I have to thank my mother for my love of cooking. As a child I would often hang around the kitchen, watching her prepare fresh beans from the garden, freshly shelled peas, carrots, white rice, oven-broiled potatoes and all kinds of tasty meat dishes such as pork chops dredged in flour and then dipped in an egg wash, covered with crumbs and sauteed in olive oil. Delicious. As were the really special event meals such as whole roasted chicken or leg of lamb. Rarely would a week go by without a beet or carrot salad, tomato or green pea soup, and everybody's favorite - young gem squash halved and filled with a mix of peas and carrots. I didn't know or appreciate it then, but it was all organic, wholesome and local. Not to mention lovingly prepared and presented. It is no wonder that all four of us children grew up to be healthy adults. Thanks mom.
In my college years I started to expand my culinary horizons a little bit. At the local library I would page through some recipe books, find something 'easy' (not too many ingredients, brief instructions) and try it later on my more than willing room mates who would quite happily consume even my biggest flops, such as fish fillets coated in mustard. Too much mustard!
As a young single guy in an apartment in northern Virginia, just across the Potomac from Washington D.C., I grew a little more creative and then confident, working my way from Chicken Maryland (long since gone from the culinary scene), to quiche (it was the 70's!) and then to dozens of recipes in what was one of my favorite cookbooks - Pierre Franey's 'The 60-minute Gourmet'. I still think one of the best desserts ever (not for vegans, sorry) is his Creme Anglaise, with fresh raspberries.
It was a short step from there to much more ambitious fare including many dishes from the late James Beard's books. How can I ever forget my first authentic Cassoulet - it was a revelation on many levels. How can plain old white beans taste this good? A few more years and I was ready and able for any challenge. Puff pastry - from scratch? Mais oui. Follow the instructions in Wolfgang Puck's Modern French Cooking to the letter and believe me, the results are astonishing. For my birthday one year the kids gave me a copy of Paula Wolfert's 'The Cooking of South-western France'. I doted on that book, discovering depth of flavor I never knew existed. Having mastered the art of cutting up a fresh duck (courtesy of James Beard), I was more than ready for the superb duck recipes in Ms. Wolfert's book. I am still hankering for those delicious slices of grilled duck breast with garlic, rock salt and black pepper. So is Kathleen, I know. The book had an entire chapter devoted to various versions of Cassoulet. I was in cooking heaven.
Of course nowadays, having been vegan for about two and a half years, my cooking has made a veritable 360. Gone are the lamb chops, the beef burgers, meat loaf and chicken breasts. Now it is all about whole grains, tofu, beans, brown rice, lentils, quinoa and vegetables. It wasn't easy at first. How do you say seitan? What exactly is TVP? Does anybody even sell nutritional yeast in Houston? But I learned quickly (Veganomicon!) and I'm churning out a respectable range of plant-based dishes nowadays. Today it was a pretty tasty pot of beans Bourguinon from 1000 Vegan Recipes. Very simple, just some red kidney beans, a few carrots, a can of crushed tomatoes, three shallots, white mushrooms, a vegan beurre manie and a 'better than bouillon' broth from a jar. And of course the star of the dish - a bottle of Helderberg Pinotage which proved to be undrinkable (despite being a Specs recommended buy!). Saute the shallots, carrots and a little garlic, add some thyme, the tomatoes, mushrooms, some of the wine, saute some more, add more wine, the beans of course, a little more fresh thyme, thicken with the vegan beurre manie and voila - Beans Bourguinon.
James Beard would have approved.