Eater's Digest: Mom’s Cooking Meets Lighter, Healthier Ingredients
Published: Tuesday, May 15, 2012
Updated: Tuesday, May 15, 2012 03:05
This summer, in the comfort of scenic north Wilmington, I’ll be through with eating meals in impersonal dining halls and overpriced Main Street coffee shops. With the key exception of Chipwiches, my food will instead be prepared exclusively in a sunny kitchen. The grilled cheese will be free and the walls will be decked with awkward pictures of my childhood.
It’s a wholesome image, but going home also comes with a Russian novel of expectations, culinary and otherwise. Of course, the central expectation is that I will enjoy perfectly cooked and seasoned food, made with fresh ingredients. With this superior quality of food, though, comes a style that does not score quite as high on the health scale.
As much as I love my mom’s cooking, it is difficult to ignore how alarmingly similar her recipe book is to that of Paula Deen, the bubbly Southern matriarch and reigning queen of blocked arteries. The more food I am exposed to, the clearer it becomes that the cooking tradition I was raised on can be summarized in three of Deen’s favorite words: fried, salted and buttered.
The Food Network superstar faces regular criticism and even derision regarding her Southern cooking, including an incredible number of Internet memes devoted to the subject. The infamy of her calorie count is such that Deen’s son is currently paying his bills with another program that seeks to offer healthy alternatives to his mother’s tried-and-trues. Before I go home, I am eager to determine exactly where my family’s favorite food crosses the line from decadent to deadly so that I too can tweak my mom’s classics to new, healthier ones.
This summer, I expect to encounter buttery, melt-in-your mouth crab cakes topped with a creamy tartar sauce, flaky rhubarb pie with vanilla ice cream and, with a name that says it all, taco pie. If something is not coated in salt and butter, it’s drenched in cheese, cream and sugar. Even spinach is a culprit in my house, fried and dripping with mozzarella and bacon. This food weighs you down; I often feel tired after eating dinner at my house, with so much of my body’s energy suddenly allocated to digestion.
Summer is the last time that I want to be weighed down by food; the Memorial to Labor Day season begs for all things light and energizing. My plan to renovate our recipe book begins with thinking carefully about how to make even the richest of my favorite meals light enough for the unbearable humidity of August in Delaware. Moderation is an obvious fix. With a little restraint and by using spices to flesh out the flavor, salt and butter can be significantly reduced without sacrificing quality. The use of paprika or a side of hot sauce can turn an omelet, saturated in the infamous butter-salt duo, into a heart-healthy source of protein.
Sauces are my second point of interest. My kitchen would probably implode if I were to stop using olive oil or cheese in pasta, but I think it is possible to evoke the spirit of my mom’s seafood linguini with a lot less cream. Olive oil, white wine, pasta water, milk and cornstarch can easily imitate the consistency of a creamier pasta sauce.
I guess something would be missing from my coming-of-age if I didn’t somehow question the environment in which I was raised, including the food on my plate. When I learned that some of my friends “don’t ever think” to butter their bread, I almost gasped: here are those exotic perspectives that college promised. That distinction alone gave me reason to reflect on the food I ate growing up. “Is someone wrong here?” I wondered.
I no longer think I have to choose. Another important part of growing up involves sifting through all of our experiences in order to form our own philosophies. I can’t help thinking that my mom is simply a better cook than anyone else’s. It is not just the salt and butter that makes her meals memorable, but the time that she allows a pot to simmer, the juiciness of her meat and her obsession with deglazing everything with white wine. I could never abandon all that she has taught me about cooking. While I’ll try to use salt in moderation over the summer and beyond, I know that I won’t hesitate to feed my own kids sausage on Sunday mornings. I also know that life is way too short to not to put butter on bread.