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Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Things my mom used to make without recipes

My mom was a great cook, and one of my huge debts to her is for instilling in me a love of good food well prepared. Mom collected recipes at a greater rate than I do, and when we cleaned out her house there were notebooks upon notebooks, each carefully labeled--desserts, cakes, vegetables, etc. I finally gave up going through them and saved the few I had in my memory plus the ones she'd sent me over the years. But I remember things she used to fix without recipes and taught me to do at an early age.
One was a breakfast dish: she'd fry bulk pork sausage until it was brown, drain the grease, and then throw sliced apples, I presume Granny Smith or other tart ones, in with the sausage and cook until the apples were softened.
She also used to make a bread pan of mush (today we'd say polenta), slice it the next morning, fry and serve with syrup. In Chicago, it was a rare treat. Now that I'm a long-time Texan I know that fried mush is a common dish. I have no idea how Mom, a lifelong resident of Illinois, learned to do that unless her German mother taught her.
And remember how our moms used to score hams, insert cloves, and cover with brown sugar? My mom did that with Spam during the war years. I thought it was wonderful.
But the two I really want to share now are appetizers: a blue cheese dip and cheese-stuffed mushrooms.
The blue cheese dip had only one essential ingredient--blue cheese. After that you were on your own. I used to put in any and all of the following: cream cheese, sour cream (no light sour cream in those days), cottage cheese, mayonnaise. A mixture, depending on your mood, is best. Add some sliced green onions, garlic powder, perhaps a bit of dry mustard and a dash of Worcestershire (be care of the last two--they can overwhelm even blue cheese if used to excess). We didn't have a food processor, of course, but I'd put it in the blender. Serve with crackers. It never came out the same way twice. My favorite story about that dip has to do with my father's executive secretary, for whom I worked in high school (best training I ever got!). She made it for her man of the hour and apparently it was awful. She accused me of trying to sabotage her love life by giving her the wrong recipe. I didn't, but I have no idea what she did to it. These days I see similar recipes in magazines. Low-fat yogurt would be a great ingredient, if you didn't get it too soupy.
The recipe of Mom's that I use a lot is for the stuffing for mushrooms, and again there are no precise amounts. Shred sharp cheddar cheese, add sliced scallions, some dry mustard, a dash or two of Worcestershire, and enough mayonnaise to bind. Use it to stuff large mushroom caps. Mom used to soak mushrooms in salty water to clean them but I know now that's wrong--wipe them with a damp paper towel.
Be sure to bake these, not broil, at least at first, so that the mushrooms cook through and you aren't serving melted cheese spread in raw mushrooms. I bake in the toaster oven (if I'm not making too many) and keep an eye on them. When the mushrooms begin to look soft, I switch to broiler to get a crust on the cheese. Helpful hint: slice a bit off the bottom (top?) of the mushroom cap so that it sits flat in the oven/broiler and doesn't drip its delicious ingredients all over the foil you've lined the baking pan with.
This is good uncooked as a spread or sandwich filling and as an open-faced sandwich broiled. Enjoy! More about my mom's cooking to come--I could write volumes.

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