Daughter embraces the lost art of cooking

August 20, 2006|By SUSAN REIMER

CONSUMER RESEARCH SUGgests that, despite the popularity of televised cooking shows, kitchen skills are dwindling in the American home to the point where the emerging generation of young women isn't sure which end of a knife to grab.

Experts say that's because their mothers worked outside the home, and those mothers failed to teach their daughters anything beyond "don't put foil in the microwave."

Another reason for the atrophy is that home economics courses -- where I learned to make a Waldorf salad -- have vanished from high schools. Likewise, chickens now come already roasted a golden brown and lasagna already sliced into glistening red bricks from the grocery store.

Who cooks anymore?

My daughter.

A college student, she watches the Food Network on school afternoons the way a previous generation watched soap operas. Paula Deen, Ina Garten, Rachael Ray and Giada de Laurentiis populate her universe the way Susan Lucci once filled mine.

These cooking shows have made her an adventurous eater -- she loves sushi, escargot and foie gras. But they have also made her a very fine cook.

She can not only follow one of the recipes from her panoply of cooking stars, she can cook "from my head," as she says. That kind of confidence is what's missing in most home cooks, I think.

She works at one of those gourmet cookware chains, so she has all the best kitchen "toys" at her disposal. She is also a hostess at a new restaurant in town, where the staff was asked by the executive chef to taste and comment on the emerging menu. And a cookbook -- not a gift card from a clothing store -- is her favorite gift.

The result is that my husband and I have been eating better this summer than we ever have.

On her rare days off, she breezes through the local fish market, makes a stop at specialty stores for the obscure ingredients, and sets to work.

Then for dinner, there are scallops wrapped in bacon and grilled on kebabs with pineapple and red onion; grilled corn on the cob with cilantro butter; chicken breasts in a tequila-lime sauce, or a rich pudding made from fresh corn.

I blushed when I heard my daughter tell a friend that her mother didn't learn to cook until she and her brother left for college. That is partly because my picky audience had departed, but I am also determined to keep up with her, and she sets quite a pace. She made an eight-layer cake for Father's Day, decorated with caramelized sugar sticks and sugar discs.

She uses mascarpone the way I use butter. There is always fresh whipping cream in the fridge, and a dozen tiny jars of ingredients we might never use again. She harvests the fresh herbs from my garden that I meant to use, but never quite got around to.

Good meals are only one of the benefits of my daughter's passion for cooking.

She cheerfully agrees to help with any meal, even if she is only needed to chop the onion or mince the herbs. She sits across the counter from me while we work, and we talk. She is generous with her advice when I ask. From her, I have learned when a risotto is cooked al dente, one of the trickiest moments to catch in cooking.

When I can, I take her to fancy restaurants, and we talk about how we would re-create what we are eating. She could taste the hint of sherry in a French onion soup, and she knew the fresh peas in the fusilli had been "shocked" because they still had a snap to them.

I have a friend whose son put himself through college by working at a golf course. On the eve of his graduation with a degree in political science, he realized that he had already been doing what he wanted to do, and he went back to college for a degree in golf-course management.

My daughter is close to graduating with a degree in business, but I suspect she is already doing what she wants to do -- cooking. She has mentioned that she might like to go to cooking school when she graduates, and it is all right with me. Forty years is too long to work at something you don't like.

I have issued the usual warnings about what happens when you make your avocation your vocation. How getting paid for something changes the nature of the experience. How it can drain the pleasure from it.

And I have told her that she faces years in the back of a hot and steamy kitchen, working 18-hour days, nights and weekends, chopping thousands of carrots and having chefs scream at her.

"Oh, that's not the kind of cook I am going to be," she says with the certainty that only the young can muster.

"I am going to be someone's personal chef."

"Honey," I said, smiling. "You already are."

susan.reimer@baltsun.com

To hear an audio clip of this column and others, go to baltimoresun.com / reimer.

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