Sunday, April 11, 2010

Delicious Reading

As long back as I can recall for nearly every gift giving occasion my Mother would give me a cookbook and for as long as I can remember my Mother has loved cookbooks. She reads them. She reads them like most people read novels. Come to think of it I can’t recall ever seeing her read a novel. She certainly may have, and probably did but my vivid memory is of her with a largely published cookbook or a favorite community or church cookbook by her side.  I didn’t always appreciate them as gifts, often I would act excited when I received one but really wished it had been something else.  She would always add a message on the first page and sign and date it with her name. These cookbooks are now my most prized possessions.

I have often wondered how many cookbooks I actually have. I counted them today. I have eighty-six. I was actually a little disappointed by that number. I have always thought I had hundreds of cookbooks. I don’t have even one hundreds of cookbooks!
My cookbooks are lined up on the countertop; I have another pile on the top shelf in a cabinet and still others in boxes in my basement.

I grabbed a pile and sat outside with them to soak up some sunshine and to appear busy to my husband who was raking and realized just how much I enjoy them. One cookbook I looked at today I found in a box in the basement. I hadn’t looked at it for several years, maybe not even since receiving it Christmas 1995. I know this because it’s signed “To Suzie with love from Mother 12/95.”  It’s title is “The Country Mothers Cookbook, A Celebration of Motherhood and Old-Fashioned Cooking” I imagine she thought this was a good fit for me because at that time I was living somewhat of a country mothers life. I was living in the country raising three small children and tended chickens. Yes. I said tended chickens. These chickens terrified me for the most part. There was a rooster that once chased me across the yard and into the house and had reduced me to a screaming little girl. I ate him later that week.

On the acknowledgements page it states that it’s “a tribute to all those whose hands have rocked the cradle, and to the children whose lives the motherly touch has enriched.” Perhaps that is why she chose to give me this particular cookbook. It is filled with good old-fashioned recipes for food that brings me back to a potluck at an Aunt’s house or a day at our family cabin located on the Poplar River where everyone would bring a dish to pass.

It has recipes with names that make me  smile widely like  “Grandma Meekins’s Moist-Roasted Boston Butt” I’m not certain what a Boston Butt is but I certainly intend to find out and when I get one I will be making it. There is a recipe for Raspberry Crowdie Cream that sounds like something my family would like and for Billy Goat Gruff Cookies. Which brings me back to kindergarten when we would play that game on a wooden bridge we had in the classroom, one child under the bridge playing the role of the evil troll and the rest of us clip clopping over hoping not to disturb him. There is Gertrude’s Favorite Butter Cake with Pineapple Filling and Pineapple Butter Frosting.  I don’t know about you but who ever Gertrude was she surely knew how to make a cake. I can sort of picture her. She is wearing a handsome dress.  I know for a fact I will be making this cake within the month and blogging about it.

For me my favorite part about receiving the cookbooks, is not the recipes but how my Mother signed them. They really tell the story of my life, at least my adult life. One is signed “To Suzanne, Shawn does not live by steak alone – This should help. I love you. Mother” dated March 25, 1984.  I married Shawn in April of 1984. I imagine it was a wedding shower gift. I was just eighteen years old and knew only how to make steak.  He has a new wife now.

Another is signed Happy 41st birthday To Suzanne who’s talents and abilities in the kitchen knows no bounds. Love Mother.  Dated Feb 12, 2007. She always gave me far too much credit and entirely too much confidence. Just below that it’s signed Christmas 2006. Love Mother. I bet she realized after looking over all the gifts that Christmas I would have had more than the others, so she probably held on to it until February for my birthday. Or she could have just lost track of it.  She’s allowed, she has been juggling a Christmas list that rivals that of Santa’s for some 60 years.

I found one signed to “Scott, just one of the family chefs” Well I’m not married to Scott any longer either. Do you see a pattern?  Had he been out snow blowing the driveway like I’d asked rather than perfecting his chocolate chip cookie recipe, we might still be together.

Another cookbook is signed twice, once to my Aunt Karin and then again to me. Too bad Auntie Karin. It’s mine now!

Well I’ve spent the better part of an afternoon flipping through piles of cookbooks and taking in as much of the warm April sunshine as I could.  I am sufficiently freckled, and inspired to make some new “old- fashioned” meals.  Oh and I need to find out what a Boston Butt is, I think I have just the book for that. The Food Lover's Companion, a gift from a friend.

This little piggy goes to market.

I shop for my groceries with a hand basket. For me metal-shopping carts with their rattles and sticky wheels takes the fun, art and dare I say sexiness out of grocery shopping. One day while pushing a cart so full of food that I was unable to navigate a corner it made me wonder whether I was preparing meals or just eating.  My cart was filled with food but within it nothing that was inspiring or exciting, nothing that made me anxious to get home and put on an apron, turn on some music, pour some wine and get cooking.  It was time to make cooking  fun again.

Recently I was out of town for work with a few of my coworkers and we stopped at a  great Italian Market.  There is something magical about shopping in a market where the food is displayed beautifully and artfully. The shelves were lined with exotic looking cans of tomatoes. Seemingly endless packages of pasta in shapes that I’ve never seen before bearing labels I did not recognize.  Glass cases filled with delicious looking sauces in colors that varied from white to pink to red.  Fragrant sausage and meats, some with names I’ve never heard of nor can pronounce filled the air, blocks of hard cheese, wedges of parmesan and balls of mozzarella had my mouth watering and mind racing as to what I could make and more importantly fit into my already overstuffed car. Hanging baskets of breads and beans, the different varieties of olive oil in shades from yellow to green.  Bouquets of herbs, balls of fresh made pizza dough, fat braids of garlic, long sticks of pepperoni and the sweet delicate cream filled cannoli, had me convinced I had died and gone to heaven.

The sights, smells and sounds instantly made me forget that my heritage says I’m more apt to be making Swedish Meatballs than Spaghetti and Meatballs.  That the dishes my Mother handed down to me say “Var sa God” not  “Cucina Italiana” Never mind that I knew the word Smorgasbord and could use it in a sentence correctly by the time I was in Kindergarten.  Part of the pleasure in eating is from what enters your eyes and ears and this market has me humming  “That’s Amore” within minutes of my arrival.

I selected a quart of Marinara Sauce, I usually make my own but wanted to try some of theirs to see how mine measured up. Some Italian Sausage dotted with fennel and some meatballs. These meatballs were as big as bocce balls,  more than twice the size of the meatballs I grew up eating.  A quart of spaghetti sauce, some mascarpone cheese, by the way , if you’ve never had it, do yourself a favor, quickly get some and combine it with some Nutella which if you’re not familiar is a chocolate hazelnut spread wildly popular in Europe. You can find it near the peanut butter in most grocery stores. Put it on a cracker or a croissant or even your finger, it doesn’t really matter what, it’s better than sex, well maybe not, but it’s really, really really good. Trust me.

I was still shopping when with my arms full and barely able to balance it all when I noticed in a dark corner piled high my old friend the hand basket, these aren’t your ordinary run of the mill hand baskets, these were small wooden bushel baskets, had it not been for the four walls and the ceiling over my head I would have believed I was in an open air market in Tuscany. Not that I’ve ever been to Tuscany, but
it ‘s what I imagine it would be like.  I placed my items in my basket and was able to buy a few more things before it was time to get back. Not a single shopping cart in sight, it would have been as alien to this place as a jar of pickled herring.

Once home I made a pot of spaghetti and meatballs using the things I bought at the market, added a nice salad of mixed greens, some crusty French bread and invited my son and his fiancé over for dinner. It was absolutely delicious.

I read somewhere once that the trouble with eating Italian Food is that five or six days later you’ll be hungry again.  I agree.

   Homemade Spaghetti Sauce with Meatballs (serves 6)


      1 pound lean ground beef
      1 cup fresh bread crumbs
      1 tablespoon dried parsley
      1/4  cup grated Parmesan cheese
      1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
      1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
      1 egg, beaten
     3/4 cup onion, chopped small
     5 cloves garlic, minced
     1/4 cup olive oil
     1(28 ounce) can whole peeled tomatoes
     1 (14 ounce) can crushed tomatoes
     1 (14 ounce) can diced tomatoes
     2 teaspoons salt
     2 teaspoons white sugar
     1 bay leaf
     1 (6 ounce) can tomato paste
     3/4 teaspoon dried basil
     3/4 teaspoon dried oregano
     1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper


   1. In a large bowl, combine ground beef, bread crumbs, parsley, Parmesan, 1/4 teaspoon black pepper, garlic powder and beaten egg. Mix well and form into 12 balls. Store, covered, in refrigerator until needed.
   2. In a large saucepan over medium heat, saute onion and garlic in olive oil until onion is translucent. Stir in tomatoes, salt, sugar and bay leaf. Cover, reduce heat to low, and simmer 90 minutes.  Remove bay leaf and using an immersion blender or food processor blend 2/3 of sauce. Stir in tomato paste, basil, oregano,  pepper and meatballs and simmer 30 minutes more. Serve over spaghetti noodles.