When I asked my mom, for this story, if she had taught me anything about cooking, she laughed and gave me a look. A look that said, "You mean, besides everything?"
As usual, she is right.
My mom doesn't have any famous recipes, or generations-old cards lingering in her kitchen drawers. But she taught me about things more practical and valuable, sage cooking wisdom one can only gain after they've done it every day for years.
Things like cleaning up after yourself as you go, preheating the oven before you do anything, clearing the counter before you get to work chopping all of your ingredients on it. She is not one to follow a recipe verbatim, often tweaking it to make it for fewer people or to make the ingredients a tad healthier. I do the same thing, and realized recently that it's one of the things that has made me a better cook.
But more than any specific advice, the feeling of being in the kitchen with my mom, of making food a fun and important part of our time together, has instilled in me a passion for cooking, for eating a proper dinner every night, for caring about what I put in my body.
It seems many of you feel the same way. We asked readers and staff of the Tampa Bay Times to share any cooking stories, recipes or tips from their mothers. The response was robust. Here is a sample of some of that essential, mom-approved kitchen advice.
• • •
STORIES FROM OUR STAFF
Hitting the right notes
Amy Hollyfield, Times deputy managing editor/politics, business
SCOTT KEELER | Times
Ask me to describe my mom and the answer is rock 'n' roll cook.
From ZZ Top to Kid Rock, she is a huge fan. And she's the best cook I know.
Listening to the Avett Brothers and cooking King Ranch Casserole, I'm indebted to her.
She passed on her love of music and this classic family recipe.
Tortillas, chicken and cheese are the staples, green chiles add the kick.
Sometime after college, Mom made me a book of her recipes, the ones I love, and some I had not heard of.
Basics like Pancakes (Overnight) and The Best Brownies, along with harder entrees including Beef Burgundy, Flank Steak Teriyaki and Chicken Divan.
I've cooked my way through about half the book, jamming to something each time.
King Ranch Casserole is the go-to dinner. It's super easy to make, with few ingredients and basic steps. Pair it with a salad and you have a great meal. Leftovers for days.
Mom has been a vegetarian for years now, so she usually makes two versions of the casserole for family gatherings, substituting black beans for the chicken in one. She also adds skinny margaritas.
I confess, her rock 'n' roll spirit is stronger in me than her cooking. I have the skills, but rarely the inspiration.
Every time she visits, Mom tries to change that. Lately she comes with a new tool for my kitchen. A ceramic knife. A panini press. Last month she noticed I don't have a blender. Maybe that's coming for my birthday.
It would help with the margaritas.
King Ranch Casserole3 large boneless chicken breasts
1 large onion, chopped
1 (4-ounce) can finely chopped green chiles
1 can cream mushroom soup
8 ounces grated cheddar cheese
8 flour tortillas, each cut into 6 pieces
Steam chicken until tender, about 20 minutes. Cut into bite-sized pieces.
Saute onion in a small amount of oil. Add chiles, soup and half of the grated cheese. Cook slowly until cheese is melted.
Line a greased 9- by 13-inch casserole dish with tortilla pieces.
Layer with half of the chicken, then half of the cheese sauce.
Repeat layers and top with remaining cheese.
Bake uncovered at 325 degrees for 45 to 60 minutes or until heated throughout.
• • •
Nothing's as good as when Mom makes it
Chelsea Tatham, Times staff writer
If you were to ask my mom what she thinks she taught me about cooking, she'd probably say "nothing" and "I can't cook." Well she's wrong. My mom may not be the owner of a secret family recipe for spaghetti sauce or peach pie, but she taught me that loving food isn't just about the ingredients, plate presentation or flair — it's about who made it. When I think about my favorite dishes my mom cooked for me I think of simple chocolate fudge, yellow box cake with chocolate frosting, the perfect fried egg sandwich and my grandmother's famous M&M cookies. My mom taught me it doesn't matter if what you're making is from a box or from scratch because what I'll remember is her letting me lick the spoon after making a batch of boxed brownies and her teaching me how to fry an egg . Of course, mine still aren't as good as hers. After all, nothing tastes as good as when Mom makes it.
• • •
Treasures by any measure
Carolyn Edds, Times staff writer
CAROLYN EDDS | Times
When I use these measuring cups, they often bring back memories of making Christmas cookies with my mom. She baked many goodies, but my favorite was oatmeal cookies with walnuts. She liked them with raisins and the kids liked them with chocolate chips so she had to make two batches, one with each.
If I had a penny for every ½ cup of white sugar, every 1 cup of oatmeal or flour and every ¼ cup of molasses these measuring cups have served up, I would have more than enough to buy a new set. But I would never trade these in. I look forward to using them with my new great-niece as we bake cookies one day.
• • •
Affection through food
Josie Hollingsworth, Times staff writer
My mother's family is Italian, so affection is transferred primarily through cooking and eating together. Whether it was stirring a pot of ratatouille with veggies from the garden, or filling eggplant rollatini with ricotta, I have always felt closest to my mom while in the kitchen with her. Some tips I've learned from her along the way: Challah is best for French toast. (Don't skimp on the nutmeg either!) Dress the salad at the last moment, just as guests sit down at the table. And finally, live a little. Cook everything on high heat.
• • •
Stuffing stays in the family
Jennifer Orsi, Times managing editor
JENNIFER ORSI | Times
The list of my mom's best meals reads like a Better Homes and Gardens cookbook from the Mad Men era — Swedish meatballs, Hungarian goulash, stuffed peppers, old-fashioned spaghetti sauce. But the dish for which she was universally known in our family and to all guests who visited her table at Thanksgiving and Christmas was her turkey stuffing.
It's the most vivid food memory of my childhood, the thing we'd look forward to all year, the thing without which it wasn't Christmas. The ingredients were cheap and processed. Bagged Pepperidge Farm bread crumbs, chicken livers, raisins, walnuts, dried herbs sprinkled from a McCormick can. It really doesn't sound good, does it? But it was.
For most of my life, I had little interest in learning how to make it, only that it religiously appeared at the holiday table. She didn't use a written recipe anyway. But finally after college and marriage, after Mom got congestive heart failure, I had a moment of clarity that the stuffing might not always just show up, and I asked her to show me how to make it. She even wrote some of it down, though how to determine enough chicken liver "to cover size of bird" was not included on the recipe, titled "1995 Turkey Ingredients."
That Christmas was the last time we had her stuffing.
For Christmas 1996, she was in the hospital, losing her battle with heart failure and emphysema. We exchanged presents at her bedside, though by that time she wasn't conscious enough to participate much. She had asked a friend from church to get some gifts for me, mother to the end. She died two days later.
The next holiday season, I channeled Mom and tackled the stuffing, even though I thought I'd be the only one eating it. My husband never liked stuffing as a child. But I modified Mom's recipe to include sausage for my meat-lover, and it was a hit. Since then, after my Martha Stewart phase, I've made a couple of other changes. Fresh herbs instead of powdered, no more raisins. Probably more butter. But it still tastes like Mom's. And after converting my husband, kids and in-laws, it's now the thing I cook that I am best known for.
I don't use a written recipe anymore. My kids don't seem to be interested in learning how to make it. But maybe someday.
Mom's (slightly updated) Turkey Stuffing½ tube Jimmy Dean regular sausage or ¾ cup chopped chicken livers
1 stick butter
1 cup chopped onion
3 to 5 cloves chopped garlic
1 cup chopped celery
2 to 3 tablespoons chopped fresh sage
2 to 3 tablespoons chopped fresh Italian parsley
Salt and pepper to taste
½ to ⅔ bag Pepperidge Farm herbed stuffing mix
½ to ⅔ bag Pepperidge Farm corn bread stuffing mix
½ cup finely chopped walnuts
Chicken broth or stock, enough to moisten mixture
In a skillet, cook sausage until browned over medium heat. Drain and set sausage aside.
In the same skillet, melt butter and saute onion, garlic and celery until translucent. Add herbs, salt and pepper and saute for a few minutes. Remove from heat.
In a large bowl, combine stuffing mixes, chopped walnuts and cooked sausage. Pour in onion-celery mixture and stir to combine. Add chicken broth and stir until mixture is soft and moist but not overly wet.
Stuff in bird or put in casserole, dot with pats of butter and cook uncovered for 30 minutes at 350 degrees.
• • •
STORIES FROM OUR READERS
Regina Bradley, Belleair
Long before the days of the Internet or even an electric typewriter, my dear mother gave me this typewritten recipe for her pineapple upside down cake. It's in horrible condition, but that just goes to show how often and how many years I've been making it.
It's a bit time consuming with separating the eggs and beating the egg whites, but believe me, it's worth it.
Every time I make it people rave about it. And not only that, it always reminds me of my dear sweet mom who's no longer with us.
• • •
Cooking lessons from Puerto Rico
Christine Hatch, Palm Harbor
My mother grew up in Puerto Rico where seasonings and delicious recipes run freely like the Caribbean breezes themselves. I was blessed to have a mother who knew how to cook very well, as she grew up helping in her family's restaurant. From the age of 5 she was involved in the creation of warm, friendly meals that gathered locals and tourists alike in Old San Juan.
I remember when I was about 10 years old, watching her whip out utensils, pots and skillets for another dish she was about to prepare when she said to me in her beautiful Latin accent, "Christy, you need to stand next to me so you can learn to cook for your family one day."
I was actually stunned that she thought I was ready to enter a new level of enlightenment, one where ugly, raw chicken becomes a heavenly taste.
As I watched her cut up and season the chicken and pour rice into a sizzling skillet with some ingredients, I could barely keep up. It was as if the saffron and spices were flying out of her magical fingertips. But after watching her a few more times, I've caught on and have given the Latin dishes my own spin.
My mother has dementia now. … I have since prepared a few of her dishes in her honor, and enjoy watching her savor them, especially since she gets a break from cooking. I get so excited when my father says the food tastes just like my mom's recipe. I will always treasure the smells of home and the memories of standing next to a beautiful Latina cook who taught me to appreciate food and family.
• • •
Planning makes perfect
Sue E. Conrad, North Redington Beach
My "mother-approved cooking advice" doesn't involve any specific recipes or cooking equipment. Instead, she passed along the joy of sharing what you make with others — steamed Christmas puddings with the neighbors, hot cross buns with the Easter Sunrise Service participants at our church.
She also taught me and my siblings the fun of creating a meal from leftovers, something I still do after all these years. But her most lasting legacy is having allowed me to plan and cook meals on my own when I was still in junior high.
• • •
Clean up as you go
Barbara Cox Major, Seminole
Our mother, Sarah Davis Cox, was a home economics teacher. There were many tips and instructions given in the kitchen through the years. The main one was "Clean up as you go along!"
• • •
Leave that steak alone
Lisa Bazzanella Smith, St. Petersburg
ALLI ARNOLD | Special to the Times
"Sweetheart, stop flipping it over!" my mom gently said.
"It" was a beautiful, well-marbled ribeye steak that was sticking to the pan.
"Leave the steak alone. It will tell you when it's ready to flip. Once the protein tightens in the meat, it will allow you to turn it over easily."
That advice has made my cooking life quite simple. Mom was right.
Here's a recipe for the steak.
Marinated Steak2 ribeye steaks
2 large red onions, thinly sliced
4 ounces whiskey or bourbon
2 tablespoons sesame oil
The night before serving, mix all ingredients in a bowl and cover. Leave overnight in the fridge.
To cook, heat a skillet over medium-high heat. Melt 2 tablespoons butter in the skillet. Remove steak from marinade, gently wipe the excess from the steak, then discard.
Cook to your preference.
• • •
Trying to make sauce like Mom's
Lois Robertson, Odessa
From the time I was about 5 or 6 years old my mom would often let me come into the kitchen and cook with her. Mom taught me the art of using your hands for mixing, whether it was to make sure the shortening was thoroughly blended into the flour mixture for biscuits or to distribute the pieces of onion, bread crumbs, cheese and spices into the ground meat for meatballs. (Of course, she first taught me to thoroughly wash my hands.) I had my own little Pyrex pie plate to bake the biscuits and my own mini-frypan to brown miniature meatballs for the Wednesday or Sunday spaghetti sauce. (To this day, I still have that Pyrex plate and that frypan.)
When I got married, I continued to seek my mother's advice about cooking and became pretty proficient on the kitchen basics. However, no matter how I tried, I just couldn't make spaghetti sauce like my mom's. (She had learned from my Italian father and then added some of her own touches.) I wrote down the ingredients she told me I should use numerous times, but, somehow, I just didn't put them together right because even I didn't like the sauce. One day when I voiced my frustration to my mother and, again, asked her how much of each ingredient she put in her sauce, she gave me some insight into why her sauce tasted so good. She said not to worry about measuring the seasoning. Start out with some of each, taste along the way as the sauce is cooking, then add more as you need to.
It didn't happen overnight, but after taking this advice, I finally made spaghetti sauce that I was proud of. I'll never think it's as good as my mother's, but that's okay. It made her happy to know I felt that way.
• • •
Try this when rolling out dough
Nancy Coutu, Spring Hill
My mom taught me to roll out pie dough between two pieces of waxed paper. What a wonderful time-saving tip! When rolled to the right size, just remove one piece of waxed paper and flip the dough into the pie plate. Remove the second piece of paper, trim the edges and you are ready to fill the shell and repeat the process for the top crust.
• • •
Secret to stuffed peppers
James Teske, Tampa
Whenever my mother made stuffed green peppers or cabbage rolls she would always crush about 6 (more or less) Pepperidge Farm gingersnaps and stir them into the tomato sauce base for these two dinners near the end of cooking. This would thicken the sauce and give it an excellent flavor.
• • •
A Mother's Day poem
Gina Rehberg, Wesley Chapel
Editor's note: Reader Gina Rehberg says this about this Mother's Day poem she submitted: "My mom taught me how to make so many different things, it was hard to pinpoint just one. Everything I mention, I did learn to make from her. Pasta sauce was a staple in our house as we were Italian, and it was an inexpensive way to feed a family of seven, three times a week."
Cooking all day to make sure we were fed
Pizza and pasta made with sauce rich and red.
Raspberry pie and sweet homemade jam
Potatoes, brown gravy, mint jelly with lamb.
Sausage and salad of tomato and lettuce
Good smells from the kitchen always came out and met us.
Chicken rice soup and spinach with egg
Even the cat would sit up and beg.
Baked ham, lasagne, fried zucchini and more
How about cheese ravioli and cookies galore.
I could go on and on about all of the food
Made with patience and love, no matter her mood.
Skills she learned from her mother before
Passed on to us all till she was with us no more.
So we in turn will do the same
And part of her will spread like a flame.
From mothers to children and on down the line
Many thanks to the moms who teach cooking so fine.
• • •
What grandma taught us
Helena Fletcher, New Port Richey
My love of cooking came from both my mother and her mother, who were great cooks. I spent a great deal of time with my grandparents due to both of my parents working, but also because I loved to spend time with them.
One of the first things Granny taught me as I stood on a chair at her side so I could reach the counter was to get all your needed ingredients out before you started mixing. Then, as you use them, put them away. That way, you know you've added (every ingredient the recipe calls for).
One of the best meals from childhood that I will always remember is fresh fried fish caught that morning, homemade fries and corn bread. When she reached 90 years old, my grandmother gave me her extra-large cast iron fish cooking skillet and one of her cast iron biscuits skillets and said I would now have to cook the fish and the biscuits.
She was my greatest teacher, and every time I make a pan of biscuits or corn bread I think back to what she taught me and I smile because I still do things the same way today. When my son was little he would stand on his stool and help me and I passed my granny's ways onto him, and today he also loves to cook.
• • •
A wooden spoon with memories
Julie DiPietrantonio, St. Petersburg
I grew up in a second-generation Italian-American family, upstairs from my first-gen grandparents. Both my mother and Nana taught me the importance of a wooden spoon in the kitchen. (I have one like it still.)
Most importantly, it was used to stir all manner of Italian food: spaghetti sauce, escarole soup, stir-fried peppers, onions and garlic, etc.
But the wooden spoon had another important use. When we, as young children, did not behave up to their expectations, we heard, "I'll get the wooden spoon!" As she headed for the kitchen drawer we beat feet out of that kitchen!
• • •
Ask your grandma
Judy Batson, Tampa
The best advice my mother ever gave me was: "If you want to learn how to cook, ask your grandma." I loved my mom, but she was in the running for being named the World's Worst Cook.
Perhaps it was not all her fault. I grew up during World War II, foods were rationed, we lived off what we could harvest and then can from Grandma's farm, which was everything imaginable, even beet tops.
Grandma, my father's mom, never had a cookbook. Everything she made came either from what her mother had taught her, or from the seat of her bloomers. So what she taught me, in essence, were cooking methods, rather than specific recipes, and she taught me to taste everything along the way, and by doing so, she told me, I would soon learn what foods went together and how to enhance their flavors with herbs and spices from her farm. She taught me the science behind cooking, what happens to different foods when they are cooked in different ways, and how foods and flavors blend, or don't.
To this day, I rarely follow a recipe, but instead just put things together in such a way that I sense will taste good, will be good for my family and will become traditional favorites.
• • •
A recipe for remembering ingredients
Henrietta M. Rice, Brooksville
When I was learning to bake, Mother's advice was to put all ingredients on the countertop, then put them away as you use them. I thought this was silly at age 11, but now at 75 it seems like a very good idea.
I still have to laugh at myself when I make peanut butter cookies. Mom's advice was: "Make a double batch, because you always eat half the batch before they make it to the oven."
I still do both: Make a double batch and taste often to make sure it is okay.
• • •
Working with what we had
Sylvia Fies, St. Petersburg
My mother did not like to cook. Her "thing" was sewing. But one thing she was good at was making something out of nothing.
We didn't have a lot of money, and payday was only every two weeks, so by the time payday rolled around, there wasn't a lot in the kitchen to work with. We never went hungry, even during the war when she received $15 a month to feed herself and four children while my father was serving his country.
One summer, we ate a lot of oxtail soup because the butcher gave her a good price on about six oxtails. She cooked them up with some potatoes and onions, and we ate it all up just to get rid of it. Nothing would go to waste.
We also ate a lot of potato soup, which I love to this day. These days I am still thankful I can make something out of nothing in the kitchen. The lesson served me well while raising four children on my own after my husband died. Thanks, Mom.
• • •
How to save chutney, pesto, juice and more
Vandana Mathure, Tampa
Mom taught us how to cook at a very young age and passed on lots of yummy recipes. I would like to share a tip. We always made a lot of green chutney but could not consume it in a day or two. To freeze the chutney we put it in ice cube trays and froze it. Once frozen you just pop the cubes and save in freezer bags. When you need it, just remove as many cubes as you want; this prevents defrosting the whole item. I use this tip for lemon juice, pesto, coconut milk and pureed fruits. Hope this tip helps many of you to save your favorite foods.
• • •
Blanche's Cherry Cake
Jo Ann Sanderson, Temple Terrace
My mother tried to teach me many things about cooking before she passed away when I was almost 21. She did a pretty good job of it, and I'm very sure would be proud of how my cooking has progressed over the many years.
One of the things that she was known for was her Cherry Cake With Cherry Sauce, a well-loved cake by anyone who tasted it, and often asked for as a "special treat." A number of years after my mother passed away, our family was planning to celebrate my grandmother's birthday by taking dinner to their home on Sunday after church. I asked my grandmother, who at that point had taken a cake-decorating class at our local high school, what kind of cake she would like for her birthday.
She said, "You know, I would love Blanche's Cherry Cake With Cherry Sauce."
I made three of them before I had one I could take; our entire family was going to be there and it had to be perfect.
The cake is not frosted. Instead, it has a cherry sauce that is served over it.
After dinner, my aunt — a very prim and proper woman — lifted the foil and, upon looking at the unfrosted cake, said: "Jo Ann, after all the cakes your grandmother has made and decorated, you could not even frost the cake?"
At this point, before I could think of something nice to say, my 5-foot German grandmother said: "Billie, this is the cake I asked for — it was Blanche's specialty and my favorite."
Score one for Grandma.
Mom's Cherry CakeFor the cake:
⅓ cup shortening
1½ cups white sugar
2¼ cups flour
1½ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup milk
2¼ cups (about two cans) pitted sour cherries, drained; save juice
½ cup chopped walnuts
For the sauce:
2 to 3 tablespoons cornstarch
¾ cup sugar
⅛ teaspoon salt
1 cup water
Juice from cherries used in cake
1 teaspoon almond extract
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour a 9- by 13-inch baking dish. (Glass works best.) Cream shortening, add sugar and mix well.
Beat eggs, then add to sugar mixture.
Sift dry ingredients and add to the bowl with eggs and sugar, alternating with the milk. Fold in the drained cherries and nuts.
Bake for 45 to 50 minutes or just until a toothpick comes out clean. Watch closely so that it does not get dry or too dark.
Now, make the sauce.
Mix cornstarch, sugar and salt together in a saucepan. Add water and reserved cherry juice from the cherries used for the cake. Bring to a boil.
Boil until thick, stirring constantly. Turn temperature to low. Remove from heat and add almond extract.
Serve either warm or cold over cake. (It's best when served warm over cake that is slightly warm.) You can add a dollop of whipped cream on top of the sauce, if desired.