Happy Birthday Grandma! Today is my grandma’s birthday and I am thinking about the ways she has inspired me over the years. She has always been a great cook and has cooked her entire life. At one point, she owned a famous deli with fresh made soups and cinnamon buns she served daily. My grandma has always had abundant energy, which she has focused in the direction of her loved ones. She has daring humour, and it can be surprising to hear this type of humour from your grandmother. However, she attends church regularly, and is proud to be a part of important groups such as Pathways, which is committed to supporting persons of all sexual orientations and gender identities. She is also celebrating later this month a rare achievement, 60 years of marriage to my grandpa.
When she was a young girl, people cooked everything they ate. It was not like you could pick up ready prepared food everywhere you went. If you could find free food on the land, you would be silly not to use it. I think that her stories of life in the old days made me curious about what the land has to offer and by extension, piqued my interest in the good stuff we glean from plants, i.e. herbalism.
About ten years ago I was making some jam from high-bush cranberries. This was all new to me. If you have not tried it, you should. It is a sweet jam that smells like a robust cheese. When I told her about my adventures with this strange fruit, she told me that they used to make this jam by the quart when she was a child. When I started studying herbalism, I wanted to tell everyone about the benefits of eating greens and drinking herbal teas. When I told my grandma about the benefits of eating wild greens, she assured me that this is old news; they used to do that in the old days too. She is a hardy woman, with good genes. After reading cookbooks such as Sally Fallon’s Nourishing Traditions and umpteen books on plants and beneficial plant constituents, I wonder, do her early days of living off the land have anything to do with her fortunate genetics?
One of the fascinating skills I love about my grandma is that she cooks without using recipes. She has challenged me in the past by stating if she knows how to cook, why would she use a recipe? In her mind, this is ridiculous. This approach has perplexed me for years. How does she do it? How can she trust that something is going to turn out right if she has no recipe to guide her with proportions, temperatures and time required for cooking food sufficiently? She claims it is simple, you know what cookie dough should look like by the texture, you know when a roast is perfect by the way it looks, smells, tastes. This method of cooking without a recipe requires only two extremely adaptable and portable things, plenty of practice and the use of your senses.
One day I want to cook in the same fashion. Why not? A good dish is not so much about following the perfect recipe. It is knowing what to do with what you have on hand and cooking these foods in a way that is pleasing to you and your guests.
A few days ago I made almost five quarts of green tomato salsa and two pints of green tomato ketchup. Bursting with achievement, I posted this on Facebook. Shortly after, I received a request from a friend for the recipes. But I did not have any real “recipe”! At the time, I was too busy to actually send out my instructions on what I did. And besides, the salsa and ketchup were my very own limited edition creations. There was no kitchen lab to develop a tested recipe.
While watching Glee last week, I realized that I do something like a song mash-up when I approach cooking. Instead, I do a recipe mash-up. Until I get to that point where I can cook without any recipes at all, I am consulting many cookbooks to better understand cooking and food. With my university training, I approach recipes as I would a research project. Then, I do a bit of a recipe mash-up. Generally, I look at three recipes to get an idea of what three different people would do with the same dish. Then, I create my own recipe, keeping in mind what I would want and what I have on hand. Some people would consider it pure chaos. I would rather think of it as a wee bit of spice to my life.
Will this method work for you? Try it! If you are unsure at first, you can consult one of the many tomes on cooking like How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman, The Way to Cook by Julia Child, Kitchen by Nigella Lawson, or heck, even Martha Stewart’s Cooking School and practice getting down the basics. After that, give it a try. Who knows, maybe one day you will have your own book of recipes developed from your very own recipe mash-ups. Not only that, but one day, you may even have that freedom to cook whatever you want, with whatever you have and make it great.
by Tammy Schmidt