Mertie’s Mondays: Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without

Growing up in New England, you get used to mom’s ability to make dinner out of whatever’s left in the cupboards.

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casserole

[Note from Serene: Chris’s posts have become among my very favorites on the blog. If you’d like to share your Mom Food with the world, too, or at least our little corner of it, please check out our Contribute page.]

casserole

One of the consequences of being brought up in New England is the raft of pithy sayings you grow up with. You hear about the Cabots and the Lodges in the little poem “Boston Toast” by Harvard alumnus John Collins Bossidy.

And this is good old Boston,
The home of the bean and the cod,
Where the Lowells talk only to Cabots,
And the Cabots talk only to God. (source: Wikipedia)

In Marblehead, Massachusetts, you would hear the greeting “Whip!” answered by “Down bucket!”, the history of which does not belong in a food blog. You learned by heart the poem by John Greenleaf Whittier entitled Skipper Ireson’s Ride [mind the popup ad], telling the story of Capt. Floyd Ireson, a Marblehead ship captain who reportedly ignored the distress calls of another Marblehead ship on the Grand Banks, resulting in the deaths of many Marblehead fishermen. When he got back to Marblehead, the mothers, widows, and daughters of the drowned sailors caught him, tarred and feathered him, and rode him out of town on a cart:

Here ’s Flud Oirson, fur his horrd horrt,
Torr’d an’ futherr’d an’ corr’d in a corrt
By the women o’ Morble’ead!

The one that relates to food, in my opinion, is the one I have chosen for a title to this posting.

Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.

My mother was extremely good at using up whatever was in the cupboard or in the refrigerator the day before my dad got paid and he could go to the supermarket and stock up for the week. She used to tell us stories of Thursday mornings where she’d have to fish through the cushions of the sofa, hoping to find a quarter for a loaf of bread. The sofa was sometimes referred to as “Mom’s Bank”.

One of the hallmarks of using it up is cooking without a recipe. I believe that many people are put off cooking because they have a fear of following a recipe imperfectly. While there are certain items that are probably more successful when made to the exact specifications of a recipe (I think that baking is a good example of these), my mother almost never used a recipe for anything.

When confronted by Thursday night and having to cook, Mom would survey the cupboard and the fridge, take stock of what was there, and figure out what to cook. I had to do this last night. Let me show you what I came up with.

The meat I had to cook with was pork chops. I like pork chops, but am a bit tired of frying or roasting them. Frying them takes time and sometimes sets the smoke alarm off. Roasting them correctly (so that they do not resemble shoe leather with bones in it) takes a slow oven and an hour. I decided that a casserole would be a good thing to cook.

I sliced up onions, took the rest of the garlic I had and skinned and minced it, took the two green peppers I had and sliced them up, chopped up a couple of stalks of rather tired celery, and scrubbed some button mushrooms.

I sautéed all this in a bit of vegetable oil, then made some room at the bottom of the pot and placed the pork chops in the bottom of the pot and browned them on both sides. I then added a can of tomatoes, a container of sieved tomato purée, some Italian herbs and spices (dried basil, dried oregano, and some Goya adobo spice, which includes such things as salt, pepper, oregano, garlic, and the like), and stirred it around until everything was covered.

Then I turned the flame down and let it simmer for around an hour. I tested the pork with my new cooking fork, a present from the CARE package I just received from my friend Sue, also known on Live Journal as momshapedbox. It is like the cooking fork my mom and grandmas used years ago. Note that the outer tines turn outward. This makes it perfect for fishing meat out of a pot; a regular fork with straight tines carries the risk that the meat or whatever will slip off on the way out of the pot. The outward-turning tines keep the item from being lost. The wooden handle also insulates your hand from being burned.

Old time kitchen fork
Old-time kitchen fork

Now, what to put the pork chop and sauce on? As we are a half-Chinese household, there is always rice around. We had some leftover rice, so I heated that up in the microwave, divided it up between two plates, put the cooked pork chop on it and spooned the sauce and vegetables over it. Add a salad and some Brussels sprouts I bought last Saturday at the local farmer’s market and you have dinner.

casserole
Pork chop casserole (the chops ARE in there, promise!)

We put the leftover sauce in the fridge and HWMBO (He Who Must Be Obeyed, my husband) has just left for work with a container of macaroni with the sauce on it for his lunch. Use it up!

There are some principles that Moms and Mom-standins learn that allow them to cook varied meals with whatever they can find from the larder.

First, know how to perform general cooking tasks like boiling, sautéeing, stewing, chopping up vegetables, and the like. Recipes usually assume that you know these things. Very posh cookbooks often assume that the reader knows how to do things like boning a chicken, making a roux, or even scrambling eggs. I have a shelf-ful of cookbooks, both posh and pedestrian. But, with the magic of the Internet, Google anything you don’t know how to do.

Second, have a sense of what you should and should not do with an item of food.

My mom had a friend who was first-generation Irish-American. I have forgotten her name so we’ll call her Mary. Mary went back to Ireland for an extended visit with her family there. After a couple of months, her relatives asked her whether she missed any American dish. Mary said, “Well, I would love a steak.” “Leave it to us!” they cried, and they bought a steak for dinner. When she sat down to eat, however, she was taken aback.

They’d boiled it.

Think back to dishes you had at home when you were young and roughly how your Mom cooked them. If you aren’t sure of a method, improvise.

Third, get a sense of what goes well together for you and your family, and what they simply cannot abide. This does not mean pandering to your young child’s desire to eat nothing but Sugar Pops for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It does mean allowing for their food likes and dislikes within reason. When I was a kid, my Mom, bless her, was a stickler for us cleaning our plates. This has resulted in my siblings and I having intense likes and dislikes about food because we were put under parental pressure to eat everything we were given. I don’t eat most fish, or liver, or cauliflower, for example.

Fourth, keep a larder of things that are always useful in a pinch. Pasta of various types (spaghetti, macaroni, and linguini); rice, both brown and white; canned vegetables such as tomatoes, kidney beans, chickpeas and green beans; frozen peas (which are generally thought to be much better than canned peas); and general spices. Given these ingredients, or those that you and your family like, you can always whip something up with whatever protein form you prefer.

Last, do not panic if something goes totally wrong. Cooking without a recipe means sometimes having a kitchen disaster. Your family depends on you for cooking meals, but that is not the only thing you are good for, or that you live for. If you have a disaster, discard it without a second thought and send out for a pizza, or start again. Laugh about it. Don’t hide it, tell them. Make it into one of your Momfood disasters and tell the story on yourself at family gatherings. Make it an occasion for joy, reminiscence, and laughter. Sometimes these feed a family just as much as food does.

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Author: Chris Hansen

Expat American living in London, now a British citizen as well. I was originally from Marblehead, Massachusetts, and that's where my mom raised me, so my momfood comes from New England.

3 thoughts on “Mertie’s Mondays: Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without”

  1. I love hearing how other people make up meals on the fly. It’s something I often do especially when I cannot face heading to the store with two tired, digruntled kids in tow. I find, pasta, canned tomatoes, canned tuna, root vegetables, eggs and beans are all very important pantry staples for creating a quick dinner :) Those pork chops sound perfect.

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