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Simmered 'Til Tender
Mom's recipes are from the soul, not by the book

SOME YEARS AGO I got a rather mysterious call from a woman I didn't know. She'd only seen my name on a food column I was writing at the time, but she had a personal request.

Her mother had died and left her a box of recipes. "I don't know what to do with them," she said. "There's quite a few, and I thought you might like them."

The next day, waiting at my office was a very large box, and inside was the Mystery Mom's collection. Included were heaps of newspaper clippings, clippings from women's magazines, clippings from the backs of cardboard boxes. There were handwritten index cards, scraps of notebook paper, and entire little booklets of recipes devoted to specific products like corn syrup and evaporated milk.

One of the most intriguing items for me was a food page from the San Francisco Chronicle of September 1959, the month I was born. I thought this little time capsule might offer a glimpse into another world.

It did.

Every recipe called for some kind of prepared food. Jello, Miracle Whip, "Jet-puffed" marshmallows, and Campbell's soups were staples of the '50s kitchen.

It would be too much to say that her recipes provided a window to the Mystery Mom's soul; but they did something like that. Although I had never known this woman, I grieved for her, and grew vaguely nostalgic for a time gone by, or a time that never was. All those recipes could have come from my own mother's kitchen. In a way, they did. They came from all our mothers' kitchens.

Serves 6 to 8
Whenever we knew this meal was on the stove, my sisters and I would march through the house chanting "Roast and Noodles and Peas, Oh My!" to the tune of "Lions and Tigers and Bears."

1 chuck roast or rump roast of beef,
   3 1/2 to 4 pounds
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup olive oil
1 medium onion, peeled and thinly sliced
4 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
2 cups red wine
2 cups beef broth
1 pound dried egg noodles
2 (10 ounce) boxes frozen green peas
2 tablespoons water
2 tablespoons butter

1. Sprinkle the roast with salt and pepper. In a Dutch oven, brown the roast in the oil, turning several times. Pull the roast out of the pan and set aside.

2. In the oil, sautè the onion until soft and slightly browned. Add the garlic, red wine and beef broth and bring the liquid to a boil. Put the roast back in the pot, reduce heat to low, and cover. Simmer for 2 1/2 hours, or until tender.

3. Pull the roast out of the pan again and put in the noodles, stir to cover them with the broth, then put the roast back in. Re-cover and simmer another 20 minutes, or until noodles are tender. Meanwhile, in a separate pot, cook the frozen peas in water and butter for 5 minutes, or until butter is melted and peas are hot. Serve the roast hot with noodles and peas.

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But that world of easy entrees and desserts-in-minutes wasn't real. If the Mystery Mom was anything like my mother, who is still very much alive and cooking - and clipping the occasional recipe - then she probably collected far more recipes than she ever used. When we were kids, my mother's collection of cookbooks, magazines, booklets, pamphlets and printed inserts took up one entire wall of the laundry room. The recipes she gathered were for South-of-the-border fiesta suppers and pseudo-Chinese feasts, and they all contained plenty of processed foods in the lists of ingredients.

Once in a great while she actually tried one of these recipes. But mostly what she served us bore little or no relation to the meals in her collection. Those were fantasies, brief imaginary vacations from the familiar pots and pans and hungry kids she faced every day.

In the real world, she cooked without recipes. She cooked intuitively from techniques learned in her mother's kitchen, and most of the dishes she cooked regularly and expertly, like "Chicken with Rice and Carrots" and "Roast and Noodles and Peas," were derived from experience. Until I asked her to send them to me, I don't think those recipes were ever written down.

For special occasions, my mother did make exotic dishes like Swiss Fondue, Chicken Curry or Beef Stroganoff. These did, I believe, originate in books or pamphlets, or maybe magazines. But even they became traditional as she repeated them over the years, codified them into her own natural style, and learned them by heart.

When I grew old enough to notice what she was doing, I saw a pattern in my mother's meals. Almost every dish she cooked involved a period of braising or simmering, and conformed to her daily routine. "I'm going to get supper on," she would say, "and then I'm going to lie down for a little while before your father gets home." It was a smart system.

Barefoot and muumuu-clad, she would brown some meat, add some kind of liquid, then cover the pan and allow everything to simmer for awhile. This braising time ensured that the meat would be tender, and it provided a built-in opportunity for a nap. When the braising was done, she could use the flavorful liquid in the pan to cook rice or noodles.

The recipes from the Mystery Mom, like the recipes that filled those shelves in my mother's laundry room when I was growing up, made me sentimental but not hungry. What makes me hungry is real food. Not the dishes that my mother and a million other mothers imagined they might cook someday, but the dishes they really did cook, day-in and day-out for years and years.

I am forever modifying my mother's recipes; but they are the foundation of everything I cook. And to me, they represent the very soul of good food.

Greg Atkinson, Canlis executive chef, is the author of "In Season" (1997) and "The Northwest Essentials Cookbook" (1999) from Sasquatch Books.

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