Hanging out in the kitchen is plain fun

Mom's needed a little extra TLC lately, so I've been cooking like crazy.

Obviously, it's what I do. And trust me, it's as much a comfort for me as I hope it is for the person on the receiving end. So at a time when Margaret's heart just isn't into producing a healthy, soul-satisfying meal, I've got her back.

Last Tuesday, for instance, I'd picked up one of Mom's favorite vegetables, zucchini. While a handful of chopped onions and garlic caramelized in a puddle of sizzling olive oil, I sliced the tender squash into thin rounds and set them aside, along with a chunk of roasted chicken.

Once the skillet contents sported a golden blush, I splashed in a bit of Marsala, chicken broth and balsamic vinegar, then goosed the temperature upward to thicken the sauce while I heated some water for pasta. After a handful of rotini was dropped into the simmering water, I added some diced tomatoes to the skillet, along with the zucchini and chicken, plopped on the lid and let the simple, little sauce collect itself while I hunted down glasses of wine for me and my peanut gallery.

My peanut gallery. It's become a familiar phrase here in my parents' kitchen. But I'll get back to that. First, at a time of year when we celebrate family, a word of thanks must be issued for all that Mom and Dad have given over the years — most especially their willingness to share their later years with Steve and me here in Corvallis.

They made the move from the San Francisco Bay Area back in 2002, when Mom was 78 and Dad was approaching 80. There had been much lobbying on my part for the six years leading up to this monumental shift in the balance of family. If they jumped, it would be four of us "up here," and all the rest "down there" (and all over the country).

I knew what I was asking: such a huge leap of faith on their part to leave their Burlingame home of 54 years, the house my brother and I grew up in — the epicenter of so much joy — where grandchildren and other precious relatives visited and dear friends gathered around our dinner table.

Margaret and Will Roberts always have loved entertaining. And it came easily. As did friends and family, all welcome, even the unexpected walk-ins. At the very least, a cup of tea and platter of cookies would be thrust into your hands.

But just as likely, given barely 30 minutes notice, Mom could wrangle a full-blown meal from the refrigerator and pantry. Of course, once her children possessed driver's licenses, it just as likely could be our assignment to retrieve boxes of handmade ravioli from our favorite Italian deli, something my Uncle Ron actually banked on.

Indeed, it was a family-rich environment. And they all expected to be together for holiday meals. I remember those meals with such fondness, as much for the lively conversation as the delicious food.

Even though we were an eclectic bunch, opinions regarding politics, religion and any ongoing social upheaval did not need to be checked at the door. Of course, when things heated up, there often would be a friendly reprimand from the hostess before she headed into the kitchen to check on dessert, with a "Janet, could you put the coffee on?" thrown over her shoulder.

Mom has always known that ramming around a kitchen with people you love is the great equalizer. On visits home from college, she'd herd us into it, knowing, I'm sure, that standing over simmering pots of soup or crab would extract the deepest thoughts from our guarded souls. That and the simple fact that hanging out in the kitchen has always been just plain fun.

Once my parents were reestablished in their beautiful, new Corvallis home, all family and friends from beyond have flowed through their door, as I knew they would. And what wonderful times we've seen, thanks to what I call the Margaret & Will Magnet.

Late-autumn visitors know to pack multiple layers of fleece to survive the invigorating picnics at the Buchanan Family Century Farm and Tyee Winery, where hearty attitudes are rewarded with a big pot of my beer-cheese soup and a breathtaking view of the vineyard and hazelnut orchards.

Summer visitors are treated to picnics in the Coast Range at Fort Hoskins, where the history is palpable in the gentle wind that blows through Kings Valley, salmon barbecues and more wine touring and picnics at our other winery haunts, dog-friendly Airlie, people-friendly Lumos and friendly-friendly Harris Bridge.

The Roberts kitchen is open and lovely, so naturally, at a point when I was taping cooking segments for a Portland television program, we filmed in it. As host Mike Darcy and I, along with his producer and cameraman carried on, Mom and Dad would plant themselves off-camera on the couch, my encouraging peanut gallery.

As I said, it was a leap of faith for them to leave behind everything: childhood friends, strong adult friendships, Stanford football and a familiar way of life. But the years that followed have been rich, and I know how blessed that makes me. Too many daughters and sons don't get the opportunity to enjoy their parents at this stage. It's been a glorious run.

Certainly, families are not perfect. Plus, we expect more from them than we do of our neighbors and friends. They come with challenges and frustrations to be sure, but also with unconditional love and lessons galore. And it's always this time of year when I ache the most for one more family dinner surrounded by my loud, lively and oh-so-loving relatives now gone.

Impossible, yes. But at the very least I can give thanks: to those who remain, for the love and nurturing that enveloped me during my life and for the desire to pay it forward. Hence, the simple little dinner of chicken and zucchini that's really not so simple after all.

Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, artist and author of "Oregon Hazelnut Country, the Food, the Drink, the Spirit" and four other cookbooks. Readers can contact her by email at janrd@proaxis.com or obtain additional recipes and food tips on her blog at www.janrd.com.

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