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Archive for the ‘food’ Category

For Richard Nixon, August 1974 was the month when he finally reaped what he’d sown long before.

My grandpa (a Nixon voter) spent that month doing pretty much the same thing.

Except, instead of calumny and disgrace, he had his hands full harvesting a much happier crop:

Tomatoes.

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August 10, 1974. Mets lose, Yanks win.

My grandfather’s calendar entries from early 1974 (such as this one) indicated he had his mind set on a serious year of gardening. He had his eyes on the seed catalogs in February, and he got an early start.

And in August — just after Nixon shuffled off to California in disgrace and Gerald Ford took office — my grandpa began to reap the benefits of his work and attention.

On Aug. 10 — the first day on the calendar that specifically mentions tomatoes — he harvested a dozen, weighing more than seven pounds. On the next day, a Sunday, the haul continued under sunny skies:

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August 11, 1974. Mets lose, Yanks win. Again.

Two days later was his 64th birthday, and he marked it with three more tomatoes weighing a pound and a quarter.

By the end of that week, he’d harvested 18 more tomatoes weighing more than nine pounds. The week after that (Aug. 18-24), he took 82 tomatoes weighing roughly 40 pounds.

(Just how big was his patch? I don’t remember it being that big. But he had a decent-size yard to work with. And in this period of time, he seems to have dedicated himself to working with it.)

My Aunt Elaine and Uncle Steve moved to a new place the following week, which called my grandpa out of town. He made up for it upon returning, picking a one-day record number of tomatoes:

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August 30, 1974. Mets and Yanks both win. President Ford meets Woody Hayes.

The harvest continued at a slightly slower pace into September. In fact, you could technically say it continued into the fall, as the last tomato-related entry shows up a day after the autumnal equinox. (It’s slightly unclear on which day the tomatoes actually got picked, but it doesn’t matter at this distance.)

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September 23-24, 1974. Mets lose. Yankees are swept in a doubleheader, knocking them out of first place, which they will not regain. President Ford meets Bart Starr.

Actually, I take that comment back about the last tomato-related calendar entry: On Oct. 2, the calendar records “100 green T.” Ever thrifty, my grandpa, and not one to let possibly usable tomatoes wither on the vine.

And at the end of October, he did the math and summarized the season’s take:

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October 1974. It is entirely possible my grandpa picked his own weight in tomatoes between Aug. 10 and Oct. 2.

If there’s a downside to this run of calendar entries, it’s that my grandmother almost certainly couldn’t make a marinara, Bolognese or puttanesca sauce worthy of the name.

The idea of all those garden-fresh tomatoes makes the mind reel with recipes, most of them involving olive oil and garlic … but, most likely, the season’s bounty was either eaten raw or put up in jars.

No matter. I’m sure every one of those 347 tomatoes was enjoyed, for flavor, for thrift, and for health.

And I imagine Richard Nixon — ailing and stuck in San Clemente — would have given what little he had that summer and fall to swap harvests with my grandpa.

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I’ve written a couple times about my grandpa and grandma going out for a restaurant meal, and I’ve always wondered what they ordered.

In their day and age, a night out to celebrate usually meant a steak of some sort, and I’m sure my grandpa enjoyed more than a few of those.

There is one dish, though, that I know my grandfather enjoyed at home and at restaurants, when he could get it.

I know this because — you guessed it — he expressed his fondness for it on his calendar.

Exhibit A, from January 29, 1966, involves a meal out:

January 29, 1966.

January 29, 1966. Hugo’s used to be a German restaurant (don’t see many of those any more) somewhere in Fairfield County. I ate there once myself, in the spring of 1981, as part of a huge family gathering to celebrate my grandparents’ 40th wedding anniversary. It’s possible I had the sauerbraten, but I don’t remember.

And Exhibit B, from almost exactly the same time the year before, features a meal at home.

January 26 and 27, 1965. Some people look forward to Shark Week, others to Sauerbraten Week.

January 26 and 27, 1965. Some people look forward to Shark Week, others to Fashion Week, and still others to Sauerbraten Week.

Despite being fairly handy and experimentative in the kitchen, I’d never made sauerbraten. The thought had never even crossed my mind.

But when I saw these two calendar entries, I knew I would have to give it a try. My grandpa would expect nothing less.

To the kitchen, then.

# # # # #

Sauerbraten, for anyone not familiar with the concept, is an old German recipe in which a beef roast is marinated for several days in a mix of vinegar and spices before being cooked pot-roast fashion. The marinade cooks with the meat, and is then thickened to serve as gravy.

It’s solid, stick-to-your-ribs fare, perfect for wintry nights … but not bland or lacking in nuance, like some such dishes can be.

Unfortunately, I do not have my great-grandma’s sauerbraten recipe. So I took my battered copy of The Joy of Cooking in hand and went to work.

The principal ingredients.

The principal ingredients.

The beef prepares to enter the fridge, ensconced in a soak of vinegar, sugar, peppercorns, bay leaves, onion powder and maybe a trace of nutmeg.

The beef prepares to enter the fridge, ensconced in a soak of vinegar, sugar, peppercorns, bay leaves, onion powder and maybe a trace of nutmeg.

Joy says sauerbraten should soak anywhere from two to four days (Wikipedia suggests as long as 10, but that sounded long to me.)

I gave my beef about three-and-a-half days, turning occasionally, which seemed like a good amount of time. And when it came out on Saturday afternoon, it looked like this:

German food is -- how does one say this? -- not the sexiest of cuisines.

S-e-x-x-y.

The next step was to brown the meat on all sides while warming up the marinade in a separate pan:

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Then, everything went into the oven for about three-and-a-half hours at 320 degrees. (In the interim I did some laundry; shoveled off my deck; napped on the couch; and started making spaetzle, Teutonic mini-dumplings that go nicely with just about anything German.)

At the appointed time, I took the meat out of the oven and admired my handiwork and … well, I’m pretty sure I screwed it up.

See, all the pix of sauerbraten I’ve ever seen show it as conventional slices of beef, like a pot roast looks.

But the beef I had had the breaking-down texture of barbecued beef or pork — more suitable for pulling into long strings.

So that’s what I did with it. Who am I to blow against the wind?

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After doing that, I strained the remaining marinade and combined it with a bit of light cream and some crushed gingersnaps — an old cook’s trick to add both body and spice to the sauce.

How do you say "secret ingredient" in German?

How do you say “secret ingredient” in German?

For the final touches, I served some applesauce as a side dish, and poured the sort of light American pilsner that would have been common in my grandfather’s time.

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How was it?

Well, I’m still not sure I made it right — I don’t think real sauerbraten is supposed to break down into strings. (Joy suggested several different cuts of beef, but the one I chose may not have been the same cut most commonly used by German cooks.)

But it tasted pretty good — considerably better than it looked. It was pleasantly puckery without being overbearing, and the gravy added a nice sweetness to the meat and the spaetzle.

In between the vinegary tang and the moist, sweet sauce, it came out almost like a German twist on barbecue.

My older son and wife ate heartily, and even my younger son — who usually assumes a high-handed Statler-and-Waldorf contempt toward my cooking — ate a good amount and suggested I make it again.

I think my grandpa would have enjoyed it as well … though at first glance, he probably would have asked me what I did with the sauerbraten he’d been waiting three days for.

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Christmases past have brought the best out of me, but this year finds me with less to offer. The muse and I are splitsville, I think, and I get by mostly on offspeed stuff.

My great-grandma had something special to offer around this time of year. Her offering, unlike mine, depended less on inspiration and more on discipline and experience.

A taste of it now might be nice.

December 20, 1968.

December 20 and 21, 1968.

Stollen, just in case somebody out there doesn’t know, is a traditional German holiday fruitcake, commonly but not exclusively associated with the city of Dresden.

In addition to dried fruit and zest, it can also contain marzipan. My great-grandma had a longstanding fondness for marzipan. (I wonder if she learned to love marzipan because of stollen, or if she learned to love stollen because of marzipan.)

Like all fruitcakes, stollen is not the sexiest food in the world. If anything, it verges a bit on the frumpy. Which made it an ideal Christmastime treat for the humble, rooted folks at 1107 Hope Street.

I would love to share my great-grandma’s stollen recipe. Alas, I don’t have it, and as far as I know it’s not in the family archives.

So, in keeping with the somewhat faded and understated mood this holiday, here’s a secondhand re-gift of someone else’s stollen recipe. It’s from “The Joy of Cooking,” which everyone in the world ought to have on their shelves anyway.

I don’t honestly think anyone’s going to make stollen just ’cause they read about it here. If you do, good luck. If you don’t, I hope you enjoy whatever traditional holiday dish you choose to put on the table.

Merry Christmas.

Stollen, or Christmas Loaf

Have ready:
6 to 8 cups all-purpose flour

Combine and let stand 3 to 5 minutes:
1 1/2 cups water or milk at 105 to 115 degrees
2 packages active dry yeast

Add 1 cup of hte flour. Cover this sponge and let it rest in a warm place until light and foamy, about 1 hour. Sprinkle a little of the sifted flour over:
1/2 lb. raisins
1/2 lb. chopped blanched almonds
Optional: 1/2 cup chopped candied fruit)

Beat until soft:
1 1/2 cups butter

Add gradually and blend until light and creamy:
3/4 sifted sugar

Beat in, one at a time:
3 eggs

Add:
3/4 tsp salt
3/4 tsp grated lemon rind

Add the sponge and enough flour to knead the dough until smooth and elastic.
Cover and let rise until doubled in bulk.
Toss it onto a floured board. Knead in the fruit and nuts.
Divide the dough into two equal pieces.
Roll each into an 8-by-15-inch oval.
Fold in half lengthwise and place loaves on greased baking sheets.
Brush tops with melted butter.
Let loaves rise, covered, until they again almost double in bulk, about 45 minutes.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Bake 30 to 40 minutes until done.

(The book suggests using a milk or lemon glaze; the stollen of my memory is invariably topped with confectioners’ sugar.)

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I’m taking intermittent breaks from the calendar entries to focus on some of my grandfather’s photographs, which tell just as many stories as the calendars do.

What we have here is a demonstration of how five individual people will interpret the same unambiguous request.

Summer 1960.

Summer 1960. In the back yard at 1107 Hope Street.

It looks like all five members of the Stamford Blumenaus are gathered around the table in perfect concord, at the same sort of al fresco dinner that millions of Americans will enjoy this month.

Here’s the story as I assemble it in my mind:

– My grandpa has set up the timer on his camera to get a genuine family photo, rather than yet another shot that has everybody but him in it.

We can gather this from, among other things, his side-saddle posture (which also gives us an excellent view of his work-stained khaki pants.)

He is either sitting that way because he doesn’t have time to get his legs swung in before the shutter clicks, or because sitting the “right” way will turn his back to the camera and detract from the shot he has in mind.

– In a radical departure, he seems to have urged the family to eat for the camera, to simulate a candid shot. This is not to be one of those sit-and-grin pictures; he wants a slice of life.

Certainly, his own posture leaves no doubt as to what he wants the rest of the family to do for the camera.

XXX

This hamburger has seconds to live.

Behind him is his teenage son, later to be my father. Young Rod seems perfectly fine with the paternal edict, stuffing something into his mouth for posterity.

My grandmother is less convinced. She is obligingly holding a piece of food — a cherry tomato? a strawberry? But her facial expression says: You people can be silly if you want. I’m not going along with these wacky ideas. I’ll eat after I hear the click.

Backyard Picnic Grandma

My great-grandma is old enough to remember when getting your picture taken meant putting on your Sunday dress and holding your breath for five hours. Eating for the camera is an unexpected convenience of modern life, and, judging from the slant of her mouth, she is content to join in.

Next to her is my future Aunt Elaine, a member of a budding generation of women who will go to college and hold jobs and do everything men can do, only better. Game for new experiences and adventures, she chomps right in.

Backyard Picnic Grossee Elaine

So, we have four eaters and one skeptic. That’s a pretty good percentage. I guess there’s a holdout in every crowd.

(I wonder if my grandpa saw the developed picture, looked at his wife and sighed in exasperation. It is possible.)

We will end this post as my grandparents appear to have ended the meal — with a pot of campfire-style grill-brewed coffee, the sort that today’s Starbucks-coddled generation would probably spit, horrified, into the weeds.

Want some?

Backyard Picnic Grill

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Only about two hours before I sat down to type this, I went down the stairs and into my modest backyard garden, where my jalapeno plants had been busy.

I spent several minutes there, picking enough sun-ripened deep green fruit to fill both hands (and I have big Gil Hodges-style meathooks … as I said, my jalapeno plants had been busy.)

Then I marched my takings upstairs, mixed them with some vinegar and kosher salt, and made a tall jar of vaguely Tabascoid hot sauce that should enliven my food for some time to come if I can keep from sneaking spoonfuls between meals.

July 26, 2014.

July 26, 2014.

It is at times like this that I feel sorry for people who don’t have space to garden, and mildly contemptuous of people who have land but don’t plant anything in it.

I do not deserve to stand on any gardening soapbox — my ‘penos seem to thrive on little more than sun, rain and benign neglect.

But really, it doesn’t take hours of back-breaking labor to grow just a few herbs, fruits or vegetables. They’ll add flavor to your table, while giving you a sense of pride and accomplishment beyond your actual effort.

My grandpa was a real gardener — much more committed and hard-working than I’ve ever been.

This week’s calendar entry finds him both investing time in his garden,¬†and profiting from it.

(I assume “dust toms” means “apply some sort of fertilizer and/or insect repellent to one’s tomatoes.” I similarly assume “1 lb Beans” means “Picked 16 ounces of beans.”)

I bet those beans tasted good, if my grandma didn’t boil the hell out of them, or something similarly ill-advised.

And, I bet my grandpa took pride in harvesting and eating them.

Just like I’m going to savor each spoonful of homemade jalapeno sauce I ladle onto my ice-cream sundaes.

July 26, 1975.

July 26, 1975. Mets win in extras; Yanks lose.

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