Sunday, May 8, 2016

Food From My Mom

My mother knew food. Good food.  She grew up in New York City in an Italian/Jewish neighborhood where her nickname was Irish.

She ate homemade Italian food made by her friend’s Grandma’s who were “from the old country” all concerned about her thin stature, “Eat,” they would tell her. “You are too thin.”  There was also lox and bagels from the delis, Chinese from the neighborhood restaurants and fresh seafood galore. My mother’s palate was fine tuned on all the delicious the flavors of the world found in New York. Sadly all that delectable cuisine didn’t help her as an adult. She couldn’t cook.

Ok, that is not entirely true, she cooked some things really well. She had for go-to dry spices that went in everything; salt, pepper, onion and garlic and there were others she added as needed.  

Spaghetti sauce was something she did well. She was liberal with garlic, oregano, onion, thyme, sage and of course salt that went in both the sauce and the pasta water. Oh and the 1lb. log of frozen ground beef she would drop in the sauce at the beginning and then continued to smash with a potato masher until thoroughly cooked. We rarely had any other kind of noodles, just spaghetti and it was delicious.

Once a year, usually in January she would spend a Sunday making soup. She would buy a beef bone, canned tomatoes combine them with spices and let it cook for a few hours. Then she would add diced potatoes and let it cook a few more hours before adding a couple bags of frozen vegetables. I loved it. Well not the vegetables that I avoided like the plague, but the rest with tons of saltines that would turn into a mush.

There was also a goulash that she would sometimes make that had her pasta sauce, elbow noodles and mixed frozen vegetables.

No one could beat mom’s mashed potatoes. Best ever. She used the aforementioned masher and she always added a drop or two of yellow food coloring to them. Mom never used instant, she hated them like Joan Crawford hated wire hangers.

And lastly but most deliciously was her clam dip. I didn’t appreciate it until I was older because ...clams...but daaaaamn, is it good!!

Between my mom’s working and lack of cooking skills we ate a lot of processed foods especially Kraft Mac & Cheese which for some reason I once went through a phase of not wanting the cheese, just the noodles. Mac and cheese was the go-to side dish and went with:
  • Fish sticks 
  • Meatloaf
  • Pork Chops 
  • Chicken
The vegetable go-to was either frozen corn (yes) or frozen peas (bleh). There might have been green beans but if there were I blocked them out (gag).

On Sundays Mom cooked. That was when we would have chicken, meatloaf, pot roast or anything that took some time to cook. It was usually mashed potatoes day as well.  We sometimes ate together at the table, not often, but sometimes. Usually plates were filled from the pots in the kitchen and taken wherever to eat, in front of the TV mostly.

Monday through Friday was a different story. Depending on how her day went and how much money there was for groceries it might be Fish Sticks, pasta or breakfast (pancakes, eggs, maybe bacon) or if she was really tired Whatever You Can Find.

Whatever You Can Find  was just that. We could eat whatever was in the house and we wanted to prepare ourselves. There was always canned food. Campbell's soups,  Franco American Spaghetti and Spaghetti O's were my favorites and I usually ate mine cold from the can, don't judge. It was also how I liked to eat Tomato soup.

There could be cold cereal or oatmeal or Creme of Wheat. Hot dogs, sandwiches with lunch meats, PB&J, tuna and my favorite, grilled cheese. Mom made them with a little Miracle Whip inside, delicious! There were few fresh fruits or vegetables due to prices and availability of good produce but we usually had frozen vegetables on hand but those never got cooked on Whatever You Can Find nights. 

Though not a chef mom has some tasty recipes that came from who knows where.

There was Hot Dogs and Beans. She would take Van Camp’s pork and beans, chopped hot dogs and mix with ketchup, onion salt, garlic salt, maple syrup and bake until heated through. It was great.

Her pork chops were also made with ketchup as a base. In a frying pan she added chops, ketchup, onion salt, garlic salt, salt and pepper. She cooked on stove top until chops were completely overcooked then served it with rice (the only time she made rice) with the gravy/sauce over it. It was great too. It took years before I realized how overcooked the chops were.

Mom never fried anything if she could help it. She once had a splat of hot grease almost hit her eye and after that...nope.  Bacon and eggs were it. Needless to say we never had fried chicken. Instead Mom would take a whole pre-cut chicken and then after dredging in milk would cover in Kellogg’s Corn Flake Crumbs spiced with...yes, onion salt, garlic salt, salt and pepper.  She would then bake it until there was no possibility that it would come back to life. Juicy chicken was an oxymoron in our home. It was one of her best dishes and very diverse, it went with mashed potatoes OR Kraft Mac & Cheese.

While mom made sure that most meat was cooked until it was practically jerky, excluding Thanksgiving turkey since it had a pop-up button, she cooked a perfect medium rare steak. Salt, pepper, onion salt, garlic salt broiled in the oven, (top for electric, bottom for gas) and there  always was a lovely, juicy red/pink center. Perfect and delicious. 

While I have no memory of mom cooking dessert if she could afford it we usually had something in the house that was for dessert. Vanilla Wafers, Oreos, generic sandwich cookies, fig newtons, something that to me, signified mealtime was over.

As for drinks, Mom didn’t buy soda or juices, except canned frozen Orange juice on occasion or soda if we were sick or hurt, but there was always Wyler’s in the fridge to drink. Wyler’s was like Kool-Aide but with the sugar already in it. My favorite was the cherry and grape mixed together. 

Milk was a careful commodity. Drinking by the glass was rare, milk was usually for cereal, cooking and most importantly...Mom’s coffee. Like most adults back then, Mom drank coffee all day long and always had a cup before bed. With a cigarette. What can I say, it was the 60 & 70’s.    

Every now and then Mom’s New York roots surfaced and she would buy Chun King canned Chow Mein Chinese food. I cannot tell you how it tasted but it looked awful so for me it became a Whatever You Can Find night. When there was extra money, mom would buy Liverwurst. She would eat it on saltines with mustard. At times she would save aside some raw hamburger to snack on like steak tartare  (without the egg). And then there were the times she craved a fried baloney sandwich, again with mustard. She always had those noshes (as she called them) with an Olympia beer.  

When it came to food, I was lucky. While there were times when money was short and I was hungry for specific things, there were never times we went without food entirely. Mom made sure there was always something in the house, even if that something was only pancake mix and syrup. She taught me that with basic inexpensive ingredients you can make an enjoyable meal and to appreciate the simple things, like a burrito bought from the local bodega with returned soda bottles.  

Mom never forced me to eat anything I didn’t want and allowed me to try whatever I wanted. When she had the money and we went to restaurants where I learned to love French Onion Soup, Bleu Cheese Dressing, Shrimp w/ cocktail sauce, cheesecake, monte cristos, mussels and clams . At home it was liverwurst, med rare steak, raw hamburger, mashed potatoes and Oreos that I came to love. Because of Mom  I learned to try the new and embrace the old. 

Thanks to Food Network, I have moved past my Mother’s cooking ability but thanks to her I have four go-to spices that never fail me. Salt. Pepper. Onion. Garlic.

Thanks Mom.