The Artist’s Corner – Cooking With Priscilla Smith

I’ve mentioned before that I have a tendency to feed the characters in my stories.  In fact my novel, The Secrets of Dr. John Welles, is replete with the mention of food prompting the sharing of recipes.  So when I began The Artist’s Corner, it made sense to feature someone who enjoys the art of cooking as much as I do.  I don’t believe Priscilla has ever cooked for a fictional person, but if she did, they would enjoy her talent as much as the real people for whom she cooks.

Hello and welcome to the Artist’s Corner.  Tell me a little bit about yourself.

Well, I’ve been married for fifty-one years, and I have two children and two grandchildren.  I have enjoyed being a homemaker for the better part of my marriage.  I was heavily involved in raising my family and my children’s schooling, but I also worked in the banking and legal industry as well as a volunteer at the fire department.

How/when did your love of cooking develop?

I learned to cook under my mother’s instruction, but growing up in West Virginia didn’t expose me to a variety of foods.  My basic cooking skills didn’t develop until my high school home economics class in Ohio.  My final project was to collect recipes, and I gathered some good ones, but they were basic.

I honed my skills through my relationship with my oldest brother’s wife.  Inta is Latvian, and she introduced me to other foods and methods of preparation.  I fell in love with cooking and realized I could do this, too.

Do you consider the food you prepare art?

All of it.  From the first steps of preparation to the finished meal is the creation process resulting in edible art.  That’s why I take pictures of it and put it on Facebook!  At first I thought just the fancy stuff and my baking was art, but I realized it all is.  The quality of the food contributes to the finished product.  Homemade food is art with love infused.  In fact, something as simple as fried green tomatoes when made with good ingredients and love are impressive.

And don’t forget that the table setting is part of it.  Presentation plays an important role.  You eat first with your eyes, then your sense of smell, and finally with your mouth.  Sure, it’s the same food when you hastily prepare it and eat right out of the pans, but beautiful dishes, large platters, place mats, candlelight, napkins, silver, and crystal:  all this enhances the food.  You make it worthy of being presented in a magazine.

Do you put yourself into your cooking?

Absolutely.  How I season, what I choose to cook for a particular meal, how I approach the preparation process:  this is me infusing myself into the food.  I love to cook what I enjoy eating for other people.  It’s a small expression of my personality that I can share with others.  And you really can’t go wrong when you’re cooking something you like to eat; it’s like giving a present of yourself to someone.

My accent is on good, solid food.  Not necessarily fancy, but I’m not afraid to try something new.  Thai food has been of interest to me lately.  But if asked to prepare something that I’m not particularly fond of or have never made, I’ll still make every effort to please whoever I’m feeding.

I don’t consider myself a chef by any means, but I consider myself a cook, and a good one.  I have training in life experience with cooking.  My education comes from searching through cookbooks, vintage recipes, online, and word of mouth which usually provides the best recipes.  And I can never leave a recipe alone; I always tweak it!  Sometimes my recipes are never the same twice, but they’re always good.

What other cooking experience have you had?

On a whim, I took a cake decorating class with women from a craft club I attended years ago when my children were young.  A bunch of us went.  I fell in love with the art of cake decorating and started making my kids’ cakes, cakes for neighbors, cakes for family functions.  I realized I could channel my talent into a small business.  With a lot of practice, I worked my way up to wedding cakes and was quite successful.

Did your non-cooking work experience lead to the pursuit of cooking?

Not exactly, but cooking for my family fed my interest.  I’ve never even been a waitress, but I’ve been involved with hosting tea parties (in my home, at church, and in other people’s homes), guests breakfasts for Pastor Appreciation, luncheons honoring staff or administrators at schools, catered wedding receptions, wedding showers, baby showers, conference luncheons for two hundred people at churches, a week’s worth of meals for an equestrian group with special dietary requests, and company Christmas parties.  In each instance, I worked with my client(s) to create a full menu that would be visually pleasing and delicious, and then I prepared the food.

What or who is your inspiration for cooking?

Julia Child, Ina Garten, and Martha Stewart—they cause me to rise up to their standard of cooking.  I love watching them and reading their cookbooks.  Factor in Graham Kerr and Justin Wilson.

What do you enjoy cooking?

It would be a lot quicker to say what I don’t enjoy.  My favorite things to cook are my childhood comfort foods which are brown beans and cornbread, meatloaf and mashed potatoes.  Simple desserts like Crazy Cake and fudge.  Really, it’s hard to say any one thing since I like to make big meals and serve people.  I love to make pasta, beef roasts, chicken in many forms, roasted vegetables.  I love baking pies, breads, cookies, and cakes in that order.

Do you still cook for others as a business?

No, now it’s all for pure pleasure.  Well, actually, I’d take small jobs for close friends or family.  I’ve done everything I want to do business-wise with cooking.  I could turn all my handwritten recipes into a cookbook.  I could see a market for it based on people’s positive reaction to The Pioneer Woman and Paula Deen.  People like well-prepared, basic food that tastes good and isn’t difficult.  Food you already have in your cupboards.

Have you ever competed in a cooking contest or bake off?  If so, how did you do?

I baked for competition once.  When I was a young mother, I made candy apple pie for a local grocery store’s competition.  I took second place and received a ribbon!  I love watching the competitions on television and thinking, I could beat Bobby Flay, but cooking shouldn’t be under pressure or about throwing food around.  I’m not going to cook octopus, but if Bobby and I competed at potato soup or chili, I know I could take him down in a heartbeat.

How have you shared your cooking skills?

Lately, I’ve been teaching a young girl how to cook because she’s homeschooled.  Her mother asked me if I’d teach her to bake cupcakes and cookies because she’d tasted my stuff.  We slowly progressed into pies (double crust and with meringue), and she’s made palmiers, pudding, and angel food cake.  Next she’s going to make cheesecake.  We keep progressing with more and more difficult techniques.

What’s your opinion on the removal of Home Economics from school, specifically cooking?

It’s sad because young people don’t know how to cook.  They come home from work and buy something frozen or already prepared.  And I’m not talking about just girls.  Boys need to know how to cook, too.  My one grandson is prime example that boys can learn how to cook.  It doesn’t have to be fancy, but they need to learn how to feed themselves.  Breakfast and dinner are essentials because that’s usually when they’re home.  Lunch is often eaten out, so they need to learn how to choose wisely.

How is what you cook for yourself different from what you cook for other people?

If I’m making a grilled cheese for myself, I’m going to grab a couple slices of bread from the fridge, use American cheese, and the fanciest thing I’d include would be a slice of tomato.  But if I’m making grilled cheese for someone else, I’m going to use seven-grain or homemade sourdough bread, gruyere, fontina, or a combination of exceptional melting cheeses, spread one side with Dijon mustard, and put a slice of roasted red pepper on that baby.  Still grilled cheese, but see the difference!

No doubt you’d work presentation into this simple fare?

Absolutely!  And it’s not just dressing up ill-prepared or tasteless food.  Make no mistake; it all starts with delicious food, quality ingredients.  Even how you refer to it is important.  Simple things like cutting the crust off toast or sprinkling chopped green onions over an omelet and serving it on pretty dishes can go a long way to turning the eggs and toast you always have for breakfast into something special.

What’s your favorite meal to cook?

Passover.  I love cooking for Passover.  When I’m cooking the Passover meal, the whole experience becomes holy.  Of course the Seder is beautiful; it’s for Adonai.  It can be quite long, so people are getting hungry.  You’d better serve them your best, and I do.  What I hope they know is that I’ve given my best to them because of my love for Adonai.

What’s your dream meal?

To have lunch with Martha Stewart, but I prepare the food.  There’d be a salad involved, probably a soup and sandwich combination.  The time of year, whether spring or fall, would influence the menu.  And I’d make homemade pie, probably lemon meringue because my crust is excellent.

What’s your biggest complaint with cooking?

The cost of good ingredients can be prohibitive.  One meal could be outrageous.  I’ll buy organic when it’s feasible.  My concern isn’t just for myself, it’s for everyone.  We live in a country that wastes too much food.  The GMOs bother me, too.  Whole foods and organics should be available at reasonable prices to everyone.

So do you have a recipe to share with us?

You know I do!

Homemade Potato Dumpling Soup

6 – 8 Redskin or Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and diced

3 – 4 ribs of celery, sliced

Medium sweet onion, chopped

4 eggs, beaten

1 ½ c flour

½ t salt

Stick of butter

4 – 6 cups chicken broth, homemade or canned (enough to cover, depends on the size of your potatoes)

Salt and pepper to taste

1 quart half-n-half

Place the potatoes, celery, and onions in a large pot and cover with the broth.  Bring to a boil, reduce to simmer, and cover while you’re making the dumplings.

Combined the eggs, flour, and salt in a mixing bowl and stir thoroughly to make a thick batter for dumplings.  Take a large spoonful of dumpling mixture and cut off pieces with a butter knife, dropping them into the hot soup.  Add a stick of butter.  Cover and let the dumplings cook for 5 – 8 minutes.

Turn the heat off and add the half-and-half until there is plenty of liquid around the ingredients and the soup looks creamy.  Taste to see if you need more salt, then season further with salt and pepper.

My family likes to top the soup with small chunks of Havarti, let it soften ever so slightly, and then eat it!

Spread the Love

One of my earliest memories of butter includes sitting on the carpet in the kindergarten classroom, all of us in a large circle, passing a massive canning jar from person to person as we shook the sealed jar full of whipping cream as hard as our little arms could manage. We’d been told that this would produce butter. I remember my skepticism, but since I loved butter, I gladly took part and watched the magic unfold.

It’s funny how many of my food memories are attached to my Grandma Smith, but I believe her kitchen is where I developed my love of butter.Butter versus Margarine There was something different about the sunshine yellow block that sat in her cut glass butter dish. It was lighter, sweeter than the golden-colored sticks of ‘butter’ we used at home. As a young child, any yellow, creamy substance that one spread on toast or crackers was referred to as butter. My mother provided the explanation of the difference, and I learned the definition of margarine. It wouldn’t be until decades later that I learned what an evil substance margarine is, but I digress.

Grandma Smith would bring me packets of real butter from restaurants where she had dined. Nothing against my mother, but she used margarine for years until I finally convinced her to switch. Glory be–my taste buds rejoiced and food became so much tastier.

Where is all this leading you ask? To my novel, The Secrets of Dr. John Welles, of course. I’ve already established that as an author, I love to feed my fictional characters. Twice I reference butter specifically, once in conjunction with biscuits and again with cornbread, but what I want my readers to understand without mentioning it every time is that butter is my fictional characters’ ingredient of choice when it comes to cooking and baking.

As I wrote the scenes involving food and envisioned the preparation, butter was always in the picture, sitting in a crock or dish, just within reach of the experienced hands that would lovingly incorporate it into the recipe. I’ll spare you the debate on the health benefits of butter versus margarine and simply say don’t fear butter and all things in moderation.

To sum up this post, I made butter with my son because I wanted him to experience how easy and fun it is. The added step of washing the butter is new for me based on research for this post. The instructions for this activity follow. I highly recommend doing this with your kids because the memories you’ll make are priceless.

Enjoy!

Homemade Butter

2 c whipping cream (Raw cream from grass-fed cows is recommended, but store bought organic will work as well. This quantity will yield approximately ½ c of butter.)

sea salt

I used a stand mixer with a wire attachment for this process and chilled the bowl and wire attachment prior to using.

Pour the cream into your mixing bowl, filling the bowl halfway so it does not overflow as air is whipped into the cream. Mix on a medium-low speed to prevent splashing. As the cream thickens, you can turn it up to medium.

This process should take about 15 minutes but can vary depending on how much cream you are using and what type if mixer you have. Whipped cream will develop first. When the whipped cream begins to deflate, watch closely as your mixture can rapidly change to butter. To prevent splashing, cover the bowl with a lightly dampened tea towel.

When the butter begins to clump and stick to the whisk, it is done mixing. Pour the mixture through a fine strainer to separate the solids, butter, from the liquids, buttermilk. If you want it to last for more than a few days, you need to wash the butter. This will remove as much buttermilk as possible to keep the butter from going rancid. Put the butter back in your mixing bowl and cover with clean, cold water.

Use a large spoon to press the butter into the sides of the bowl. The water will become cloudy as the buttermilk is removed from the butter. Pour off the cloudy water and add more fresh. You can repeat this process until the water stays clear. Stir in a large pinch of amount of sea salt for every ½ c of butter.

Store in refrigerator or at room temperature if you will use it within a week or two.

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