What My Mother Taught Me About Cooking

©. K Martinko – Three generations of family, preparing to enjoy Easter breakfast with traditional Mennonite paska bread. My mom is in the middle.

For someone who didn't enjoy cooking, my mother was certainly good at it.

I was raised by a woman who claimed to hate cooking, and yet was spectacularly good at it. "I'd rather be painting," she'd say, and would get lost in her art for hours on end while we kids waited hungrily, hoping she'd realize what time it was. As soon as she looked at the clock, though, and put away her brushes, she'd pull together a divine meal in record time.

When I was 10, Mom got pregnant and was so sick that she couldn't look at food without feeling nauseous. The cooking and grocery shopping fell to me and my little sister. Each week she'd give us $100 cash and lie comatose in the car while the two of us pushed a cart around the store, buying whatever we thought she'd use. Cashiers would ask us suspiciously if our mother knew about the money we had. "We're buying vegetables!" I'd point out indignantly.

During those long nine months, I learned how to cook out of necessity, but then I never left the kitchen because I'd caught the cooking bug. It was – and still is – fascinating to me that ingredients can be combined and manipulated to make such different and delicious dishes. The more my sister and I cooked, the more Mom seemed to enjoy it, too – perhaps because she finally had some company in the kitchen.

Over the years, Mom taught me many valuable lessons about making and serving food. These have had a profound influence on the way I now cook for my own family. Here are some of them:

1. When in doubt about what to make, put on a pot of rice and start chopping an onion.

Mom's philosophy was that that's the foundation of most recipes, so you might as well get something underway, then figure out what you're making.

2. Cook based on what you have in the fridge and pantry.

Mom did not meal plan or buy special ingredients. She got the same staples every week, with sale or clearance items thrown in for variety, and then squeezed 6-7 dinners out of what she had. Meals were always designed around what had to be used up first. My sister and I became skilled at eyeing the pantry and fridge and listing all the potential meals that could be made. (It's actually a fun game... and yeah, we're that cool.)

3. There is always a substitute ingredient.

We grew up in the forest, a half-hour drive from the discount supermarket where we did a weekly shop. This meant that we had to make do with what we had. No yogurt? Sour some milk with vinegar. No vinegar? Use a lemon. No sugar? Try maple syrup or honey. No white flour? Use whole wheat. Or grind up some almonds. Mom taught us to be fearless, to think outside the box, not to hesitate to try new combinations and use ingredients with similar textures as substitutes for ones we'd run out of.

4. You can make everything from scratch.

Growing up in a very frugal, rural household meant that we didn't have access to many store-bought treats, so we learned to make them instead. Cookies, cakes, potato chips, doughnuts, caramel popcorn, milkshakes, popsicles – we got these things only if we made them from scratch. The same went for other staples like bread, tea biscuits, tortillas, naan, and bagels, as well as spice blends like curry powder, harissa, barbecue sauce, etc. It taught me not to assume something must be bought, but rather to question first how it could be made.

cold meal

© K Martinko – Family eating hot soup in a frigid cabin during Christmas holidays... Mom's idea, of course!

5. Establish a repertoire.

In those early years before she had a big cookbook collection or access to fancier ingredients, Mom made the same dishes over and over again. Minestrone soup, split pea soup, mac'n'cheese, homemade pizza, honey-baked chicken, and several Greek dishes that she learned to make while living on the island of Crete as a teenager (moussaka, avgolemono soup, spanakopita) were on heavy rotation.

As a child I took comfort in that repetitiveness. Children love familiarity; they like knowing what's for dinner and anticipating its taste. And there's something to be said for perfecting recipes and teaching people to associate them with you. In this way they take on greater meaning.

6. Presentation matters.

Mom always insisted that presentation counted for half a meal's appeal. She'd transfer rice pilafs onto serving platters and garnish with parsley and tomato slices, or pour boiling soup into a large pottery tureen for serving. I hated washing the extra dishes, but it did make for a more elegant meal. She always insisted on setting a nice table, lighting candles, and sitting down together as a family – and those are rituals I've continued with my kids. It turns dinner into an occasion that we all enjoy.

7. Food is the best gift.

I have so many memories of balancing pans of sticky buns and jars of hot soup on my lap while Mom drove to drop them off at someone's house. She was always delivering food to friends who had gotten sick, had a baby, or as a thank you. She also gave food in the form of hospitality, inviting people into our home to share meals several times a week. "There's always room for one more," was her philosophy, and that's something I try to emulate (although I sometimes wonder at her ability to attract eccentrics!).

8. No special meals.

Mom had a zero-tolerance policy for picky eating. My siblings and I ate what was served, no questions asked. This stemmed from necessity – they had little money and couldn't go wasting it on specialized meals – and from the strong Mennonite 'waste not, want not' philosophy that she'd grown up with. Kids should eat what adults eat, she insisted. I've maintained this philosophy with my own kids, and it's worked well.

It has been interesting to watch Mom's attitude about cooking evolve over the years. Now, she runs a wood-fired pizza company along with my sister and brothers during the summer months, and loves it! I've never seen such enthusiasm in the kitchen before.

She also cooks gourmet dinners for herself and my dad on a regular basis at home, which I still find surprising. What's changed? She told me it's the lack of pressure, not having to put food on the table to feed four hungry kids in a limited time frame. Cooking wasn't fun when she had to do it, but now it's more about creative expression.

I'll be eternally grateful to my mother for everything she's taught me in the kitchen – so, thank you, Mom, if you're reading this. And now can I give you one quick lesson? Please add more salt!