pull up a chair

where wisdom gathers, poetry unfolds and divine light is sparked…

Category: cooking memories

and into my kitchen, they all congregated

IMG_7511

i’d ordered the brisket, five pounds of first-cut beast, as instructed. i was due to dash out the door to the butcher’s at the agreed-upon hour, but first i needed to quick-read my passover checklist. so i pulled my family cookery book off the shelf, the one where, over the years, i’ve tucked snippets and pages and odd scribbled notes. it’s my holding yard for guideposts to brisket and kugel and those chopped balls of fish called gefilte — decades and centuries of recipes, really, passed one generation to the next.

in my case, it’s the fat stash of invitations into an ancient tradition that was not mine, but now is. in my case, it’s my compendium of adopted jewish mothers and grandmothers and aunties and surrogate whisperers over my shoulder, all committed to paper and ink, and clicked into a three-ring binder.

and that’s when the first kitchen companion — unseen but certainly sensed — came into the room. before i got to the tab marked “jewish holidays,” i’d flipped open a page, and there was a name staring out at me, the name of my irish friend who’d just died, tagged in crisp typed letters at the bottom of her blueberry cake, one she must have passed along because once i’d oohed and ahh-ed. i paused for a moment, picturing her, picturing her blueberries, picturing her rare nod to domesticity (though she always loved a great meal). and then i turned another page; i found another now-departed instructor of kitchen arts. i scanned over the words, her careful instruction, her side whispers and peculiar idiosyncrasies, always tucked off to the margin in parenthetical insistence. (“Try not to burn it.” “yes, tablespoons,” “don’t food process, or you will have mush,” “it’s OK if it seeps over the rest…”)

i came to the brisket, the one my boys practically lick off the plate. i followed my scribbles for haroset, the mortar of apples and walnuts and cinnamon and honey, with a splash of manishewitz kosher concord wine. i read through kugel, one i’d not made before, but one my boys have counted on, ever since their very first passover at the long, long table of tribune folk, the one that for them will forever be synonymous with the exodus from egypt. with every page i turned, i drew in another to my sacred kitchen circle: harlene ellin’s mama, queen of the brisket; ina, whose claim to fame (besides her long-standing, much-loved chicago breakfast eatery) is the seltzer she adds to her matzoh balls to make them “floaters” of cloud-like proportion; andrea, who wandered by the other day, and did not scoot off before penning an all-new kugel and a middle-eastern charoset, now added to my collection.

and then, assured of my passover-cooking itinerary, i reached on the shelf for the mini-sized chopper of apples i’d employ for making old-fashioned haroset. as i lifted the sharp blade and bowl from the box, out toppled a post-it, now nearly 23 years old. it was from the grandma of my heart, my grandmother-in-law whom i loved fromIMG_7512 the get-go. just weeks after our firstborn was born, she’d packed up the mini-chopper and sent it from west palm beach to our little house in chicago. she tucked in a note, in her signature scribble: “dear children,” she began, declaring straight off that she counted me one of her own. “perhaps you will be able to grind veg. for willie when he is ready for them.” and suddenly grandma syl (“the teaneck tornado,” they called all four-foot-nine of her) was there in the kitchen beside me, pressing against my shoulder blade, her tousled silvery head barely reaching the top of my arm. wasn’t long till i was awash in the tears that come when remembering hurtles you back in time, erases the years, fills your head and your heart with unmistakeable presence. i could hear the squeak of her voice. i could feel, in an instant, as if it was the summer of 1993 all over again, the weight of the lump in my arms, the newborn lump who’d precipitated the need, apparently, for a rapid-fire way to make baby puree. (and, as i stood there blinking away my tears, i re-sealed my vow never to toss out a love note or a scrap that might come tumbling from the pages of a book, or the contents of a gift box, swirling you back in time every time, rekindling the thump of the heart that won’t ever fade.)

and so it went, hour upon hour yesterday. as i chopped and stirred and cranked the oven. by day’s end, when the table was set with dishes passed from one china cabinet to the next, when i’d pulled the haggadahs from the shelf, found the seating chart from last year, with yet another name no longer among us, i’d filled my house with those i’ve loved and lost.

it must be the sorrow that’s made me more porous this year. that, according to celtic tradition, has made for the thinning between heaven and earth, that’s pushed my soul soft up against the sacred openings, where angels seep in.

and why not fill my jewish holiday kitchen, my passover kitchen, with page after page of those who’ve shown me the way? those who took my unfamiliar irish-catholic hand, and led me into the back lanes and secret passageways of this jewish-catholic marriage? why not invite them all into my kitchen for the day, and set a place at the table — at my heart — for each and every one of them?

so tonight, when i bow my head and strike the match to light the blessed shabbat and pesach candles, everyone else will count a mere five at the table. i, though, will feel the embrace of a whole company of cookstove companions and patron saints of jewish cookery. and i will offer up a litany of prayer for each and every one of them. each and every one of the ones who’ve shown me the shortcuts to heaven, where too many now reside.

IMG_7519

brisket, before its overnight nap in the fridge

do you too find cookery books, the homespun kind, fill your kitchen with those you’ve loved, and those who’ve shown you particular ways? 

p.s. i know i promised field notes from my poetry get-away, and those will come — next week, perhaps. the bottom line was that paying attention is at the heart of poetry and prayer, and we’re all the richer for keeping a keen eye to the mystery and miracle that abounds.

IMG_7513

haroset: apples, walnuts, cinnamon, honey, with a splash of manishewitz

IMG_7518

roasted shank bone, roasted egg for the seder plate

mama lu’s noodles

of all the rooms in a house, the one most inhabited with ghosts and stirrings from the past, surely, is the one with chopping block and place to wield a wooden spoon, and stove top and oven.

that’s not meant to be the start of any halloween tale (what with that a month away, it’s not yet in my scope).

but rather it is the alchemy of cooking, of heart, that happens when you come back to the kitchen, and find yourself standing side-by-side with souls no longer there, souls who spring to life with the mere flipping of a cookbook page, or simply an idea. a chunk of bread. a stick of butter. a bag of fat wide noodles.

and so it was, the other eve, when i, the irish cook, stood stirring for the jewish new year. oh, the big lamb stew, the one we’ve chopped and stirred and simmered for 20 years now (mind you, taking time to pause and eat it, not perpetually simmering for two long decades), that lamb stew was coming on the holiday itself.

this was the eve of rosh hashanah, and we were sliding from a work day into sacred time, and we hadn’t lots of hours to prepare some five-course feast.

so i was winging it. i’d started with chicken (jewish enough), added carrots (still sticking with the peasant basics), had grabbed a bag of noodles (not too far a stroll from the kugel i’d be stirring soon enough).

it’s when the noodles hit the boiling water. started up the noodle dance, as they bobbed and dove in roiling bubbling vat. that’s when mama lu, my long-gone german grandma, came strolling in the kitchen.

tapped me right on the shoulder, she did. shoved a stick of butter in my face. made me turn and grab the day-old challah, a loaf she never knew.

before i knew it, she had a knife in my hand, and i was cutting challah cubes. i grabbed the skillet, unwrapped the golden stick of butter, and let mama lu go wild. just like in the old days, in the days when i, no higher than her apron string, would stand to the side of her cincinnati stove, and watch her wield the cast iron and the wooden spoon as the butter oozed and bubbled. as she dumped in the hard-angled bread cubes. as it all spit and jumped and made a happy sizzle.

oh, mama lu’s noodles were a mound of joy to us. she let nothing get between those butter-sodden cubes and her noodles. no worries about fat grams or cholesterol (though her ice box door was ALWAYS plastered with cut-out cartoons of gals lamenting they weren’t skinny; my grandma, the original weight watcher).

and so, all these decades later, as i cooked my way toward rosh hashanah eve, my german catholic grandma joined me in the kitchen. and for the first time, her buttered crouton noodles were the crowning glory of the new year’s table.

my boys, the two still home, oohed and ahhed and ate.

i hope my grandma hung around to hear the joy uncorked. it’s a crazy gorgeous thing, the way the kitchen has no walls, no separation of the decades. the one room where we all tumble back together, over time and beyond heartache. where one lick of the finger, or one stick of butter, can bring us all to life, and join us at the heart.

who’s come calling in your kitchen lately?

i have to say one of the sweetest moments of the week was when my fellow stew stirrer, the one with whom i’ve stirred the rosh hashanah lamb-and-rice-and-chickpeas-and-apples-and-raisin-and-cinnamon-and-allspice stew for the past two decades, was poking around the cookery book, the one that opens to the splattered page, and found tucked inside, the receipts from our old city butcher shop from the year before we moved here, and sweetest of all, the sheet of prayers from the hyde park hillel where we spent rosh hashanah in 1993. when i was holding in my arms a fairly newborn boy, and rocking him in the tightly-packed pews was the holiest prayer i had ever prayed. that boy, missing from this year’s table.

pause. bow head. strike sullenly pose.

“did you see the obituaries?” my mother asked, first thing in the day. she was insistent. she was bothered. “peg died.”
peg bracken, she meant. peg, who might as well have been our next-door neighbor growing up. the one who passed virginia slims over the picket fence. poured a cocktail soon as the kiddies polished off the afterschool snack. i’m thinking her only use for her apron was to wipe her muddy shoes.
despite–or because of–the anarchy, my mother consulted her. followed her. stood off in the corner of the kitchen with her, often, snickering in a most unusual way.
she was apparently, my mother’s alter ego. she was, maybe, the trouble maker my mother wasn’t. she was, in 1960, when her book came out, her cookbook, her anti-cookbook, really, “the i hate to cook book,” a breath of something new in the simmering winds over by the range (for what had been the stove became the range somewhere there in the latter half of the last century).
her most famous recipe, perhaps, the one that’s been unfurled for all the obits, is the one for “skid road stroganoff.”
it goes like this:
“start cooking those noodles, first dropping a bouillon cube into the water. brown the garlic, onion and crumbled beef in the oil. add the flour, salt, paprika and mushrooms, stir, and let it cook five minutes while you light a cigarette and stare sullenly at the sink.”
you must love a woman who whisks “sullenly” into a recipe for stroganoff. even if the thought of stroganoff has you grabbing for the counter while you tamper down the urge to gag.
growing up in my house, that blue book with the funny drawings–the ones done, by the way, by the fellow who drew the daylights out of eloise at the plaza–stood mostly for one dish: a dish once named chicken rice roger. but in our house, now, it is mostly known as chicken rice grammy, for it is the perfect embodiment of all things cozy in a covered dish.
it a.) comes bubbling out of the oven, it’s b.) made with stuff dumped from a can, and c.) it is the surest cure for a bad day that i can think of.
of course, i’ve gussied it up over the years. but still i follow its cardinal rule. i mostly mess around with things that can be found in tin cans. i add artichoke hearts, which might be fresh or might be frozen, but from a can are just as good. i dump in broth, which again is happy from a can, is practically unheard of in my house in any made-from-scratch rendition.
it seems only fitting that we all bow our heads today. for i am guessing peg made her way, in one form or another, into the kitchens of our youth.
perhaps your mama made stayabed stew, sole survivor, or spinach surprise. certainly while james beard was informing half the country to saute, a fancy french verb that stood up the more american “to fry,” ms. bracken, a working mother who used her maiden name, mon Dieu, was subverting the other half.
fact is, she and betty friedan arose together. it’s just that bracken was a little quieter in her subversion. she was infiltrating suburban kitchens while friedan ransacked the bedrooms and beyond.
as the child of the i-hate-to-cook-book era i, of course, revolted. i grew up in a house where hamburger helper was tested for the folks at general mills. if it came, ready-mix, in a box, we were guinea pigs.
is it any wonder, then, that i stopped eating when i was 18? i decided frances moore lappe, she of small planet diet fame, she who wanted all the world to be fed fairly and without animal sacrifice, was more my speed. i worshipped at her altar, complemented protein all through college.
i am old enough, and far away enough, that now i see the humor in that food chain. my mother snickering in her corner, taking shortcuts willy nilly; me in mine, measuring grains, steaming broccoli.
i am old enough, now wise enough, i hope, that i can see the beauty too of a voice that whispered to my mother. told her to dump the long hours at the stove. get out, perhaps, play tennis.
for my mother who grew up with french nuns and a mother who made her wear white gloves, peg bracken was the safest radical she could invite into her kitchen.
if i drank something more than the wimpy white wine i sip each night, i might pour and lift a dry martini.
to peg, who made my mother giggle. to peg, who had her dumping cans all around the kitchen.
in case you’d like a taste o’ peg, here’s what we call chicken rice grammy
3/4 cup uncooked rice
1 cup mushrooms
grated onion
1 3/4 cup chicken broth
chicken pieces

brown chicken. dump on top of rice, mushroom, onion, broth. bake, covered, at 350 degrees for 1 hour.

(note the lack of specificity up above, no one advising organic broth, basmati rice. just get the job done, seems to be the underlying message. and get it done, it surely did. a more delicious comfort dish, i’m hard-pressed to find.)

did you grow up with peg? was your mama snickering in the corner, staring sullenly into the sink? i thought it might be fitting to strike up a write-like-peg contest. feel free to pen your own bracken-esque recipe below. (use words like sullen with abandon, please)….and i would like to cordially invite my very own mama to say, in her words, why she so loved peg bracken….
p.s. i might be late tomorrow, as i must be in court at 9. and i think, even with chicken rice grammy under my belt, my tummy might be churning. so perhaps i’ll play court reporter and fill you in after all the courtroom drama. egad.

it’s brisket weather…

borrowing amply from mr. capote, who in his delicious and utterly memorizable 1956 treasure, “a christmas memory,” tells us of his eccentric sixty-something-year-old cousin who presses her nose to the kitchen window, gauges the novemberness of the outside tableau, and exclaims, “oh my, it’s fruitcake weather!…it’s fruitcake weather! fetch our buggy. help me find my hat.”
and at our house this weekend, i woke up, sniffed my nose in the air, and proclaimed, “it’s brisket weather.” with that i trotted off to the butcher who had cleaved and wrapped seven and a half pounds of pure red steer, laced heavily with adipose. he marked it, mahany, and as he handed over the white-paper-wrapped log, he raised one eyebrow and quizzed, “that jewish?” well, no, mister meat man. but my husband is, my boys are half and half, and we do hanukkah.
the thing about being an irish catholic mother in a jewish-catholic family is that you have no long lineage of recipes you call your own. you have, forgive me for braggin’, something far better than that: an amalgam of adopted jewish mothers and the best of their best. i’ve got ina’s matzo balls, aunt joni’s tips on storing, freezing and reheating latkes, liat’s hamantashcen, audrey’s “tzimmes with potato kugel topping,” that one cut from the los angeles times, now yellowed and long ago scribbled with audrey’s thoughts on how to improve it.
brisket i’ve got in triplicate: susan’s famed brisket, one boasts; sandra’s working-woman’s brisket; and the one i now call my own, brisket from harlene ellin’s mom. now, mind you, i have met harlene ellin’s mom once–at the side of a pool at a 7-year-old’s birthday long long ago, where the meeting was doused liberally in chlorinated pool water. but harlene’s mama and i, once or twice a year, we make brisket together. listening closely as she insists it must be heinz chili sauce, nobody’s else’s. following carefully as she guides me through the rinsing and patting dry of the beef slab.
last night, i leaned heavily on mama ellin. she swears you need 50 to 55 minutes per pound in a 325-degree oven. do the math: that was 6 and a quarter hours. being a good catholic girl, i did what i was told. even though after a while i started doubting the wisdom of all this baking and baking. was i en route to the leatheriest brisket ever served at a hanukkah dinner? as i unearthed said brisket from the oven, well past bedtime, and noted the bayleaves had started to blacken, my knees how they trembled, my calm how it shattered.
quick, i grabbed mark bittman. he tells me how to cook everything. he said nothing about brisket being cooked for a full quarter of a day. i googled brisket. the longest stretch there was five hours, for a five-pound brisket. but i had the motherlode of all briskets. my meat man set me up with 7.5 pounds, for cryin’ out loud. i had no option last night but to stay the course with mama ellin. i did as i was told, vaulted it from roasting pan to refrigerator pan, tucked it in under a taut aluminum blanket, turned out the kitchen lights and hoped for the best.
frankly, my brisket dreams did little to soothe me.
called the butcher first thing this morn. he swears i did the right thing; only he cautions a low long oven is the best route to brisket heaven. he goes overnight at 200 degrees. has brisket by the mound for breakfast, he does. maybe i should have turned down the heat.
all i know now is it smelled a bit like heaven around here for six-plus hours on sunday, all chili sauce, red wine, cloves and those bay leaves. i wasn’t about to lower the burn on that celestial scent.
we had 12 coming for brisket tonight, but little tedd has a fever of 103. so, for now, me and my brisket we are on hold. we are whispering prayers, jewish and catholic, for fork-tender, melt-in-your-mouth, mind-if-i-help-myself-to-more. dinner is rescheduled for wednesday. we’ll let you know if our brisket prayers they are answered.
here’s how harlene ellin’s mama and i go at it, year after year:

Brisket
3 pounds first-cut brisket (these things a Catholic girl must learn, who knew from first-, second- or even third-cut?)
1 C. Heinz chili sauce
½ C. brown sugar
¼ C. dry red wine
¼ C. water
1 small or medium onion, sliced
3 cloves, whole
6 black peppercorns, whole
3 bay leaves

Rinse brisket and pat dry with paper towels. In a small bowl combine chili sauce, brown sugar, wine and water. Mix well. Pour ¼ of chili sauce mixture into a roasting pan. Place brisket on sauce, fat side up. Place onions, cloves, peppercorns and bay leaves evenly over brisket. Top with remaining chili sauce mixture.

Cover roasting pan tightly. Bake brisket in preheated 325 degree oven for 50 to 55 minutes per pound, or until meat is fork tender. Remove meat from pan and place it in a container. Remove bay leaves, peppercorns and cloves from gravy, and put gravy in a container. Refrigerate meat and gravy for several hours or overnight.

To reheat brisket, slice against grain to desired thickness and place in covered casserole dish sprayed with cooking oil spray. Remove and discard any congealed fat from gravy. Pour the gravy over meat. Cover and reheat in a 375 degree oven for 30 minutes or until heated through. (Brisket can be reheated in microwave.)

Serves 6

feel free to add your brisket thoughts to this melt-in-your-mouth conversation….