Wednesday, November 3, 2010


My street at Halloween
It’s hard to believe that November is upon us already and with temperatures below freezing last night, we should be looking forward to Indian Summer for a couple of weeks at least.

Halloween came and went with little fanfare this year except for a fun game night at the house with a few good friends that I haven’t seen in a while. A pot of soup, some hearty homebaked bread, a few good friends and a rousing game of Phase 10 kept us laughing for a few hours on a cool fall afternoon.

Grant, Lynn, Pam and Ron before
our rousing game of Phase 10
If you haven’t had a chance to play Phase 10 I urge you to gather a few friends and locate a pack of these cards. The game is quick, doesn’t require a lot of thinking or strategizing and allows for some good natured rivalry between players. This game is a staple for game days with my friends and makes for a fun afternoon or evening with very little work involved except to feed your friends a little bit to keep them happy.

Today it’s hard to find people doing the ‘game day’ thing very often. We’re all so busy doing our own thing that getting together for a cheap evening at someone’s home is difficult to arrange. I can recall my parents having couples over to the house on various evenings throughout the month for card games. One of my fondest memories of my Uncle Bill is when he and my Aunt Eleanor would come over to play cards, usually Pinochle. Bill would get so mad when they lost that he’d rip the cards up and swear he’d never play again. But then, of course, the next month he’d show up with a new deck of cards ready to get beaten again.

A calmer Uncle Bill in later years
Luckily our games never get that serious, except that we do have to separate Grant and Lynn since they get a little more, shall we say, intense, over the game than the rest of us do. It's all in good fun and after all, it’s about having some laughs with friends and some good food to keep us satisfied.

This Sunday I did a repeat of the Vegetable Soup from a couple of weeks ago and my buddy Grant brought a terrific pot of Black Bean and Ham soup to share. It just happened that I attended a hands-on bread baking class the day prior with Kathy Lehr, our local bread guru, so I had some wonderful 7-grain bread to share at the table. Really, is there anything better on a cool fall afternoon than a bowl of soup and some yummy bread?

We had a great conversation around the table about bread baking and it turns out that both couples bake bread often in their homes.  Lynn and Grant use a bread machine and Pam is making bread from a new book that requires very little kneading.  It's nice to know that there are still people baking their own breads at home so that they can gain benefits from whole grains and less preservatives and additives. 

7-Grain batards from class -
truly wonderful!
Bread baking is truly a skill that anyone can learn and with the right instructions we can turn out artisan loaves from our own ovens to rival those found in any bakery.  The first artisan breads I learned to make was a focaccia from my first set of classes at Western Reserve School of Cooking.  In a second set of classes we were taught to turn out a really terrific ciabatta bread.  Both of these are favorites but are white flour breads so I've been hoping to learn to make some great whole grain loaves.  Unfortunatley, when I've tried this on my own I end up with heavy doorstops and not edible bread.  With the first class at Kathy's last weekend, I think I've got a handle on the mixed grain loaves.  In December there will be another class making whole grains using starters.  I'm looking forward to that and I'll talk about that here after classes are over. 

Mom in her kitchen circa 1959
For whatever reason for the past few weeks I’ve been yearning for some of the foods that my Mom used to make. I’ve made this remark to a few friends who’ve also said they have that same feeling. Must be the onset of cooler weather making us seek out that comfort of Mom’s home cooking.

After giving it some really serious thought, I’ve more or less concluded that my Mom was not a terrific cook. She did very well with what she knew and we certainly ate well every day. Dad always complimented her cooking and I finally realized it was most likely because his own Mother hated to cook and didn’t do it very well at all. Compared to that, Mom probably was quite the prize kitchen-wise.

So, while there was meat, potatoes and a vegetable on the table for every dinner, Mom wasn’t experimental in the kitchen. Cookbooks were used mainly to find new desserts– she was definitely into baking and Dad eats whatever you put in front of him that contains sugar of any kind. The only times I can recall new things arriving in the dinner rotation was the Tuna Noodle Casserole from a recipe on the back of a Campbell’s soup can, a lasagna recipe given to us by a friend after we had it at their home one Fourth of July (of all things), and most interesting of all – fresh pasta from scratch that we learned to make from an Italian friend we visited in Florida one winter.

Simple dinner for one- just like Mom made
But I digress….for some reason one of my favorite dinnertime meals at home was a fried hamburger patty served with white rice, brown gravy from a mix, and peas. I know, it doesn’t sound special, but it really is. Good ground beef simply seasoned with salt and pepper, cooked in a hot cast iron skillet until it gets a sizzling crust on it and the inside is still slightly pink, makes this humble patty too good to hide on a bun. Served with rice alongside and both covered with a brown gravy really gives the meat and rice a beefy flavor. And there’s never a bad time to add peas to a plate to round out a meal.

Sometimes the craving for a meal like this simply takes over my thought process until I go home and make it. Which - tonight I did. Thankfully, this is a terrific meal for one since I keep ground beef in the freezer in ¼ pound servings. It was easy to pull the meat out of the freezer, stick it in a pan of cold water to thaw and by the time I was done changing clothes from work and rounding up the first load of leaves out to the curb, I was ready to make dinner.

And you know what? This still tastes just as good today as it did 40 years ago. A tweak here and there by substituting brown rice for white and I was ready to go. This meal is simple, easy to scale for 1 or 2 or more, and very inexpensive. I can almost hear the dinner bell Mom used to call us to table.

My little cast iron skillet - just
big enough for One!
There’s no sense in giving any recipes here, this is too simple. Hints I can give include:
    1) use a cast iron skillet to cook your burger,
    2) use a good package gravy that you like, but you’ll only make half so there aren’t leftovers (unless you WANT left over gravy),
    3) cook the gravy in the skillet when your burger is done so that you pick up the browned bits from the skillet and
    4) use a boil-in-bag rice just to keep things simple and easy, then cook your frozen peas in the same water to save on clean up.

Simple? Yes. Good? Yes. And at just around 500 calories for the whole thing, not a bad deal nutritionally. These are the sorts of meals we ate all the time and I was skinny as a rail.

Do you have meals like this that you remember Mom making for your family? Do you still make them for yourself or your family? Share them with us here, maybe I’ll try a few out and post them here to pass along to others.

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