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.


(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


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.

Irish eyes are smiling

I’m sad and embarrassed to admit I’ve neglected my blog so much these past few months, but let’s get jumpstarted back into the entries with my current trip to Ireland!

Hubby is doing a bunch of business in Europe this summer, so instead of a series of trips back and forth over the pond, the toddler and I came along for an extended stay. We’ve settled into my mother-in-law’s house in Millstreet, County Cork as our home base for about six weeks. We’re currently halfway through the trip, and with all the side jaunts we’ve been doing to see various and sundry relatives, the time is flying by.

This is my sixth trip to Ireland, and the weather this time around by far blows away any other visit. Warm, sunny and barely a hint of rain in the past three weeks. Unbelievable for a country where you are likely to experience, as they say, four seasons in one day. I’ve packed horribly wrong by bringing jeans, long-sleeved shirts and even a sweater or two when I could have gotten away with shorts, sandals and sundresses. Who knew? Oddly enough, from what we can tell, Indianapolis has been plagued by terrible thunderstorms and tornado watches since we’ve been away. Talk about a role reversal…

Although Ireland is still full of the same gorgeous green ancient scenery as it has been in the six years I’ve been visiting, I do see some changes happening in my two most recent trips. First of all, the younger generation (and by younger, I mean mine) seems to be moving away from drinking tea into a coffee culture. Cafes and coffee shop/bakeries have been springing up like weeds, serving all manner of hot beverages including fancy flavored lattes. Starbucks hasn’t yet taken over; there was a location next door to the hotel where we stayed in Dublin, but it’s been the only one I’ve seen so far. Sadly, most of the coffee is mediocre at best. Lots of instant powdered, and lots of not-expertly prepared versions. Of course, hubby and I are coffee snobs, having sampled the really good java in France and Italy where baristas really know what they’re doing. Still, I imagine the quality of the Irish joe will only keep improving within the next few years to meet the growing demand.

Other big changes are taking place on the restaurant scene. In the past, dining out in Ireland has been a limited proposition. Menus were very abbreviated, most items automatically came with fries/chips, and everything was pretty expensive regardless of quality or quantity. For that reason, people here don’t seem to dine out very often. Add up the costs for two adults and a couple of kids and you’re likely to drop some serious cash on a dinner or a take-away. (That’s take-out for my fellow Americans.)

Thus, most of our meals have been eaten at home, lovingly prepared by my mother-in-law or one of hubby’s sisters, and they’ve been delicious. But I’m also happy to report I’ve been pleasantly surprised with the meals we’ve enjoyed out these past few weeks.

For example – hubby and I escaped for a date night dinner a couple weeks ago while staying with my sister-in-law in Bandon. Destination? A renovated gastropub called Poachers, renowned for its fish dishes. The place was fairly busy at 8 p.m. on the Tuesday night we were there; obviously, the local community is embracing the changes.

Poachers Inn, Bandon

The menu was nicely upscale, full of pretty fancy, borderline fussy stuff with elaborate garnishes and saucing. Hubby ordered a stuffed chicken breast served with ratatouille vegetables and mashed potatoes. I went for a three-course prix-fixe menu for 25 euros. My starter was a handful of small toasts topped with a whipped goat cheese mousse-like concoction, slivers of preserved lemon and thin slices of beet. A fresh herb salad with pickled cucumbers anchored the center of the plate. Yum.

My main course was two delectable crab-and-prawn cakes topped with a mango plum salsa relish, creamy mayonnaise tartar sauce and more salad. Not a potato in sight – crazy!!! For dessert, hubby and I shared my warm gingerbreadish sticky toffee pudding with a scoop of whipped cream and hearty drizzle of caramel sauce. All in all, a splendid meal. And even more impressive, our total bill (with a couple beers and two glasses of wine) hovered around $75 dollars, easily fair value for the amount and caliber of food.

Restaurant diversity is expanding, too. On an overnight in Dublin, I was thrilled to see all ilk of ethnic eateries. Even in little Millstreet, there is an Indian restaurant and a new pizza place I’d like to try. In Dublin, we ate dinner at a small, modern Italian ristorante near our hotel. Hubby ordered his tried-and-true standby – a pizza salami and I opted for a penne pasta with pesto and thick shavings of pungent parmesan. The food was solid and authentic, not the best I’ve ever had, but certainly tasty enough.

Breakfast the next morning was another story. Thanks to hubby’s fortuitous suggestion to follow an unexplored side street, we came across a tiny café advertising breakfast all day. Sold, and in we went. As I mentioned earlier, cafes are popping up a dime a dozen all around these parts, but this was a particularly good one. We nestled into a small table toward the back under skylights next to a small open-air patio and started browsing through a menu full of breakfast choices.

After much consideration, hubby and I settled on the same item – a super-freshly prepared huge croissant sandwich with cheese, salty slabs of Irish bacon and scrambled egg, served with a small ramekin of delicious Ballymaloe tomato relish (a sweetish, spicy, chunky ketchup). For the toddler, we ordered pancakes — which I keep forgetting are actually crepes here — with sliced banana and Nutella. We also couldn’t resist ordering a “Babychino” for him, a cup of sweet steamed milk with chocolate shavings on top, which our picky little boy soundly refused to drink, although he did polish off the crepes and Nutella without much coaxing.

Speaking of Ballymaloe, Ireland’s well-known culinary school empire, I have several gift vouchers that I’m hoping to make use of with a wonderful lunch or dinner, if not an overnight stay at the inn. More to come on that later…

Other meals that stand out thus far – a simple traditional roast chicken and boiled ham dinner from my mother-in-law. Rounded out with classic roasted potatoes and vegetables, it was Irish cooking at its best. Also memorable was a fresh cannelloni my brother-in-law whipped up, complete with handmade pasta and a savory ricotta/mascarpone/ground beef filling and topped with tomatoes. Oh. My. Goodness. It was melt-in-your-mouth fabulous.

Here’s to more good eats to come, and slainte!