One in a collection of essays celebrating the cooking of our mothers.
Of all the dishes my mother made for special occasions, the one I remember most fondly was Texas Salad. The ingredients:
1 head of iceberg lettuce
1 large can of pinto beans
1 large bag of Fritos
1 block of cheddar cheese
1 bottle of Kraft Catalina dressing.
Notice anything about those amounts? Texas Salad represented a class of recipes that were easily passed around and replicated, and, most important, remembered because they were built on single units. No measuring required.
For my mother, who spent about four decades cooking for her family, it was a godsend to have dishes she knew by heart and could make quickly. Another was something she simply called broccoli cream cheese casserole: 1 head of broccoli, 1 onion, 1 block of cream cheese, 1 stick of butter. The only break in the one-unit measure was with bread crumbs, which went on as a sprinkling.
My mother was a child of the Midwest, born in the late 1920s in an Indiana town a couple of hours’ drive from Chicago. By the time she was cooking for me and my sister Julie, the last two kids left at home, we were in San Angelo, Texas, because my father had been stationed there as an Air Force pilot after a tour of bases throughout much of the South. And by that point, she had cooked for six other children and two husbands. In my memory, she approached cooking as a labor of love – but labor nonetheless. She didn’t seem out-and-out tired of it – that would come later – but merely not too excited. Who could blame her?
So she returned to her favorites time and again, and we loved them. Ground beef and broccoli over rice. Meatloaf with cream-of-mushroom (as in the Campbell’s soup concentrate) gravy. Stuffed peppers, stuffed cabbage, pecan tassies (little mini-pies with a cream-cheese crust). That Texas Salad was a soggy mess the day after, but freshly made it was always a hit, every Thanksgiving, every Christmas, every birthday. In hindsight, I know Mom was teaching me that variety and experimentation were all well and good, but especially with a crowd to feed, there was nothing wrong with a repertoire, even a small one, of dishes that worked.
I also learned the elements of a satisfying salad: fresh greens, something crunchy, something a little fatty, some protein, a pungent dressing. Mom hasn’t cooked in many years because of physical and mental frailty, but I’m one of several of her children who have taken to it with gusto. These days, I make what I jokingly call Ex-Texas Salad, using romaine, fried corn tortillas, feta, slow-roasted tomatoes and a homemade cilantro vinaigrette. I may not be able to put the exact quantities to memory the way she did, because they don’t divide up so neatly, but I do something else: improvise with what I have on hand, and taste and adjust as I go.
Maybe she did that, too, and I just never noticed. When I first started showing interest in cooking, she indulged me, but let’s just say my interest was scattered. I was 8 or 9 and fascinated by her stand mixer (a machine!), so my preferred tasks used it. I remember pleading as soon as she started cooking a holiday meal: Don’t forget to let me mash the potatoes! Please let me whip the cream! Then I would disappear for hours, probably riding my bike who knows where, while she kept working – crushing the Fritos in the bag, grating the cheese, chopping the onions, boiling the potatoes — and I would return to find the stand mixer warm and its bowl soaking in the sink.
I was infuriated: Why didn’t she wait for me? She would apologize with a shrug and a smile and move on. Now, of course, I know why: She needed to keep the cooking on track, and when the moment was at hand — the potatoes boiled, the cream chilled — she looked up, probably looked around, perhaps even called for me, and I was nowhere.
I don’t have kids, but I can imagine how the on-again, off-again presence of a little one who insists on doing just this one thing and nothing else would be less than helpful when 20 people were due in an hour. If I could do it over again, I’d stay put in that kitchen and ask, “What else can I do, Mom?”
I bet she would’ve appreciated that.
More Mother’s Day essays:
MAKE AHEAD: The vinaigrette can be refrigerated for up to 1 week. The tortillas can be fried and stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 3 days.
Adapted from a recipe in Yonan’s “Serve Yourself: Nightly Adventures in Cooking for One,” (Ten Speed Press, 2011).
For the vinaigrette
1/4 cup fresh cilantro leaves, coarsely chopped
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup canola oil
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1 clove garlic, coarsely chopped
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt, plus more as needed
For the salad
1/2 cup peanut oil, for frying
Six 6-inch corn tortillas
12 cups lightly packed, torn romaine lettuce leaves
3 cups homemade or no-salt-added canned black beans, rinsed and drained
6 scallions, trimmed and thinly sliced on the diagonal (white and green parts)
12 ounces feta cheese, crumbled
12 large pieces 12-Hour Tomatoes (see related recipe), drained and chopped (may substitute 18 oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes)
For the vinaigrette: Combine the cilantro, extra-virgin olive and canola oils, vinegar, garlic, sugar and 1/2 teaspoon of salt in a blender; puree until smooth. Taste, and add salt as needed. The yield should be about 3/4 cup.
For the salad: Line a plate with paper towels.
Pour the peanut oil into a large skillet over medium heat. Once that oil starts to shimmer, add 2 or 3 tortillas (or as many as will comfortably fit); fry them on each side until crisp and golden brown, 1 to 2 minutes. Lift each tortilla with tongs and let the excess oil drip off, then transfer it to the paper-towel-lined plate. Working in batches, repeat with the remaining tortillas. Let the tortillas cool, then break them into bite-size pieces.
Toss the tortilla pieces with the lettuce, black beans, scallions, feta, tomatoes and 1/2 cup of the vinaigrette in a large serving bowl. Add the remaining 1/4 cup of the vinaigrette if desired, or reserve for another use. Serve right away.
Nutrition | Per serving (using oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes): 530 calories, 20 g protein, 44 g carbohydrates, 33 g fat, 11 g saturated fat, 50 mg cholesterol, 700 mg sodium, 12 g dietary fiber, 4 g sugar
Recipe tested by Joe Yonan; e-mail questions to email@example.com