clear to her that you have learned what she wants you to learn. Or perhaps it's just me that she needs to give the advice repeatedly to, since I'm a typical daughter, my mother can't tell me anything.

What are some of the salient words of cooking wisdom my alchemist mother has taught me over the years? Here goes:

Elise's Mom

1. Taste. Taste everything. Taste while you're cooking. Taste when you think it's done. Recipes are only guidelines and to achieve the right balance of flavors you have to taste and make adjustments.

2. Do not be afraid of using salt, sugar, or fat in your cooking. Everything is okay in moderation.

3. Balance acidity with sugar. When you are cooking a tomato-based sauce, tomatoes can be acidic, you may need to balance the acidity with a little sugar. You can either add a teaspoon of sugar to the sauce, or you can start the sauce with sautéed onions and or carrots, which are sweet and will bring balance to the tomatoes. Same goes for salad dressings. If you are making a lemon juice or vinegar and oil based dressing, add a little sugar to balance the acidity of the lemon or vinegar. (This is some of the best cooking advice I've ever gotten from anyone.)

4. Salt your food while cooking it. It will bring out the flavor of the food better than if you only add salt at the end.

5. Use whole, fresh ingredients whenever you can. By the way, if you use whole, fresh ingredients you don't have to worry about too much salt, because most of the excess salt we get in our diets comes from packaged foods.

6. Buy what's in season. It will taste better and be cheaper. If you don't know what's in season, learn. Ask your grocer.

7. When you buy lemon, lime, orange or grapefruit, try to pick the heaviest one of its size. That one will be the juiciest. (This is one of the first things my mom ever taught me about food, I can still remember being a kid of 7, picking out the heaviest oranges from the bin.)

8. Use a separate cutting board for cutting poultry, and wash thoroughly everything that the raw poultry touches - your hands, counter, knives, cutting board - after you're done.

9. Vary your meals from day to day. If you have chicken for dinner one day, have pork, beef, or fish the next. Do not eat the same foods every day. Our bodies are designed for variety.

10. Save bones from a chicken meal to make stock. Put the bones in a plastic bag in the freezer until you have the time, and enough bones, to make a batch. When you make the stock, if you let the fat settle at the top, when you refrigerate it, the stock will last longer because the fat layer acts as a protective barrier against bacteria.

11. A little bit of bacon fat is great for flavor, as is chicken fat, and of course butter. Do not be afraid to use these fats (in moderation, of course).

12. Grapeseed oil is the best oil to use for frying foods; it has a high smoke point and is high in Omega 3. The only two oils you need are grapeseed oil and olive oil.

13. If you keep cheese (cheddar, jack) exposed to a bit of air in the refrigerator, it will get a little dried out, but it will still taste good and it won't get moldy. If your cheese does get a little moldy, just cut away the mold.

14. Buy and use a pressure cooker. Don't be afraid of them. The new ones have all these great safety features.

15. If the food smells bad, don't eat it. Throw it out.

Being the dutiful daughter, of course I showed mom this list before publishing it. And of course she launched into a lecture about chicken stock. "Tell your people that they need to save the necks and backs." This list could easily go on, actually. Mom can talk for hours, in an informed and intelligent way, about why fat is good for you, the best way to brown meat, how to tell when a steak is done, how there is no one-size-fits-all diet for anybody, etc. etc. She's 73. She's beautiful, curious, kind, strong, happy and healthy. Everything I know about food and cooking is inspired by her example. One doesn't get luckier than that.

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