My Father’s Workbench

Pasta on Workbench

Penne with Mascarpone and Toasted Walnuts

When my sister came up recently to help me begin the process of clearing out our parent’s retirement cottage after we moved them to assisted living, we powered through three days together, pausing only occasionally to have a bite to eat or a short visit with our parents. The task at hand was to sort through their papers, cull the boxes of photographs into a manageable amount to be digitized and to select a few items as keepsakes for either ourselves or my sister’s children. The rest would be managed by a professional.

I was so grateful to have my sister by my side as we went through the process of revisiting so many family memories. It was the first time she and I had spent time together without marital or other family appendages in a very long time. With only seventeen months separating us, we grew up sharing the same bedroom. In fact, before my younger sister was born seven years later, we adamantly declined when our parents asked if we would like separate bedrooms. To us, being able to talk and giggle together after the lights were turned out at night was a benefit we were not disposed to relinquish. Working across from one another as we shuffled through old family photos was like having the room to ourselves with the lights turned off again. It reminded both of us of what we once meant to one another.

My sister and I worked well together going through old photos and playing detective with vintage photos of relatives we had never known. We also worked well when it came time to surveying my parent’s belongings for items we wanted to keep. She selected some artwork and a few pieces of furniture for my nephew and his wife and we divvied up the few remaining pieces of jewelry my mother had not already given away, and that was about it. It was utterly without strife—we had, of late, exhumed all the buried resentments and there was nothing left in the graveyard to unearth.

There are few possessions in a person’s life that truly embody their spirit. Of course, what I consider important is not necessarily what someone else would find meaningful. Most of the time, they are of little monetary value. Some years ago, my mother gave me the string of opera-length pearls my father had given her one Christmas when I was a child. I still remember the look on her face and the tears that followed when she opened the box. Years later, whenever my mother asked me what jewelry of hers I would like I always answered, “Just the pearls.” I borrowed them to wear on my wedding day.

Apart from her necklace, though, what I truly treasure is my mother’s recipe boxes. I’ve written about them before, but to me, they are more valuable than any piece of jewelry she owned. I can trace the arc of her life, and sometimes even her moods whenever I dip into them. Her mother, her sister, her (dreaded) mother-in-law and many of her friends and neighbors are all represented in those boxes bearing witness to her life. Those recipe boxes are where I find my mother. Like her, they were in a state of disarray but over time I have managed to put them in order, coming to understand my mother in the process.

As for my dad, I have a watch that was given to him as a college graduation present in 1950. It’s a vintage Rolex (not worth very much I hasten to add) that I wear nearly every day. It’s an old fashioned wind-up watch with a leather band I chose myself. I’ve had it restored at a cost that was nearly as much as the watch is worth. My father’s initials are engraved on the back. It is very dear to me.

But what is dearer still, has very little value. It’s my father’s workbench.

My father’s workbench is something that he has carried with him all his life. It was given to him by his father for Christmas when he was just a boy. He says it came as a kit (which I believe because I have recently seen an identical vintage workbench used as a potting bench in a gardening magazine). What is so touching about the gift is that it came from a father who had so little aptitude or inclination for handyman work, that even changing the lightbulbs fell to his wife. Yet he saw that his son had different interests and so he bought him a good workbench so that he could tinker and build shortwave radios.

My dad had a great regard and love for his father who did most of the parenting in their family. When my father was sick, it was my grandfather who took him to the doctor. And it was my grandfather who rescued him one day from the train tracks where he was playing just minutes before a train came barreling down the tracks.

My grandmother was an emotionally distant mother; a privileged only child who married my grandfather—a man with an eighth-grade education from modest means—when she was a spinsterly thirtysomething. My father was born when she was thirty-five and his sister was born two years later. My grandparents shared the same room, but slept in twin beds.

The story of my grandparent’s marriage in an upper middle class enclave of Cleveland will always be confounding to me. It is the stuff of a Dawn Powell Ohio novel, shrouded in mystery and forever unknowable. My father doesn’t even know the story of how they met.

None of us escapes childhood without a few scars. Maybe my father tinkering away at his workbench in the basement provided a kind of refuge from the ice storm upstairs. Or maybe he was just a curious boy who wanted to know how things worked. Whatever the reason, the workbench his father gave him remained a constant in his life. When I picture my father as he was when I was a child, I see him standing at his workbench with all his tools carefully arranged on a pegboard behind it the way Paul Child hung Julia’s batterie de cuisine in her Cambridge kitchen that now resides in the Smithsonian.

Some seventy-five years later the workbench is still standing, bearing all the nicks and paint splatters of decades worth of home maintenance projects and electrical engineering experiments. Like my mother’s recipe boxes, the workbench tells the story of my father’s life.

As we began to dismantle my parent’s cottage in the retirement community where they have lived the past six years finding a good home for the workbench became my cause. There is an invisible string which goes directly from my heart to that workbench, which is the embodiment of my father. I used to stand next to him as he stood at the workbench explaining to me how to fix things. When I moved to my first apartment, he bought me a toolbox and filled it with some of the tools from his own collection. Some of them came from his boyhood.

I have always said that someday I wanted to take possession of his workbench when he no longer needed or wanted it, just as I used to ask for my mother’s pearls. Now, though, I find I have no place for it in my home. Or at least, I see it as something I will have to decommission sooner rather than later as my husband and I contemplate a move back to an urban center once my parents are gone. Letting it go after my dad is gone, or no longer remembers my name will be that much harder.

On a whim, I sent an email inquiry to my husband’s nephew and asked if by chance he might like to have it as he seemed the kind of person for whom a good workbench that has seen a thing or two in its long life would mean something. When he wrote back less than an hour later that he would be honored to take it, I burst into tears. Our nephew grew up without a father and to jump from one branch of the family tree to another to give him what was once the gift from a father to a son seemed especially meaningful. (He also has sons of his own who may also one day like a good workbench.) When I told my father, he was very pleased.

But finding a new home for my father’s workbench is not the end of the story. At the suggestion of a friend, I had a professional photographer take some photos so that I would always have my father’s workbench with me wherever I go. The results are spectacular; he managed to capture every inch of character embedded in the bench. (The photos I have included in this post are my own, not the photographer’s.)

Workbench photoshoot

Now what, you might be asking, does this have to do with a story about a recipe? Dear Reader, I have only the thinnest of threads to pull on to unravel a culinary connection. In fact, it is more alimentary than culinary. But there is this: When we were children we used to go down to the basement at Christmas and crack nuts in the vice that is attached at one end of my father’s workbench. That vice made short work of cracking nuts—we probably cracked more than we ate just for the fun of it. I’m sure it was my father’s idea. As an inventor and engineer, he had a way of solving many nuts that otherwise seemed too tough to crack.

Vice

And so, before I send the workbench off to begin a new tour of duty with our nephew, I decided to take one last turn at the vice and crack a few nuts to use in one of my favorite weeknight pasta dishes that was inspired from a recipe in At Elizabeth David’s Table, a cookbook I reviewed some years ago. Penne with Mascarpone is quick, delicious and something that is almost a pantry meal if you remember to always stock a tub of Mascarpone cheese in your fridge. It is finished with toasted walnuts. My ode to my father’s workbench.

 

Penne with Mascarpone and Toasted Walnuts

Serves 2

6oz. penne pasta

1/4 Cup toasted walnut pieces

1 clove garlic, minced

2 tsp. butter

1/3 Cup mascarpone cheese

2 tablespoons grated Parmesan

lemon zest from half a lemon

freshly ground pepper

Directions

Cook penne in boiling salted water according to directions (about 10-12 minutes).  Drain.  Meanwhile, toast walnuts in skillet over medium heat.

When penne is nearly done, melt butter in sauté pan, add garlic and cook over low heat until fragrant.  Add mascarpone and melt until heated, but do not boil.  Add drained pasta, and Parmesan and toss until heated through.  Add lemon zest from half a lemon and freshly ground pepper.

Serve in bowls and sprinkle with toasted walnuts.  Pass Parmesan if more is desired.

Note:  This is a quick go-to meal after a busy day.  Mascarpone unopened keeps a couple of months in the fridge so is a good pantry item to have on hand.

You can also make this an all-in-one meal by adding some braised Swiss chard to the pasta instead of serving a side salad.

Pasta with Swiss Chard

Braising Swiss chard:  Wash Swiss chard in plenty of water and spin dry.  Roughly chop (your choice to include stems or not—I prefer just the leaves for this dish).  Heat large pot over medium heat with 1-2 tsp olive oil.  Add Swiss chard when oil is hot.  Toss frequently with cooking tongs to wilt and then cover for a few minutes until tender. Add to penne and mascarpone mixture and toss gently before serving.

Printable Version Penne with Mascarpone

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chocolate Sauce is a Group Project

Dame Blanche
Dame Blanche

One of the benefits of reviewing cookbooks is that it stretches my cooking horizons, often taking me into new territory that I probably wouldn’t have explored on my own. Recently, for instance, I made a dish called Cod Fillets with Cacao Nib Crust from Pierre Marcolini’s wonderful new book, Chocolat: From the Cocoa Bean to the Chocolate Bar. Before I reviewed this book I never even knew there was such a thing as cacao nibs, let alone where to get them and how to use them in cooking. You can read about this dish in my review—it was an overwhelming success and it will make its way into my permanent repertoire (as long as I can keep a steady supply of good cacao nibs going).

But what really struck me as I was working with the book was the way that it unspooled so many chocolate memories from my time living in Brussels. I suppose it is why I agreed to review the book in the first place. When I lived in Brussels, Pierre Marcolini was my favorite chocolatier. And like many new discoveries/experiences I have enjoyed during the last fourteen years, I have my husband to thank for it.

Before we moved to Brussels from New York in 2005, my standard for what was considered good chocolate came down to Teuscher’s Champagne truffles after I was introduced to them by a co-worker and friend from London. That was in the late 1980s and my forays into the world of chocolate didn’t go much beyond that point. (Funny how some experiences get stuck in time for such a long while.)

Then, in 2004, my husband started flying back and forth to Brussels on business. He has a kind of internal GPS that helps him navigate the world of sweets, most especially ice cream and chocolate. He always manages to find the best places to go no matter where he is. So when after his first or second trip he came home and presented me with an elegant box of Pierre Marcolini assorted chocolates, they were a revelation to me. In fact, they were so good and so sophisticated with their subtle herbs and spices and varying percentages of cacao content, that when he forgot to bring some home after one of his many trips, he substituted a box of chocolates from a satellite store of the French chocolate maker, Maison du Chocolat, located in Rockefeller Center where he worked. I took one bite, looked at him and declared, “Don’t ever bother buying these again. If you’re not bringing home Pierre Marcolini chocolates, don’t bring home any chocolate at all.”

I have no idea how Belgians became known for their chocolate. Given that they import their cacao beans just like any other country where you will find chocolate makers, it has to be their particular technique. I’m guessing it has a lot to do with the machines that grind the beans into cacao paste. The finer the grind, the smoother the chocolate.

In any case, Belgians are absolutely mad for chocolate. Before Nestle’s bought them, Côte d’Or, was a national Belgian brand that was carried in all the supermarkets. In Belgium, the chocolate aisle is a wonder to behold with Côte d’Or still being the most prominent brand (even if it is no longer strictly Belgian). After experimenting with a few different varieties I eventually settled on Côte d’Or Noir de Noir as my preferred bar. Just like the locals, I’d buy one or two bars every week and eat an ounce or two every night after dinner. There was no mystery to unravel in that local custom.

But what I was curious about was the chocolate sauce that was served in a little pitcher next to the bowl of vanilla ice cream topped with whipped cream whenever we ordered a Dame Blanche in a restaurant. Belgians must consume more Dames Blanches than any other nationality. I’d seen Dame Blanche on menus in France before, but in Belgium they are ubiquitous. And far, far, better than an American chocolate sundae. Of course, it’s all about the chocolate.

In Belgium, they use dark chocolate and the consistency of the sauce is just a few shades thicker than hot chocolate. In other words, it pours more like heavy cream than honey. (And I appreciate the way it is always served on the side, acknowledging that some people like more chocolate sauce than others.) And the whipped cream on top of the ice cream? Well, it’s what you call gilding the lily, I know, but the cream serves to soften the collision of the warm sauce on cold ice cream. I wouldn’t do without it.

Being a novice chocolate consumer and used to—dare I say—the bottled or canned American chocolate sauce from my childhood put out by Hershey’s or Smucker’s, I wasn’t sure how to make chocolate sauce the Belgian way. It took an afternoon discussing sauce au chocolat with a group of Belgian women to set me on the right course.

When you think about it, cooking is always a collaborative endeavor. From old family recipes to those you find online or in a favorite cookbook, you are never alone in the kitchen (to borrow from Julia Child). Recipes are meant to be shared and each of us has something to contribute to a dish. And we certainly all have opinions.

Which brings me back to the chocolate sauce. When my husband and I moved to Brussels I had spent the previous twenty-four years working and living in New York. Suddenly I found myself untethered in a foreign country playing the role of a trialing spouse with no job, no children and no social network to anchor my days.

It didn’t take long before I found a conversation group to join. The Group (Le Groupe) was made up of roughly half Belgians and half Anglophones (mostly Brits whose spouses worked at the European Commission). We met once per week at a member’s home and spent one hour speaking French and another speaking English, taking turns helping each other perfect her foreign language. My husband called us The Ladies who Talk.

The Belgian women were the anchors of The Group. They had been meeting continuously for over thirty years by the time I joined them and had seen a lot of Anglophones come and go over that period. What struck me, of course, was the long arc of their friendship. They had seen each other through children, the death of spouses, illnesses, retirement and divorces and still they carried on. As with any group, though, there was the occasional tension between some of the longtime members. I mostly found their squabbles amusing.

One week I asked the Belgians to explain to me how to make chocolate sauce. It was quite a spirited debate. One said to melt the chocolate with butter, one preferred to mix in some cream and a third insisted that all you need is a little water to thin out the melted chocolate. When I asked the woman how much water she shrugged her shoulders and then said “psshht”, mimicking the sound of the water from the tap that is added to the bowl of chocolate for as many seconds as required. I tried all three versions and much to my surprise (given my penchant for fat) I preferred the one with water.

Long after we returned from Belgium I still make my chocolate sauce with water. And every time I do I hear the sound “psshht” in my head as I stand at the tap adding water. For me, chocolate sauce will always be a Group project, with all of the Ladies who Talk in my kitchen.

Dame Blanche

Dame Blanche

Serves 4

3 ounces dark chocolate (70% cacao or less depending on your taste)

2 – 4 tablespoons tap water

Best vanilla ice cream

1 cup heavy cream

Directions

Beat 1 cup heavy whipping cream with 1 teaspoon powdered sugar and ½ teaspoon vanilla extract until it forms soft peaks.

Break up the chocolate into medium-sized pieces and place in a microwaveable small bowl.

Add the water and then heat for 30 seconds in the microwave on high. Mix with a spoon until smooth. Heat another 10 seconds if the chocolate is not yet fully melted and add more water as needed until it is the desired consistency.

Scoop ice cream into individual serving bowls, top with a generous amount of whipped cream and then pour over the chocolate sauce.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rouladen: Riding the Gravy Train

plated-rouladen

Back when I was growing up in the ‘60s incomes were flatter and neighborhoods were, if not ethnically diverse, at least professionally diverse. In our subdivision in a northwest suburb of Chicago, there were small business owners, engineers like my dad, an airline pilot, a school teacher, mid-level executives, a couple of doctors and three professional athletes including the catcher for the Chicago Cubs.  Think about it—there was a time when a professional baseball player lived in a modest house in a middle-class neighborhood whose house wasn’t any bigger or nicer than the school teacher’s.

In the suburbs, what was a level playing field economically was also reflected in our food world.  The food we ate was uniformly the same with a few exceptions for old family recipes that our mothers carried with them into their marriages. Back then, when you looked into somebody’s recipe box, you knew what their ancestral make-up was—in many cases our mothers were only one or two generations away from their immigrant roots.

My mother collected recipes all her life and amassed four, 12-inch deep recipe boxes to hold them all.  I can tell exactly which ones she began married life with.  They are the ones that have been carefully typed onto 3 x 5 plain, lined index cards that are yellowed and stained from years of use.  They were the workhorses in our weeknight family dinners and my mother didn’t stray from them for many years.

She says she doesn’t remember typing them up, but they came straight from her mother, who never learned to type, so she must have spent an afternoon with her mother at some point before her wedding day collecting recipes for married life.

Both my mother and father have German ancestry that found its way into my mother’s recipe box from both sides of the family.  My mother collected multiple recipes of the same dish over the years (did she forget she had already had them, or were they just given to her multiple times and she didn’t have the heart to toss them?).

As it turns out, though, this is how I knew that the recipes belonged solidly in her repertoire. I found four different copies of a German dish called Rouladen in her boxes.  One probably came straight from her mother because it is part of the typed, yellowed and stained collection; one is the same as the original that my mother probably re-typed later on in order to preserve the recipe before the original became too stained and yellowed to read; one is a variation in her sister’s handwriting and the last one is from my father’s mother, but is called Beef Roll-ups (to make it sound less foreign?).

Rouladen (my mother’s version) is thin strips of round steak, pounded and dredged in flour that are wrapped around sliced onion and bacon, held together with a toothpick, browned in a skillet then placed in a Dutch oven adding water to come ¾ up the sides of the meat, covered and baked in a 300° oven for three hours(!).  And here’s the best part, the notation at the end that lets the cook know, “it makes its own gravy”.

My paternal grandmother’s Beef Roll-ups also include slices of dill pickle in them, which, I am sad to say, is an authentic German version of the dish after having looked it up on the internet.

If only we had been French instead of German. Just think what we could have been eating.  Instead, we ate Rouladen, Calves Liver with Bacon and Onions, Swiss Steak, Stuffed Cabbage, Pepper Steak (not the French version but more like a stir fry with green peppers), Beef Stroganoff and Stuffed Peppers—all vaguely Germanic or Eastern European. Good, hearty food that hued to the same flavor palate, namely beef, onion, a bit of tomato sauce, green peppers and bacon.  Not to mention gravy—if ‘it makes its own gravy”, you had a real winner.

 

What are some of your mother’s iconic family recipes from your childhood? Leave me a comment below.

Rouladen

After a little research I discovered that Rouladen was a dish that was still being widely cooked in the ‘60s. Craig Claiborne featured a version in his iconic The New York Times Cookbook (not to mention two more versions tied to Claiborne in the Times cooking archives). The Times version calls for thinly pounded round steak spread with mustard and then rolled around bacon, onions and pickle then browned and braised in whatever was available—water, tomato sauce, beef broth, wine or some combination.

The rolled beef packets (once sliced) look more fancy than a plain pot roast so my mother used it as a meal for company. I remember it looking a little sad and dry sitting on her fine china, but since Julia Child had not yet changed the way my mother cooked, that was as fancy as it got.

I’ve tweaked the recipe to make it more to my taste using Dijon mustard and cornichon—and of course wine. It is actually quite good. Company worthy even. (And it still makes its own gravy.)

Serves 4

For the Beef roll-ups:

4      slices round steak, sliced ¼ inch thick, about 1 ½ pounds total. (Each slice will measure about 4 by 11 inches.

4      slices bacon (preferably double or triple smoked, which is authentically German).

1      small yellow onion finely diced

8      cornichons, finely diced

4      tablespoons Dijon mustard

salt and pepper

For the braising pot:

2      tablespoons olive oil

1      tablespoon unsalted butter

2/3  cup diced carrots

2/3  cup diced celery

2      slices thick bacon cut in lardons

1      cup diced yellow onion

1      tablespoon flour

1      cup tomato purée

1      cup beef broth

½     cup red wine

1      teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

1      bay leaf

Directions:

Preheat oven to 350°

Working one at a time, pat the steak dry with paper towel and place on a clean work surface.  Lay a piece of plastic wrap on top to cover and using the smooth side of a meat mallet, gently pound the meat evenly until it is about 3/8 “ thick.

Sprinkle the steak with salt and pepper and then spread 1 tablespoon of Dijon mustard all over one side. Lay a slice of bacon in the center and sprinkle with diced onions followed by the cornichons.

Working from the narrow end, fold in the outer edge of the steak and begin to roll up the meat into a packet. Tie securely at each end with kitchen string.

rolling-beef

Heat the oil and butter at medium high in a Dutch oven or cast iron casserole that will hold the beef packets easily without crowding. When the foam from the butter begins to subside, begin browning the packets, turning to brown evenly all over (about 10 minutes). Remove the meat packets and set aside in a dish.

browning-rouladen

Reduce the heat to medium low and toss in the bacon lardons until they are just beginning to crisp. Add the diced onions, carrots, and celery, stirring often until they are softened (about 8-10 minutes).

Sprinkle the flour over the vegetables and cook, stirring for 1 minute.

Return the heat to medium high and add the red wine, scraping up all the brown bits at the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon. Then add the beef broth, tomato sauce, and Worcestershire sauce, stirring to incorporate. Add the bay leaf and return the meat to the pot along with any liquid that has collected while the packets have been resting.

Spoon some of the braising liquid over the meat to moisten. Cover the casserole with a tight fitting lid and when the liquid begins to simmer, transfer the pot into the preheated oven and cook for one hour and 15 minutes.

braising-rouladen

When the Rouladen has finished cooking, remove each packet of meat and place on a carving board. De-grease the braising liquid, adjust the seasoning if needed and keep warm. Remove the string from the meat and gently slice into ½ inch pinwheels. Gather the entire sliced packet onto your carving knife and plate individually on top of cooked egg noodles, mashed potatoes or mashed celeriac. Spoon over some of the braising liquid and vegetables and serve.

(If you prefer to serve this family style, place the meat packets on a serving platter whole and spoon over the braising liquids. Sprinkle with a shower of chopped parsley.)

rouladen-recipe-printable-version

 

Life on a 3 x 5 Card

recipe-cards

 

If you were born during the post-war baby boom years, you already know that mid-century, American cooking reached a kind of nadir when companies like Campbell’s Soup and Kraft took over our mothers’ kitchens.  In their eagerness to fulfill the image of the modern housewife, women happily hopped aboard the Big Food train to mediocrity with dishes that were made with canned or dried soup, processed cheese, mayonnaise, Jell-O, soft drinks and even potato chips.

And yet, go through your mother’s recipe box and a flood of memories will start to soften your dismissive thoughts about the food we grew up with.  Those boxes filled with index cards tell a story.  Not quite a journal, a woman’s recipe collection is more like a scrapbook, each card a memory of a certain time, place or event in her life that spills over to incorporate her family as well.

Family recipes are a treasured part of our past and the actual cards on which they were written become valued artifacts.  I know a woman who handles estate settlements for a large trust bank who recounted a story about a not insubstantial estate whose settlement was delayed because the family was locked in a bitter feud over who would get their mother’s recipe box. I’m guessing a few million dollars were being held up over a box of 3 x 5 cards.

It’s not so much about the recipes, but what they represent.  Sloppy Joes or Chicken Casserole made with three kinds of Campbell’s soup are not likely to make an appearance on my family table, but yet those recipes cards written in my mother’s hand or typed up by one of her neighbors with the attribution at the top:  “From the Kitchen of…” are still dear to me.

When my sister was in town a few years ago she started rummaging through my mom’s recipes in search of some in my grandmother’s handwriting.  She went through desserts and found Mrs. Weikert’s “Quick Dessert”.  The recipe meant nothing to us (9 graham crackers rolled fine, ¾ Cup white sugar, 1 teaspoon baking powder, salt, 3 unbeaten egg whites and ¼ Cup nut meats.  Mix well and bake at 350° for 40 minutes.  Serve with whipped cream), but looking at the yellowed index card with a small grease stain in the corner written in my grandmother’s hand was as powerful to us as gazing at a photo of her.  There she was again, alive on the card, with Mrs. Weikert (her one-time neighbor) peeking over her shoulder.

That’s the thing about recipe cards—they are a link to the past and to every person who passed the recipe to a friend or family member along the way.  It’s like playing six degrees of separation, building a family tree and engaging in a kind of crowd sourcing all rolled into one.  It really is a pity that recipe cards are on their way out.  There is so much humanity packed onto one 3 x 5 card that can never be replicated in the cloud.

The great New Yorker writer, A. J. Liebling in his excellent  memoir about Paris, Between Meals, wrote:

“The Proust madeleine phenomenon is now as firmly established in folklore as Newton’s apple or Watt’s steam kettle. The man ate a tea biscuit, the taste evoked memories, he wrote a book…In light of what Proust wrote with so mild a stimulus, it is the world’s loss that he did not have a heartier appetite.  On a dozen Gardiners Island oysters, a bowl of clam chowder, a peck of steamers, some bay scallops, three sautéed soft-shelled crabs, a few ears of fresh-picked corn, a thin swordfish steak of generous area, a pair of lobsters, and a Long Island duck, he might have written a masterpiece.”

Liebling, a great ‘feeder’ as he referred to himself (with the girth to back it up), was suggesting that the only food memories worth writing down are the ones that involve well-prepared, sumptuous feasts cooked with the freshest, finest ingredients available that will set you back either a small fortune, several hours out of your day or a few pounds in added weight—and often all three at once. Those are the food memories that come along only a handful of times in our lives if we are very lucky. The rest of the time our food memories are less about the food than where the memories actually take us: someplace that we no longer inhabit but can now briefly revisit. Food as a kind of time travel with the recipe card as your boarding pass.

When my sister came in town again just this past week to help me begin the decommissioning process of my parent’s home after we sadly had to move them to assisted living, I felt compelled to revisit my mother’s recipe cards.  My sister and I had just spent a good portion of our time together combing through boxes of old photographs. It was a whirlwind tour of our family history packed into a few short days which got me thinking about the recipe cards where so many of those memories are stored.

As my mother nears the end of her life, I will be writing about some of her more iconic recipes from time to time, like The Meatloaf Odyssey that I wrote about a few months ago. I will not post about her every time, but when I do I hope they will spark some memories of your own beloved family meals.

For me, recipes are a way into our stories. My mother’s recipe cards give voice to hers.

 

Stepmother Cookies

plated-stepmother-cookies

 

In last week’s post, Recipe Magic, I told my friend’s story about Stepmother Cookies to illustrate the sometimes mysterious way that certain recipes enter our lives and then become a part of us. I also used the story as a way into my own story about a recipe that might have easily passed me by but somehow got stuck inside me only to bubble up to the surface many years later.

I thought about posting the recipe for Stepmother Cookies along with my recipe for Alsatian Salad but decided against it because it wasn’t my story and the recipe isn’t part of my repertoire. I have since been asked to share the recipe and of course I will. I am not the gatekeeper for Stepmother Cookies. They are a terrifically good cookie and deserve a wider audience.

While I was making a batch of Stepmother Cookies this week to share with you in this post, I thought more about the circumstances behind them. There’s a lot that’s baked into them (wink, wink) that is worth exploring.

What has always interested me in the narrative—as I wrote in last week’s post—is what it revealed to me about the big-hearted nature of my friend who, in the simple act of asking for a recipe for the cookies that her children brought home from their stepmother, signaled to her daughters that it was okay to have two families and that the two could get along. Think about how reassuring that must have been to her children.

But what I realized I also love about this tale is that in naming them Stepmother Cookies, my friend had neutralized any lingering negative connotation associated with the label ‘stepmother’. Labels can be so powerful. This was no evil stepmother out of some fairytale who set out to poison her stepchildren. This was a stepmother who cared enough to make cookies, send her stepchildren home with them, and then share the recipe with their mother. The story says as much about the stepmother as it does the mother. Instead of modeling rivalry they were both modeling cooperation and goodwill.

So yes, by all means, make these cookies. All I ask is that you continue to call them Stepmother Cookies. It is such a touching story that serves as a reminder to all of us who make them that there are small ways that signal big messages when it comes to bridging divides or opening dialogues. No one doesn’t like cookies. Use them as your own way in.

(They also make for wicked good comfort food as we enter into these unconventional times.)

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If you have a story to tell about bridging divides or opening a dialogue after you make a batch of Stepmother Cookies, please share them in the comments section.

 

Stepmother Cookies

Ingredients:
2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
3/4 cup sugar
3/4 cup light brown sugar

2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla

2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt

2 cups oatmeal
2 cups Rice Krispies
12 oz. chocolate chips

Directions:
Preheat oven to 350˚

Cream together the butter and sugar in a stand mixer at medium speed until smooth.

Add eggs and vanilla and beat until well-incorporated.

Lower the speed to low. Whisk together the flour, salt and baking soda and then slowly add to mixing bowl until well-incorporated.

Remove mixing bowl from stand and by hand, with a wooden spoon or rubber spatula, mix in the oatmeal, Rice Krispies and chocolate chips. The batter will be quite stiff and it takes a bit of elbow grease to get the chocolate chips and Rice Krispies incorporated.

Drop by the spoonful onto a baking sheet lined with a silicone mat or parchment paper and bake 10 minutes (12 minutes if you like your cookies crispy).

Remove cookies from baking sheet and place on wire racks to cool.

Note:  I used both a silicone mat and parchment paper and discovered that the cookies that baked on parchment paper baked more quickly and were crunchier.

stepmother-cookies-recipe-printable-version

plated-stepmother-cookies

 

Recipe Magic

alsatian-ham-cheese-salad

Alsatian Salad

In Elizabeth Gilbert’s wonderful 2016 book about pursuing creativity, Big Magic, she writes—and here I am paraphrasing as I read the book months ago—about the notion that creative ideas are floating around us all the time in search of human collaborators so that they may be brought forth in the world. Sometimes an idea finds a collaborator only to be abandoned for one reason or another and then the idea moves on to another collaborator who brings it to fruition.

I feel the same way about recipes. Not all recipes find a permanent home in our repertoire. But when they do they become a part of us, stuck to us like glue almost. The recipe gets made, it speaks to us in some way and then takes up residence in our kitchens. We have found each other.

The best example of this notion that I can offer is my friend, Kathy’s, recipe for Stepmother Cookies. Years ago when her children were still small and doing the joint custody shuttle between parents who had both remarried, they returned to Kathy’s house one day with a bag of cookies which their stepmother had made. (They were essentially a version of chocolate chip cookies made with Rice Krispies.) The kids loved them so much that Kathy asked their stepmother for the recipe which she happily wrote out for her on an index card. The cookies got made again and again and soon became affectionately known as Stepmother Cookies.

I love this story because it says a lot about my friend. At a time when she was juggling blended families, she was big-hearted enough to ask for a recipe that her children’s stepmother made and then renamed the recipe for her. It was an acknowledgement that her children had two separate families and that they didn’t have to take sides.

Yet the really interesting part of the story is that years later, at her daughter’s graduation, Kathy sat next to the stepmother and said something about the cookies and learned that the stepmother didn’t even remember the recipe. You see how that recipe had moved on from one collaborator to another?

Stepmother Cookies are now so much a part of Kathy’s story that the recipe doesn’t need any other collaborators. I know this because Kathy gave me the recipe after I ate them at her house. I made them once, they were delicious, but I have never made them since. The recipe didn’t need me.

In fact, in Kathy’s orbit, the recipe doesn’t need anyone other than Kathy. She recently told me that she made them again over the holidays with her grandchildren in order to bring some to old friends they were visiting over the New Year. She gave a bag to her grandchildren for the plane ride home, and then the rest went to her friends. Hmm, I thought, I know her friends are perfectly capable of making those cookies themselves, but I bet like me, her children and her grandchildren, they would rather have Kathy make them. Because of the love that is baked in. And the beautiful back story. Plus, we would have to rename them and then they would just be chocolate chip cookies made with Rice Krispies and they would lose their charm.

I was thinking about this the other day when I was running through a list of recipes in my head wondering what to do with some leftover holiday ham. I have many recipes that I have collaborated with over the years that are deeply embedded in my history. I write about them in these blog posts. What did I have that would make use of some ham, I wondered.

What sprang forth surprised me because I hadn’t thought about it for years. You never know what’s swimming around in your past that suddenly bubbles up to the surface. From the depths of my culinary history what came to the fore was a dish someone made for me once decades ago when I was a student in Strasbourg, France. I don’t even think I ever wrote it down but it stuck to me nevertheless.

So much of the story is hazy. My aunt who lived in Ohio wrote to me that she knew a young couple and their two small children who had been transferred by a local company in Ohio to work for a few years in Colmar, another charming town characterized by half-timbered houses nestled along the Alsatian Route de Vin, just south of Strasbourg where I was studying. I was introduced to them via letters from my aunt and then invited to spend a weekend with them.

To a student far from home, a weekend invitation that involved being fed was no small thing. Yet, I remember so little of the weekend. I don’t recall their names or what we did that weekend but I do remember they had fraternal twin girls about four years old. One of them was named Lauren and she had adorable curly blond hair and green eyes that were full of personality. Her sister—whose name I don’t recall—was plain in comparison, with straight, light brown hair and features that were ordinary in comparison to her sister.

I have thought of those girls from time to time over the years wondering how it worked out for them. Having one sibling that is a standout must have been difficult for everyone. They are middle-aged now and I have no way of tracking them down since my aunt is long deceased. But I carry them with me for some reason or another.

That first day I arrived in Colmar we had a simple lunch at home in their apartment. What struck me was how thoroughly my aunt’s young friend had embraced her new home. Colmar, not a large city by any stretch, must have seemed so foreign to a young mother from an area of northeastern Ohio that was more rural than urban. And yet, she did not try and recreate America in Colmar for her two young children.

Instead she composed a salad of local ingredients that was unlike anything I had ever eaten before. It was thoroughly Alsatian and I was enthralled watching her put it together. The salad consisted of diced ham, Gruyère cheese, sliced endives and apple, all bound together with a sharp vinaigrette. It was a revelation to me—so clever and simple and utterly delicious. It was my first experience with French home cooking that showed me that the French approached ingredients differently than we did in America. The quality was impeccable and yet the execution was unfussy. It taught me that much can be made from humble ingredients that are well-sourced.

Other than the memory of those twin girls, that salad is all that remains of that weekend long ago in Colmar. How is it I remember that salad and nothing else? When I made it again recently, it wasn’t the Proustian taste memory that struck me, it was the act of assembling the salad itself. It was the image of my American host, standing in her Alsatian kitchen effortlessly putting together a simple lunch that has stayed with me all these years. She was an early role model for what it means to be a confident cook—especially when you are out of your home territory.

Recipe collaborations are a random phenomenon. They can happen in an instant: A child comes home with cookies or a young woman is invited to someone’s home for lunch, a recipe is exchanged or merely absorbed and suddenly it becomes part of your story. Why it happens I cannot tell you, but it is certainly something that is magical.

alsatian-salad-close-up

Alsatian Salad of Ham, Cheese, Endives and Apples

Serves 4 as lunch or light dinner

2 Cups good quality ham (preferably French) cut into matchsticks

2 Cups aged Gruyère Cheese cut into matchsticks (you may substitute Comte or Appenzeller cheese—Emanthaller or mere Swiss cheese are too mild for this dish.)

4 Belgian endives, washed, trimmed and sliced crosswise.

2 firm tart apples such as Granny Smith, peeled, cored and cut into matchsticks or diced.

Fresh ground pepper

Vinaigrette

3 – 4 tablespoons good quality extra virgin olive oil

3 – 4 tablespoons red wine vinegar (or good quality apple cider vinegar)

1 – 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

Directions

For the vinaigrette, whisk together the vinegar and Dijon mustard then add the oil and whisk again until emulsified. If the vinaigrette doesn’t come together, add more mustard.

Prepare the ham, cheese, endives and apples and toss in a serving bowl with the vinaigrette. Give it a good grind of pepper. Serve with a crusty baguette and a cool, crisp glass of Alsatian Riesling. Some meals are effortless.

Note: This salad can be easily enhanced to suit your tastes. Some toasted walnuts on top might be nice. Or maybe sprinkle in a few caraway seeds. A little bit of chopped celery would also be welcome.

alsatian-salad-recipe-printable-version

 

 

 

 

 

 

Translating Christmas into French

steak-au-poivre-photo

Steak au Poivre

“If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”

When Earnest Hemingway wrote those words to a friend in 1950 he captured the sentiment shared by many of us who have been lucky enough to have lived abroad as a young person. You inhabit a foreign place for a time when you are young and sponge-like, and then, once you leave, you discover that the place now inhabits you.

I always tell people that my junior year abroad in Strasbourg, France was one of the most important years of my life. Completely untethered from family and most of my friends, I was flying solo for the first time in my life. My only connection with home was through letters and the occasional pre-arranged phone call made from the nearest post office where I would go to the counter, hand over the phone number, pay a few francs for a set number of minutes and then wait in a phone booth for the connection to be made. It took several weeks to arrange those calls via letters back and forth across the Atlantic so it wasn’t something I did frequently. The year was 1976. Jimmy Carter was elected president while I was abroad.

Back then, spending a year abroad was more uncommon than it is today. While I was certainly privileged to be spending my junior year abroad, I didn’t feel entitled. I had to live within a tiny budget, I didn’t go home for Christmas, and my room, a former maid’s room on the top floor of a small apartment building had a sink but no bathroom. The toilet was shared among three of us and was located down the hall. I went to a public bath once per week for a good washing up and otherwise took sponge baths in my sink. The nearest laundromat was a bus ride away. I felt I was enormously lucky.

A Francophile since early childhood, I had been determined to go abroad since high school. By the time I went to France I had declared French as a major and had spent the entire prior year attending a class designed to prepare us for the experience. I credit my father with giving me the confidence to make such a leap of faith. I think he somehow knew that the adventure would help shape my life in ways that would only become apparent years later.

When I boarded the plane from Chicago’s O’Hare airport with one of my fellow classmates in the program I was filled with both excitement and fear as we took off. I wouldn’t see my family again for ten months. I had never been to a foreign country, let alone taken a plane across the ocean.

My first indelible impression of what it was going to be like living in France occurred even before I landed in Paris. The flight from Chicago made a scheduled stop in Montreal where we picked up several more passengers. Among them were twin sisters, not much older than I was, who were—at that moment in my young life—the most glamorous looking young women I had ever seen. Tall and thin with jet black straight hair and bangs, they could have been body doubles for Cher. If this is what women look like in Montreal, I thought, what must they look like in Paris?

I couldn’t take my eyes off them. They seemed so exotic to my Mid-Western sensibilities with their make-up and clothes looking like they just stepped out of the latest issue of Vogue—I was sure everything I had packed was going to be all wrong.

As we neared Charles de Gaulle airport the next morning, they each stepped into the lavatory to freshen up and came out in full make-up looking as fresh and well-rested as the moment they had boarded the plane the night before. How did they manage it, I wondered?

I have never forgotten them. To this day, I think of them when I am landing after an overnight flight sporting bed head, smudged mascara, a greasy face and a muddy mouth. While they may well have been Canadian, they represented that je ne sais quoi quality of French women that continues to elude me.

My second enduring memory of my first days in France was equally discomfiting in a different way. It had to do with dog poop—you know, the kind that frequently dots the sidewalks in France that the French seem to sidestep without missing a beat but which can easily land on the soles of unaware foreigners (particularly awe-struck, giddy American students). You know where this is going.

I was assigned a room in the aforementioned small apartment building along with a classmate in the same year abroad program from my university back home. On our way home the first day one of us stepped in said dog poop and tracked some up the stairs to our mean little rooms on the top floor. Within minutes, our landlady, Madame Wiedemann—a stout Alsatian woman with bottled red hair in her early seventies—came huffing and puffing up the stairs to sternly lecture us about tracking dog poop on her newly washed stairs. I felt every inch the foreigner who is singled out for not understanding the customs.

Many of my first impressions of France have stayed with me always. Like a first kiss, they are full of intensity and emotion and are different from experiences that come later. When I returned to Strasbourg decades later to show my husband where I had spent my seminal year I was struck by how few memories I had of a large swath of my day-to-day life. When we went to Petite France (the medieval section of the city a bit further from the area around the university where I lived) I couldn’t conjure up a single memory of my time spent there and yet I’m sure I went there often.

Yet, like so many before me, the food of France has never left me. I fell for it hard. She had me at my first sip of café au lait at some touristy spot on the Champs Elysée my first morning in Paris. Her grasp on me tightened from there.

While my fellow students were loading up on pastries I was frequenting the cheese shops. There was one in my neighborhood I used to drop into almost daily for a hunk of this or that to go with some crusty bread that would serve as my dinner at night. I often bought a little slice of pâté or some ham to go along with it.

Comte, Appenzeller, Gruyère, Brie, Morbier and many, many more. I tried them all. The thrill of discovering the world of French cheeses was worth the price of a scolding by Madame Wiedemann at the amount of bread crumbs that inevitably lay scattered on the floor of my room.

Then there were the dishes I ate like poulet rôti, omelets, steak frîtes, an unforgettable Boeuf Bourguignon I ordered at a little restaurant in Chartres, and Alsatian specialties like Tarte Flambée and Choucroute Garni. The memories of those meals were the most treasured souvenirs I carried home with me. (To say nothing of the aforementioned cheeses and pâtés.)

The Christmas after I returned from France I wanted to recreate a little bit of my French culinary experiences with my family. I picked up my mother’s copy of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking—to this day my touchstone for French cooking—and began to scour its contents for ideas for a Christmas Eve dinner.

cookbooks

I settled on Steak au Poivre—an odd choice perhaps for a dinner for five but I recalled a memorable meal of steak au poivre I had eaten in Bordeaux along with a bottle of Saint Emillon (or maybe it was just a glass—I wasn’t yet the wine drinker I am now).

sprecipe

To accompany the steak, I chose Pommes de Terre Sautées and for my green vegetable—which came out of Mastering Volume II—Courgettes Rapées, Sautées.

My family was anticipating the meal as much as I was. No one thought I wasn’t capable of pulling it off—something that amazes me now given that I had never cooked a single meal for my family, let alone a French meal. That’s love.

I read and re-read the recipes until I had practically memorized them. When it came time to cook the meal, I kept the cookbooks—which still bear the splatter marks of that long ago meal—close at hand and followed the instructions to the letter. Everything came out perfectly. (Such is the genius of Julia Child.)

splatters

That Christmas Eve meal has gone down in family lore. It was one of my proudest moments. And, like my year abroad, it will always be with me, wherever I go.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Meatloaf Odyssey

plated-meatloaf2

 

Born in 1956, I fall in the middle of the Baby Boom generation. Like most kids back then, my mom was a homemaker—the same bored, unhappy housewife isolated in the suburbs described so heartbreakingly in Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. Her unhappiness found its way into every corner of our house and no one could escape the penetrating reach of her irritability.

As a child, the world of adults seemed so mysterious to me. My two sisters and I would go to school in the morning and come home mid-afternoon to what seemed liked endless chores. There were always heaping baskets of clothes to be folded and shirts to be ironed. Every night we took turns washing the dishes and on Saturdays we had to clean house. Every chore was subject to my mother’s final inspection and there were many do-overs. If we were doing most of the housework what, I often wondered, had my mother been up to all day?

Yet, however much she seemed to resent her lot in life, she never seemed to mind cooking for us. At the stove, my mother seemed almost content. However cranky she seemed to us when we bounded through the door at the end of the school day, by the time I’d start to smell dinner cooking, she was noticeably calmer. Dinnertime was always the most reassuring part of my day.

My mother was what I would call an adventurous cook, which is different from a good cook (not that she was bad). She was always game to try new recipes and the mounting stacks of cookbooks she collected were evidence of her culinary curiosity. I give her loads of credit for wanting to know more. Her cookbook collection was a window into a bigger world that she was yearning to explore from the confines of her 1960s three-bedroom ranch house in the suburbs of Chicago.

Before my parents moved back north to a retirement community near where my husband and I live, she and my father sadly ditched most of her treasured cookbooks. I had asked her to wait for me to go through them, but being unsentimental (and married to my father who is both equally unsentimental and always in a rush to throw things away) they had mostly been disposed of by the time I arrived to help them pack.  All that remained of interest to me was her 1950s era two-volume set of The Gourmet Cookbook from the eponymous magazine.

While there were many dishes that never varied in her weeknight repertoire, meatloaf was not one of them. For some reason her search for the perfect meatloaf recipe was something akin to the quest for the Holy Grail. In our family lore every time my mother made meatloaf she would come to the table, set down the platter and triumphantly declare, “I’ve made it a little bit different this time!”

But now that my mother is too frail to cook, I have secreted away her recipe boxes filled with hundreds of handwritten recipes from my childhood. Included among them are her trove of meatloaf recipes—not all of them mind you, but enough for me to get the gist of her meatloaf odyssey. I would absolutely kill to have found the one stuffed with blue cheese and green olives .We made her promise never to make it again so maybe the recipe was tossed along with the leftovers that same night. I think it was called Surprise Meatloaf and let me tell you, it was a surprise all right.

I found eleven meatloaf recipes in total. Most of them were some variation of ground beef either alone or in combination with pork/veal mixed together with green pepper, onion, eggs and some tomato based product (juice, ketchup or canned tomatoes). What struck me, though, was that in lieu of the fresh breadcrumbs that are usually added to a meatloaf mix, my mother’s recipes relied on either Saltine or Ritz crackers. Apparently, breakfast cereal also worked: one recipe called for ¾ cup of quick oats in place of the breadcrumbs and the 1953 edition of Joy of Cooking (which came out the year she married my father) suggests using cornflakes in lieu of crackers. Those were the days.

Yet for all the ketchup-smothered, cracker-based or “surprise” meatloafs my mother turned out over the years a good meatloaf still holds appeal for me. It is the kind of savory, stick-to-your-ribs comfort food that is just the ticket when the weather turns cooler.

We think of meatloaf as something quintessentially American—and certainly the all-beef variety smothered in ketchup has all the hallmarks of middle America—but really meatloaf, like its meatball cousin, is less all-American than you think. Especially when cold, it is not that far from eating a rustic pâté de campagne. In Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking there are several variations of a meatloaf made with veal (Pain de Veau) and the great English food writer, Elizabeth David, featured one made from ground beef and slab bacon moistened with red wine or port, a splash of wine vinegar and seasoned with dried basil, allspice and a dozen whole peppercorns. Sounds fairly elegant to me.

meatloaf2

Not surprisingly, my meatloaf is closer to the French version because I use red wine instead of milk (or tomato juice) and a 3-meat meatloaf mix that includes ground beef, veal and pork, which makes it more refined.  I also use fresh breadcrumbs made from sourdough bread—I think the last time we had Saltines in the house was when I had the stomach flu.

That said, there is never a time when the image of my mother proudly depositing her latest iteration of meatloaf before her hungry family does not cross my mind while making my own version—which hasn’t changed in years. (Although I am tempted to try the spice mix in Elizabeth David’s recipe.)

Uh oh.  I may be making meatloaf a “little bit different” next time.

Share your stories

What was your mother’s most enduring family meal?

 

Three-Meat Meatloaf

Serves 6-8

Preheat oven to 350°

2/3 lbs ground beef

2/3 lbs ground veal

2/3 lbs  ground pork

2 Cups freshly made sourdough breadcrumbs (crusts removed)

1 small onion, finely chopped

2 eggs, lightly beaten

2 Tablespoons Worcestershire sauce

½ teaspoon dried oregano

1 ½ teaspoons salt

½ teaspoon freshly ground pepper

¾ cup red wine

With your hands, mix all the ingredients together in a large bowl. Pat the mixture into a loaf pan and bake in the oven for 1 hour. Allow the meatloaf to cool in the loaf pan for 10 minutes before slicing.

Of course leftovers can be eaten cold either alone with some cornichons and Dijon mustard or in a sandwich. I also end up freezing a few slices wrapped in individual portions in plastic wrap for up to two months. Having some dinner portions of meatloaf tucked away in the freezer during the winter months always comes in handy when you are either too busy or too tired to cook. Leftover meatloaf never tastes leftover.

printable-version-3-meat-meatloaf

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Becoming Thanksgiving

thanksgiving-turkey

 

When I was a single person living in New York I was what we called a Thanksgiving orphan. Not willing to travel long distance to my parent’s home in Chicago or, later, Florida for both Thanksgiving and Christmas I stayed back in the city, hoping someone would take me in for the Thanksgiving meal. Someone always did.

I collected quite a few different Thanksgiving experiences over the two and a half decades I was a holiday orphan. While I was glad to have a place to go, I was always acutely aware that I was a kind of interloper on other people’s traditions. I missed my mother’s stuffing and my grandmother’s pumpkin pie and most especially I missed the turkey soup that we ate on Friday from the turkey carcass that was simmered on the stove all night long after we packed up the leftovers on Thursday night. Sometimes I was given a few slices of turkey to take home for a sandwich, but mostly I missed that ritual as well.

I did make Thanksgiving dinner once for my maternal grandfather and aunt while living in New York. By then my grandfather was a frail eighty-seven and I was keen to have him visit me in New York before it was too late. He had never been to the city and I wanted him to see where his own father and uncle landed as immigrants from Scotland a century before. He liked to tell the story that after the two brothers were processed at Ellis Island, they set foot in lower Manhattan and one brother turned to the other and said, “Let’s step aside for a moment and wait for the throngs to pass.” They moved to rural Ohio.

In my small, New York Kitchen I turned out a Thanksgiving meal for the three of us that would have easily served eight or more. It was the first time I got to put my own stamp on the meal but I mostly stuck with our family traditions. Except for that pumpkin pie. Whatever made me decide to make a pie from a New York Times recipe I’ll never know, but my aunt took one bite, put down her fork, turned to me and said with infinite disdain, “This is not your grandmother’s pumpkin pie recipe.” Families do not take kindly to change when it comes to holiday meals.

After that, I carried on for nearly another decade as a Thanksgiving orphan wondering if I would ever have my own traditions during the holidays. (There is nothing that makes you feel more acutely alone than sharing other people’s customs.) I kept my grandmother’s pumpkin pie recipe (written in my aunt’s hand) at the ready.

My husband and I got married at the advanced age of forty-six. One of the first things we realized was that we were no longer hostage to other people’s holiday celebrations. As newlyweds we felt duty-bound to partake in each of our family’s Thanksgiving once and then we cut loose. (Well, we moved to Brussels where we had the excuse of not celebrating Thanksgiving at all, but it established the pattern.)

By the time we returned to the States three years later, we were free to create our own holidays. The first Thanksgiving in our house we invited both sets of parents. Just as when I made the Thanksgiving meal in New York, I mostly stuck to my family recipes (including my grandmother’s pumpkin pie). But little by little, I started to make changes over the years until one year I realized that my Thanksgiving menu was entirely my own. That’s when it hit me that my husband and I were truly a family.

thanksgiving-pumpkin

I love our little family of two. I’ve honed our Thanksgiving menu to reflect our shared experiences with only a slight nod to our family traditions. From my husband’s side I make his sister-in-law’s pecan pie. I have substituted a stuffed pumpkin (see my post from October 30) for traditional stuffing which comes from Dorie Greenspan’s excellent cookbook, Around My French Table—meaning my penchant for French cuisine has a place at my table with the added benefit that the turkey cooks faster without stuffing.  (And because the pumpkin is stuffed with bread, it still works in a turkey sandwich.)

thanksgiving-pies

Green bean casserole is not a thing at our table. If you need your yearly fix of that peculiarly American creation, you will have to go elsewhere. A sauté of sliced Brussels sprouts with shallots and golden raisins are my green vegetable and instead of traditional cranberry sauce I make a confit of cranberries courtesy of the British cookbook author, Delia Smith. Of course, mashed potatoes and gravy are still de rigueur but I have happily eliminated the sweet potato casserole owing to the orange of the stuffed pumpkin.

In other words, our Thanksgiving meal is not entirely traditional—but then, neither is our family. And we are happy with that.

thanksgiving-plate

As for my grandmother’s pumpkin pie, well, I’m sorry to say it has been replaced with a less sweet version that, ahem, also comes from the Times. (My aunt has been dead now for twenty years so there is no risk of recrimination.)

I still make turkey soup, though. It simmers on the stove all night long filling the house with the smells of Thanksgivings past. That’s the way I keep my childhood traditions. The apple never really falls that far from the tree.

 Grandma Barclay’s Golden Pumpkin Pie

For those of you who like your pumpkin pie on the sweet side, here’s my grandmother’s original pumpkin pie recipe which I believe she copied off a can of Libby’s brand puréed pumpkin. I think I’ll make it this year for my mother since it’s bound to be her last. Besides, it is also her birthday. It would be nice to share the memory of her mother by way of her pumpkin pie.

Ingredients:

1 1/2 cups pumpkin (canned and strained) (15oz can)
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 tbsp flour
2 eggs well beaten
1 tsp cinnamon
1/4  tsp  nutmeg
1/4  tsp  ginger
1/2  tsp salt
1/4 cup light corn syrup
3/4 cup evaporated milk
3/4 cup water

Directions:

Preheat oven to 425°

Heat pumpkin in a small sauce pan for 10 minutes over medium heat until just warmed through.

Combine dry ingredients in a large mixing bowl.  Stir in pumpkin with a wooden spoon.  Add remaining ingredients and beat with egg beater until smooth.
Pour into prepared uncooked 10-inch pie shell and bake at 425° For 45 minutes or until set.

NOTE:  This filling is really for a 10-inch pie shell so make sure you have made enough pastry. You can make this in a 9-inch shell but you will have filling left over.

printable-version-golden-pumpkin-pie

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Shop Like a Native

cooked-pumpkin

Stuffed Pumpkin

Language notwithstanding, there is nothing that signals you are in a foreign country more than a grocery store. Even with globalization, food culture still manages to cling to its traditions. If you want to better understand how the natives live, spend some time in a supermarket.

When my husband and I moved to Brussels as expats in 2005 I thought it would be easy to assimilate. After all, we were hardcore New Yorkers by then, had traveled the world, had years of corporate experience between us and I spoke French. (I had also spent a year abroad as a student in France and had also worked for a year in London.) How hard could it be?

Let’s just say that setting up a home abroad is a humbling experience. It is the ultimate zone of discomfort for the first twelve months even (and maybe especially) for those who thought they had the sophistication, language skills and experience to manage it without breaking a sweat. Everything you do from registering with the local authorities to operating the washing machine to discussing a broken toilet with the handyman is a first-time experience. For me, it was doubly humbling as the trailing spouse. I was used to having a corporate infrastructure to pave the way and do tasks for me. Now I was on my own, swimming upstream every day.

But for all the firsts you experience as an expat, there is no greater series of firsts than navigating the grocery store. It is a universal truth that cuts across national boundaries. (I recently met a French woman who writes a blog about how to get around American grocery stores for the French expat community in the U.S.)

Less wedded to American food brands like cereal and peanut butter, I still felt finding a new brand of washing detergent, olive oil, butter or bath soap to be ridiculously time consuming. (And what the heck is the word for ‘bleach’ in French?) In the early days of our life in Brussels, coming home with the correct cleaning supplies and a few days-worth of food for meals made me feel as accomplished as negotiating a multimillion-dollar bond trade back in my banking days. It’s all relative.

When I wasn’t shopping at one of the outdoor markets I would shop at the supermarket chain, Delhaize—a Belgian company whose roots go back to 1867 that has since grown into a global food behemoth that operates in seven countries including the U.S., where it is known as Food Lion. Having been in a Food Lion, I can tell you that Delhaize in Brussels was a different store altogether.

I love roaming the aisles in a European supermarket. In Brussels, I was especially taken with things like the pre-cooked little shrimp that were terrific in salads or the packaged lardons (essentially thick-cut, diced bacon) that are so useful in beef stews, quiches and salads, or the beautiful fresh cod filets that were packaged without the belly attached so you were cooking a uniformly thick piece of fish. To me, this was convenience at a gourmet level.

There were a couple of things I noticed about shopping customs at my local Delhaize: First, Belgian women were smartly dressed and in full make-up (yoga pants were only for the gym and only donned at the gym), you had to bag your own groceries, and finally, no matter how long it took, when you are being served—whether by the butcher or the cashier—you are the only customer that matters. You really begin to look at yourself with fresh eyes when living in a foreign culture.

The first time I was behind an elderly woman who (understandably) took longer than most to bag her groceries I found myself playing out a scene in my mind in which we were back in New York and the people in line behind her would be sighing and grumbling and generally expressing their impatience. I realized then, as I watched my fellow shoppers calmly wait for her to finish up, that the rest of the world has cultivated considerably more patience than New Yorkers. I was more than a little ashamed of myself.

Of course, as a cook, what I was most interested in was not only what food was on offer, but what people were putting in their shopping carts. Call it food voyeurism. (I tried to be discreet.)

Among the items that were routinely purchased underscored the Belgian food culture perfectly: beer, frozen French fries, prepared waffles, Belgian endives (I’m not kidding—I wondered sometimes how the store managed to keep them in stock), chocolate and, in the fall, pumpkin. With the exception of pumpkin, these were all food items I would have expected to see a Belgian consume. (You cannot overstate how much nationality plays into food preferences.)

Over time I bought a lot of what the Belgians bought and learned to make Chicon Gratiné (braised endives that are then wrapped with ham and baked in the oven with a cheese sauce), chocolate sauce poured over ice cream and mini-waffles and plenty of Belgian trappist-style dark beer. (The French fries we bought as take-out at our nearest frîterie—think of them as food trucks that sell fries; they are everywhere in Brussels which is both a blessing and a curse.)

Pumpkin, however, remained a mystery to me. Come the fall, week after week I would see pumpkin in people’s shopping carts. They were beautiful deep orange pumpkins more like the color of Hubbard squash than our paler pumpkins. In retrospect I’m not sure why I never bought any.  Other forms of winter squash were not to be found, and since I knew how to cut up a squash and roast it, doing the same for pumpkin would have seemed logical. For whatever reason, I avoided them. Still, those pumpkins made an impression on me.

A few years after we returned from Brussels I heard Dorie Greenspan on NPR talking about a recipe for stuffed pumpkin that was featured in her new cookbook, Around My French Table. I had just written a review of the book for New York Journal of Books and loved it. (The book came out in 2010 and it has become one of my most reliable go-to cookbooks.) Huh, I thought, is that what you’re supposed to do with pumpkins?

Leave it to the French. Dorrie Greenspan calls the recipe Pumpkin Stuffed with Everything Good. She’s right about that: dried, cubed bread, garlic, Gruyère cheese, bacon, cream, thyme—what’s not to like? Make it as a main dish and serve it with a leafy green salad or use it as a side for chicken, pork or turkey. I’m crazy about it (as apparently are many food bloggers). I buy a good half dozen small pumpkins every fall and make it right up until December (or as long as my little pumpkins stay firm in my basement). Stuffed pumpkin is also now a permanent fixture at my Thanksgiving table. It has replaced traditional stuffing and obviated the need for a sweet potato dish (one more thing to be thankful for).

Stuffed pumpkin is one of those revelatory dishes. I wish I had known about it when we were living in Brussels. Then I would have truly gone native in my Delhaize (and been smartly dressed doing it). No one would have guessed from the contents of my shopping cart that I wasn’t Belgian.

Stuffed Pumpkin

Adapted from Around My French Table by Dorie Greenspan

This is one of those recipes that is easy to adapt to your liking. Using rice instead of bread, sausage instead of bacon and Cheddar cheese instead of Gruyère are just some of the suggestions Dorie Greenspan offers up. You might have a few ideas of your own. (I’ve tried it with a mix of cooked spinach and brown rice instead of the bread but it wasn’t as satisfying to me.)

Serves 4 – 6 as a side dish

1 small pumpkin, about 3 – 4 pounds

4 – 5 oz. dried, cubed bread (about ½” cubes). (I use sourdough bread.)

4 oz. Gruyère cheese cut into ½” dice.

3 – 4 strips good quality bacon, cooked and crumbled.

2 – 3 cloves of garlic, minced.

Either ¼ Cup chopped scallions or a couple tablespoons of chopped, fresh chives.

A few sprigs of fresh thyme. Remove leaves from stem and roughly chop.

1/3 Cup heavy cream.

¼ teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg.

Salt and freshly ground pepper.

Directions

Place rack in lower third of oven and heat to 350°.

Prepping the Pumpkin

I have found that using a pumpkin carving knife that you can buy in a kit as a seasonal item at many different stores that have Halloween accoutrements makes carving the lid easier. And for scooping out the seeds and stringy bits I highly recommend a culinary scoop made my Messermeister that can be purchased online. Finally, if anyone who enjoys your cooking happens to be in the kitchen when you set out to make your stuffed pumpkin and asks if there is anything they can do to help, don’t hesitate to hand them the carving knife and scooper to get the pumpkin ready. It will make the process go a lot faster.

pumpkintools

Carve a wide opening in the pumpkin and set the lid aside. (Trim the stem to about two inches.) Scoop out the seeds and stringy bits and discard.

Season the inside of the pumpkin with salt and pepper and place the pumpkin on a baking sheet lined with a silicon mat.

In a bowl, combine the bread cubes, minced garlic, scallions or chives, herbs, cheese and bacon and mix with your hands.

Fill the cavity of the pumpkin leaving enough room so that the lid will fit snugly on top.

Measure out the 1/3 Cup of cream and add the nutmeg. Stir to combine and then pour over the dried stuffing in the cavity. You are aiming for just enough liquid to moisten the stuffing. The flesh of the pumpkin has moisture as well so you want to avoid getting the mixture too soupy.

Replace the lid on the pumpkin and bake in the oven for 90 minutes. Remove the lid and bake a further 30 minutes until the top of the stuffing is golden.

To serve, either cut the pumpkin into wedges using a serrated knife or scoop out the insides along with the pumpkin flesh and fill a bowel. Don’t overmix the stuffing and pumpkin flesh. It’s nice to have the stuffing and pumpkin a bit separate in the bowl.

printable-version-stuffed-pumpkin-recipe

printable-version-stuffed-pumpkin-recipe