Tuesday, July 30, 2013

A Time and a Place: for my Grandmother's cooking

My grandmother taught me many things, but the tradition I carry on most and with great relish is that of her cooking ability.

Grandma Oberlander with great-grandchildren Adrian (on left)
and Erin (on right) in her well-used kitchen, circa 1985
I am fond of telling people that the Apple iPad is the “greatest invention there is.”  One of the reasons I love this gadget is it allows me to “FaceTime” with my grandchildren; we can talk face-to-face, in real time and I don’t miss the new haircut, they can show me their new boo-boos, etc.
Rain and Nana (in top right) captured on iPad during
a recent chat fest
The other day talking to my three-year-old grandson I said to him, “When you come visit Nana, do you want her to make you some beet soup?” 

Not in the mood to talk at the moment, he nodded with a big smile on his face because my Beet Soup is one this picky eater’s favorite foods. 
I share this little story because as I await the arrival of my grandchildren from their home five hours away, I am busy in the kitchen going back to a time when an iPad was as foreign an idea as space travel.  Today I am recreating meals my grandmother used to make and I’m doing it for my grandchildren as well as for myself. 

I miss my grandmother who has been dead since 1998.  I don’t think of her every single day, but I find myself recalling her in moments as I go through my day; something she may have said, the way she taught me to do a task, or when I’m cooking a meal that was one of her signatures.  Beet soup was just such a dish.  So is the Bean and Cabbage concoction I have simmering on the stove. 

These are meals that I rarely make.  If I cooked and ate these meals the way I did when I was a young girl, I would not be able to fit through my door.  During the time when I was growing up under the tutelage of Grandma Oberlander, I was witness to a way of life that was fast fading into obscurity. 

My grandmother was born in 1912.  She raised a large family on a farm during the Great Depression.  I recall her telling me she could make one potato feed her family of ten.  My aunt shared how she would watch her mother-in-law make bread, kneading a mountain of dough on a wooden table with the end result being the best bread she had ever eaten. 

My grandmother was of Polish extract; I assume she learned the basics from her own mother.  The foods she made (recipes for two follow at the end of this article) contained potatoes, beans, cabbage, bacon; all hearty and inexpensive, yet, filling and nutritious.  They kept my grandmother’s brood of children (she raised a total of 15) fed.  They have kept me hungering for my childhood favorites all of my adult life.  The combination of the ingredients are amazingly addictive: eat just a few bites and you are craving for more.  Trust me, it's true!

And, now I pass on the tradition to my own children albeit in small, excuse the pun, bites.

While my skinny-minnie grandchildren are in no danger of obesity from eating such carbohydrate packed foods, there is no way I could eat like this every day the way we did when I was growing up.  Not just the fact that I try hard to maintain some semblance of a trim figure, but think of the gastronomic consequences of those beans and cabbage.  I’d like to stay married, thank you very much! 

No, my diet these days is more typical of yesterday’s breakfast: a smoothie of kale, spinach, apple, and rice milk.  Can you imagine my grandmother’s face at the idea of that being called a meal? 

But on occasion it is so nice to return to the tastes of my grandmother’s kitchen.  There is a time and place for such nostalgic visits, and when the grandchildren come it is the perfect reason.  It gives me the chance to reminisce in my heart and to pass along traditions that began many generations ago. 

Yes, this is the time and my home is the place.  Thank you, Grandma, for the memories, great food, and traditions.

Beans and Cabbage

Great Northern White beans
½ head of cabbage
Vinegar to taste (approximately ¼ cup)
½ pound bacon
¼ cup of flour
Salt & pepper to taste
Soak beans overnight

In the morning, rinse the beans.  Place in a stock pot and cover with water.  Cook on medium heat, stirring often to prevent sticking.  Add salt and pepper.  Cook until beans are tender and water is reduced.

Chop cabbage into small pieces.  Add cabbage and vinegar to the cooked beans.  Cook about 30 minutes.  In a fry pan, cooked bacon that is chopped into small, bite-sized pieces.  Cook over low heat in a non-Teflon coated pan to bring out the fat.  When the bacon is crisp, remove it from pan.  Add the flour to the grease and whisk until blended.  Add the liquid from the beans and cabbage, a ladle-full at a time, then pour the thickened mixture into the pot of beans and cabbage.  Add the bacon bits.  Taste and add more salt and pepper as needed.  Add more water as needed.  Cook on very low heat for 30 minutes. 

The recipe for Beans and Cabbage is from my memory.  My grandmother never used a recipe book and neither do I.  Sometimes the end result is off; sometimes it’s the best I’ve ever made.

Beet Soup

Ham bone (not from a glazed ham)
One large potato, cut into bite-size pieces
Two cans sliced or whole beets (not pickled)
Sour cream
Vinegar (approximately ½ cup, but maybe more, depending on taste)
Salt and pepper
Macaroni (elbow), cooked

Put the ham bone in a large stock pot and cover with water.  Add whole onion, salt and pepper.  Cook on medium high heat until water is reduced by almost half, 45-60 minutes.  Add the two can of beets, marjoram, vinegar (as my grandmother used to say, you can always add more but can’t take it out, so be easy on the vinegar.  Add it, taste it, add more as needed), and potato.  Cook until potato is tender.  

Turn the heat off of the soup and allow to cool to lukewarm.

In a large bowl place the sour cream.  The amount depends on your taste; start with a ½ pint.  Add the lukewarm soup, one ladle-full at a time, whisking until about ¼ of the soup is mixed with the sour cream.  Transfer the sour cream/soup mixture to the large pot of soup. 
Turn the heat on very low to warm the soup, but NEVER bring to a boil.  You may add more sour cream at this time, depending on your taste.  Too much sour cream takes away from the nice ham & vinegar base of the soup. 

Serve with noodles.  Never put the noodles in the soup; store separately. 
Again, no exact recipe.  Sometimes it comes our perfectly, sometimes it’s an off day with too much of one thing and not enough of the other.

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