It was usually my mother who did the cooking. She had a solid repertoire of recipes that would loop every 10 days or so. They were tasty and comfortingly predictable. She would take her position steadfastly at the stove night after night, not always enthusiastically but always faithfully.
But Sundays were different. I don’t know whether it was because listening to Father Rizzolo’s regressive sermons left her in a funk, or because she seemed to take it as a personal affront that the congregation didn’t like to sing, (it was true, they didn’t, except for our family), or whether after six days of cooking for an only mildly appreciative crowd, she’d simply grown tired of the chore, but on Sundays she’d make it abundantly clear that she’d had enough. If we wanted to eat, someone else was going to have to make that happen.
This is where Dad stepped in. His Sunday cooking not only saved us from hunger, but it most likely saved a marriage. He had an extensive repertoire of mental recipes, though a strong aversion to following written ones, so we never really knew (nor did he) what we might get until the dish was complete.
His greatest contribution was Soup, and the finest of these was Vegetable Beef Barley. I am convinced that his was better than anyone else’s because of one ingredient. My Dad was not afraid of intense flavors and believed that not only did most cooks not taste their food enough to realize how bland it was, but that any food could be made better with onions.
Lots of them. He would gather the large yellow globes from the red nylon mesh bag in the bottom of the drawer next to the potatoes. He would chop them coarsely (he was not a man of precision), throw them into the sizzling oil, add the broth, the vegetables (never leaving out the dark, leafy, celery tops which he claimed was where all the flavor and nutrients were and that it was a sin that so many people threw them out), the barley, the week’s leftover beef, and herbs. He would make the soup hours before it was time to eat since the other mistake cooks make (according to him, which I have now adopted as Truth), is to not let the food sit long enough to allow the flavors to blend and deepen.
Once that flavor point was attained, we’d gather at the table and devour his creation. And though there was always someone who might pick out the beef, or the barley or a vegetable they didn’t like that week, no one ever picked out the onions.
A quick sidebar on onions: Unlike most vegetables, onions are comprised largely of fructose and therefore caramelize easily and become sweet. The strong sulfury taste in a raw onion, is there to deter hungry animals. It also deters some humans (especially adherents of raw food) who believe onions to be toxic. However, for every “study” that shows adverse effects, you will find three more touting the plant’s benefits, such as how it can reverse osteoporosis. My take: if you consume a moderate amount, I would have no concerns about toxocity (especially cooked), but if you avoid them you are missing out on what my Dad (and thousands of other cooks) have long known – that you can not make a great soup without them.
What’s your “this-always-makes-it-better” cooking trick?
Photo: Left behind. © Michelle Madden
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