THE TRUTH ABOUT PASTA


I think we can all agree that there is something comforting about pasta. I knew it as macaroni or noodles while growing up, but after my daughter and then a grandson married into Italian families, I found there are many other ways to use this versatile product.

My late son-in-law’s mother was convinced that I would be happier if I learned to speak Italian, so I could cook like a native speaker. But son-in-law and an Italian friend did not speak the language, and both were excellent purveyors of spaghetti and related products. In fact when I requested their translation of a recipe, they both reminded me that they did not speak Italian.

You might be surprised to learn that they were making lasagna in ancient Rome albeit not quite the same as it is made today. Dried pasta seems to have been invented in North Africa, and was useful on a camel trip through the desert. It was also a staple for sea-farers on long ocean voyages. It was probably brought to Sicily by its Muslim conquerors. In 1154 there was a thriving manufacturing industry near Palermo which exported its products to Muslim and Christian countries alike. By 1785 Naples had 280 pasta shops.

Tomato sauce was not added until comparatively recently. The tomato. which almost surely came from Spain, was viewed with suspicion by many, including my father-in-law who said “it just doesn’t look good to me.” Of course he put sugar on scrambled eggs. The first mention of tomatoes being used in a recipe came at the end of the seventeenth century.

How do I know all this? I confess I read it in a book. After collecting a shelf full of Italian recipe books, I became Italian. It was comparatively easy, starting with putting enough salt in the cooking water–sort of like sea water, to having enough water in the kettle to let the pasta roam around. My son-in-law’s mother said he never used enough water. I never told him, and his pasta was just fine.

Contrary to what I knew before I became Italian, pasta doesn’t always come in long strings; and the flat kind lends itself to all kinds of wonderful dishes besides lasagna. We make a lot of our own pasta, but some time ago I picked up what I thought was a long box of spaghetti and found buccarini, a fat spaghetti with a hole in the middle ready to grab the sauce. I keep learning as I go.

I am easily pleased, but Dr. A is convinced that it isn’t spaghetti unless it has red sauce.

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CHILES THE HEART OF THE CUISINE


Red chile sauce floated into California from Mexico as on a chile river. Discovered by the Spaniards when they rode into the Valley of Mexico in 1521, they filled their pockets with seeds and dropped plants along the way through California, Arizona and New Mexico. The beloved chili came in all shapes and in all degrees of heat.

Chile heat may not be to everyone’s liking, but it is an essential ingredient in Mexican cooking. Where would our beloved enchiladas and tacos be without red chili sauce?

The smell of roasting peppers is addictive, much like he smell of roasting garlic. I roast them over an open flame before stuffing with cheese for chile relenos. The kitchen is filled with the good smell of cooking, and it says that dinner is not far away.

As Californians we understandingly eat a lot of Mexican cuisine. and their are plenty of Mexican taquerias around if you don’t want to cook. Years ago we hosted a couple of teenage boys from Kodiak, Alaska for several days. Knowing the appetites of teenage boys, I prepared a large tray of enchiladas and another of make your own tacos plus a big pot of pinto beans. They ate sparingly, and after dinner they asked to be taken to the nearest Kentucky Fried Chicken store where they purchased several dinners to bring back home. I had not taken into consideration that they had never eaten Mexican food. I guess unless you are raised in the chile river realm, a plate of good old fried chicken is the best bet; after all what’s not to like?

On my first evening in New Mexico, they asked if I liked chiles. Until that time my relationship with chiles was in a pot of beans, which I liked very much. When dinner was served I was surprised to see a large bowl of stewed chiles set before me. I remember drinking a lot of Kool-Ade to cool me down. In New Mexico large strands of chiles are strung together and hung beside the outside door to dry. You just pick one off when you need it.

It’s interesting to find the use of chilies in cooking is world wide. My friend from Jamaica grows the pretty and very hot Scotch Bonnet pepper. Asian cuisine claims other varieties of pepper, and the Middle East uses still another. Chile heat fills your nostrils, makes your eyes water, feels like your mouth is on fire. So why do we love it? Search me; I think it’s just because it’s good.

THE CHINA CONNECTIION


I miss the sight of the roasted ducks dripping succulent juice into the trough below, and promising the harbinger of good eating. Alas, the Dragon BBQ restaurant is no more. It is only the latest restaurant which has closed with no prior notice. Though this city has a huge influx of Asian people, we don’t seem to have a decent Chinese restaurant. One or two Chinese buffets have come and gone through the years, but they don’t last long. Where do they go for good Chinese food? Conversely, we have many Mexican restaurants.

During the years I took Tai Chi each morning, we had a monthly pot luck picnic. I was the only Caucasian and usually took cake or a casserole. They brought ethnic food including chicken feet. unidentifiable dishes and many delicious steamed buns. Always with an enormous jug of hot tea with leaves floating around. It was a great way to get connected.

A number of years ago I wanted to buy goose livers for a pate recipe, so I went up to Oakland which has a large Chinatown, taking my mother in law for a day’s jaunt. Popping into several markets, I realized that no one spoke English which left me wondering how to connect with them. So I flapped my arms and quacked, hoping I sounded like some sort of barnyard fowl. I never got the goose liver, but I got duck liver and we both got a free lunch.

My mother in law was raised on a ranch in Chico, CA, where they had a Chinese cook, who still wore a queue. A ranch hand, thinking it a joke, cut it off one day. My husband’s grandfather chased the culprit off the ranch, whereupon he and the “Chinee” cook shook hands. Amazingly to my husband’s grandfather, the cook offered him a Masonic handshake. I now have a large porcelain teapot which came with the cook from China.

My MIL was quite fond of the Chinese, partly stemming from the herbalist who cured her mother’s paralysis. Would she be pleased or not with the amount of Chinese immigrants today?

DISCARDING THE UNUSED


Once you decide that you are not going to make all of the recipes you have been collecting for 71 years, it is time to sort through the mess. As I have confessed in the past, I surprised my husband on our honeymoon with the knowledge that I did not cook. My soul accomplishment was holding a hot dog over the flame of a gas stove till it became crispy and blackened. Flash forward through trial and error and cooking classes, and I became what has been euphemistically called a good home cook.

I have an abnormal collection of cookbooks, most of which have one or two pages turned down to remind me of something I once made which might be repeated at a later date. I have my mother’s cookbooks, my grandmother’s recipe books, much of which is written in her own hand which I can no longer see. There are files containing recipes from friends and relatives and clippings from now faded newspapers. Tucked in amongst these are scribbled notes in undecipherable shorthand for recipes of my own making.

I have threatened for some time to address this unruly mess. My Depression era upbringing has instilled in me a faint hope that I may need something once again and it will be gone.

The supermarket has been my enemy in many ways. While roaming through the aisles I create amazing future meals, and toss in one or two or three items which then reside my my pantry until I wonder what on earth I bought that for? The produce department is better because vegetables do not have a shelf life.

The freezer is a wonderful thing too. Lately I have wondered why I have bags of frozen fruit, some of which has been languishing for more than 2-3 years. The nectarine tree has been gone for two years at least, and an apple tree left soon after. Nestled alongside in one freezer (we have two) were bits and pieces of left-over somethings which I thought might make a nice lunch someday. Since it was waste collection day, I hauled it outside to the pick-up bins and forgave myself for being so wasteful. The tins in the pantry I can give to those who can use them, more than thawed out soggy old fruit.

I became accustomed to entertaining large groups of people through the years, and needed quite a few containers to freeze things ahead of time. Though we still entertain a lot, I have found that eight is all I can comfortably handle by myself. One of these days I will begin sorting through pans and trays etc. for the local thrift shop. I have not yet mastered the art of cooking for two and not have it last for over two days. Soup is an exception of course, one always adds to it whether you need it or not.

Having accomplished my freezer clean-out , I tackled the “meat dish” recipe folders. It was a fine way to spend a little time because obviously all recipes had to be read and evaluated. Many pages had become separated from their partners, making them literally useless, so they went in the “out” pile along with most of the newspaper clippings. The “maybe” pile contained things like spinach-cheese tamales, because of some I had eaten at a Seattle restaurant. The “Save” pile grew as I went through them, wondering why I had not made this or that at least once.

You can get a recipe for anything from the internet, including copy-cat ones from a favorite restaurant, and many young people do just that. On the other hand, young women from the Boomer era still call for recipes they remember from their past, which makes it important to keep the “Save” pile. During the course of a lifetime we all create delicious stand-by recipes which are kept in our mental vaults. After all, we know what tastes good.

COME ON-A MY HOUSE!


Rosemary Clooney set my heart racing when she sang about all the food she would have ready for me if I came to her house. I had never had any of the stuff she offered, but if she had thrown in a bit of Italian pasta or Mexican enchiladas I would have hopped a freight to go right over.

I grew up on plain American cooking; nothing fancy or exotic. I ate what my New England forebears had eaten, and was glad to get it most of the time. My Grandmother leaned toward casseroles; today we would call her the Casserole Queen. My Dad was a meat and potato man, and the dinner plate always contained two vegetables as well. No salad as we describe it today. Perhaps a slab of iceberg lettuce with a splash of Thousand Island dressing on top. No garlic, olive oil or wine, and salt and pepper were sufficient.

In 1890, about 100,000 Italian immigrants lived in New York. Italians in America were fiercely loyal to the food of their country and its various regions. Unlike eastern European Jews, Poles, or other European immigrants, whose children and grandchildren adopted generic American food as a way of assimilation, Italians saw to it that succeeding generations continued to cook Italian food. Even being teased in school about what you brought for lunch, which is still today a powerful inducement to culinary conformity, failed to force Italian kids to reject their parents cooking.

Nevertheless, immigrant families made a number of adaptations, in many cases all to the good. Food was plentiful, and instead of eating meat on rare occasions, families were able to eat meat whenever they chose. When one woman went back home, her neighbors had difficulty believing that people could eat so much white bread and butter and that she ate meat every day.

Americans began eating what were marketed as ‘Italian’ sausages, while in Italy each region had a different way of making them, and people could rarely afford to eat them. Macaroni (pasta) eaten by the well-to-do in southern Italy, became the emblem of Italian cooking, and meatballs and spaghetti became almost humdrum. Rather like thinking that ‘chop suey’ or ‘tacos’ represented the whole of their particular ethnic cooking.

By 1890, Italian restaurants were the most popular foreign restaurants, and a substantial portion of their patrons were non-Italian. For Italian and other ethnic restaurants, moving out of the enclave of immigrant patronage and catering to the majority of the population was irresistible, both because there were millions of people of all nations in New York, and because the non-Italians were less critical about the food.

The huge variety of Italian food is mind-boggling, as is found in all sorts of ethnic cooking. How many times have you heard someone swear that what they were making was the ONLY way to cook that dish? Recipes even vary wildly between families.

My late son-in-law, of Italian extraction, was a great cook period, but I heard his mother complain that he never put enough water in the pasta water. “I taught him better”, she told me once. A story circulated through the family for years about the time a young man came courting her daughter. After consuming a large plateful of homemade gnocci, he asked for seconds, not realizing that it was a first course before presenting the meat dish. She did make marvelous gnocci, a dish I worked on for a few years and then gave up as a lost cause; I even went so far as to purchase a heavy potato ricer. I envision light fluffy balls of potato and flour, but mine sink to the bottom and stay there in the cooking water. The commercial ones are not much better so I take heart.

DON’T MESS WITH FAMILY CHRISTMAS TRADITION Kate’s Journal


Episode 22 Oakland 1950

If I can ever pass along any words of wisdom to you, they will be: don’t try to mess with your family’s Christmas traditions.

Our first Christmas in our new house if you will remember, was spent holding our new baby girl after drinking Moscow Mules while listening to “Sam’s Song on the record player.

The Rasmussen Family Christmas Breakfast at my mother-in-law’s house was compulsory, but I wanted to do it myself at our new house. Getting past that hurdle meant choosing an impressive menu with a few awe-inspiring decorations thrown in. There is nothing more determined than a young inexperienced married woman trying to register her footprint.

As I was growing up, on Christmas we were often in some other city or state, in temporary lodgings, or part of a larger group of personnel on a Navy base. At Grandma’s on Christmas, I was more interested in grabbing whatever present had my name on it lying under the tree than paying attention to what she had made for breakfast.

In spite of her feelings of disinterest in my dear little Grandpa Jim, he was always invited, though directed to sit at the far end of the table. I was always told that Santa brought the tree on Christmas Eve. My own opinion is that we probably couldn’t afford it before then. Nevertheless, it was beautiful as all Christmas trees of whatever shape are, even if you aren’t a believer in the reason for having one. (I have lots of Jewish friends who just like the looks of them. One family kept one in a playpen so they could whisk it out of the room when their mother-in-law dropped in.)

The tree, fully decorated, stood in our living room in Long Beach, behind the sliding doors of the dining room. We usually had one roomer, Harry Hance, so Grandma’s crowded left-over bedroom was off the living room. I was never allowed in it before Christmas because it was the place where all the Christmas decorations were being prepared. So on the great day, probably at the crack of dawn, the doors slid open, the radio played a Christmas song, and we all piled in destroy the carefully wrapped gifts.

Matt & Brady SolvangRasmussen’s in Solvang

In the Rasmussen family, the Danish tradition prevailed, and one present was allowed to be opened on Christmas Eve, depleting the disgustingly overwhelming pile of gifts not at all. I thought I had died and gone to heaven.

On Christmas morning, breakfast reigned supreme, with the bestowal of gaily wrapped packages following. My mother-in-law was nothing if not energetic, and somehow the Rasmussen Christmas Breakfast was loaded onto the dining room table.

Platters appeared filled with halves of broiled, sectioned grapefruit topped with brown sugar and a cherry, other platters contained ham, bacon, and sausage; accompanied by another platter heaped with hash-browned potatoes. Silky scrambled eggs glowed brightly on another platter, while hot biscuits rested in a basket. A large pitcher held hot country milk gravy for the biscuits, though it was a shame to cover them up because my mother-in-law was a superior biscuit maker. All they needed was the home-made preserves and butter sitting amongst all those platters.

The amazing thing was that we could drag ourselves away from the table to attack the tree, but we did, only after the dishes were washed and put away for the big dinner to follow in the afternoon. Amazingly, these were all skinny people.

The year that I chose to make my mark, I had studied cookbooks, newspapers and magazines, and came up with what I thought would knock their socks off. I had made our own Christmas cards, the house was decorated and filled with good cheer, and I began bringing platters out to the table.
kayti cooking
Making Ableskiver

I don’t really remember what it was I made that year, perhaps something containing chicken livers or creamed something or other. I’m sure it looked beautiful, and I’m just as sure it tasted good, but the entire table, including my lovely husband, turned their collective noses skyward. It wasn’t the Rasmussen Christmas Breakfast.

I’m nothing if not willing to take advice, and I don’t need a Christmas tree to fall on my head. I got their message, and thereafter, a replica of the Rasmussen Christmas Breakfast appeared on my table.

dANISH cHRISTMAS TREE

AMAZING GRAZING~~~~Beer Cheese Soup


A tuckedaway corner

I took my second cuppa out to this little corner of my back yard this morning, recipe folder in hand trying to think of something for dinner. This recipe for “BEER CHEESE SOUP—COBURG INN” fell out, making me wonder where I had originally found it at least 45 years ago. I made it often in the cold, rainy days in Seattle, Washington, along with good solid rustic bread and a crisp green salad, but it has remained hidden in the mess of clippings and scribbled notes till it hit the ground today.

Coming in to my computer, I Googled “Coburg Inn, and found that the recipe came from the Coburg Inn in Coburg, Oregon near Eugene, in 1877. But the really exciting thing for me is that a good friend of ours is from Coburg, Germany. I don’t think he knows about beer Cheese Soup, but I will make it for him. He is more of a sausage and kraut man, but I think he will like this one. It’s rather touching to see place names given to remind people of former homes. Of course we see that all over the States since everyone has come from somewhere else.

Coburg, Germany has an impressive history as the birthplace of Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, who married Queen Victoria of England. (It is not known if they ever ate Beer Cheese soup.)

300px-Coburg-Ehrenburg1
Ehrenburg palace, Coburg

Our friend Bill and his twin brother were twelve years old when the war ended, and the Americans marched through town. They were enthralled with the chocolate bars and conviviality of the American soldiers, and at the age of twenty they sailed for the “New World” with twenty hard earned dollars between them. For many years they made an annual migration back to Germany for the Octoberfest celebration in Munich, and of course, a trip down memory lane to Coburg.

240px-Schloss_Rosenau_1900
Schloss rosenau, 1900 Coburg

BEER CHEESE SOUP, COBURG INN

3/4 cup butter
1/2 cup 1/8″ diced celery
1/2 cup 1/8″ ” onion (Trader Joe’s has cartons of Mirepois, which saves the chopping)
1/2 cup 1/8″ ” carrot
1/2 cup flour
2 1/2 pints chicken stock (5 cups)
2 Tbs. parmesan cheese
1/2 tsp. dry mustard
6 oz. grated cheddar cheese
12 oz bottle beer
salt and pepper to taste

Saute vegetables until done, but not browned. Blend in flour, dry mustard and chicken stock; cook 5 min. Blend in cheddar cheese and beer. Let simmer 10 mins. Season and serve.

This recipe for JALAPENO CORN BREAD fell would go well with the soup.

JALAPENO CORN BREAD

2 cups yellow corn meal
2 cups cream-style corn
2 cups grated cheddar cheese
2 cubes melted butter
1 cup buttermilk
1/4-1/2 cup drained, canned green chilies
4 eggs, lightly beaten
2 tsp baking soda

Mix it all together
Melt 1 Tbs butter in each of 2 cast-iron or some other heavy baking pans. Divide the batter between. Bake for about 45 min Serves 10