Monday, January 30, 2012

The Beginnings of "The Cookbook"

Yes, you read the post correctly..."The Cookbook".  I am working my way through my mother's, grandmother's and aunt's recipes.  They are an expression of a time when the wind really did come sweeping down the plain and when we were considerably more rustic than we are now...of course, except for The Pioneer Woman who seems trapped in a time warp...sorry, couldn't help myself.  So...these lovely old recipes will be getting an update.  My plan is to provide the original recipe (in case, you would like to try your hand) and then my "urbanized" version of it.  This cookbook is also a tribute to my mom and all of the wonderful things she did, including, the quirky stuff, which actually made her who she was.  You'll be getting lots of recipes but also lots of memories.  Here's a sneak peek...hope you enjoy it!   

There was a time when I would say, “everything I know about cooking, I learned from my mom”.  Now, I say, “my mom gave me the foundation but what I did with it is my own”. 
My mom was an amazing cook but she was no teacher.  She had no interest in teaching you how to do much of anything really.  It was easier (and better) if she did it herself plus she didn’t have the patience for you to learn from your mistakes.  “Just let me do it.”  So, I would characterize my culinary education as “osmotic”.  I would watch and, with any luck, the knowledge, skill, talent or gift would simply waft its way over in the fragrance of roast turkey, banana cream pie or pot roast to me and I would grab it and file it in that part of my brain devoted to learning the tricks of my mother’s cooking. 
Case in point…gravy making.  My mom had two gravy making methods.  Gravy made in the pan from drippings where she added flour and milk or broth and gravy made from combining flour and water in a Mason jar and shaking it to combine then pouring it into a beef broth (this was the accepted method for pot roast, the other for fried chicken, chicken fried steak, etc.).  So, I watched my mom make gravy.  I asked so many questions about how to do it she would finally become so annoyed that she would say, “just watch and be quiet and you’ll figure it out.”  Well, crap.  She couldn’t or wouldn’t explain how much flour to use or how much fat to leave in the skillet or how much milk to pour in and when and what temperature it needed to be.  That was because she had made “cream gravy” so many times that she just did it.  There was no measuring.  She just knew.  And, I wanted to just know, too.  But, that sacred knowledge is only acquired after years of making gravy (and lots of other things) and she wasn’t going to make it easy for me…I had to learn myself.  That osmosis thing. 
I started studying cookbooks.  Not just reading for recipes but actually, pulling the methods apart and figuring them out.  And, one day, as I was considering my mother’s cream gravy and her “white sauce”, I happened upon “Mother sauces” and, one in particular, leapt off the page at me.  Béchamel.   A classic cream sauce made with a roux and milk.  Wait a minute.  Roux.  Fat and flour.  Thickening. Milk.  White sauce and yes! Cream gravy.  Hallelujah!  The Heaven’s opened and the angels sang…it’s a béchamel , you idiot!  Your mother has been making béchamel all these years and you just figured it out!  I couldn’t wait to share my newfound knowledge.  I discovered it…the Holy Grail!  Mom!  I’m so excited.  You know your cream gravy and white sauce…it’s actually a béchamel, the flour and the fat…that’s a roux and then you add the milk, it’s a Mother sauce, and, and, and, she said, “well, of course, I’m your mother and it’s mine.”

My Mom's Cream Gravy Recipe

Pour off part of the grease
Sprinkle flour over and cook while stirring
Add milk quickly or it will lump
Stir until thickened

Cream Gravy

1/4 cup all purpose flour
2 cups whole milk
Pan drippings (still in the pan) from frying chicken or chicken fried steak

Fry and then remove the chicken (or whatever meat) from the skillet (do not use nonstick or you will not have anything to make gravy with) and set aside.  Pour off enough fat so that you have about 1/4 cup left in the skillet.  With a metal spatula, scrape up as much of the crispy bits (of goodness) that you can.  Turn your heat under the pan to medium, sprinkle 1/4 cup of flour into the crispy bits and the fat.  The ratio of fat to flour is 1:1 so if you have 1/4 cup of fat, use 1/4 cup of flour and so on.  Stir until well blended. (You can use a whisk to keep the gravy from lumping.)  While stirring, pour in the milk.*  Cook gravy until it simmers and has thickened to the consistency that you prefer.

*Cook's note:  I have tried using warm milk and cold milk for the gravy.  There are two schools of being that if the milk is cold, your sauce will be lumpy.  I have not found that to be the case so I say, use it the temperature that you want.