Home sweet home

Have spent the past few days reacclimating to the old homestead, and fighting off a pesky cold/flu bug that’s infiltrated my sinuses. Funny that we’ve been on the go in Europe for three weeks, out and about in cold rainy weather, navigating transatlantic flights, and when do I get sick? Only after I get back to the comfort and safety of my own home. Hmph.

I’m delighted to be back in my own kitchen and working again with my own knives, utensils and pots/pans; stocking groceries in my own roomy stainless steel fridge; and sitting down to eat at my own massive dining table. Needing a culinary break from continental fare, the first few meals I made this week were as decidedly anti-French/Italian/German as I could think up — chicken curry with sweet potatoes and chickpeas, Asian crusted tilapia with Thai peanut noodles (thanks for the recipe, Gillian!), and fluffy chocolate chip buttermilk pancakes. We did break down and order a quattro formaggio from Bazbeaux one night when I didn’t feel up to cooking, but American pizza is really nothing like true Italian pizza anyway.

Yesterday was the granddaddy of all American meals, the most comfortable of all comfort foods — Thanksgiving dinner. My family was sort of scattered to the winds this year and since my closest unit members and I are still recovering from our trip (did I mention I’ve been up at 5:30 or 6 a.m. every day this week?), we decided to play it very low key. Fortunately, our lovely friends/neighbors down the street invited us over. I was all prepared to cook a turkey breast with some scaled-down fixings at home, but feeling as under the weather as I do, was secretly thrilled not to for once.

Thanksgiving is always a bittersweet holiday for me, resurrecting memories of all the years I spent alongside my mom in the kitchen as she prepared a huge spread of her tried-and-true classics. Always the same stuffing recipe, always the scalloped corn casserole, always the cranberry ice that made my teeth ache. I was living in Los Angeles the last Thanksgiving my mom was alive, and it was the first year I didn’t make it home for the holiday. After a very nice dinner at my Uncle Dave’s house in Camarillo just northwest of L.A., I remember stealing a few moments to myself in a darkened bedroom to cry, somehow knowing that the unquestionable family tradition I’d enjoyed for 31 years was changing and would never be the same again.

And it hasn’t. The year my mom died, we went out to eat for Thanksgiving for the first time ever. It felt like a sacrilege, but the thought of even attempting to recreate her traditions in her kitchen without her there was more than I could bear. I don’t remember much about our dinner that year, other than the food seemed bland and tasteless and there was a gaping hole at the table where my mom should have been.

That was eight years ago. Time does heal wounds, but never eliminates them entirely. I’ll always think of my mom on Thanksgiving day, bustling around the kitchen like a fearless conductor of her own culinary symphony. I have cooked my own Thanksgiving dinners since then. One year, the “fresh” turkey I’d purchased the night before turned out to be completely frozen solid in the middle when I went to put it in the oven. Certain side dishes have met with varying degrees of success. I’ve learned some valuable trial-and-error lessons along the way. I know some people get totally flustered about the idea of cooking a Thanksgiving dinner, but at this point, preparing the big meal doesn’t freak me out. I’m something of a traditionalist when it comes to turkey day, so I usually try to serve a combination of old favorites and maybe one or two new recipes thrown in to keep things fresh.

This year, though, Ron and Janet saved me the trouble, bless them. Their spread was a fabulous collection of all the best stuff — perfectly roasted turkey, creamy mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes with yummy melty marshmallows on top, green bean casserole (which I always vow needs to be made much more often than just once a year), and a savory wild rice with mushrooms. As Janet so accurately summed up, Thanksgiving is all about the starches. True dat! I contributed a stuffing I made with apples, onions, celery, sage and rosemary (hubby already said he wasn’t going to eat any, so I made it to please myself!); and a bowl of vanilla orange cranberry sauce. All in all, it was a delicious and satisfying dinner shared with good friends. What more could a person ask for? I was truly thankful.

By the way, best use of Thanksgiving leftovers in my book? White meat turkey sandwich on white bread with Miracle Whip, a layer of stuffing and some cranberry sauce. Followed up by a piece of pumpkin pie doused with Cool Whip. Yeah, baby. Now you’re talking.

My thoughts are already turning ahead to the holidays. So many recipes, so little time. I’m already mentally running through lists of cookies I want to make, roasts I can put in the crockpot on the cold nights ahead, my mom’s brandy slush recipe, and a slew of seasonal side dishes. Every year, I have big plans to invite friends over for dinners, a cookie swap, maybe a brunch, and before I know it, Christmas has come and gone. I vow this year not to get so wrapped up in the shopping and stresses of the holiday season that I forget to just relax and spend some time with the people I care about. Spontaneous stolen moments are way better than no moments at all.

Today, we hope to venture out to get our Christmas tree while my adorable stepson is here to help decorate. Perhaps we’ll even follow up our tree-decorating efforts with some cookies and homemade hot chocolate… ah. I know many people loathe the long, cold winter, but I look at it as an opportunity to cuddle up with the ones you love and enjoy a bunch of heart- and tummy-warming dishes that don’t taste nearly as good any other time of year.

To that end… my nose is running again. I think it’s time for a cup of tea and my favorite afghan. Don’t forget to count your blessings.

Memories of mom food

This past Monday would have been my mom’s 78th birthday, so of course, she’s been on my mind all week. My dear mom passed away eight years ago, and still, not a day goes by that I don’t think of her.

On a not-so-coincidental note, I just finished reading Molly Wizenberg’s book “A Homemade Life,” and it really hit home for me. Each chapter consists of a personal food-related anecdote along with a corresponding (and mouthwatering) recipe, sort of a my-life-story-through-food piece of work.

Whose life doesn’t have distinctive food-related memories, especially where moms are concerned? Whether she was a gourmet chef who made the most elaborate dinners in town or had trouble boiling water to make a box of mac and cheese, everyone has food connotations when it comes their moms. Chances are, there’s at least one thing she made — good, bad or ugly — that will forever stand out in your memory and remind you of her.

My mom wasn’t a terribly adventurous cook, but what she made was solidly good and consistent. Let me paint a picture for you. As a child of the 1970s growing up in Indiana, here’s what the majority of our family dinners looked like. Some sort of meat (usually dipped in flour and fried), mashed potatoes from a box with gravy, canned green beans, individual bowls of iceberg lettuce salad with Kraft French dressing and perhaps a few shreds of cheese, and bread and butter. Sound familiar? Not that we didn’t branch out now and then and go crazy with a pizza, tacos or something else, but that was the sort of meal you might find on our table any given night during my childhood.

This is not to say that my mom wasn’t a good cook. She was. She was also an extremely organized cook. These two qualities led to her leadership rise on church planning committees for large-scale luncheons, dinners and banquets. (I like to think this is where I get my penchant for catering – it’s in my blood.) I just think as a busy working woman with two children, she took some shortcuts where she could find them, and when they proved successful with picky eaters like my brother and I. She had her work cut out for her. I didn’t grow to appreciate vegetables until college and liked to douse my fried chicken with ketchup. My brother got upset if any food item on his plate touched anything else. Fortunately, my dad was an easy audience, inhaling two or three servings of anything she put in front of him and pronouncing it wonderful.

Some of my mom’s “famous” dishes include spaghetti sauce that consisted of ground beef mixed with cans of tomato and mushroom soup and a little Italian seasoning, a chocolate chip coffeecake that has personally won me some rave reviews as well (including a recipe publication in Rachael Ray Magazine), and a fancy beef dish called Saucy Sirloin that she’d make when company came over.

I was at my dad’s house last weekend and happened to catch a glimpse of my mom’s old recipe box on a cabinet shelf as he reached in for something, so I swiped it and brought it home with me to look through at my leisure this week. This was a real walk down memory lane. Inside, I found some real treasures, like my grandmother’s pineapple cookies and persimmon pudding recipes. I also found a lot of things that call for a can of Campbell’s or a packet of Lipton onion soup mix, old favorite standbys for Hoosier cooks of a certain age and inclination. And casseroles. LOTS of casseroles.

There were a few recipes in there that I can’t recall ever eating. I don’t remember my mom ever preparing anything as exotic as asparagus strata, chicken curry or Harvey Wallbanger cake, but lo and behold, there they were. And I must admit, I was moved and thrilled to actually uncover a few recipes I had given her over the years that she must have thought worthy enough to hold onto.

In my beloved mom’s honor, I dug out one of her oldies but goodies to make the other night. It’s called porcupines. (Relax. Although we have been known to eat wildlife shot by my dad or brother from time to time, this dish is not actually made of porcupines, silly.) It’s a moist and savory meatball with rice that spikes out as it cooks to look like – what else – a porcupine. The whole thing simmers away in a tangy tomato/Worchestershire bath until it’s tender and delicious. My toddler even ate some without protest. And because the ingredients are simple and accessible, it’s super affordable to make. This hearty dish is a great alternative to meatloaf, perfect to serve with a salad, green beans or perhaps some steamed broccoli with cheese sauce. Give it a whirl and let me know what you think.

And to my mom, wherever you are, thanks.

Porcupines

(Serves 3 or 4)

1 lb. ground beef

1/2 c. uncooked long-grain rice

1/3 c. milk

3 tb. finely chopped onion

1 egg

1/2 tsp. celery salt

1/4 tsp. garlic salt

2 tb. margarine (or Crisco shortening if you’re really kicking it old school)

1 15-oz. can crushed tomatoes

1 c. water

1 tb. Worchestershire sauce

Directions:

In a large bowl, mix the ground beef, rice, milk, onion, egg, celery salt and garlic salt until well combined. You can add a few twists of freshly ground pepper as well. Form into meatballs about the size of a golf ball; an ice cream scoop works well for this purpose and lets you make sure all the meatballs are evenly sized.

Melt the margarine in a large saucepan and add the meatballs. Turn them gently to brown on all sides, then add the tomatoes, water and Worchestershire sauce. Cover the pan and simmer for 35-40 minutes until the rice is cooked, moving the meatballs occasionally to make sure they aren’t sticking to the bottom. If the liquid boils away too much, add a little more water, but the sauce should be fairly thick when it’s done.