Remembering my Nana

My grandmother was an old-time cook.  Meat, potatoes, a vegetable.  Bacon and eggs for breakfast.  I lived with her and my grandfather for five years.  The only time she didn’t cook was Sunday evening.  That was the evening for Lawrence Welk, popcorn and apples and the Wonderful World of Disney.

Sunday dinners tended to be wonderful, served on her china and ready to be served when we returned from Church.  Pot Roast, chicken, and casseroles.  On occasion my grandmother, my Nana made pan-fried chicken.  It’s tedious, takes a great deal of work and so we often did not have it.

To this day, I love pan-fried chicken.  Nana often made it in the summer for picnics when we would go to the park or the lake and it was accompanied by coleslaw and potato salad.  When we stayed home, it was made with mashed potatoes and cream gravy.  It wasn’t fancy, she didn’t do all the things you often read about, she dredged the chicken in seasoned flour and fried it.  To this day, I can not fry chicken and smell the searing meat without thinking of her.

So tonight, I pan-fried chicken.  I was supposed to have some folks over for dinner, at the last-minute no one could come.  I wasn’t devastated, it’s been a long day, but I had chicken and something needed to happen with the chicken.  Late afternoon I said to Andrew, “I’m hungry, I probably out to do something with that chicken.  How about I fry chicken?”   HIs eyes lit up, “Fried chicken????”  And then I said, “how about fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy?”   He was sold.

It is not gourmet.  It is simple, down home country cooking like my grandmother used to cook.  I fry chicken once, maybe twice a year.  Always pan-fried and ALWAYS with mashed potatoes and cream gravy.

The recipe is not difficult.  My Nana didn’t “double dip.”   She dredged the chicken in seasoned flour and popped it in hot oil or Crisco on the stove.  I put about one and a half cups of flour in a pie plate, added salt, pepper, onion powder and garlic powder.  Mixed it together, salted and peppered the chicken pieces.  Dredged them in the flour mixture then sprinkled a good dose of paprika on the top and put them in the hot oil

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I fried the top, the bottom and then the sides. It takes time and then I cover the chicken for a time to make sure it is cooked through. Forty five minutes to an hour should cook chicken to the place it needs to be done.

I take it out of the oil and drain it on paper towels.

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The potatoes were already cooking. I had opened a can of green beans I had canned last year. As the chicken was draining, I poured off most of the grease, leaving the good brown bits in the pan and added the flour I had used to dredge the chicken. I did that knowing it would be heated to a high enough temperature to deal with the raw chicken issues.

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This needs to be “cooked” for two or three minutes to get the raw flour flavor out of it and then you can add milk. This is the only time I make cream gravy. I always do a butter/flour roux and then add stock. But the cream gravy takes me back to my childhood and my grandmother and somehow makes the fried chicken taste the way it is supposed to taste.

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We mashed the potatoes, and we were ready to eat. My Nana wasn’t the kind of country cook many speak about. She embraced convenience foods early and with gusto. However, on occasion she went back to the farm and made meals I still remember. Fried Chicken is one of those meals that remind me of home, of love, of family and of a woman who took in four kids and a mom at seventy years of age and made of the best of it. She and my grandfather in so many ways are my saints and I am grateful for all their love and faith that believed in me and my siblings.

This is what dinner looked like tonight. I think Nana would have been proud.

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Grown-Up Comfort Food

My husband Andrew is not feeling well.  He had an awful cold a few weeks ago, recovered with a bit of a lingering cough and then …. guess what?  The nastiness has returned.  He has a horrible, nasty cough and just doesn’t feel well.

I want to cook.  It is what I do when I have an evening off, but what to cook when he doesn’t feel well?  He has never been a big macaroni and cheese fan, but when you substitute beautiful cheeses and add lobster, he is in for the taste test.

Late February is not a bad time to buy lobster, especially since Valentine’s day has passed and grocery stores don’t want them filling up their frozen seafood sections.  I am not saying it is “cheap”, just a bit more affordable than during other times.  Next time I make this, I think I will make a “seafood” mac and cheese and add shrimp and maybe some crab as well.  It was wonderful as it was, but it wasn’t “filled” with lobster, even I don’t have that kind of budget.

I bought two 4 ounce frozen lobster tails.  I thawed them and wrapped them in foil and baked them in the oven at 375 degrees (350 in the convection oven) for about 15 minutes.

They came out looking like this:

ImageJust pull the meat out of the shells, once it is cooled

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Rough chop and save to add to the mixture later.

Get a pot of water boiling, I was making enough for two and since my ramkins are small, I had enough for four.  I set aside 4 ounces of cavatappi pasta, you could use elbow or penne.

ImageI added it to about a quart of boiling salted water

ImageCooked for about 11 minutes until al dente and drain.

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I then grated 3 ounces of Gruyere cheese and 2 ounces of sharp white cheddar in my food processor.  Fast and easy:

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I set that aside and began the white sauce that would serve as the base.

First I chopped about 2 tablespoons of red onion in a small dice.  I would have used a shallot if I had one.  I didn’t, so I used red onion instead.  I also diced one garlic clove.

ImageI added that to a skillet with two tablespoons unsalted butter.

ImageI sauteed them at a very low heat until soft.

ImageI then added white wine, about 1/4 cup and cooked it down.  Then I added two tablespoons flour.

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It is important to get the “raw” flour taste out by cooking the flour/butter mixture until bubbly.  Once this is done I added 1 cup warmed milk.

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And whisked until not lumpy.  You may need to add more depending on how much milk the flour/butter mixture takes.  I ended up adding about 1/4 cup more.  Once the milk is incorporated I added the gruyere and cheddar cheeses.

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Once the cheese is melted, then the pasta and lobster is added, salt and pepper to taste.

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Finally I added freshly ground nutmeg.  I know that sounds odd, but it really does make the mac and cheese lovely.

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When I make it again, I will add hot smoked spanish paprika.  A little kick would have been lovely.  You could use cayenne or chipotle, but hot smoked spanish paprika has been my go to spice for a little kick for some time.  I don’t like a lot of heat, but this really is lovely.

I made some fresh bread crumbs.  I took off the crusts of some whole wheat sour dough I had, cut it in chunks and popped it in the food processor.  You can use any bread you want, you just don’t want to use already “baked” bread crumbs.  They will cook and crisp in the oven.  I added one quarter of a cup to 1/2 tablespoon of melted butter

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Stirred it up.  I used it to top the mac and cheese.

I then filled four individual ramekins:

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ImageTopped them with the bread crumbs

ImagePut them in a 375 oven (350 for convection) for 30 minutes.

ImageWhile they were baking, I put some home canned green beans on the stove, made a red wine vinaigrette ( 2 tablespoons good red wine vinegar, 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, salt pepper) poured it over fresh green lettuce, red tomatoes and topped with Point Reyes blue cheese.

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I pulled the lobster mac and cheese out of the oven

ImageCreated a plate with the mac and cheese and green beans and it was dinner:

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I served this with a lovely “sushi wine”.  It was the perfect combination of crisp and clean with the thick and creamy and decadent Lobster mac and cheese.

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The meal was wonderful.  I grew up with Velveeta Macaroni and cheese.  I still love it.  I am not ashamed to admit it.  This is a grown up version.  The lobster was so sweet and the cheese combination was amazing.  Next time I will probably add some shrimp with it to extend the lobster a bit.  I canned the green beans this summer and the lettuce I have been growing on my front porch.

I find great joy in growing, preserving and cooking my own food.  The sense of balance I receive makes all the time and effort worth it.  When I open a “can” I can smell the summer and remember the picking, the snapping and the heat of pressure cooker.  When I wander to the front porch and cut lettuce leaves with 13+ inches of snow on the ground I am amazed at how happy all that green makes me.  I don’t always have enough for a salad, but when I do, it is fresh and fabulous.

My husband loved the macaroni and cheese.  He ate every bit and since I had planned on two servings, but ended up with four, we have planned leftovers for tomorrow or Sunday.  Another salad, maybe some roasted vegetables and dinner will be served again.

We eat to live, but also eating is a foretaste of a “banquet” where all will be loved, accepted, fed and satisfied.  Each time I cook and can offer comfort and compassion I feel like I have been part of a sacred moment. In the gospels Jesus said, “where two or three are gathered,” and “eat and drink in remembrance of me.”  In the midst of the season of Lent, I am grateful to remember and to give thanks.