Helping Nahjee learn to cook

The best part of work is figuring out how I am able to serve the individual needs of my young people. Today Nahjee asked me for some cooking tips (e.g., the different ways of thickening soup) and sources for good recipes (not from any packaged food website). She’s talked about being pescatarian and how she prefers simple food such as pizza and fries to fancy meals, but this afternoon I learned that her favorite cuisines are Indian and Thai. She also loves thick soups, bean chilis, and lentils. She would like to be able to make a soup that has lots of veggies in it, such as corn, carrots, and broccoli. Nahjee also likes spice. I figured that finding a mulligatawny recipe might be a good place to start, since it would satisfy many of her cravings.

The plan is to take a Friday afternoon to head to Curry Hill, enjoy a veggie lunch buffet at Chennai Garden or maybe a mujadara sandwich from Kalustyan’s (I like mine specially topped with pickles or spicy olives and their awesome hot sauce), and then go shopping for some basic spices and a variety of pulses for her pantry.

Looking up different mulligatawny recipes reminded me of a cookbook that my sister helped me start. During one of the many summers I spent with her in high school and college, she gave me a hardcover journal and I started writing in the simple, reliable recipes that she herself used for her family. After awhile I started collecting recipes on my own from magazines, cookbooks, and friends. But my favorite recipes in the book are family recipes—not just old Filipino standbys, but also special family dishes that bring back good memories.

One of those is Gramps’ beef stroganoff, which is unlike any beef stroganoff you’ve ever tasted. He was a superlative cook, restauranteur, and gourmand in his younger days, but this recipe shockingly calls for certain canned goods. This is usually an automatic turn-off for me, but I have to admit that this stroganoff continues to taste like home. It’s tomato and sour cream based, so it’s an orangey red, whereas I find that the stroganoff here in the States tends to be an unsightly grayish brown. (Fun fact: In Brazil, where stroganoff is something of a national dish, it’s alarmingly orange, served over rice, and garnished with shoestring potatoes. I love the chicken variation that has corn instead of mushrooms. It tastes much better than it sounds.)

The funny thing with family recipes is that different people seem to inherit different versions. So you can see here that I have the recipe that my sister got from him written in blue pen, and then the one my cousin Nikki got from Gramps via her mom is added below in black. The differences are kind of significant: Nikki’s version calls for sirloin instead of filet mignon; fresh mushrooms instead of canned button mushrooms (and although I generally advocate for fresh mushrooms, my memories of the dish involve chewing through deliciously dense and salty canned mushrooms); the addition of sherry (to deglaze the fresh mushrooms); and one can of tomato paste (?!) instead of an 8 oz. can of Campbell’s tomato juice. This latter substitution is why I am most suspicious about Nikki’s version of the recipe. There is no way you can use an entire can of tomato paste unless you are quadrupling the recipe (at least!).

Grandpa's beef stroganoff

At any rate, I’m going to ask Nahjee if she wants to put together a recipe book like this for herself. She said she would really love to be able to have an easy and reliably good rotation of her favorite dishes that she can make in big batches and freeze for convenience. If anyone has any recipes you think she would enjoy, send them our way! By the way, she is also on the hunt for good apple pie and apple crisp recipes.

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