The Secret Ingredient in My Cooking

There were several mentions recently of my love for cooking and the enthusiastic response my cooking always gets. My friends swear that when they make my same recipes, it never turns out as great as when I make it. My friend Susan insists I have a magic stove, but really, it is a secret ingredient and technique I use, which I will reveal later in this blog.

Of course now that I am in an all-packed-up house with a barely usable kitchen, there isn’t a lot of cooking going on, not that I am an every day sort of chef anyway. I enjoy cooking for family, contributing for dinners we are invited to, and of course holiday cooking – my absolute specialty. If I had the time, and in my over-scheduled, active life, there is not much spare time, I would cook much more. Especially if there was a recipient whose mouth was just watering, waiting for it. (Dear Kids… move home, love Mom) In fact, there are few things more satisfying to me than cooking for people I love.

I am creative and I do believe cooking, like writing, is a creative art. Plus I am the lucky recipient of the genetics galore from my dad’s side of the family. My great grandmother was a caterer, and my grandmother, and her daughter, my Aunt Doris (both of beloved memory) were extraordinary cooks in their day. My Gram loved nothing more than feeding us all, and trying to fatten us up – we were the skinny side of the family.

In fact, I grew up living a block away from my cooking grandmother, who was always at the stove, or so it seemed; and two blocks from my Aunt Doris, also always cooking. Sitting in the kitchen keeping my Gram company on many occasions, I just know I inherited her talent through osmosis, since she really did not apprentice me when she could have at the time.

One time I was first dating after my divorce, and it was shortly after Passover, a holiday that I lovingly cook approximately 12 courses for each year. I was bragging about my cooking prowess to a guy I was dating at the time, and he wanted proof but I wasn’t into the relationship far enough to invite him over for a home cooked dinner. So I brought him Passover leftovers – my homemade Matzoh Ball soup, and some other courses. I will never forget his reaction as he heated it up in his kitchen and tasted it. He said, “Wait, you are telling me that you look like that, AND you cook like this?” (The Blonde thing, what can I say?) He was incredulous. My stock with him went WAY up immediately. Too bad because I met my future husband shortly afterward and broke up with him.

My above friend Susan recently asked me to give her some of my recipes for her daughter who is getting married. I was quite busy with stuff at the time, but I figured I could type or copy one or two. She started rattling off requests: my meat lasagna, my spinach lasagna, my famous chocolate cake, (That everyone should taste before they die) my garlic chicken, my stuffing, my soup, and the list went on and on. She apologized when I told her it was too much, but she tried to compliment me into doing it. “Everything you make is the best!” One year Susan invited us over for Thanksgiving but made me cook everything and bring it – this is a true story. She set an elegant table and made desserts and some side dishes and appetizers. Plus she also requested my lasagna – see below for more on that. And yes, I accommodated all of her requests and we had a lovely time. (And PS, Susan is a great cook herself!!)

Recently, we had our annual post Thanksgiving lunch out with friends who come from near and far at Thanksgiving and since they are like family, we always try to get together even if we are not together on Thanksgiving.

Dina said the food was good where they went for Thanksgiving, and added, “but not like yours. Nobody cooks as good as you do.”

She went on to explain to her daughter’s boyfriend (a newcomer on the scene with me) about my cooking and went into length about her favorite – my noodle kugel. In fact, my same friend Susan makes the same kugel recipe as I do and one time I brought it to her house for a Friday night dinner. Her mom (also of blessed memory) was there and was saying it was the best kugel she ever had. Susan, exasperated, having made a delicious meal that evening, told her mom that she always cooked the same kugel recipe. Her mom replied, “It never tastes like this!!” (Susan forgave me and we are still close friends.)

For some reason, I am as good of an Italian cook as I am a Jewish cook. My meatballs are the best – both regular and sweet and sour. Yet so are my “famous” (around these parts due to Chanukah parties I threw) latkes. (potato pancakes) Go figure.

I fondly remember my daughter’s high school crowd gathering at my home all the time, raiding my refrigerator for leftovers. The post Thanksgiving raid was especially memorable and now that they are all grown, I still tease some from that crew when I see them to come and raid my refrigerator once again.

You may have guessed my secret ingredient- I put crack cocaine in my dishes. No, just joking – what a horrid thought. Here’s the secret: I cook with great gusto, enthusiasm, and most of all -love. (I am the very messiest cook ever – ask my husband – and that is the gusto part.) My technique is unusual in that I don’t follow exact ingredients, seeming to instinctively know when to add a bit more of this and that, or skimp on other things. (That’s the genetics part.)

For example, my lasagnas are pretty famous around here too. A ¬†friend’s son when he was away at college used to tell me he dreamed of coming home and being invited over for my lasagna. (I always made and served it to all the returning college students during Thanksgiving break.) My other friend sent her entire family over one time to watch me prepare it so they could learn to do it like I do and have it taste as good. My meat lasagna is basically the recipe on the back of a lasagna noodle box. But I use only ground sirloin as the meat, and when I brown the meat, I saute it in sauce and garlic and then add cheese to it so it gets gooey and so I am not putting a layer of dry meat on the noodles. I skimp on the ricotta and up the Parmesan and mozzarella quotient way up. I use generous portions of garlic, but you don’t taste the garlic because I have several friends who love my stuff and swear they hate garlic and garlicky things. My dishes NEVER taste garlicky, but I do use it generously.

Lately, I was thinking about my retirement and I want to spend it in Laguna Beach – my new Hawaii – in my fantasy of course – writing and cooking, cooking and writing. Though I am not nearly ready yet, it is something to really look forward to in my not so distant future.

4 comments

  • Hi Arlene! I wish you would spend more time out here in Orange County so we could cook together!
    I also love to cook, though my results are spottier than yours, I think. My knife skills suck and my presentation skills are nil. Yet people usually enjoy the food I make.
    I lean toward Asian (Vietnamese and Chinese) but also do Iranian and Indian and some Jewish foods.
    I don’t eat cheese at all, so I never cook Italian food.
    I am also very messy, so my husband hates it when I cook because he generally cleans up.
    But it would be fun to make a joint dinner sometime.

  • Thanks Arlene! I think you could write a highly entertaining cookbook. I predict it would be an instant hit!!!

    • Thanks for saying that but would I have the patience to write all those recipes????

      • Of course you could!! It would be very chatty – just like your blog posts. Each recipe would Include your special brand of story telling. You’ve already proven it would sell. Believe me if Snack Girl can get a book deal – for sure you could!

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