Archives For food memories

The lesson of the leeks

victoria  —  December 3, 2014

When life has been difficult in the past, I’ve always gone back to the kitchen. Chopping vegetables, stirring pots, kneading bread are my standing, moving meditation. There is accomplishment and completion in the way perfectly diced potatoes or onions fall from my knife or the way a bread dough rises under a floured tea towel to fill the bowl it’s resting in. When life is swirling in chaos, the kitchen always makes sense to me.

When my father died. I spent the afternoon making sesame seed cookies that had to be rolled and cut into tiny stars. One of my father’s sisters took me aside and asked me if I was okay and if I knew it was okay for me to be upset and to cry. I knew it but I couldn’t do it with a house full of people. I can talk about crying and emotions in public, or as public as writing is, but I have a hard time actually crying in public. I’m more of a solitary, darkened theater, or one-on-one cryer.

In the last two months my cooking has been sporadic. I’ve been traveling, then flat on my back with a pulled muscle and then sad. The Sunday after my mother died, my back was well enough that I could cook and I made chili and cornbread. Julian looked at me at dinner and asked if I’d done it on purpose, my father’s chili recipe, my mother’s cornbread recipe, tweaked by me over the years to suit my cooking style. I hadn’t done it on purpose or at least not consciously.

I didn’t get much time to process my trip before I was wrestling with my mother’s death and now it’s all bound together in a knot I can’t seem to untangle. I’d forgotten about my best personal place of calm, though the yoga and meditating and British mysteries had been helping. We tried to get back to normal last night by doing our weekly menu. Tonight a pureed potato leek soup with porcini oil and crispy leeks. Keifel found the recipe in my notebook of recipes clipped from magazines over the years. In coming across it, he said it reminded him of the soup we had at Most our last night in Ljubljana. It’s a million miles away from the potato soup my mom used to make. Fancy to rustic. Both equally good. Both in my repertoire.

To prepare leeks you remove the tough green leaves and the root end and slice the remaining white cylinder in half so you can easily wash the sand from between the layers, fanning them like a book under running water. Leeks are much milder than onions and very rarely make anyone cry. Watching the half moons of leek fall from my knife, I cried. Remembering the one thing my father asked me to make him when the chemotherapy had robbed everything he ate of flavor.

When he had a print shop in Detroit there’d been a Greek deli nearby that served avgolemono, a lemon and rice soup. I’d never heard of it or eaten it but the internet of 2001 was already filled with recipes and I easily found one. It wasn’t the same exactly but the look on his face, a mixture of nostalgia and gratitude, made me feel like that soup was the best gift I ever gave my father.

Avgolemono doesn’t even have leeks in it. And there in lies my lesson. It doesn’t matter that I don’t cook like exactly like either of my parents or that my travels and culinary education have given me tastes for things they never encountered. Before my mother’s health took its last debilitating turns she would send me recipes clipped from the Chattanooga Free Press or call me and ask for a recipe she had made hundreds of times so she could share it with a neighbor or staff person at assisted living, even though the residents only had microwaves and I was pretty sure they weren’t making oatmeal bread in them. Food is a language we all have in common and the things we make tell part of the story of who we are, where we came from, even when those stories are of burned dinners or of empty plates and stomachs. Even though both of my parents are dead and I can’t tell those stories with them, can’t wash while they dry the dinner dishes, they are both in everything I make, even my posh potato and leek soup that neither of them ever tasted.

 

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And then there was a coffee

victoria  —  October 8, 2014

Twenty two years ago when I was 19, I packed a backpack and took off for a year in Slovenia. Croatia to the immediate south and the rest of former Yugoslavia were still at war. I do think everyone, especially my parents, thought I was crazy. I was a little. I mean, I was 19. I’d fallen in love with Slovenian poetry and this tiny little jewel box of a country I had visited the year before. I wanted to dive in. I had great plans to master Slovenian and become a translator and a poet and teach and travel the world. This year in Slovenia was meant to push the boat out into those particular seas.

So much happened that year. Hence the reason I decided to write a book about it, even if it never sees the light of day. I fell in love with Slovenia, hard, but initially it didn’t seem to care much for me. I constantly felt out of place. I felt so American, so foreign and the language was so difficult, I thought perhaps I had made a big, and expensive, mistake. But then, near the time I was to leave, I suddenly seemed to have enough Slovenian to get by. I knew my way around on my bike. I had a job. And, most surprising to me, I fell in love with a Slovene.

And then I left because I had to go home. I had to finish school. I thought I had to do the expected thing, try to be the good girl. And my heart broke. No one told me that coming home would be its own culture shock. I dreamed in Slovenian. And I missed Ljubljana and the friends I had made and Saša (as he is called in the book). And school was miserable. I had fallen from grace for things too complicated to explain here. And I did stupid and slightly destructive things to self-medicate my heartbreak.

In the midst of all of that, I became a mom. Grad school happened, but not as planned. Returning to Slovenia as a translator definitely didn’t happen. I was too broke to travel. I stopped writing after grad school because, again with the self-flagellation, I thought I had screwed that up so badly I didn’t deserve it and I needed to find something that paid the bills. I met Keifel. I became a chef. Julian grew up. And we moved again and here was this stack of letters and notebooks and a postcard from Saša and now there is a book and this trip.

And last night there was kava s smetana. Coffee with solidly whipped unsweetened cream. I was sitting at a cafe yards from the bar I’d spent most of my evenings drinking back then. I was surrounded by the sounds of people speaking Slovenian and the soft chink of wine and beer glasses and the smell of cigarette smoke. And there was a flood inside me as if the Ljubljanica had jumped its banks to run down Stari trg through 41 year old me and 19 year old me sitting at a table feeling completely exposed and completely invisible, stunned that so much time could pass.

One sign you might be raising your boy right :

Julian's first pie crust

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Still summer. Still hotter than h-e-double hockey sticks. And I now have even greater reason to avoid turning on the oven; the element burnt out in a spectacular pyrotechnic display while making biscuits by request of the newly-returned from Trinidad boychick. In case you were curious, you can finish half baked biscuits on broil with fair results.

All that aside. We’re here for the sloppy joes. I honestly can’t tell you the last time I had them but I think it might have involved pigtails and Mom pouring the sauce out of a can of Manwich. They were definitely something I associated with late night dinners of my youth.

Jules, said boychick, and I were a the farmers’ market on Saturday and he was carrying around a bag of hamburger type buns we purchased from the Provence stand. The woman we bought our peaches from asked if we’d slap a burger or sloppy joe on one of those for her. The idea was planted.

On returning home later than expected this evening, I had planned to make dal and rice. A very hungry Jules suggested sloppy joes instead. Not having made the messy sandwiches in question in eons, if ever, I consulted that tome of American recipes: The Joy of Cooking. Not having several things the recipe called for, I winged it.

Sunday Night Sloppy Joes (mostly local)

Chop one onion and 4 to 5 cloves of garlic finely. Heat about a tablespoon of safflower or similar high-heat oil in a saute pan. Stir that around a bit while cutting up 3 or four small sweet peppers nearly lost to the back of fridge demon or one regular-sized red or yellow sweet bell pepper. Add the pepper to the pot. Add two teaspoons celery seed unless, unlike me, you have celery, then chop up one stalk finely and add that to the pan. Saute until everything is softened but not browned. Add one pound (local!) ground beef, a tablespoon of pomegranate molasses (or 2 tablespoons brown sugar and the juice of half a lime), a tablespoon or two of Worcestershire sauce, salt and pepper to taste, half a teaspoon red pepper flake and a tablespoon paprika. While that is browning, stir it some to break up the meat and rummage through the fridge for some pickled peppers you made a week or so ago, if you find them, chop them up and toss them in the pan with some of the vinegar in the jar (Tablespoon or so). If you don’t find them, add a tablespoon or two of pickle relish or chopped-up pickles of some persuasion with a little of the vinegar in the jar. When the meat has browned and is pretty much done, pour in a quarter to half a large can of Muir Glen crushed, fire-roasted tomatoes, depending on how sloppy you like your sloppy joes. Serve immediately on sturdy hamburger buns.

BONUS recipe!

Oil Biscuits (damn near instant bread for dinner which can be half baked and finished on broil if necessary)

2 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour (can sub up to 1 cup with whole wheat for still pretty fluffy biscuits)

1 tablespoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 cup safflower oil (or similar light tasting, high heat oil)

3/4 cup butter milk

 

Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Make a well in the center of the flour mixture. In a 1 cup measure, pour in 1/4 cup oil, top with 3/4 cup buttermilk. Don’t stir. Pour into well in dry ingredients. Using a fork faff (technical term…) the flour mixture and liquid together just until it clumps up and most of the flour is moistened. Dump on clean counter or similar, gently knead and turn three times, then stop. No, really. Stop. Gently form into roughly 8″ square about an inch high. Using a  knife or bench scraper, cut into nine equal-ish squares. Transfer to a baking sheet and bake until tops are lightly browned (about 12 minutes). Serve immediately.

(For variety, grate 2 ounces sharp cheddar and toss in flour mixture or add chopped fresh herbs to the flour mixture. For impromptu short cakes you can add 1/4 cup sugar to the dry mixture and 1 egg to the wet.)

 

The industrialization of Great Britain and the United States ended the extensive celebration of the Christmas holiday which began at All Saints’ Day or Halloween with the largest, most extravagant feast held on January 5th or January 6th, the Twelfth Day of Christmas, depending on if you counted from Christmas Day or from St. Stephen’s or Boxing Day. This time was ruled over by the Lord of Misrule or in some countries, the Boy Bishop. The general order of things was turned on its head–peasants were lords, play was the work of the day, and special foods untasted for most of the year were the basis of feasts. The fields were fallow and little agricultural work had to be done. Masked balls; pantomime plays; caroling with the expectation of food, drink or coin in return; honoring the animals and fields with bonfires and wassailing; giving tokens of appreciation to loved ones and food and clothing to the poor or one’s tenants were all part of this extended time of revelry. Many of the traditions of Twelfth Night were held dearly enough to be shifted to other holidays that still burned brightly as single days of celebration. Begging door to door evolved into contemporary trick-or-treating (which seems to be currently on the wane). The elaborate Twelfth Night cakes and tarts migrated to Christmas with the gold coin baked inside. Masked balls migrated to Halloween and continued into the Carnival season, as well. Pantomime survives in England and Epiphany, Twelfth Night’s more religious moniker, survives as an important holiday especially in Spanish-speaking, largely Catholic countries where cakes are baked and children receive small gifts to celebration the adoration of the Magi at the birth of Jesus. Epiphany also marks the beginning of Carnival.

In the rush of our modern lives when some of us work right through Christmas and New Year’s Day, the thought of a twelve-day holiday seems like a ridiculous endeavor. And, it is true, modern life does not bend well to celebrating from October first to January sixth and then right on to Mardi Gras. Unlike our agriculturally minded forebears, we don’t have a whole season of downtime. But, I do think there is much to be learned from these now bygone observations. These celebrations revolved around spending time with family and friends and engaging with one’s whole community. They centered on a spiritual life that celebrated a rebirth of the sun or the birth of a savior. We may not believe as these same ancient or more recent forebears did, but we can choose to celebrate each other without the trappings of our material-centered modern holiday where the Christmas season begins in July only because that’s when the Christmas decorations show up in stores. We can choose to adopt this time as our own time of rebirth, re-centering, recuperating, reconnecting…reveling.

Happy T-day!

victoria  —  November 25, 2009 — Leave a comment

Gobble gobble.

Gobble gobble.

Yes. I am lame and have fallen sadly, woefully behind in posting. Life is, well, life is good but many other things bid for my time. I wish you and yours the warmest Thanksgiving wishes with friends and family (the birthed into kind and the chosen) around a big table laden with all your holiday favorites prepared most traditionally down to the Durkee crisp onions or with the wildest gourmet flights of fancy, whatever floats your gravy boat.

I’m not sure what happened to the January thaw, though we may be getting it now. I will say that being under the weather when the weather involves single digits and windchill factors is no fun at all. I am on the mend now despite the fog horn cough and still feeling like standing up long enough to do the dishes is enough exercise for the day. It has given me time to ponder what constitutes comfort food for me. Given the dearth of groceries and the fact that everyone was sick over the course of the week and therefore grocery shopping wasn’t happening so much, what I was craving and what I was actually cooking and eating weren’t entirely in sync.

I have long established that when I am sick, I tend to want gruel. I know that sounds terribly Dickensian but it’s absolutely true. Though if by gruel you mean watery gray ick with chunks in, we are probably not talking about the same think. What I really want to eat might more appropriately be called porridge. For lunch this week I had polenta made with milk so it is kind of like corn pudding with a little butter and salt and later in the week steel cut oats made an appearance, also made with milk to the same effect but I added some cinnamon and a little raw sugar. I also really craved eggdrop soup which my faithful and dear husband supplied via China Dragon. The proprietress swears by hot and sour soup which Keifel said made him feel better but when it was my turn, not so much. I find it bitter rather than sour and it had something oddly textured in it which did not appeal. When you can’t actually taste anything, texture is pretty important.

The thing I really wanted was my mom’s potato soup, which has, of this I am certain, Herculean healing powers. It is a fairly simple milky broth with herbs and a little butter, onions and potato chunks cooked until the edges are soft and sloughing off to thicken the soup. Sometimes she adds some cheese to make it a little richer, but really the peasanty version is the real deal and what I would prefer when I am on the couch under three layers of blankets and shivering. When I was little (and sick all the damn time), I don’t really remember much about what Mom or Dad made. I do remember orange sherbet or lime if the store had it and lots of Gatorade, because that was before the days of Pedialyte and its ilk. I also remember chicken noodle soup, but I think it might have been Campbell’s. The potato soup doesn’t enter my memory bank until later. College maybe? When I had my wisdom teeth out. Another thing I am also certain of is that Mom’s potato soup also has the power to make even the deep ache of heartbreak lessen, if even for a brief moment or two. I think I may have lived on potato soup for a week or two during at least two of my most trying times. There really isn’t a recipe so much as a talk through:

Mom’s Potato Soup, as I recall:

1 pound floury potatoes
1 large yellow onion, halved and sliced pole to pole or julienned
About a tablespoon of butter
1 quart of liquid, about half milk and half chicken stock or water
Fresh thyme leaves
Salt and pepper to taste
Handful of grated cheese, Parm or Gruyere being the better choices (optional, of course)

Peel and slice the potatoes about 1/4″ thick, cutting the bigger slices in half if necessary. Set aside in a bowl of cold water, while you do everything else. In a soup pot that will hold about 2 quarts, melt the butter over medium heat until foamy. When the foam subsides, add the sliced onions and saute until softened and translucent. You really want to cook them just about as done as you want them here as they won’t soften much after you add the liquid.

Once the onions are to your liking, add the liquid (milk and broth) and the drained potatoes, the thyme and about a teaspoon of salt. Cook until the potatoes are soft and the edges have started to round off. You can make a choice here to leave as is or take out about a third of the soup and puree in a blender to add back as a further thickening agent or you can hit it a couple times with a stick blender (which is safer and less messy–if you are using a blender remember to take the little cup out of the lid and loosely hold a towel over the hole while you puree the soup portion. This will keep you from scalding and painting yourself with exploding potato soup. Trust me.) When you are happy with the body of the soup, taste for seasoning and add more salt and the pepper as you desire. If you are going to add the cheese, take the soup off the heat and add a small amount at a time, stirring until it melts before adding more. If you add the cheese it is very important that you do not allow the soup to boil. Serve immediately.

I can almost guarantee that you will never be served this soup in a four star restaurant, but sometimes that just isn’t what I’m looking for.

Hope your winter holiday is the loveliest of lovelies, whatever you are celebrating.

Smiling, even though I will be eaten.

Smiling, even though I will be eaten.

Cafe sitting

victoria  —  November 17, 2008 — 2 Comments

Okay, I know. I am suppose to be grading papers. But, but… it’s fall. It’s still fall, at least here anyway. The leaves are still clinging to the trees in their Crayola shades and the air is crisp but not bone-achingly cold, yet (not that we get much of that here). The sky is a little gray today but moving in such a way that it might be clear later. All of this and a hot latte make it hard to grade papers. I want to be doing something else. I should be writing…does this count?

I do love that the cold weather cooking has begun in earnest. There are batches of chili and turkeyherd pie made and consumed or frozen. Two loves of pumpkin bread with pepitas and dried cranberries have been dispatched. I find myself wanting tea in the afternoons instead of my usual all day coffee binge.

Julian and Keifel have been supportive of the newly returned to vegetarianism. I really thought there would be more of an adjustment, but I made the decision to be more flexitarian to make it easier on them and on me. It is more work than a Tuesday night will bear to cook two separate entrees, as the boys are not on the veg bandwagon. I have been making things that can be easily partitioned. It seems to be working. Last night’s turkeyherd pie was actually 1/3 Woolton pie homage, though no turnips were harmed in the making. I mixed the usual sauteed veg with some Puy lentils and used veg stock as the gravy liquid in both sections. The boys got some lentils in their turkeyherd and I got some turkey juice in my Woolton-esque, but it’s all good. My return to vegetarianism was not meant to be religiously scripted. I don’t think that would serve the ongoing dinner peace well.

Now, I really must get to those papers.

It’s another post that finds me mourning. This is something I feel I have had to do too much of this year. Family members have died. Friends have died. Today my grief comes in the wake of a violent act that has shaken me to the foundations of my faith. The shooting yesterday at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church was a transgression of the highest order. A man walked into a building with the intent to kill all those present because of their beliefs. Obviously, mental illness must play a part in this. I can’t believe that anyone in their right mind could be capable of levelling a shotgun at men, women and children in the sanctuary, sanctuary, of a church.

I know this is supposed to be a blog about food and cooking and culinary school. All those things are big part of my life. But at the center of that is my desire to feed and care for people and at the center of that need is my faith and what I feel called to do in this world. I am a Unitarian Universalist. I have been for more than fourteen years. I started going to a UU church in college and then when I moved home when I was pregnant with Julian, the women’s group at the UU church in Oak Ridge embraced me and my new baby when he arrived. When Julian and I moved to Knoxville we joined Tennessee Valley UU and found a safe place there after the events of September 11, 2001. When we moved to Nashville we, now as a family with Keifel, found a new spiritual home at First UU. My UU family has been there for me through some remarkably rocky times and I have always felt a sense of connection and peace at the heart of this loving, progressive faith. Yesterday, someone did what I could never imagine happening. I am sick at heart and grieving for those who died. Greg McKendry died shielding children and other church members from a shotgun blast. I believe that is an act of heroism. Other church members rushed to tackle the shooter and saved more lives. These men are to be commended as are the men and women who acted quickly and calmly to get others to safety.

In the aftermath of all of this, people of many faiths and denominations have sent messages of love, hope and healing to TVUUC and to Unitarian Universalists as a group. Knowing that has given me hope that all peoples of all faiths can stand together against bigotry and violence. On the flip side of this coin, there have been those who have said that it isn’t a “real” church and, in so many words, those liberal heathens got what they deserved. These words are another act of violence and can only serve to foster more acts violence. Unitarian Universalists believe in the inherent worth and dignity of all people, yes, even the man who came into the church to kill and, yes, even those who would use careless or pointed words to do further damage. My prayers are with the families of those murdered yesterday and those who were injured physically, mentally and spiritually. I am also praying that my church family at TVUUC can return to their sanctuary again very soon and feel safe there once more. I am also praying for the perpetrator of this crime and for those who can’t see past a difference in beliefs to the human being on the receiving end of those words of hate.

If you came looking for a recipe or a foodie witticism, thank you for reading this far. And whatever you might believe, or not believe, please hold these people, this church, this community of faith in your thoughts and prayers.