Magna Cook Laude

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A new round of high school seniors are sprouting all over high schools right about now including my best friend’s oldest daughter, whom I consider my first child as well. They will spend the last year at home relishing the grandeur of being top of the school food chain while surviving the bombardment of advice hurled out to them by their parents, who are still befuddled as to how it came to happen that they now have a kid about to graduate.

Of course, there is the matter of all the practical skills that need to be taught, steps necessary for a smoother transition flying solo in the real world, like balancing a checkbook or cleaning spark plugs. I realize I need to hit the books and learn the 2014 equivalent of such skills so I may successfully pass them along to my child, but, lucky for me, my oldest is entering the 10th grade so I still have a few more years to prepare.

The advice I do find imperative to offer now is this:

If you haven’t already started, learn to cook!

Oh, sorry, I’ll say it louder:

COOK!

It’s what one does over there on that thing in that room you enter to grab a bag of chips or to whine to Mom about how hungry you are and when is dinner.

COOK!

Don’t worry, I am test-driving this on my teenager as well.

She is very proud of her culinary tastes while bypassing the topic of her culinary skills, eagerly informing others that she despises fast food of any sort, has for years.

Some of her favorites foods are (in random order):

Sautéed foie gras

Grilled octopus

Terrine (of any kind)

Bouillabaisse

Coq Au Vin

 

It’s easy for her to like them, I know. I’ve been serving her these dishes since she was a baby. So I remind her, she’s in for a shocker if she doesn’t learn to do this stuff, on her own, or at least, get off her computer and watch her mama make it. This stuff doesn’t come out of a box. I mean, it can, I assume, pretty much anything can nowadays. But that means it will be gross, loaded with preservatives, way too much salt, and ridiculously overpriced.

COOK!

I can hear you teens out there now:

Why cook?  I won’t have a kitchen in my dorm!

Eventually, you will have a kitchen. And it will scare the wajeebees out of you if you don’t know how to use it. Start bumping around in there now, with your training wheels on and perhaps a parent gently guiding you. Start small. Make pasta. Add butter. Grate cheese.

Parents, help out. This is the time you must tell your child to use fresh Parmigiano-Reggiano. Grasp your child firmly by the arms, look squarely into their eyes and announce: “You must never buy cheese in a green tube. Ever.”

They’ll thank you later.

 

And teens, did you know that if you boil up some farfalle pasta (Google it), add some broccoli florets, a wee bit of garlic, maybe some chopped up ham, a bit of salt and pepper and throw that all in a bowl with a drizzle of olive oil and a dab of butter you’ve got a meal that will feed an army and keep them happy? You want a happy army, trust me, you do.

And if you want to make them really happy, grate some lemon rind over that dish and mix it in. Wowza! They won’t know what hit them.

See?

COOK!

You can do it!

COOK!

When I was in high school I found amongst my mother’s cookbooks one that would forever change my culinary life. It was an unpretentious book with whimsical illustrations and food combinations that dared my adolescent mind: carrot soup with orange juice? Chicken with raspberries? You’re on!

It was called The Silver Palate, by Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins, a best seller that ushered in the wave of New American cooking in the 80’s, something I was completely oblivious to as a teenager growing up in Venezuela. I did the same thing Julie Powell did with Julia Child’s recipes in her book, Julie & Julia, which later became that Hollywood blockbuster, and I cooked my way through the entire book. I mean, I didn’t have a blog to record everything in (they didn’t exist in 1987) or the chance to meet Meryl Streep, so there are a few differences.

But I cooked!

How I cooked!

There were plenty of disasters along the way. I’ve chosen to forget most of them. You will forget yours too.

An enormous amount of successes are still revered. Remember the profiterole baked in that tiny toaster oven? Remember the endless rounds of strawberry mousse?   Remember how decadent the decadent chocolate cake really was?  All worthy of 3 Michelin stars!

Cooking delicious food is an easy way to dazzle potential boyfriends or girlfriends, by the way. Especially starving ones strung out on greasy pizza and Starbucks.

 

You don’t even have to visit the stovetop for a great meal.

Salads are good.

I learned this one from my Mom, who taught it to me one quiet Sunday afternoon my senior year when there was nowhere to go and nothing to do, just the two of us together. I was the baby of the family, the last to fly the coop, so on those days, there was a certain weight to the casualness of time for both of us, like if we were walking inside a frozen photograph frame. Mom whipped up the salad in minutes, while we talked about everything and nothing at all: the math test I had miraculously passed, the cover art chosen for the yearbook, the purple flowers that had finally bloomed in the front garden.

The salad was creamy and tart, fragrant and crunchy and instantly became a favorite of ours, a moment we shared regularly over the course of that year when we both knew that June was around the corner and inevitably our lives would be changed forever.

Mom gave me a copy of The Silver Palate as a going away present. It has the prized spot on my bookshelf today and I have to open it carefully nowadays, the binding is so shot, the pages so worn from so much use. I’ve mastered new American cooking and so much more over the years and I am constantly learning new techniques and dishes. But on those rare, quiet days when my teenage daughter miraculously has nowhere else to go, it’s my mother’s curry tuna salad that I like to prepare. I’ve already showed her how to do it too. We share it, just as I did so many years ago with my mother, casually, perhaps with a bowl of soup or a slice of freshly-baked bread and some heartfelt conversation: who liked whose photograph on Instagram, what are the latest dress styles for Homecoming, when would we go bathing suit shopping. Simple life moments bound together by food.

Marilyn’s Curry Tuna Salad

Ingredients

  • Vinaigrette:
  • 1/3 cup mayonnaise
  • 5 tablespoons sour cream
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • 3 teaspoons curry powder
  • 2 tablespoons hot sauce (optional)
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • Salad:
  • ¼ cup red onion, minced
  • ½ cup celery, minced
  • ½ cup carrots, minced
  • ½ cup broccoli, minced
  • ¼ cup green apple, peeled, cored, and minced
  • 3 tablespoons parsley, chopped fine
  • 1 can tuna
  • 1 cup cooked conchiglie pasta (a.k.a., shells)

Instructions

  1. In a bowl, mix all vinaigrette ingredients. Add salad ingredients and mix well. Adjust seasoning, if necessary.
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