I pride myself on a certain amount of snobbery, but I must confess to having more than a few guilty pleasures. For the moment, allow me to indulge my snobbish side while I explain what I mean by guilty pleasure.
I believe the term guilty pleasure has suffered from a bit of the Irony Effect. Alanis Morissette screwed up a generation's understanding of the true definition of irony. I don't know who messed with guilty pleasure, but my experience indicates many people think it means "something you feel guilty about but still like to do it, so you have no intention of stopping." Like smoking or drinking. Or cheating on your diet. I define guilty pleasure the One True Right Way: "something you like that you would be ashamed to have your friends know about." Like Kid Rock. I'm hardcore.
But most of my guilty pleasures fall in the area of food. My mom has never been the most imaginative or fastidious of cooks. She honed her cooking skills over a period where meat and potatoes ruled the dinner table, and frozen and convenience foods were fabulous new ideas. So, many of our family dinners comprised a pan-fried or oven-roasted protein, Rice-a-Roni, and a small portion of frozen vegetables. I don't recall the spice rack getting a lot of action during those times. We definitely had no knowledge of fresh herbs, and a limited understanding of fresh vegetables: corn on the cob for Independence Day, occasional green beans, and potatoes (though scalloped potatoes from a box showed up frequently on our plates).
Sometime during my late teens and early twenties, probably influenced by all the varieties of fresh and delicious foods I had during a stay in France, I started to develop my own interest in cooking. Guided by Bon Appetit and early cooking shows like "The Frugal Gourmet" and Jaques Pepin's show on PBS, I gravitated toward fresh ingredients, including lots of herbs and fresh garlic, and explored the world through food. I also decided to become a vegetarian, and for years, I eschewed the hearty, nutritious, but boring, meals my mom made.
In the ensuing years, I have maintained my love of cooking, trying new flavors, and experimenting with new dishes. Unfortunately, I also got a lot busier in life, what with having a child and working a stressful full-time job. Also, I moved back in with mom and dad after my husband and I split up.
As unmemorable as most of my mom's dinners were, she had a couple "special" meals she made that really stand out in my memory. Recently, after a long stressful week, she made what I discovered I still consider the ultimate comfort food: The Joy of Cooking's version of Chicken Cacciatore, as modified by my mom. As I described previously, my mom does not like cooked onion, so she substitutes onion powder. She also uses garlic powder rather than regular garlic because in the fifties and sixties, I don't think Americans had discovered garlic yet. She doesn't drink wine, so she uses the old standby bottle of dry sherry we keep in the cupboard pretty much just for this dish. Finally, because she hates mushrooms, but my dad loves them, instead of fresh sliced mushrooms, she uses canned whole button mushrooms that she can easily avoid when plating up her serving. The sauce is made by thinning out tomato paste and the chicken juices with the sherry. The chicken is served with a side of spaghettini and green beans, and the whole thing is drizzled with the sauce and then sprinkled with parmesan.
Don't ask me why, but I love this. There's something about the blend of crappy "wine" and rubbery mushrooms that takes me straight back to a secure, comforting family dinner after a winter day. These days, I have been known to turn and flee if I see canned mushrooms in a salad bar or as an ingredient in any other recipe, but in this one dish, it's the only thing that will do. I confess that when I lived by myself, I tried to make this dish using fresh ingredients and the original recipe, but the result did nothing for me. It didn't have the tang of the vinegary sherry. It didn't have the little bursts of salty brine that come when you bite into a canned mushroom. It didn't taste like home, or like mom.
I love mom.