Carolyn Wing Greenlee

The Bonus Benefits of Cooking

Loretta Burriss Ussery lives in the house her grandfather built two generations ago on a flat part of Scotts Valley in Lake County. During the time my friend Stephanie Del Bosco and I were working on Homestead Recipes, Letty’s five-generations cookbook, we had the privilege of visiting her often, sitting in her kitchen while she told us the stories behind the recipes. One of my favorites is the time her grandmother fell through the wooden porch of the house her husband built for her. She couldn’t get out, so she hollered until her husband came. He looked at her, assessed the situation, and left saying he was going to get some tools.

Letty reported that her grandfather must have taken much longer to return and perform the rescue than her grandmother thought appropriate because as soon as she was free, she marched into her kitchen and made a Splatter Cake—a recipe that calls for throwing the ingredients into the bowl.

Letty believes that cooking helps you get yourself back together because food is orderly. “Recipes are step by step. It’s something familiar in which you are in control,” and, at the end, you get something good to eat.

Letty told me she had two sisters who each birthed a son within a few weeks of one another. The boys grew up together and joined the army at the same time. Both of them went to Viet Nam and both died there within days of each other. One sister went into her room, shut the door, and was dead in six months. The other, unable to sleep, would go into the kitchen at 1:00 in the morning and make something good to eat. She became a gourmet cook. I remembered that after both my husband and father died within two weeks of each other late last year. Which of the two paths would I choose?

My mother was an avid cook. It was a form of entertainment for her, I think. She learned to love it when she was growing up in her parents’ Chinese laundry. She told me that, though they labored early morning to late at night, once in a while her parents chose to stay up all night making homemade noodles, tea cakes, and other delicacies. I wonder now if the trigger to those all-nighters were the letters from China that demanded more money or told of family members being made to kneel on broken glass because they were landowners and therefore evil Capitalists. Thousands of miles away, with no control over the poverty or the tyranny, perhaps her parents found comfort in the fragrance and exquisite flavors they could still bring forth from their own hands. Or maybe living in a hostile town where they were considered worthless heathens, they reminded themselves who they were and what they could still do. I don’t know their motivations, but in the recent blur of days I found myself standing in the kitchen, staring numbly or feeling tears running down my face. And then I would begin to cook.

It’s been just over two months since my father’s death. The pain is not so sharp and the tears are not as frequent now, but the cooking goes on. Preparing meals has never been a form of entertainment for me. I’ve been a quick cook. Get it over with, bolt it down, and get back to my work.  Now, suddenly, I find myself making daring forays into the world of unknown flavors with a rather profligate abandon. In some of the combinations that occur to me I shock myself. Whatever happened to scrambled eggs and toast?

Here is one of my new creations. The recipe is rather loose and very adaptable. All the ingredients can be adjusted to your taste. If you like more meat, add more. If you want it vegetarian, you know what to do. I use organic everything possible and the animal protein is free-range, no nitrites, hormones, or abominable living conditions. I don’t add salt, and I use brown rice pasta because I’m sensitive to wheat. Substitute whatever you want. I’m just supplying ideas and a starting point. It’s up to you to make it your own special dish.

1/3 pound sausage (pork, lamb, chicken, turkey) in whatever flavor you like except chorizo (breakfast, mild Italian, hot Italian, garlic basil). I get my sausage from Henry’s in Elk Grove because Sean, the meat guy there, is the happiest butcher I’ve ever met. If you can’t go to Henry’s in Elk Grove, you’ll have to find your own favorite butcher with excellent sausages.

1/2 package Tinkyáda organic brown rice spiral pasta (or any shape you like, really—I just happen to like spirals right now)

1 medium onion chopped

2 sticks celery chopped

1 small red bell pepper chopped or sliced

1 or 2 red apples chopped

Cook brown rice pasta. I like the energy-saver method written on the package: boil the water, add the pasta, boil 2 mnutes, then turn off the heat, cover and let stand 14 minutes, then drain and rinse with cold water. Makes perfect al dente pasta and saves power at the same time.

Brown sausage and cook apple, onion, celery, and bell pepper in the same pan until the sausage is crumbly and the vegetables are done to your liking.

Stir in cooked pasta and add a little extra virgin cold-pressed organic olive oil  and/or organic unsalted butter (if you’re going to be a purist, or use whatever you have at your house). The oil makes it a little richer.

The juice from the apples and vegetables should make a light sause. If it’s not salty or flavorful enough for my taste, I mix a little Better Than Bouillon (they have them in chicken, beef, turkey and vegetable and some health food stores carry the organic versions) with warm water and mix it into the whole concoction.

If you’re feeling frisky, add dried cherries or raisins or nuts or all of the above. If you’re feeling OCD, carmelize the apples and onions with butter and a little brow rice syrup or honey before adding to the sausage and vegetables.

It feeds one to four people depending on how much you eat.

As you enjoy your meal, remember who you are—your value—and rest in the satisfaction of having created something uniquely your own and just to your liking. No matter what else is happening in your life, at least over this dish you have complete control. And isn’t that delicious?


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