Sunday, July 3, 2016

Beef Stew



It was because the neighbors made such a fuss coming over when my mother  cooked stew and asking for the recipe that the stew grew larger than life. Indeed, the potatoes and carrots saturated with gravy were pure comfort. I’d line them up on my plate and mash them into piles, melting margarine on top to make them richer. My mother loved the onions but I didn’t and I was neutral on the celery. The meat was a crapshoot, some pieces were fall apart tender but the threat of hidden gristle or an endlessly chewy bit made each bite suspect.

She browned the meat first. 
She used cooking wine from the supermarket mixed with bullion cubes for broth. She must have cooked it over the week-ends when she had more time. I was riveted watching her discard shards of congealed fat from the surface of the chilled pot. Once defatted, she’d set the pot on a low flame and turn her attention to salad. 

I don’t know the story behind the recipe, or if she took pleasure in the slow simmer that scented the house or if she thought “Damn I make good stew.” Did she sometimes think she was badass raising her girls, or feel smart and alluring and wish someone might fall for her because she could juggle and cope and cook and was brimming with love? Did she think“I am special” 

If she did, she didn’t let on. 

Did she think I am special?

When I make stew I use good red wine, homemade broth, carefully trimmed pasture-raised beef and I load on the vegetables. Lighter, brighter, quicker cooking is more my way, but when I do make stew I’m filled with hope. 

It’s dashed. 
My stew can never match the one that fed the chubby awkward girl who watched her mother’s every move, searching for a sign.

Stiffness and incremental loss of stability mixed with depression coalesced into the diagnosis of Parkinson’s. Year after year pieces of her disappeared. I’d sit with her, lining up food on her plate, mashing it to pieces, feeding her, watching her every move. 

Now, cooking and eating her stew to write these words, the girl and the dutiful aging daughter merge. We watched and waited, hoping to find what wasn’t there. Her meat and potatoes couldn’t fill me. They didn’t fill her. 
My meat and potatoes taste of a dream.

Beef Stew
3 # Chuck steak
1 large onion, peeled and cut in half 
2 stalks celery, chopped into small pieces
1/2 # Crimini mushrooms
3 c. homemade broth
1 c. red wine
bay leaf, thyme, 4-5 garlic cloves, salt, pepper
2 T tomato puree
1/2 # carrots—peeled and cut into large chunks 
1/2 # each: Japanese turnips, shallots—peeled and left whole
1#  potatoes—peeled and cut into 2” chunks


Use a thick Chuck steak rather than the pre-cut stew meat. Trim away thick veins of gristle and the thickest of the fat. Sear the steak in a super hot skillet sprinkled with a big pinch of salt—approx 3-4 minutes per side—long enough to brown the surface of the meat. Move to a cutting board and let rest. In the same skillet sear the peeled onion until there are bits of char on the surface. Set onion aside. Sear mushrooms until they give up their water. Set aside. Deglaze pan with wine, scraping up any browned bits. Reduce wine to around 3/4 c.
Preheat oven to 300
Cut seared meat into 2” pieces. 
Put onion, celery, mushrooms, red wine, bay leaf, thyme, tomato puree and broth in an 
oven-proof stew pot. Bring to a boil. Add beef and a sprinkle of salt and pepper. The broth should not quite cover the beef. 
Partially cover pot and transfer to oven for an hour and a half. 

Add carrots, turnip, potatoes and another sprinkle of salt and pepper. Add a little more broth if needed. Roast, partially covered for another hour or until the vegetables and meat are fork tender.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

baked goods




My mother would supervise and help me light the oven when I baked box cakes on my birthdays. As far as I recall she never baked a cake from scratch or made a pie—but since you don’t miss what you don’t know, I didn't feel deprived. There was frozen Sara Lee, or Entenmann’s, or maybe a babka from the bakery down the street. Anyway, I was more interested in salty crackers and chips.

Mom noshed mid-morning. A bisl bis to fit the side of a saucer or a paper napkin she’d de-crumb for later reuse, or on work days she’d tuck a foil wrapped treat in her purse. This was a habit she observed until her last days, an indulgence tenaciously guarded; her second cup of instant crystals with a bite of something sweet. All by herself. Not even with the newspaper. Over time I’ve come to understand such pleasure but as a girl I didn’t. Her ritual seemed lonely and dreary. I was never invited to join.

Baking is a part of the life I’ve built as a professional cook. I’m a competent baker though lack passion for the art, nonetheless I’ve mastered what my mother loved; rugelach, tender quick breads that are a foil to coffee, sweetened yeasted twists. She was never tempted by milie feuille, cannoli or towering lemon meringue—those were deemed fancy and she was plain, and in cake at least, our tastes converged.

I never mentioned the cakes I baked and didn’t bring her samples though I've shared with everyone else. It was like I was out doing her, being more her than she was. I suppose too it was an unconscious revenge; “I wasn’t invited to your lonely kaffeeklatsch, well mine is tastier and more fun.”  


In the weeks following her death I binge-baked, stocking my freezer for her  memorial, rolling chocolate into rising dough, pinching measures of cinnamon and cardamom, slicking danish with melted jam. The more heavenly the kitchen smelled the sadder I became, but not from grief. With her gone I could begin to examine the depression that had blanketed our world. 

Those meager bites she’d allowed herself for comfort only fed my hunger. The seeds and nuts buried like gems in the pastries she loved became seeds of my despair. I was neither good enough company, nor strong enough to rescue her. In a dream I am a cartoon apple. Round, red, easily bruised. I lay fallen in the shadow of the tree, waiting for a buck’s swift kick or howling winds to carry me off, ashamed I have no legs.

Apple Cake
1 c AP flour
1/2 c dark rye flour
1/2 c buckwheat flour
1 1/2 t baking soda
1/2 t each: salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, and unsweetened cocoa
3/4 c granulated sugar
1//2 c brown sugar, lightly packed
1 1/2 c unsweetened applesauce
2 eggs
2/3 c vegetable oil
2 t vanilla
2 cups peeled and roughly chopped apples tossed with 1/2 t cinnamon (approx 2 apples)

Pre-heat oven to 350o Oil and flour a bundt pan and set aside. In a medium bowl combine the flour, baking soda, salt and spices. Stir to blend. In another medium bowl combine sugars, eggs, vanilla, applesauce and oil. Stir to blend. Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients and mix well. Stir in apple. Pour the batter into prepared pan and bake 50 - 60 minutes or until a wooden skewer inserted into the cake comes out dry.   
(If you prefer, bake in a loaf pan but you will have a cup or so too much batter for a standard 9” x 5” pan—put the extra in a mini-loaf pan or a muffin tin and bake for approx. 20 minutes). 

Allow the cake to cool in the pan for 10 minutes, then turn out onto a wire rack. Let cool. If you’d like, glaze the cake with 1/2 c confectionary sugar stirred with 2 t or 3t of apple cider.



Thursday, March 31, 2016

#rememberingmymotheronebiteatatime rice-a-roni



Convenience may not be the most delicious, but it is a consideration. My mother worked full time, had little money and took whatever help she could get. She loved Rice-A-Roni. It was her way to elevate the same old same old, so in my eyes Rice-A-Roni became the mother-from-which-all-other-rice-dishes-derived; Biriyani, Arroz con Gandules, Mujaddara—even Chinese fried rice. Ass backwards, and the crazy thing is subliminally I still felt this despite knowing something of the crisscrossed journey of rice and recipes across time. We hold tight to what our mothers teach us despite the things we learn.

As a kid the elongated vermicelli and swollen grains were an impressionistic tangle of tasty earth tones on an otherwise hum drum plate. And eating something with such a happy tv jingle meant we too were a happy tv home. Now, the hydrolyzed corn gluten and dehydrated parsley flecks in true Proustian form carried me back through time, but the flavor set-off a collapse of painstakingly built illusion. The salty pilaf, like our dutifully held premise of happiness, turns out to have been make-believe.

In 1960, my mother, the shy youngest of shtetl immigrants, divorced my father who was having an affair, or maybe he left her—I never knew. Either way it was a distinction among her siblings and extended relatives, which speaks to her liberalism, and also how bad her marriage must have been. Dogged by missing support checks, the string of live-in nannies, my sister’s troubles—it was more than she could handle even though I tried so hard to make it right.

That bite of Rice-A-Roni after forty-five years filled my mouth with vitriol. Its broken promise tasted of my mother’s shortcomings, her weaknesses, my father’s narcissism, his absenteeism, my sister’s fragility, my passivity. Our missed connections. That bite ripped open memories I would have liked to forget. I scraped the Rice-A-Roni into the trash and left the pan on the counter where the rice dregs dried to crust.


Two days later washing my mother’s precious pan I was filled with such sadness. This is what she did. She fed us, then washed the dishes through her sadness and disappointment. She did the best she could. 

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

#rememberingmymotheronebiteatatime chocolate milk


         

    Around 5:30 pm I’d hover by the front door, waiting to take my mother’s briefcase to carry to the hall bench as she hung up her coat and kicked off her heels. Hungrier for her than for supper I’d trail her to the kitchen wanting to help. It couldn’t have been easy, working all day, then cooking with a kid hanging on your apron, but my mother had her repertoire and I think she was generally content making meals.
     By the time I was 10 or 11 I was reading cookbooks and making my own dishes. I got hooked on food because food’s a gregarious companion. It shares intimacies, gets messy and reacts to what you do, maybe more so than my family did.
     I don’t think my mother thought of food the way I think of food. The food she cooked shows she cared; it was tasty and mostly well prepared, but she wasn’t using the food to say ‘I want you to taste this because I’m watching you grow and I think you’ll like it now’ or ‘I know you’re studying such and such at school and this is what that food is like’ or even ‘here is a way we can celebrate the season’ the way I did with my kids. Her dinner would have been the same if I were there or not. She just made food.
     I have been cooking what I remember of her, trying to feel something I lost during the years of her illness and this experience of cooking and eating has roused buried emotion, but I hadn’t felt my mother’s love, and here I mean the deep primary kind, until I made chocolate syrup and drank a glass of chocolate milk. 
     When I was a kid we flipped between Bosco and Hershey's. It was what made milk palatable. I had it mornings with Cocoa Puffs and it paired surprisingly with fish sticks dipped in ketchup. On the occasions we had chocolate ice-cream I’d make a big production of double chocolate shakes. The syrup was her gift, her way of fixing things. I didn’t like milk but had to drink it, she let me use syrup. Closing my eyes now I can see the sanguine goo sinking in ribbons to the bottom of the glass, the edge of the spoon pokes out against the glass as it pulls upwards, stirring to blend though leaving unblended streaks too. I hear the spoon clinking on the side of the glass. 
     Chewing the tip of a red and white straw I'd blow bubbles till they overflowed, sliding in slow-motion down the side of the glass, popping on the table leaving chocolate milk rings. In my teens I swiped a baby bottle from one of my charges and late at night I’d lie on the couch stoned, sucking chocolate milk, obliterating my mind on late night tv. 
   Tasting my homemade elixir the chocolates’ spiciness ignited my throat while the milk caressed, hushing the flame. My eyes grew heavy. The sip coddled like only a mother can.

Making syrup from scratch takes hardly a minute. 
Syrup
1 cup good quality unsweetened cocoa
2/3 cup sugar
1 cup water
pinch of salt
big splash of vanilla
In a small saucepan over medium heat whisk together cocoa, sugar, water and salt. When it comes to a boil, remove from heat and stir in vanilla. It thickens as it cools. Can be stored in a jar in the refrigerator for weeks.


Add a tablespoon or two into a big glass of cold milk. Stir.














#rememberingmymotheronebiteatatime seeded rye

I hated the seeds in the rye my mother loved. Now I can pick them out.
                   

#rememberingmymotheronebiteatatime mashed potatoes




In most cases the progression of Parkinson’s includes dementia but that’s almost too simplistic to describe the hallucinatory dissociation and drug induced psychosis that was part of my mother’s increasing isolation and grim prospects. At some point she drifted from lucid to lost but even then, if I hung on her words I could shuffle them into something resembling conversation. I’d sit close leaning in my ear and guess at her mumbles and every so often I’d lean even closer and whisper I was sorry her life was so hard. It went on like this for years. Long spells without coherence. Her eyes shut, her face a twisted grimace, and then miraculously she'd look me in the eye and say clear as day she wished she were dead. 

Mostly, until the end, she knew who I was and I would feel that maybe, if nothing else, I brightened her day. You might call it love, but there was bleakness, and below that a layer of magical thinking; as if my presence could reverse broken neurons, as if it were a matter of will for her to pull herself together. As she lay finally dying the hospice nurses wanted to give her morphine to ease her passing. I withheld permission. I wanted her suffering over, I’d been saying that for years, but I wanted more to hold on to the dream that she’d wake up and tell me something happy. A loving last word. 

Making and eating her food memorializes her. The way the taste of foods I haven’t eaten for years carries me through time helps bypass the black hole of illness. 

Trying to remember everyday routines I close my eyes and imagine the kitchen of my childhood home. At the top of the room an assembly of avocado pits rooting in murky water sit on the sill of the air shaft window. Jammed down the narrow length of the room a four burner gas range and a chipped enamel sink face the harvest-gold floor-to-ceiling cabinets and the noisy Frigidaire on the opposite wall. Some years there was a caged parakeet on top of the fridge--Skipper 1, Skipper 2 and so on. I remember the smell of the broom closet, and at the far other end the wall phone with its perpetually twisted cord and the notepad and pencils tucked neatly on the counter. I see the white formica table and moulded swivel chairs in the center of the room but I don’t see us. I have no memories of arguing with my sister over who set or cleared, no memories of eating as a family. I can't recall what we spoke about around that table. The image of the kitchen is silent except for a memory of the ticking Modernist clock with no numbers that made it so hard for me to learn to tell time.    

What I can summon clearly are memories of things cooking—flank steak marinated in garlic powder and soy sauce, charred on a warped cookie sheet. A roasting pan with permanently blackened corners filled with chicken breasts topped with lemon rounds and parsley, and the ever present saucepan simmering, brimming with potatoes, or spaghetti, or stew. 

After my mother remarried and I went to college and they moved from the west-side to a smaller apartment on the east-side and my mother did less cooking, that saucepan moved to their week-end house upstate. There, the scuffed dented workhorse with its ill-fitting lid took on a patina of calcified lime from the well-water used for boiling, and when it came time years later to sell the house, the pot was relegated to the pile for the auctioneer. The stigma surrounding aluminum cookware and Alzheimer’s, even if discounted by further studies was enough for me to let it go.

Now, I wanted to make mashed potatoes the way my mother made mashed potatoes, and that is when I was hit with the longing that is grief. I couldn’t make potatoes because I didn’t have her pot. Of course I can cook them in my fancy stainless steel, or if I’d wanted to snap a genuine looking photo for this collection of stories I could stop by the Salvation Army and pick up something old for nothing, but that's not the point. It is her pot I want and I made the mistake of letting it go.

#rememberingmymotheronebiteatatime tuna fish




It wasn’t everyday but many many days I had tuna salad for lunch. I can take it back to pre-school sitting on the floor in front of our black and white tv watching Romper Room eating mayo heavy tuna on crustless white bread sandwich quarters, and move it forward to middle school when I started making my own school lunches or to high school when it was on toasted whole wheat with added tomato slices, red onion, capers and a layer of crumbled potato chips to keep the bread from getting soggy. 

So few are the memories of cooking with my mother I can count them on my fingers. She taught me to squeeze the water from grated potatoes before frying latkes, to shape meatballs by rolling them between my hands as if they were balls of clay, to pull creamed spinach from a boil-in-bag with bamboo toaster tongs so as not to waste any and also not to burn my fingers, and to finely dice celery for tuna.

Celery was a refrigerator staple. She used it in soups and stews, used the leaves in salad, and fed us stalks filled with cream cheese for snack. I was fascinated by the dirt nestled in the root ends, the fibrous threads, the two part procedure of cutting strips the length of the stalk and then bundling them for the perpendicular cut to dice.

I married a man who didn’t eat mayonnaise and my children wouldn't eat fish so I stopped making tuna salad and ate it only rarely at luncheonettes where it was always disappointing. 


A few weeks after my mother died I made some. I bought imported cruelty-free tuna packed in oil and put it in one of her bowls. I paid special attention to the celery and added onion diced the way she showed me. Once the sandwich was made I couldn’t wait long enough to snap a photo, couldn’t even get it on a plate. From kitchen counter to mouth, then whoosh I was teleported to when I loved my mother and she fed me and nothing else mattered. My hands could barely get the sandwich into me fast enough.