Updated from the archives with new photos, first posted in 2008 when Elise’s mom was 73, she’s now 82. Happy Mother’s Day!
Years ago I was asked to write about what I’ve learned from my mother about cooking. Since at the time I was living with my parents and cooking with my mom almost every day, this wasn’t a difficult exercise. I’m still learning from her, though now occasionally she learns something from me too. ;-)
My mother is one of those intuitive cooks in the kitchen. 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 best at 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 mom you’ll quickly learn that she loves nothing more than to give advice.
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.
Elise and her mom in her mom’s kitchen
What are some of things about food and cooking my mother has taught me over the years? Here goes:
1. Do not be afraid of using salt, sugar, or fat in your cooking. They’re important for flavor and everything is okay in moderation.
2. Taste while you’re cooking. Taste when you think it’s done. To achieve the right balance of flavors you have to taste and make adjustments.
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 include in the sauce some 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.
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. Remember to put plenty of salt in your pasta water! 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.
5. Buy and cook what’s in season. It will taste better and be cheaper. If you don’t know what’s in season, ask. The people working in the produce department at grocery stores are usually more than happy to help.
6. Always read the ingredient label on the box or can. They put all sorts of junk in things these days. Especially watch out for anything that says “low fat” on the label; they usually pack those products with carb-based fillers.
7. Try to pick the heaviest one of its size when you buy a lemon, lime, orange, or grapefruit (and other produce as well). 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. 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). Fry foods with an oil with a high smoke point, such as rice bran oil or grapeseed oil. Olive oil is great for daily cooking needs. Regardless of the latest diet craze, your body needs fat to function well. So don’t be afraid of it.
10. Eat fresh fish the day you buy it and keep it cold before you cook it. Fish is best when very fresh.
11. If you want your meat to brown, don’t stir it, and don’t crowd the pan. Just let it sit there in the hot pan, until it is browned on one side. Then stir, or flip.
12. Buy and use a pressure cooker. Don’t be afraid of them. The new ones have all these great safety features. You’ll save plenty of time cooking with a pressure cooker, especially when cooking dry beans.
13. 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.
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 make jam, how to tell when a steak is done, how there is no one-size-fits-all diet for anybody, etc. etc. My mother is 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. Happy Mothers Day.
What are the most important things about cooking that you’ve learned from your parents? Please feel free to share in the comments.
By the way, here is a delightful graphic about my mom’s advice put together by Alicia Souza of AliciaSouza.com. Feel free to share on social media!