Many nights over the past year, my son Isaac came home from work after I had finished dinner. He pulled up a stool and we talked about nothing – and everything.
Isaac, then 19, worked hard during a gap year after high school. I’ve been lonely after months of remote work, and those evenings have been an unexpected COVID silver lining.
Then, in early March, he told me that he and his friends had signed a lease. He would move out on April 1st.
“Well,” he told me, “I guess I’ve got a month to learn how to cook.”
Another silver lining.
So for that last precious month, Isaac and I made dinner together once or twice a week, no matter how tired we were.
We started with one of his favorites: spaghetti with red sauce and Italian sausage. We talked about the importance of being in the wrong seat, the pros and cons of fresh and dried basil, how to stir in the browned pieces of sausage in the pan for extra flavor, and how a twist of the serving tongs and a sprinkling of cheese make each plate just that little bit nicer. We made garlic bread and a nice green salad and we enjoyed it all together.
It will take Isaac years to master the art of figuring out what to make for dinner, so over the weeks I’ve selected dishes I thought he’d enjoy, and that involved a skill I learned from thought he should take her with him – peel garlic, prepare herbs, handle meat safely.
We made shrimp scampi, Thai peanut noodles with chicken and tomato soup. My husband Jeff took an evening to share his recipe for Dad’s Mystery Meat tacos (the secret isn’t in the taco seasoning, it’s in the jar of salsa and a sprinkling of cumin).
We tried a few drink pairings and learned that inexpensive champagne with baked macaroni and cheese was appropriate for a Tuesday night celebratory dinner.
I bought a journal and started jotting down recipes for not only the dishes we made together but other favorites like pancakes, pesto pasta, and homemade Caesar dressing. I’ve adapted recipes from favorite cookbooks and websites, as well as from my own memory. I requested recipes from other family members, so the book also includes Grandma’s Fudge Nut Bars, Nana’s Wild Rice Soup, and Papa’s Papas Fritas (fried potatoes).
About three weeks later, while we were preparing the shrimp for scampi, Isaac turned to me and said urgently, “We should write that down!”
In the case of one requested recipe – Chicken Korma – I got a quarter of the way through a complicated recipe before writing, “OMG. i will do this for you Crazy.”
I peppered the book with advice (MOMWOW = Mom Words of Wisdom) like “Don’t worry about the entertainment. Keep it simple and enjoy your guests’ and lists, such as what to always have in your fridge and what to always have in your utensil and condiment drawer. I included photos I took of some of the meals we made together. There are strikethroughs and notes in the margins — he would make mistakes too, I wrote, adding, “Laugh them and try again.”
Despite my hopes that this was all an elaborate April Fool’s joke, Isaac moved on April 1st. He took the recipe book with him.
When he first made baked macaroni and cheese, he called several times to ask clarifying questions. Then he sent me a photo of a table full of roommates ready to devour it, and then another of the scraped baking pan impossibly soon after.
So Isaac knows how to follow a recipe. He can chop onions evenly. He can julienne carrots, make béchamel sauce and roll out a tortilla.
For almost a year, Isaac has been mostly self-supporting. He recently called me because he was making spaghetti and couldn’t find a recipe for garlic bread. I guided him through while slicing a baguette as part of my own dinner.
“I see,” he told me. “You left out a few things so I’ll call you more often.”
I don’t, but I like the way he thinks.
MOMWOW (mother’s words of wisdom)
• Eat vegetables so you don’t get scurvy!
• Just because two things taste good doesn’t mean they taste good together.
• Good ingredients are more important than fancy china.
• Take good care of your knives and cookware.
• Women like a man who can cook!
• If you cook, someone else can clean the bathroom.
• And a bonus DADWOW by Benjamin Franklin: Patience makes the sauce.
Minestrone or “pizza soup”
For 8 people plus leftovers.
Note: My boys weren’t picky eaters; Still, I found I was more successful at getting them to try something new when I linked it to something they knew. A tip: never mix the noodles in your soup. It gets mushy and stretches until you end up with a hot soup dish. Instead, serve the soup in your bowl and stir in the noodles to taste. By Maria Elena Baca.
• 1 pound hot Italian sausage or 1 (12-oz.) packet protein crumbles plus 1/2 tsp. fennel seeds
• 1 onion, chopped
• 1 carrot, chopped
• 1 stick of celery, chopped
• 4c. chicken or vegetable broth
• 1 (15-oz.) can pinto beans, rinsed and drained
• 1 (15-oz.) can garbanzo beans, rinsed and drained
• 1 (16-oz.) packet small noodles
• 1 c. frozen peas
• 1/2 package frozen peas
• 1/2 tsp. dried basil
• 1/2 tsp. dried oregano
In a large stockpot or Dutch oven, sear the sausage over medium-high heat until no longer pink. Remove the sausage from the pan, along with most of the fat. (If using meat crumbles, first heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in the stockpot.)
Cook the onion, celery, and carrot until the onion is translucent and the carrot is beginning to become tender. Stir frequently.
Put the sausage back in the pot. Add the beans, protein crumbles if using, and the broth and bring to a simmer.
Meanwhile, cook the noodles according to package directions. Drain and set aside.
Mash the herbs in your hands and sprinkle into the soup. Stir and add salt and pepper to taste. Scoop soup into bowls and add cooked noodles to taste. Sprinkle with grated Parmesan before serving.
By Maria Elena Baca.
• 5 pounds small red potatoes
• 2 to 3 tbsp. olive oil
• Salt and pepper
Preheat oven to 425 degrees and line a baking sheet with parchment.
Wash and dry potatoes. Cut into quarters or eighths depending on size. They should be about two bites in size.
Drizzle with olive oil. Spread on the baking sheet; Season with salt and pepper.
Bake 30 to 35 minutes or until brown on the outside and fluffy on the inside. Serve with ketchup or sour cream.
Note: To make blueberry pancakes, drip 5 or 6 frozen berries onto the wet batter immediately after pouring it into the pan. Adapted from The America’s Test Kitchen Family Cookbook.
• 2 c. flour
• 2 TBSP. sugar
• 2 TEA SPOONS. baking powder
• 1/2 tsp. baking soda
• 1/2 c. powdered buttermilk
• 1/2 tsp. Salt
• 1 egg
• 3 TBSP. butter, melted and cooled, plus additional butter for the pan
• 2 c. milk or water
Preheat the oven to 175 degrees and heat a griddle or large skillet over medium-high heat.
In a large bowl, mix together the flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, buttermilk powder, and salt.
In a smaller bowl, combine egg, melted butter, and milk or water.
Add wet ingredients to dry ingredients and whisk. If the batter seems too thick, stir in some water. Don’t overmix.
Check the heat of the pan by putting a drop of water on it. It should sizzle. Take some butter on your spatula and swirl it around the pan.
Pour batter through the 1⁄3 cup into the pan. Flip the pancake when the top is bubbly and the bottom is brown. Bake for a few more minutes and check if both sides are brown. When you think it’s done, make sure your heat isn’t too high by slicing into a pancake with the corner of the spatula to make sure it’s cooked inside. Put the finished cakes on a plate in the oven. Repeat until all of the batter is used up.
Serve with more butter and warm maple syrup.
By Maria Elena Baca.
• 1 pound of hot Italian sausage
• 1 medium onion, diced
• 3 cloves of garlic, chopped
• 2 (28-oz.) cans of chopped tomatoes
• Salt and pepper
• 1 (16-oz.) pack pasta
• Olive oil
• Parmesan cheese
In a large pan, sear the sausage until no longer pink. Remove with a spoon.
Drain off most of the fat and sauté the onion until translucent, then add the garlic. Fry for 2 more minutes.
Add sausage back in, plus tomatoes. Boil excess liquid, about 10 minutes. salt and pepper to taste.
Meanwhile, cook noodles according to package directions. Strain and put back into the pot. Add sauce to pasta until perfectly sour. Transfer to a large serving bowl and garnish with another scoop of sauce, grated parmesan and a drizzle of olive oil.
By Maria Elena Baca.
• 1 baguette or Italian bread
• 4 tbsp. (1/2 stick) butter, softened
• 1 clove of garlic, chopped
• Salt and pepper
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Cut the bread into 1 inch slices.
In a small bowl, mix together the butter, garlic, salt, and pepper with a fork. Spread on each slice.
Wrap the bread in aluminum foil and put it in the oven. Heat for 15 minutes or until bread is warm and butter is melted.
Note: Tostada shells are flat, hard corn tortillas.
• 6 tostada bowls
• 1 (15-oz.) can chilled pinto or black beans
• 1 c. shredded Colby Jack or crumbled Cotija cheese
• Guacamole, shredded lettuce, diced tomatoes, salsa, chopped red or green onions for sprinkling
Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
Spread each tostada shell generously with beans and place on a baking sheet. Sprinkle tostadas with cheese.
Bake 7 to 10 minutes or until cheese is melted and beginning to brown. Add toppings of your choice and eat with your fingers.
Maria Elena Baca is a writer who also cooks in Minnetonka.