My mother invented honey mustard.
Long before grocery store shelves groaned under the weight of dozens of honey mustard brands, she made our grilled cheese sandwiches with a thin layer of yellow mustard (the only type available in Bountiful, Utah in the 60s) and a smear of honey. The mustard went on before cooking; the honey after.
I don't know how or when she came up with that combination of tangy and sweet. She used it in other dishes, but for me, it was the hallmark of a grilled cheese sandwich. I followed her lead for years, ignoring the reaction of my college friends when I peeled apart the dining hall grilled cheese at the condiment station to anoint it with my mother's trademark combination. What seemed strange to them provided piquancy to a bland, American-processed-cheese sandwich. They didn't know what they were missing.
By that time, I was used to the surprise of my friends when they found out some of the dishes Mom made.
Blue cheese and jelly on toast for breakfast -- not for me, because I hate blue cheese in any form -- but for my brother and sisters, who loved it. "Goose grease and fried apples" -- finely diced tart apples and onion sautéed in the rendered fat from any goose that was cooked for a family celebration, served on crackers or thinly sliced bread. Marrow from soup bones was another treat, one that she shared only if you helped her with the soup. The first time I tried it, the texture amazed me -- like beef butter. (Even at age 12, I didn't begrudge her for keeping it to herself.) Fergus Henderson may have made marrow popular again, but as far as I'm concerned, my mom invented it.
Maybe it's true that what's new is really old; I don't know. I do know that as far 60s suburbia went, Mom was ahead of the curve in her tastes. She was always the one in the neighborhood to try "foreign foods" -- when I was in college, she joined a group that picked a new ethnic cuisine every month and devised a menu to cook. But long before that, she was making pancit, moussaka, or chile rellenos. Authentic? Probably not. But it was different from what everyone else I knew was eating for dinner. Even when she made tacos, back in the heyday of Lawry's taco seasoning, she used corn tortillas instead of "taco shells" and green salsa instead of "taco sauce." Tame by today's standards, but way ahead of her time.
She never cooked dishes just because they were fashionable. We were just as likely to have pot roast as stir-fried beef and peppers. If she made something, it was because the dish tasted great, not because it was featured in Gourmet.
She was fearless. If she'd ever heard the admonition not to cook something new for company, she ignored it. And if that lack of restraint occasionally led to a less than perfect dinner (I recall an early Swiss cheese fondue so stringy that we finally cut it with scissors), it also meant that we were exposed to flavors and cuisines that our friends' mothers didn't even dream of. As I started to help in the kitchen I learned that for every written recipe she used, there were at least three dishes that she improvised. She owned only a handful of cookbooks, but she had a great instinct for what would taste good, and she wasn't afraid to experiment.
I remember one afternoon when I came into the kitchen to find her standing over two bowls of dried spices and herbs. She'd fallen in love with Hidden Valley Ranch Dressing mix -- back when it was a spice packet that you mixed fresh with buttermilk and mayonnaise. It was prohibitively expensive for her budget, so she was working to recreate it, which is what she told me when I asked what she was doing. One bowl contained the original; the other was her mixture. "It's close, but not quite right," she said. I picked up the package and read the ingredients. In typical junior-high-school know-it-all fashion, I said, "Well, you don't have monosodium glutamate." I didn't know what it was; I just figured it was something that my mother -- any mother -- wouldn't have. She pointed at a red and white bottle of Ac'cent. "Sure I do." I was amazed -- one of those rare teenage moments when you realize that your mother is, like, really cool. She had MSG in her cabinet.
Now I have MSG in my cabinet. I'm the "cook" in the family -- the one who experiments, who rarely uses recipes. I may not have inherited her love of stinky cheeses, but I did inherit her fearlessness. If I've never had to cut fondue with scissors, I have found myself trying to subdue an inexpertly stuffed and rolled leg of lamb with 245 yards of twine before my Easter guests arrived. Some of the dishes I make are hers -- either copied from her recipe cards or just learned at her side. Much more valuable than recipes, though, I picked up her approach to cooking. I like to think I have the same solid instincts about flavors and textures.
The most deeply ingrained lessons you learn from your parents are never the ones you think they're teaching. All the time I spent helping my mother in the kitchen, I thought I was learning how to cook. I never realized I was learning how to taste.
This is the way I learned to make chiles rellenos; it was a daring recipe for the time. It became such a family favorite that one year for Mom's birthday, a friend printed and framed the recipe for her, and it has hung in her kitchen ever since. Using canned chiles may not be authentic, but it was all that was available in Bountiful.
2 4-oz cans whole green chiles, seeded and rinsed
12 ounces Monterey jack cheese
flour for coating
2 tablespoons water
3 tablespoons flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
oil for frying
1 small onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 15-oz can tomato sauce
1/3 cup water
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon dried oregano
- Cut cheese into pieces the same length as the peppers and about 1/2-inch on a side. Stuff each pepper with a piece of cheese, taking care not to tear the pepper. Roll in flour to coat and set aside.
- Beat the eggs until very frothy. Combine water and flour and add to eggs with salt, and mix well.
- Dip chiles into the egg mixture and fry in hot oil until crisp and golden brown; turn and cook other side. If necessary, spoon a little extra batter over the second side before turning.
- Drain briefly on paper towels and serve with sauce and additional grated cheese.
- For the sauce, saute the onion and garlic in the oil over medium heat until soft. Add tomato sauce, water, salt, sugar and oregano and simmer, covered, 20 to 30 minutes.
Janet A. Zimmerman (aka JAZ) is food writer and culinary instructor based in Atlanta, Georgia. She is an eGullet Society manager.