Memories of Mom, eels, and pea soup
Most memories of our mothers seem to revolve around the kitchen, and Mother's Day has a way of evoking those warm, fragrant moments.
When I was growing up, I spent endless hours in the kitchen shelling peas, shucking corn, peeling and slicing apples for pies. I was justly rewarded for those efforts at the dinner table.
Mother's simple reward was a fistful of violets I'd pick each Mother's Day in a neighbor's verdant backyard.
Mother was a splendid cook. Her creamed Swedish meatballs, a recipe she got from her mother, would melt in your mouth like Dunkin' Donuts' Munchkins. Roast leg of lamb, or duck from our henhouse for Sunday dinner, with fresh asparagus (from Dad's garden) and steamed new potatoes (also from the garden) no bigger than a thumb nail would have brought chef Paul Bocuse to his knees, sobbing.
She was also frugal. Our home-grown chickens had more reincarnations than a cat. Roast chicken on one day would become chicken salad the next and soup the day after that. Livers were saved and frozen and then, when enough were collected, were sautéed with onions. Even the fat was rendered for later cooking.
Things that seem extraordinary and exotic today were not uncommon at our table. Eels, which Dad brought home alive and squirming in a gray cardboard box from Boston, were endlessly fascinating to me, and provided an occasional Friday night treat. After being quickly dispatched, skinned, and cleaned (I'll spare you the details), the eels were cut into 3-inch sections and simmered in water with a splash of vinegar, a pinch of salt, a few peppercorns, and a bay leaf.
The result was jellied eel, one of the few fish dishes I could actually stomach as a kid.
We delighted in topping Ritz crackers with a slice of Bermuda onion; the freshest, leanest, raw ground sirloin; a dash of onion powder; a caper; and a pinch of pepper. Steak tartare? Maybe in Russia. We christened them Cannibal Burgers.
Not that duck, eel, beef tongue, and raw hamburger made up our average daily menu. Most meals were typical 1950s fare: a lunch of tuna sandwiches, BLTs, and Campbell's tomato soup; dinners of macaroni and cheese, American chop suey, and enough tuna casserole to sink the Bismarck. But Mother faded when it came to the end of the meal. "What would you like for dessert," she'd ask, "canned pears or canned peaches?"
She was a master of manipulation, which I'm especially grateful for today as I cook for myself and friends. After luring me into the kitchen to lick the spoon of a just-frosted cake, she'd soon have me cracking walnuts, stirring soup, or whisking an egg and lemon juice in a bowl while she added oil, drop by drop, to make mayonnaise.
Her forced child labor - and a touch of osmosis - made me an adequate cook. And to this day, store-bought mayo is anathema to me.
Of all the dishes that stand out in my memory, one particular batch of Mother's pea soup remains indelible.
It wasn't unusual for us to close the doors and windows and let our canary, Tweetie, fly through the house for an hour or so for exercise.
One particular spring day, I don't remember who forgot to close the kitchen door (I may be in denial), but soon Tweetie was buzzing the stove. Then, splat, he took a swan dive into the pea soup.
Fortunately the soup was only swimming-pool warm. After Mother did a dramatic rescue of "Baywatch" proportions, Tweetie was soon back in his cage drying his feathers and singing like Frank Sinatra before his eighth comeback.
And the soup? Did I say we were a frugal family? It was wonderful, of course. I've made the soup many times over the years, but somehow it seems to lack that little "touch o' Tweetie."
Thirty-three of today's most popular chefs remember their mothers in a new book, "Mom's Secret Recipe File," edited by Chris Styler (Hyperion, $17.95). This collection of recipes and photos is a nostalgic tribute to how the chefs' mothers influenced their lives. Here are a few examples:
Lidia Matticchio Bastianich - best known for her two PBS television series, "Lidia's Italian-American Kitchen" and "Lidia's Italian Table" - tells how, when Lidia was a little girl, her mother, Erminia, showed her the technique of rolling out feather-light potato gnocchi. Erminia, the matriarch of four generations, hoped her daughter would pursue a more academic career, but those gnocchi had cast the mold. Erminia soon relented and still helps in Lidia's restaurants today.
Restaurateur Todd English remembers his grandmother, mother, and nanny taking turns cooking, while he looked on. He talks about his grandmother's mammoth antipasti, and gives his mother's recipe for Uova in Purgatorio, Eggs in Purgatory, an almost heavenly dish of poached eggs in tomato sauce, served on Tuscan toast.
Martin Yan, star of "Yan Can Cook" (he has hosted more than 1,800 cooking shows on TV), was born in Canton, China, to parents who ran a restaurant and grocery store. The most important thing Yan remembers from his mother's kitchen is to use only fresh, seasonal ingredients when they were abundant - which she was forced to do as they didn't have refrigeration in Canton.
Everyone thinks his or her mother is the best cook ever.
Well, maybe not everyone. Food writer/teacher Steve Raichlen tells a different story: "My mother was a ballet dancer," he relates. "She was also a lousy cook. So I taught myself to cook at an early age; it was a matter of self-defense."
We all have to learn to cook in our own way.
I was tempted to give my mother's pea soup recipe here, but canaries don't come cheap, and then there's the threat of PETA burning a zucchini on my front lawn.
Instead, enjoy a pound cake from chef Art Smith, who probably never owned a canary.
This recipe is from Art Smith, former personal chef to Oprah Winfrey. His family often freezes a cake and then mails it. When the cake arrives, it has thawed.
1/2 pound unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus a bit for greasing pan
3 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting pan
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
3 cups sugar
6 eggs, at room temperature
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Grated zest of two lemons
1 cup sour cream, at room temperature
1 cup fresh lemon juice
2/3 cup sugar
1/4 cup water
Zest of 1 lemon
Place rack in center of oven. Preheat to 325 degrees F.
Butter and flour a 10-inch fluted Bundt pan. Tap out excess flour. In a medium bowl, sift flour, baking powder, salt, and baking soda.
To make cake: In a large bowl beat butter and sugar with electric mixer on high until blended - about 1 minute. Beat in eggs, 1 at a time, until light and fluffy - about 3 minutes - and then mix in vanilla and zest. On low speed, add flour in 3 additions, alternating with 2 additions of sour cream. Beat until smooth, scraping down sides of bowl often with rubber spatula. Spread mix evenly in Bundt pan.
Bake until cake tester or skewer comes out clean, about 1-1/4 hours.
While cake is baking, make syrup: Bring lemon juice, sugar, water, and zest to a boil over high heat. Cook until reduced to about 1/2 cup - about 15 minutes. Set aside to cool.
Transfer cake to a wire rack and allow to cool for 10 minutes. While cake is still in pan, drizzle half the syrup over the cake. Remove cake from pan, invert, and brush with remaining syrup. Let cool completely before serving. Serves 12.
- Adapted from 'Mom's Secret Recipes'