Some Foods Just Don’t Mix

Learning to cook is an ongoing process of discovery. You learn flavor combinations and cooking techniques that work and some that don’t. Unfortunately, sometimes you learn the hard way.

One of my early discoveries came about simply because I don’t like going to the grocery store for one or two items. It’s especially true if I’ve committed to cooking something right now and discover I’m out of, or short on a particular ingredient. The idea of stopping to go to the store just isn’t acceptable if there are any other options.

So I’ve been known to substitute ingredients, or find a recipe for the lacking store bought item and make it from scratch. (This tells you it isn’t just the time factor I object to; it’s the interruption. I’d rather cook than run to the store.)

Most of the time, my substitutions are right out of the book: yogurt for sour cream, diluted canned milk for 2%, white sugar and molasses for brown sugar. But sometimes, circumstances demand creative thinking.

I was up to the challenge that muggy summer day in Oregon when I decided not to heat up the kitchen for dinner. I reached for my trusty Jello cookbook and sure enough, I found a great recipe for a salad made with lime Jello, celery, onion, mayo and diced chicken. It sounded wonderful and exactly what I was looking for.

I went to the pantry – oops, no lime Jello. No lemon, either. Only Strawberry. Well, why wouldn’t that work?

Then to the freezer for the cooked chicken. Oops, out of that, too. I couldn’t skip the meat because I was feeding my husband, teenage son Brett and his buddy Ben.  As luck would have it, I found a pound of cooked ground beef. It wasn’t my first choice, but it was better than going to the store. So I forged on.

The results were less than spectacular. Brown meat in red Jello doesn’t make the grade. They wouldn’t eat it. They didn’t want to taste it.  Shoot, they didn’t even want to look at it! I think they settled for grilled cheese and something.

In my own defense, I will say the flavor wasn’t as bad as they anticipated, but there were consequences. They’ve never forgotten it. None of them. When invited to dinner after that,  Ben always asked, “What’s your mom fixing?” before he said yes. Jello salads became less of a desired food item in our house. I gave away my Jello cookbook. And the worst thing about it was I’d made a double batch!


County Fair Judges liked my entries

I don’t mean to brag, but this is too delightful to keep to myself. Just for fun, I entered five food items in the 2012 Pima County Fair, hoping for (maybe) one blue ribbon.  Wow, was I surprised! Here are my entries and the results:

  • Rosemary Bread – Blue Ribbon and Best of Class Ribbon
  • Blue Corn Mini-Muffins – Blue Ribbon
  • Gingersnap Cookies – Blue Ribbon
  • Orange Rosemary Jelly – Blue Ribbon
  • Tomato Jam – White Ribbon (3rd Place)

It’s the first time I’ve entered a county fair competition or even thought of  winning a blue  ribbon in anything.  I’ve served all these foods to many friends and they have affirmed the yummy-ness (I know, made up word) of each one.

So I know it and they know it. But now it’s “official” – isn’t that what blue ribbons are for?


Coffee In a China Cup


I remember three things about Marta:

1)      She was pear shaped with pregnancy when she moved in next door
2)      Accompanied by her Ukranian mother, her toddler and her household goods, she moved 1500 miles across the country while her husband stayed at his job to finish a project
3)      The priceless gift she gave me

A couple of days after baby Sara was born, Marta caught me at the mailbox. “You come for coffee and see Sara, “ she said in broken English. “You and friend next door, other side. Come tomorrow morning, ten o’clock.”

When we walked into the house the next morning, the smell of fresh coffee and something really delicious  beckoned us to the kitchen.  There we found Marta’s mother creating homemade pastries. She whisked the rolling pin over the dough, cut it into strips, gave each a twist and gently dropped them into hot oil. In no time at all they were golden brown and smelling of cinnamon. Her delicate pastries needed no words and her welcoming smile said it all.

After our introduction to Sara, who went immediately to sleep, we moved back to the sunlit kitchen. To my surprise, Marta brought out china plates, cups and saucers. The still warm pastries, now sprinkled with powdered sugar, filled a basket lined with a colorful tea towel.

As I sipped my coffee from the china cup, it registered with me that this was a first - I had never been served on china before.  I felt like royalty. What began as an invitation to “drop by and see the baby” ended up being a wonderful hour spent with Marta and her mother.  Language was a bit of a problem, but we stumbled and laughed our way through it and had fun in the process.

This is many years later. I can’t recall a single thing about Marta’s house – furniture, paint colors, decorations – none of it. I wouldn’t recognize her if we met on the street. But I will never forget how she and her mother made me feel that day.

Marta and Sara were the reason we went, but we were treated as the guests of honor. Marta had made a major move, set up housekeeping and  had a baby without help from her husband. Yet, she took time to reach out to two younger women, one single, one married and extended graciousness to us. She and her mother made us feel  welcome and special.

Marta introduced me to what hospitality is all about.  It wasn’t just the good dishes and homemade pastries. It was how she and her mother  reached beyond self to care about someone else on a personal level.  Marta opened the door to her home – packing boxes and all – and her heart.

She had no idea how she shaped my perceptions of graciousness and hospitality; no clue that she defined what it means for me to ‘have people over;’ or that she created in me the desire to use food as a way of saying, “I care about you.”  Which in turn, unleashed a passion for cooking.  All this from homemade pastries and coffee in a china cup.