Cooking for Comfort

It’s been a stressful few weeks. My 86-year-old mother suffered a fall and broke her pelvis and right elbow. Being the Super Woman that she is, she has bounced back much more quickly than expected, what with her pushing herself through physical therapy. If they give her 10 leg lifts, she does 15. If they ask her to transfer herself from the bed to wheelchair with moderate help, she does it 85% on her own. She is truly amazing. She faces any obstacle head on – pushes past any pain and becomes more determined the bigger the hill or mountain.  

I’ve been told I’ve inherited my mother’s determination and headstrong will. Possibly so, as many times when I feel I’m on the slight verge of a breakdown, I remind myself that time should not be wasted on feeling sorry for oneself and there are always worse situations – always – so I push onward. Not fully cloaked in my mother’s armored will, I have discovered I do need to regroup and reenergize at times, so I’ve found ways of coping with stress. Yoga and ensuring I take time to read or watch a movie allow me to forget (for a very short time) that I need to meet with mom’s case manager or schedule another session with her physical therapist to learn how to properly assist mom from platform walker to shower seat, set up home healthcare, as well as worry about my dad who is spending time alone in their home of 62 years. But I also another means of dealing with stress, including the day-to-day work and life stressors, so the other day I finally found some time to cook. I’m not talking a quick and easy throw-together meal, but a meal requiring time spent with a recipe I’ve possibly altered more than once and will continue to do so far into the future (there’s always a rewrite) or something new. The prep and pace should be savored just as the-end-result meal. Leisurely, slow-paced, sips-of-wine-in-between-stirs cooking.

I’ve found true comfort in cooking. It is therapeutic for me, which is ironic considering that until I was 30 years old, I could barely boil water, let alone cook an entire meal from scratch. I had no interest in cooking, which frustrated my mother whom I swear is still the best cook in the state of Kansas. Because of her, I am a bona fide Mexican food snob. I don’t go to Mexican restaurants because no one, absolutely no one, can make enchiladas, tacos, pozole, tostadas, flautas or any Mexican dish like mi Madre. But, it’s not just her authentic, handed-down recipes reminiscent of the homeland of her parent’s dishes – she can also make a mean spaghetti and meatballs and delightfully gooey yet sturdy lasagna. This is a woman who cooks by sight and taste, but always adds the most important ingredient – the love of family. So, imagine her complete disappointment when I showed no interest in learning her methods or recipes (“what do you mean you don’t know how many teaspoons of salt or Mexican oregano? It’s all by taste? What does that even mean? Ugh).

It was not until I met my husband that I decided to learn to cook. At first it was all about survival. True, I’d been living on my own for more than a decade but had been able to sustain myself by alternating a homecooked meal at my parents with boxed macaroni and cheese, fried egg sandwiches, or fast food. But now, I was about to become a wife and new stepmom to two boys, and while my husband loved to cook, I personally couldn’t allow him to be fully responsible for feeding our family. I remember vividly mom dishing out goodness onto our plates as we sat at the round kitchen table and the warmth it gave me, so I wanted to give my new family that same feeling. I had to help in the kitchen, other than brewing coffee or making toast. I placed pressure upon myself to better understand when water is truly boiling or how long to wait before flipping a grilled cheese sandwich. Yes, the true basics. The first time I cooked spaghetti, I tossed the entire package in a too small pot and ended up having to pull apart the sticky, overcooked noodles from one another as well as the sides and bottom of the pot. My mother was not proud. I began to buy cookbooks at garage sales and cut out recipes from magazines, determined to master some semblance of cooking and try desperately not to poison my family.

In usual I-am-my-mother’s-daughter fashion, I went from mastering bacon and eggs to chicken cacciatore, and when I knew I was ready, my mother’s recipes. To me, they still never taste as good as mom’s, but my sons now make my mother’s enchiladas and tacos for their families, so I guess I’ve done okay. But cooking has become more than making a delicious holiday clam chowder reminiscent of my Aunt Nancy’s in Rhode Island or laboring over Christmas tamales that smell and taste of Christmases past, it’s therapy. There’s something about standing in front of the stove and inhaling the aroma of diced onions, celery and minced garlic sautéing in olive oil that resets my soul. Plus, taking a recipe and altering to fit my own personal palate is completely satisfying to all my senses (Garlic. There must be more garlic!). The entire act of cooking helps me wind down, breathe deep and finally, relax. Who knew an act that once caused near nervous breakdowns along with burnt fingers and learning to work a fire extinguisher would eventually bring such internal joy?  Really, who knew? Not me.

Again, I’m not talking about coming home late from work and throwing together a mediocre meal – I’m talking thoughtful purchase of groceries, analyzing of ingredients, setting up the kitchen to ensure flawless movement from stove to sink to spice cabinet, and enjoying the moment from chopping to the grand finale of plating. I never, ever thought I would find the simplest of pleasures in cooking. Never.

After weeks of running from home to hospital to parent’s home to work to rehab hospital to home, I made the time to cook a favorite: turkey burger soup. Sounds boring, right? No. This recipe has a perfect blend of browned ground turkey with sautéed onions, celery, carrots, minced garlic and diced Roma tomatoes with just enough beef broth, cannellini beans and seasoned with fresh Italian oregano, basil and parsley from my herb garden then topped with leaves of spinach, kale and chard to wrap you in a body-warming sensation like a hug from your momma amidst falling autumn leaves. Being a boisterous fan of fall and winter, it’s no surprise my favorite dishes to cook are soups, stews and anything that satisfyingly weights the belly. Fall and winter cooking are my jam – not so much grilling, with its lighter fluid and charcoal aftertaste, not to mention that after July 4th, everything grilled begins to taste the same to me. Summer cooking for me usually consists of pan-seared sea bass or Mahi Mahi over jasmine rice with steamed asparagus or chicken thighs in arborio rice with slices of summer squash. Not exactly a wrapped-in-sweater-weather-soul-soothing meal, but it is delicious and definitely takes an attentive cook in the kitchen.

My mother has a long road ahead of her, but I foresee weeks of her determined and inspiring attitude aimed at becoming whole again, peppered with evenings of me leaned against my steadfast stove, inhaling those familiar fragrances of family, love and food, just as my mother taught me. Together, she and I will weather this storm. Images of her in the kitchen wearing her enchilada sauce stained apron, the sounds of her hands slapping the floury dough for homemade tortillas, the smells of baking conchas or Mexican sweet breads fill my heart to bursting. It is not only the cooking, but the comfort of those recollections, knowing that one day those memories along with her recipes will continue to surround me in their familial smells, wrapping my heart in a rebozo woven with threads of fidéo and scented in cumin, cinnamon and cloves, and easing my worried mind as I listen for her words in my ear, “Don’t measure, just taste and watch. Always taste. You’ll be fine, mija. Just fine.”

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