I don’t know the difference between couscous and quinoa. Actually, I had never heard these words until my youngest daughter attended the esteemed Stratford Chefs School. Nor did I realize what an abysmal cook I was. Early in class each student was asked by Chef to prepare a traditional family meal from their childhood. My daughter chose ham and scalloped potatoes and lemon meringue pie, our traditional special occasion dinner. When Chef deemed the meal boring, brown, and all the same texture, she was highly insulted. The meal we now fondly refer to as “the brown meal” would become an enduring family joke. Years later, when interviewed by Eatdrink magazine, she described growing up in a white bread culture. Not today’s white bread, naan, focaccia or ciabatta, but the Wonder Bread variety. Who knew?
In the first year of chef school my Christmas gift was ginger dipped in Callebaut, the renowned Belgian couverture chocolate. I impress myself just writing these words. Really! Chocolate to me at the time was a Big Turk chocolate bar. The same Christmas, we were treated to handmade Armagnac ice cream. I learned that Armagnac is produced in one of the oldest distilleries in France. A fourteenth-century cardinal described two of its forty virtues as “preserving youth and delaying senility.” Grounds, I believed, for at least one more serving.
Aside from these brilliant additions to my culinary lexicon, these thoughtful gifts were the beginning of my journey to gastronomic nirvana.
Lemon pie à la Sherriff’s pie filling in a Crisco crust has become a tangy lemon curd on tender shortbread. Potato salad smothered in Hellmann’s has been transformed to become salade niçoise with fingerling potatoes, Roma tomatoes, capers, and anchovies dressed in a simple lemon vinaigrette — although I’m told potatoes are a non-traditional ingredient. Thanksgiving turkey with a generous helping of gravy to disguise its dryness has become deboned and brined organic turkey laid on a bed of dressing and cooked to a moist succulence which defies description. I must add here however, that my potato bread dressing is still a hit with the family, though for how much longer I cannot say.
Fast forward twenty years. My daughter is now an accomplished chef, having worked in some of London’s finest restaurants, and teaching culinary arts to aspiring chefs. Food has its own network and celebrity chefs have become rock stars. I still make “the brown meal” on occasion and we still laugh. I have learned a lot. I never say I don’t care for something, like Brussels sprouts for example; when sautéed in maple syrup and a bit of unsalted butter they make my mouth water.
For dinner tonight she prepared shakshouka, a perfectly formed poached egg in tomato sauce topped with spinach, an “easy” Monday night dinner (so she says) served with crisp green beans that my son-in-law had picked. When I noted how well the two went together her comment was simply, “You would think I knew what I was doing.” I always laugh when she says this but my favourite is when I’m in awe of something she does in the kitchen and with a little grin she says, “trained professional.” I think this “trained professional” should make her mother a nice couscous salad for dinner … and perhaps her signature lemon tart for dessert.