1. Always be ready to cook for one (or a few) more
I do not remember when it started, but it seemed that our home was always the place where uncles, aunties, and cousins gathered on Sundays — especially on the Sundays when my gradmother decided to go to church. These spontaneous visits were always welcomed by a mother of five wearing a blue apron, greeting her guests and dashing off to the kitchen to add more water and potatoes to her Caldo Verde.
Mum would scan the fridge looking for vegetables she could use to turn the chicken she was about to roast into a chicken stew. If there were not enough potatoes, she would add some good old toasted homemade bread, place it gently on the bottom of a tray, cover it with the stew, stick it in the oven and call it ensopado de frango.
2. Seasoning is like anything else in life, it’s not meant to be measured.
It is meant to be felt. Q.b. — quanto baste — was always the key. The tablespoons were meant to be on the table and not by the pot. Mum used a mix of a punhado of intuition and wooden spoon-tasting techniques to make sure the taste was right. The result of the equation would be confirmed at the end, with a pile of neatly clean plates previously swept with a slice of homemade bread by the sink.
Measures? Keep them for the cakes.
3. A good chef must have many secrets.
Sometimes the hocus-pocus was a little bit of Maizena in the right moment, other times the magical seasoning was caught in the food garden just below the window sill. At times, when the wine packet used to make the meat tastier was empty, mum created some sort of potion with a few drops of vinegar diluted in water, some paprika and some other unforeseen ingredients mixed carefully together in a cup and thrown in the pot when her guests were not looking.
Even today those old secret tips are only revealed to us in a case of true need. Like when one of my brothers tried to surprise his wife in Mexico, or when I tried to prove — in the middle of the Colombian Andes, hundreds of miles away from the sea — that my mum’s Caldeirada de Peixe, which she has been perfecting since she was 9-years-old, is the most delicious thing ever created.
4. A bowl of soup a day is what keeps the doctor away.
An apple may too, but it doesn’t raise you from the dead like my mum’s nutritious soups. Even on pizza nights, soup came first.
5. You’ll never be able to replicate your mother’s food.
The 15-year-old me once sat down watching my mother’s moves like a hawk, taking notes on the amount of onions, garlic, bay leafs, olive oil, potatoes and carrots needed to make a nice creamy soup. I’d make sure to take the bay leaves out before liquefying the ingredients, and to add the watercress, turnip greens, or spinach leaves after and let them boil in the cream for extra flavour.
But by the time I got the cream right, mum had moved on to adding turnips, courgettes and leeks too. To make it really challenging, she even started adding the chayote she used to grow on an apricot tree.
6. Keep the spices to a minimum and the taste to a maximum.
“Curry? I do not like to add those things,” mother would say. Her trick has always been to let tomatoes taste like tomatoes, and potatoes like potatoes. Cook it slow in the beginning and push it to the maximum towards the end when you hear the doorbell ring.
7. You don’t need to eat leftovers as you left them.
Make sure you know how to recycle them properly. If there are boiled potatoes, use them for soup. If there are vegetables and fish, stick them in a frying pan with olive oil, onion and garlic q.b. and call it into roupa velha. Roasted chicken leftovers? Shred them, add some eggs, and turn them into frango à brás. Just like in the old days, when grandma cooked a feijoada à Portuguesa and turned it into cozido à Portuguesa the following day and used the rest of the meat to make sopa de cozido.
8. You can cook from anything, the limit is your imagination
Even if you are in California and your hosts open their massive fridge filled with all sort of sauces and salad dressings and announce there is nothing to eat, you can find something. Onions, a packet of small sausages and garlic sauce, olive oil and rice can be turned into a garlic sausage risotto. There is always something to create.