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.
(Serves 3 or 4)
1 lb. ground beef
1/2 c. uncooked long-grain rice
1/3 c. milk
3 tb. finely chopped onion
1/2 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
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.