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Mom set a standard for herself and no one will raise or lower the bar

May 2012

Mother’s cooking never disappoints. This is an axiom: profound, empirical, Pythagorean.

Restaurant cooking often disappoints. Equally, it can be elegiac. We can enter a restaurant and anticipate the meal we will get. Whether we are at Schwartz’s or Joe Beef, there is an unwritten contract that says: Enter here and you will be served. You will eat well and leave happy. When we have a bad restaurant meal, when we are ignored, when the food tastes less than as advertised, when we anticipate something better, we can always exercise our right to never come back. This never happens at Mom’s.

There is, however, also an unwritten contract at Mom’s. It says: Enter here and nothing has changed. Your uncle will tell the same joke he told last week. Your cousin still smokes on the balcony. The roast chicken dish you picked at last week, you’ll pick at again this week.

The rice pudding that you loved as a kid is the same one you will eat tonight. Mom’s is about comfort dining. This is not the same as good food or an elegant meal, although depending upon your mom, it may be. It is about consistency.

Mom set a standard for herself a long time ago and neither you nor anyone else is going to raise or lower that bar.

I have been blessed to have had several moms cook for me. My mom—known to her granddaughter as Granny—died a few years ago. Granny could make anything.

Her standing rib roast and Yorkshire pudding have yet to be equaled, in my estimation, anywhere. Granny’s croissant bake has been handed down to my wife, who has mastered it and it can now be brought to my daughter.

My college buddy’s mom made only two things: tuna fish salad and hot dogs. My buddy thought he had died and gone to heaven when he encountered college cafeteria cuisine. Still, his mother made a fine tuna fish salad.

My mother-in-law, Grandma Sarah, who passed away at 102, made an outstanding pickle soup. I admit that this is an acquired taste and that I am perhaps not rigorously sufficiently Ashkenaz to appreciate it. Yet there are those in my family who treasure this recipe and it, too, will be handed down for generations.

My father’s wife, who claims not to cook anything, makes a superb brisket that she proudly delivers to us each Passover.

There is very little difference between a slow-cooked brisket and one that has braised for hours in a wine and gravy sauce with cooked carrots and a Texas-style beef barbecue except perhaps the wine, gravy and carrots. It is really more a question of whose mother makes it.

What all moms share is that their recipes never disappoint. There is no Iron Chef category for Mom’s cooking. No super chef in the kitchen shouting: “Wham! Let’s add some grape molasses to that veal roast, Grandma!”

When we go to Mom’s, we don’t want surprises, we don’t want a cook experimenting in the kitchen or to have a sommelier face off over a bottle of wine. At Mom’s, anyway, we probably brought the bottle.

Traditionally, Mother’s Day is when Mom is taken out for dinner. I once took my future wife and her mother out for Chinese food. I had assumed that my mother-in-law-to-be liked Chinese food, as she often made chicken fried rice with soy sauce. We went to Chinatown.

I had been cautioned not to order anything exotic or spicy. I ordered off the wall, having no idea what the dishes were but certain that they would be home-style cooking and “interesting.” We started off with chicken soup. Then there was a watery beef stew with steamed vegetables and rice on the side. There were hints of black beans and Chinese seasoning in the sauce. I remember thinking, not too spicy, very subtle flavours.

Grandma Sarah looked at me. “This is Chinese food? This I can make at home.”

Mom’s croissant bake

Originally made with stale croissants, it works well with most bread. As slices, heels and bits get left on the counter, we stash them in the freezer until there’s enough for this dish.

For 6 cups of stale bread or 6 croissant: mix together 3 cups of milk, 3 eggs plus another egg yolk, ¼ cup of breadcrumbs, ¾ cup of grated Parmesan cheese, a ¼ teaspoon of white pepper and ¾ teaspoon of onion salt.

Put the bread in a 6-cup soufflé dish and pour the mixture over it.

Let it stand at room temperature until the liquid is completely absorbed (about 1 hour).

You can refrigerate this overnight, but let it come to room temperature before baking. Preheat the oven to 375F. Bake for 7 minutes then reduce to 325F and cook another 45 minutes until the mixture is set and lightly browned.



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