Ancestral Dish: The lost salads of summer

My dad knew his way around a kitchen, but he did not cook every day. He preferred to be known for a selection of specialties, a niche he could comfortably occupy while my mom did the day-in, day-out job of cooking for the nine of us.

The dishes for which Dad was famous included:

A hearty version of Irish stew;

A snappy, spicy Manhattan clam chowder; 

Liver and onions, for which I can’t supply a positive adjective, sorry.

And when summertime rolled around, Dad was famous for his potato and macaroni salads.

Dad never made just a little salad. He always filled at least one, preferably two, cafeteria-style stainless-steel trays, which my parents happened to have on hand, along with a commercial deli-style slicing machine. We were not in the deli business; we simply had this stuff. As a kid, I assumed everybody did.

When Dad cooked, he usually took over the kitchen for the day, regarding the arrival of kids wanting lunch as an act of aggression, or at least an unreasonable intrusion. If you hung around, you might find yourself peeling potatoes. (“KP”, he called it.) Dad’s salads had no fancy secret ingredients. He thought that putting relish in macaroni salad was an abomination and that chopped hard-boiled eggs were overkill.

Still, decades after my dad died, I will occasionally hear wistful comments about “those wonderful salads your father used to make.” And they were wonderful — reserved for special occasions like Fourth of July barbecues or First Communion parties. Over the years I have tried to replicate them, without success. The true secret was in the dressing, I have come to believe, and Dad made his dressing in completely unscientific fashion, eyeballing quantities and shaking everything up in an empty Hellmann’s mayonnaise jar. He’d have driven a recipe editor crazy, and having been one myself, I ought to know.

Sometimes when you give up trying on a dish, you find it anyway, or at least, you find its essence. Recently I hosted a First Communion buffet lunch at my house for 40 people. In between bouts of questioning my sanity, I found a large-scale recipe for pasta salad. It is extremely different from Dad’s, with corkscrew noodles and steamed broccoli florets and a bunch of other things he’d disdain. And yet — something about it reminded me of his macaroni salad. Maybe it was the dressing.

See what you think on the jump.

Teri’s Favorite (Awesome) Pasta Salad (adapted from a 30-serving version at Growlies for Groups)

About 12 servings

1 pound tri-color rotini pasta

3 Tbsp. olive oil

1 small yellow onion, diced

1/2 tsp. Mrs. Dash Extra Spicy Blend

1 Tbsp. sea salt

1/2 tsp. ground black pepper

3 Tbsp. Parmesan or Pecorino Romano cheese, grated

1 cup shredded cheddar cheese

1 small can sliced black olives, drained (optional)

1 cup blanched, diced carrots (or substitute equivalent amount of baby carrots)

1 head broccoli (florets only), blanched

For the dressing:

1 cup mayonnaise

1+1/2 tsp. brown mustard

1 Tbsp. apple cider vinegar OR fresh lemon juice

1. Cook pasta according to package directions. Drain, rinse in ice water to stop cooking, then drain well again. Toss with olive oil.

2. In a bowl, combine dressing ingredients. Add onion, Mrs. Dash, salt and pepper. Toss with cooled pasta. Add remaining ingredients one at a time, tossing well after each addition. Chill and serve.

Note: This salad can be prepared up to 2 days in advance. However, it tends to soak up the dressing, so if making it ahead, plan on preparing another batch of the mayo/mustard/vinegar mixture to moisten it before serving.


5 Comments on “Ancestral Dish: The lost salads of summer”

  1. Linda Bonavita says:

    This was a heartwarming story, Liz. Thanks !
    At least your dad’s cooking was tasty (I’ll avoid comments on the liver & onions). My dad’s cooking venture was surprise hamburgers….ground beef as big as the plate stuffed with (surprise !) pork ‘n beans. Awful ! No wonder I’m a terrible Italian cook (it’s genetic).

    • Linda, you should take a look at “Crazy in the Kitchen” by Louise DeSalvo — it’s a great memoir about Italian families and Italian cooking, both good and bad. As far as my dad’s cooking is concerned, yes, it was very good when he felt like it. And we’re Irish, so who knows where that came from 😉

      • Linda says:

        (….very delayed reply)….Thanks for the recommendation. I’ll check out “Crazy in the Kitchen”.

  2. Other Girl says:

    Liver & onions forms the basis for chopped liver, or pate for you gourmands.

    Add hard-cooked eggs, salt, and a teaspoon of schmaltz. Grind together. Put in a small bowl, sprinkle paprika on top. Surround with Ritz crackers. Serve at summer family get-togethers, next to my Aunt Liz’s Potato Salad.

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