Thinking about Mother’s Day—and as I’m cleaning up the mess in my kitchen that I created by not securing the top on the blender while rushing to finish some asparagus soup—my grandmother’s voice comes into my head as it so often does, “More haste, less speed”, I hear her say to me.
My grandmother (nan was what I called her), was not the world’s greatest cook, neither was my mother. Both cooked because they had to put food on the table, not because they loved it. The irony of this is my mother eventually became an industrial cook, heading up a school kitchen that prepared meals for three surrounding schools in the locality—hundreds of typical English school dinners every day. Being English, I bristle at criticism leveled at English food, but if I look back on my childhood, I do remember some pretty overcooked, soggy meals, not to mention everything on toast (England runs on toast!).
I started to develop an interest in cooking around my early teens. The grammar school I attended still had domestic science classes. It was an all girls school in the sixties, so this was considered normal, nothing sexist or shocking about girls being taught how to iron a shirt, remove stains and make cakes and pastry by hand—no electrical gadgets to make life easy then. As a consequence I took it upon myself to bake a cake every Sunday for tea. Sunday lunch was the traditional roast with all the trimmings, no matter what the temperature was, the oven went on at 10:00 and stayed on until the potatoes were roasted to a crisp, as was the joint of beef or lamb. In our house rare meat was a rarity, something that only occurred when the cook hadn’t cooked it properly, or the gas ran out and we had forgotten to save the two shilling pieces needed to feed the gas meter every hour or so. At that time, we lived in a council house and you paid as you went for utilities.
This heavy, midday feast was followed by collective napping, and around 5:00 in the afternoon it was teatime. So as the family napped I baked. Victoria sponges, Bakewell tarts, jam tarts, scones, fruit cake….whatever was in the pantry that day. My mother never shopped for anything special for my Sunday baking ritual. The rule was, you want to bake, make do with what we have. I worked from a 1950’s recipe book, which I wish I had kept, and for the most part everything I needed was at hand. If not, too bad, I improvised.
What stayed with me from that time was how satisfying it was to take something out of the oven that I had created from scratch, and even more satisfying was the “Yum…. that’s good,” from my family as they ate my very basic baking attempts.
Cooking for me is all about the YUM!
So back to the asparagus soup. The kitchen has been cleaned up and the soup is sitting there cooling. I love making soups. My early days baking taught me that there are two kinds of cooks—the disciplined ones who follow every step in a recipe religiously—the bakers, and then, there’s the improvisers. The cooks that start with a recipe and add their own spin, that’s me! Baking for me is too regimented, and requires a lot of patience of which I have none. Once in a while I will bake. I do make really good pastry, and fabulous brownies (the YUM factor again!), but cakes and cookies are not my thing. I leave these to my really good friend Lucille—she should be selling her baked goods, they are stellar!
For the past ten years I have been coming up to Catskill mountains and finally have a kitchen larger than my NYC postage stamp in which to cook. The local farmers markets have been a wonderful inspiration and soups—hot and cold have become a bit of a specialty of mine. With asparagus just coming into season, hummers coming back to the feeders, and pansies in the planters, it had to be asparagus soup this weekend.
I use a really simple, utterly foolproof recipe that is equally delicious hot or cold, my preference is chilled as it heralds the start of the summer season for me. Summer weekends up in the mountains are a wonderful time of year. Fresh produce, chilled wine and outdoor dining, there’s nothing better. It can only be topped by the appearance of the deer at dusk and hoards of fireflies twinkling as the sky darkens—that’s magical!