Not Lady Gaga. My paternal grandmother. Long before I made my entrance into this world, an older cousin of mine struggled with saying “grandmother” when she was first learning to talk. The best she could manage was “Gaga” — and Gaga she remained for all generations to come until she died at 98.
I’m taking this little trip down memory lane because of a pot. No, not the kind you smoke or ingest.
My grandmother was a fabulous cook. All the women on both sides of my family were, but she was kind of unique because she eschewed any and all modern conveniences. As far as she was concerned, good cooking required an investment of time — no shortcuts, in other words. No additives, either.
Even when I was in my teens I remember one of her sisters churning ice cream on the back porch. I can still taste the peach. And I don’t think there was ever a time when every available surface in their house wasn’t covered with white dish towels upon which there was pasta of every shape and size drying — all cut by hand, let me assure you — even after pasta makers were available.
We had many a scrumptious meal chez Gaga, but what remains forever imprinted on my mind — and my taste buds — is her roast chicken. It remains, to this day, the best chicken I have ever had. No matter how hard I’ve tried to replicate it, no matter how hard my mother tried, we never came close — even when Gaga bought the chickens for us. I’m still trying, but still to no avail.
Of course, Gaga used schmaltz (rendered chicken fat). As a rule, my mother didn’t (it doesn’t do your arteries any favours), but on the odd occasion when she did — in an attempt to finally get the nod of approval from me and my dad — the result was still not as good as Gaga’s. I’ve never cooked with schmaltz, but I have tried butter. I know, arteries don’t love butter either. What would life be, without irrational thinking?
Gaga also had a gas stove, which is the best, although induction ovens are currying favour with foodies nowadays. But there’s more to her legendary fowl than that, I think.
Gaga also cooked her chicken low and slow in an enameled cast iron pot. A Le Creuset dutch oven to be precise. She had every available size and shape of them. Hers were an orange-red, now called “Flame.” In those days, that was the only colour they came in. These days they come in just about every colour you could want (and some you wouldn’t), with new ones coming out each year — like Pantone shades. Le Creuset pots were always pricey, but Gaga would turn over in her grave if she knew what they cost now.
It’s not that my mother and I didn’t have Le Creuset pots of our own. When my parents got married Gaga gifted my mother with several. She did the same for me when I moved into my first apartment. She was also always sending us “care packages” of food. Jewish grandmothers always cook enough to feed an army and she would routinely call my father at the office on Fridays and ask him to stop at her place on his way home. And she’d always tell us to keep the pots, which were always Le Creuset. Her way of adding to our collections.
Stupidly, we didn’t use them. Well, that’s not entirely true. We both used them occasionally, but they weigh a ton and mostly they were relegated to the back of the cupboard. When my parents sold their home and moved to an apartment, my mother gave the pots away. I can’t remember to whom. And I did the same during one of my several moves.
Am I ever sorry now!
Over the years I’ve tried a couple of the cheaper imitations. They worked fine, but I did have some issues with them chipping. So my kitchen, which is pretty well equipped, has been without a dutch oven for quite a long time. Can’t honestly say I’ve missed it but lately, I’ve been craving food that requires slow, even cooking in the oven.
Yep, I bought one. A Le Creuset. And this past weekend I tried it out.
Nope, I did not try Gaga’s chicken. I cooked smothered pork chops. They were “dee–licious” and well worth the investment in time. The prep alone took an hour, between the mise en place and all the stirring and browning and slow adding of ingredients — before putting the pot in the oven for the hour and a half of cooking.
While it’s true that my slow cooker does an excellent job of cooking food over a very long period of time, at a low heat, it doesn’t stir the flour for almost 10 minutes to make sure it’s properly browned first (which does make a huge difference in the finished product) — although it does get full marks for doing all the hours of cooking while I’m doing something else, usually out of the house or overnight. You cannot leave any of the enameled cast iron pots alone.
This may be a phase I’m going through, but I’m already planning which Le Creuset pots I want to buy next. But the jury is still out on whether or not I really want to know where, in Toronto, one can get schmaltz. I’ll let you know …