How many of our grown-up food habits, comfort cravings and cooking rituals are influenced by the food we ate as kids? To celebrate Mother’s Day, chef and food writer Gill Meller, looks back at how his own mum’s cooking inspired his love of food.
“So many of the things mum made I have learned to cook from my memory”
My mum loved cooking. I mean really loved it. And what’s more, she was excellent at it. As a result, my brother, sister and I grew up eating exceptionally well, and looking back, I think we were really lucky.
Mum would nearly always cook simple, homely, familiar dishes; her cooking certainly wasn’t elaborate or technical. We had herby roast chicken, kedgeree with local smoked fish, seasonal soups, Shepherd’s pie, Spag Bol, sausages, mash and onion gravy, grilled fish and sautéed potatoes, liver and bacon, fish pie, and yes, I could go on… They’ve all become classics in my view, but every dish she prepared was made with the same love and care.
She cared about the ingredients, where they came from and whether it was seasonal (even though it was still the 80’s then) but above all, she cared about taste. The taste of a dish was the most important thing to her. It was the basis for all joy found in eating, and she knew this well. I can recall her concentrating as she cooked, thinking about how it might possibly be improved. I remember the constant tasting from the spoon, and the subtle changes in her expression in response to the particular level of deliciousness.
Sometimes mum got so involved with the act of cooking that she would lose her appetite by the time she came to eat (I know this feeling too). She would try everything on the plate; the balance, the texture, the taste. For mum it was often enough to see people simply enjoying her food.
Mum’s minestrone. Recipe below.
I didn’t actually learn to cook from my mum, at least not in the way a student is taught by their teacher. We didn’t spend hours baking together or anything like that. I didn’t study everything she did and she didn’t make a point of showing me how it was all done. Learning doesn’t always happen like that.
It wasn’t until I was older that I realised how influential her approach to cooking had been on me. Believe it or not, I wasn’t even that interested in food as a child, but that didn’t really matter. Through her I learned to value ingredients, to savour taste and that the simplest approach is nearly always best.
She taught me to use my senses in the kitchen and how to feel my way through a recipe until it looked, smelt and of course, tasted the way you wanted it to. Her approach gave me a freedom in the kitchen and a confidence to follow my instincts. It’s very rare that I’ll ever cook from a recipe today, which is, in the context of mum, a good thing. She never wrote any of hers down, and now that she’s gone I can’t ask her anyway.
Soups, like her minestrone left such an impression on me that words, weights and measures were unnecessary. Instead, I can close my eyes and see her making it. I see the different vegetables and herbs, her dark oval chopping board and the heavy pan warming on the stove. I can see how it is built up, in layers, I can see the size of the little bubbles that rise to the surface as the soup simmers gently away. I remember the beans, the olive oil and the colour. But most importantly, the taste, texture and balance she was able to achieve between the ingredients.
Serves: 6 to 8
– 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra to serve
– 1 large onion, chopped
– 3 or 4 carrots, peeled and cut into 4–5mm (1⁄4in) cubes
– 4 tender celery sticks, sliced
– 4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
– 3 or 4 bay leaves
– 2 x 400g tins good-quality plum tomatoes
– 2 litres vegetable stock
– 1 x 400g tin of haricot beans, drained and rinsed
– 100g spaghetti
– 1 bunch of kale, chard or spinach, tougher stalks removed and leaves roughly chopped
– ¼ of a Savoy cabbage, finely shredded
– 1 small bunch of parsley, leaves picked and chopped
– Parmesan cheese, to serve
– salt and freshly ground black pepper
1. Heat a large heavy-based pan over a medium heat and add the olive oil. When it’s hot, add the onion, carrots, celery, garlic and bay. Season with salt and pepper. Cook gently, stirring regularly, until the vegetables begin to soften and smell sweet, about 10 minutes. Adjust the heat if you need to so that the vegetables don’t colour.
2. Empty the tinned tomatoes into a bowl and use your hands to crush them thoroughly, then tip them into the pan with the soft vegetables. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 15 to 20 minutes, then add the vegetable stock and bring to a simmer. Allow the soup to cook gently for about 45 minutes.
3. Add the haricot beans. Break the spaghetti into short lengths and add that, too. Return the pan to a simmer and cook for a further 30 minutes.
4. Add the kale, chard or spinach and cabbage and stir well. Give the soup a final 15 to 20 minutes cooking, until all the vegetables are tender. If at any point it is looking too thick, add some water. Taste the soup and adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper, then stir in the parsley.
5. I like to take the pan off the heat and let the soup stand at this point, I think it benefits from 15 to 20 minutes just being, before you ladle it into bowls and serve trickled with plenty of your best olive oil and scattered with finely grated Parmesan cheese. Don’t worry if you don’t eat it all in one sitting. This minestrone (and others like it) can taste even better the following day.
For local seasonal veg, beans and all ingredients in this recipe, go to farmdrop.com.