Sunday, October 17, 2010

My Mother, My Kitchen

My mother's mother died of colon cancer when Mom was in high school, leaving her alone with my eccentric, irascible and non-cooking grandfather.  Grandmother had been ill for a long time and never gathered the patience and the energy to teach my mother to cook, so poor Mom was thrown into the deep end of the kitchen with no preparation.  She tells one story about the fat green caterpillar that crawled out of her first tossed salad onto my grandfather's plate; other than that, she is silent about how she learned to cook via trial and error, a couple of cookbooks, and sheer determination.  By the time she married my father at the age of 19, though, she was more competent in the kitchen than his mother, who was a lovely person but should have been born in a city with plenty of take-out options.

Mom has never stopped trying to improve her cooking skills.  While my sister and I were growing up she regularly acquired additional cookbooks and subscribed to Bon Appetit.  I now regret the times I joined my father and sister in chorusing, "Another experiment?"  She was doing her best to feed us nutritious, attractive, and creative food in a part of the Midwest better known for beige hot dishes.  At this point, I truly believe she can cook anything short of flaming filet of yak.  (She's a small woman; butchering the yak might be beyond her.)

Since Barry and I have been cooking almost everything from scratch this year, I find myself falling back on some of her simple but delicious improvisations.  One of them is her method of serving dates.

Despite our best attempts to eat a balanced diet, both Barry and I occasionally suffer from potassium deficiencies.  Barry deals with this by making himself banana-based smoothies after his workouts.  I can't do that.  To me, one banana a month tastes great; three or four are much too cloying unless disguised under dollops of ice cream and hot fudge sauce - not exactly in line with our healthy eating plan.  I was reluctantly eating bananas on my Cheerios when a friend suggested Medjool dates.

Until then, I had never tasted a Medjool, but I was an instant convert.  Plump, sweet, luscious - they beat bananas four ways from Sunday.  According to Natow and Heslin's The Most Complete Food Counter, "[t]he recommended Daily Value (DV) for potassium is 3,500 milligrams.  Americans average about 3,000 milligrams a day" (p. xv).  Happily, they also say that 10 whole dates contain 541 milligrams of potassium, neatly filling the gap for only 228 calories and a trace of fat.  Dates also contain some folic acid and vitamin A.

However, the lovely Medjool is expensive and not always available in our local stores.  When this is the case, I buy cheaper dates.  Unfortunately, they tend to be both much drier and less tasty.  This is where Mom's ingenuity saves the day.

The pit of a date is roughly the size and shape of a slim almond kernel.  When we were small, Mom would slit dates lengthwise, pop out the pits, and insert a walnut half in each.  This instantly improved the flavor, added a little interesting texture, and contributed healthy omega-3 fatty acids and anti-oxidents (although we didn't know that then).  She usually served the doctored dates on a fruit plate with apple slices, orange sections, and (shudder) bananas.  I just eat them like candy whenever I feel a leg cramp coming on.

Mom, I apologize for every time I ever said or did anything to discourage your adventures in creative cuisine.  In the long run, I've learned more practical cooking from you than from all the TV chefs I've ever watched put together.

"Learn to cook--try new recipes, learn from your mistakes, be fearless, and above all have fun!" ~ Julia Child (My Life in France)

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