Archive for the ‘Good Parenting’ Category

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September 24, 2012: Mom’s Stuffed Peppers

September 24, 2012

Celts love the number three. Whether it’s trefoils, triskelions, or triads, three is that magic number that pops up all over Celtic culture and art since before recorded history. Because my Celtic side comes through my mom, I thought I would round off my trio of tributes to her cooking with my variation of the dish that she made that was my favorite.

You can find stuffed pepper recipes wherever peppers are grown, and they grow most places on earth, making stuffed peppers one of the most universal human dishes. Mom made hers with ground beef, but my store sells a soy product called “soyrizo” that I like, which is a vegetarian variation of chorizo (the Portuguese sausage.)

 

Mom’s Stuffed Peppers:
Wash and slice the very top of two peppers, core and discard seeds, wash inside and dry on a paper towel. Dice pepper top around stem. Dice 1/4 Vidalia onion, one small medium-hot red pepper, and 1 clove garlic and cook over low-medium heat in 3 Tblsp. corn oil for about 2  minutes in medium pot. While veggies are cooking, wash 1/2C. basamati and 1/8C.brown rice well and drain. Add 3oz. of the soyrizo to the veggies and cook for another 2 minutes. Add dashes of ground pepper, oregano, chili powder, and a small bay leaf. Add rice to pot and cook for yet another 2 minutes. Add 2C. veggie broth, bring to a boil, stirring occasionally. Cover, reduce heat, and simmer until rice is almost dry, stirring once and while. Stuff peppers with rice/veggie/sorizo until about 7/8th full. Put in an oiled shallow pan with extra stuffing on the side. Top with grated pepper-jack and parmesan cheeses and a few flakes of red pepper. Bake at 325°F for 1 hour. Give peppers a quick shot under the broiler (low in the oven for more control) until browned. Serve.

“What are the three welcomes of a good chef? Not hard to tell…plenty, kindliness, and art”  -Celtic Triad

 

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September 22, 2012: Mom’s Spaghetti Squash

September 22, 2012

Here is the other recipe mom surprised her kids with once: spaghetti squash. Not only was she thinking healthy, and easy to prepare, but it also was quite an unusual dish that intrigued us all! When she told us that this bright yellow veggie, looking like a cross between a melon and a squash would yield noodle-like threads when she was done, we were a bit skeptical! She was smart and did warn us that it would only look like spaghetti, but would taste like squash.

Spaghetti Squash:
Half squash with a sharp chef knife. Scoop out seeds and pulp in the center of both halves (save seeds to roast with a bit of shoyu…they taste like pumpkin seeds.) Brush a little veggie oil on top of squash and sprinkle with a dash of ground pepper, sal de mer, and a few hot pepper flakes and bake (skin side down on  a cookie sheet) at 325°F for about 1/2 hour. Flake the squash with a fork to get a spaghettti-like texture and separate from the rind. I like it just like this with a pat of butter thrown in, but from here you can do a million variations: top with cheese and broil a bit; mix with tomato sauce for a healthier spaghetti; mix with other veggies; toss with a little more oil and feta cheese cubes, grape tomatoes, olives…the sky’s the limit!

Healthy, inexpensive, easy to prepare, versatile, interesting, and kinda fun. Thanks mom, for looking after your extremely fussy brood for so long, and for really achieving many more successes than failures (‘tho we would never admit it.) I do believe that food that we make is a subtle incarnation of our love for the ones we cook for. We chefs take what we learned from the loving teachers we have had, and pass that on to the others, that we, in turn care about. To turn a phrase: it is love that is a dish best served warm.

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September 20, 2012: Mom’s Baked Eggplant

September 20, 2012

I had hinted that my last article, the review of “Toast” (2010) that the film influenced me in a way that I never expected. Before I ever saw the movie, I was reading the jacket cover of the DVD, just before going to bed. My first thought was that I was going to like the film (I did.) Reading that the film was about a mother who found challenges in the kitchen, made me think of my own mom’s cooking.

As just about all my sisters are superior chefs, we have this family joke that we all became good cooks in self-defense, due to our mom’s bad cooking. Without a doubt, poor lady, she had a number of disasters. In particular, mom’s pigs feet is imbedded in my mind as the absolute worst and most disgusting food I have ever eaten. The scene from “Toast” where Nigel flings away his mother’s sandwiches? That was me. I used to dread Monday Meatloaf, not so much as the meatloaf wasn’t good, it actually was very tasty right out of the oven. It’s just that I knew I was doomed to several days of my mom’s awful meatloaf sandwiches for lunch, sandwiches that I promptly chucked into the wastebasket at lunch!

The reality was that mom was trying to please the tastes of nine different, very particular, and refined tastes, which any chef will tell you, is just about an impossibility! Mom actually did a fine job introducing unique dishes to our diet. We all really loved her pizza and beef and veggie soup, and she did an excellent job on anything she baked.

I can’t really say, with any certainty, where these ideas come from, but all I know is that going to bed, that night after reading the DVD jacket, I was thinking of my mom’s cooking and I woke up remembering two pretty unique recipes of my her’s. Baked Eggplant is the first one.

Mom’s Baked Eggplant:
Skin 1 medium eggplant and save skins for soup stock. Dice eggplant, wash, salt well, let sit for 20 minutes, wash again, and let dry out a couple of minutes. This will remove some of the inherit bitterness of the eggplant (this makes 2.5C. eggplant.)   Cube .5C. wheat bread, add 1-2 Tblsp. butter to a pan and toast croutons over medium heat, turning often with spices (ground pepper, Herbs de Provence, and French Thyme.) You want the croutons to be just a bit toasted, as it will be further baked with the eggplant. Mixed croutons with eggplant. Butter individual Pryex bowls and add bread/eggplant. Top with dabs of butter, a sprinkling of panko and a dash of red pepper flakes. Bake at 350°F for about 15 minutes. Zap with the broiler to get extra toasting on top.

There is a saying that we all grow in response to our parents. I think it’s quite possible that both the good and the bad dishes my mom made helped shape most of her children into wonderful chefs.

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June 22, 2012: “Lost in Place” by Mark Salzman

June 22, 2012

I love finding books at the library that just sort of jump off the shelf at you. Such was the case, last week, when I found “Lost in Place” by Mark Slazman. Mark is a Renaissance man after my own heart. I know of him from a previous book he wrote: “Iron and Silk” about his travels through China while teaching English and learning kung fu at the hands of Master Pan Qingfu. One of my former students knew I was a big fan and generously bequeathed a rare signed, hard-bound copy of that book that I cherish. I also own the indie film of the same name which stars Mark as himself. Mark Salzman is an author whose autobiographical stories are rich with experience, characters, humor and honesty, so I knew what to expect when I picked up “Lost in Place” What I did not expect to find, was hope for the youth and parents of our time.

I do have a slight problem with the full title of the book “Lost in Place: Growing Up Absurd in Suburbia” which feels like a publisher is putting a label on Mark’s book to make it more palatable to American readers. This is kind of missing the point. Mark’s life is far from “absurd.” “Unique”…sure, unconventional”…maybe, but “absurd”…no. Without a doubt, the story of Mark’s life, while having its genesis in probably the most mundane environment possible…suburbian Conneticut, is far from traditional. Truly an artist, as a teen Mark had pursuits of music (the cello) and martial arts. Choosing probably the most awful martial arts teacher imaginable (one who swears at and beats his students, drinks and smokes pot during class, and just generally acts like a total jerk) Mark’s perseverance and success in martial arts say more about himself than any guidance he had at this point of his life. His mother is a concert musician and so offers some guidance to his music, but typical of American youths, Mark rebels constantly against her. It seems parents could be the worst people to aspire to be a muse to their young, when it comes to music. She does inspire Mark however, and he searches for that muse in others. It is that searching for inspirational teachers carries Mark through not only his college years, but also later in his travels through China in “Iron and Silk.”

The youth of today may not like “Lost in Place” although it is one that would be beneficial for any teenager to read. They might not like it, because the book addresses a teenage experience from one of their parent’s generation. It’s funny that “Romeo and Juliet” gets re-made almost every year, and that is not a problem, but maybe the distance of fated 14C. teens is more easily swallowed than those of the last generation. Mark’s book has all the pain, insecurity, challenges and desires of modern teens, but most important, the book manages to convey that these experiences are not unique, that others have gone through this before…and ulimately can come out OK.

I can easily imagine parents grinding their teeth at Mark’s story also. Where were the parents when Mark was choosing this lame-ass instructor? Were they oblivious to the abuse Mark suffered at his hands? It is clear that Mark’s parents gave him enough slack to allow him to make his own decisions, and this by itself, is a laudable parenting move. The most important thing is that they seem to be always there when he needed them…and in the most loving way imaginable.

“Lost in Place” does not shy away from the travails of the teenage experience. It addresses drugs, bad decisions, bad mentors, bad friends and ultimately, great loss. It also encourages teens to follow their hearts and passions. I can’t think of a book better suited for an American family to read together, if such a thing is possible. I think Mark’s story would offer a vehicle of discussion between generations. Most of all, the book gives the important idea to both teens and parents: “Others have traveled down this path. You are NOT alone!”

As for Mark Slazman, all’s well that ends well for him: a successful author, Yale graduate, skilled martial artist, cellist, linguist and calligrapher, he may have been lost in place at some point in his past…and the road goes forever onward…but his experiences have led him…well, hopefully to be found by you at the next trip to the library!

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June 04, 2012: Sandwiches of the Freakishy-Strong

June 4, 2012

When I go on about my older sisters I know I will be thought of as ascending towards hyperbole. When I start to describe them in terms of powerful weather systems or compare them to a Nordic mythological figure, you will just have to forgive me. True, I wax poetical sometimes, and I will confess to a great affection towards these wonderful women. “But how” you may ask, “…can a man have such intense affection and extreme awe (sometimes in the very same moment) for a sibling?” And you would be right to question me, but take a couple of things in consideration:  I have lived with these women through my formative years. Also, I hear  a lot of people complain about their families. They say you cannot choose your family, you just have to adapt to the one you have. I, outside all my other troubles, am lucky in one respect…that if I could choose my family, I would choose exactly the one that I have.

The Eye of the Hurricane

Being bigger, older, and thus, more worldly, my sisters had the right of seniority, when I was young. True to their kind natures, they rarely chose to enforce this, but the threat was inherent. Although all unique individuals, my sisters had a strain of traits that they all had in common. On the exterior they are all gorgeous, outgoing, willful, courageous, athletic, and hardy.  On the interior: intelligent, creative, caring, talented, loving, funny, nurturing and sympathetic. You know how tornadoes and hurricanes have that dramatic exterior surrounding the still eye in the center? That’s a pretty good visual metaphor for the Vedder-women. An awesome force of nature. Put yourself in their path and they will change your life forever.

Suitors

I was always amazed (and truthfully, sometimes a little bit repelled) by the men that would attempt to court my sisters during their teen-age years. I’m not talking about the fine men they eventually ended up with, but the lunkheads that vied for their affections with no sincere intentions. Certainly I could understand the attraction to any of my sisters. What man wouldn’t want an intelligent, beautiful and talented woman at their side? My feelings aside of the unworthiness of these handsome, philandering-wanna-be’s, these silly simpletons, these lazy Lotharios, it was more that I just couldn’t  believe that they knew what they were getting themselves into! “Look,” I wanted to warn them (wanted to, but never did) “If you need that kind of excitement in your life, you’re better off just purchasing a bear! When things die down, you can collect your remaining limbs and sell the damn animal to a circus!” Of course, I never told them this. Not for any love lost on the suitors (they had the shelf life of bread left out on the porch on a rainy day, anyway.) No, I never said anything because any one of my sisters would have flattened me for sticking my nose in where it didn’t belong!

The Goose and the Gander

One of the things my parents did quite well when we were all growing up, was that they put no division of labor between the kids. Sure, I griped about it, but I was expected to dust and wash dishes as well as any outside chores. Conversely, my sisters were expected to shovel and mow the lawn. I think this removal of any sex-bias towards work made my sisters hardy and showed them that physically, they were just as capable as any boy. For, me, I know that I never shirk any chores of a household nature, and this helped open up the world of culinary arts to me.

As they have grown older, my sisters became tame enough to become wonderful mothers to a slew of amazing children (nieces and nephews that have become more family I would choose!) But a banked fire can still emit an intense…and lasting heat. Another quality the sisters share is that most of them are excellent chefs whose skill exceeds my own. When I tell my friends this, they are amazed. I tell them that it is only that I may have had more time to excel in the culinary arts as I have never been a parent.

Valkyrie

My version of Joanne’s sandwich: fresh basil; grilled red pepper; portobello mushroom roasted with garlic; mayo and provolone on a wheat ciabatta bread, then grilled.

My eldest sister Joanne is one with a myriad of conflicting traits: on the outside she is this gorgeous blond-haired, blue-eyed, slim, yet compact beauty. Her’s is the image of the Valkyrie that the Vikings gleefully leapt into battle, in order to end up at her side. Stern but charming, forceful yet kind, stubborn ‘tho nurturing, capable of cleaning out the gunk of a broken garbage disposal or create stunning artwork, her extremes of capabilities and personality traits complement one another to make a balanced and strong woman. When I used to visit or babysit, she would make me the most fantastic sandwiches. A while ago, I was visiting and she made me this sandwich to fit my vegetarian diet. As she was making it for me, she got into a loving tussle with her delightful daughter, Bryna. True to Bryna’s funny and wry humor she shouts at her mom,”You are so freakishly strong!” Never hearing this particular phrase before (at least when referred to one of my sisters) I ask Bryna what she meant. Bryna goes on to say that Joanne is preternaturally hardy and could beat me in an arm-wrestling match, if I was dumb enough to take her on. Never one to back down from a challenge, I took that bet! After all, I had lifted weights every other day since I was sixteen, so I figured this would be pretty easy. At first grip from Joanne, I knew I was in trouble. Gone, was that funny and cheery hostess that artfully made that delicious sandwich a moment ago. I had locked hands with steely eyed Brunhilde!

Yeah…you might want to skip the fisticuffs and just buy her a beer!

I honestly can’t remember who won that match. I, who usually remember such incidents with crystal accuracy, figure the male ego has that perfect defense mechanism that clouds memory from humiliating defeats. As for Joanne, she won’t tell…she’s too much a lady.

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May 16, 2012: Truant

May 16, 2012

While I am pleased as punch to have an acceptable access to the entertainment technology that the 21st C. offers, I can’t help but think of how drastically different my life would have been if I had all the stuff we have today: internet, DVDs, UTube, video games, IPods, etc., in my youth. Sure, we had TV, but then it was only three channels, no remote, and I’d like to see you jockey for your favorite show competing with nine other family members on a single set! My parents were pretty cool. If we did our work during the week we were allowed Friday nights to watch our shows. Our family dubbed Friday as “Popcorn/Soda Night” because those snacks went along with our entertainment. I think this was pretty good parenting: we worked hard for our weekly reward, and thoroughly enjoyed the treat. Still, we are talking a couple of hours of TV during the whole week!

Filling the Void

So, without all the trimmings of the 21st C. how did kids from the 60’s entertain themselves? Well, for one thing…we got outside more than most kids these days seem to. The 60’s parenting norm was to chuck a child outside after school until dinner and then after, the kids hit  the books until bedtime. Sure, this tactic worked pretty well for the parent: they got a few hours to themselves preparing dinner and enjoying the obligatory pre-dinner cocktail so prevalent in the 60’s, but it also got the kids tons of exercise and forced us to socialize via outdoor games. In short, without distractions of the spoon-fed, electronic ilk, we were forced to use our imaginations, intelligence, and our bodies to make up for the entertainment shortfalls.

A Partner in Crime

My childhood friend was Johnny B. He was actually my closest child neighbor, living only two doors down. Slightly older than I was, we were friends since I (literally) could first remember. I once saw a super-8 that  Johnny’s parents took of him as a toddler and I, in baby carriage, meeting for the first time. Johnny was different from me in almost every way: physically, he was thick and bullish to my lithe smallness. Socially, he was extroverted and chaotic as a foil to my quiet thoughtfulness. What brought us together was our imaginations, art, and our habit for getting into trouble! And here…people who know me now, will think to themselves “When did Steve ever get into trouble?!!!” Well, folks, I got most of my trouble out-of-the-way very young, the worst being my altar-boy/cub-scout days. Much of this trouble was in Johnny B.’s company. I don’t want to lead you to believe that Johnny was the sole instigator in these events (it was about 50/50) or that we were “bad” in any real (criminal or evil) sense, it was just that the ideas that we came up with (at least to our minds) were just too good to not make a reality. This draw towards trouble gave us many adventures, including, but not limited to: firearms; first love; physical dares; courting; drinking; cruising; sports; pranks; pyrotechnics; camping; really strange home movies; injuries; hunting; brawls; sex, drugs, and rock and roll…and Mary Ann Semonelli’s missing bra.

Skipping School for a Really Lame Meal

…oh…and lest I forget…a single count of truancy! I think it was Johnny’s idea to skip school, but rebels without a clue that we were, we had no plan what exactly to do with our free day. Earlier that week, one of my sister’s had done a decent job making Shrimp Newberg, so to my mind at least, making this dish seemed like an interesting and somewhat exotic way to spend the day. I remember Johnny shrugging and I suspect now that he wished that he had spent a little more time on thinking the whole event through, but he finally acquiesced. Needless to say, my sister was a few years ahead of me, culinary-wise, and while I think I could do a bang-up Shrimp Newberg these days, back then it was waaaay out of my league. Oddly enough though, this dismal failure put me onto an early track to improving my culinary skills. I started paying closer attention to my sister’s culinary successes and how they attained them.

The Hunger of the High-School Heart

So, to my childhood friend: thank you for all the fun, adventures, imaginings, as well as the bumps and bruises to our bodies and hearts…and for all that time spent cruising. Here is a word that has forever left American social life…cruising. In those days before IChats and Facebook, socializing was done  out in the open, but perhaps with the same embarrassment and sad desperation that haunts todays teenagers. Cruising, in the 60-70’s was driving a car up and down the fast food strip of the local town. It sometimes led to taunts, races, occaisionally fights, and rarely…that teenage Holy Grail…the glimpse of that perfect babe, cruising just like you…to be (hopefully) met at the next party!

No one has quite captured the unique American social activity of cruising like David Wilcox, in his song “Saturday They’ll All Be Back Again

Johnny’s out cruising down the fast food strip
He rides his high-wheeler Ford
Down here every evening since the school let out
An ordinary man would be bored
Johnny’s got the hunger of the high school heart
And a tank full of minimum wage
So it’s six lights down, six lights back
Pacing like a lion in a cage…
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March 30, 2012: Vegetarian Rueben Sandwich

March 29, 2012

My dad had this great quality that would have made him ideal to just about 99/100th of the male population: with eight kids on his hands and a time-consuming occupation, he still made the time to take me to all those sporting events that he enjoyed watching. Trouble is…I hate to watch sports. Love to play them, hate, absolutely hate to watch them. To me, it’s like fingernails on chalkboard.

I did love my father’s company, and even then, I was honored that he wanted to spend time with me, but every sporting event we went to, I found to be a struggle with extreme boredom. Dad was pretty perceptive, so he eventually figured out that I was going through the motions, and stopped asking. And then he did a clever thing: he searched for another commonality, which was food, and we could continue quality time with him introducing foods that he liked, to me. It wasn’t until I was older that I realized what eclectic tastes dad actually had. I never was completely sold on the pig feet and raw oysters, but those aside, he was pretty informed and experienced when it came to food. One place he used to take me was this German restaurant that served the best sandwiches in the world! I was still a meat eater then, so I was able to try their whole menu. One of my last memories of hanging out with my dad was having this sandwich and a beer together at that restaurant.

A Reuben Sandwich is the king of all sandwiches. Bar none. “Beef on a wick” (rare roast beef on a kummelwick roll  [a Kaiser roll topped with salt and caraway seeds] with horseradish sauce…another sandwich dad introduced me to) is a close second, but Reubens are the best. Trouble is, I haven’t eaten meat in a long time, so I wanted to make a veggie version that came close.

So, a couple of variations you may apply to my Reuben recipe:

  • If you want a classic Reuben, substitute corned beef for my veggie faux-meat sausage.
  • I had pumpernickel bread, but marbled rye works well too and is probably more traditional.
  • For a time-saving option, use a store-bought Russian Dressing.
  • For a more healthy version, simply toast bread in a toaster and skip the pan toasting with butter.

My non-meat substitute is Lightlife “Smart Sausage.” Traditionalists will cringe that this is an “Italian-style Sausage” but you need a spicier meat substitute to match the flavor of corned beef. Slice one “sausage” into quarters and fry in a thin layer of corn oil over medium heat, turning often. Remove to a paper towel. In the same oil, fry about 1/2C. sauerkraut. [For extra flavor, I cure my sauerkraut with a few juniper berries a few days ahead of time. Don’t include the berries in the sandwich.] Remove sauerkraut and fry 1/2C. shredded red cabbage. You may have to add a little bit more oil here. Resist the urge to combine and fry the sauerkraut and cabbage together. The red cabbage will turn the sauerkraut a pink color.

Russian Dressing:

  • 1C. Mayonnaise                       •1/4C. Chili Sauce
  • 2 Tblsp. Relish                         •1 Tblsp. Dijon Mustard
  • 1/2 Tsp. Hot Pepper Sauce   •1/4 Tsp. Worcester Sauce
  • Few grains salt                        •1 Tsp. Mirin
  • 1/4 Tsp. Each Ground Pepper, Chili Powder, and Paprika

Assemble Reuben: Cut pumpernickel bread to about 1/2″. On one slice of bread layer two pieces of Swiss cheese, then sausage, then sauerkraut, cabbage and top with Russian Dressing. Top with other slice of bread and butter lightly. Place this side in pan over medium heat. Lightly butter top slice of bread. Turn over when bottom in browned. Cut at a diagonal and serve with a large dill pickle, maybe some cole slaw and a good beer.

Thanks for everything, Dad…most especially for your understanding and wisdom. Your influences have made a big difference in my life (and go far beyond a simple sandwich recipe.) I’d like to think you would’ve loved my version of our favorite sandwich.

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