Babci doesn’t own measuring cups or spoons for that matter. One of the things that I often hear from my friends is this. Babci is such a great cook. You should write down all her old world recipes so they don’t get lost. To which I respond: “Recipe? What is this strange word you speak.” The closest thing I’ve seen to a measuring cup is a flour scoop and when she’s measuring out things like baking powder and baking soda, she uses any old spoon from the drawer.
I think many of our grandparents are like this. If you grew up on a farm 100 years ago, chances are you were illiterate. (Babci herself can barely read, she sounds out the words as she reads them). The other thing that I think was a big factor besides the lack of funds to actually buy something like a cookbook was the food quality. Unlike the homogenized nature of today’s raw materials, I think there was a lot more seasonal variety to the quality of the food. Therefore, you may have to add more leavener if your grain is old, or more water if you’re baking with shriveled up apples at the tail end of spring. Even today with the whole and local food movement, if you truly buy local, you can taste the difference of milk in pasture fed cows as the seasons change. If you’ve picked up any artisan baking cookbooks, they too try to reproduce recipes by feel instead of solely by portion sizes.
Like many things, Babci was for the most part a self taught cook. She’s still bitter that my aunt didn’t ever share tips on how to cook when she arrived in this country. You see, Babci’s diet in Poland was very meager. She could make oatmeal or barley all day long and made a mean milk soup (milk with drop noodles and a little bit of sugar), but she never had the luxury of learning how to make meals out of meat or make fancy desserts, so she had to teach herself. She is a horrible baker by the way. With baking, you need recipes. She still keeps on trying to make stuff and for some reason refuses to follow her polish recipe books that she bought during her last trip to Poland. I’m often the sorry sucker she tries to push her burnt and dry baked good creations on. Her meal cooking is fabulous though.
Here are a few babci’s cooking tips that she’s shared with me over the years:
- When making dough, it can’t be too sticky or too dry. It must be just so. Her egg noodles have 2 ingredients, eggs and flour. Her recipe is this..add just enough flour so that the eggs soak it up, then make a dough ball. Continue kneading it until it’s not sticky anymore.
- Add Spices slowly. Add, taste, add taste, until it tastes right.
- How to Select Spices (actually this is a tip from my friend Greg who is a fab cook) – open a spice bottle or two, hold it above the pot you are cooking in and then waft the aroma of the spices and food towards you. If it smells good, then add. If it smells strange, then omit.
- You must use fat in all cooking – okay, this is not a healthy option and I keep telling my mom that I won’t eat things covered in pork rinds anymore. I think this is leftover from the days when meat was scarce and lard was an important source of calories on the farm. These days when food and calories are plentiful and her workload is much lower, it’s sadly a recipe for obesity.
- Don’t use Fake Ingredients – I don’t think I’ve ever seen babci buy anything besides condiments from the middle isle. It’s all staples like flour, sugar, butter, bread, meat, grains, fruits, veggies, oil. The one exception I’ve seen is buying a jar of Prego or Ragu once in a while to use as a soup base for her tomato soup.
- Processed Food is Poison – Babci is afraid of preservatives and of any pre-made meals where she hasn’t seen the ingredients that have gone into them. She is convinced that the food industry adds things that are cheap vs nutritious to make higher profits.
- Use Lots of Garlic and Onions- They are good for you.
How about you? Do you have relatives that are great cooks and don’t use recipes? I have to admit, I don’t use them often either, except when I bake. Do you think the secret to being a great cook is in fact, not using recipes and allowing yourself to be creative and adjust flavors as needed?