Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Dishing About Dad

One of my earliest memories—maybe the earliest—is a weekend morning in the kitchen with my dad, making breakfast. I couldn’t have been more than three years old. He wanted to teach me how to make scrambled eggs but I wasn’t tall enough to reach the stove, so he picked me up and securely held me over the skillet, instructing me how to slide the spatula under the eggs and push them over to gently form the curds.

My dad, Mort, has always cooked. He's always loved being in the kitchen. And, why not? My Grandma Anna was a marvelous cook and taught him well. From the time he was a child, he would make dinner for himself and his younger brother, my Uncle Dave, if my grandparents were going out for the evening. But just as important, he grew up as the oldest grandchild of Henry Denmark, owner of The Park Manor, “the” kosher catering hall in Brooklyn, back in the late 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s. This was the hot spot for Jewish boys in New York City to be bar mitzvah and Jewish couples to be married. In fact, we have pictures of its gorgeous marble staircase, with my grandparents posed in all their wedding finery.

It was an elegant place, but my dad’s favorite spot to hang out as a child was the kitchen, where he would surreptitiously snare a new, green pickle or two from a nearby barrel or learn how to make appetizers from Rosie, one of the ladies who worked in the kitchen. He obviously learned a lot. When I was growing up and my folks were entertaining regularly, usually it was my dad who made the hors d’oeuvres.

Here’s his memory of this: “One of the hors d'oeuvres that I loved consisted of a rectangular piece of crustless white bread on which was spread a mixture of skinless and boneless sardines, mashed with lemon and mayo. Then cuts of the white of a hard boiled egg were placed on the sardine mixture with a garnish of pimento and green olive. To this day I still love skinless and boneless sardines served this way.”

Growing up, I found Dad to have a great way in the kitchen. You could—and can—rely on him to make a delicious sautéed rainbow trout, linguine with white clam sauce, or steamed mussels and clams. When it comes to seafood, his gurus are Jacques Pepin and Legal Seafood in Boston But he doesn’t need fine ingredients. On Saturday afternoons after religious school, Dad often made us lunch. It could be thin jelly omelets; grilled bratwurst smothered in mustard, chopped onions and sauerkraut; or gooey cheese rarebit from pieces of cheese that let’s just say had passed their prime. “Just cut off the bad stuff,” he’d say. “It’s fine.” And, it was. His lunches always have been utterly delicious.

Back in the ‘70s, our friend Tom van Leeuwen, who lives in Amsterdam, taught Dad to make Dutch pancakes—what we call “Tom-Aches”—and the recipe (see below) remains simply a list of unmeasured ingredients with my dad magically turning them into thin crepes onto which we spread melted butter, squeeze lemon juice and then sprinkle with powder sugar.

Dad’s our grill guy, although I wouldn’t say that’s his specialty. His specialty was and remains to introduce us—first his kids and then his grandkids—to wonderful food, whether it was a Japanese tempura bar in L.A.’s Little Tokyo in the ‘60s (long before sushi appeared in the U.S.), roasted street chestnuts in Manhattan in the ‘70s or dim sum in the ‘90s through today. I continue to mash canned red salmon with white vinegar and chopped onions, and mound it on a toasted bagel in a summer heat wave; it’s a reliable meal that’s a relief from cooking in a hot kitchen and has the added benefit of taking me back to my childhood. Our first house had no air conditioning, so he would whip that up for us when he got home from work, along with a big pitcher of the best egg cream in the world, using Fox’s U-Bet chocolate syrup, of course. Thanks to him, my nieces and nephews know from egg creams, and still adore his grilled cheese sandwiches, or “toasties,” and “eggie on toast.” And, of course, whenever I scramble eggs, he’s giving me directions in my head.

I’m not the only daughter with great memories of their dad in the kitchen. Here are some others:

From San Diego chef Diane Stopford: My Dad is probably the single biggest culinary influence in my life. If it wasn't for my Dad's love of food, cooking and travel I probably would never of pursued a career in food and moved across to the U.S.

Some of my earliest memories of cooking in the kitchen involved baking on Sunday afternoons. Rhubarb crumble, apple sponge, scones, chocolate cake and of course Yorkshire puddings for the Sunday roast, these are some of the first recipes I remember making . I was given free range of the kitchen but needed help reading the weighing scales (we don't use measuring cups in Ireland) so my Dad would take a magic marker and mark off 2,4 and 8 oz on the scales so I could weigh out the ingredients without constantly interrupting him reading the Sunday papers.

Diane's dad, Peter Stopford, with a roast leg of lamb

As a teenager while my siblings and peers were competing on the sports field, I was competing in cooking competitions. My parents were extremely supportive of me entering these events, constantly buying the ingredients and equipment for me to practice. It was always my Dad who took the time off work and accompanied me to the competitions, helped me set up, smiled, gave me the thumbs up and and when it was all over did the most important job, the washing up!

From Sandi Timberlake, owner of A Little to the Left greeting cards: My dad was not really much of a cook. He worked 2 and 3 jobs at a time to support the family. But he did a few things that I will always remember.

First, he always had one glass of chianti with dinner—no matter what we had for dinner. Second, whenever we had steak for dinner, he had a habit of taking a piece of fresh Italian bread (the likes of which I have never found in any other place in the world except for the town where I grew up) and tossing it into the "juice" of the steak on the platter and saying "Ooops!" as if it were an accident that the bread "fell" into it. Third, in the summer, he would sometimes cut up a peach into chunks and immerse them into a glass of Tawny Port—dessert!
Or—he would manually crack ice and put it into a short glass and pour Crème de menthe over it, sipping it slowly to "settle his stomach."

It makes him sound like a real drinker, but really, he wasn't. What you see above was the sum total of his drinking habits. He was a great guy, a hard worker, a wonderful father and a real saint. I miss him still.

From Leslie Wolf Branscomb, editor of San Diego Uptown News: My dad made a classic BBQ sauce we use to this day. (Secret ingredient: Grand Marnier) However, now that Dad's gone, we've recently come to debate the name and source of the sauce recipe, and whether Dad actually made it or Mom did. Brings back memories of the backyard barbecues, which, in our household of lawyers and journalists, always included a cheerfully robust, wine-fueled debate or two.

Leslie's dad, Bob Wolf, taking on the Thanksgiving turkey

From Debbie Petruzzelli, media relations for Balboa Park: Saturday lunch dad would throw every leftover in fridge in blender & make burrito filling. UGLY but tasty!

And, finally, from one of my favorite people, my 13-year-old niece Samantha Golden: It is amazing how people stereotype men and women. They say that the woman spends her time in the kitchen while the man is making the money and working hard. In this century stereotypes are being proved wrong; women go to work and men cook. I absolutely know that my dad is a better cook than my mom is. That being said, I know everyone says my dad makes the best ribs (at least in our city). Unfortunately, being a teenager restricts the areas where I am allowed, such as the grill, so that has inhibited my rib-cooking skills. On the other hand, he has taught me how to make a recipe that has been passed from generation to generation… egg on toast. Although I know how to make it I prefer making instant rice. I suggest to everyone out there to learn how to cook from their fathers.

Samantha and her dad (and my brother), Jay Golden

You heard her, learn to cook from your father! Dads, teach your kids one of the best life skills they can possibly have.

And, to my dad and to all the dads, stepdads and granddads out there who are so adored by their kids, thank you for all you do to show us how much you love us!

Happy Father’s Day!



Eggs (1 per person)

Mix flour and eggs in large bowl. Smooth with water and milk, plus a little beer. The batter should be as thin as light soup. Let sit for awhile. Add salt and more beer.

Heat frying pan. When it's hot, add butter to melt. Then ladle the very thin mixture into the pan as you would a crepe. It just just cover the bottom of the pan. Tilt the pan around as it cooks, to spread the uncooked batter so it will cook evenly. If bubbles appear, brush them with melted butter.

Serve with melted butter, lemon juice and powder sugar.

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1 comment:

  1. Your niece is a beauty! My dad isn't much of a cook, but when I was really little, he used to make whiskey cake around the holidays. He quit when I was about six, but to this day, the smell of whiskey reminds me of Christmas. He also made breakfast for about a year when my mom went on strike for a year or so when I was in Jr. High. Great idea for a post Caron - Happy Fathers' Day to the fathers in your family!