My parents died 22 years ago, she in April 1999 from complications of Parkinson’s; he, in September 1999 of prostate cancer. They were in their mid-70s only; that made it sadder for us all.
I tell friends whose parent has just died that I have little help to salve their loss. In the reverse of how we’d hope time would work, I miss my parents more as each year passes.
In matters culinary, my father and mother were a very different combination. He was raised in Fort Lupton, a small town north of Denver, of a teetotaling Methodist father and a stern Irish Catholic mother. His most vivid childhood memory was watching his mother decapitate a Sunday chicken, tossing it headless to the ground, and letting it run wildly around the backyard.
My mother was a teenager in German-occupied World War II Belgium; rations of butter, flour, and sugar foreclosed on any kitchen education. My father eventually taught her how to make the flaky crust for the pies that he loved.
She blossomed as a cook in this country, self-taught from clipping drawers full of recipes from food magazines; traveling often to Europe to take masters classes in cooking; and teaching throughout the 1980s and early 1990s at her own cooking school, called La Bonne Cuisine, based in her home kitchen in Denver.
From her travels abroad, she brought back many recipes popularized by those who taught her: from Simca Beck in Provence, Darina Allen at Ballymaloe in County Cork, Robert Carrier of Hintlesham Hall in England, and Alicia Rios Ivars in Madrid, among others.
She worked or took classes in the kitchens of some of Europe’s finer hotels and restaurants, such as Provence’s L’Ousteau de Baumanière and Paris’ Taillevent.
In 1991, she authored a cookbook, “Friends for Dinner,” that brought $150,000 ($295,000 in 2021 dollars) to the Denver coffers of Meals on Wheels for people with AIDS.
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She flogged sales of that book, self-published through its third printing, by setting up a card table weekends outside one of the Tattered Cover bookstores, handing out a couple of homemade chocolate truffles if you bought a copy.
I’ve learned so much about life as the result of her cooking.
What my mother taught me about cooking food wasn’t merely that it was something you did in order to care for other people. You did it also in order to care about the food itself. And also, perhaps most important, to care about yourself.
You chose the best ingredients; you were meticulous in preparing them. To you, recipes were neither tests nor showpieces but stories about food and cooking, stories that told you significant things about living interestingly and nobly and well.
You cooked slowly and carefully because it was a fine craft, and handiwork that a person, any person, could do over their entire life. Cooking focused the mind, slowed the pace of the day, let you attend to the beauty of the material world.
To my mind, the table is the great altar of life. Weddings, anniversaries, birthdays, deaths, promotions, crises — and the everyday, every day — all are best at table. Why that is so and not, say, at church or in the calm of silence alone, I cannot say.
Except that eating and drinking are so very real in their everydayness. And that is where I believe we must first learn to appreciate all else higher or better.
In honor of Mother’s Day, here are three of my mom’s favorite recipes, including her most-requested recipe ever: Boeuf Bourgignon.
My Mother’s Day recipes:
Madeleine St. John’s Boeuf Bourgignon
A recipe from La Bonne Cuisine cooking school. Serves 6.
Butter or margarine
2 and 1/2 pounds boneless beef chuck, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
3 tablespoons brandy
12 small onions, peeled
1/2 pound small, fresh mushrooms
2 and 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch
2 teaspoons Bovril (see note)
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 and 1/2 cups French red Burgundy
3/4 cup dry sherry wine
3/4 cup ruby port wine
1 10.5-ounce can beef bouillon, undiluted
1/8 teaspoon pepper
1 bay leaf
Heat a 4-quart Dutch oven with a tight-fitting lid. Add 2 tablespoons butter; heat, do not burn. In hot butter, over high heat, brown beef cubes well all over, about 1/4 at a time, just enough to cover bottom of Dutch oven. Lift out beef as it browns, add butter if needed. Return all to Dutch oven. In small saucepan, heat 2 tablespoons of the brandy until vapor rises. Ignite and pour over beef. Set aside.
Add 2 tablespoons butter to Dutch oven, heat slightly, add onions. Cook over low heat, covered, until onions brown slightly. Add mushrooms; cook, stirring, for 3 minutes; remove from heat. Stir in cornstarch, Bovril and tomato paste until well-blended. Stir in Burgundy, sherry, port and can of bouillon.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Bring wine mixture just to boiling, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat. Add beef, pepper and bay leaf. Mix well. Bake, covered and stirring occasionally, 2 hours, or until beef is tender, adding remaining 1 tablespoon brandy little by little.
This dish is better if made the day before you serve it. Refrigerate and reheat gently. With it, serve boiled potatoes, buttered green peas and either a Beaujolais or Burgundy wine.
Note: Bovril, a thick, syrupy beef extract similar to beef bouillon paste, is less available nowadays than when this recipe first appeared. You may substitute any strongly flavored beef bouillon such as “Better Than Bouillon” brand, for example. If using dry cubes (such as Knorr brand), use two (2).
Lamb in Burgundy
From Chef Robert Carrier, Hintlesham Hall, Suffolk, England and La Bonne Cuisine cooking school, Denver. Serves 4.
2 and 1/2 pounds lamb, trimmed and cut into 2-inch cubes
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 and 1/4 pound small white onions
2 tablespoons flour
2 tablespoons tomato purée
1 and 1/4 cups Burgundy wine
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 bay leaf
1/4 teaspoon dried thyme leaves
1/4 teaspoon dried marjoram leaves
4 parsley sprigs
1/2 pound mushrooms
Chopped parsley, for garnish
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Heat butter and olive oil in a large, thick-bottomed casserole. Add onions and sauté in combined fats for 5 minutes; remove. Add lamb, 1/3 at a time, and brown well on all sides. Remove lamb with slotted spoon and reserve.
Remove casserole from heat; discard all but 2 tablespoons fat. Stir in flour and tomato purée; return casserole to a low heat and stir until smooth. Then add lamb, wine, salt and freshly ground pepper, all herbs and mushrooms, stirring until well mixed. Cover casserole and cook in the preheated oven for 1 and 1/2 hours.
Add onions; bake 1 hour longer, or until meat is tender. Sprinkle with chopped parsley. Serve with mashed potatoes or boiled rice.
Wild Mushroom Consommé
From “Friends for Dinner,” Madeleine St. John, La Bonne Cuisine, Denver. Serves 6.
3 cups beef stock
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
12 large fresh shiitake mushrooms, chopped
6 scallions, cut into 1-inch lengths, finely julienned
Salt and pepper to taste
Heat broth to a simmer. In a large skillet, over moderate-high heat, melt butter and sauté mushrooms quickly, stirring, until just soft. Remove to platter. In same pan, lightly sauté scallions.
Add mushrooms and scallions to broth. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve very hot.
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