Sunday Dinner #4

This week I was so pleased to make Paul’s Lasagna.

Lasagna is one of those dishes that has no formal recipe but everyone seems to know how to make. Paul’s version of lasagna certainly evolved over the years. He never made it the same way twice, and it was always good. It was also one of a very small set of family favorites that he trusted me, his culinary-challenged woman, to prepare with only a little oversight from him.

He often made lasagna when we had company. So, many of our family and friends out there will remember having Paul’s Lasagna when visiting or having dinner with us. And, of course, lasagna makes great leftovers. True story, I have been known to eat it cold, right out the dish, the next morning. This occasion was no exception.

On this particular evening, I was hosting Paul’s parents and the newest members of our family, my son’s future in-laws.

I began by cooking the lasagna noodles and browning the meat. We use at least nine of the long, flat lasagna noodles per 9×13 casserole dish, but I always cook more than I will need because inevitably one or more of the noodles tear or stick to the pot or something else that makes them unusable. Also, I add a dollup of olive oil to the boiling water. It keeps the noodles from sticking to each other. Occasionally, Paul and I would make the pasta from scratch. If the pasta is fresh, then it does not have to be boiled or pre-cooked. It can be added straight to the lasagna recipe.

Paul used to make lasagna with ground beef but years ago began using mild, Italian sausage instead. I use about a pound of sausage per 9×13 casserole dish. Italian sausage can sometimes be found in the store in bulk but more often I find it packaged already in a casing. Simply remove the casing before browning it in the pan. I find the easiest way to remove it is by using a pair of kitchen shears to cut the casing lengthwise and roll the sausage right out into the pan. Use a spatula to break it into smaller, bite-sized pieces as it is browning.

Once the sausage and noodles are prepped, you’re ready to start assembling the lasagna. I began with a light pour of spaghetti sauce across the bottom of the dish, just enough to cover it from edge to edge. Then, place the first three lasagna noodles lengthwise. More sauce. Sausage. Cheese. Black olives. Another layer of lasagna noodles. Sauce again. Alfredo sauce, too. Sausage. Cheese. Black olives. You get the idea! One of the layers typically includes ricotta cheese in addition to the shredded cheddar and mozzarella that have already been used in previous layers.

I was feeling sassy so I got creative with a second, smaller lasagna and included a layer of fresh spinach. That’s the beauty of lasagna. You can make it your own by adding whatever ingredients suit your fancy.

Cover and bake at 350 degrees for about 30-40 minutes. You’ll know it’s ready when you can see it bubbling around the edges. Uncover for the last five minutes to get the cheeses really melt-y. Salad and garlic bread completed the meal.

***

Dessert was a special one. Both Paul and I are from farming families with fond childhood memories of spending time on the farm. So, throughout our son’s childhood, we would frequently visit the local farm stand of a very large, peach farm, McLeod Farms, in McBee, South Carolina. Their peaches are sold under the Mac’s Pride brand throughout the United States and Canada. They also grow other crops for local sales like corn, blackberries, grapes, blueberries, strawberries, melons, pumpkins, tomatoes, beans, greens, broccoli, okra, and so on.

In the farm stand, you can find fresh produce, baked and canned goods, and homemade ice cream. Families and school groups frequent the farm to walk the fields, pick produce, and visit the tractor museum. There is also a farm-to-table restaurant and annual festivals to celebrate the harvests. Families can go for a hayride or simply sit at the picnic tables or in rocking chairs and enjoy time together. This was the setting of many a well-spent, lazy day for our family.

Each year the farm invites people to enter a contest for the best recipes that utilize the farm’s produce. Paul loved trying out the winning recipes. This dessert, Peach Enchiladas, is one of those winning recipe entries, and it was an instant hit in our family.

Use 4 – 6 fresh peaches. Peel and quarter, and wrap each piece in crescent roll dough. Arrange in a deep baking dish.

Melt two sticks of butter. Add one and one-half cups of sugar and one teaspoon of cinnamon to the melted butter and stir until well blended. Pour or spoon the sugar mixture on top of each wrapped peach quarter.

Finish with the SECRET INGREDIENT…..Moutain Dew! Yes, that’s right. Pour twelve ounces of the good stuff into the dish. Try to avoid pouring it directly over the sugar mixture. Instead, pour it into one of the little, empty spaces between the wrapped peach quarters and let it fill the dish from the bottom.  

Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes. Through the magic of heat and time, the Mountain Dew transforms into a thick, ooey-gooey, sugary, cinnaminny filling.

My son knew I was making lasagna, but I had not told him what I was serving for dessert. When I took this out of the oven, my son let out an “Ooooo, Mama!” and, with that, I knew I had nailed it!

As I was making, serving, and eating it, I was remembering warm, sunny, clear-blue-sky days of us; riding in the haywagon, walking in the fields, picking berries, and sitting in rocking chairs enjoying homemade strawberry or peach ice cream, laughing, smiling, loving each other.

Those were good, good days, and I am so thankful, Malia

Sunday Dinner #3

I’m on a roll!

This week I was excited to cook for my son, his fiancé, and his fiancé’s parents. I made one of Paul’s classics; Greek chicken with roasted potatoes and green beans, Caesar salad, yeast roll, and a chocolate pound cake.

Let’s start with dessert!

The pound cake is legendary in the southern United States. My grandmother’s pound cake is one of my earliest holiday memories as much for the fuss that my family made when they ate it as for the taste. Interestingly, I also vividly remember both the smell and the texture. My grandmother’s recipe was the traditional pound cake flavored with almond or vanilla extract, and the interior was dense and moist while the outside was bumpy and just ever so slightly crisp and crusty on the top. She always served it warm. Honestly, there is nothing else quite like it.

Paul’s family favors a chocolate pound cake so that’s what I made for the newest members of our family. This pound cake calls for 1 cup of butter, one-half cup of vegetable shortening, 3 cups of sugar, 3 cups of all-purpose flour, one-half teaspoon of baking powder, one-half cup of cocoa powder, one-half teaspoon of salt, 5 eggs, 1 cup of milk, and 2 teaspoons of vanilla.

First, sift the dry ingredients (flour, baking powder, cocoa, and salt) and set aside. Next, cream the butter, vegetable shortening, and sugar in an electric mixer. Add the eggs one at a time; blending well after each addition. Then, add the dry mixture and the milk alternating, beginning and ending with the dry mixture. Finally, stir in the vanilla.

Pour into a greased 10-inch tube pan and bake at 350 degrees for 60 minutes. Give it the ol’ jiggle test and test for done-ness by inserting a toothpick. The toothpick should emerge clean or very nearly clean. I say very nearly clean because it is my firm belief that the best pound cakes all have a soft spot; not wet, not gooey, but soft like very thick, slice-able pudding. My oven runs a little hot, and I was using a pan with a dark coating. So, I tested the cake at 50 minutes and decided to let it stay in another five minutes. That’s five minutes short of the recommended baking time.

The first time I made a pound cake I was heavily pregnant with our son. I must have been feeling the affects of hormones and being so near my due date because I was doing a lot of nesting. Paul was at work, and at some point during the day, I decided I would just up and make a pound cake, something I had never done before, to surprise him with when he came home. Well, let’s just say he was certainly surprised. I did manage to bake a decent pound cake considering it was my first attempt, but the effort was mighty. That cake whooped my butt! I was exhausted, exasperated, and must have been a sight to behold as I was peppered with flour and swipes of chocolate batter from nearly head to toe. I also remember how proud my husband was of me, how delighted he was as he sliced and ate that cake saying, “This is amazing. You did so good, baby!”

On this day, twenty-four years later, I was so happily(!) wrapped up in my memories of that first chocolate pound cake that I forgot to take pictures of each step in the process. I had put the cake in the oven and was licking the spoon before I realized I had not made enough pictures!

***

The main course was Greek chicken with roasted potatoes and fresh green beans. I used six large bone-in, skin-on chicken breasts with rib meat. Begin with a generous pour of olive oil in the bottom of a deep baking dish. Arrange the chicken pieces.

Again, following Paul’s technique, I made a little pocket between the skin and the flesh of each piece of chicken. Into the little pockets, I stuffed a couple of pads of butter. This keeps the chicken super moist and tender. Then, pour some more olive oil over the pieces and sprinkle heavily with an all-purpose Greek seasoning. Turn the pieces over and repeat the seasoning. Turn the pieces back over and season once again making sure that each piece of chicken is well coated with the seasoning. Squeeze fresh lemon juice over the chicken. Cut the lemon into quarters and place in the baking dish with the chicken.

Cover and bake at 350 degrees for approximately one and one-half hours. Finally, uncover and place back in the oven for another 10 – 15 minutes to crisp up the skin of the chicken. Also, I always use a meat thermometer to make sure the chicken has reached an internal temperature of at least 165 degrees. Typically, this is my signal that the chicken is ready to be uncovered for crisping the skin.

***

Roasted potatoes with fresh green beans accompanied the chicken. I use small white/yellow and red-skinned potatoes. The larger ones I slice in half and the smallest ones I just leave whole. Toss with olive oil, Greek seasoning, and green beans and squeeze in more fresh lemon juice. Slice the squeezed lemon and toss in as well. Bake for about 30 minutes, less if the dish or pan is shallow and you have more room to spread the potatoes out.

I made a simple Caesar salad and yeast rolls to round out the meal.

***

I had no idea how much I was going to enjoy cooking. It has led to both moments and whole swaths of time filled with joy, laughter, some tears, memories, and pure gratitude.

It’s really amazing. I think of Paul; all those years, all those meals. None of us had any idea how meaningful and precious they would one day be. Paul’s love of cooking for his family has become part of the legacy of love he left to us.

I’m going to leave off with the blessing we say at every meal. It just seems so fitting.

Lord, make us truly thankful for these and all our many blessings, and make us ever mindful of the needs of others. In Christ’s name, Amen

Malia

Sunday Dinner #2

I’m getting good at this!

For my next adventure in cooking, I prepared Filipino chicken, rice, steamed asparagus, pear salad, biscuit, and honey-bun cake.

This Filipino chicken recipe is iconic in our family. Paul’s mother picked it up while they were living in Japan in the late 1960s, and it has been a family favorite for over 50 years. Think about that. Three generations of this family have sat around the dinner table and enjoyed this meal together. They have smiled, laughed, and argued, listened, celebrated, mourned, have been sad, worried, excited, angry. This meal is what connects us today to the memory of all of those moments in time.

***

The dish itself is easy and delicious, warm and steamy goodness; rich, salty and sweet. And it’s classically Filipino with an adobo sauce as the base. The recipe calls for two packs of chicken; drumsticks, thighs, and breast. However, Paul and his mother always used a large-ish pack of thighs, bone-in and skin on. Really, you can use whatever you want, but you do need the skin as it provides the fat that keeps the chicken tender. My only added advice here is to adjust the amounts of liquids to make sure that you have enough to cover, or nearly cover, the chicken. In this particular instance, I chose a pack of 10 thighs and found that I needed to double the recipe in order to have enough liquid in the pot.

In a large pot, I added 2 cups of water, one-half cup of soy sauce, one cup of vinegar, two or three whole bay leaves, black pepper, and half a bulb of garlic, sliced. Then, I added the chicken and covered the pot. After about an hour and quick phone call to Paul’s mom for moral support(!), I needed to reduce the amount of liquid. So, I uncovered the pot and let it cook for another hour until the liquid was reduced by about three-fourths. Just use low to medium heat settings and adjust as needed based on the amount of time you have.

***

Ok, let’s take a little time-out to have a serious talk about rice. That’s right. Rice. For my readers in the American south, I know I am opening a can of worms here. (What other readers are there you ask? Well, at last count, the little blog that could is being read in 47 countries around the world. Eeek!)

Rice culture in the American south, specifically in the Carolinas, has a long, long history, and southern households and their cooks have developed very specific habits and methods, to a nearly religious level, around cooking, serving, and eating rice. In fact, many southern brides receive the traditional gift of a rice spoon as a wedding gift.

The rice historically grown in the Carolinas was a long-grain, non-aromatic, white rice. Over the years, my family has grown more fond of the aromatic rices like jasmine and basmati.

Now, there are many questions that can immediately tell us a lot about a person based on their response, questions that place people in categories or camps. Which direction the toilet paper roll faces, for example, is one of those questions. I am not even going to weigh in on that one for fear of losing readers!

But the rice question is this, “How do you cook rice?” The two camps are as follows:  steamed or boiled. Each camp is full of devotees. I have never in my life heard someone say, “Either way. It doesn’t matter” because, well, it most certainly does matter. These two versions of rice are hardly even comparable!

The only way to cook rice is in pot. Judge me as you wish.

Two cups of water to one cup of rice, a thick pad of butter, and 10 minutes covered on low to medium-low heat makes the perfect pot of rice. Every time. Finesse points include bringing it to a hard boil just before turning down the heat and covering, and do not, for the love of all that is good and right in the world, do not lift the lid. Once it is covered, you must not uncover until it is finished. In our household, getting a little too close to the pot would result in a sharp rebuke, “Don’t open the lid!” You might even get a light slap on the hand if it looked like you might be considering lifting the lid. I’m not kidding. When finished, the rice should be forked before serving.

***

Asparagus is a perennial that grows really well in the south. A well-tended bed will produce for many years. It grows like a weed as we say. I have even seen it growing wild in roadside ditches down country lanes bordering long forgotten homesteads and farms. We like it lightly steamed so that it retains its crunch and nutty, earthy flavor. A vegetable basket in a large pot over medium-high heat works well. Add water until it is even with the bottom of the basket. Cover the pot and start a five minute timer once you see the first curls of steam rising. Then, remove from heat and serve immediately.

***

Pear salad. Another icon at our family’s dinner table. Begin with a couple of outer leaves from a head of iceberg lettuce as the base. Add a half of a pear, a dollop of mayonnaise, a maraschino cherry, and a sprinkling of cheddar cheese. I don’t know the origins of this little dish nor have I ever had the inclination to ask. I almost prefer to think of it as uniquely ours. It is just so dear and precious to me. It really is delightful. Trust me.

However, if you choose to use anything other than Duke’s mayonnaise, I am not responsible for the outcome.

***

And finally for dessert…We were celebrating a birthday so I made a cake, honey-bun cake. We make this cake in a casserole dish, and it is hilariously and lovingly known in our family as buh-donka-donk cake (because if you are not careful, it will give you a buh-donka-donk butt!).

First, mix one box of yellow cake mix, 8 ounces of sour cream, three-fourths cup of oil, four eggs, and one-half cup of sugar until all ingredients are moist, about two minutes at a medium speed. Pour into a greased 9 x 13 pan. Combine one cup of light brown sugar, one-half cup of raisins, and two teaspoons of cinnamon and lightly swirl mixture into the batter. Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes. While the cake is still warm, pour a mixture of one cup of powdered sugar, two tablespoons of milk, and one teaspoon of vanilla over the cake.

Paul made this cake for us many times. He got the recipe years ago from one of our finest friends who got the recipe from his good friend and neighbor. Connection. Making and sharing these recipes and food keeps us connected, physically and in spirit.

As we enjoyed the meal, we talked about all the people we loved who were connected with the recipes and the food. We smiled and laughed remembering them, the time we shared with them, who they were, and the impact they had on our lives and us on theirs. I am so grateful for everything Paul and I shared and particularly grateful that Paul left me such a beautiful (culinary) legacy of love!

This. This is what I love about food, recipes, and sharing meals with others. It’s a way to remember and honor the lives of those we love. It’s an active, living memorial.

Food + memories = joy, Malia