Learning to cook

February 28, 2008

Chicken MarengoFor everyone who enjoys cooking, there’s one dish that divides the time between when they were learning to cook and when they became someone who people acknowledge as a person who can cook. Quite a milestone!

The first dish I mastered came from a hardcover cookbook that my Aunt Doreen had cast aside. It had a lofty title like Great Dishes of France that should have intimidated a 12-year old but instead made me take it seriously. (In those days I believed that if information was in a book, it was sacred and special — I hadn’t read Shopaholic Takes Manhattan yet). Aunty Doreen’s cookbook was as thick as my grandmother’s family bible and just as impoverished for illustration. I remember thinking of the recipes in this book as so much more special and worthy than the ones in my mother’s Five Roses Cookbook and I took to studying my aunt’s book carefully.

I think I made quite a few things from that book but the one that I mastered, surprising no one as much as myself; was Chicken Marengo (that’s the version I made in the picture). At the time, I didn’t know this dish was connected to Napoleon Bonaparte but I knew that it was special because after I served it to them for dinner, my family looked at me in a new way.

I polled my Facebook group and foodie friends to find out what dishes they first mastered. Here are their answers.

• The first recipe I perfected, was shortbread cookies. I remember taking them — pretty classic butter, sugar and flour rounds, decorated with red and green glace cherries — to my mother who was visiting with a friend in the living room. Lavish praise ensued, and I was hooked. Who doesn’t like baking when the results are so pleasing?

Elizabeth Baird, Toronto, Ont.

• I’m embarrassed to admit it, but the first meal I mastered at a young age was Hamburger Helper!

Although, I remember a few mishaps in the cookie department — potato-chip cookies seemed like a good combination but never really came together well, then there was the shortbread made with coarse salt….

Regan Windsor, Sanford, Mba.

• I remember coming home from school for lunch to discover a dining room table lined with three to four different types of freshly baked homemade cookies. Once a week, my mom would bake up a selection to keep us happy at lunch and after school. That first decision to choose which cookie to have after lunch was a killer — chocolate chip, peanut butter, oatmeal, oatmeal raisin. Logically, the first recipe I mastered was the chocolate chip cookie. To this day, I follow the same recipe my mom pulled from her Canadian cookbook, which was so beautifully earmarked, with sugar, eggs and butter — a sign of a well-loved cookbook in our house.

Caroline Coulson, Toronto, Ont.

• I mastered making peanut brittle when I was nine. Watching melting sugar being transformed into amber liquid hooked me on cooking and baking. Sweet memories!

Norene Gilletz, Toronto, Ont.

• The first dish I mastered was chili. It’s so easygoing – measurements can be approximate – you can just add this and that and keep tasting until it’s about right. And it tastes even better the next day!

I knew I had mastered it when I won the Calgary Stampede Chili Cook-off at age 12. Not the kids’ cook-off, the grown-ups one! To be honest, I couldn’t even remember what exactly had gone into it!

Julie Van Rosendaal, Calgary, Alta.

• I was about 12 and I made this pineapple cheesecake. You know, the no-bake kind with gelatin and a tin of crushed pineapple? My Dad and my uncle Bob would polish off the 9” x 13” pan in one sitting.

Donna Paluk, Winnipeg Beach, Mba.

• My forte at the tender age of seven was cookies from no less than The Betty Crocker’s Girls and Boys Cookbook. I recall oatmeal chocolate chip were a triumph, shortbreads were a flop (given that I subbed out butter for “Betty Lou” Margarine — some neon-yellow nightmare my parents thought was better for us!) I’d sit my Curious George stuffed monkey on the counter and speak to him in my best Julia Child-inflected warble. It was love at first mix!

Mary Luz Mejia , Toronto, Ont.

• I gave my first dinner party at age 16…lasagna and Caesar salad. Friends still mention it and lasagna always takes me back there.

Ruth Daniels, Halifax, N.S.

• Believe it or not, the first recipe I made on my own (with my mother helping as needed) was bread. My sister and I took bread-baking as part of 4H Club in our early teens. I remember it was a braided loaf. It was my first encounter with the mysteries of yeast, kneading and egg wash. How wonderful it smelled and how proud I was to serve it to my family.

Later, when I had my own place after university, pasta with broccoli, tomato sauce and Parmesan cheese was a staple one-pot dish.

Julia Armstrong, Toronto, Ont.

• The first real meal I perfected (with only a little guidance from Mom) was Creamed Ham and Peas on Toast. I was determined to make it to earn my Housekeeping Badge as a Brownie (I was in Grade 3 or 4). My mom showed me how to make the white sauce (I had no idea at the time that it was the classical French Bechamel Sauce) and I added the rest.

This effort was to make up for my first, miserable failure — I made Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup and Grilled Cheese Sandwiches — the soup boiled over; I burnt the sandwiches; and after Mom wiped up the soup and my tears, she taught me the best lesson: that mistakes in the kitchen are not the end of the world and are the best way to learn!

Anna Olson, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.
What’s the first dish you mastered? Please tell me by using the comments section below.