Taking a much-needed day off today and using some remarks I recently made at my mother-in-law's funeral.
Cooking Lessons from Lil
Any of you who were fortunate enough to have dined at Lilian’s house know that she was an amazing chef. As her daughter-in-law, I have been fortunate enough to not only benefit from her amazing meals, but I am also privy to some of her cooking secrets, which I’d like to share with you today in loving memory.
#1 Always add sugar, butter, or salt. Lilian always knew that fruit would taste just a little bit better with a sprinkle of sugar. Knowing that her children and grandchildren didn’t much care for vegetables, meals at her house were always served with some kind of fruit. In fact, she frequently catered to her grandchildren’s fussy eating habits and always made sure there was something they liked on the table. She also enjoyed sneaking butter into dishes, especially when one of us was on a low-fat diet, and I think she had about 5 different types of salt near her stove. Who knew there were so many kinds of salt? She silently and graciously catered to a variety of differing personalities and tastes.
#2 Never use a mix when you can make it from scratch. I often served as Lil’s sous chef. It was like getting a front row seat to a TV cooking show. She taught me about 3 different ways to dice garlic, how to peel potatoes, and how to cut a pineapple. While I was engaged to Walter, she taught me how to make hollandaise sauce, which I previously thought could only be made from the Knorrs envelope. To Lilian, food was love, and her cooking lessons were not just her way of showing me how to cook for her son. She was offering thinly-veiled, slightly sweetened and artfully-delivered marital advice.
#3 When cooking Persian style rice, use about half the water you would normally use in regular rice. Grandma Lily’s rice was a magical concoction that we all adored. It was a nod to her upbringing in Iran. We could never quite duplicate it at home. Was it the beaten up old pot she cooked it in? Was it the piece of pita bread she added to the bottom of the dinged up pot? After many years of my own experimentation, she finally taught me the secret. Simply use less water. So simple. Lilian was a woman with very simple needs and one of the few people I ever met who actually lived below her means. She rarely bought herself new clothes. She did not spend money decorating her house. She used Ziploc bags twice. She was very proud to say she was “green” before green was cool. She recycled or re-used just about everything.
Which brings me to #4 Pay no attention to expiration dates. She considered them more as guidelines. I once heard Arlene refer to a visit to her mother’s fridge as playing a game of mayonnaise roulette. While meals at Lilian’s house were a treat, one also had to use just a little caution. Lil lived her whole life just a little bit, and with a twinkle in her eye, recklessly. She clearly enjoyed getting a rise out of us by some of the things she said and did. She enjoyed playing devil’s advocate in friendly debates at the dinner table. She was politically incorrect and irreverent at times. All in all, she liked to paint outside the lines. I will always admire her unwavering and slightly mischievous spirit.
#5 Always buy produce in season. LOTS of it. Grocery shopping with Lil was such a frustratingly amusing treat. She was never more confident than when she was behind the wheel of a shopping cart. She enjoyed the many ethnic grocery stores in our area as well as an unhurried trip to Costco. She knew where to buy the best spices, the cheapest produce, the best cuts of meat. And when something was in season? She would buy as though she was feeding an army. In fact, I can attest that it is now citrus season and I have a couple of large bags of navel oranges to prove it. When she overbought, she was quick to share. We frequently came home to find bags of fruit tied to our door. We called them Drive-by Fruitings. Lilian was quick to share everything. I never met a more generous soul. If one of us admired a cooking implement, or a power tool at her house, it would also find its way to our door. She gave to numerous charities – mostly animal-related, and even while she was wearing an old pair of shoes and driving a 20 year old car, she gave so generously to those in need.
#6 Always buy the thickest cut of steak. Steaks at her house looked like something out of the Flintstones. Lilian called them cowboy cuts, and I think every butcher in town knew her. I think her grocery store pharmacist was sweet on her. Her mechanics knew her by name. Probably a hold-out from her real estate days, Lilian had a knack for knowing the best people for every job. She was like a walking Yellow Pages. And she would get very upset when one of her “people” moved on. Like most of us, she did not embrace change, and she got upset at every “Out of Business” sign she saw. She was fiercely loyal in all aspects of her life.
#7 Always have a well-appointed kitchen. Lilian had an implement for every possible kitchen contingency. In fact, in many instances, she had five implements for every kitchen contingency. I never saw so many different types of spoons, tongs, ladles and such. And her knives, which she sharpened herself on a sharpening stone, were a source of great pride. She even fashioned some of her own cooking tools using twine, office binder clips – you name it. She was really brilliant and incredibly resourceful in so many ways.
#8 Always set a nice table. Though she claimed she hated setting the table, Lilian always made people feel welcome by the care she gave to the dining room table. Place settings did not always match, but she always found a way to add a special touch to the table. She frequently added flowers, or pine cones or other tidbits from her yard, which she would artfully display in a centerpiece. She loved to bring the outdoors inside, as evidenced by the multitude of plants in her house. She was the only person I know who could actually grow orchids without killing them. She loved the gardening catalogs, often buying exotic bulbs and bags of strange-looking roots which she could actually coax into real plants. Her yard is full of surprises each season and I will miss her terribly when her amazing tulips come up this spring.
Lilian taught me so much, both in and out of the kitchen. And she sure was an amusing teacher. Though she is sadly gone from our daily lives, her lessons are absolutely unforgettable.