I COME from an Italian family where the irls learn how to cook soon after they learn how to walk. By age five, they can create an entire 10-course feast -- everything from the macaroni to the dessert pastries -- in an hour. And every bit of it is made from scratch. (Macaroni from a box? God forbid.)
By kindergarten I was still on step one: salad. I tried hard to follow my mother's instructions in the kitchen, but I could never get it right. Either too much oil or too much vinegar or too much oregano. "Can't we just use Kraft blue cheese?" I whined. My father clutched his chest.
The family treated me as if I was growing up with a serious learning disability. "What can we do with her?" my mother would say sadly, shaking her head.
"Oh, she'll learn in time," my aunts assured her. "We hope."
Seventeen years later, I'm still struggling with the salad. For a while they moved me to soup, hoping that something different might unleash my culinary talents. I cut my finger while chopping the celery. I dropped the pot of boiling water on my bare feet. Everything I touched turned into a disaster. "I've failed as a parent," my mother sobbed. "What Italian man will marry her like this?" my father said.
The day on meats wasn't much better. I put the roast beef in the pan, surrounded by carefully cut potatoes. Seven hours later the potatoes had disintegrated, but my mother couldn't figure out why the beef had not cooked. I had neglected to tell her that the roast beef was frozen solid. Oh well.
Back to salad. Every time I visit a relative, the little daughter will put the salad bowl right in front of me. I know she's thinking, "Ha, Ha, you big jerk, you went to college but you can't even shred lettuce the right way." The parents beam at the wonderful salad, as well as the rest of the meal. My mother looks like she's about to burst into tears.
So, in the last few months, I've worked to perfect my mother's favorite salad, a recipe handed down from her mother. The next time I'm home, I'm sure I'll make the entire family proud. "It's still not enough to get you an Italian husband," said my father, when I told him my plan. "But at least it's a start." NANA'S PEPPER AND MUSHROOM SALAD (4 generous servings)
1 pound long green peppers
1 pound mushrooms
1 clove garlic, chopped
8-ounce can black pitted olives
Several fresh tomatoes, diced
2 tablespoons olive oil
Salt, pepper and oregano, to taste
Put the peppers in the broiler of your oven until the skin browns. Let them cool. Then peel the skin and cut the peppers into strips. Meanwhile, boil the mushrooms in water to cover for several minutes. Cut them into small pieces and mix with the peppers. Add the chopped garlic, olives and tomatoes. Mix with the oil (it must be olive oil), a pinch of salt, pepper and oregano to taste. Refrigerate before serving.