Onions, Garlic & Mom

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Elizabeth Thompson

Elizabeth Thompson › Elizabeth Thompson is a writer and photographer. She lives in Alaska with her husband and their ...


(Above: Lizzie and her mother, Holly Gano, chef extraordinaire, circa 1971)

Oh dear. I went to dump the compost and thought, “I should really plant that plum tree.”  Well, that was satisfying except that it made me realize how badly the bed next to it needed attention… and then those limbs that I’ve been meaning to trim…

This happens every spring: the sudden onslaught of light throws off my inner clock. Just a few weeks ago it was getting dark around 4:30, time to start thinking about dinner prep. Now it stays dark until well after eight… so, there I am wrestling with the saw and the prickly branch when my phone rings. Holy guacamole! It is 5:30, my family will be home any minute and it is my night to make dinner! I have: NO PLAN!

Even from 3000 miles away my mother is a help. I hear her voice in my head. She says, “QUICK! Fry an onion in olive oil, add some garlic! Harold will walk in the door and say, ‘Mmmm, it smells great in here honey’.” Great advice and a perfect start to many a meal. As the onion is caramelizing I search my kitchen… pretty bare as we just got back from a trip on the boat. Mom says, “Don’t panic, get creative. You can always make a good meal with what you have on hand.”

Okay, okay… some oldish, but not hopeless, green beans… sheesh, think think think… kalamata olives… almonds? PASTA! Parmigiano-Reggiano (just saying it makes me feel better). Suddenly this sounds pretty good. I add some more olive oil to the onions, a bunch of garlic, and while I am slicing the kalamatas length-wise Harold and Kate get home, “Mmmm, it smells great honey!” Thanks Mama!

The beans have been soaking in cold water and have perked-up, after I braise them they don’t look so sad after all. In fact, they look quite tasty cozied up with the browned almonds. I toss them in with the onion, olives and garlic then slide them on top of the penne in a festive bowl. Sprinkle it all with a generous amount of Parmigiano Reggiano… et violá!

Darling five-year old Kate says, “Wow Mommy, this is really good!” Harold chews slowly with his eyes closed (my favorite compliment) and no one even notices that I didn’t make a salad.

What’s your favorite cooking advice you’ve ever received?