I've hesitated to share this next tip... but every time I use it myself I think about how I really need to share this tip! My hesitation comes purely from an inferiority complex when it comes to my cooking. I would expect that many readers cook much better and probably already know any tip I could possibly offer. But this is for the young wives and those who have never felt confident in experimenting.
As a child I was never all that interested in cooking and learning how Momma made this or Grandma made that. Which probably comes from the fact that I never ate anything my Grandma made that I loved. What can I say? We weren't a family that was close with relatives - emotionally OR vicinity wise. I was too young to remember anything I ate from one set of Grandparents on the other side of the country and just wasn't a fan of the green beans & ham or Waldorf salad or Copper Penny salad that was the standard fare when we visited the only local Grandparent on a rare occasion or at family reunions.
Indeed my Mother was a good cook. But her special kind of talent is not easily replicated. Her forte' was taking empty cupboards and making nothing into a meal for five hungry kids. Some nights, dinner was a shared bowl of popcorn. But it was the best popcorn you have ever had in your life. She was the Queen of Casserole. The Matriarch of Mushroom soup. The Dame of Dumplings. The Reigning Champion of Rice. The Czar of S.O.S. I myself was the only one in the house who would often rather go hungry than partake of Shit On a Shingle. I preferred the sausage gravy version over the creamed chipped ham one. At least I could pick out pieces of sausage in that one.
I once asked my Mom...'Mom, how do you make your meatloaf? It seems I remember you used Oatmeal. I love your Meatloaf." Mom's answer: 'Well, yeah I guess I did use Oatmeal sometimes. But I've used crackers and I've used rice. Not sure which you want." To me, it was the same delicious, moist, flavorful meatloaf every time. And every time I ask this sort of question, I get the same sort of answer. Makes it very hard to emulate Moms cooking.
Add that to the fact that I moved away from home for a short while when I was 16, and then moved out-of-state and got married when I was 17. At that point I was pretty much on my own in the kitchen. Seventeen years old and had never been responsible for anything more complicated than fish sticks and spaghetti O's when my younger siblings needed fed, -oh how I love and miss Fish Sticks and Spaghetti O's- and now having to feed a hungry... a VERY hungry, military man. And Ramen Noodle wasn't gonna cut it anymore. So everything I know or think I know is purely of my own trial and error.
Lots of error.
My tip is so simple and yet I'm pretty sure there is some fancy name and technique for it in French cooking. I can't tell you how many times I have been watching Chopped on TV and see the chefs talking about making some 'Gastrique' or 'Roux' ... that sounds impossibly complicated in name alone. But as I watch and listen to the explanation... hey, I do that! Albeit in my amateur way.
My husband is a meat and potato kind of guy. It isn't a meal if it doesn't at least include these two things at minimum. Thankfully for me, he spent enough time in the Military to actually enjoy Instant Potatoes. But my guilt of serving Instant Potatoes so often has forced me to learn to make gravy. Just a simple gravy from pan drippings and corn starch and sometimes some added seasonings to boost flavor. Buuaatt.... we often eat late. And it's not always prudent to with hold serving dinner to my family so I can remove everything from the pan and THEN make gravy... stir, thicken, stir, stir, stir. So one night while making dinner I got... creative... experimental... lazy.
When you've worked hard at the job, on the house, with the kids, or all of the above... keep it simple but still tasty. All you have to do when there is no time or energy for home-made gravy is simply add a touch of water to the pan. Yep. Just water. Water and all those tasty tidbits and that choice coating on the bottom of the pan after you remove the meat. I can't help but think...Man, that sounds gross! Sometimes it looks gross. Sometimes it looks like black juice. But I PROMISE you, it tastes delicious and makes a plain pile of mashed potatoes instantly sophisticated. So long as the meat that was in the pan wasn't straight up burnt... this works great. All this is, is just home-made gravy minus the corn starch or flour. Just add the bit of water, no more than a quarter of a cup and usually way less, to the hot pan. It really all depends on how many piles of potatoes you have to cover and how much meat juice is still left in the pan, a lot or none, add water accordingly. And remember that it's always easier to add more than take out. So just add a bit at a time. Stir the cooked on coating right off the bottom of the pan and into a Roux wanna-be sauce that will not only please taste buds but also has the added bonus of making your pan easier to clean!