I grew up in a home with a great love of food. But my parents approached food and cooking with completely different attitudes.
In our house, my Mom stayed home to look after my sister and me, while my Dad worked full-time. So Mom cooked all the weeknight dinners, and Dad cooked on the weekends, including all the big family meals.
Mom often made casseroles (this was the 80s after all) and one-dish dinners. I found out much later that she made a point to cook one vegetarian supper every week. One of her favourite cookbook authors was Jane Brody, the ultimate 80s health guru, whose books include The Good Food Book - Living the High Carbohydrate Way (can you believe how much things have changed??).
Mom made sure we were eating healthful foods. We accompanied her on trips to the health food store where she ladled natural peanut butter into plastic containers. I remember snacks of GORP (Good Old Raisins and Peanuts) and ants on a log, and there were never chips or pop in our cupboards. I barely knew what Joe Louis and Passion Flakies were, besides seeing the occasional glimpse in my friends' lunches. But I never felt like I was missing out. She baked treats a lot, and we always had delicious homemade cakes on our birthdays.
My Dad's meals were nearly always the protein-starch-vegetable formula, though he was also a big salad guy. He loved meat, and he loved seafood even more. His food was simple but always delicious. He loved to barbeque, often year round, and in the summer there was always fresh shellfish like lobster and clams.
My Dad's cooking was all about pleasure. His primary concern was not health, but taste. He fried his fish in bacon fat because it tasted damn good. He liked mashed potatoes with lots of butter and milk, grilled onions and mushrooms, steamed swiss chard with a side of mayonnaise (which as a child I thought looked absolutely disgusting). I never really talked to him about it, but I think he tried to bring out the real tastes of foods. My Dad died more than six years ago, and I really wish we could have had more conversations about eating and cooking.
I loved the meals both my parents made, and I realize that I've incorporated bits and pieces of both their styles into the way I cook today. I'm definitely interested in cooking for health, and in the benefits of vegetarianism. When I plan our daily meals I am conscious of making sure we have enough vegetables and fibre. I'm not a big casserole person, but even when I'm cooking with meat I gravitate towards quick, one-dish meals.
But I think my real love of cooking comes directly from my Dad. My Mom loves and appreciate food, but I know cooking isn't always her favourite thing to do (maybe because she was the one churning out reliable weeknight meals for years!). I love experimenting with new flavours, and I don't mind spending a long time in the kitchen to make a fabulous meal.
Mom always had a stable of meals in rotation on our dining room table. It's a smart idea - I'm sure I'll be the same way when I have kids. Since we're still in our freewheeling childless days, J and I often try a new recipe every night of the week. But I would love to eventually have about 25 recipes that I know and love, that we can make quickly and easily for weeknight suppers.
Lately I have been fondly remembering these weeknight meals from my childhood. I think it's because Mom made our favourite things over and over, imprinting their delicious flavours on my memory. Creamy baked macaroni and cheese, Italian fish casserole with noodles and tomatoes, shepherd's pie with a crispy cheese topping ... I think we all have these childhood food memories. The food might have been simple, plain or maybe even mediocre, but it's the memories that make it special. I remember the casserole dishes she always used for certain foods, and taking the leftovers for lunch in little plastic thermoses that kept it warm until noon.
I think my Mom's food actually tasted good, though. I don't think I've elevated it in my memory to undeserved status. Which is why I want to start recreating some of those meals in my own kitchen. The first one was Turkey Tetrazzini, an Italian-esque supper she made many times, often with leftover turkey or chicken. It's an easy meal that comes together very quickly if you're using leftovers, and you can adapt it in any number of ways. We used delicious rice pasta we brought back from Italy and leftover turkey from our belated holiday meal with J's parents back in January. I know these photos don’t make it look like the most appetizing dish, but I promise it tastes good!
I was curious where the name Tetrazzini came from. It sounds vaguely like a kind of noodle, but the casserole is made with spaghetti. It turns out this is a completely American dish, invented either in San Francisco or New York and named after an Italian opera star named Luisa Tetrazzini. Oh well. It doesn't have to be authentic to be delicious!
Adapted from Jane Brody’s Good Food Book
I was inspired by the wikipedia article, which says it's traditional to use almonds in this dish. My mother never did, but they added a nice flavour and texture element. You could also add leftover cooked vegetables such as broccoli, peas, or green beans.
½ pound spaghetti
½ pound mushrooms, sliced (about 3 cups)
I Tb. butter or margarine
2 Tb. Flour
½ tsp. salt
½ tsp. freshly ground black pepper
2 cups milk, cow's or unsweetened soy
2 tsp. soy sauce
½ cup shredded Swiss or Cheddar cheese (optional)
1 green pepper, seeded & diced
4 or 5 sliced scallions
1/2 cup sliced almonds
2 cups cooked turkey (about ½ pound), cut into small cubes
¼ cup grated Parmesan
Cook the spaghetti in salted, boiling water until al dente and drain well.
In a large, heavy saucepan over medium heat, sauté the mushrooms in the butter, stirring them often, until they are just tender.
Stir in the flour, salt and pepper, coating the mushrooms. Gradually add the milk, stirring constantly. Add the soy sauce, and simmer the sauce, stirring it, until it has thickened somewhat.
Add the Swiss or Cheddar, green pepper, and scallions to the sauce, and mix the ingredients well. Stir in the almonds, turkey and spaghetti, combining well. Pour the mixture into a greased 2-quart shallow casserole or baking dish. Sprinkle the top of the casserole with the Parmesan.
Bake the casserole, uncovered, in a preheated 350º oven for about 20 minutes or until it is heated through. Raise the heat to 450 and cook for another 5 to 10 minutes, or until cheese on top is browned.