One Day As A Lion
How cooking can change your outlook on life and health
by Mark Andrews I learned to cook standing on a table chair backed against Rae’s stove. And I learned to believe that food is love. Most Sundays of my childhood were spent in Grandma Rae’s kitchen. An Italian immigrant, she came to America as a teenager with her mother Nonna and her two older brothers Nicolo and Dominic. They brought with them a rich heritage of family and food experienced within a loosely-controlled chaos that only Sicilians deem civilized. Rae would bounce in and out of her chair at the kitchen table between hands of canasta with her mother to tend whatever she had cooking on the stove. They’d smoke cigarettes and banter about American television or the divine virtuoso of Luciano Pavarotti. And, of course the food.
Plates of breaded cutlets fried in olive oil stacked between thick slices of provolone. Steaming artichokes in lemon juice and capers. Cannoli filled with sweetened ricotta dusted with powdered sugar and cocoa. Spumoni chilling in the icebox. Scoops of gelato swimming in the froth of piping hot espresso. The tastes and smells have never left me. “E’meglio vivere un giorno da leone,” she’d said, the staccato cadence of her native tongue soothing the stovetop burn I’d just received from an errant brush against her cast iron skillet. “Che cento da pecora.” Rae gently held my face in her hands to translate the Italian proverb: “Better to live one day as a lion, than one hundred as a sheep.”
And so it was, my first lesson on living courageously in the kitchen, one I took with me wherever life happened.
Life moves pretty fast. In today’s world of five dollar pizzas, dinosaur shaped chicken nuggets from the freezer, and pop tarts that appear to have been decorated with a paintball gun, it seems ever so more important that we man our posts over the stove. There’s an endless stream of information available to us on the sobering statistics and soaring healthcare costs for a nation of children whose majority are now either overweight or obese. Simply put, processed foods are the culprit; convenience in a ‘hurry up’ society the catalyst. And, lost in the shuffle of microwaves and fast food carryout is the opportunity to demonstrate how much we care about those that we are feeding.
Cooking is a skill. But not nearly as complicated as some would have you believe. It just takes practice and, at times, some measure of courage. All will not go according to plan. There will certainly be the occasional burned and bandaged fingers. Even smoke alarms blaring like sirens in the night. But, onward I say. The best way to learn is to do. In that spirit, here are a few of my favorite summertime Italian dishes to help get you started. Each of them is easy to prepare with moderate preparation and some basic ingredients.
Ingredients: Vine-ripened tomatoes, fresh basil, avocado, fresh mozzarella (in water), lemon, olive oil, and balsamic glaze. How to prepare: Slice the tomatoes in half; remove the core, then cut into wedges and arrange on serving plate. Cut your avocado in half; remove the core. Slice through the skin on each half using a sharp paring knife; peel away the skin and discard. Cut the avocado into strips lengthwise and add to the tomatoes on your serving plate. Remove your mozzarella from the water and slice into disks. Then cut each disk in half; arrange on serving plate with the other ingredients. Now, you’re ready to add seasoning. Pluck your basil leaves from their stems and chop them on a cutting board (not too fine). Sprinkle the leaves over your tomatoes, avocado, and mozzarella. Cut your lemon in half and squeeze the juice over everything being careful not to include the seeds. Season with sea salt and pepper. Finally, it’s time to dress the salad. Drizzle olive oil over the salad in long diagonal lines moving from one side of the plate to the other forming a zig zag. Then do the same in the opposite direction with your balsamic glaze. Chill in the fridge or serve immediately.
Roasted Summer Vegetables
Ingredients: Zuchini, yellow squash, mushrooms, sweet onion, eggplant, sweet bell pepper, fresh rosemary, thyme, olive oil. How to prepare: Cut all your vegetables into 1/2” slices; arrange in a baking dish. Chop your rosemary and thyme, then season your vegetables with the herbs, sea salt, and pepper. Drizzle with olive oil and toss. Bake uncovered at 450 degrees 20–25 minutes. Serve immediately or cover with foil to keep warm. This is also a dish that works wonderfully on the grill, using skewers or wrapped in foil pockets.
Grilled Sockeye Salmon Filet
Ingredients: Sockeye filet (skin on), thyme, olive oil, lemon, dill weed. How to prepare: Rub your filet with olive oil; season with chopped thyme, dill, sea salt, pepper. Squeeze lemon juice over the filet. Either bake in the oven at 450 degrees for 10–12 minutes or grill over hot flames. The fish is done when firm to the touch. To serve, just run a spatula between the skin (which should now be crispy) and the meat to separate. Cut into portions and serve immediately. While at first the dishes might seem like work, they really are very easy to make. Like any skill, it takes practice.
Finding new dishes
Recipes and tutorials are only as far away as our smart phones or tablets. One of my favorites is www.cooksillustrated.com. There you can find recipes and tutorials and online cooking classes for the truly ambitious. Entire cable networks are dedicated to the craft—the Barefoot Contessa and Giada’s Food Network show are two great resources. But you can have more fun finding one to attend in person. One of the best places to learn to cook is at a local growers market like the Clarke County Farmers Market, with their abundance of locally grown fruits, berries, herbs and vegetables, too. Farmers love to talk about their favorite ways to prepare the food they sell, and its great fun to build a dish or meal from the offerings of several of them. You can walk the market and invent your own dish. With a bit of planning, we can all carve out enough time to share a meal with those we love. Recruit your loved ones to help select the menu. Invite your friends to dinner and make the preparation a social event. Grow your own tomatoes from a hanging basket or plant a vegetable garden. Assign prep duties to your children and help them practice their own skills in the kitchen while sharing the responsibility of feeding their tribe. And in the process, you just might create a set of wonderful memories and a sense of community that will outlast the shelf life of even the most processed of foods. So, it is: Eat Well. Be Fed.