As I write this on the evening of Mother’s Day, I think about my own mother who, to be honest, was not a very good cook. She had absolutely no interest in cooking or baking. She was a former Marine (during WWII) who was focused on regimen and schedule.
The house was spotless — too spotless, if you ask me — and nothing was ever cluttered or messy. My dad would say, “I can’t get up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom — she tucks my side of the bed in and makes those hospital corners that take me 10 minutes to loosen at night!” Though very opposite in some ways, they were truly a perfect match
My mother made a few dishes that were slightly creative. Her Passover Mandel Bread is the best and, though I have changed the recipe a bit, I still make it every year to cries for “more!” She also made very good spaghetti sauce and meatballs. And, yes, with some tweaks to add some spice and oomph, I still use her all-day recipe.
But, other than that, my mother was content to follow new found recipes from the Boston Globe or from my aunts (six of them), various great aunts (too many of them to count, but about 18 to 22) and whatever synagogue sisterhood cookbook was being put together at the time. We had brisket with Lipton’s onion soup, brisket with Coke, brisket with Apricot jam and tomato sauce, and more. We had fish with tomato soup and onions, fish with matza meal and mayonnaise, Salmon croquettes, salmon soufflé with mushroom soup, and more. We had all kinds of Jello molds and a “Broken Window Glass Cake,” with whipped cream and a graham cracker crust.
Every year she stuffed the turkey with challah stuffing and cooked it to exceeding dryness. But, one year, the stuffing was still cold. She decided the turkey was done because the little temperature gage had popped. Luckily, my dad had other ideas. He unstuffed the turkey, placed the stuffing in a Pyrex dish, cut the turkey in half and placed it in two pans and put all three pans in the oven for another half hour at 375. Salmonella averted, but not the dryness!
On top of everything else, my mother hated a messy or dirty kitchen. She cleaned up after every step and made it impossible for an impatient 10 year old to learn anything, except that cooking meant cleaning up CONSTANTLY. Still, I always watched and asked to help. And there were some very positive things about my mother’s kitchen.
The “junkiest” junk food in our house was probably the salami hanging on a nail in the cupboard. My dad and mom loved that thing and would snack on it together in the late afternoon. Sometimes, we got Oreo cookies and we did get Nestle Quick in the winter, for hot cocoa. And there was that Jello! But the fridge was stocked with cut up carrots and cucumbers and there were bowls of apples, oranges and bananas on the counters along with dates and figs and raisins.
My mother emphasized undercooked broccoli (healthier, she said), salads at every meal, and fresh fruit and veggies were always available for hungry children. We had desserts only on Shabbat and she rarely baked unless it was a holiday or special occasion. When she did bake, she taught me to measure carefully and exactly, scoop flour lightly into the measuring cup, then scrape off the top with a knife. Pack brown sugar and soften the butter before measuring unless for a pie crust (then you freeze it). Exact and precise! She was not a sweet eater, but loved good, hearty bread before such breads were the norm, so we had whole wheat, caraway rye, and Russian rye and more. Only the challah on Shabbat was white.
• • •
I got my passion for cooking from my dad who cooked on weekends and made cooking fun, adventurous, messy and delicious. He taught me to taste everything and figure out what flavors and spices went together. We experimented with all kinds of spices and fresh herbs and berries from the garden. We took recipes and used parts of them, my dad improvising and changing whenever he could. Dishes started with recipes, but Dad took off from there with his wonderful concoctions and creative flavors.
He made pies and prime rib, pancakes and donuts, muffins and vegetable casseroles. He made ratatouille before anyone even knew what it was! We had so much fun, but the kitchen often looked like it was struck by a tornado and my mother was never happy — until my father presented her with the first bite. Then she would sigh, shoo us out and clean up the vast pile of dirty dishes and more.
My parents were yin and yang and I got the best of both. Read the recipe completely, plan, measure carefully, be exacting, always eat salads and barely cook your vegetables. I also learned to taste often, trust my taste buds, be adventurous, try new spices and combinations, and most of all, enjoy the process of creating whatever I am making. Remember, a recipe is just a starting point! And, most importantly … you can always clean up later!
This is for my parents — my mom and her love for vegetables, order and neatness, and my dad who loved all kinds of berries, tasted everything and expanded his creativity from photography and painting into the kitchen.
Ramp Pesto (Dairy)
Use this as a topping for pasta or as a dip or bruschetta. It is good both hot and cold. If too sharp, add a bit more nuts and olive oil.
1 bunch of ramps, about 6-8
1/2 cup basil
1/2 cup toasted walnuts or pine nuts
1 tsp. to 1 Tbsp. finely grated lemon zest, to taste
1 tsp. freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese, more to taste
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Trim the roots off the ramps and trim any browned leaf tops. Chop the ramps and place in the bowl of a food processor. Add the basil leaves and the nuts, the lemon zest and juice, and half of the olive oil. Pulse until chunky. Add the remaining olive oil and process to desired consistency. Remove the work bowl from the base and scrape the pesto into a serving bowl. Add the parmesan cheese and mix. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste. Makes about 2 cups.
Asparagus Cheese Puffs (Dairy)
These are delicious and really easy to make. Kids love them. Serve with a salad for a nice luncheon meal. You can also substitute broccoli for the asparagus, if you prefer. Make sure the broccoli is blanched and dried and cut into very small pieces.
1/4 to 1/3 lb. asparagus, thin stalks work best
3/4 cup milk, whole or 2%
5 Tbsp. butter, cut into pieces
3/4 cup unbleached flour or half whole wheat, half white
Pinch cayenne pepper
3 extra-large eggs at room temperature
3/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1/2 cup shredded Gruyere, Monterey Jack, or Cheddar cheese
Break off the ends of the asparagus. Cut the spears into 1/4-inch pieces. Fill a sauté pan with water and add a pinch of salt. Bring to a full boil and carefully add the asparagus, making sure there is just enough water to cover. Reduce heat to a strong simmer and cook until crisp- tender, 1 to 2 minutes. Plunge into a bowl of ice water, drain, and set aside on paper towels to cool.
Sift the flour and cayenne pepper into a small bowl. Set aside.
Place the milk and butter in a large saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat. As soon as the milk boils, remove it from the heat and add the flour all at one. Stir vigorously with a wooden spoon until the mixture thickens and begins to pull away from the sides of the pan. Transfer to a large bowl.
Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well with the wooden spoon after each addition. Let cool for at least ten minutes, but no more than 15.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees and line two cookie sheets with parchment. Lightly butter the parchment paper or spray with non-stick spray.
Add the well-drained asparagus and the cheeses to the batter and mix well. Drop by rounded teaspoons onto the parchment and put both sheets into the oven at the same time. Bake until golden brown, 20 to 25 minutes. Remove from the oven, let cool for 5 to 10 minutes and remove from the parchment to a serving dish. Serve warm. Makes about 3 dozen puffs.
Raspberry Sauce for Chicken or Salmon (Pareve)
2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1 Small onion, minced
2 to 3 cloves garlic, minced
1-1/2 cups fresh raspberries
1/3 cup light brown sugar lightly packed
1 Tbsp. molasses
2 Tbsp. apple cider vinegar
1/4 cup Pomegranate juice
1 to 2 Tbsp. Worcestershire sauce
2to 3 Tbsp. ketchup or tomato paste
1 tsp. Dijon mustard
Pinch salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper
OPTIONAL: Red pepper flakes to taste
Heat a large saucepan and add the oil. Add the onions and sauté until lightly golden, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and sauté until fragrant, another minute. Add the rest of the ingredients and stir. Cook for 2 minutes, stirring constantly. Mash with a potato masher and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until thickened, 12 to 15 minutes. Taste and adjust seasonings adding what you like to taste. Let cool. Puree in a blender or food processor and use to baste chicken or salmon. Makes about 2 cups.
Blackberry and Raspberry Bars (Dairy or Pareve)
Yummy and not too sweet!
1 cup unbleached flour
1/2 cup finely ground rolled oats
1/3 cup dark brown sugar firmly packed
1 tsp. pure vanilla extract
1/4 tsp. pure almond extract
1 stick butter or pareve, trans-fat-free margarine
3 cups blackberries
1-1/2 cup raspberries
1/3 to 1/2 cup sugar, according to sweetness of berries
2 Tbsp. plus 1 tsp. cornstarch
1 Tbsp. freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 stick butter or pareve, trans-fat free margarine, melted
1 cup old fashioned oats
3/4 cup unbleached flour
1/4 cup chopped hazelnuts, pecans or macadamia nuts
1/3 cup dark brown sugar, lightly packed
1 Tbsp. white sugar
1 to 1-1/2 tsp. finely grated lemon zest.
1/2 tsp. salt
Generously grease a 9-inch square pan. Set aside. Mix the flour, oats, and sugar together. Melt the butter or margarine and add the extracts to the melted butter. Pour over the dry ingredients and mix until evenly blended. Press into the bottom of the prepared pan. Place in the freezer and freeze for about 30 minutes.
Meanwhile place the berries in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the sugar and cornstarch and mix well. Add the lemon juice and, stirring constantly, bring to a boil. Stir constantly until the mixture thickens. Remove from the heat and let cool.
Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Place the frozen crust in the oven and bake for about 40 to 50 minute until golden. Remove from the oven and set aside. Increase the oven temperature to 350 degrees.
Melt the butter or margarine and set aside. Place the oats, flour, nuts, sugar, salt and lemon zest in the bowl of a food processor and pulse until blended and the nuts are chopped evenly. Pour into a bowl and drizzle the melted butter over the mixture. Mix well until small clumps form.
Spread 1-1/2 cups of the berry mixture over the crust to evenly cover. Reserve any remaining topping for ice cream or use in yogurt or smoothies.
Sprinkle the crumb topping evenly over the berry mixture and place in the oven for 45 to 60 minutes, or until golden brown and bubbly. Remove from the oven and let cool 10 minutes. Run a knife around the edges to keep the berry filling from sticking. When cool, cut into bars. Makes 12 to 16 bars.