Who wants to reinvent home cooking every time they enter the kitchen?
Here’s a better question, how can I work to be present in the kitchen and produce tasty, nutritious food for our family?
While I have a strong memory of Mother’s cooking, I don’t recall many of the dishes. For me, home food begins in 1959 when we moved to Northwest Davenport where I lived at home until going to university in 1970. During those years Mom cooked what I believed was standard fare for working class people. If there was a typical dinner, it included beef or chicken as a main course, potatoes or rice, and a vegetable. Sometimes there was dessert. Dad got a discount at the butcher shop co-located at the meat packing plant where he worked. He brought home mostly beef and pork products, and we had plenty. Memorable tastes include liver and onions, beef vegetable soup served on white rice, and usual fare of hamburgers, grilled cheese and meat loaf. It was a staple cuisine that tasted good and provided nourishment.
When I became mostly ovo-lacto vegetarian in 1982, traditions associated with Mom’s cooking went out the window except when we visited her. I started cooking while I was in college and like most beginning home cooks was not very good at it. I recall serving Mother tuna and noodle casserole during the visit she made to my small apartment. I used her recipe, which included canned tuna and condensed mushroom soup. We got through the meal, one of the few during my life where she came to my place for dinner. I liked the dish with its savory richness. Today, I wouldn’t use tuna because of my mostly vegetarianism, but also because of over fishing of the species combined with the use of slave labor to harvest it in waters off Asia.
There is a utopian impulse in American society in which groups of people separate from social traditions and strike out anew. In that sense, a cook has a choice. Should we learn and perpetuate cooking traditions in our kitchen or improvise new meal solutions against a perceived and newly created blank slate? My choice is to make a cuisine from an ecology of food I identified and help create that borrows from everywhere to create new dishes. I may write a cook book to record the journey, but have little interest in creating traditions. A tasty, nutritious meal is enough.
In retirement for 16 months, I’ve found we have become increasingly isolated from society. Even though we rarely use the television set, I now understand the archetypal image of retired man yelling at the TV from a chair. It is harder than imagined to get out of the house for anything other than my part time jobs. The new paradigm has been good for our marriage and provides a natural break for utopian culinary endeavors.
The meal began with weighing out a pound of small potatoes from my barter arrangement with Farmer Kate. When I brought them to the kitchen, I didn’t know what I would do with them.
While looking through the weedy, end of season garden, I found three large Galine eggplants behind the foliage. I picked them and brought them inside.
On the counter was a good supply of garlic and cherry tomatoes. In the ice box was half a Vidalia onion, the last of the fresh garden celery, part of a bell pepper, some leftover black beans, and jars of thick tomato juice.
There was a meal in these ingredients.
After cleaning and trimming the potatoes I put them in a large sauce pan and covered them with tomato juice. My tomato juice is very thick due to a process I developed to use excess tomato water while canning. I brought the mixture to a boil then turned it down to simmer until the potatoes were fork tender.
I cut the eggplant with skin on into large chunks, soaked the pieces in room temperature tap water for 30 minutes, dredged them in flour, then fried them in two tablespoons extra virgin olive oil until browned on all sides.
In the Dutch oven I cooked the onion, bell pepper, celery and garlic in a tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil on high heat until tender. The only seasoning used was sea salt.
When the potatoes were done, I dumped the whole pan into the Dutch Oven, added the black beans and some cherry tomatoes, then added the eggplant. I scraped the bottom of the frying pan into the Dutch oven with a spatula to get all the flour and oil mixture and thicken the sauce.
I turned the heat to medium low and warmed until everything was evenly heated and the sauce thickened.
In retrospect, I could have added some frozen okra and seasoned it with red or green hot peppers. We keep the spicy dial turned to low in shared meals. It made four servings and was satisfying.
Humans consume only so many vegetables. 20 percent of an estimated 20,000 species of edible plants represent 90 percent of our food. Others may have made dishes similar to this potato eggplant stew. Each ingredient, each technique and each vegetable has its own detailed and unique history. There are a finite number of ways to pull them together into a tasty, nutritious dish. Improvisational cooking need not be unique, just as utopian living works to meet the same human needs as the rest of society. As a seasoned home cook, I no longer have to reinvent things. At the same time, improvising based on available ingredients renews our interest in cuisine.
It is okay to want that.