Many of my friends grew up without learning how to cook. Either they were shooed away while their parents were in the kitchen, or their parents themselves didn’t cook much at all. In either case, they were kind of orphaned from the rich culinary traditions they may otherwise have inherited, and I think that’s unfortunate.
My own siblings didn’t grow up cooking either. They can whip up a meal if they have to (if given a recipe), but they’re not native to the process. It’s a foreign language to them largely because it’s not something my mom practiced with them.
My mom wanted to be alone while cooking so that she wouldn’t get stressed out. Maybe this was because my brother, sister, and I were good at getting into trouble and would probably injure ourselves or each other. Or because we might get jealous of one another if one of us got to stir the stew with mom while the others cut tomatoes. Most likely, it also had to do with just how picky we all were. We might try to edit her recipe — not that she ever used one. And most certainly, the stuff my mother did wasn’t easy.
She reached deep into her pool of culinary intuition and would imagine the flavors she wanted. Then she would guess just the right quantities of just the right condiments to make what she had imagined into reality. She would also have many side dishes going at once, and somehow she could prioritize her list of tasks so that she knew exactly when she should work on one dish while letting the other simmer away on its own.
I don’t know at what point I noticed it. All I know is that she was a night cook. She would get home from work, serve up dinner for my dad and grandparents, relax a little while, and then stay up and cook up a storm for tomorrow’s lunch.
We were all more or less insomniacs in my family, and every once in a while, one of us would come snooping into the kitchen at night for a midnight snack. Often, my mother would be there chatting with my grandmother or grandfather. Sometimes she was alone, working her magic.
For whatever reason, she stopped shooing me away when I’d watch her cook. I was looking for a snack. She was making ropa vieja (a Latin pulled beef dish) for my lunchbox the next day.
“Damn, it’s missing something.”
She must have thought “What the heck? The customer is always right.” And she gave me a piece to try.
It was hot. I never could handle sizzling hot foods.
“Does it have enough lime?” she asked me.
I thought for a moment and doubted that I had ever tasted too much lime in anything. I made my first ever culinary decision.
“No. You could add more!” I said with a voice that was probably even younger than my 6-year-old self.
She made a grunt, flourished a lime wedge that came out of no where, squeezed it out ceremoniously over the pan, then handed me another, slightly cooler bite.
It was zesty and fresh tasting. I loved it. I couldn’t help but feel proud. (It was my idea, after all.) I asked her to add even more! With a doubtful, if amused look, she complied.
“Now it’s too sour!” I said, very much worried and ashamed. The strands of beef in tomato sauce had lost their sweet, unctuous flavor. It was salty.
“Aha, you see? Se te fue la mano,” she said, which simply meant, You over did it. (Literally, “Your hand went away.”)
“But don’t worry,” she continued, opening up the spice cabinet to her right, “You’ll see how we fix it.”
She sprinkled a little garlic powder over the pan, and then–
“Ew! Sugar! On meat!?” I cried bewildered. She stirred some in, unfazed.
“Shh. Now try,” she said.
Amazing. It tasted almost perfect.
“You see? What’s with the ‘Ew’ nonsense? It tastes better now, doesn’t it?”
I nodded enthusiastically.
“Does it need any more?”
“Yes,” I said. “But maybe only a little bit.” I didn’t want to make the same mistake as before.
She smiled slyly and added in an extra pinch of sugar.
Finally, the dish was flawless again. Maybe even better than before…
Then again, maybe not. Maybe it just tasted better to me because I got to play a hand in its creation. Maybe it would’ve been better if I had just grabbed a tortilla as a snack and headed back to bed. But now I knew that there was such a thing as too much lime juice, and that, in a pinch, it was okay to add sugar to savory food.
“You can add all kinds of things to food. The important thing is to look for the flavor. To get it en su punto,” she said, lifting the lid off of a neighboring pot and fluffing some rice that was inside.
En su punto meant on point, or just right. It was a refrain I heard over and over again for years to come.
“You can keep that our secret,” she threw in with a smile. I walked away after giving her a hug just as she was peeling some plantains.
Other nights, my mom cooked all kinds of food.
Some nights, when she was making ropa vieja again, she would busy herself with the rice or the plantains and let me add the lime to the pan. Eventually, she let me fluff the rice. On lasagna nights, she let me season the red sauce. Then she would show me how to assemble everything in the casserole dish.
“Don’t be afraid of having too much lasagna with too little filling. Everyone thinks that they need to add as much filling as they can, but it’s the pasta that holds it together. It breaks apart if you don’t add enough, and it doesn’t taste as good as you might think.”
By the time I was in sixth grade, she had tried Japanese food and more or less figured out how to imitate a perfect salmon teriyaki. By then, I was learning along with her, which is why it came as little surprise to me years later, when I broke it to my parents that I had turned vegetarian, that she set right to work making up new recipes for me to try.
Safe to say, we never just cooked my mom’s native Nicaraguan food, though there was plenty of that too. Cooking was a living thing, always evolving.
“Nicaraguan food isn’t vegan,” my uncle once told me.
“Maybe not,” I said. “But now, Nicaraguan American food is!” I am Nicaraguan American, and I cook vegan food. What makes it Nicaraguan is that my instincts are a bit like my mom’s. In a lot of ways, I still look at food the way she does.
But I don’t much care what you call my cooking. Whether my food is Nicaraguan, Miamian, or just hipster, it’s constantly evolving. I’ve learned important lessons in the kitchens of many of my friends from many parts of the world, and I can’t wait to learn more.
And now that I have friends who want to learn how to cook, I dedicate this and other food-related stories to them. Occasionally, I will include links to recipes and techniques so that I can show them what the Night Cook showed me all those years ago: how to prepare food en su punto.
I hope you will join me for the ride!