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November 26, 2010

Food and Folks

by Diane Chamberlain

Eggplant face

I’m in the produce section of the grocery store and I reach for a big, dusky brown russet potato when I hear Nina’s voice in my head.  “Two should be sufficient, don’t you think?”

I haven’t seen Nina in decades--only once since high school-- but I can’t hold a russet potato in my hand without thinking of her. When I was a teenager, I often made my favorite easy to make meal—potatoes, onions and eggs. I was sort of known for this simple recipe, primarily because it was the only thing I knew how to cook. So one day I suggested to Nina that we make potatoes, onions and eggs for dinner. She reached into her mom’s pantry, pulled out two potatoes, and said the sentence above,  linking 
Potatos potatoes to Nina forever in my mind. I love that. I love that I think of her and our teenaged friendship everytime I feel the weight of a russet in my hand.

                Back then, I made that potato dish with lots of oil and fried the heck out of the potatoes.  I still make it now, but I’ve lightened it up by nuking the potatoes first.

Diane’s Easy Potatoes Onions and Eggs for Two

  • Nuke two russet potatoes (two are sufficient!) until just tender.
  • Quarter them lengthwise, then slice them into pieces about a quarter inch thick.
  • Heat a little olive oil in a skillet and add the potatoes and one coarsely chopped onion.
  • Cook until the potatoes are brown and the onions tender.
  • Beat a couple of eggs and pour them over the potatoes and onions. Heat until the eggs are done.
  • Serve with catsup or salsa.

                Then there’s the peanut butter. When I dip a knife into a jar of peanut butter, I hear my grandmother’s voice.  “Just a smear,” she’d say.  My family lived with my feisty red-headed grandmother, who was disabled. Every evening, I’d make her a cup of Sanka and a piece of toast with peanut butter, and every evening she’d say “Just a smear.”  Makes me smile every time I spread a piece of bread with peanut butter. But just a smear for me?  Hardly.

                Zan McCrone was my best friend until her death at age twenty-nine and she's connected in my mind to at least fifty foods. Burger  Hamburgers, for example. She and I were teenagers sitting in a restaurant in Greenwich Village pretending we were genuine Bohemians when a few feral cats wandered through the room. Zan became convinced our hamburgers  were made of cat meat and refused to finish hers. Whatever suspicions she had about the meat and the cat passed me by, thank goodness, but it was the last meat Zan ever ate. As she Feral cat began cooking only vegetarian meals, she taught me how to make eggplant parmagiana, which is still one of my favorite meals. When I make it myself these days, I lighten it up, baking the eggplant  instead of frying it. I admit it…it doesn’t taste as decadent as Zan’s, but it’s still delicious.

Zan’s Lightened Up Eggplant Parmagiana (and Eggplant Sex discussion)

  • One large male eggplant (okay, I know there is controversy about eggplant gender, but Zan taught me to always look for the boy eggplant. The boys have a round "belly button" on the bottom, while the girls have an elongated belly button. Girls have more seeds and are bitter. Males are just plain yummy, as most of us know. Some people say this male/female thing is an old wive's tale, but I've had excellent luck choosing eggplants by the boy/girl method. Forget salting them and all that other silliness. Just pick a boy).
  • Italian seasoned Panko
  • One egg
  • Fresh mozzarella, sliced
  • Your favorite jarred marinara sauce
  • Fresh basil, chopped if desired

Heat oven to 350

Pour some marinara sauce in the bottom of a glass baking pan

Peel the eggplant (why most chefs leave that annoying peel on is beyond me!) and slice a quarter inch thick

Dip slices in egg, then Panko and lay in a single layer on a greased baking sheet. Bake until fork tender.

Layer the eggplant slices with mozzarella, basil leaves and remaining sauce. Bake for 30 minutes. Serve with pasta and more sauce. And think of Zan with every bite.

         I am neurotic about food safety. I admit it. I use three sets of tongs when I grill meat, for example. One for the raw meat, the second pair to turn the half cooked meat, the third to remove the fully cooked meat from the grill.  Totally neurotic. I also use paper plates on top of my chopping board so whatever I’m chopping doesn’t come into contact with whatever invisible germs might be on my perfectly clean chopping board. Tossing paper plates may not be great for the environment, but it makes me happy. You will not get food poisoning in my house! My parents house, though? That was another matter.

  Bean soup                I was staying with my Dad one time when my Mom was in the hospital, and he proudly made his favorite soup, “Bunion Soup.” I can’t see onion soup on a menu without thinking about my father’s invention. And what went into it.

Dad’s Bunion Soup (make at your own risk)

  • One package Lipton Onion Soup mix
  • Add a can of beans of your choice (pinto, black, kidney, whatever)
  • Add that pot of unidentifiable liquid you found in the rear of the bottom shelf of the refrigerator that’s probably been there since you moved into the house.
  • Cook and serve to your unsuspecting daughter.

He didn’t tell me about the pot of liquid until I was finished eating. He was so proud of his creation but when he mentioned, with such a happy, guiless look on his face, finding that pot of whatever in the back of the fridge,  I wondered if I should make myself throw up. I passed on that idea. I survived and Dad left me one more goofy Dad memory. Every one of them is precious.

So tell me about you. Is there a mushroom in your fridge you can’t look at without thinking of your Great Aunt Sadie?


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My dad made the best date squares ever. When someone talked about matrimonial squares I had no idea what they were talking about, for years . . .

My ex-husband and family were very German. They had goose for Christmas dinner and my MIL did a wonderful job of cooking it. The first year I was there, I watched as she took the roasting pan (sans bird) out onto the back deck and put it in the snow. A couple hours after dinner when we were a bit peckish and looking for a snack I was appalled when they all made toast and used the hardened goose fat as a spread on it. Whenever I see hardened fat I think of them.

My dad didn't like butter so if you got any butter in the jam jar or in with the peanut butter there was hell to pay. I still use two separate knives when spreading anything, butter on one knife, jam/pb on the other.

Great blog, Diane! But I must admit, the first thing I thought of was my high school friend Christy who never ate mint ice cream without dotting her cone with bits of chocolate.....ExLax. (High school girls--always looking for a way to lose weight!)

But I think of my grandfather when I make blackberry pie. (He loved to pick berries) And my dad when we have Thanksgiving stuffing.

Food associations--always a fun game!

Kansas City restaurants lead to memories of my father bringing a cooler with him for a day trip to KC to bring home ribs from Aurthur Bryant's. They were still warm when he dropped some off to me. My boss (I was at work at the time) was shocked that anyone would have 400 mile take out, until he tried them.

The princesses love my mother's meringue cookies, that are her mother's recipe.

Family meals have such wonderful memories.

Oxtails...when I was a kid, our winters were filled with the aroma of soups...split pea, chicken rice, and my dad's own recipe-beef soup made with ox tails. They were cheap, had lots of flavor (better than the soup bones you could get in the market for twice as much), and the meat was tender and dee-licious. Easy recipe too. Fill a dutch oven with chopped carrots, celery, onions, and whatever other veggie happened to be hanging around the fridge, throw in some tomatoes (chopped, diced, canned, whatever was handy) and the ox tails, fill to almost the brim with water, season with salt & pepper and simmer until the meat fell off the bone. Remove bones, add any meat still attached to said bones, taste, reseason, and serve.
Now ox tails are more expensive than beef stew meat...go figure. Must be a shortage of oxen.
Dad also made a kick-ass fruit stuffing for the turkey...something I cannot duplicate no matter how hard I try.
Off to fight off the hordes of customers at the store. It will take me an hour to find a space to park...if it wasn't so cold, I'd be tempted to walk. I'd get there faster!

What a wonderful piece this is, Diane! Food and friends just seem to go together.

There was a group of anywhere between 16 and 20 of us who would go to Fripp Island, SC every year for a week around Memorial Day.

A tradition for one evening meal was lamb. Totally ruined for a few less hardy souls after our gentle little Peter Pan of a friend by the name of Artemis insisted on quietly whispering "baaa, baaa" as we each loaded our plate.

Artemis is no longer with us and is greatly missed. When we all get together for meals, that story is still told over and over again, even 32 years later.

Such a charming post, and full of things new to me--Panko, hard lard on toast, Ex-lax on ice cream! But I'm totally familiar with "Arthur Bryant's BBQ Cross-Country Take-Out."

When my mom and I came home from my piano lessons on Thursday nights, my dad always had "Spaghetti Red" waiting for us. The pasta was overcooked, there was too much sauce, and we'd never heard of garlic or olive oil or any seasoning beyond s & p, but it had the great taste of a husband being considerate of his working wife.

When you asked my grandmother if she'd like more coffee she'd say "Just a bite". My mom and I still say it.

My dad died when I was 17, so I don't have as many memories of him as I have of almost any other family member. However, Daddy taught me to cook, and as his sous chef I learned to make stuffed pork chops, Swiss steak, biscuits, and dinner muffins. Between those dishes and mashed potatoes, I had a great repertoire of "company" meals. Although I have to admit I've never made stuffed pork chops. But I could.

Whenever I cut biscuits or simmer Swiss steak in rich tomato, pepper and onion sauce I remember sunny Sunday afternoons in the kitchen with my dad, just the two of us, and with him not yelling at me for a change. It's one of the few truly pleasant memories I have of him, and I cherish it.

Yesterday at Thanksgiving, just like we do every year, we invoke my Grandma Kennedy's name for smooth mashed potatoes and gravy. My sister and cousin still make my Nana's recipes for rice and sausage stuffing and cherry pudding desert.

I have to admit that left to me, those two recipes would fade away - I don't like either of them!

I never knew eggplant came in genders. TLC is truly educational. Thanks for a funny post.

I love reading these memories and the connections we make between people we loved-- or at least knew (exlax? Shudder).

Oh, how wonderful! Thanks, Diane. And now I'm starving...and I know i have food examples, but I'm incredibly curious to go to the grocery and look at eggplant sex.

To this day, I judge any pie I eat against the ones my mom made. Most are found wanting because mom made the best pie crust ever. Light, flaky, just right in the firmness department and she wasn't skimpy on the filling, be it a cream pie or a fruit pie.

Hank, looking at eggplant sex? Less embarrassing than watching people sex, anyway, right?

Diane, I forgot to thank you for helping us sex eggplants. Who knew?

Once every few years I have to fly to Boston and go to Woodman's in Essex for fried Essex clams (dug that morning in the salt flats across the way) and steamed lobster that I pick out of the tank first. For dessert I have fried lobster at a picnic table overlooking the salt flats. That's lunch. Then over the bridge to Gloucester for dinner where I have a steamed lobster stuffed with lobster as we watch the fishing boats come in.

I think of my old girlfriend Deirdre whenever I open a can of Campbell's tomato soup. Forget Andy Warhol. One day when we were alone and craving spaghetti, she ran and got a box from her parents' kitchen, and we made the sauce by adding garlic and oregano to the only food in the cupboard, a can of Campbell's tomato soup.

My 'Auntie Mom' who rescued me from whatever it was, used to have Wednesday leftover day, where she would put whatever was left over from the previous week on a cookie sheet and heat it up in the oven. It could be a hot dog, 5 fries, half a burger, canned corn, a slice of pizza, and a chocolate chip cookie. Whatever was there went on the cookie sheet and into the oven, and I loved it. I'm calling Auntie Mom right now to tell her.

My other favorite meal is to make really fresh strawberry shortcake with giant fluffy biscuits using the biscuit cutter my husband made in 7th grade, one of the nicest gifts his mom gave me. I make this every time our granddaughter comes to visit from Denmark. For dinner I make more biscuits and serve them with creamed fresh asparagus and eggs.

Bake some biscuits.
Boil and slice some eggs.
Steam some asparagus.
Make some white sauce with milk and cornstarch.
Slice eggs.
Cut steamed asparagus into 1 1/2" pieces.
Slice biscuits in half and lay open on plate.
Add eggs and asparagus to white sauce and pour onto the open biscuits.

OK, I'm going to go try that potato and onion and egg recipe. Have you ever tried it with ham and maybe green pepper, or is that a sacrilege?

PS: I don't really make it myself anymore, but I'm pretty good at ordering other people around, telling them how to do it. Oh yeah, it's really great if you can go out back and pick your own asparagus and strawberries.

Reine, that's the coolest thing that your Auntie Mom did. What fun for a kid and a kid-at-heart. I want to do it, too!

Well, that's all well and good, Diane, but did you ever think how it makes the eggplant feel?? I mean, how would you like to be picked up and turned over in the produce section in front of all your neighbors?

Reine, I love that fried-lobster for lunch forlled by lobster-stuffed-with-lobster for dinner! Also the creamed asparagus sounds wonderful, though John hates eggs so I'd be eating it alone. He won't eat my potatoes and eggs either. :(

No, Nancy, I never thought of the indignities the eggplant were suffering at my hands. Now YOU will be the person I think of when I check for eggplant gender at the store.

My dad and I used to pick blackberries and make jelly every year and to this day if I pass a bramble in the spring and can smell the blackberry flowers it takes me right back to the 70's.

When we were kids we got scratch made cakes throughout the year but for our birthdays we got cakes from a mix!!! Two layer round cakes with butter cream icing. Funny, I would never eat a cake from a mix now (well with allergies I can't) but I sometimes walk down the cake mix aisle just to have a chuckle.

lol, Diane! And please forget I ever said anything about eggplant.

Nancy, Auntie Mom is "tickled pink" that I remember that - and liked it! She also says she uses a jelly roll pan instead of a real cookie sheet to keep the peas from rolling off onto the floor. So that's a jelly roll pan? I don't think I've ever used mine for anything but cookies and Leftover Wednesdays. :)

I never heard of Panko until today! I've been trying to figure out what it is from the context of your post.

I grew up in the same town where my maternal grandparents lived. I saw them fairly frequently. On the rare occasion when I spent a few nights there - usually when my mom had given birth to another baby(I'm the oldest of five) - I would usually wake up when my grandfather returned home from his second shift job at the railroad. He would make himself a snack of warm milk, which he poured into a bowl, and to which he added milk crackers that he broke into a few pieces. I'd often share it with him. It has become my comfort food, and the best bedtime snack I have ever found. Right now my supermarket is unable to get milk crackers (something about the local distributor not being able to get it) and my bedtime just isn't the same! Over the years I've bought Royal Lunch Milk Crackers which are no longer available(I think they were from Nabisco), some other milk cracker product from somewhere in New England, also no longer available, and most recently Heritage Mills, which has apparently also become unavailable just in the past few weeks. I sure do miss the milk crackers! The combination of warm milk and milk crackers reminds me of my quiet, gentle grandfather whose beaming smiles told us how much he loved us!

Reine, peas!! That is so cute I can't stand it. She even baked the peas.

Deb, I've never heard of milk crackers before. :hurries to google::

SUCH an educational blog.

I've sexed biddies and I've sexed kittens and puppies, but eggplants? Never! I shall never look at a purple bottom again, Diane, w/o thinking of you!

Panko are Japanese bread crumbs. I am still trying to figure out how you get bread crumbs from a country without much of a bread tradition. But they are large and flaky and you can use them in any recipe that calls for bread crumbs. They have completely replaced the dust style bread crumbs in our house. You can find them in an Asian market. I did find several places online that sell them if you don't have a large enough local Asian community. http://www.nutsonline.com/cookingbaking/flours/panko-bread-crumbs.html?gclid=CKbd4dLFv6UCFZRe7AodbQzOYA is one place. I have a feeling the 1 pound bag will last you a long time. It is probably the size of a pillow case.

My father used to make fried scallops on Friday nights. He also made wonderful roast beef dinners on Sunday.
One thing I associate with my dad was going to the Byward Market in Ottawa and ordering Fish and Chips with malt vinegar served in a cone shaped newspaper wrapping.
Another wonderful food introduction to me was Boston Cream Pie when a was a kid. It was not a pie but a cake and it was delicious.
Alton Brown from the Food TV network has a Mac
and Cheese recipe that has Panko crumbs on top.
I had never heard of them until recently and now they are everywhere.
Hope everyone is relaxing on this Friday afternoon.

Deb you bedtime snack with your grandpa reminded me that we almost always had BTS at our house. Bedtime snack to make it through the long night of sleep. It could be anything from home made cookies to ice cream or a real splurge would be potato chips. No one was overweight either, a different time for sure.

Diane, I often make the creamed aspargus without eggs, especially in spring when fresh local asparagus is available.

Reine, the only time I've ever made a jelly roll was in high school Home Ec cooking class. My "jelly roll" pans are usually used for cookies, or the rare biscuit. This week they were used to keep the thawing wild turkeys from dripping all over the fridge.

My husband smoked one turkey and I roasted one. They were both juicy and delicious, and without a single chemical.

I'm late to the party, but I have so many foods that remind me of the Sunday dinners at my Grandmas. When we have it now, the title 'Grandma food' comes to mind because they weren't favorites at the time, but now I miss them - ham, lasagna, Swiss steak, baklava, pizzles, and those fancy wedding cookies that Pittsburghers are so fond of.

Every time I have apple pie, I think of my Mom's and how hers beats everyone elses'.

In the 60s, when we were starving students sharing a house behind a house with the mice and cockroaches, we would buy a bag of rice in Tijuana. Other starving students would show up with a chuck steak, then someone would bring an onion, or pepper, or.... With a gallon of cheap wine, we were fat and sassy!

Thanks for the link to the Vermont Country Store for my beloved milk crackers!

Sweet potatoes make me think of my father who totally loved them, rice pudding of his father, the grandfather I only had until I was 10. He said he could pick edible mushrooms but I never took him up on it so all mushrooms make me think of him. Boiled chicken, shredded wheat make me think of that grandmother. My other grandmother and her twin made DIFFERENT banana puddings so whichever version I have I think of whichever one of them. What a fun topic food one's loved ones loved is.

Hey! Your potato and egg dish sounds very similar to tortilla espana, one of my favorite things from Spain last summer.

My grandmother had a zillion Southern dishes, bit the one that make me think of her is old-fashioned Waldorf salad, with walnuts, celery, apples, and nutmeg held together with copious amounts of Miracle Whip.

First of all I must say that, Diane..this is really very nice and readable blog...! But also I must admit that the first thing I thought of was my cousin christy who never ate mint ice cream without dotting her cone with little bits of chocolate....

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