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The Unnatural Cook

a chronicle of weekly meal plans from someone who can't just throw a meal together

Tag Archives: Mom

After I left home I got the impression that my mother lived on cottage cheese and english muffins. It may be a false impression but the older I got, the emptier her fridge seemed to be. I understood, intellectually, that she was tired of cooking; but it still upset me. On my own for the weekend without husband & kids, I find myself subsisting on peanut butter and jelly & cereal. It’s one of those times I wish she were still here so I could pick up the phone and say, “Now, I get it.”

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Writing an unsatisfying post is like eating an unsatisfying meal: it has to be done but it is vaguely disappointing. What to do about a night like last night if you are compulsive enough to write every night but not inventive enough to find something, really, to say?

The best thing is to write better the next day, satisfy the intellectual taste buds with heartier fare. Will meatloaf do?

The first time I made meatloaf for my husband (long before he was my husband, I imagine) I made it the way my mother did: flat. My mother liked her meat well done enough that it could be fairly called burnt. So when she made meatloaf she would make a loaf and flatten one end into a thin rectangle, like a small padded envelope, just for herself. After my father and older sister had both left the house, my mother and I stopped bothering with the loaf part because we both preferred the caramelized, slightly blackened taste of our flat loaf. We ate it this way for so long that when I made it for my husband it didn’t occur to me it was a strange thing to do. He was mildly horrified by the result and it was one of those times when I was forced to look back on my childhood at something that seemed perfectly rational and normal and say, “Oh, was that weird?”

So I’m back to loafy meat loaf although I suspect I’d still love it flat. I’ve adapted my mother’s recipe only slightly, adding one egg and some breadcrumbs because otherwise, in its loaf form, I can’t cut the slices without them falling apart. I also added bacon because, as porkfest demonstrated, there’s nothing that can’t be improved by adding little pork.

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My mother gave me my Juice-o-Mat. It’s one of those rare objects that exceeds expectations in both form and function. I used it tonight to squeeze the lemon for the coleslaw because I was afraid I wouldn’t get the required 4t. of lemon juice from my one lemon. Juice-o-Mat came through.

Dinner was a new recipe: Turkey Sloppy Joes from Real Simple. It was fast, easy and everybody liked it. There was a request to make the Sloppy Joes less sweet so maybe I’ll cut the brown sugar in half next time. I looked up dressing for the Lemon Coleslaw on Epicurious and added poppy seeds to the recipe. I used a Meyer lemon which gave it a nice, soft flavor. I also served leftover baked beans from the freezer as a side dish but that was a mistake; the beans and the sloppy joes tasted too similar. We still seem to be on a summer food kick – apparently global warming also affects taste buds.

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Camping for dinner: hot dogs, baked beans & coleslaw. Nothing about this day matched the spirit of the food at all. Well, that’s not entirely true. When we first started camping with the kids they were only about four and so getting camp set up involved lots of yelling. We’d arrive late, have to get the car unpacked, the tent up, start the fire, keep them away from the fire, make dinner. Finally we’d eat and everything would settle down. So if I think about those days, then yes, camping for dinner may have been an appropriate meal for my cranky, snappy, self.

My mother used to say that my favorite book was Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad, Day. Nothing very bad or horrible really ever happened to Alexander; it was just lots of little things went wrong. He got the middle seat, his ice cream fell of the cone, he had to wear his train pajamas. His mother would say to him, “Some days are like that.” She was a wise woman.

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Meatballs and spaghetti is the first dish I learned to cook. It was my favorite meal as a child and is my children’s favorite meal now. My mother always made a huge pot for the two of us and left it in the fridge. We ate it night after night with pleasure. I still make a huge pot although I freeze the leftovers. I try to get three meals out of it but we always eat so much it’s hard to make it stretch. I rarely serve anything with it. Don’t want any distractions.

There is nothing fancy about this recipe. I make it by heart and will try to give instructions but you’ll have to wing it and have faith that the plain ingredients will cook down to something wonderful.

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For Christmas a friend gave me a jar of goose schmaltz rendered from the Christmas goose she cooked. My mother used to keep a can of bacon fat under the kitchen sink to cook with* and my friend’s Irish grandparents saved their fat too: the grandmother for cooking and the grandfather for repairing farm equipment. I’ve never had goose schmaltz at my disposal before and in the absence of a tractor, I roasted the potatoes in it. They tasted wonderful but I set the oven too low (400° instead of my usual 450°) and so the potatoes wouldn’t brown.

I had it all planned out nicely so that while the potatoes were roasting I would cook the ingredients for the frittata, make the salad dressing and have dinner on the table by 6:00. Didn’t work out that way; dinner showed up an hour late. I got so flustered I came perilously close to burning the bottom of the frittata because I wasn’t paying attention to the heat on the stove. In the end, I only burnt a small piece and a kind person would call it “well done.” I still am not sure why sometimes my potatoes come out dark and crispy and sometimes they don’t. They always stick to the pan terribly. Advice anyone?

Not all meals can look beautiful and I guess tonight’s lesson was that simple dishes can go as wrong as complicated ones. The frittata recipe is usually a no-brainer. It’s basically 8 eggs, 1/4 cup heavy cream and whatever fillings you want. The cooking technique is simple: 5 minutes on the stove, 2 minutes under the broiler. I always use a cast iron pan and I never have trouble getting the frittata out clean. It’s a good way to use up leftovers and assuming you know your way around a potato, it should make for a quick and easy dinner!

*CORRECTION: My sister has since informed me that as she recalls it, my mother never once cooked with the bacon fat. She kept it under her sink because she was afraid to pour it down the drain, thinking it would clog the pipes. I think she’s right and it would explain my own fear of pouring fat down the sink. I ask my husband if it’s really okay every damn time….

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