This spring, when I was recovering from a broken leg and had far too much time to think, I had an epiphany about home cooking.
When I cook something I make frequently, I often notice it doesn’t come out the same as it did last time. The adage I’ve developed for this phenomenon is: You can’t step in the same biscuit dough twice. (This sounds unhygienic, but is meant to be a metaphor.)
Ending up with something a little different is understandable when you’re cooking by the seat of your pants (which also sounds unhealthful but is also a figure of speech); but it can happen when you’re trying very hard to follow a recipe, too.
Anyway, I always thought of this as an undesirable effect and I strove for more regularity. My epiphany was that it is not undesirable but the very essence of home cooking.
Once when I was working on the feature side of a newspaper, my editor told me a funny story about a reader who had written in to the cooking column asking how to make fresh asparagus taste like canned asparagus. We laughed and laughed. Why would anybody want to turn fresh luxurious asparagus into something that tasted like the inside of a can and looked like a special effect for The Exorcist?
Then, a few years ago, when I got interested in making tomato juice from my homegrown tomatoes, I Googled, “how to make juice from fresh tomatoes,” and Google filled in for me—as it will when many other searchers have sought the same information—“more like V8.” It came to me shortly afterwards that I was asking more or less the same question as the canned asparagus seeker--and so had many others.
Because, as I learned in my subsequent juice-making, the tomato juice you make at home bears the same resemblance to the stuff in the can as your beautiful homegrown, vine-ripe garden tomatoes do to the hard cottony green ones in the grocery store. Your homegrown juice is thinner but astronomically more delicious than the commercial stuff, to the point that you sooner or later realize that thin is good, and that it is V8 that should try to taste like homemade, not the other way around.
And to complete the epiphany, wishing to “regularize” one’s cooking equates to the same thing. Why take something real and good and make it more like something imitative and processed? Pop-Tarts taste the same from one vacu-packed box to the next. Mom’s apple pies do not.
Now, to stretch the issue way past anywhere it has the right to go—I can’t help it, I was crippled!—it ties into the point I am always making in these pages about reality: That we are so addled by sit-coms and movies that we think reality is something that is happening somewhere else, or possibly on television, and don’t grasp that it’s what we are living in.
I see this all the time—young women feeling that their lives should have soundtracks; young men wanting to propose to their sweeties on television, feeling it will count for more that way; kids growing up feeling like the underclass because their parents are not Waltons. Even I, the focus-on-the-locus Queen of America, was recently admiring one of our interesting local public figures and caught myself thinking: “Wonder who would play her in the movie?”
This is, of course, bass-ackwards! If there really were a movie made about us, whoever played us would come here and study—us! Because we’re the real McCoy. We're the original version. We're the real deal!
To bring it back to food, ever since I had my epiphany I notice the same trend about cooking. Once a young man who was praising the dinner I had served him said, “You really should open a little restaurant.” And my husband said when I was feeding him fritters from our homegrown squash: “You should make this for a dinner party.”
Actually I don’t perform well in front of an audience so if guests are coming I cook something I can make in advance. If I tried to fry fritters for people waiting to eat them I would probably set the kitchen on fire and end up dropping dead of angst, or committing suicide with the spatula. As for restaurants, same problem there and I also understand them to be as sure a bet financially as online newspapers, but more labor-intensive.
Anyway, what both compliments boiled down to is, “This is so good, you should make it for somebody else.” As in: Somebody more important than I am. Somebody who counts. Or somebody who will pay you!
When home cooking is, by definition, for the people in the home. Not someone somewhere else who hypothetically might like it, or even like it enough to whip out a credit card, but: Us. We’re the real McCoy. Eating the real food.
And home cooking is not a rehearsal for something else, party cooking or working in a restaurant for heaven's sake. It's the real performance. It's the real thing, right here. Right now.
This is it!
Anyway, there you go. Home cooking is reality and reality is home cooking; that is all ye know or need to know. Now I had better STFU before I am involuntarily institutionalized, and tell you how to make Aunt Loweezy's Hat Chicken and Rice.
Above is a cooking vessel I won as a door prize in a long-ago Dade Chamber of Commerce awards banquet. I think it was meant for cooking things like baked beans, because it came with a pamphlet explaining it was specially designed to withstand hours and days in the oven.
You will notice that it is festooned with brightly colored fruit and that its lid handle is a cluster of purple grapes. I named it "Aunt Loweezy's Hat" because of a favorite quote from a Snuffy Smith comic strip decades back. In those days, Loweezy and her friend Elviney always got new hats at Easter, and once Elviney was admiring Loweezy's something like this: "Oh, my! Flowers, a stuffed partridge, a bunch of artificial cherries and a pinecone spray-painted gold--that's what I call uptown!" I figured my pot had everything but the dead bird.
I'm not a baked-bean fan and I hadn't used Aunt Loweezy's Hat much until I fractured that fibula. Then, during the period of physical infirmity and intense self-pity that ensued, and before it got too hot to use the oven, I yearned for the comfort of food from my youth and found myself using ALH quite often to make an easy sort of chicken and rice I remembered from my embryonic days of cooking. If you are not fortunate enough to have a miracle of such rare device, you could use any Dutch oven or casserole dish with a tight-fitting lid.
This is my reconstruction of something my sister used to call chicken paprikash when the world, and we, were young. It is no such thing. I looked it up and paprikash is a more complicated dish with sour cream, tomatoes and peppers. This is much more bare-bones and basic--she got it from one of the first cookbooks she'd ever bought, and she liked it back then because you just threw things into a pan, put it in the oven and ended up with: food. She hadn't known you could do that. Like most home cooking, this is more a method than a recipe.
Aunt Loweezy's Hat Chicken & Rice
1 tablespoon butter (or use olive oil)
3 or 4 cloves garlic
1 1/2 cups raw rice
3 cups water (or as much as your brand of rice calls for)
Chicken serving pieces
For the chicken, you can use a whole cut-up chicken or your favorite pieces. I believe my sister used to use bone-in thighs. For a family of two, this recipe makes generous leftovers, and I dislike warmed-over dark-meat chicken; so I usually use a family pack of bone-in breasts. In these bionic chicken days that's only three but they're big honking Dolly-Parton breasts that will feed continents. But bone-in is best for this method.
Preheat the oven to 350 F. Chop the onions and garlic. If you have time and inclination, you can put them in the casserole dish with the butter or oil and put them in the oven for 15 minutes before you add the other ingredients, but I've skipped this step and it's still fine.
Pour in the raw rice, place the chicken pieces on top, and season them generously with salt, pepper and paprika. Pour in the water mixed with a teaspoon of salt, or to taste. (You can always add salt later.)
Put the lid on the casserole dish and cook two hours in the oven. The chicken should be falling off the bone and the rice tender. You can serve either whole chicken pieces on a bed of rice or gently shred the chicken meat from the bones, discard the latter and serve the chicken mixed in with the rice.
Optional tweaks: Add a cup of frozen green peas during the last half hour. At the beginning of the process you can add a chopped hot pepper if you like it hot.
This is plain and good and easy to make, even when a person is in a wheelchair. My biggest problem with it was approaching the oven at just the right angle to lift ALH out without scraping that big bunch of artificial grapes against the oven roof, dropping Aunt Loweezy or burning my hands. I guess it's the price you pay for being uptown.
The other problem was getting the rice just right. I'm a believer in whole grains and I always use brown rice, but I wasn't doing the grocery shopping and when I first started on my ALH craze I was dealing with a five-pound bag of enriched long-grain my husband had bought by mistake. It made perfect rice. Then, when I was driving again and able to buy brown, the rice turned out mushy!
So I kept trying to regularize my method and the dish kept turning out different each time. That's when I had my big epiphany about home cooking, so you could say Aunt Loweezy's Hat led me to a profound universal truth about the fabric of reality.
On the other hand, I would still like to have perfect rice every time and I still don't.
So let's end on another profound universal note: Rice is hard.