"Here," said Linda, handing me a well-worn recipe card. "This one never fails to please a crowd." Linda, my friend/mentor/boss, knew I was struggling to find the perfect menu for an upcoming family event. Linda is a cooking compatriot and likes to commiserate about all things "cookery." As I scan the ingredient list for "Chicken Mushroom Bake," I see the usual suspects for a good chicken dish: sherry, mushrooms, butter, wild rice ... what's this? Mushroom soup? Can't be. Not Linda.
"You use canned mushroom soup?" I said disbelievingly. And with an uncharacteristically sheepish grin, Linda just said, "Hey! What can I say? It's good. People like it."
She, like the long list of other cooking mentors in my life, eschews using canned soup in recipes. That lesson was burned into me a long, long time ago. "It's just not real cooking," they'd all declare. "Too processed. Not authentic."
When I was first learning to cook, I, too, would cavalierly refuse to open a can of soup, thinking that if I was going to be a "good cook," I shouldn't stoop to such bourgeois methods. I would create my own delicate sauces from scratch, making the roux, slowly adding fresh chicken broth, cream, a splash of wine, and just the right mix of fresh herbs from my own little kitchen garden.
Twenty-five years later, I can make a crack sauce. Real butter, flour, sea salt, freshly ground black pepper. They're all readily available in my well-stocked kitchen. I can whip up a velouté, Béarnaise, béchamel, you-name-it sauce.
From my very first cookbook, Glamour's "Gourmet on the Run" (a very indulgent purchase on a private school teacher's salary), to my last, "Giada's Family Dinners," (an autographed copy, I might add), through the hundred or so in between, including such venerable bibles as the "Joy of Cooking" and Julia Child's "The Way to Cook," I have faithfully studied the art of good cooking. I watch the Food Network just for company. Cookbooks are my favorite bedside reading. I've subscribed, and unsubscribed, to all kinds of cooking magazines. And I've learned a lot.
And now, 25 years after that first cookbook, I have come to store several cans of cream soups in my pantry. A humble tuna casserole is still in my go-to repertoire, along with hamburger stroganoff. The ubiquitous green bean casserole at Thanksgiving? Absolutely! Pouring a can of soup over a nice hunk of a less than tender beef in the slow cooker for several hours always yields great comfort food.
You see, one of the most important lessons I've learned from my cooking self-study course, along with pairing nutmeg with spinach or tarragon with chicken, is that really good cooks do so for the pure pleasure of creating something tasty for friends and family, not to impress anyone. That doesn't mean it has to be bland, ordinary, or repetitious. It does mean knowing your audience. And it does mean shortcuts are not the disgrace I once thought they were.
My husband had bragged about my cooking to his family, long before I met them.
"She can cook better meals than fancy restaurant chefs," he would say. Although I was glad he was proud of me, this was putting some pretty heavy pressure on me to produce. One of the first times I attended a church picnic with his family and contributed a dish, I made tabouli. It's a great salad. Fresh mint, bulgur, chopped cucumber and tomatoes, tossed with light, lemony vinaigrette. Although a few polite spoonfuls were taken, I pretty much had to eat it myself. "I should have warned you," whispered my husband. "These folks have pretty simple tastes."
I developed my strong interest in learning to cook by watching my aunt prepare and serve beautiful, delicious meals. The kitchen aromas were wonderful. There was always real butter, and the smell of melting butter always evokes great memories – and anticipation of great things to come. One Sunday a month, my parents would pack five or so kids in the car and drive from our little town in northwestern Pennsylvania to my father's mother's house in Pittsburgh for a feast. It was a three-hour trek back then, necessitating an ice cream stop at Howard Johnson's along the way for restless little ones. ("Pistachio ice cream. Sugar cone. Please.")
Those dinners were a treat and a delight for all the senses. Beautiful table settings, fresh flowers, candles, pretty linens, many forks. Some lovely appetizers were set out, with cloth cocktail napkins. Once, I recall, my Aunt Mary said to my dad, "Sorry, Joe, I got a little behind today and didn't have enough time to make the appetizer I wanted to." So, she improvised. (That's another sign of a good cook, in my book.)
She served fresh mushrooms stuffed with cream cheese. They were delicious, but my 8-year-old palate didn't recognize a unique flavor. My younger sister and I were parked by the coffee table, practically shoveling in the tasty mushrooms. "What's in the mushrooms?" I asked. "Curry." Curry, I say to myself; I'll remember that one.
What I also remember about my Aunt Mary was that she was an avid reader and collector of recipes. When I asked her once what her favorite magazine was, I expected her to say "Gourmet" or "Bon Appetit." But she said, "Family Circle. I learn a lot from the fancier magazines, but the recipes I really use and like the best come from Family Circle." (I'll bet she would have gone gaga over The Food Network.)
She wasn't influenced by the source so much; she was just confident in her ability to select just the right dish to please her guests, make it well, and serve it with a smile. Just like I will tonight, when I serve Linda's "Chicken Mushroom Bake."