Lessons from Dad: when our kitchen was classroom

Education: The writer and her siblings learn valuable lessons about fine cuisine as they help their father prepare family meals.

October 31, 2001|By Lucie Lehmann Snodgrass | Lucie Lehmann Snodgrass,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

My father never had any formal training as a chef, but he was from Switzerland, where fine cuisine and fresh ingredients are common. His mother was a superb cook, his father a skilled gatherer of wild mushrooms, herbs, nuts and berries. They were the only teachers he needed.

After we moved to America in the early 1960s, my father sought out the best butcher and green grocer he could find and became their most loyal and discerning customer. An otherwise embarrassingly frugal man who was convinced a good pair of shoes should cost under $20, he thought nothing of buying the finest cuts of beef and the freshest ingredients.

And it wasn't just for guests.

Dad was a different man in the kitchen. There, his usual stiffness and formality gave way to a more relaxed mood, the weight of his responsibility melting like butter on a skillet. Attired in his trademark blue Hawaiian shorts and shirt, black knee socks and dress shoes -- irrespective of the season -- my father depended on all five of us to help him with his marathon cooking projects.

He was an unusual man. Among other things, he was a single parent in an era when divorce was uncommon and mothers leaving their children, as mine did, virtually unheard of.

My father was totally unprepared for that event, and, as he later admitted, he had no clue what to do with five kids. He had never been the kind of dad who took us camping or threw the football around. He wasn't even the kind of father who liked to read to us or spend much time together. But fortunately, he loved to cook, and he always needed help in the kitchen. With five children, there was always an extra set of hands.

For hours on end, we would peel and chop mountains of vegetables, saute onions in butter, dredge meat in flour or perform whatever other tasks he directed us to. All the while, the six of us would chat amiably, forgetting the sadness and distance that were often between us.

While we worked, my father would regale us with tall tales of his days as a young recruit in the Swiss army. Our favorite involved feeding brandy to some poor farmer's chickens, causing them to fly upside down in the henhouse where my father's company had taken refuge for a night.

As he talked, Dad would pause occasionally, testing every ingredient for freshness, adjusting the seasonings and orchestrating the sequence in which things were put into the pots.

By the time I was 6, I could distinguish chanterelles from morels, Gruyere from Gouda cheese and Bordeaux from Beaujolais. I knew that Dijon mustard is the secret to a successful vinaigrette and that chestnuts should be soaked in water and scored before they are roasted.

And all of us -- my three brothers, one sister and I -- can make a bechamel sauce in the same time it takes most people to microwave a TV dinner.

Dad frequently traveled abroad for his job and knew all the customs officials at John F. Kennedy Airport on a first-name basis. Too busy chatting, they conveniently never opened his suitcase, which invariably contained edible contraband, ranging from fine Italian salami to air-dried Swiss beef to French truffles, which he gathered and dried himself.

As soon as he arrived home from a foreign trip, he would proudly display whatever new delicacies he had acquired. Hedy, our Swiss housekeeper who came to live with us after my mother left, invariably wrung her hands at the exotic, expensive things he had purchased.

"Ach, Mister Lehmann," she would sigh, thinking perhaps of the things the household really needed, "ze children vill not eat such fancy food." But in that regard, she was wrong. Whether it was pate de foie gras or prosciutto, porcini or pomegranates, we ate everything he ever brought home.

The fall was my father's favorite time to cook hearty meals that were more robust than fancy: beef stew, vegetable soup or meatloaf and gratin potatoes. They endure in my house, with some modifications, as the perfect autumn dishes. And though my father has long since died, he is always with me in the kitchen, where I spend a lot of time.

In fact, all of his children do, and we're all good cooks.

But we do throw a lousy football.

Dad's Fall Beef Stew

Serves 8

2 1/2 pounds stewing beef, cut into 1-inch chunks

1/2 cup plus 4 tablespoons flour (divided use)

1/2 teaspoon pepper

1 1/2 tablespoons salt (divided use)

4 tablespoons olive oil

2 medium onions, one peeled and finely chopped, the other peeled and studded with 2 cloves and 1 bay leaf

7 cups water

2 beef bouillon cubes

4 large potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks

1 large sweet potato, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks

2 medium turnips, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks

6 carrots, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks

4 stalks celery, washed and cut into 1-inch chunks

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