Mom’s cooking was always the bestTuesday, November 6
Mom Knows Best!
Kids growing up in today’s age may never experience this themselves, but I would bet that most people my age or older would agree that their mom’s cooking was the best.
Whether we were talking about staples like spaghetti, shepherd’s pie, meatloaf or tuna casserole (thanks for never making me suffer through that culinary abomination Mom!), every kid in the neighbourhood was convinced that no one made it better than their mom.
The only difference between most people and me is that my mom’s cooking WAS the best! Perhaps it had something to do with my unrefined palate or lack of culture that made me feel that way. After all, like most families, we cycled through a lineup of the same 8-10 dishes week in and week out, and I was completely content with not mixing it up.
I’ll be honest; I didn’t exactly have the food-savvy of a New York Times food critic, so maybe I wasn’t the best to judge, but in my humble opinion nobody cooked like her. Every time I was forced to spend the night at someone else’s house and suffer through their mom’s meatloaf, or spaghetti, I was only further able to prove my case.
Then there were the nights where I was stuck struggling through some weird concoction that I had never even heard of, remembering that I was always taught to be polite and eat whatever my host put in front of me, all the while hoping I could pawn some off on the family dog when no one was looking.
I was actually a pretty fussy eater as a child and was very reluctant to add any new dishes to the roster. It wasn’t until I first worked in a restaurant, at the age of 16, that I began to broaden my culinary horizons.
As I spent more time in the kitchen I very slowly realized just how many tasty ingredients I had never bothered to give a chance. My journeys as a chef continued to broaden my horizons, but it also continued to take me further and further away from home.
One thing never changed, though, my longing for mom’s home cooking. No matter how far I travelled or how my palate grew, it couldn’t change that fond memory of walking into mom’s kitchen and smelling the aroma of a fresh baked raspberry pie coming out of the oven, or spaghetti sauce simmering on the stove.
Over the years I would reach out to her, asking for her to share some of my favourite recipes from my childhood. It wasn’t until I first started asking her to share her secrets with me that I began to realize her real secret.
You see, trying to get an actual recipe out of her was like pulling teeth. It wasn’t because they were closely guarded family heirlooms. That wasn’t the case at all. It was because they were staples in her routine that she had been cooking for 30 years or more.
Most books would tell you to measure the ingredients for pie dough down to the gram for exact precision, but when Mom shared her pie dough recipe with me I was floored to hear her use phrases like, “a pinch of this” and “a heaping cup of that”.
This wasn’t exactly reassuring cooking terms for a young chef aiming to prepare something of great quality and consistency. The more times I asked her for a recipe, the more I began to understand. She had prepared each and every one of her best recipes so many times that she didn’t need to refer to a recipe.
Her cooking all came down to experience and doing it time and time again. That kind of understanding of a dish can’t be translated onto a recipe card. That’s what made her dishes so special, the years of fine-tuning, each time making the dish a little better than the last, always striving to reach perfection.
So when she was in town this past week I made the most of it. She made jams and pickles, baked pies and fresh rolls, even prepared a classic Christmas dinner, even making the cranberry sauce from scratch. Now, just to be clear, I didn’t chain her to the kitchen stove or beg her to bake for me, she did it out of love and the sheer joy of cooking. I could see her beam from ear to ear as the entire table gathered for a family dinner showered her with praise.
As she prepares to head home we begin to feel sad because she’ll be sorely missed around the house, but a small part of me may breathe a sigh of relief because if she stayed another week I may not fit into my chef coats anymore. Thankfully she has filled the fridge and freezer with reminders of her to tide us over until we can see her again.
As I said before, most of our family dishes were fairly standard North American fare, but there was one dish that made its way into my mom’s repertoire several years ago that first piqued my interest in exploring different foods. The dish was Pancit.
It was very basic stir fry found in Filipino cuisine. In writing this column I finally learned how this dish made its way onto our table. I was hoping for some exotic trip to the Philippines during her rebellious youth, where a famous chef bestowed upon her the secret to his most famous dish in exchange for a kiss, you know something grand and newsworthy.
Unfortunately it was far more pedestrian. The traditional dish was shared by a lovely Filipino lady that my grandmother befriended while working at a hospital in Montreal, back in the 70’s. After weeks of her smelling the aroma of the dish being enjoyed by her friend during their lunch break, she finally convinced her friend to share the recipe. My grandmother then shared it with my mom after years of having it in her cooking roster, and then my mom took it and made it her own.
Not surprisingly, getting this recipe out of my mom was a process and I have tried to convert the “pinches of this” and “dabs of that” into something more tangible. Enjoy!
Mom’s Pancit Recipe
Prep Time: 30 minutes Cook Time: 15 minutes
2 ea.boneless skinless chicken breast
1 cuponions, minced
1 cupcarrots, julienned
2 cupscabbage, shredded*
1 bagfresh chow mein noodles**
2 tbsp.canola oil
2 tbsp.soy sauce
1 clovegarlic, minced
½ cupchicken stock
2 tbsp.canola oil (for cooking)
3 tbsp.soy sauce (for cooking)
2 stalksgreen onions, chopped, for garnish
•Thinly slice and marinate the chicken breasts with 2 tbsp. each canola oil and soy sauce
•Prepare your vegetables
•Bring a medium pot of water to a boil
•Place the noodles in a bowl
•Pour the boiling water over the noodles and let stand until the noodles are tender, 3-5 minutes ( read the cooking instructions on your package for best coking times!)
•Drain the water and rinse thoroughly with cold water, then drain thoroughly
•Heat a wok to medium high heat, add cooking oil
•Place the chicken in the wok and saute until cooked through, 2-3 minutes, depending on the size
•Remove the chicken from the wok with slotted spoon, leaving behind the excess oil, set aside
•Add the onions and garlic to the wok, sautéing until translucent
•Add the carrots and cabbage, saute, then add the chicken stock and cook until the vegetables are tender and the stock has virtually cooked away
•Return the chicken to the wok and combine, add the soy, and adjust the seasoning to your liking
•Add the noodles to the wok and stir everything to combine, adjust the seasoning and serve
This dish is very versatile. The term Pancit actually translates to the word noodle, referring more to the fact that it is a noodle dish, rather than the dish itself. There are almost endless variations, featuring various vegetables and/or meats. Once you have the hang of the basics, take this basic dish and explore.
*feel free to use suey choy or napa cabbage*
**now, traditionally this dish would be prepared with rice noodles, but again, this is passed down from person to person and the origins of the dish has changed to suit our family’s needs, choose your family’s favourite noodle and create your own tradition**