Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Grandpa Bill's Radish Sandwiches


I love butter. And I'm not afraid to admit it. Always have, always will.

In one of my earliest childhood memories, I'm on the kitchen counter of our old house on Ardussi street, and my mother suddenly appears and I freeze. My little toddler hands are glistening with melted fat, and probably my face too. A tiny handful of butter is melting on my tongue. I had used one of our barstools to climb up into the nook where our toaster sat, between the refrigerator, and a floor to ceiling cabinet. I knew exactly what I wanted, that little white tub, filled with what was probably margarine and littered with brown toast crumbs. It was the seventies and butter was the devil, but it didn't matter. The foundation was laid.

Fast-forward about 31 years. It's early May, 2010. I'm at the Good Food Store in Missoula, and a beautiful, paper-wrapped half pound of Italian "Butter of Parma" beckons me from the dairy case. My cart is already filled with the makings of a simple spring pasta: semolina fettuccine, fresh fava beans, asparagus, meyer lemon, parmesan reggiano, fresh basil and parsley. This was the kind of dish that celebrates a very brief moment in time, the first gifts of spring, their green flavors coming together in a harmony only Mother Nature is capable of creating. They must be treated simply, and very well, with only the finest accoutrements. This butter was my missing link.


I knew I shouldn't, scolded this time by my own inner voice, but I picked it up. The paper was smooth and cool against the block of hardened sweet cream. It was called DELITIA, Butter of Parma. A little sticker shouted from the package: "from the production of Parmigiano Reggiano": the one, the only true Parmesan cheese. It cost more than six dollars. I hesitated, then held the package to my nose, and a buttery perfume filled my head, synapses firing with recollections of very good bread from places like Tartine bakery, or the still warm breakfast rolls we ate during the months I lived in Berlin. I salivated, and placed it in my cart, unapologetic. This little package was a delicate treat, and I was going to savor it slowly, gratefully, along with the treasures of springtime. 

Our pasta that night was adorned in verdant green, the vegetable flavors brightened with the tart sweetness of meyer lemon. The fine and toothsome handmade fettucine noodles were sheathed in a light cloak of savory Parma Butter, which married happily with a sprinkling of it's sister cheese. I felt like the bubbling young Amy March in the movie version of Little Women, when at the Christmas table she exclaims, "Butter! Oh isn't butter divinity. Oh god thank you for this [meal]."

I only used two small knobs of butter that night, so I had another 7 or so ounces to contend with-- Nay! To celebrate with. I used a pat in this amazing and healthy Fresh Asparagus Soup, spiked with a touch of that delicious Parmigiano. I browned a bit for the buttermilk hollandaise we serve with our artichokes. I used it to coat the omelet pan a time or two. And then, spurred into family remembrances after my last Heirloom Rhubarb Coffee Cake post, I finally tried something that I have heard my mother talk about for years. Her father's radish sandwiches.

He made them in spring and summer, with crisp red radishes, fresh white bread, sweet cream butter, and a pinch of salt. I wonder if he knew that the French eat their radishes this way, with salt and butter? Whenever something prompts my mom to tell the story of her dad's radish sandwiches, her face lights up, and her eyes twinkle, because they were so good, and there was something magical that happened between the crisp white fire of the radishes and the sweet creaminess of the butter.  But also because she loved him so much, and whenever she talks about him, I can see that they were very good friends. Those radish sandwiches are a very sensory memory for her. To glimpse this edible artefact of her childhood, helps me to know her.

Grandpa Bill died before I really got to know him, but tasting this, seemed to help me know something more about him. Having finally tasted his radish sandwiches for myself, I can say it's true that they are more than the sum of their parts.That's the magic of family food. We feel kinship through flavor, texture, and style. We summon spirits with passed down wooden spoons. We raise the souls of our departed in the steam of our stock pots. Family food and recipes, like a simple radish sandwich, are far more than the sum of their parts.

Grandpa Bill's Radish Sandwiches

Simple eats like this take excellent ingredients, and the right balance of ingredients. Anyone can make this, but you may need to tinker to reach radish sandwich perfection.

Best fresh white bread you can find, sliced 1/4" thick
Beautiful fresh radishes, any kind, sliced 1/3" thick
Best quality sweet cream butter, brought to room temp for easier spreading
Kosher salt

Butter both slices of bread, adorn one of them with thick radish slices. Sprinkle lightly with kosher salt. Top with remaining slice of bread, and eat slowly on a warm, spring afternoon.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Sour Cream Rhubarb Coffee Cake: An Heirloom Recipe


About 5 years ago I hijacked my mother's recipe boxes, and combed through them in an effort to compile the recipes of my childhood. There were scalloped potatoes with ham, always prepared in mom's yellow bowl. And Grandma Nan's marinated leg of lamb, a fixture on Easter Sunday, with little Irish potatoes, peeled and roasted to a mahogany brown in the rich pan drippings. Something in me knew that it was critical to possess this knowledge, to be able to recreate the flavors and cooking smells of these recipes, long after their authors are gone.

One thing led to another and soon aunts, uncles, and cousins were filling my inbox with recipes that begged to be arranged in a family cookbook. We all knew the taste of Grossmamma's Lebkuchen cookies, or Grandma Louise's Springerli. And what about Grandpa Bill's barbecued chicken, prepared on his cast iron kettle grill at the cabin in West Branch? These are the Midwestern, no-nonsense flavors of our family tree. A salamagundi of our German and Irish heritage, heavily influenced by the hearty home cooking of our beloved Great Lake State.

It became a yearlong project, and finishing it has proved to me over and over that sometimes our greatest contributions involve no income or fame. I typed up over a hundred recipes, including any family history or anecdotes available. I received wonderful stories about hunting camp, and the hotel where my mom, aunt, and uncle grew up while their dad was running it. I was given recipes I had never tasted, but that were a part of our parent's childhoods. I bought binders, tabs, and sheet protectors, and set up an assembly line on our dining room table. They were finished just in time for Christmas.

My relatives tell me that their copies of the Family Cookbook are well-used, as is mine. It was the first place I looked when I discovered the stalks of ruby red rhubarb growing in the yard of our new home. If anyone would know how to resourcefully use it up, and in a way that could be shared with friends and neighbors, it would be my Grandmothers and/or Great Grandmothers. They didn't like to let things go to waste, not even a patch of rhubarb. I'm pretty sure I recognized Grandma Louise's scrawl on the recipe card, but she didn't directly take credit. Maybe it was one of those recipes shared by a friend, after they enjoyed a piece of cake together with a cup of black coffee. I'll have to call my mom, and ask her if she remembers her mom baking this delicious cake. If there is a story there, I can't wait to collect it for my own recipe box.


Sour Cream Rhubarb Coffee Cake

This cake has a surprisingly thick batter, almost like cookie dough. It yields a moist, dense cake, that perhaps accounts for the very high water content of rhubarb.

1/3 cup sugar
1/2 cup chopped nuts-- chef's choice (I used walnuts)
1 Tablespoon butter
1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 cup shortening or butter
1 1/2 cups brown sugar
1 egg, beaten
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup sour cream
1 1/2 cups fresh rhubarb, cut into 1-inch lengths

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour a 9 x 13 inch baking pan.

In a small bowl combine first 4 ingredients for topping. Set aside.

In a large bowl, cream the shortening or butter with brown sugar and egg. In a separate bowl combine flour, baking soda, and salt. Add to creamed mixture, alternating with sour cream. Mix thoroughly. Add rhubarb and stir to combine. Pour into prepared pan. Sprinkle with topping and bake 40 to 50 minutes or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean.
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