Saturday, November 17, 2007

Warming Yums

soup is a friend of mine. i know i've said this before, but i adore soup. it doesn't matter what time of year it is, soup is a wonderful, marvelous thing. my affection for soup reminds me of that stevie nicks song where she sings, "she wears boots all summer long." i have dedicated that song to my friend, elizabeth, every year in my mind, because she definitely wears boots through the summer -- she's a horsewoman -- but my adoration of soup is timeless like the boots of the song. tonight, i decided that soup was a god deal considering how chilly willy it was. and not just any soup, but soup with character. soup with bite. soup to kick cold's ass. this usually means, to me, asian soups, because of the flavors they employ to warm your soul. cilantro and ginger and coconut milk and lemongrass... ah, delightful bits of freshness. i was also missing my mom a bit this evening -- i have a confession to make, i miss my mom a lot daily and often through the day and, especially, while i'm cooking. i wouldn't be cooking if not for my mom, at least not with the passion i feel for it, and i'll explain that at the end. because i was missing her so much, i went for a book that once belonged to her, one of those dated wonders i love to use from time to time and see how i can update it -- remember the seafood torte? yep, that's not one of hers, but you get the picture. anyway, this book is by the famed novelist PEARL S. BUCK (i HAD to read The Good Earth in elementary school, i CHOSE to be swept away by it), it has her white-haired photo on the cover, smiling serenely , wearing a rather beautiful silk Chinese jacket, black beads and holding laquered chopsticks in her hand, poised and ready to eat. the book is titled: PEARL S. BUCK'S ORIENTAL COOKBOOK: A RICH AND VARIED COLLECTION OF THE BEST DISHES FROM ALL OF ASIA BY AMERICA'S BEST-LOVED NOBEL PRIZE WINNER. wow. that's quite a claim not just about the oriental food -- oriental, could you just die? -- you are about to attempt, but the author herself. i had no idea she was the best-loved nobel prize winner in 1972 (the year this book was published). not to dis ol' pearl, but a bunch of folks had won the nobel prize by then. i wonder if creating a cookbook ups your approval rating or something.

but, i digress...

this book is old enough to employ and offer as one of its ingredients msg. i have a couple of such ancient chinese/asian cookbooks given me by my mother that list this as an ingredient. it brings a huge smile to my face. the recipe i chose is from the Korean section of her cookbook -- the book is split into regional sections -- Indonesia, Thailand, Burma, India-Pakistan (can't we all just get along?), China, The Philippines, Indochina, Korea, Malaysia and Japan. the recipe is simply called CHICKEN SOUP and this is how it went:

1 medium-sized chicken
2 green onions, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
dash pepper
6 tbs soy sauce
1 tsp salt

what to do:
1. remove the chicken from the bones, cut into small cubes and place in a bowl. put the bones in a pot with 5 cups water and simmer for an hour.
2. while the broth is cooking, add the onions, including the tops, garlic, pepper and soy sauce to the chicken and mix well. cook in a frying pan to brown the chicken completely.
3. remove the chicken bones from the broth, measure the broth and add enough water to make 2 quarts. return the liquid to the pan, add the chicken and salt then cook over medium heat until tender. serve hot.

simple, easy, pretty fast for a soup, right?
here's what we did:
i had some chicken pieces already thawed, so we used those, pulled the meat off the bones and cut it just like pearl says. i did a 2 cups of chix broth to 3 cups of water ratio for the bone simmering liquid. i didn't have any green onions -- which kind of blew my mind, since i buy green onions like i buy mustard, always figuring i don't have it so i buy it only to discover i have 4 jars -- so i used a shallot, which i minced. i also chopped up some fresh ginger -- about 1 tsp. of it -- a handful of cilantro and a half a head of spinach. i added the cilantro and spinach to the broth with the chicken, and also put in half pound of al dente spaghetti noodles for heartiness. pure soup for dinner freaks out brandon, who does not consider soup a meal, unless it's super hearty and served in bread bowls. i do believe this is a trait he inherited from my father, who felt the same way even though he had a crappy appetite and just getting him to eat anything was a triumph.

the response? nicholas loved it. he ate two bowls. brandon ate some, slathered it with hot sauce, ate some more than left it. he liked it, but it was still too brothy not to make it out of the distinction of soup for dinner and he kept looking at me waiting for the entree.

i reminded him he already had one.

i, personally, loved it. but, then again, i love soup, so there.

cooking and my mother, ah, yes... my mother could cook like nobody's business. she had a way with food that was so full of love, you could taste it in every bite. not everything she made was a success. oh, no. or at least appealled to my taste. i've mentioned the salmon croquettes and meatloaf (yikes), the cabbage rolls. i haven't mentioned the oxtails and noodles -- couldn't stand oxtails -- the Bird's Eye Frozen vegetable extravaganza that made me hate brussels sprouts and vegetable medleys forever and ever, amen. but, she put her heart into everything she made -- her fried chicken is legend, her baked ham a true legacy, her baked Ob's Chicken (a dish created in homage to my father), stuffed pork chops (sigh) and her barbecue... oh, man. she cooked for us every night. EVERY STINKIN' NIGHT. and it wasn't like my mom didn't have a life. my mom got very into songwriting, so she took a couple of night courses in songwriting at UCLA -- although, this was a time when i was put in charge of cooking (i was 12ish) and Hamburger Helper became a pretty good friend of mine. she got involved in the community, so she was on the board of Neighbors of Watts, a group of women of substance and means that banded together on behalf of the beleagured city after the Watts riots (she became president of NOW when i was a senior in high school) and she was always on the entertainment/event planning committee for their yearly, very lavish benefit which included her enlisting us all to help her MAKE the centerpieces for the table. yes, i said MAKE. my mother made all of the centerpieces. she became president of the BHSD chapter of the PTA when i was in 8th grade, and she played tennis just about everyday. as well as accompanying my dad to any work events and was a volunteer at the Maple Center, a place for teens to go and deal with their substance abuse and other issues in Beverly Hills. my mom once told me she was in awe of all of the experiences i had been through in my life and how i continued to keep going, juggle everything and so forth. i looked at her as if she was crazy. my life, to me, was nothing compared to all that she was about. funny, how it's so hard to see our gifts through what we view as our failings, isnt it?

but back to mom and cooking. watching her and having her welcome me into her kitchen brought this immense love of all things culinary into my life. she was the one who sat with me and laughed in delight over Graham Kerr and Julia Childs (and she would clap when i would do my Julia Childs impersonation). we would bake together, cook together and she allowed all of us full reign of the kitchen to make our own masterpieces on the weekends. when saturday came, we were the masters of our own breakfasts and lunches, and a lot of really doughy pancakes came out of those weekends as well as some excellent dishes i still play with to this day. and that is because my mother encouraged our creativity in everything we did. love her or not with other things in our lives, that was something i have never forgotten.

a little story that brings us back to the soup thing: when my mom was first married, she was very young and still learning about cooking and things like that. one night, my mom made this excellent vegetable beef soup. she was really proud of herself. she added a salad and some crusty bread, beaming with pride when she served it all up to her brand new, larger than life husband. he ate it down with gusto, complimented her on it then asked, "now, what's for dinner?" kind of how brandon looks at soup. like grandfather, like grandson :o)

when i was about 27, i was sitting in my parents' kitchen in their home in Las Vegas, hanging with my mom who was heating up something we'd brought back from dinner out the night before. we did a lot of dinner out when my parents moved to Las Vegas. actually, we mostly did dinner out once my parents moved there. we were just chillin', ya know, and i don't remember how we got onto the subject of her cooking when she sighed and looked at me, seriously, and said, "baby, i hate cooking. i sincerely do." i just stared at her in amazement, remembering the incredible meals my mother made us, the love she poured into it and the all nighters she would pull just before parties we'd have that led to MAJOR screaming fights with my dad. the spread would be incredible and there was always plenty -- my mom was a brilliant hostess married to a "i'm happy to have you in my house as long as i'm happy to have you in my house and when i'm no longer happy to have you in my house, i will let you know" man.

"but..." i began, completely floored, "you're so good at it, mom. i don't mean just, ya know, technically, but the food tastes of you, of your heart."

my mother smiled at me and said, "cooking for you all made it easy to deal with for a time, but cooking for just the two of us? and you know your father's appetite..." she just shook her head, wrinkling her nose.

my father, since i could remember, had a really horrible appetite. he'd sit with us at dinner, take a couple of bites, but always had his plate of leftovers sitting on the counter, covered in foil or plastic wrap and ready for him during his midnight snacking vigils. and even then, he might just take a few bites more. one plate of food could last my dad for days.

"i hate cooking, honey. always have."

she shrugged, at a loss, and i sat there, stunned. my mother hated cooking. who knew?
but her love for me, her desire to encourage that creativity inside of us in whatever form it was taking instilled this immense love of cooking. she allowed me to discover myself in the kitchen, she opened doors for me and supported whatever doors i walked through when it came to food.

now, my mom lives in an assisted living facility near malibu, gives into the diva she always really was and enjoys being pampered by the staff. she doted on us while we were growing up, so i figure she deserves that. she cooked when she hated it and never once tipped her hand by letting us taste that. because she loved us and that's what we tasted -- her love for us beyond her dislike of the means by which to show us. my mother loved us enough to face the dreaded stove and oven daily to give us not just sustenance, but inspiration -- to push herself into excellence so we walked away feeling special because of her gift.

how many of us can say that?

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