Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Loyalty of Recipes

So you're at a pot luck and you notice the chard and kale torte you bring seems to be one of those dishes that could so easily arrive and act happy as just the supporting side dish, passively sitting by the louder Mexican or Italian dishes. But it's not. People find themselves coming back and less publicly polite with their second time around portions. You notice the first timers took gracious sizes perhaps apprehensive of limp greens blanketed in goat cheese. The second and some third timers cannot help themselves, both in the amount and in their compliments. Someone finally turns to ask you, "Did you make this?"

This brings up one of my favorite moments in cooking, no, not the ego in saying, "why yes, I did actually make that fontina and goat cheese torte you seem to be stuffing in your face," feeling as if you won some ribbon for best hot dish. No, I am not that Midwestern, but hopefully Midwesternly modest. Rather, I enjoy continuing the statement with, "It's my mother's recipe, do you want it, I'd be happy to e-mail it to you." And so the physics of loyalty in cooking lives on. The sharing of recipes that were once written out on small note cards with stenciled wagon wheels or creeping lilies of the valley as a header and most likely written in an archaic and illegible handwriting that included the line: Recipe from: Ester or Judy.

The other favorite part of this interaction is how giving credit to someone else who most likely lives far away offers some validation or even a whiff of lineage and secrecy to the most basic chocolate chip cookie. But really the question is, how long must you claim your prized peanut brittle as laying honors to someone else? Until just when does it become yours? When do you have to stop claiming a dish as being inherited by your aunt in Houston, your mother in Michigan or your grandma, who bless her soul has passed on long before you wield her sweet Christmas buns each December. When are they really your sweet buns? When does the loyalty of invention seem to rest on your laurals?

This question of loyalty recently came to head when I was given what seemed at first as a just a bag of home made caramel corn. I must admit I do not have a compulsive sweet tooth that I need to keep in check, but what I was most taken by with this bag of salty sweet was how perfectly each kernel was coated. I examined the bag, put it up into the light and gently turned each piece to see any variation or trace of some blemished or burnt marks. But none were found. These observations occurred all before I had even opened the bag. And when I did, seriously, this could be claimed as Pandora's treat. I gently untied the ribbon and to find at first just a faint hint of sugar, enough as if to say, "just eat one, a sample per say." I ate one. And another. And as if I had been possessed but some sugar sultan, I couldn't stop. It was embarrassing. I was at work. And I was stuffing my face and probably making a lot of noise in the process. Soon I was not looking at each kernel as much as how much I could try to hold in my palm and stuff in my face without looking like I was a refugee displaced at a boulangerie.

As I noticed half of the bag was emptied in less than ten minutes, I turned to see if some whiff of cold air had come into the room and if I was going to be visited by something or someone who would demand I make some sort of life decision like keep eating the caramel corn or give up my first imaginary born child. It was at this point, I knew I had to do two things. One, share the rest of the "treat" with someone else and two, find out how to make it. Obviously, the first task was easy to do, but finding out the recipe was a bit more a challenge. The caramel corn was made by my boss, Cheryl. Now, I work at a non-profit natural health food store and frankly my boss is so modest that I am not sure she would even like to be called "my boss." She was once claimed (jokingly of course) as being "the ceasar of the grocery store", but that seems a bit totalitarian. I like to think of where I work as being a mini Sweden. Here, in our Sweden people are treated equally and fairly, most of the higher positions are run by women and even the furniture in the deli is a higher quality but similar Ikea design. My boss is a tall and willowed blond, who is fair and humane, so she's more like a prime minister if Sweden or The Good Food store were to have one.

I peered in Cheryl's office to see if she was busy and if I could get her recipe. Little did I know, that this caramel corn was usually made for the holidays and no, there was no amount of begging or flattering that was going to give me the recipe. Now you need to understand that I didn't leave the room and go back to scheduling cooking classes and hope whom I had shared the caramel corn with had more restraint than myself and might have left a few kernels. I stayed in Cheryl's office because I was incredibly curious about this recipe's history and more importantly, Cheryl's loyalty and her calm refusal to give me or anyone for that matter the recipe. Ever.

Cheryl told me her sister, Marsha, brought this recipe to her house one Christmas to make together as a sisterly gesture. For years after, Cheryl continued to make the caramel corn and claimed the fame and fabulousness to "Marsha in Helena". As the compliments came, Cheryl started to wonder, when is this Cheryl's caramel corn? Cheryl decided the logical step was to ask Marsha the time frame of recipe acknowledgment. The answer, simply Marsha stated, was three years. So as I sat in Cheryl's office still a bit rushed from sugar and curiosity, Cheryl in her sturdy and deliberate tone said, "Emily, people have even threatened to break into my house when they know I am not home to try and steal the recipe." I just nodded and said "whoa, that's serious." Yet in my mind, I could see someone dressed in black, searching through a drawer of recipes and a furrowed brow under a black hat change with intense relief in finally finding a fix to what may seem on the surface as just caramel corn. But really, it's caramel crack.

And so, you may have guessed it, I won't be including Cheryl of Missoula's caramel corn, but maybe for some of you the loyalty of recipes only needing three years will free you this coming holiday season. No longer will you feel entangled with explanations or the obligatory need to write long titles on your jars of coveted homemade pear butter first made by your Aunt Rita. Remember, if it has been longer than three years you can take claim, sit with pride, watch how that sweet potato and cumin side dish is yours and answer, "why yes, I did make this. Would you like my recipe?"

Today I give you a recipe that I have been working on for some time and I think I may be close to wanting to lay claim as mine. I am on the pursuit of crafting a tangy, but home-style mac and cheese and I think I found the combination. Of course, I first adapted it from Bon Appetit, but was mostly inspired by memories of eating something similar back in Portland, Oregon at Montage. I tell myself, I only have three years before I can change the title to Aunt Amelia's mac n cheese. Until then, I will lay claim to someone else, keep cooking and remain modest with this hot dish. Enjoy.

Northern Italian Macaroni and Cheese

6 tablespoons butter, divided
1 cup onions, chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
1/4 unbleached all purpose flour
3 cups whole milk
2 cups Fontal, finely grated ( Fontal is like an elegant Monterey Jack as my good friend Cicelia says)
2 cups goat cheese, crumbled
2 cups Parmesan, grated
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 1/2 pounds Rainbow Chard
12 ounces macaroni
1 cup panko breadcrumbs

1. Melt three tablespoons butter in a large pot over medium heat.
2. Add onions and saute until translucent, about five minutes.
3. Stir in garlic, then flour and stir constantly for one minute.
4. Gradually whisk in milk. Cook whisking occasionally, until mixture begins to boil, about five minutes.
5. Add cheeses and stir until cheese melt, about two minutes.
6. Stir in cayenne and nutmeg. Season with salt and pepper.
7. Preheat oven to 350 degrees and butter a 13x9x2 inch baking dish.
8. Cook chard in large pot of boiling salted water until tender, about one minute.
9. Remove chard with slotted spoon and place in a colander and let chard cool.
10. Reserve pot with water and let it come to a boil and add macaroni.
11. Meanwhile squeeze water from chard and finely chop.
12. Cook macaroni until al dente, drain and stir macaroni in to warm cheese sauce.
13. Place half of macaroni in dish, smooth and layer chard.
14. Top with rest of macaroni and spread evenly.
15. Melt three tablespoons of butter in a sauce pan and then drizzle over panko and mix well.
16. Spread breadcrumbs on top of macaroni and bake for 40 minutes.
17. Let stand for ten minutes and serve.

Yields: I would say at least six hunger people who can take a lot of cheese

1 comment:

  1. Lovely! Always looking for a new take on an old favorite. Your analysis of recipe ownership is interesting. Whenever I adapt another's to make it my own, I usually don't chronicle how it's changed, so it ends up a little different every time. So when people ask for a recipe, it ends up with "a little bit of this," and "some of that," and "oh, wait, maybe some of that", "I don't remember how much of that," etc. So, you're still waiting for the popcorn recipe? :)