The Times West Virginian

November 16, 2011

Heart and soul

By Debra Minor Wilson
Times West Virginian

FAIRVIEW — Boxed foods?

Not on Jesse Toothman’s table.

He’s all about from-scratch cooking.

It’s better for you. And, besides, it tastes a lot better, he says.

“You just take three, four ingredients and make something from it,” he said.

It’s something he learned from his mother and grandmother.

“I will not do it from a box.”

He started cooking when he was around 13.

“The No. 1 lesson I learned was to use an iron skillet. This nonstick stuff I don’t like. It wears off. I don’t trust it. This skillet is 40 years old,” he said, pointing to the largest of the three skillets resting on his kitchen table.

“They’re best for gravies and for frying. You can make pineapple upsidedown cake in them. The food just tastes better.”

His wife Rachel has an important part in his cooking process: She’s the taster and cleaner-upper.

“He does all the cooking and baking,” she said with a laugh.

Not only does he cook and bake from scratch, but he also rarely follows a written recipe.

“I make them up on my own,” he said.

He goes to the kitchen to relax and de-stress.

“Cooking, baking, it all depends on the mood I’m in. I can cook something, and I’m good to go. It’s how I get rid of stuff.”

Sometimes he’ll take an established recipe and tweak it, like the 80-year-old recipe for pecan pie from Rachel’s family.

“It just didn’t look like it would be the right consistency. It was a cup of Karo, 3/4 cup milk, a packet of vanilla pudding mix and a cup of nuts. I changed it to a cup and 3/4 Karo, a cup of milk, 2 1/2 cups nuts, the pudding and a little vanilla.

“But the next time I make it, I may do something different with it. I don’t stick with a recipe. I never did.”

Scratch cooking is also healthier, he said.

“Take a box of macaroni and cheese. The sodium content in that box is higher than making it on your own. On the other hand, salt is what makes your flavors come out. So you need balance.

“My way of thinking is if you want more salt, you can add it. But you can’t take it out.”

While he prefers garden-fresh vegetables, frozen will work in a pinch. But never, ever from a can.

His favorite meal just might be hamburger and gravy. There’s a trick to making the perfect gravy, he said.

“The secret is right there,” he said, pointing to his three iron skillets. “Gravy is based on three things: grease, flour and liquid, either water or milk. It’s got to be well-balanced.

“Too much flour and it’s gooey with lumps. Get the grease popping hot, sprinkle flour in it and brown it out. Add enough flour so the grease is all soaked up that it looks like dried mashed potatoes. Then take your spatula and pour milk into it.

“For turkey gravy, drippings are the grease. Let them cool and what’s on top it what you use.”

He has his favorite TV cooks, but he often can’t find the ingredients they use.

“Some things I can replicate with what we have.”

The show that was made with him in mind is “Chopped,” in which contestants are given often bizarre secret ingredients to cook with.

“That’s me,” he said. “ Give me any food, and I’ll make something good out of it.”

“And that’s the truth,” Rachel said.

At Christmas, he’s “crazy busy” baking up about 150 dozen cookies of various sorts to give away. He’ll start about two weeks before.

“Just as long as the dogs and I get a sample, we don’t care,” Rachel said with a laugh.

“Thanksgiving meal I do all in a day,” he said.

One of the stars of this meal will be his homemade dressing, which is flavorful enough to not need gravy.

“The key is your spices,” he said. “On this one, I used poultry seasoning, sage, onions and good creamery butter. Do not use tub butter. It’s 80 percent water.”

He doesn’t use sugar substitutes or light margarines, either.

“If you use light margarine on cookies, they will be thinner, more dried out and not as chewy. Butter is the key. Or lard.”

Like all cooks, he’s made his mistakes.

“But my theory is if you don’t do something, you cannot make a mistake. And if you say you’ve never made a mistake, you’re lying. The thing is to learn from your mistakes.”

He’s thought about opening his own restaurant and has submitted some recipes to local cookbooks.

“But for the most part, my recipes are right here,” he said, tapping his head. “I could write down a recipe, but next week I may make it differently.

“I’m not one who likes stuff that’s outlandish, that the high-faluters eat. Give me a bowl of beans and a piece of cornbread, and I’m satisfied,” he said.

“But I‚Äąguess my favorite meal is whatever I’m making at the moment. We’ve put a lot into this kitchen. It’s the heart and soul of the house.”

Email Debra Minor Wilson at dwilson@timeswv.com.