Becky was born 6 years and 2 months after me. I already had an older sister and a younger brother; I was desperate for an ally. My mom (and dad) accommodated my unspoken request and gave birth to one of my favourite people on the planet. From the moment she was born, I claimed Becky for my own. I would take her everywhere I went. I taught her the alphabet and how to wear make-up. She taught me how to make-believe and, today, how to cook. Or, to be fair, today she taught me how to make beef barley stew.
Of all of us Galbraith girls, Becky has embraced her
dark domestic side the most. She is creative and crafty and is always delighted to play the part of hostess. She happily embraces activities like scrap-booking or make-your-own Christmas decorations. She loves the letters D-I-Y. Everything she touches turns into beauty. This gift applies to cooking as well. She gets such great joy out of creating and dreaming up new dishes even says things like “I’m so in love with cooking.” Why don’t you marry it then, right? Plus Joy is her middle name. It was appropriate that Becky was my first teacher.
Becky’s kitchen is gleaming clean, unless she’s busy. As a family of five, that means it ain’t always spotless. Becky does her best to stay on top of it. If they’re not running around, what with church functions, a hectic social calendar (people really like them), and jiu jitsu classes for all, her kitchen is tidy, disinfected and well-organized. It’s the first room you see when you walk into her house, so you can imagine the potential for it being a catch-all, but that also makes it a priority to keep clean. It helps that she enjoys spending time in this room.
Except, “I hate the layout,”she admits. When they bought this 1970s back-split home in Etobicoke four years ago, the first thing they did was renovate the kitchen. Unfortunately, the person who designed it considered only two things: enough cupboard space to accommodate the size of their family, and appearance. As far as functionality, it sucks. Becky says, “You have to think of the ‘chef’s triangle.’” I’d never heard this term before.
“It’s best to have a triangle, a few steps, between the refrigerator, the stove, and the sink.” Her sink and fridge are steps away from each other, but the stove is WAY at the end of the kitchen, causing her to earn major points on her pedometer if she wanted to look at the bright side of things.
Otherwise, she loves the look. Her white cupboards feel “airy,” the natural, dark tones for the back splash and counters hide the dirt, and the red accents, including dishes, equipment, linens and décor pieces perk the whole place up.
Becky has a few non-essential items around for sentimental reasons, including a poorly functioning but beautiful pottery tea set purchased on her trip (with me) to Ghana in November, 2009. Also, she displays Willow Tree figurines, representing her and her three children, plus another one that represents their sponsored child. She realizes, “I really should get one for Rob,” her husband.
I see a wine glass on her window sill filled with what looks like apple juice, and a Ziploc bag over top of it. “Oh, don’t take a picture of that!” she says, “We have fruit flies!”
“Just capturing the reality of your kitchen, Becks” I reply. “What’s in it?”
“Oh, just a homemade remedy of apple cider vinegar. They should come swarming. They already are. Gross.”
Even her pesticide involves a recipe. A recipe that works.
Becky said that we would be cooking a hearty fall meal: beef barley stew, salad, good buns, and vanilla bean banana loaf for dessert.
Did the “good buns” part make you laugh? Me too– and that’s probably good since the rest of it was a little scary for me.
In fact, some of my friends were concerned about this menu of Becky’s. Kim and Lisa, in particular, gave me a pep talk ahead of time and told me that what Becky was proposing was a Martha Stewartesque meal and if–IF–it were not to turn out then I was not to give up hope. Not everyone cooks from scratch, they said. In fact Becky could be on the elite end of cooking and there is the K.D. (my) end, but there is a lot of in between, they said.
When I told this to Becky she said she hadn’t even thought about a “beginner” menu because she was given instructions to teach me a menu that gives her joy. Beef barley stew is not only one of her favourites, but one of her family’s favourites too. She had considered that it was an ambitious menu, so left out the home-made bread (“good buns”). She bought bread from the bakery instead. Whew.
I wondered, how do people choose recipe books? There are billions out there! How does one find a favourite? Becky had started with the sisters’ Looneyspoons, which she found at a garage sale. Liked the cover, I guess? She tried it out and found that every single one of the recipes worked. “They never disappoint.”
“Do you mean some recipes in recipe books don’t work?!”I asked.
“Actually, this is a common problem. Recipes often don’t work out or don’t taste good. So when you find one that works, you stick with it! Recipes from Pinterest are the worst.”
We decided that I would cook only one part of the meal, which was the toughest one, the beef barley soup. She would handle the salad, the bread, and dessert.
I have no idea if this is a copyright infringement, but here is the recipe and, I would think, good press for the sisters.
As you can see from the recipe, there were a lot of ingredients and probably nothing we currently have in our cupboard. I foresee a search in the aisles of our local grocery store in the near future with a long list in my hand and a clueless look on my face.
I insisted that Becky let me get the ingredients from her cupboard. I’m not sure why I thought this was a good idea, maybe to try and feel my way around the kitchen? We should have agreed that it was a futile exercise. Instead she, on the verge of an eye roll every time, instructed, “Bottom left. Top right. Middle drawer.” This part can go on my Observe The Teacher list next time.
Even though we did use a tin of tomato sauce, most of it was straight from the garden, tree or field… and animal. This makes it from scratch, right? When I bragged all over the place at the end of the day to J-M, and said, “We made it FROM SCRATCH,” he replied, “What, you grew the barley?” I don’t think he knows what scratch means or he’s jealous.
Becky got out well-worn tools to cook with. She said the things we used today are essential for almost all meal prep.
Sharp paring knife
Teaspoon – an actual teaspoon
Tablespoon – an actual tablespoon
Pot or pan – we used a large soup pot
I have to say, that the main difference between Becky’s kitchen and ours is that our tools are in much better shape.
I made Becky make me do all the work. There were times where it would have been easier, faster, done better, if Becky had picked up a knife and helped me chop, but no. I was there to learn.
I was insecure with the knife and felt shaky when I started, but what with all those natural ingredients to slice and dice, I got the hang of it pretty quickly.
I loved Becky’s technique (maybe you use it too) of collecting all the ingredients ahead of time. This seems to be something one learns by trial and error. It ended up coming in handy too, when that dang tin of tomato sauce was left after I thought I’d put in all the ingredients. We knew immediately that I’d missed something very important. This is a smart technique. I will remember this.
Speaking of important, I didn’t realize that on a long list of ingredients, that the order of priority is from the top down and there are some you can even leave out or substitute! Of course it makes sense. That tin of tomato sauce was right in the middle of the list and it might have been disastrous to exclude it. However, the spices at the bottom were optional. We left out the parsley because Becky hates parsley. Aha! When you cook, you get to leave out the stuff you don’t like! I am not kidding, this was a revelation to me.
Becky substituted a lot of things. She had no real explanation for doing this, or how she knew how to do this. In this way, she was no help to me. She suggested I follow recipes to as closely as I can till I get a feel for how ingredients work together.
Without going through the entire one hour of prep, which Becky said would be 20 minutes if I had all the tools, knew where everything was, and wasn’t chit-chatting the entire time, the latter being the most enjoyable part of the process. I will list the things I learned today:
- “Brown” is a verb and I did it to the stewing beef in a soup pot, adding what I would call a “swoop” of olive oil. (I’d like to introduce that word into the cooking world. If they can have “dash” and “pinch” and “dollop,” surely there’s room for “swoop.”)
- “Dice” is also a verb.
- When dicing and chopping vegetables , turn the flat side down for stability (i.e. cut the carrot down the middle first and then turn each flat side down).
- Onions make you cry when you chop them. I knew that already. But Becky says there’s stuff you can do about it, she’d rather just work through pain.
- I learned how to pronounce it (not like “margarine”), but I still don’t know where marjoram comes from.
- You can “simmer” stew for hours on low heat, acts like a crock pot.
- Measurements in cooking don’t need to be exact (right now, this is a head knowledge, not a heart knowledge).
- A few leaves of lettuce, some tomato and apple slices a salad make! But Becky insists adding sunflower seeds would have made it delectable and photogenic.
I also learned a lot more about my sis.
“I started cooking at 20, when I first got married,” she said, “But I didn’t get into it until Lucy was born. It became more enjoyable to cook family meals.”
She fondly remembers baking with Mom when she was little. If I didn’t love her so much, I’d be jealous. This is an experience I didn’t have. Becky was, of course, the youngest of the four of us and while the three older ones were at school, Mom and Becky had the time to enjoy this activity. It has stuck with her as a wonderful memory and something she’d like to pass on to her kids. “Not only the activity of cooking,” Becky said, “But the dishes themselves. I want them to remember when we ate this hearty BEEF BARLEY STEW as a family.”
I said, “Your kids are ruined for the ordinary eh? They may never enjoy processed food or even to eat at someone else’s house! They have no idea how good they’ve got it!”
“That’s not the way they see it at all,” Becky said. “They see what’s in the other kids lunches at school and wish they could have those snacks or processed food for themselves.”
“What do you snack on?” I asked Becky, thinking of our own cupboards full of store-bought cookies, Passion Flakies, chips and popcorn… Rob & Becky call J-M and I professional snackers. I just clued in today that they never meant that as a compliment.
“Well, cheese, fruit and any baked goods I’ve made. If I’m desperate, chocolate chips.”
No one ever taught Becky how to cook. Not even one meal. “But I love to watch Chef Ramsay’s show!”
Over time, Becky has become better and better at it with practice combined with her desire to learn.
“The way I see it,” Becky pontificated (my pen poised), “Anyone can do anything based on starting from somewhere.”
“I’ll be quoting you, you know.”
Overall, there was a flurry of activity in the beginning, all that gathering of ingredients, chopping, dicing, browning, and stirring. Then there was an hour-long pause while the element on the stove did its job heating the ingredients in order to tenderize, soften, blend. (What a powerful instrument a stove element is!) While I took a break, mostly for the sake of my brain, Becky made the salad, and baked a cake, just like that.
When the timer went off, I’d almost forgotten that we’d done all that work. Becky says this is an excellent dish to prepare earlier in the day and then “forget about.”
I lifted the lid and it smelled dee-lish. We set the table, party for two. Becky’s salad and toast accompanied my stew. We even used proper cloth napkins.
We sampled the soup. Success! Just like Becky makes! We ate our meal with pure pleasure, toasting our accomplishment.
Becky talked over lunch about the satisfaction of cooking a healthy meal. This summer she’d planted a small garden in her backyard. She loves to put her own ingredients into her dishes, which is, apparently, extremely rewarding. I had also grown a small garden this year and said I was at a loss as to what to do with the cherry tomatoes, basil, cucumbers… She quickly recited this easy recipe:
Put a cherry tomato, mozzarella cheese, and a basil leaf on a toothpick, dip in oil and balsamic vinegar, and VOILA! a yummy appetizer.
For some crazy reason, maybe because I understood the recipe in its entirety, maybe because I thought I’d even like to try it, I cried. Yes, tears snuck out of my ducts. I’ll interpret this spontaneous reaction at some point, I’m sure.
My dear Becky, sis, you have inspired me, truly convinced me I can do “anything based on starting from somewhere.” I can’t thank you enough for being the somewhere, the Perfect Start.