Wednesday, January 26, 2011


A favorite story of my mother's ran thus: mere weeks after I was born, long before I was supposed to be on solid food, I cried all the time. She took me to the doctor, who took a look at me and simply said, "he's hungry." (Dr. Davis, my pediatrician, had already demonstrated great wisdom by pronouncing, as soon as I made my entry into the world, that I would grow to be 6 feet, 3 inches.  I beat him by a mere inch).  So my mother hauled me home, filled her baby bottles with oatmeal, cut the nipples off the bottles to allow me easy access, and I shut up.  I've been eating on demand ever since.

I was lucky in that my mother, while not a "gourmet" cook (this was a rarefied designation during her 1940s and -50s heyday) was adventurous.  She loved onions and was never afraid of garlic.  She gave us milky oyster stew and smoked finnan haddie as a matter of course--these seafood delicacies were things she herself had grown up with.  I can remember when oregano made its first appearance in our house--she called it or-a-GA-no, thinking it had come from Oregon, I guess--and it went into anything Italian.  She loved eggplant but nobody else in the family did, so she went without until those breaded eggplant sticks went on the market.  We all loved them.  And then there were Chef Boyardee Raviolis. (Yes, raviolis.  Who knew "ravioli" was the plural in Italian?)  She opened up a can of them for lunch one day and I was hooked for life--I could barely stop eating them then, and as a guilty pleasure I will very occasionally snarf down a can even now.

As I entered my double-digit years I became interested in the sandwiches my parents made for their weekend lunches.  There came a day when I decided I was tired of cream cheese and jelly and I asked my mother to make me a sandwich like the ones the grownups were having.  She came up with a comely pile consisting of Lebanon bologna, Swiss cheese, onion, mustard, and lettuce, encased in two big slices of pumpernickel.  It was my favorite sandwich for years.  It's only in retrospect that I marvel that these exotic ingredients--smoky and sharp Lebanon bologna, pumpernickel bread--were regular fixtures in our suburban 1950s kitchen, but then again, they were always available in the plain old A&P store where my mother shopped.  (So was liverwurst, another relative rarity today.)  Maybe these foods were entirely run-of-the-mill back then and they only seem exotic now, since we have become so conscious and afraid of cured meats.  Nobody eats these things any more.  More's the pity, but I have to admit we are having fewer heart attacks.

Given this happy and loving relationship with food,  it's only natural that I should have become a cook.  My mother started me off down that road, too, leaving dinner ingredients in the kitchen for me to prepare when she and my father went out on a Friday night.  I started cooking for myself in earnest when I finally got into off-campus housing in college.  A favorite recipe was the "Pepper Steak" in a Good Housekeeping meats cookbook I found at a grocery checkout counter somewhere in the 1960s.  I put the name of the dish in quotes because it wasn't fancy French steak au poivre--no, this was just round steak cut into strips and cooked in a tomato sauce with green peppers.  Over rice.  Delicious!  And I had a favorite comfort food decades before that term ever even came into use: beef stew.  I clearly remember calling my sister from my attic apartment on Maxwell Street in Lexington, Kentucky, where I was going to school, asking her how to make it.

As I moved into adulthood, I became friends with people who were actual gourmet cooks.  They helped me put a few fine points on my native appreciation for good eats. And then came Julia Child and her inestimable influence on American foodways.  She ushered in a true culinary revolution for which I, for one, was completely prepared.  I and millions of others have been kids in the candy store (no pun intended but it is cute) ever since.  

The very best part of this love affair with food, for me, was the fact that for the first three decades of my life I maintained the metabolism of a teenager. I stayed rail-thin no matter what I ate, or how much--there was never any penalty to pay for these profligate eating habits I was born with.  It was only as I entered my 40s that I began to notice that my clothes were becoming tight in all the wrong places, and I was presented with a problem many people have always had but I was flummoxed by:  I was gaining weight.  At first it was a novelty, but soon enough it became a nuisance and a grave matter of vanity.  Ralph Cherry?  Fat?  No way.  My first encounter with the word "slender" was when I overheard my Aunt Grace use it in reference to me.  I was less than 10 and I had to ask what it meant.  "Thin" isn't just what I am, it's who I am. 

So I came to sensible eating habits and exercise relatively late in life--and again, I was helped in these endeavors by the national revolution in health-consciousness that seemed to come hand-in-glove the fore-mentioned culinary awakening.  I have ceded a few pounds to the years through compromise:  I am not a natural exerciser, and if the weather doesn't allow me to take my usual strenuous walk I go without; and, dammit, I love my food!  I've come to a way of thinking that sometimes allows food to be mere nutrition: breakfast is always nonfat yogurt with some fresh fruit (unless we are splurging on a Sunday brunch), and lunch is usually a salad, even when dining out.  We do not have the usual American snacks in the house.  No cookies, no crackers, no crunchy grease flavored with salt in plastic bags.  My reward for all this discipline is dinner, which most times is cooked by me, and I let myself go with it.

The hardest things to deal with when you're perpetually trying to be "good" are the Christmas holidays, and visits with friends who are also good cooks.  I enjoy baking but never do it because there are only two of us to feed, and a typical cake or batch of cookies will blimp us out in no time.  I had great fun over the recent holidays making five different kinds of cookies to give away to our neighbors.  I exercised some neglected kitchen muscles and we even saved ourselves a few cookies.

Cooking friends are something else again.  How do you say "no" to the offer of yet more cookie recipes or a couple of jars of to-die-for home-made pimento cheese spread?  Politely, I hope, and in the full and respectful knowledge that we're all just trying to share the love.  All I have to do is try to button my pants to remember that too much "love" renders normal clothes downright uncomfortable and makes me short of breath going up the stairs.

Sunday, January 16, 2011


Bev's Potato Frittata

OK it's not Friday, but the food muse calls.  I finally made something new this morning that's worth sharing, and since we're going on a little trip to Raleigh at the end of the week I won't even be here to put this up as a Food Friday post, so you're getting it now. 

This stick-to-your-ribs breakfast dish is what I always ordered at our favorite Sunday morning breakfast joint back in our Delaware days.  We'd drive into Rehoboth Beach to visit what we called "Bev's" after the proprietor.  The place did have a formal name, but we never really knew what it was.  It was attached to a motel on Wilmington Avenue, in the second block back from the beach.  Bev always had a cheerful greeting at the door for us and, after taking care of other customers, she'd stop by our table and bring us up to date on the current conditions of the restaurant biz in that tourist town, and on the indignities visited upon her by the owner of the mobile home park where she lived.  (The owner was a famous local fat cat about whom it was great fun to dish.  You loved to hate him.)  We were shocked the first time we went there after a season away to discover Bev had sold the place to her next-door competitor and retired.  We never had a chance to say goodbye.  Now, Bev's is gone and the lady herself is no longer a part of our life, but she lives on in this dish.

This frittata incorporates all the traditional "big breakfast" ingredients into a single, artery-clogging masterpiece.  It has your sausage, your bacon, your eggs, your cheese, your home-fries with onions and peppers all right there.  It's a once-every-few-months extravagance...and if you have a cholesterol problem there are low-fat substitutes.  

The sugar in the potatoes adds depth of flavor and helps them brown.

For the eggs:

6 slices bacon
3 breakfast sausage links (I use hot links with sage), cut into chunks
6 eggs
1/2 cup sharp cheddar cheese, grated
1/3 cup chicken stock
1/2 tsp salt
pepper to taste
1 tablespoon unsalted butter

For the potatoes:

2 tsp. olive oil
3 small Yukon gold potatoes, cut into small chunks (I don't peel them--up to you)
1 medium onion, coarsely chopped
1/2 large red or green bell pepper, coarsely chopped
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp sugar
pepper to taste

Cook bacon until crisp in a large oven-proof skillet, remove to paper towels to drain.  Crumble bacon.  Pour off excess bacon fat from skillet but do not clean skillet.  In same skillet, cook sausage chunks until no longer pink, remove and set aside with bacon.

Whisk eggs in a medium bowl, add salt and pepper, stir in grated cheese.

Over medium high heat, bring chicken stock to a boil in the skillet in which bacon and sausage were cooked.  Deglaze the skillet, scraping all fond off the bottom of the pan until it is smooth.  Continue cooking stock, stirring occasionally, until it has reduced to a syrupy consistency.   When thickened, stir into beaten eggs.

Place pat of butter in warm deglazed skillet and allow to melt while preparing potatoes.

Cook potatoes:

Heat olive oil in a non-stick skillet, add potatoes, onions and bell pepper.  Sprinkle with salt, sugar and pepper, toss all to combine.  Cover tightly and place over medium high heat.  Let cook without stirring 5-7 minutes to allow carmelization of potatoes to begin.  Lift lid, toss potatoes once or twice to re-distribute, then cover again and allow to cook another 5 minutes without stirring.  Repeat this process until potatoes are cooked through and as brown as you want them.

Assemble frittata;

Preheat oven to broil, if your oven requires it, and move an oven rack to a position immediately below the broiler, leaving just enough room for the skillet. Distribute bacon, sausage, and home fries evenly over melted butter in oven-proof skillet.  Pour in egg mixture, shake skillet to make sure eggs settle into all crevices between meats and potatoes.  Cook over medium heat for 5-7 minutes, or until cheese melts and eggs begin to set.  Remove skillet from stovetop and place under broiler, cook for about 5 minutes more, or until top of frittata is set. 

Remove skillet from oven and place on a rack, allowing residual heat in the skillet to finish cooking the eggs.  Cut into serving-size portions and enjoy.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Words on a cozy day

If there are ever days designed for staying indoors if you don't have to go out, this is one of them.  The sky is leaden, filled with water liquid and solid, both of which forms are now falling upon the landscape simultaneously.  The temperature isn't expected to climb out of the 30s.  This house, its inviting glass facade designed for more temperate conditions, struggles to remain comfortable.  The electric bill covering mid-December to mid-January testifies to the fact that our heat pump has been running almost non-stop.  The lovely fireplace, designed mostly just to be that, lovely, does a little bit to remove the chill but sends most of its heat up its flue.  So today we are socked in, dressed in fleece and soft woolens.

But this is only one day.  Most of the time, though the air is still cold, the sun is bright and it invites us out to survey the scene.  And life itself continues to bring smiles.

Yesterday we made the last major purchase that will be done with funds from that hard-earned home equity loan:  a new engine for our boat.  It's a state-of-the-art machine with less horsepower than the old one (which came with the boat when it was new in 1995) but as much or more get-up-and-go because of improvements in technology.  We should be able to do what we always did in the boat, just more quietly and efficiently.  The biggest treat will be for our neighbors and the wildlife with whom we share this space:  huge clouds of oil smoke will no longer billow from our dock when we start our motor.  We felt like we were driving a floating jalopy down the river whenever we started up. Now, with its new seats and engine, the boat is like new.  We should be able to take longer trips without fear of engine failure or breaking the bank on fuel.  

We have made friends with another gay couple here, both natives of the Albemarle whose roots trace back to the original English settlers and even the local native-Americans.  This is a welcome event and, to me, surprisingly significant.  We are in no way exclusive in our choice of friends--indeed, our closest friends tend to be childless couples more-or-less our age, hetero and otherwise; we seem to have the most in common with them.  What we enjoy most in social life is diversity, and this was something of a discovery, possible only  in this new place, where we have found the pool of potential friends to be overwhelmingly white, straight, and older.  The homogeneity here made us appreciate--understand, even--the diversity we left behind in Arlington.  Our little street was a smorgasboard of people white, of color, straight, gay, young and old.  Columbia Pike, the commercial drag a mere stroll away, is a bazaar of multi-ethnic groceries and dining opportunities.  We have come to miss that vibrancy, that stimulation.  So meeting somebody here who is "diverse" like us is a welcome development.  And these guys seem hungry for new blood--they are very clear that they want to cultivate our friendship and we look forward to getting to know them better.  We are honored, really, because they are rather famous here for the quarterly "Prairie Home Companion"-style entertainment they write and produce--a showcase for very impressive local talent--at their venue, The Onley Place.  They are confirming for us the impression we already had:  there are gay people around here but, as with other sensitive personal considerations, such as politics, nobody is in your face about it.  They just go about their business like everyone else, just happening to be, in this case, gay.  We find this very comfortable because it's exactly the way we've lived our lives all along.  We hope we can build a critical mass of gay people around us and then mix them with our "built-in" friends--our white, straight, old but wonderful neighbors--and be one happy group.  We want people of color and of different cultures to be a part of the mix, too--they may be harder to come by here, but our doors are open!