“But mom, you’re making your meatball sauce, right? And the chicken soup!”
I was standing in line to use the payphone. The girl ahead of me was about to finish her conversation with home when she remembered to ask, just at the last minute, for one more treat she hoped to get when she returned home from a 5-day sleep-away camp: her mom’s cooking.
It’s been quite a while since I last attended summer camp, but I still remember that night whenever I’m in the mood to pamper my girls in the kitchen and create that dish that they will always remember as that amazing dish that only their mom knows how to make properly: their “mom’s cooking.”
When I was a child, we never used the term “mom’s cooking” at our house. My mom never liked cooking. My grandma cooked all the time, but my mom didn’t. So, growing up, we usually ate the food that the cleaning lady cooked for us. There were even times when we had a cook come to our house twice a week.
OATMEAL FOR DINNER
I always envied my friends who loved their “mom’s cooking” the most. The sound of the term is enough to get your mouth watering and your mind imagining warm, delicious, usually oversaturated with fat, comfort food—a food that makes you happy from the inside out.
We had sweet oatmeal for dinner during the winter that we loved, or a rich Mamaliga (a Romanian polenta) with salty cheeses and chopped onion on the side, and, of course, our ever-favorite soft cheese pancakes, which we still ask her to make for us to this day. But, for me, none of these dishes was something to feel homesick for. They’re not the dish you ask your mom to make for you when you come home for winter break from college or that you tell all your friends about when you’re backpacking across Europe for a couple of months. They’re not that special taste I was always looking for; they’re not “mom’s cooking.”
When the girls were born, it was very important for me to create that taste of “mom’s cooking” for them. And our kitchen is definitely more active than the average home kitchen, because one is vegetarian, another only eats clean food and never cooked vegetables, only raw ones, and the third is too used to eating in school cafeterias, so she only likes disgusting food or fish sticks. Then, of course, there’s the food that my guy and I like and want to eat. So, I found myself in the kitchen a lot, but I wasn’t able to zoom in on a menu that can accommodate all of these needs and also reflect the taste of mom’s cooking—the mom who is me.
Over the past year, the change in my diet has sent me back to the kitchen way more often than I would like. As a result, I noticed that we started using the term “mom’s cooking” all the time! The problem is that it has the complete opposite meaning…
Mom’s cooking is now the food that no one but mom is allowed to touch—that was prepared only for mom! Mom has been working hard in the kitchen to cook this food, and she has not been using a lot of ingredients she is not allowed to eat, but she has been putting a lot of effort into making her food tasty and healthy and full, so she can’t run out of it too quickly and be back in the kitchen for all that trouble once again. And, just like that, despite the last 12 years I’ve spent in the kitchen trying to create “mom’s cooking,” at our house “mom’s food” is now the food the girls are not allowed to have.
One of the simplest tricks I’ve found to create “mom’s food” and not worry about the girls wanting to have it as well is to add coconut (in any form or shape – flakes, water, cream; it doesn’t matter). As long as I have coconut as one of the ingredients, I can remain calm; there will be no obvious threats to mom’s food.
So, here is one of the recipes I recently created for mom’s food. Not a lot of work, awesome taste, and the girls won’t touch it. A perfect dish!
BONELESS CHICKEN THIGHS WITH MUSHROOMS AND SNOW PEAS IN COCONUT CREAM
2 lbs of boneless chicken thighs cut into strips (you can ask the butcher to do that for you)
2 large onions
3 cloves of garlic – minced
2 packets of mushrooms (I like mixing white and brown, but you can use whichever kind you like)
9 oz coconut water (you can use coconut cream if you want a thicker consistency)
½ tsp ground cinnamon
¼ tsp ground cumin
Black pepper to taste (I don’t use any)
Cut the onion into halves and then slice them.
Add the garlic and continue frying for a couple of minutes.
While the onions are frying, slice the mushrooms into thin slices—but not too thin, so they will still have a bite to them.
Add the mushrooms to the onion and garlic and continue frying until all of the liquids from the mushrooms evaporates, and they change their color.
Add the chicken strips and sauté. Stir from time to time to make sure everything is evenly cooked.
Once all of the chicken has changed color, add the spices and continue frying for a couple more minutes.
Add the coconut liquid, and stir all of the ingredients in the pot well. When the liquid is about to boil, lower the heat, and let it simmer to the thickness of your liking.
In a deep saucepan or wok (best if it is wide but it really just needs to be able to contain all of the meat and sauce), heat up some olive oil and sauté the onion until golden.
Taste and fix the spices if needed.
While the chicken is simmering in the coconut liquid, rinse the snow peas and peel the head and spine. This isn’t mandatory, but it’s just so much better when you bite into them and don’t get a string stuck in your teeth.
Add the snow peas to the pot for the last couple of minutes of cooking (you don’t want it to turn soggy), and serve.
Pairs beautifully with rice or quinoa.