The next thing she taught me how to cook was scrambled eggs, a favorite dish of my sister's, although mom's teaching method nearly changed that. "So after you pour the egg, you get your spatula, and you see this scum here on the bottom, you scrape up the scum."
"Moooom, ew!" Emily was trying to read or do homework, if I recall.
"Well, you do. Here, you try."
Then came a few more things. Pasta. Brownies. I loved making brownies, because after she made the batter, we got to lick the bowl and spoon. I always tried to get the bowl, even though Mom invariably made sure that there were equal amounts on both, and invariably less than a tablespoon's worth.
She was an improvisational chef, and though I'm glad to have picked up her talent for making dinner out of whatever was at hand, it made getting a recipe out of her nearly impossible. I'd say, "Mom, how do you make that chicken and dumplings?"
And she'd say, "Well, you get your chicken and you put it in a pan with some olive oil or butter or fat or whatever, and..."
"--Wait, how much chicken?"
"Oh, you know, a package."
"Uh... use boneless thighs, if you want boneless chicken. Or breasts. Drumsticks can be a little harder, but--"
"--okay, sorry, so you put the chicken in a pan with some fat, and then what?"
"Onions. Green onions if you have them, or chives, or just yellow onions, you have to have onions. You can't really do it with onion powder, although it's not terrible if that's all you've got. Anyway, you just cook them almost all the way, put on some flour or some cornstarch, add some water, put the biscuits on top, and put the lid on and walk away for ten minutes, that's all."
"Got it. Wait, how much water?"
"Oh, a cup or two, depends on the size of the pan, you know. And pepper, it needs pepper."
Later, I got my hands on her cookbook, which was not hugely of value for its printed matter, but for the things she'd hastily written down on the endpapers. Of course, even though these were less vague in terms of measurements, they were still sometimes laughably brief. Several just had ingredients. One recipe had four whole words of instruction:
1 1/2 C oats
1 C hot water. Let set.
Add 2 squares chocolate,
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup white sugar
teaspoon baking soda
1/2 cup butter
1 1/2 cups flour
I actually just found an old Notepad file of the same recipe, which she gave me over the phone, so it had more instructions and more swearing:
1.5 cups oatmeal
1 cup boiling water
Mix together; let sit.
2 squares chocolate
1 cup brwn sugar
1 cup white sugar
1/2 cup butter
Melt all that shit together.
Add 2 eggs after that shit cools.
Add oatmeal crap.
Cup and a half of flour
tsp baking soda
Then add some vanilla.
350 for 20 minutes to half an hour
or poke the center until it kinda bounces back.
But others were fairly complete, and results of her experimentation over the years, like The Barlow Cheesecake, which I'm going to make one of these days. Anyway, whatever I was trying to cook, the dish would usually turn out, partly because I'd have seen her make it, and partly because she liked durable, flexible recipes.
I recently got the chance to try writing down some of them, and some of my own recipes, for one of my nephews, who has expressed an interest in cooking. I tried to write down everything, not just the right amounts of things, but also the way in which I would do things at the same time to try to have a complete dinner all ready. Here is one of the final 'fancy' recipes I wrote down for him:
1 flank steak
1/2 bottle cheap Italian Dressing
Fresh rosemary, if you have it.
8 russet potatoes
3 tbsp garlic (powdered, paste-inna-jar, fresh and minced, whatever)
Chopped fresh rosemary, if you have it (if you don't, get some dried rosemary and crush it into your palm with your thumb to crack it into smaller pieces. This will hurt a little, but is very effective.)
1 candy bar or granola bar
At least two hours before, take the flank steak out of its package and put it in a gallon ziploc bag. Pour a bunch of Italian dressing in the bag. Seal it and put it back in the fridge.
Scrub the potatoes, but do not peel them. Preheat your oven to 375, and get a long casserole dish or a cookie pan with sides. Cut the potatoes into something like one-inch cubes. Put the potatoes into the dish and drizzle generously with olive oil. Add the garlic and dust with salt, pepper, rosemary, and Italian seasoning. Then stir it all around in the pan until the potatoes are fairly evenly coated with all that stuff. Put it in the oven.
Walk away for an hour. The house will begin to smell tremendously good. Open the oven and stir the potatoes around with a spatula. Glare at them for smelling so great. Eat the candy bar. Let the potatoes cook for at least another half hour before coming back. Stir the potatoes around with a spatula again. Are they looking goldenly crispy and perfect? Excellent, turn off the oven and leave them there while you make the steak. If not, leave the oven on while you make the steak.
Chop the fresh rosemary, if you have it. Get a big skillet. Turn on the stove's vent fan. Pour a teaspoon or two of olive oil in it and turn the heat up to high. Sprinkle a tablespoon of fresh rosemary into the pan. Turn the heat down a little. Cook the flank steak for five minutes on each side. Turn down the heat more if it starts to smoke.
Then, turn off the stove and remove pan from heat. Turn off the oven. Walk away for five minutes. Do not touch the steak. Do not turn it. Do not cut it. Just go away.
Come back. Don't make eye contact with the steak. Lay out your plates. Set the table. Get a cutting board and a very large, very sharp knife. Ten minutes should now have passed since you turned off the heat. Take the flank steak out of the pan and put it on the cutting board. Slice it thinly and against the grain. Serve with the potatoes and something green - fresh spinach leaves, steamed broccoli, or green beans sauteed in a little teriyaki sauce.
If you are very lucky, you will have leftover sliced steak, because this makes a terrific sandwich for lunch the next day. To make that sandwich, turn your oven on to "Broil," then get a cookie sheet. Put down two slices of buttered bread, butter-side-up. Lay strips of steak on top of the buttered bread. Then put cheese on top of both, preferably something a little bit soft like provolone or butterkase. Slide in the oven and watch it melt, take out when cheese gets bubbly, devour.
It might take him a while to get interested in cooking to the point that he really looks at the recipes, but maybe in time he'll get to liking these notes the way I think fondly of my mother's handwaving and swearing. Next week will be my birthday, and while I won't manage it this year, someday I will make her version of the Chocolate Icebox Pudding recipe that used to be on the back of a box of Baker's chocolate. We always called it Chocolate Ook Cake. I haven't found that modified recipe, though I wrote it down once. She always reminded me that Baker's chocolate has been around for a very long time, and it used to come in boxes that were double the size, and that eggs also used to be bigger, so you had to make allowances and changes, and besides it was probably made with ladyfingers but I can't remember, damnit, where's the beaters for the mixer. (Or something like that.) She only bothered to make the sponge cake for it once or twice; the rest of the time she'd buy one at the store, and get out her bread knife and carefully cut the cake into eight or ten thin layers, and she'd usually cut one at a funky angle or break it by accident. Finally, when the chocolate ook was mixed, she'd daub it and pour it carefully, layer by layer, until it was time to coat the cake. I'd clear a space in the fridge, and sometimes the layers would start to lean and slip and she'd get bamboo skewers and stab them into the cake as supports.
She was never entirely confident about her cooking, which was ridiculous. Sure, sometimes she burned things, that happens to us all, but Christmas Eve dinner she'd always proclaim that she'd ruined something - overcooked the potatoes, the salad was wilted, the beef was too tough - but maybe we could eat it anyway, oh well. And of course it would always be delicious. It was always the same with this cake. While it was setting up and chilling in the fridge, she'd always wonder if she'd gotten it right and how maybe it wouldn't quite turn out this year. The next day we'd cut it and the layers would zigzag beautifully, and the chocolate ook would stick to the knife and she'd have to scrape it off to get a clean cut on the next piece. She just made a habit of scraping the knife right on your plate, first, so after you'd finished your piece of cake you could eat this extra spoonful of cold chocolate sludge.
I know I don't necessarily make it sound appealing, but nothing will ever taste more like summer, more like my birthday, than that cake.