Sunday Dinner #5 – Melting. It’s not just for cooking and green-faced witches.

On a recent Friday morning drive to work, I had a complete and total meltdown. Like butter in a hot pan.

Lately, my life has been like one of those cinematic devices used to show the passage of time on TV shows or in movies. You know the ones where they put the progress of days or months or even years on a loop set to music that features fast moving, split screen images of typical, daily events like the person brushing their teeth, going to work in their car, on the train or bus, eating dinner, going to bed, and rising the next morning to repeat the whole process again. And it loops. Over and over again.

Clearly, I had been on autopilot. Just trying to plow through the most difficult days of the year; those days leading up to the now second anniversary of Paul’s illness and death. The meltdown, my friends, was epic. That’s what you get you keep shoving the feelings down instead of letting them go as they bubble up. I know better, but so many things about this second year have been harder. I was tired of wrestling with the grief all the time; thought I could just put it in a box for a little while, please God, just a little while. But I paid the price.

And you know, after that meltdown I felt better and have continued to feel somewhat better. This next part amazes me still, but I promise you it actually happened. As I was sitting in the car desperately trying to compose myself, there on the radio was one of our favorite songs, “I Can See Clearly Now”, originally written and performed by Johnny Nash in 1972 but made more popular when performed by Jimmy Cliff in 1993. It’s one of a slew of songs that make up the soundtrack to my grief . The comprehensive list of songs is fodder for another post. Turns out that people sing about grief a lot. There might be something to that.

Paul was teenager in 1972 and just discovering his love for music of all kinds. In 1972, I had not yet had my second birthday, but this song was always a touchstone for both us. When it came on the radio that meltdown morning, I was stunned, and my tears were stopped in their tracks. Clearly, God had allowed me a message from my husband, and it gave me the courage to continue with my day.

“I can see clearly now” was so popular and sing-songy. I’m sure many of you are humming it now and know the lyrics by heart, but here they are just in case you don’t. They are, in my opinion, lyrical genius in a nearly Rogers & Hammerstein kind of way. The beat is reminiscent of the Caribbean and marries perfectly to the message.

I can see clearly now the rain is gone
I can see all obstacles in my way
Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind
It’s gonna be a bright (bright)
Bright (bright) sunshiny day
It’s gonna be a bright (bright)
Bright (bright) sunshiny day

I think I can make it now the pain is gone
All of the bad feelings have disappeared
Here is that rainbow I’ve been praying for
It’s gonna be a bright (bright)
Bright (bright) sunshiny day

Look all around, there’s nothing but blue skies
Look straight ahead, there’s nothing but blue skies

I can see clearly now the rain is gone
I can see all obstacles in my way
Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind
It’s gonna be a bright (bright)
Bright (bright) sunshiny day
It’s gonna be a bright (bright)
Bright (bright) sunshiny day
It’s gonna be a bright (bright)
Bright (bright) sunshiny day
Oh what a bright (bright)
Bright (bright) sunshiny day

***

I did indeed make Sunday Dinner for my family recently. But the meal itself was actually just a typical weekday meal for our family back in the day. You know the day; the day we went to work, rushed through homework while Daddy cooked, ate together, piled the dishes in the sink and breezed out the door to baseball, boy scouts, church, a school event, or just went for an early spring stroll down wide sidewalks and long streets all the while chasing fireflies in the gloaming before the street lights start their losing battle against the dark of night.

No recipes this week. Just meals from memory. Meals I know by heart.

I started by making Paul’s Pimento Cheese. This is one of those dishes that is made a little different and tastes a little different every time, but it’s always good. Use whatever kind of cheese you like. Be creative. Use different cheeses every time you make it. We certainly did. You can shred the cheese yourself from a block or wheel or buy it already shredded. Finely or coarsely shredded makes little difference. Use as much or as little cheese as you need based on the number of people you are serving. This time I used 2-3 cups of cheese, but I have made as much as eleven pounds at a time. The secret to Paul’s Pimento Cheese is that it doesn’t even have any pimientos in it! True story. Instead of pimientos, Paul always used roasted, red peppers. The charring on the roasted peppers adds a smoky flavor to the cheese that makes all the difference. Many people say it has a certain flavor that they just can’t put their finger on. The roasted, red peppers are the source. Again, there’s no right or wrong amount here. I just keep adding peppers until it looks like it has enough. Add 2-4 tablespoons of Duke’s mayonnaise to get the ball rolling and then add some more a little at a time until it’s a good consistency; sticky and scoop-able but not wet. If it’s wet, you’ve gone too far. No matter. Add some more cheese and the day is saved. The final ingredient is another one that makes Paul’s Pimento Cheese unique, a dash or two of Worcestershire sauce. It amps up the flavor of the cheese. Serve with crackers of your choice. A hardier cracker works best.

The main course was roast pork loin, mashed potatoes with gravy, butter beans, and a cornbread muffin. Nothing makes me feel like a straight-up 1940s housewife like a roast in the oven. I poured a little olive oil in the bottom of a casserole dish and rolled the loin until it was smeared on all sides. Then, I coated the loin in salt, black pepper, and red pepper. I covered it with tin foil and baked it in a 350 degree oven for about an hour and a half. Always use a meat thermometer to check the internal temperature of meat. I like an internal temperature of at least 160 degrees for pork. I let the roast rest before serving to soak back up all the juices that were expelled during cooking.

For homemade mashed potatoes, peel and cut up the potatoes into roughly one-quarter to one-half inch pieces. You can use any type of potatoes and you can leave a bit of the peel on, too, if you like. Bring the potato pieces to a hard boil, and use a fork to test for softness. When fully cooked through, drain the water off by using a colander, and transfer the still hot, boiled potatoes to a bowl. Add salt, butter, and milk to your liking, and beat with a hand mixer to your desired thickness. Use caution with the milk or your mashed potatoes will be potato soup. In a fix, we have been known to use half-and-half, cream, or even sour cream instead of milk. You can use a store bought gravy, or you can use the liquid from the roast thickened with corn starch or flour to make a gravy. We did either depending on how much time we had.

Fresh butter beans are best but sometimes fresh frozen beans are all that’s available. They work, too. Our family always starts a pot of beans with a piece of what we call fat meat or salt meat. In the south, this is mostly referred to as fatback, but I have found that to be a general term used to describe any hunk of mostly fat that has been salt cured. Some people just use a couple slices of bacon or a ham hock. Either way, it adds flavor and a little oily moisture to the beans. Bring to a boil and simmer as long as you like but make sure the water doesn’t boil away.

Cornbread muffins instead of biscuits are especially good when the meal is hardy or heavy. The sweetness and lightness of cornbread balances out the weight of a more savory entrée.

For dessert, I made strawberry shortcake. Strawberries are ripe in the fields at this time of year so it seemed like a natural choice. I cored and sliced the strawberries and placed them in a lidded bowl. I added one tablespoon of sugar, stirred, and placed in the refrigerator to chill. The moisture from the berries combine with the sugar and makes just enough of a light syrup to soak into the cake or bread you choose. In this case, I chose an egg-white, or angel food, cake for my base, and then stacked with strawberries and homemade whipped cream.

Paul had an aversion to store bought whipped cream in a tub or aerosol can. He said they were phony or fake so he would always take the time to make it by hand. It’s not hard. It just takes a little time.

Use a pint or a quart of heavy whipping cream depending on how much you need. Pour into a larger bowl than you think you need or you’ll end up with cream splattered all over everywhere including you. Trust me. Use a hand mixer on the highest setting and let it roll until the cream is thick enough to scoop and stick to a spoon without falling off when turned over. Some people add a teaspoon or two of sugar while mixing, but our family does not.

***

On nights like this, I always pause for a moment and look at my family all gathered around our table, talking, laughing, smiling, sharing their lives with each other, the big moments and the small, eating, enjoying, remembering, and it all just feels so right. I am so grateful. The gifts my husband gave me continue to bear fruit in my life and in the lives of those we love. It makes me want to shout, “Look, honey, I’m doing good! I’m really doing good!”

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