Monday, September 27, 2010

Great Granny The Amazing

Let me paint a picture of Florzell England Howard, my maternal great-grandmother. (The teapots will make sense in a minute).

I was never able to fully appreciate or even begin to empathize with my mother (or grandmother or great grandmother) until I became a mother myself. I've always known the story of my great grandmother but when I heard the story again recently, at my uncle's funeral, it struck me as simply amazing. Her story, her life, is nothing short of miraculous. And whenever I feel overwhelmed by this job of "mother" and feel like my life is just too exhausting to bear, I think of her. I don't know exhaustion.

Great Granny was born in 1867. As a girl of 12, Florzell was diagnosed with what was probably a minor case of pink eye, to which her doctor prescribed some drops that consequently made her completely blind in both eyes. (If there was ever a time for a malpractice lawyer.) She married my great grandfather, Benjamin Franklin Howard, in 1889, and had 6 children including my grandfather, Augustus Paul. In 1909, my great grandfather died suddenly after 20 years of marriage at the age of 43, leaving Granny to take care of all 6 children, on a working farm in rural Sparta, blind. In case that didn't register with you...she took care of 6 children, on a farm, completely blind. How in the world did she do it? What was a day like in her life? To be able to spend one day with her on that farm, kids running around, mouths to feed, laundry to do...I can't even imagine what kind of tasks she had to do just to keep her family, her home, and her farm running. And she did it all blind. Mind-boggling.

One of the tales often told about Granny was that she collected teapots, over 500 of them, and could pick one up and tell you its color and pattern and where it came from. The picture above are of four of her original teapots that have made it to my collection (inspired by her, I also collect teapots), one of which we randomly stumbled upon in a cupboard at my uncle's house a few months ago. Another story is how she would wake up her children to tell them when it was snowing...she could taste it in the air. And my mom talks of trying to steal cookies from the kitchen—Granny would hear her from the other side of the house, literally catching her with her hand in the cookie jar. I also hear that she dipped snuff. After the death of her husband, she wore black every day until her death in 1955. I would have loved to know her. If only to watch her move through a day in her life.

Great Granny with my grandfather, uncle, and my cousin
I'm sure it's no coincidence that my mother is a self-proclaimed tea-aholic. Must have been some genetic disposition toward tea. She has never had more than a thimble full of booze in her life (she says it tastes like gasoline...), and can't stand coffee (tastes like mud). But iced tea is her one and only vice. When I was growing up she would leave several glasses of tea abandoned throughout the house on any given day, so whatever room in the house whatever type of housework she was doing, there was tea to enjoy. She makes the most perfect glass of tea: just the right mixture of tea, lemon juice, ice, and some form of sweetner...for years it was Sweet n Low, then Equal, and now Splenda. And did I mention ice? The glass has to be completely filled with ice; any less, and she nearly panics. If my glass isn't full of ice, she begs, "Don't you want more ice??!!" Sometimes she just has to give me more ice to make herself feel better. In restaurants, when she first orders her tea, she also orders extra ice and lemon. These days her latest obsession is chai tea frapuccinos from Starbucks. She's evolved.

One special tea concoction she always made for luncheons, baby showers, and tea parties of all kinds was Russian Tea. It can be hot or cold, and it is a bit sweet but not in a Sweet Tea kind of way. It has more layers of, lemon, spices. I made a batch and it was, once again, one of those flavors that brought back memories. No cookbook about my mother's recipes would be complete without some mention of tea. It would be like...a Paula Deen cookbook without butter. A Bobby Flay cookbook without chipotle. You get the idea.

Russian Tea

Boil together 2 cups of sugar, 2 cups of water, 1 tsp Allspice, 12 whole cloves, 1 stick of cinnamon, for 5 minutes. Add 4 rounded tsp of loose tea and steep 10 minutes. Strain tea and add 1 1/2 cups of no pulp orange juice and 3/4 cup of lemon juice. Then add 4 quarts of water. Either reheat to serve hot, or chill. (I'm going to say that a splash of bourbon wouldn't harm this drink one bit! But my mother would strongly disagree.)

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Chili Three Way

I'm not sure how this recipe found it's way to our family, but it was a staple growing up and is now my go-to chili recipe. When I think of chili in today's sense, I think of the 3-alarm variety—the kind that will light you up. Or I think of all those weird concoctions that you see on those challenge shows or at chili cook-offs, with ingredients like beer or chocolate or venison meat (I've obviously been watching way too much Food Network). But like most of my mother's recipes, this one is straight forward, straight up traditional chili. You may wonder why the chili powder is left to the end as almost an mother hates spicy food, so this chili is definitely of the mild variety. But it doesn't have to be. My husband and I made it one time for a "Big, Bold Reds" wine tasting party and he added red chilis from the garden and a jalapeno or two. We were all sweating after the first few bites, and we actually turned on the air conditioning in November. But it was painfully delicious.

Chili Three Way was the way my mother usually served it and we could decide which of the three we wanted to include: plain chili, or chili with spaghetti (because this chili could really be a hearty pasta sauce as well), or chili with spaghetti and topped with tamales. Now about these tamales...they were from a can. This was the only way I had ever experienced tamales until in the past 10 years or so, when I started ordering them in restaurants, wrapped in corn husks and filled with cheese and peppers, carnitas, asada, or any number of things. But tamales in a can?! What in the world? And what possessed my mother to ever decide to grab those of the shelf? Someone must have told her to do it specifically for this recipe, because I can't imagine she would have ventured down the international foods aisle otherwise. So I would say, add the tamales on top if you want, but get them fresh and not in the can. I'll never be able to eat those canned things again.


1 medium onion, diced
1 small green pepper, diced
2 Tbsp olive oil
2 lbs. ground beef or turkey
1 large can diced tomatoes
1 small can tomato sauce
1/2 tsp cumin
1 tsp cocoa
15 oz can of dark kidney beans
salt, pepper, and chili powder to taste

Saute onions and pepper in olive oil until soft. Add meat and stir until lightly browned. Add tomatoes and tomato sauce. Stir in cumin, cocoa, chili powder, salt and pepper. Simmer slowly for about 45 minutes. Add kidney beans and continue simmering for about 30 minutes. Serve with traditional chili toppings: shredded cheddar cheese, diced scallions, and sour cream. OR serve over spaghetti and top with GOOD tamales for Chili Three Way!

Monday, September 6, 2010

Blueberry Loaf

Another recipe in the collection is from an "extra" sister, Ms. Suzy Lynch. Growing up, she was one of my father's students and was truly a member of the family in many ways. I loved her because she was just so interesting and treated me like a sister, or really more like a daughter. She's the kind of person who wore maxi skirts and caftans and bell bottoms, and had the best chunky jewelry she would let me put on. I would sit mesmerized watching her put on that kind of eyeliner that you would "paint" on with a teeny brush. And best of all, she would send me bags of gummy bears—the real ones from Germany. At Christmas, if she wasn't spending it with us, she would send huge boxes of presents, most of them hand-sewn or home-cooked. And when I went away to college, she sewed a huge laundry bag for me with name beautifully stitched on it—I still use it today for dry cleaning—filled with all of those great dorm room essentials...complete with a huge bag of gummy bears. Suzy is, was, and will always be the ultimate homecook, seamtress, care package preparer, gummy bear supplier, and my special extra sister, aunt, mother, and friend.

This recipe actually called for cranberries, but blueberries were optional and certainly easier to find being that it is still technically summer. The orange flavor and glaze make this a delicious breakfast bread, super easy to make, and perfect for those almost-three-year-old hands to help stir in the blueberries.

Blueberry (or Cranberry) Loaf
Suzy Lynch

2 cups flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup sugar
1 egg
1 Tbsp butter
1 Tbsp lemon zest
3/4 cup orange juice
1 cup blueberries or cranberries

For glaze: 2 tsp honey, 2 tsp orange juice, 1 tsp orange or lemon zest

Mix dry ingredients well and set aside. Mix wet ingredients and then slowly add dry ingredients. Fold in 1 cup of berries. Pour in greased loaf pan. Bake at 350 for 1 hour, 20 minutes. Cool 5 minutes and remove from pan. Prepare glaze and brush over cooled loaf.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

A Memory of Supper

I have a memory from my childhood, from Sparta, Tennessee, at my grandparents house. I have no idea how old I was, not sure who was sitting around the huge dining room table—at least 10 people—and can only vaguely remember the dishes served. I honestly think that the picture in my mind may just be a collection of pieces of memories from many different meals, but they all come together into one great experience: the Sunday supper.

There were so many dishes on the table, I think...fried corn, sliced tomatoes, maybe black eyed peas, and a giant tureen of chicken and dumplings. Huge dumplings, like buttermilk biscuit size, and they were creamy and peppery and drowned in this amazing sauce. I remember chicken pieces, like thighs, perfectly cooked and so tender. I could never forget it, and I don't think I've had chicken and dumplings since then. No way I could ever recreate such a thing; reality can never live up to those kind of memories. But I was happy to see the recipe card in my mom's collection just so I could give it a try. She thinks it was from a southern cooking magazine but I have to believe it was similar to the one that was cooked that day in Sparta.

I did end up referring to a recipe in a Southern Living cookbook since the instructions for making the dumplings in my mom's recipe were not too explicit and I didn't want to screw up the most important part of the dish. But the Southern Living recipe didn't even mention the gravy, so I switched back to the recipe card for the final touch. As usual, I improvised on the final preparation and how to assemble it all together. In the end, I'll say it was a success primarily because my husband liked it and he ate the leftovers the next day for lunch...a sign of a true winner. For me, though, it didn't even approach my Sparta memory of that dish. Some things just cannot be recreated.

Chicken and Dumplings

1 5-6 lb. whole chicken
2 sprigs parsley
4 celery ribs with leaves
1 carrot, sliced
1 small onion, diced
2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp pepper
1 bay leaf

Put all of the above ingredients in a large pot. Add enough water to almost cover chicken. Bring to a boil, then simmer for 2 hours until chicken is tender. Let cool and remove the meat from the bones. Discard the carcass and the cooked vegetables, reserving the broth.

Dumplings: Combine 2 cups of flour, 2 tsp baking powder, and 3/4 tsp salt. Cut in 1/3 cup of shortening with a fork until mixture is crumbly. Add reserved 2/3 cup of broth, stir with a form just until dry ingredients are moistened. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface, and knead lightly for 30 seconds. Roll dough to 1/8-inch thickness; cut dough into 2 inch squares (I used a round cookie cutter about 3 inches in diameter). Bring remaining broth to a boil and drop dumplings in one at a time. Cover and reduce heat; simmer 10 minutes.

Remove dumplings from the pan and set aside with the chicken.

Gravy: Strain chicken broth. Measure 4 cups into saucepan. Heat to boiling. Combine 1/2 cup flour and 1 cup cold water and then gradually add it to the broth mixture. Mix well. Cook and stir until thickened. Add generous amounts of salt and pepper to taste. Return the chicken and dumplings to the pan and serve.

Christmas in August

I'm finding that in order to get through the recipe testing part of this cookbook project, in time to get the cookbook done before then end of the year, I have to test Christmas holiday recipes in the summer...and it just feels weird. Eating a crescent cookie in August is like having pumpkin pie for Easter.

But this cookie definitely has to go in the cookbook. It reminds me of all the Christmas dessert parties my parents have had throughout my life, where the dining room table was filled with desserts all sitting atop dainty holiday plates and dishes, on a red table cloth with a poinsettia as the centerpiece. Green taper candles in crystal candlesticks, a fire in the fireplace, hot spiced tea in china cups with saucers, and Perry Como on the record player. My mom loves Christmas. She often has to restrain herself and waits to start listening to Christmas music until the day after Halloween. She makes needlepoint stockings, and buys Christmas Eve pajamas for everyone in the family. She is truly Mrs. Claus. So learning a recipe for a Christmas cookie that I can make at the holidays is a must for attempt to become a Mrs. Claus too.

This is one of my sister's favorite cookies and she has definitely mastered it. It was pretty easy, except for the fact that the recipe card didn't list a measurement for the flour. Wha? So I winged it, once again. 3/4 cup of flour is probably a little too much because the cookies were a little dry and crumbled a bit when I rolled them in the powdered sugar. But the flavor was there and they looked like they should be on one of those plates of cookies you take home from a Christmas cookie party. So it was a little bit of Christmas in August. Kinda weird, but still good.

Pecan Puffs / Crescent Cookies
1/2 cup butter
2 Tbsp sugar
1 tsp vanilla
1 cup pecans
3/4 cup flour
powdered sugar to coat

Beat butter, sugar, and vanilla until creamed and stiff. Measure then grind pecans to a very fine "sandy" texture. Stir pecans and flour into butter mixture (will be a thick batter but not crumbly or dry). Roll dough into small balls or crescent shapes. Place on greased cookie sheet and bake at 300 about 45 minutes. Roll in powdered sugar; when cooled, roll in sugar again.