Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Sitting at the table with Mama Taye'

I love to cook. I never expected that I would. I love to see people eat the food I prepare. I love to entertain. I love to hear the sounds of happy people.

I have been cooking almost full-time for the past five years, after my layoff. Prior to that, my husband was the master chef of our family and I was the one who cleaned up. My cooking forays were limited to the holidays when I would make the dressing and baked goods while he would make the greens, macaroni & cheese, and sweet potatoes. We would both doctor up the turkey and he would top off the meal with his fantastic lemonade and peach cobbler. There was a system and since we both loved having lots of family and friends around, we developed a rhythm that served anywhere from our family of 7 (now 5) to a crowd of 20 or more.

Then one day, probably after my daughter was so violently ill and just before when I discovered the local farmer's market, I discovered the wonderful herbs. I love thyme and rosemary. I pulled out pots and pans and experiment with these and slowly added dill and lavender and basil. I played around with dried spice mixes until I found the pantry staples I loved. Whole Foods Market became my favorite place. Here in St. Louis, I'm in love with Trader Joe's. Extra-virgin olive oil stays in my pantry as well as fresh garlic and red onions. I keep jasmine and basmati rice as well as organic chicken broth. My favorite pasta shapes are the penne and bow-tie. I loved those organic, canned tomatoes at Whole Foods Market and the entire array of frozen vegetables at Trader Joe's. I had found this amateur chef's creative paradise. I discovered several smooth and creamy white cheeses and found the joy of grilled portabella mushrooms.

I love color. I love to flavors. I love to see different colors and taste the dance of many vegetables on my tongue. I am not a big fan of lots of sauces, my favorite is just olive oil, perhaps Sun Dried Tomatoes or Basil Pesto from Trader Joe's. I might do a butter and herb toss, but for the most part, I'm not the sauce one. Now my husband, he makes a mean spaghetti and a mean fettuchine with broccoli, but he uses sauces. They are creamy, good, and crowd favorites with the kids. Me, I like the beauty of the greens, reds, and yellows mixing together on the platter. Taste begins with the sight and I want to make the eyes twinkle and the mouth water with the meals I create.

The economic downturn of recent years has allowed me to create inexpensive and filling dishes. One of my favorites is "Sunshine." This happened by accident. I was in my big kitchen back in Lee's Summit, Missouri. Dinner was always at 6:30pm. My son's friends always knew when to come over and there was always plenty for an extra plate or two. I had been in the house all that day and hadn't made it to the market. What was in my pantry? Chicken broth and some rice. In my refrigerator was some fresh spinach and pineapples. I had a couple boneless chicken breasts in the freezer. A few seasonings here, a squeeze of garlic there, and a sprinkling of red onion on top and a family favorite was born. There weren't any leftovers! The same now goes for my chicken and rice soup, my beans & rice, and anything I make with pasta. My one secret is that I use very little meat. I can't go entirely meatless with my crowd, but I have been known to take one boneless chicken breast and feed all five of us.

My love of creating has brought my cooking with love to the local Obama office. The volunteers and staffers are working long hours and I got tired of seeing the young college students with so many McDonald's wrappers at their desks. I took on the project of feeding them and coordinating meals in the final days of the election. There is something magical about food, it brings out the happiness of people. It makes me feel good to know that not only my family, but now, many others, have sampled a little bit of the fare sitting at Mama Taye's kitchen.

Here is my recipe for Sunshine
Take one cup of basmati rice and add 2 cups of chicken broth
Stir and bring to a boil, stir and put the top on, turn to low, simmer 20 minutes
Take one or two chicken breasts or 3-4 portabella mushroom tops, season to taste
Saute these in a wok or deep skillet with about 2 tbsp of extra-virgin olive oil
When the chicken is finished (about 10 minutes on each side), cut into little cubes (also for mushrooms if these are used, except these should be sliced and diced first, then sautee for about 5 minutes)
Put the meat back in the pan, add a bag of fresh spinach, about 1/2 red onion finely chopped, and squeeze one garlic clove - two if they are small, if you don't have a garlic press, just chop finely
Add about 1 cup of fresh pineapples or 1/2 bag of frozen - just eyeball this, let the juices get into the spinach also
The rice should be finished by now, take off the eye, fluff with a fork and add about 1/2 cup per person to the pan with the chicken, spinach, and pineapples.
Sautee for a little while longer, mainly to just toss all the ingredients together
Serve on a platter
A nice accompaniment is a side salad with balsamic vinegar and flat bread. This recipe also works nicely with tomatoes and pasta instead of rice!

Bon appetit!

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