Four Food Lessons From My Mum

Mum doesn’t believe in social media (though for someone who doesn’t believe in it, she is very quick to ask “Elisa, show me what such-and-such is up to on Facebook”). Therefore, this Mother’s Day, whilst friends were all over social media singing praises to their mums, grandmas and others significant women in their lives, I was in the kitchen showing Mum how much I love her by whipping up her favourite breaky. It’s one of my favourite ways of showing her how much I love her, partly because it’s not something people do for her often, partly because she is responsible for so much of my love of food, and partly because I get to share in eating the meal with her (and she always lets me have the last bit). Almost every day of the year she has homemade muesli; she is partial to a sweet breakfast over a savoury. She loves her fruit and she loves creamy cheese, so I invented Blueberry and Ricotta Hotcakes with Vanilla Marscapone to celebrate another year of her feeding my stomach at every opportunity she gets, giving me advice (whether I ask for it or not), and proving to me that yes, I may be and adult, but I still need my mum. Whilst whipping up the hotcakes, I reflected on how much my relationship with food has been shaped by her, and I am so grateful that she’s passed along some invaluable life lessons. Here are four of them:

1. No leaving the house before breakfast

Mum didn’t have too many rules or regulations as we grew up. If we didn’t want dinner, fine- nothing until morning (high five on not giving in to fussy eating Mum!).  But leave the house without a (nutritious) breakfast- don’t even think about it, kiddos. I know, I know, you’ve probably been nagged many times that “breakfast is the most important meal of the day”, but why is that? We’ll never get to lesson two if I name every reason, so let’s go with the top three: 1. A lowered incidence of many diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease, has been found in people who eat breakfast every day. 2. Time after time it is shown people who eat breakfast are more likely to be a healthy weight. 3. Breakfast makes you smart. Eating breakfast is likely to improve memory and cognitive function. Lately, these results have been put under the spotlight, with the question posed, is it just that people who eat breakfast are "healthy" for other reasons- they may be more likely to exercise, or be wealthier, for example. Maybe breakfast isn’t the holy grail to good health, after all, science is coming out with some valid reasons for skipping breakfast and fasting. And is a bowl of Coco Pops really better than nothing? So my advice- do what works for you. If you’re eating breakfast every day but it’s lashings of butter and Vegemite on white toast and you’re not in as good shape as you’d like to be- breakfast alone isn’t going to save you, and may not be doing you many favours. If you skip breakfast daily but can still manage a healthy, balanced diet and are avoiding lifestyle related disease- high five to that! If you skip breakfast, can’t bear the thought of it, but know that it’s doing you more harm than good, start small. A Milo at 10am is going to be better than a muffin at 11am. And at least you’ll avoid the dilemma Mum has created in me: the inability to “brunch”. Because, to brunch means leaving the house without breakfast, which makes me too cranky to bear. A small price to pay, for the excitement that comes with getting out of bed to get stuck into muesli.

2. It’s actually pretty hard to stuff up a recipe

I think it’s genetic that, when following recipes, it’s really “a bit of this, a bit of that”. I don’t think my grandmother has ever consulted a recipe book and Mum is known for her creativity in the kitchen. Whilst I don’t think zucchini or squash have ever been considered traditional ingredients in an Asian stirfry, if they’re in the fridge they’ll end up in Mum’s version. Don’t have a clue what sauce to put with it? Add whatever is in the fridge and taste until satisfied. My theory is that a recipe is just one version of how a dish worked out well. And there are many versions. Make your own. It may be a bit dry, or a bit bland, but then next time you will add some more liquid or fats, or some more herbs or spices, and you will have created something delicious and new that maybe no one else has made before. Isn’t that pretty cool? That said, for those with limited cooking experience, this can be pretty daunting. My advice would be to choose a recipe for a dish you’d like to become more confident with, then alter it in one small way. There are two ways I like to think of how I can alter recipes- flavour preference, or nutritional quality. With flavour, it can be adding more, less or additional herbs or spices. I love garlic so will add a teaspoon into my zucchini slice and take it to a whole new level, and like to go quite crazy with vanilla or cinnamon in muffins so that you can ACTUALLY taste it. In regards to nutritional quality, I like to consider if it ticks each box: vegetables, carbohydrates (pasta, rice, bread, grains) and protein (animal, legumes or soy)- and if it doesn’t- add it! For example, my go-to eggs and cheese pasta now contains a whack of frozen peas, whilst a few boiled eggs in the tomato pasta bake completes it. Go on, go a little crazy and add a sprinkle of this or a handful of that!

3. A MasterChef pantry will always save the day and the bank balance

One would be forgiven for thinking there’s a small army living in Mum’s attic who rely on her daily for a good feed. There are currently approximately 14 packets of pasta, 5 varieties of rice and 39 different herbs and spices in the pantry. Not to mention a slab of canned beans and another of tinned fruit in the store room. Despite being slightly excessive, there is method to the madness. Firstly, with such long shelf lives, it makes sense to stock up on these when on sale and keep the extra dollars for a rainy day. The supermarkets are soooo good at putting chips and soft drinks on sale at the front of the aisles and trick us into buying foods we didn’t really plan of buying because it’s a “bargain”. They’re less good at putting staples on sale- the foods we kind of need to buy if we want to eat healthy. So when they do- make the most of it. Secondly, if the pantry is bare and it’s past dinnertime and you’re hungry and reallyyyyyy need to get food into you in the next 20 minutes, you have two options. 1. Drive to the pizza shop and spend $15 on something that cost $5 for them to make, or 2. Boil some pasta, add a tin of tuna and some frozen veg, and have a meal that cost a quarter of the price and won’t leave you feeling slightly queasy by bedtime. The point being, if you have the food there, it makes it much easier to overcome many barriers that stop us from eating healthily and cheaply. 

4. One day you’ll thank them

When I was in primary school and “everyone else’s parents” let them have McDonalds once a week and bought Fruit Loops and let them drink soft drinks with dinner I was not thankful at all for my home cooked meals served with a glass of water (though in retrospect I’m sure “everyone else’s parents” were just the one or two kids that bragged constantly about getting these treats). But today, my teeth are filling-free, I’m addicted to water and muesli, and would much rather go a homemade burger than a takeaway one (saving my pennies and my waistline). So Mum: thank you. Thank you for giving me your love of fruit and water, for teaching me that there are so many meals out there nicer than McDonalds, and for sharing your chocolate stash with me. I’m so glad children’s food habits are a product of their environment and you gave me a positive one to grow in. I won’t thank you for making me think that for 23 years of my life I didn’t like Nutella or Pavlova because you don’t like it, but I’ll let those to slip. Happy Mother’s Day! 

Take me to Blueberry and Ricotta Hotcakes with Vanilla Marscapone