May 22, 2008

Salmon, Rice, and Peas--and Swiss Chard too

On weekend evenings when I was a child my family often had no-bother meals. One favorite was salmon, rice, and peas all mixed up together. The other was bagels and lox, which we had most Saturday nights. Bagels and lox are of course an ethnic tradition, but salmon, rice and peas seemed to be particular to my family.

The salmon and the peas were canned and the rice was Minute Rice. I can't say I loved the dish then, not like bagels and lox. But it was comfort food.

Over the years, every month or so I have had a yen for salmon rice and peas. I still use canned salmon but I’ve upgraded to frozen peas and longer cooking rice. At first I missed the special sweet, processed taste as well as squishy texture of the canned peas. But it's actually better with frozen peas.

Other than the above changes, I have been pretty faithful to the original recipe. This is not to say it always taste the same. To the contrary it’s not just one dish but a whole family of dishes---at least to my salmon-rice-and-peas-attuned palate. By adjusting the proportion, the salmon can dominate, the peas can dominate, or anything in between. Each of these endless variations can have tends to have subtly different overtones and undertones.

I just throw it together with minimum thought. However I cannot exclude the possibility that my unconscious mind is tailoring the mix to the needs of my palate (or my psyche) for the evening. Intuition can direct our actions whether or not we listen for that inner voice. Of course the best cooking comes about when we listen (see
Intuition and Brussels Sprouts---what!?).

After a long abstinence, a few weeks ago it was a salmon rice and peas night. I had an idea for an alteration I just couldn't get out of my mind. My latest culinary enthusiasm is chard. I had a few leaves of chard in the refrigerator (with only one or two good days to go). Breaking all my year of salmon, rice, and peas near-purism, I considered cooking them up and throwing them in.

This was not something to be undertaken lightly. It seemed a sacrilege as well as a boundary crossing sure to have consequences other than the simple success or failure of the dish. Moreover why was I thinking of changing a trio that already played endlessly interestingly together into a quartet? Eventually I recognize that in spite of my careful conscious weighting of the pros and cons, the project was going forward. I started cooking the chard.

I usually do not add the juice from the salmon to the concoction. But chard has a strong taste. To balance it I decided I needed to add the juice as well as the whole can of salmon.

The first bite left me astounded. It was delicious; the flavors were bright and exceptionally well-balanced. But even more than that, it evoked my mother's palate—everything that was good about her cooking—perhaps more than anything I have tasted since her death.

I certainly crossed a boundary. But instead of moving further away from tradition it brought me closer to its core. Looking back, I guess I was never so crazy about salmon rice and peas, because it didn't have the brightness of my mother's weekday food (especially with those can canned peas).


My mother wasn't a particularly skilled cook, but her food was tasty and she relished eating. She ate slowly and luxuriated in it perhaps more than anyone else I have ever known. All this was permission-giving to me. Learning to cook from Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking was a prelude to my scientific career.
(see Food and the Spirit: Rededicating My Thesis 27 Years Later)

My mother also became interested in the kind of cooking championed by Julia. She however had a severe handicap. She just could not grasp what it meant to sauté something. She was fascinated by the concept and often asked me to explain it to her. She would seem to get it, but a number of months later she would ask me again. She was an intelligent woman, and I was incredulous at her apparent idiocy about the concept of sautéing.

After my experience re-creating the essence of my mother's food, I decided to look up sauté in the dictionary. It says:

To lightly fry in fat in a shallow, open pan—n. [French, "tossed (in a pan)," from the past participle of sauter, to leap, from Old French, from Latin saltara, frequentative of salare (past participle), to leap....]

Food leaping from the pan is a lovely image for sautéing. But I began to see that it is also somewhat problematic of a concept. Leaping is a relative thing—or rather the time of cooking before leaping. I'm not sure we really want sautéed chicken breasts to leap from the pan until the chicken is cooked. We don't want sautéed mushrooms to leap from the pan until they give back their juices.

These legalities—although I can't say exactly how—helped give me some insight into my mother's problem with the concept of sautéing. She sautéed all the time. She just couldn't figure out how it was different from pan frying or browning. She already had categories and she couldn't fit a new one in, especially one that is, like the others, not so well defined.

At some level I suspect her question was less about sautéing than it was about the essence of French cooking. This new technique she thought she could learn—if she could figure out what it meant— just might help situate her in this celebrated cuisine. And indeed Julia does mention a large number of tips in Mastering Vol I, such as high temperature and drying food with a paper towel (Ug, See
Intuition and Brussels Sprouts---what!!?). But it wasn’t really a new technique, rather just another name for what my mother on occasion already did.

In contrast I first learned to cook in the context of French cooking. I didn’t pan fry food but did that thing called sauté from the start. Also thanks to Julia, I had much of the context that went with it. I would not be surprised if other women of my mother's age felt the same way about sautéing, but were ashamed to admit it and kept their perplexity to themselves.


My mother's difficulty was that a new word was used for a deeply familiar technique. Something similar can occur when familiar words are used in a new context. This happened to me around my first computer, a Mac. I was profoundly intimidated by frequent reference to “a finder” and to “a chooser.” I felt the same way when somewhat later a computer-savvy colleague said of a computer, “This machine has no security. I have to put some on.” I was dumbfounded. It was clearly important, but security meant men in uniforms. How could you put men in uniforms on a computer?

These words were chosen because they were considered intuitive in the sense of user-friendly. But I didn't know enough about computers (or computers with high-level languages) initially and then the internet to have a context for them. Because they were familiar words used in mysterious contexts, they seemed doubly impenetrable to me--- uncrossable barriers between those who were in the know and those who were not.

Our categories—the way we break the world up into kinds—are essential to our ability to construct meaning and hold onto it. After awhile it becomes hard to rename them, give them new context, or add another ingredient. To be sure “it is hard to teach an old dog new tricks.” But perhaps there is a more subtle lesson to be gleaned as well.

The categories that help one person or group make sense of the world can be different or have different contexts from those of another person or group. Sometimes it takes an act of intuition—along with some compassion for the way we all tend to hold on to familiar meanings—to translate in between. Good things tend to happen when we make the leap!

Coincidentally, it turns out that the word Salmon is from the same root as sauté. The Latin name for Salmon is Salmo, hence the jumping or leaping fish!

I'd love to hear about your favorite comfort food---with or without embellishment.


Anonymous said...

Hi Lois,
I love this entry. Lots to comment about.
1 - You could violate tradition further by using left over (flaked) fresh salmon - try sauteing it with a little onion, then add the peas and rice (with or without chard). I think that would be delicious.
2. I think your mother is absolutely right. I have that problem with many technical terms. and some of them are robbed, not borrowed, from their source.(I despise the military terms used for computers and the abuse of "abort". But, sauteed dishes are rarely crispy brown (like fried potatoes). I think they leap into the pan, not out, and linger long enough to become soft, also not at high heat - better on a gas than an electric stove.
3. Poor Rosalind Franklin, neither the first nor the last woman whose work is stolen, then diminished. Unlike Gettysburg, the world really will not note nor long remember what women accomplish.

Anonymous said...

fried chicken
mashed potatoes
chili and rice
cherry pie
spare ribs with collard greens

(obviously, i am from the South !)

love from Jersey

Anonymous said...

ramen drained and fried with an egg, the flavor packet and with a pat of butter!

Anonymous said...

It’s nice to read about how much mother enjoyed cooking. It was a side of her that I did not recall. I remember the salmon/rice/peas dish only vaguely. I remember much better the bagels and lox – with swiss cheese as well as cream cheese. I think that there was red onion also, although I’m not sure about that. It brings back the same kind of memories for you as the salmon, rice and peas for you. For me dropping the cheeses and sometimes adding capers and red onion serves somewhat the same kind of function of doing things differently and yet remembering tradition and the warm memories that go with it. Then there were things that I have not had for decades, like the sandwiches made with the round grill that cut off the edges and left a sealed cheese sandwich. And things that I have every five years, like chopped liver.

Love, Paul

Anonymous said...

I know this is from a long time ago (2 months!), but I did read it then, and enjoyed it, and meant to reply.

I thought about comfort food. For me, it's a toasted cheese (not good French cheese, needless to say) sandwich - OR a fried egg sandwich. Voila!

electronic cigarette store said...

For me dropping the cheeses and sometimes adding capers and red onion serves somewhat the same kind of function of doing things differently and yet remembering tradition and the warm memories that go with it. Then there were things that I have not had for decades, like the sandwiches made with the round grill that cut off the edges and left a sealed cheese sandwich. And things that I have every five years, like chopped liver.