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Friday, November 30th, 2012

Cooking 101: First Family Recipes


We all have our secret pepper sauce.


Ok, maybe not. I’m half French but when it comes to food, I am probably weighing in at closer to 3/4 French. Unlike my Trinidadian friend, I don’t have a secret family pepper sauce, but I do have my family’s vinaigrette!


I’ll never forget, standing on my tippy-toes, chin resting on the white tile counter, while my mother measured out the ingredients into the deep bottom green Pyrex salad bowl, explaining to me the critical ratio of red wine vinegar to vegetable oil. Yes, our use of vegetable oil dates me to being raised during the PO or pre-olive oil era.


The vinaigrette, which in our family consists of dijon mustard, red wine vinegar, salt, oil (these days replaced by olive oil) and shallots, is the first ‘dish’ I ever prepared. Washing the salad was another kitchen task les enfants helped with. Others included setting the table, unwrapping and re-wrapping the cheese, and, when we were a little bit older, slicing the baguette.


I was recently gifted a small portion of pepper sauce—divine by the way—and it got me thinking about family recipes. Particularly what are the first dishes kids are taught in different cultures.


I loath to admit that I can’t recall which dish was my first official cooking lesson. I remember it as a quiche-making lesson but I am pretty sure the family tradition was to start kids out on something sweetish like a quatre quart (four quarters), essentially a pound cake with 1/4 flour, 1/4 butter, 4 eggs, 1/4 sugar and some lemon zest or something similar. Quiche probably came shortly after but laying out the little bacon bits or lardons in the bottom of the dish was as memorable as the debates over the pros and cons of homemade ‘pate,’ the crust that can make or break a quiche. A brow was inevitably raised, albeit discreetly, by someone over the use of frozen ready made crusts, usually directed at the piece raportée or person married into the family even though I know for a fact that the dividing crust line had mixed membership on both sides.


Over dinner with some Italian friends the other night, in an unrelated work conversation, they shared their first culinary experiences. One was making gnocchi, particularly amusing for children as you get to build the potato flour volcano. There was also some chocolate, nut frozen dessert that required no cooking, just rolling but I had drank the better part of a bottle of red when they shared this so I don’t quite recall the details. And in case you are wondering how work led to child-gnocchi making, they are designers and professors and were creating a classroom experience which was nearly shut-down for health and safety reasons. Gnocchi at your own risk!


Inspired, I put a request out to friends. From those kind enough to respond:


My Australian friend, Ley, who is actually the inspiration behind my bread baking after I saw her making foccacia in their minuscule sailing yacht kitchen shared, “My mother taught me how to make bread and butter pudding. It is basically eggs, milk, sugar, stale bread, vanilla essence and jam….depression food? I think this dessert is Australian in origin. It is yummy sprinkled with nutmeg, baked in the oven and served with cream!”


Lauren, an incredible doula I had the honor of knowing during our brief time in Singapore and who now resides in Connecticut if anyone is looking…“I first made honey joys. I must make them again, the smell of the butter and sugar melting is divine!”


Shveta, an American friend of mine whose parents are Indian said, “It was either scrambled eggs or microwaveable tea, English style.”


The most recent picture I’ve seen is her gorgeous daughter, all of two years old, helping her make eggplant chips, and now I can’t help but wonder how many of us introduce the same dishes to our kids?


My Catalonian friend Eva, whom I like to call Evita Dynamita, divulged, “I used to help my auntie doing canelones, typical in Cataluña and traditional at Saint Esteban day (after Christmas). I was rewarded by allowing me to eat the leftovers of delicious bechamel directly from the pan. This is the first dish I remember and the best!!!”


From my childhood best friend Moya, Anglo-Italian and whose mum is British: “The first thing I learned to make were chocolate corn flake crunchies and how to fry an egg properly with the yellow all nice and runny.”


From my friend Carl who is Canadian with Mauritian heritage (and yes I am still waiting on that family dal recipe you promised Carl!): “Chocolate chip cookies with healthy oats bunged in of course.”


From Karine, an old school friend who, you won’t be surprised reading is Bretonne: “Crêpes!”


My Mexican friend Denisse, who is sadly leaving Bangkok at the end of the month, recounted, “The first dish my abuela taught me was the infamous sopa de letras. How to fry the pasta, blend tomato, onion, chicken broth and garlic, pour into the fried pasta and cook in slowly until the pasta is ready but the first thing we start to be in charge at the kitchen as kids is the agua de limon that you tried on Sunday!”


My daughters, four and two, haven’t cooked something from scratch yet but they have helped out with dishes, in the same way I helped with the vinaigrette, the salad and my grandmother’s famous crepes. My girls have both helped mix the dry and wet ingredients for pancakes, shell peas, whisk yogurt into milk for the next batch of yogurt as well as knead bread dough.


I would love to hear about your family’s favorite dishes and the first recipe you learned how to cook! And a huge thanks to Ley, Lauren, Eva, Moya, Shveta, Carl, Denisse and Karine for sharing their dishes with me.


P.S. Ahem, of course my mother never bought pre-made but we kept our comments to whispers, once the lights were out and everyone was well tucked into bed, dreaming of tomorrow’s aperitif.


P.P.S. And I trust that someday, my husband, Javier, will teach our daughters his secret salsa!


© 2012, Cordelia Newlin de Rojas. All rights reserved.

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Born in New York back when subway graffiti was rife, Cordelia Newlin de Rojas mostly spends her time pondering, parenting, and writing. Franco-American, she spent her summers in the Loire indulging in heart-arresting foods. An eclectic background ranging from Japanese art and postal history to environmental social innovations and rigging dinghies has taken her to England, Turkey, Singapore and now Thailand, where she resides with her Mexican husband and their two daughters. They are attempting to raise trilingual kids in Spanish, French and English with some Thai thrown in. She can also be found blogging at

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