Dining Well on Memories

Posted: September 26, 2011 in Personal

In my usual daily blog perusal I came across some posts talking about food.  I have some very strong memories centered around food as it was central to our family life and what little socializing I was afforded as a child.  Here, then, are the kinds of food and meals that are floating around in my memories today.

My momma’s ice box lemon pie made with Eagle Brand milk.  Her no bake chocolate cookies.  Any and all pies…she could whip up three or four pies in the time it took me burn the biscuits.  Going to visit cousins in Miss. and picking fresh strawberries, green beans, corn, and avoiding cow patties that were as big as I was.   Bringing it all back in five gallon buckets and sitting around snapping and shucking for a while.

Black eyed peas with bacon, pork chops fried hard with bacon fat in a cast iron skillet, mashed potatoes, homemade white gravy (again with bacon fat), the ever present collard greens with a touch of vinegar and hot sauce, and finished with an upside down pineapple cake made in the same skillet—God, I miss my mother’s cooking!

Chicken and dumplings, not the German noodle kind, the fluffy cloud-like kind.  Sweet carrots and french style green beans.  My stepmother used to make this meal and I have never been able to reproduce it perfectly.  Still I make it as comfort food once in a while.

Noodles sauteed with some kind of crumbly stuff,  like wheat germ on them–from my stepmother’s father, who was from Spain.

While in Rome….Ziti with a dark green pesto sauce…Napolese style pizza at a pizzaria….thick pear juice in small glass bottle with white roll, a yellow cheese and milk chocolate for breakfast.

While in Spain–Churros con chocolate in Sevilla…a single hamburger patty sans bun with a fried egg in Merida…paella and too much sangria in Toledo…crostini with tomatoes, mozzarella, olive oil in a tapas bar near the Palacio Real in Madrid…a single fried egg with almost every meal.

Speaking of eggs….Sunny side up eggs, biscuits, and corned beef hash.  I learned to LOVE eggs from my father.  This is one of the few meals he would cook…Sunday morning breakfast.  I will always remember the way he chopped up his eggs in tiny little bits and scooped up the delicious yoke with his buttered biscuits.  I do the same now (except I add jelly out of pure hedonism) and I don’t give a damn if some people in other regions think that scooping up food with bread is impolite.

Dad also made SOS, he said he learned while in the military (he did a stint in both the Army and the Air Force but I don’t know which one he meant, maybe both). Shit on a Shingle was creamed chipped beef on toast.  It was simple but I loved it because he made it.

My grandmother’s bread and butter pickles.  Her recipe died with her.  She had a wonderful garden in the backyard of their suburban Memphis home.  Raised on a farm in Coldwater, Mississippi she knew what she was doing.  That garden was so dense and verdant that I swear she could have fed ten families off its bounty.  The art of gardening and then pickling and canning the results was sadly not passed on to my mother or me.  It’s a terrible loss.

That’s it…I’m getting hungry.



  1. alopecia says:

    Smell is the sense most likely to trigger memory, or so I’m reliably informed. What is food without the aromas?

    My mom hated to cook. She did it, but she took no joy in it, even for holiday meals; it was just another chore. When I was a kid, I’d watch The Galloping Gourmet, Graham Kerr’s first show—mostly because he was good for a laugh (I didn’t realize that his antics were too often fueled by excessive amounts of alcohol), but also because he enjoyed cooking and took food seriously.

    I more or less taught myself to cook with the help of the cookbook collections of a university library and a public library. And Cook’s Illustrated Magazine. And PBS (Julia Child!). It’s something I’m interested in and fascinated by—there’s something about cooking that revives the science geek in me. I even discovered in my foodie meanderings that MFK Fisher grew up in my hometown, which I consider something of an honor.

    But food-related memories? Unlike you, not many, I’m afraid. I’d chalk it up to the difference between a Southern California upbringing and a Southern upbringing, except my mother’s people were from the Deep South by way of Texas. Go figure.

    I’ll stop maundering now (otherwise, I’ll start posting recipes).

  2. drangedinaz says:

    Oh, I would love to try your recipes….so please do post them! I love to cook too. As much as Momma did cook (there were 6 kids and usually two adults) her method was completely memorized and intuitive. Whenever I ask her about something she makes, she always starts with ‘well you use a handful of this, a pinch of that…” forget about exact measurements. Which drives someone like me crazy! It’s hard to pass on recipes that aren’t exact especially for baked items. She didn’t actually teach me to cook either. I learned simply by watching her and then later my stepmother (and of course, by experimenting). I was cooking for myself by the third grade….I clearly remember barely being able to get that darn cast iron skillet onto the stove.

    I don’t get much of an opportunity to cook now…my daughter being the pickiest eater on the planet and my son just now eating table food. I have a secret desire to go to Culinary school but it would a significant pay cut. Perhaps it will have to wait until I retire…..

  3. alopecia says:

    My mom’s mother was the same way, apparently: she cooked, even baked (!), by experience and feel, never by measurement. Is that primarily generational or regional, do you suppose?

    You want recipes, huh? Okay, let’s start with a special-occasion dish, candied sweet potatoes. Yuck, right? Sickly-sweet, maybe topped with mini marshmallows, something you eat because it’s expected of you? Nope. These are sweet, but not OTT.

    I first made these for Thanksgiving, 1997, and not a single Thanksgiving, Christmas or Easter has passed without my making them (it’s to the point that nobody even asks if I’m making them, they just assume). The recipe is adapted from a recipe by Tim Ryan, on the PBS show “Cooking Secrets of the CIA.”

    6 sweet potatoes
    1 cup apple cider
    1 cup orange juice
    ¼ cup light brown sugar
    1 whole stick cinnamon
    2–3 whole allspice berries
    salt & pepper
    3 tablespoons butter (plus enough to butter the casserole)

    Put butter in the freezer. Seriously.

    Bake potatoes at 400˚F for 45–60 minutes in a foil-lined roasting pan, until tender. It’s okay for them to be slightly undercooked at this point, especially if the dish is to be reheated.

    While the potatoes cool, bring the cider, orange juice, brown sugar, cinnamon and allspice to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for about 10 minutes, until reduced by about ⅓ and slightly thickened. Remove from heat, and season to taste (and taste frequently and carefully) with salt and pepper. Whisk in the frozen butter one tablespoon at a time, waiting until each tablespoon is incorporated before adding the next (if the butter isn’t frozen, it will probably break when it hits the hot liquid and make an oily mess).

    Peel the potatoes and cut into 1-inch slices (angled if you want the dish to look prettier and don’t mind some wastage). Arrange in a well-buttered 9×13 glass casserole, strain the sauce over and bake uncovered at 400˚F for 45 minutes, until the potatoes are hot and starting to brown. The potatoes are fine right out of the oven. They’re even better the next day, reheated covered for 20 minutes at 350˚ or so.

    I’ve always used the orange-fleshed sweet potatoes marketed as “red yams,” so I don’t know if the light ones would work. The recipe doubles with no major adjustments. Oh, and wear food-prep gloves when you handle the potatoes or you’ll have orange hands for a couple of days.

    How’s that for a start?

  4. drangedinaz says:

    Wonderful! My mom’s recipe for sweet potatoes is way simpler but I bet not as good. Although I know the marshmallow topping is the southern tradition, I prefer to actually use a pecan crumble top on my sweet potatoes. Have you tried it with that kind of topping?

  5. alopecia says:

    The sweet potato dish is as complicated as it is because it was being demonstrated to a class of culinary students. It’s not a recipe for someone who doesn’t like cooking or who thinks food is something that comes out of a can. It does take a little time, but it’s worth the effort.

    I’d never thought of a topping—gilding the lily and all that. I’m a little worried that the dish would end up too sweet, but it might be worth some experimentation. You’re dangerous, you know that?

    I’m curious what you think of this, given your Southern heritage—and if you’re any kind of traditionalist, kindly avert your eyes. Season a pork shoulder roast, the bigger the better, with salt and pepper, and wrap the thing in a couple of layers of heavy-duty foil. Put it in a roasting pan and cook it at 225˚F for two hours a pound. Let it cool for two or three hours, until it’s cool enough to handle, then pull the meat apart. It’s not the right way to make pulled pork, but the texture’s about right (maybe a little soft) and it tastes intensely of pork, and I don’t have to tend a smoker for endless hours (I’m lazy).

    I’ve tried various spice rubs and they turn bitter and slightly nasty (moist heat does weird things sometimes), so any seasoning has to be done after the fact. I haven’t tried it yet, but I’m pondering not seasoning the meat, then at the end defatting and reducing the liquid quite a lot (it’s basically a simple pork stock, after all) and using it in a thin, vinegar-based sauce—or even a thicker, mustard-based sauce. Thoughts?

  6. drangedinaz says:

    I’m giving you ideas for experimenting? That’s a good thing! Don’t be afraid 😉

    In re: the pork, I think that’s fine. That’s how I do my ribs actually. I just put salt, pepper and garlic powder in foil, cook it at low temp for 3 hours. Then take it out and sauce it in a hot oven (or hot grill). And I do it that way because I’m lazy and it works phenomenally well and know one can tell the difference.

    In re: the stock, I’m not a thin vinegar sauce fan. What would you use that kind of sauce with, the meat? If you’re using it with the meat, then go with the mustard sauce. You could reduce it, using the vinegar, and add something sweet like apricots…make a wonderful sweet and sour sauce. And I don’t know why, but I am thinking some Chinese buns….I think that’s what they’re called….you know their white, soft, dry, rounded….not dumplings all wet and sticky. Anyway that would go really well with the pork and any strong sauce you might make.

    I am definitely NOT a traditionalist!

  7. alopecia says:

    Glad you aren’t horrified by the thought of faux barbecue. Many would be: the entire population of the former Confederacy, for starters. Ribs are another matter altogether, and doing most of the cooking in foil (or simmering in water) is a pretty standard cooking technique.

    Yeah, I was thinking of riffing on traditional North (vinegar) and South (mustard) Carolina sauces for the meat. Drenching the meat isn’t the idea, it’s just a way of adding flavor and a touch of moisture.

    I like the way you think! An East-meets-West fusion bao (you’re right, “bun” is a fair translation) is an interesting idea, which means it’s probably been done already (it’s certainly more obvious than Korean rib tacos, for example). Cha siu bao typically contain hoisin sauce, which has some sweetness to it, so your apricot sweet-and-sour sauce would make sense with a little soy sauce and maybe just barely enough chile to add a touch of sneaky heat at the back of the palate. The meat would be too soft after two hours a pound for this purpose, but backing off the cooking time for the sake of textural contrast is easy enough. This warrants further investigation.

  8. drangedinaz says:

    I’m a total novice, as you can tell, because I had no idea how other people make ribs….LOL Now that I know you’ve taken and/or given culinary classes I feel kind of dumb….then again I feel dumb on a daily basis about a whole lot of things and its never stopped me before.

    The bao idea I got from one of my favorite things that I used to eat at PF Changs (haven’t been there in years,kids tend to kill a social life). Anyway, they had served duck with the baos and hoisin sauce and some sliced vegetable…cucumber? Anyway I LOVED it with a glass of Pinot Grigio. The duck wasn’t hot if I remember correctly. It was tender without being greasy…..i.e., perfectly done, sliced into small strips (julienned? same as cucumber). So I thought the pulled pork would be a nice sub for the duck (which I’ve never cooked).

    Here’s one of my favorite stuffing recipes for the holidays (since Thanksgiving is coming up–no real measurements here, I do it to taste really).

    Cut up into 1/4 chunks several Granny Smith apples, let soak in mixture of warm water, butter, cinnamon, brown sugar, nutmeg for a few hours

    Take some regular breakfast sausage (I used Jimmy Dean mild, but whatever you want) and brown it up (but don’t cook all the way)

    Put sausage with grease and apples with its soaking water into regular herb stuffing recipe, mix it all together and bake as usual.

    I really like to stuff the turkey with this concoction as the basting on the turkey really adds to that stuffing and the stuffing adds to the birds flavor….but a lot of people don’t like to stuff their turkeys. It’s not fancy but it ends up tasting yummy.

  9. alopecia says:

    “Now that I know you’ve taken and/or given culinary classes …”

    *hysterical laughter*

    You give me far too much credit. I’m a culinary autodidact with an internet connection and 30+ years’ experience of reading food magazines and watching cooking shows. That makes me sound a whole lot more knowledgeable than I really am. And you’re hardly a novice, you’re a practical cook, and that’s worth more than book-learnin’ (I doubt either of us would last two minutes in a professional kitchen).

    Thinking about ingredients and what they do in a dish (lime juice, for example, typically makes a dish seem less heavy, while vinegar adds depth of flavor; both are acidic, but they do different things in food) opens up the possibility of creative substitutions, which is what I was on about last night (shredded pork shoulder instead of cubed or chopped pork tenderloin, your apricot sweet-and-sour sauce with some additions replacing hoisin sauce, maybe a touch of cha siu sauce just for tradition’s sake, stuff a ball of dough and bake or steam): creating a different flavor profile with a similar flavor balance, if that makes sense.

    If PF Chang’s hasn’t changed its menu since you were there last, it looks like you’re nostalgic for VIP Duck (ah, internet, how did we get along before you?). The way you describe it, it sounds a little like crispy aromatic duck, if the Wikipedia article on Peking duck is to be believed, especially the part about it traditionally being “served on, in, or around steamed buns.” You make me want to find the nearest PF Chang’s.

    Fancy is overrated. I don’t usually mess with stuffing—not because I don’t like it but because I usually have more than enough to do already—but I may be inspired to try your sausage stuffing this Thanksgiving. Just don’t hold me to that.

  10. Drangedinaz says:

    What no stuffing! Now that is heresy my friend….

    Don’t remember duck skin being crispy but it was long time ago.

    Do you have any good cranberry recipes for Thanksgiving? I am looking for something more like a chutney….

  11. alopecia says:

    Sorry. Nobody in the family’s big on cranberries, so no recipes. I haven’t looked for a while, but Trader Joe’s carries—or used to carry—a good cranberry chutney in the refrigerated section. It may be a seasonal item, so if you don’t see it, ask.

    On the DIY front, http://unfussyfare.com/2009/cranberry-chutney/ sounds good (follow the link for the photos, if you’re into food porn). If that doesn’t suit you, google “cranberry chutney” and see what tickles your fancy.

  12. alopecia says:

    Roasted green beans are another holiday favorite in the family. The roasting means they look sort of brown and blotchy (the first time I made them for the group, some people needed a little convincing), but the flavor is concentrated and the caramelization adds sweetness. The beauty is that even not-so-great, off-season beans work just fine. This recipe is adapted from Cook’s Illustrated—every oven’s different and every baking sheet’s different, so you’ll have to fiddle with temperature and timing, but this will get you in the ballpark.

    1 lb green beans, washed, dried and trimmed
    1 tablespoon olive oil (you can use vegetable oil, if you prefer)
    salt and pepper

    Preheat oven to 450˚F. Line a rimmed baking sheet with foil (optional—it reduces cleanup).

    Spread the beans on the baking sheet, drizzle with oil and toss with your hands to coat. Sprinkle with ½ teaspoon or so of salt, toss again and spread the beans out in a single layer. Roast for 10–15 minutes.

    Using tongs or a spatula, turn the beans over and redistribute them on the baking sheet. Continue roasting for 10 more minutes. The beans should be starting to shrivel and turn brown in spots. Grind fresh black pepper over the beans and transfer to a serving bowl.

  13. alopecia says:

    Tri-tip is probably my favorite cut of beef: it’s a tapering, roughly triangular piece from the end of the bottom sirloin. Steve Raichlen tells the origin story of tri-tip in the book BBQ USA, if you’re interested in food history.

    If your local market doesn’t carry tri-tip roasts and you get a blank stare from the meatcutter behind the counter, ask about getting a bottom sirloin roast. I’ve only used a gas grill for this, so you’re on your own if you use charcoal. The meat comes out medium-rare on my grill, but your mileage may vary. This is a forgiving cut, so if you find it’s a little more rare than you like, you can just toss it back on the heat for a few more minutes.

    1 2–3 lb tri-tip roast
    2 teaspoons coarse salt
    2 teaspoons coarsely-ground pepper
    2 teaspoons garlic powder

    Mix the salt, pepper and garlic powder and rub evenly over the meat. Let sit at room temperature for 20–30 minutes.

    Preheat the grill to screaming hot (important mostly to get good grill marks). Turn the heat down to medium-high, oil the cooking grate and put the meat on, fat side up (there’s a fat cap on one side of the roast). Close the lid and cook for 20 minutes, turning the roast over after 10 minutes.

    Turn the temperature down to medium, turn the roast over and cook for another 20 minutes, turning the roast over after 10 minutes. Remove the meat from the grill, tent with foil (shiny side toward the meat) for 30–45 minutes. Slice thinly across the grain.

    Optionally, add 2 teaspoons dried rosemary (crumbled finely) and 1 teaspoon dried oregano to the rub.

  14. alopecia says:

    I think you’ll be surprised how good the beans are unadorned. However, there’s a real affinity between green beans and onions. Cook’s Illustrated gave this variation on the basic recipe, but I haven’t tried it:

    Combine 1 Tbsp balsamic vinegar, 1 tsp honey, 1 tsp minced fresh thyme leaves, and 2 medium thinly-sliced garlic cloves in a small bowl; set aside. Follow recipe for Roasted Green Beans through the first 10 minutes of roasting, cooking half of a medium red onion, cut into ½-inch–thick wedges, alongside the beans. Remove baking sheet from oven. Using tongs, coat beans and onion evenly with vinegar/honey mixture; redistribute in an even layer. Continue roasting until onions and beans are dark golden brown and beans have started to shrivel, about 8 to 10 minutes longer. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper and toss well to combine. Transfer to a serving dish, sprinkle with ⅓ cup toasted and chopped walnuts, and serve.

    You can’t eat 2–3 pounds of beef? Wimp. Seriously, though, I knew it’d be a bit much for one adult and two kids. For you, a tri-tip would be more of a main course for entertaining—or take the leftovers to share with your coworkers (if you like them a lot).

    And, just for a giggle, here’s some food porn: http://www.bbqaddicts.com/blog/recipes/bacon-explosion/

    • drangedinaz says:

      Oh, this reminded me of a ridiculously simple, yet yummy side to steaks or pork on the grill. Take a large white onion, as large as you can get, cut off the top and hollow out the inside (but don’t take out too much, perhaps no more than 1/2 in wide, 1 in deep…). Take a hunk of real butter and put it in the hole. Take worcestershire sauce, minced garlic, black pepper, and olive oil….mix it all together, pour into the hole. Wrap it all up in foil and put on the grill BEFORE you start your steak. Works best with the lid closed but if you can’t close the lid while cooking your steaks, give it plenty of time. When the steak is done you have an extremely tender and delicious onion to dress your steaks with. How does that sound?

  15. drangedinaz says:

    How hot do you get your grill? I don’t like too much char on the outside but a good sear (sp?) is important. I’ve heard them say on the Food channel not to turn the steak more than once. What’s your thought on that? BTW, we’re starting quite the book here, ya know?

  16. alopecia says:

    You’re not complaining about a long comments thread, are you?

    I preheat the grill with the burners at full for 15–25 minutes; the thermometer in the lid reads well over 500˚F when I start to cook (basically, as hot as possible).

    Let me back up a step. My grill has four burners and cast-iron cooking grates instead of chromed wire; it makes a difference, but it makes for a more expensive grill. I want the cooking grates as hot as I can possibly get them (screaming hot, as Ming Tsai says) to get good grill marks.

    I keep the burners maxed—unless I get huge flare-ups—when I cook steak (for chicken or, well, anything else, it’s a different story) and I don’t so much as turn my back while the steaks are cooking; then again, I’m after barely medium-rare, so the outside doesn’t get burned, just well-seared: high temperature, short cooking time (roughly 10 minutes total for a ¾” steak). Going beyond medium-rare would mean lowering the temperature and cooking more slowly.

    I don’t buy into the notion that steaks shouldn’t be turned more than once (the theory is sound enough: don’t change the cooking temperature or fool with the meat any more than you have to), just never use a barbecue fork. Use tongs, the longer the better. If you don’t care so much about restaurant-style presentation, only turn the steaks once. If you want pretty, cross-hatch grill marks, either rotate the meat somewhere between 45–90˚ midway through cooking on the presentation side, or (per Jacques Pepin, and who are we mere mortals to question anything he says?) turn the steaks over three times, rotating the meat on the second turn (I hope you have a good visual imagination), although that requires a preternatural feel for cooking times.

    I’m convinced grilling is something you have to develop a feel for. It’s impossible to grill by the clock. Must drive culinary-arts students mad; it sure frustrates me sometimes.

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