My mother raised my brother and I — alone — until we were seven and nine, when she married a southerner from Mississippi who was in the Coast Guard and mostly at sea. His gift to me, especially, was his mother, who I spent a few summers with and who is always top of my mind. It was on her plantation and at her side that I learned about farm life and southern cooking — how to milk cows, churn butter, make biscuits and cobblers, but more importantly, how to get by on whatever the farm produced. My grandmommy was my original “Farm to Table” influence, but my exposure to her was short-lived, sadly, following the course of my mother’s second marriage. She remains a big figure in my life, though, who is especially close when I pull a Peach Cobbler, Strawberry Rhubarb or Pecan Pie out of the oven.
Back up north, my mother would be tired from her long day by the time she got back to the house after work, and it would fall to me to get her kitchen “prep” done so she could assemble dinner quickly. I would take care of chores like peeling the potatoes, cleaning the string beans and setting the table. I would also take some liberties, for which I would be scolded, like making cookies. My habit was “getting a little expensive,” she would let me know, because I would make the butter disappear so quickly. If I was going to be creative, she would have preferred that I make something happen with the leftovers that were in the fridge. Which I did do! Macaroni often had my touches, like leftover broccoli and chicken or cut up leftover veggies. She was happy when I discovered that you could make jello quickly by adding a few ice cubes — I felt like I had found a miracle — with canned fruit folded in and topped with a little whipped cream. My brother thought I was a genius.
When my mother made a ham, she scored it and dotted it with whole cloves and then brushed it with a combination of mustard and brown sugar with a little pineapple juice. She drained the canned pineapple and then decorated the ham with slices and brushed on some more mustard and brown sugar. Not an original recipe, but I was impressed and remember thinking that my mother was so talented to come up with that treatment! The memories that I have of my mother’s cooking are few and far between, as she had very little time to cook. The good news was that I would develop my own skills because of what she couldn’t do — and I took more control over the kitchen as time went on. I am thankful for that. Whenever possible, I encourage my grandchildren to help with the meals so they can learn. Small chores like arranging cookies on a plate or scooping the ice cream onto little bowls, grating cheese or setting the table are important starts — all give kids the chance to learn that they can contribute to the requirements of everyday life.
That familiar ham was the centerpiece to our family dinner last weekend, celebrating daughter Kathy’s visit from Florida. My mother’s sweet potato treatment, cut up and dotted with baby marshmallows, was replaced by two inch slices of sweet potatoes with peels on, brushed with butter and baked under a sprinkle of brown sugar. My grandsons love them, although my daughter doesn’t like her boys to have so much sugar!
A chilled broccoli dish with a little chopped flat leaf parsley, lemon juice and olive oil was for some reason always served with ham, but I do it with the dressing on the side because the grandsons, pre-teens that they are, don’t care for her treatment. Otherwise, the meal brought back a lot of memories. I made a sorbet with pureed pear and a simple syrup of candied ginger. My mother didn’t have a food processor, not invented then, and so she would have had to mash the pear and that is time consuming. I processed it well with a little fresh mint and a half cup of simple syrup and poured it onto a shallow dish and froze it. Every half hour, using a fork, it was scraped until it was slushy, then served with blueberries and whipped cream and lemon squares for dessert. When I think of how often I use my food processor and how handy and time saving it is, I can’t imagine being without it.
The leftover ham was in the fridge Sunday morning so I cubed it for a quiche along with Swiss cheese and the leftover broccoli. I still have quite a bit left over and I will make a soup with some pureed black beans, cilantro, chicken broth and a small dice of ham. My mom always used the bone from her ham and cooked it with herbs until the ham pieces fell from the bone. It was more work, but so good and it is good to use up what you already have. My mother taught me well.
HAM, BROCCOLI and SWISS CHEESE QUICHE
- Preheat oven to 375.
- In a food processor, place one and a half cups of flour, tsp. salt and pulse for a few seconds.
- Cut up a stick of cold butter and pulse until it resembles coarse cornmeal and then add a tbsp. of cold Crisco and pulse to blend.
- With machine running, pour in four and a half tbsp. ice water in a steady stream. When the batter begins to gather into a ball, immediately shut the machine so as not to overwork the dough. Gather the ball and gently place it into a baggie and refrigerate for half an hour. This will make at least a nine-inch quiche with some pieces left over.
- Roll the dough into a ten inch circle on a floured board.
- Butter a pie pan and place the dough carefully in the pan and with a scissors cut off the excess reserving them for a delicious snack.
- Flute the pastry and place in the fridge while you prepare the quiche.
- Cut up enough ham and cheese into small pieces to make about a generous cup of each. Pierce the dough with a fork all around. Brush the dough with a tbsp. of Dijon mustard.
- If you have leftover broccoli, cut the flowers off and arrange about a cup and a half on the pastry, sprinkle the ham and cheese over evenly.
- In a bowl beat three eggs with one and a half cups of milk and third cup of heavy cream, a pinch of pepper and nutmeg if you like and beat until well blended.
- Pour into the pastry shell and place in upper third of the oven and bake for 25 to 30 minutes until puffed and browned slightly.
- Allow to cool for a few minutes before slicing.
- Serve with a tossed green salad. You can also prepare the quiche with leftover caramelized onions, crabmeat, spinach, leeks, sausages or any leftovers you think might work. Buon Appetito