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Archive for the ‘Comfort’ Category

It is our 2012 New Year’s resolution to resurrect the blog!

Let me catch you up: I moved to Denver and got married (no biggie).  Jenny moved across the country and got a new job (as did her hubby).  So, between those life changing events and a family emergency or two, we were busy little bees this year! But enough excuses – let’s talk about the thing that is so near and dear to everyone’s heart – food.

We last left you with a post about the 1st Annual Drogue Holiday party.  I am proud to report that our 2nd annual Drogue Holiday party was also a success.  And since we left you last year at Christmas time, it’s fitting that we pick up where we left off – at New Year’s.

Every New Year’s day, Mimi opened her home to anyone who was interested in some simple “good luck” black eyed peas.  According to my Mary Mac’s Tea Room cookbook (thanks, Dad!,) this Southern tradition dates back to the Civil War.   Apparently Union troops would strip the land of all stored food and destroy whatever they couldn’t carry with them.  The  Northern soldiers didn’t consider “field peas” a suitable source of food.  So these “field peas” became known for good luck!

Seasoned with salt pork and hog jowls or pork hocks, Mimi served her peas over white rice, and topped them with stewed tomatoes.  The goal is to eat at least 12 peas (one for luck during each month in the year).  Happily, this goal isn’t hard to attain.  Mimi also served her famous cornbread as a sopping accessory (with jalapeno or strawberry jam) as well as fresh scallions to gnaw on/freshen your breath.

So this year, we will carry on the tradition.

 

Black-Eyed Peas
Adapted From Mary Mac’s Tea Room

1 small smoked ham hock
5 ounces of fatback (salt pork)
1 small yellow onion, diced
4 cups dried black-eyed peas
1/2 teaspoon of white pepper

Bring a stockpot two-thirds full with water to a boil over medium-high heat.  Add the ham hock, fatback, and onion and return to a rolling boil.  Add the black-eyed peas and let cook, uncovered for approximately 1 hour, or until the black-eyed peas are tender.  Add salt and pepper if desired.  Serve with slotted spoon over white rice, and top with stewed tomatoes.  See below for recipe.

Mom and I have debated about whether Mimi used canned tomatoes or whether she blanched tomatoes and stewed them fresh.  I can specifically remember Mimi teaching me to blanch tomatoes. I can’t imagine why she would have been doing that except for a recipe that called for stewed tomatoes.  We came to the conclusion that Mimi used canned tomatoes (sometimes her own and sometimes store-bought) just because it would be tough to find good tomatoes in December.  So, the choice is yours.

In case you need a quick 101 on blanching: bring some water to a boil, add the tomatoes for a minute or 2, remove and immediately submerge in cold water.  This makes the tomatoes really easy to peel, core, and seed.

Dried black eyed peas

Salt pork and pork hock

 

Stewed Tomatoes
2-3 cans of diced tomatoes, or 8-10 whole tomatoes, blanched and diced
1 onion – diced
Dash of white vinegar
A few pinches of sugar
1/2 stick of butter
tomato paste (optional)

Cook the diced onions in butter for quite some time.  You want the onions to begin to brown so that they take on that really sweet buttery flavor.  Add the tomatoes and stew for a while.  You may want to add a spoonful of tomato paste depending on the thickness.  Add vinegar and sugar to taste.  The tomatoes should take on a tangy taste.  Stew for 30-40 minutes.  This can be done ahead of time.

Happy 2012!

Happy 2012!!!

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About a year ago, I mused about my favorite foods from growing up in the South – and specifically those recipes prepared by my (and Rachael’s) grandmother, Mimi.  There were recipes from our Granddaddy, Great Uncle Doe, and Great Aunt NoNo, too.  (All of these people have “normal” names, by the way – respectively, they are Mary Lea and Tom Humphress and Gordon and Lynnora Wheeler, if you were curious.)  When Rachael and I started The Mimi Project, Mimi was still with us.  She died last Christmas, but the Mimi Project has continued with her passing – and I’d argue that our urge to revisit these foods and their associated memories has grown even stronger.

Mimi and Granddaddy, aka Mary Lea and Tom Humphress

Our original list of Mimi Project recipes included the following:

  • Mimi’s Birthday Cake
  • Mimi’s Ice-box Cookies
  • NoNo’s Divinity
  • Mimi’s Cornbread Sticks
  • Mimi’s Chicken and Dumplings
  • Mimi’s Cornbread Stuffing with Giblet Gravy
  • Mimi’s Chicken Salad
  • Mimi’s Black Bean Soup
  • Mimi’s Vegetable Soup
  • Mimi’s Crab Dip
  • Granddaddy’s Pepper Vinegar
  • Mimi’s Cake with Lemon Cheese (Nick’s birthday cake)
  • Mimi’s Macaroni and Cheese
  • Mimi’s Home-Grown-and-Canned Green Bean Salad with Purple Onion and Italian Dressing
  • Granddaddy’s Cheese Crackers
  • Granddaddy’s Pecans
  • Granddaddy’s Chicken with Lemon, Butter and Worcestershire
  • Mimi’s Pimiento Cheese
  • NoNo’s Blackberry (or Quince or Grape) Jelly
  • Doe’s Fried Eggplant
  • Doe’s (and Grandmother Wheeler’s) Thin Cornbread

We’ve tackled the recipes in bold, and I’ve linked to those we’ve actually written up here on the blog.  Those that haven’t been blogged will be – we’re just perfecting the technique, or waiting to take nice photos.  Of course it stands to reason that the list of recipes would grow – especially once Rachael and I inherited Mimi’s coveted recipe box.  Here are some that we’ve enjoyed that weren’t on the original list:

What else would I add now that time has passed?  I’d like to see some of Mimi’s “congealed salads” – as she called them – on the list.  I know many people think of the bad old days of neon-colored Jell-o, studded with unidentifiable floating chunks, left uneaten on the cafeteria line.  But having had a sort of “gazpacho essence” aspic prepared by Anne Quatrano, one of Atlanta’s premier chefs, at a local farmer’s market one hot morning, I think there is hope for congealed salads.  I remember cucumbers and cottage cheese in one of Mimi’s many versions, and grapefruit and nuts in another – I think I can make Jell-o worth your while.  Really!

Here’s something fun that reminded me of eating at Mimi’s house, too – a “recipe” for Crisp Caramelized Doughnuts.  Mimi would buy a box of Krispy Kremes and re-heat them in the microwave for 10 seconds.  They became other-worldly with their crisped coating of sugar glaze and warm, collapsing dough… but caramelizing them over a flame?  That’s the slightly grown-up version of this childhood treat.

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Wow, it’s been a long time since I’ve been here!  What is it about the fall…?  I remember posting this time last year after a too-long blog-hiatus, sharing the highlights of my busy-ness and the cooking and eating that accompanied it.  But this fall is something else altogether.  It had to happen that after I publicly delighted in living in one place for a whole year (long enough to start a little teensy tiny garden, the inspiration of this post) that we would move again.  And not just any move: we have relocated from Atlanta to Los Angeles.  It doesn’t get much further without moving to another country!

Dan got a great new job here and we had less than two months to sell or pack our stuff, find a new place, and make our way – with Piggy the cat and Sweet Pea the dog – cross-country.  We arrived, amazingly, with our relationship, our sanity and our stuff in tact and settled into our new (rental) home in the Highland Park neighborhood of L.A.  Because packing, moving, leaving our jobs, Dan starting a new job, me searching for a job, unpacking, and all the attendant concerns hadn’t been quite exciting enough, I had to go and have emergency surgery a few days after we landed in L.A.  Sigh.

Luckily, we had tons of support from our families, friends and Dan’s new workplace – I am now fully recovered and the house is even starting to come together.  Check out this harvest from our grapefruit tree, a gem that I didn’t even notice when we first saw this house on our whirlwind house-hunting trip:

They are sweet and so good.

Speaking of sweet and good, there’s this recipe.  Pumpkin Stuffed with Everything Good.  Have you heard of it?  It was featured on NPR about 10 days ago, in an interview with Dorie Greenspan about her new cookbook.  At the farmer’s market the next day (Oh, the farmer’s markets in California! I am sure I will be devoting post after post to them in future…absolutely amazing!), all around me I heard whispers and far-away utterances: “Pumpkin…stuffed…with everything good.”  I wasn’t the only one who had been captivated by the NPR piece, coming to the market with dreams of soft, roasted winter squash, oozing  a warm stuffing of  breadcrumbs, cream, cheese, and herbs.

One of the most delightful moments of Dorie Greenspan’s telling of the story behind this recipe – and you really should listen to the whole thing yourself – is her description of her friend’s garden, where the family grew their own pumpkins for this dish.  Parents and children selected their own pumpkins when they were small on the vine, and each carved his or her name into the squash.  As the pumpkin grew, so did their carved names, and each knew exactly which steaming gourd of goodness was theirs when it finally came to the table.

It is too soon to start hoping that I’ll live in one place long enough to have another little garden, where I too might carve names – or drawings, or poems, or hieroglyphics – into my very own pumpkins?  I certainly hope not.

Pumpkin Stuffed with Everything Good
Adapted from Epicurious.com

1 pumpkin, about 4 pounds
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1/4 pound stale bread, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1/4 pound cheese (I used Gruyère), cut into 1/2-inch chunks
4 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
4 slices bacon, cooked until crisp, drained, and chopped
1/4 cup snipped fresh chives
1/4 cup sliced scallions
1 tablespoon minced fresh thyme
About 1/2 cup whole milk

Pre-heat your oven to 350 degrees fahrenheit.

Begin by opening your pumpkin as for a jack-o-lantern – cut a circle around the stem to create a kind of “lid” that you can pull off.  Scrape out the insides of the pumpkin and discard (or, even better, save your seeds and roast them separately).  Generously salt and pepper the inside of the pumpkin.

Mix together all the remaining ingredients except for milk, season with salt and pepper, and stuff into the pumpkin.  Pour the milk over the top – you want the filling to be nice and moist, but not swimming in liquid, although I think it really is hard to do wrong here.  Replace the “lid” and place the pumpkin onto or into the baking dish of your choice, either well-buttered or using a silicone baking mat.   (I used a silicone mat on a rimmed cookie sheet, which was perfect.)  Bake for about 2 hours.  Remove from oven and let cool a few minutes.  Slice into quarters and serve.

A few notes: Dorie Greenspan’s recipe calls for cream, not milk, and I have no doubt that it would be even richer and more wonderful than this version.  She also suggests many different combinations for the filling.  I stuck closely to her recipe, since this was my first time making this dish, but it is easy to see that this is a very forgiving and flexible recipe and that you could make this into anything you want.  She suggests trying other cheeses and herbs, adding freshly grated nutmeg, using cooked rice instead of bread, omitting the bacon for a vegetarian dish or replacing it with sausage (I think vegetarian sausage, of which there are several good varieties, would be great in this, too).  She also mentions adding in kale or other greens, and even frozen green peas.  I think roasted chiles would be incredible, as well as apples or pears, mushrooms, caramelized onions, and even nuts.  The possibilities are truly endless!

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This year is our first with a garden.  As you’ll remember when I first wrote about the little (little!) raised bed we planted this year, I was thrilled to finally be in one place long enough to see a summer garden through the season.  So much for all my dancing and jigging about being in one place – yes, we made it through a year at the same address but now we’re pulling up roots, literally and figuratively, and moving to Los Angeles!

Anyhow, in the midst of all the packing and planning and preparing, I of course am still making time to cook.  It’s one thing that helps keep me sane and grounded.  This week, Dan brought home some okra that was a gift from a work friend (thanks, Dawn!) and requested I prepare it in the only way he likes that vegetable: fried.  I have had mixed results with deep-frying in the past, but once I saw these gorgeous purple and green fingers of summer goodness, I knew that’s what I’d do with them.

I could tell you all about okra, the myriad ways it can be prepared, its international, transcontinental interpretations, it botanical origins (did you know that it comes from the same plant family as cotton, cocoa, and hibiscus?) – but I don’t need to.  My dear friend Jennifer tells it all, with three different recipes to boot, in this post over at the Peachtree Road Farmer’s Market blog.

What I will say is that I didn’t actually use any of Jennifer’s recipes – at least, not from that blog post.  I went with a recipe from world-class Atlanta chef Virginia WillisBon Appetit Y’all. (Mostly because I had extra buttermilk in the fridge – Jen’s version of fried okra doesn’t use it, while Virginia Willis’ does.) This is fitting enough because Jennifer introduced me to Virginia (well, not in real life – but you know what I mean!) when she gave me an autographed copy of her cookbook for Christmas a few years ago.  Now well-worn and much-loved, I thrill as much in the beautiful photography and spot-on recipes as I do in Willis’ recollections of cooking with her Mama and Meme.  I can’t step into the kitchen without thinking of my Mimi, so it’s nice that Willis brings hers along, too.

I’ll be bringing along my copy of Bon Appetit Y’all, and many other gifts and memories, as we wind up this summer, load up the wagons, and head west for the next adventure.  I wonder if they serve fried okra in L.A.?

Fried Okra
Adapted from Bon Appetit, Y’all by Virginia Willis

1 pound fresh okra, ends trimmed
1 cup buttermilk (I used a low-fat buttermilk…not that this matters much when you’re deep-frying!)
1 cup all purpose flour
1 cup cornmeal (I had only half the cornmeal I needed and subbed semolina flour for the rest – it worked beautifully)
3 cups canola oil
Salt & pepper to taste

Mix flour and cornmeal together (I threw in some salt here, in addition to salting the okra after it came out of the oil). Slice okra into 1/2-inch rounds.  Toss with buttermilk.  Put a plate lined with paper towel next to the stovetop.  Heat oil in a heavy, deep (preferably cast-iron) wide-bottomed skillet to 350 degrees, or until flour tossed into the oil begins to bubble.  Working in batches, drain the excess buttermilk from the okra and toss okra in flour/cornmeal mixture to coat.  Fry okra in oil until golden brown, 3-5 minutes (for me, this took more like 5-8 minutes).  Don’t overcrowd the skillet or you’ll lower the temperature of the oil and won’t leave room for the individual pieces to bathe in the oil.  Using a mesh basket or slotted strainer, remove okra from oil and place on towel-lined plate.  Sprinkle with salt.  Keep frying in batches and enjoy!

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Jenny and I are approaching Sweet Pea and Punkin Seed’s first birthday.  After much deliberation, we (and by “we” I mean Jenny) thought of the perfect way to celebrate: we would bake ourselves a birthday cake – specifically, Mimi’s signature birthday cake. (See our earlier posts in the series called The Mimi Project.)

We talked about it in detail before Jenny and Dan arrived to Denver.  We pulled out Mimi’s recipe cards, and we even bought all of the ingredients.  But when we got down to it, we didn’t actually get to bake the cake together because – well, because life happens while you’re busy making plans.

You see, my dear sister and her hubby are moving out west – that’s right, I said west.  Alas, not to Denver, but to L.A.!  He has accepted an amazing new position, and she has accepted an amazing change.  And so, they cut their Denver trip short to swing over to L.A. and take care of potential domicile duties. With that said, this was nonetheless truly a shared effort.  Jenny bought the ingredients and even the cake pans, I baked the ingredients, and when she and Dan passed back through the Denver airport for their four-hour layover, I made sure Mom (who met them for lunch) had the finished product in tow so that they could indulge in a slice.

That first bite was just like I remembered at so many birthday parties.  Our family (and by family, I mean cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents, family friends, pets, …ok, not pets, but you get the picture!) had a party for everyone’s birthday.  Does anyone wonder why I was a little round bowling ball with chicken legs as a child?  I’m talking about a birthday celebration club of 20 people – so imagine the amount and frequency of the eating we did.  As I’ve said we before, we are a family of live-to-eat-ers, not eat-to-live-ers.

Even more nostalgic than taking that first bite was the process of making the cake.  It brought back so many memories of us as children helping Mimi with the cake.  Sometimes, she would have the layers already done for us to help frost; sometimes, we got to help with the layers, in which case we were the official flour-sifters, wax-paper-cutters (we had to make the circles that fit in the bottom of each cake pan) and, of course, bowl-lickers.  The one part I’d forgotten was melting the chocolate over the stove.  I’m sure I don’t remember it because we were too short and too young, in Mimi’s estimation, to handle melting the stuff on a hot burner.

The part I remember with greatest fondness is the icing process – and boy, was it a process.  Seven-minute frosting (more romantically called “sea foam frosting” in one of Mimi’s cookbooks) is so named because you’ve got to stand with a hand-mixer over a double boiler for seven full minutes.  And if you can imagine my grandmother – whom I resemble in height, if nothing else, at 5’1” – with a metal 1950’s hand mixer, that’s no easy feat.  That thing was heavy.  Which is why Mimi would have to make sure that Granddaddy was around so that he could help hold the mixer.  Often they recruited a third helper, Cina – our beloved housekeeper and nanny (and the woman who is responsible for this blog almost being called “Bang Bang and Sweet Pea” – she always called me Bang Bang).  I always thought Mimi had trouble holding the hand mixer because she was aging, but after using my cheapo plastic hand-mixer from Target on Sunday, I can officially say – it’s hard.  Even I had to holler for Mike to step in and help me.


I also remember when the layers were baking that we weren’t allowed to open the oven for fear that the layers would fall (and sometimes they did anyhow).  Last Sunday I was channeling Mimi’s frustration when I made my second batch of layers, dealing with the joys of baking at altitude.  With that said, I will caution those here in the mountains that I have not tweaked this recipe to off-set the consequences we pay for living so high.  For those of you at sea level, this recipe is spot on – just don’t open your oven doors!

Jenny and I both concur that this cake is not like the grocery cakes that are overwhelmingly sweet and moist.  It’s a little drier and a more complex flavor than just pure sweetness.  It’s a Devil’s Food Cake, which is a recipe based on brown sugar.  This brown-ness comes from a coating of molasses and is the thing to which I attribute the unique taste and texture of this cake.

Wikipedia says that it's common for Devil Food Cake to have coffee in it. This recipe does not have coffee - however, it does have unsweetened chocolate.

But what really (I mean really) makes this cake is the icing, which is also made with brown sugar.  This frosting is almost meringue-like in consistency when it cools and dries, which means that this cake is best enjoyed after it’s had a few hours to rest.

With age, Mimi had us re-write some of her recipe cards. Hence, Jenny's handwriting.

Don’t be tempted to slice and enjoy right away – frost it and leave it.  Soak your aching mixer-holding arm in a hot bath.  Think about who you’ll be inviting over to enjoy this old-fashioned delight.  And wait for the icing to darken and harden just slightly before you sink in your cake knife and create new memories with just the right hint of sticky sweetness.

(Note: the photo below is of the cake freshly iced – I only learned after the fact, how much difference waiting has on the look and texture of the cake.)

This is freshly iced; the icing hasn't hardened yet in the photo


Mimi’s Devil’s Food Cake

1/2 cup (1 stick) of unsalted butter
2 cups of light brown sugar
2 eggs
2 1/4 cup of sifted cake flour
1/4 tsp of salt
1/2 cup of “sour” milk aka buttermilk
1/2 cup of water (in a pot for boiling)
1 tsp if baking soda
1 1/2 squares of unsweetened chocolate (could substitute cocoa powder)
1 tsp ofvanilla
1 tsp of baking powder

Before starting the batter making process, line the bottom of 3 – 7 or 8 inch round cake pans with wax paper.  Rub butter or shortening on the wax paper and on the sides of the pan.  Slightly toss a very small amount of flour in each pan to coat the greased sides and bottom.  Now your cake pans are ready to receive the batter.  Pre-heat your oven to 325 degrees.

Cream the shortening aka, butter, add 1 cup of the sugar, and cream some more.  In a separate bowl, beat the eggs lightly, and the 2nd cup of sugar.  Add the egg/sugar mixture to the butter/sugar mixture, and cream.  In a separate bowl sift flour until you can measure out 2 1/4 cups.   Then add the baking powder and re-sift.  Alternate adding the flour mixture and the buttermilk to the egg mixture.  Bring the pot of water to a boil, and add the chocolate squares until melted.  Add the baking soda.  Add vanilla, and slowly temper the egg mixture with the melted chocolate mixture.

Pour batter evenly into the 3 lined cake pans.  Mimi used a scale to weigh each pan so that the layers would cook at exactly the same rate.  Bake the layers for about 25 minutes or until done at 325 degrees.  Don’t open your ovens until you are done baking!  Just use your oven window to judge the readiness of the layers.  Let the layers cool enough to remove from the cake pans.  Let rest on a cooling surface until room temperature to ice the cake.

Doubly-Boiler Sea Foam Frosting

2 egg whites, unbeaten
1 1/2 cup of brown sugar firmly packed
5 tbsp of water
1 tsp of vanilla extract
dash of salt

Combine egg whites, sugar, water and salt in the top of a double boiler, beating with a hand-mixer until thoroughly mixed.  Continue beating while cooking for 7 minutes or until icing stands in a peak on the beater.  Remove from water, add vanilla, and beat until thick enough to spread.

Assembling the cake

Ice the bottom layer on top and edges.  Add 2nd layer and repeat.  Add 3rd layer an repeat.  Mimi always inserted toothpicks into the cake layers to keep them from slipping (she was often traveling to someone’s house with the cake).  Sometimes Mimi would shave Heathbar shavings on top as well. Remember, let the cake sit for a day before you eat it.  Mimi always stored it in Rubbermaid, air tight cake cake keeper.

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Among summer’s incredible bounty are fresh-shelled peas of all varieties: from fava beans to English peas to whiteacres and more.  Last week at the Morningside Farmer’s Market I picked up a couple of pints of pink-eyes, knowing they’d been shelled a few hours before and I’d be cooking them a few hours later.

Raw pink-eyed peas

There are many wonderful things that you can do with fresh peas.  I highly recommend this black-eyed pea, corn, and tomato salad from Virginia Willis’ Bon Appetit, Y’all.  After seeing her make this last summer (and tasting it!) at a market demo, we enjoyed this salad at home several more times last year.  I certainly don’t intend to let this summer slip by without making sure it’s as good as I remember.

Cooked pink-eyed peas and grits

But my favorite thing, and the easiest, to do with fresh summer peas is just to boil them up and serve them in their own broth, perhaps over rice or grits.  Here I served them over stone-ground grits cooked with fresh cream and parmesan.  A friend said she topped the same thing with crumbled up local bacon, and I just bet that it was out of control.

Simple Fresh-Shelled Peas

Fresh-shelled peas – pink-eyes, whiteacres, field peas, and on and on
Enough liquid to cover (you could use just water, or use vegetable or chicken broth or bouillon)
1 white onion, cut into eighths, length-wise
Salt and pepper to taste
Optional: Ham hock

A note on seasoning: My mom and grandmother would never have cooked peas without a ham hock in the broth to flavor them.  Salty, fatty, savory, and smoky, pork is used to flavor much Southern cooking – here’s a new book with recipes and history that calls pork “the King of the Southern table.”  (If anyone feels like buying me a present, feel free to make it this book!) However, as a vegetarian for many years, I adapted this dish to my needs.  I found that a few cubes of veggie bouillon, the cut up onion, salt, and maybe some additional olive oil or butter for fat content mimicked very well the taste I remembered from childhood.  If you do use bouillon, broth, or ham hock, you will need far less salt in the cooking liquid than if using just water, so do adjust accordingly.

To cook: Place peas in a pot with onion and enough liquid to cover.  Boil for 20-30 minutes, or until tender but still firm and not mushy.  As the peas cook, you will notice a gray foam forming on the surface of the water – simply skim this off with a shallow spoon and discard.  Taste before serving for salt and pepper.  As mentioned, these are wonderful just in their own juices, perhaps with a piece of cornbread to soak up the liquid, or on top of white rice or creamy stone-ground grits.  Serve and enjoy!

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When Rachael and I started The Mimi Project, we compiled a list of recipes – with the help of other family members – that we wanted to re-create.  Mimi died at Christmas last year, and Rachael and I inherited her treasured recipe box.  Every time I talked to Mimi in the months before her death, she told us that she was busy getting the recipes cards organized for us, a fact our Aunt Mary Anne confirmed.  Mimi spent hours at the dining room table, combing through those cards, ostensibly trying to get them in some kind of order.  I think the exercise might have been more about reminiscing, thinking about all the good things she had cooked and all the things she would still like to cook.  Lord knows, she cooked until the end!  After reading Rachael’s post about failed ice-box cookies, Mimi baked us a batch – they were fresh and waiting for us on Christmas morning just days after her death.

Thinking of Mimi lovingly mixing and forming and baking cookies for us even as she was dying, it’s clear to me why I feel such a connection between food, love, and family.  I was touched, then, to discover a recipe attributed to my brother Michele as I sorted through Mimi’s cards.  Rachael, Michele, and I share the same mom (and thus the same Mimi!) – but Michele’s dad is not ours.  Michele’s dad Maurizio is Italian, from Florence, but I’ve had the pleasure of knowing him my whole life as he now lives in Tallahassee, Florida.  He is a sweet man, an accomplished scholar/designer (he’s been working on the Large Hadron Collider!) and a wonderful cook.  I remember distinctly finding a jar of Barilla pasta sauce in my mom’s fridge many years ago – it was a new brand to our area back then, and I wanted to try it.  It was delicious – just like home-made – and I excitedly bought another jar on my next trip to the grocery store.  Imagine my disappointment when I opened that jar to discover the flavorless, processed stuff that I should have expected – and I realized immediately that the jar I’d found in my mom’s fridge had been a gift from Maurizio, homemade marinara sauce re-packaged in a recycled jar.

Michele’s sauce-making abilities rival those of his dad, so when I found this marinara sauce attributed to Michele among Mimi’s recipes, I knew immediately I had to make it.  I found the perfect use for the sauce when I came across another of Mimi’s recipes, for “zucchini lasagna.”  It wasn’t until I was in the middle of cooking the zucchini lasagna that I realized that there are no lasagna noodles – the whole point is to replace the pasta with vegetables.  It’s simple, surprisingly good, and a great use for all those squash and zucchini at the farmer’s markets right now.  And of course, for me, it’s a casserole that represents the layers of love and family that I connect to through cooking.

Michele's Tomato Sauce

Michele’s Tomato (Marinara) Sauce

1 large can whole peeled tomatoes (I like organic San Marzanos, like these)
2/3 tbsp olive oil
Half an onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 tbsp sugar
Cayenne
Salt and pepper

In a medium sauce pan over medium heat, saute the onions and garlic in olive oil until soft and translucent.  Do not let the onions or garlic get browned or crisp.  Add the tomatoes, sugar, a dash of cayenne, and salt and pepper to taste.  Crush the tomatoes with a wooden spoon and cook over low-medium heat until the tomatoes are broken down and flavors are melded, at least 30 minutes.  Taste for salt, adjust as needed, and serve.

Mimi’s Zucchini Lasagna
Serves 6-8

1/2 pound ground beef
1/2 c. chopped onion
1 15 oz. can of tomato sauce (or equivalent homemade – which is preferred!)
4 medium zucchini (about 1 1/4 pounds), sliced into rounds – I used a combination of zucchini and summer squash
2 tbsp. flour, divided
1 (12 oz.) container of cottage cheese
1 egg, beaten
1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
Olive oil
Salt and pepper

Pre-heat oven to 375 degrees.

In a large saute pan, cook onion in olive oil over medium heat until translucent.  Add ground beef, browning and stirring to crumble.  Add tomato sauce, taste for salt and pepper and adjust seasoning as needed.  Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer uncovered for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Set cooked ground beef and tomato sauce aside.

In a large saute pan over medium heat, saute zucchini – I used a non-stick skillet and basically no olive oil.  The squash and zucchini cooked nicely and even browned a little bit.

Spray a 12″ x 8″ x 2″ baking dish with non-stick cooking spray or olive oil in a mister.  Combine cottage cheese and egg.  Start with a layer of zucchini on the bottom of the pan.  Then sprinkle with 1 tbsp of the flour.  Spread a layer of the cottage cheese mixture, then spoon half of the meat sauce over the cottage cheese.  Repeat layers.  Bake casserole at 375 degrees for 35 minutes (until hot and bubbling).  Sprinkle with mozzarella cheese and bake another 5 minutes, until cheese begins to brown.  Let the casserole rest for 5 minutes before serving.  I garnished it with a chiffonade of basil – but it’s wonderful on its own, too!

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