Friday, June 17, 2011

I Don't Hate To Cook. Much.

I'm pretty sure the only cookbook my mother owned when I was growing up was Peg Bracken's The I Hate To Cook Book. The funny thing is, I don't think she ever used it. I can't remember having eaten any of the dishes in it, at least not until I was in college, borrowed the book, and tried out a few recipes, which were not great (that is, of course, an enormous understatement), but quick and easy enough for someone working and going to college at the same time. I guess my mother hated to cook even more than Peg Bracken did. She was also a single, working mother. That doesn't leave a lot of time for cooking. It doesn't leave a lot of money either.

Well, the point of the book was never the recipes, anyway. It was the attitude. When Peg Bracken died a few years ago, the New York Times obituary described her book, first published in 1960, as "subversive" -- a little appetizer for the women's movement that was already cooking:
Long before the microwave became a fixture of every home, “The I Hate to Cook Book” was creating a quiet revolution in millions of kitchens in the United States and abroad. Three years before Betty Friedan touched off the modern women’s movement with “The Feminine Mystique,” Ms. Bracken offered at least a taste of liberation — from the oven, the broiler and the stove.
Yeah, sure, Julia Child had better recipes, but she couldn't write like Peg Bracken:
Put the lid on and put the casserole in a 275 degree oven. Now go back to bed. It will cook happily all by itself and be done in five hours.
-- Recipe for "Stayabed Stew"

I'm pretty sure I never learned anything about cooking from Peg Bracken, but I learned something about writing: Get to the point as quickly as you can.

Of course, that's an aspiration I almost never achieve.

Reading the book as a feminist college student in the seventies, one little thing about it annoyed me. Peg Bracken was a working writer and copy editor. But a lot of her comments suggest that not wanting to cook isn't a matter of having other things to do. It's just laziness. For instance, from that same recipe for "Stayabed Stew":
This is for those days when you're en negligee, en bed, with a murder story and a box of bonbons.
Or maybe at the office all day and then home trying to get the kids to do their homework?

Sometimes the first step in a revolution is very, very small.

Nevertheless, I still have my mother's old copy of the book. It lost both front and back covers years ago, and I certainly never use the recipes, but I can't quite bring myself to toss it out.

Back to my mother and cooking. She was very big on frozen fish sticks and hamburgers on payday and mayonnaise sandwiches or "concoctions" on the days before payday. "Concoctions" consisted of whatever bits of things she could find in the house thrown together in a casserole and baked.

Sometimes they were actually edible.

Not always.

The indigestibility of my mother's concoctions has always made me wary of creativity in cooking. With a recipe, you know that most times you will end up with a product that people can actually eat. It may be great, it may be so-so, but you rarely need to just toss it in the trash. I like the reliability of recipes. Or maybe I just don't trust my own cooking skills enough to let go.

I mean, I inherited my mother's shortness, thin hair, tone-deafness, and her passion for books, history, and politics, why should I be any better than she was at concocting recipes?

But for the past few years, we've been eating almost entirely vegetarian meals, which means there are a lot of vegetables around. I often make something good from a vegan cookbook, but end up with a vegetable bin holding half a bunch of kale, and half a red pepper. And then there's some roasted butternut squash in a ziploc box. I'm not as poor as my mom was, but I still don't like throwing out perfectly good food. What do I do with all the bits and pieces of leftovers?

Oh, God. Not a "concoction." Concoctions are dangerous -- or at least indigestible.

And yet, somehow, this one came out pretty good.

Kale and Butternut Squash Salad
1 Tbl. sesame oil
1 cup red onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 red bell pepper, diced
4-5 cups chopped kale
1 cup roasted butternut squash, cut in 1/4" dice
1 piece (3.5 oz) Trader Joe's savoury-flavored baked tofu
1 tsp. rice vinegar
1 tsp. tamari sauce
1/8 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes
2 Tbl. sunflower seeds.

Heat the oil in large pan. Add onion and red pepper, and saute for 3-4 minutes, until the onion is soft. Add the garlic and kale and cook until the kale is wilted.

Add all the remaining ingredients.

You can eat it hot, let it come to room temperature, or refrigerate it for later.

It's all good.

Almost as easy as a Peg Bracken recipe, too.


Domenico Maceri said...

My mother did not use cook books since she had only a second grade education and read with great difficulty. She cooked by using recipes she had in her head. Lots of pasta and beans and other things that were easily available. Hardly any meat since it was too expensive. Sunday was always pasta with red sauce and if some meat was available, some meatballs. When we came to the States she discovered steaks were cheap. So for a while we had the same dishes we had in Italy with the extra meat portion. I now realize that the dishes without meat were very healthy.

Linda said...

I would love to be able to cook with recipes in my head. I don't think my brain has enough room in there, though.