I have a lot of cookbooks. In the built-in bookshelves in our living room, there’s a shelf crammed with Nigella Lawson, Tyler Florence, Giada DeLaurentiis, Ina Garten, and more. I love them; I love reading them, looking at the pictures, and thinking about the recipes. L. even went through a phase where every night, he’d bring me an illustrated book entitled (I think) just “Baking” and ask to look at the pictures and talk about the pies and cakes and breads, in lieu of a bedtime story. But cooking from the books? It almost never happens.
I know, I know. Why have all these cookbooks, from chefs who are FAR more talented than I, if I’m not going to take advantage of their true purpose and actually try out some of the recipes? I can’t explain it. I mean, occasionally I’ll pull something out and try it, and I’m rarely disappointed; sometimes, it even becomes a family favorite (case in point: Tyler Florence’s Spaghetti with Peas and Pancetta. Mmmmm). It’s just not my style to work from somebody else’s recipe and spend my time in the kitchen constantly having to dance back over to the counter and find my place in a book so I can look up the next step.
I think I got this from my mother, at least partially. My mom’s a great cook. She does, in fact, cook from recipes when she wants to try new things, but most often, like the majority of great home cooks, she just knows how to make what she wants to make. It was rare, in my childhood, to see Mom poring over a recipe book when she was making dinner; she’d just put together a bit of this, a bit of that, and there it was. The older I got, and the more years of dinner-making experience she had under her belt, the more common it was for her to really branch out and start experimenting. And one day, Pasta Poulet was born.
Any francophiles out there will realize instantly that “pasta poulet” is a fairly stupid name — basically, it’s Franglais for “chicken noodles.” We didn’t coin it, though. There was a restaurant in our Upstate New York hometown that our family frequented, and on their menu were a fair number of relatively simple (but sort of upscale and radical, for the late 80’s/early 90’s) pasta dishes. My sister and I were in our preteen years, and D. was not at that time a particularly adventurous eater. However, she loved this silly dish on the menu, the “pasta poulet” (which, as memory serves me, was placed right above an offering called “pasta madagascar” — it must not have been nearly as memorable, because I know I ordered it once and could not tell you what was in it). Anyway, Pasta Poulet was her standard order, something she looked forward to each time we went out to eat. And then the restaurant closed down.
My mother was undaunted; the loss of D.’s favorite restaurant dish would not be permanent. We’d all eaten it quite a few times at that point, and Mom was confident that she could make it at home; what’s more, she was sure she could make it a more healthy dish than what was offered up at the restaurant (which, I’m sure, was swimming in butter and oil and all kinds of yummy heart-attack stuff). Her consultation of D.’s and my flavor memories, as well as her own keen observations of the dish over time, served to produce something that became not only an improved version of the heavy pasta we remembered, but has been a family staple ever since. Friends of mine from childhood, who probably ate the stuff at my house too many times to count, have called me over the years to ask for “the recipe for that chicken thing your mom makes, with the pasta — remember?” She fed the entire Speech and Debate team with a giant crock of Pasta Poulet before a big tournament. And Pasta Poulet was the first dish I ever cooked for J., when we were dating in college; I got myself a couple of little pots and pans, and we used the communal stove (on which I think one burner worked) in the dorm kitchen, then ate the results sitting on my bed with the pot between us. J. called his family afterwards and bragged about what a great cook his girlfriend was. I remember thinking, “But it’s just Pasta Poulet!”
However, I realize now that there is no such thing as “just Pasta Poulet.” It’s a ridiculously simple dish, but it’s somehow greater than the sum of its parts. I’ve never met anyone who didn’t like it. And for a busy family, it’s a fantastic weeknight dinner that always manages to feel relatively easy, get on the table fast, and pull everybody to their seats with smiles on their faces. Every time I make it, I remember the first time my Mom tried to assemble this dish for my poor, starving sister. And it’s no surprise to me, remembering that, that I’ve grown into a cook who thinks along the same lines: I like that. I make that. I eat that.
It seems so logical to me: I eat something I like, or see something made on television that looks good to me, and I figure out what the component parts might be, then put them together to produce something tasty. At another hometown restaurant, there was a dish called “Cape Cod Chicken and Shrimp” that my friends and I liked in high school. Years later, that memory became my Cranberry Chicken with Pecan Rice. On my honeymoon, I ate a grilled salmon sandwich with a side salad of fennel and oranges; later, in my own kitchen, I made pan-seared orange salmon on a bed of caramelized fennel and onions. But I realize not everyone cooks this way; not everyone experiences food as something malleable, changeable, and forgiving, that can be played with at will.
It’s genetic, I suppose, and also a learned behavior from the days of Pasta Poulet in my mother’s kitchen. But it’s an important behavior, I think, when it comes to feeding my kids. As I consider the “I Like, I Make, I Eat” approach, it strikes me that not only does it mean that my kids are treated to (or subjected to, depending on your point of view) a variety of ever-changing flavors and combinations, but they’re growing up in an environment in which food is a friend. Not in a bad, scary, run-to-it-for-comfort kind of way, I hope; just in the sense that cooking and eating are part of the natural rhythm of things. We don’t talk about low-fat and count calories and restrict foods; we talk about what things taste like, what different family members like to eat, and how vegetables and chicken and whole-wheat pasta are good body foods that help all your different parts work, but brownies are just fun foods that we all like to eat. We don’t get stressed out about what to eat, or simply shove something down because we have to eat to live; we look forward to our food, and even on busy nights, we plan to eat well. When my kids don’t like something, it’s not a big deal to them; they (and we, to a certain extent — I’m getting better about this) can choose not to eat with minimal fussing, because they realize on some level that tomorrow there will be more things to eat and more things to try and probably plenty of food around that they do enjoy. The flexibility and freedom I feel about cooking frames a bigger picture of food attitudes in our house, and as I step back to view it, I can start to see those rewards. But even if you’re not a mad kitchen scientist like me, knowing that you’ve got a plan to cook tonight, and tomorrow, and the next thousand nights after, whether from recipes or from inspiration, can create that atmosphere of calm and assurance around food for your kids. So I offer you the recipe for the Pasta Poulet, in the hope that you’ll make it. And eat it. And like it.