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.

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Sentimental Sunday: A Dinner Anchor

When mothers are remembered, talk always turns to food. And usually it’s the special foods: the celebration cakes, the holiday dishes, the things eaten only if you were sick in bed.

But as a lot of mothers will tell you, the foods we think about most are the ones that help us week in and week out, year after year of figuring out what’s for dinner.

Today, therefore, I will write about Eileen’s mother’s clam sauce.

Eileen and I roomed together at Indiana University in Bloomington and have been friends ever since. Eileen visited survived my huge family back East, and her parents welcomed me warmly in Louisville. (Once they even booked me an emergency weekend appointment with their dentist when I developed a root-busting toothache, midterm.)

One visit, Eileen’s mom fed me a great clam sauce on top of spaghetti. It was the first dish I experienced where I realized I had to have the recipe. Mrs. McChesney, as I recall, was happy to share but modest about it. It really was a very simple thing, this sauce, she said.

She was right. It’s not a classic pasta alla vongole. It does not require a trip to the fishmongers, although it would not object to one. It’s a weekday sauce assembled quickly from ingredients pulled off the pantry shelves. It is incredibly adaptable. Above all, it is reliable and tastes good.

The clam sauce recipe,  as Eileen's mom wrote it out for me.

The clam sauce recipe,
as Eileen’s mom wrote it out for me.

On Mother’s Day it’s fitting to give this sauce its due in gratitude for the hundreds of weeknight dinners it has rescued. It stands by you on days when plans fall through – when you forget that the crock-pot needed to be set up, or you just can’t face peeling and chopping what you need for that clever new stir-fry (cook  time: 15 minutes; prep time: 1 hour 45).

I made it when I was single and learning to live by myself in my first apartment. Because it was a sure thing in an exciting but confusing time.

I made it for dinner when I was first married, and I made it when my kids were at their finickiest. Because it’s a great blend of comforting and flavorful and you know what, it’s easy for toddlers to pick those icky clams out all by themselves. (Builds character and fine-motor skills.)

I make it when we all struggle in after a day full of work crises and team carpools. Because the ingredients are nearly always in the house. (And anyway, we have memorized where they are in the Shop-Rite on the way home.)

I make it on rainy days at the Jersey Shore, when it’s impossible to fire up the grill. Because while grilled fresh seafood is hands-down my favorite fish dinner down the shore, Eileen’s mom’s sauce with seafood from the local markets eases the sting of missing a day at the beach.

I am starting to teach it to my kids, although they tend to wander off shortly after I throw the chopped garlic into the pan. But I think that eventually they will consider this a fine first-apartment dish, just as I did.

Several years ago I mentioned to my dear friend Eileen what a mainstay her mother’s clam sauce has been all this time, and she was glad to know that the recipe was chugging on at our house.

So thank you, Mrs. McChesney. I wish you were still around to make this for me one more time.

Linguine With Clam Sauce (4-6 servings) 

Adapted from a recipe of Betty McChesney

  • ¼ cup butter (or a combination of 2 tablespoons butter and 2 tablespoons olive oil)
  • 1 – 2  large garlic cloves, finely minced
  • 2 tablespoons flour
  • 2  (7-oz.) cans minced clams
  • 1½ cups bottled clam juice (approximately)
  • ¼ cup chopped parsley
  • 1½ teaspoons dried oregano
  • 1½ teaspoons dried thyme leaves
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
  • 1½ pounds linguine, cooked al dente and drained, reserving 1 cup cooking water
  • Grated fresh Parmesan or Romano cheese (optional)

Melt the butter in a large skillet. Add garlic and sauté for 3 minutes. Blend in the flour. Whisk until mixture thickens.

Drain the clams, pouring the juice from the clams into a measuring cup. Add bottled clam juice as necessary until there are 2 cups of liquid. Reserve chopped clams.

Slowly add clam juice to the flour/butter mixture, stirring constantly. Add parsley, oregano, thyme and salt and pepper to taste.

Bring mixture to a simmer and cook for about 10 minutes, or until the mixture has thickened to a sauce consistency – it should easily coat the back of a spoon. (If your sauce is getting too thick and gloppy, you can thin it with a few tablespoons of pasta water from cooking your linguine.)

About five minutes before the sauce is done, add the reserved chopped clams and continue cooking until they are heated through.

Toss the sauce over the hot cooked pasta and serve at once, topped with grated cheese if desired.


There is nothing much you can do to this recipe that will harm it, short of lighting it on fire. My family loves garlic, so I have often used twice the 1-2 cloves. I have also thrown in chopped shallots or spring onions. A while back I began using a half-and half mix of olive oil and butter, with no ill effects.

I have been known to forget the thyme but nobody complains. You could also add other herbs like a bit of chopped fresh basil or chives in addition to the oregano and thyme.

You obviously can use lots of different pasta shapes with this – we like rotini and bowties as well as spaghetti or linguine.

Most important, the sauce base works with lots of fish. I have added shrimp and scallops (fresh or thawed from frozen).  Once we had a huge Alaskan king crab leg left over from a seafood restaurant meal, and I threw the shredded meat into the sauce along with the clams. Big hit.

Once you get the hang of the butter + flour + liquid dance, you could really go wild and use chicken broth as your liquid and some chopped cooked chicken instead of clams. Add a bit of dried tarragon instead of oregano. Put it over steamed brown rice instead of pasta, very nice.

You get the picture. You can endlessly substitute depending upon your larder or leftovers, and this recipe will just keep loving you back.

Happy Mother’s Day.

Ancestral Dish: CAKE! Edition

Can  cake be considered an Ancestral Dish? Somehow it doesn’t seem — serious enough. Yet what other food screams family ritual like cake? So I’m going to say it qualifies.

As a child, I looked forward to July and August — the Birthday Big Time, with two family birthdays in each month. To that I can now add my oldest child, another August baby. Five summer birthdays. Cake Central, here we come!

Cake has gone glitzy lately. My kids and I love to gape occasionally at Cupcake Wars or Cake Boss (starring Hoboken’s own Buddy Valastro). Who isn’t in awe of those monumental cakes? But at the same time, they’re so … unapproachable. Fondant looks gorgeous, but is hardly the sort of icing you’d claw your siblings aside to lick from the bowl.

Cake has been the exclamation point on my tribe’s rites of passage, secular and spiritual. You can’t really have an official First Holy Communion or baptism without a sheet cake. Not to mention the ritual of immortalizing the cake in a snapshot before it’s devoured: Look! Here it was! Wasn’t it GREAT?

This month I made myself a fabulous birthday cake, mmm yes I did. It got me to thinking about other cakes my family has shared and fought over from decade to decade. A pictorial history awaits!

But before I start, I must say this:

The best part of cake is sneaking downstairs in the dead of night after everyone’s gone to bed and snatching the last slice from under the cake dome. Quietly. With a tall glass of cold milk on the side.

Cake No. 1: This is a bridal shower given for my mother by her future sisters-in-law, in 1953. A corsage is required to make things official, along with the cake. I love that wide circular cake. For some reason, you don’t see big circles these days as much as you do rectangular sheets.

Cake No. 2: My eleventh birthday cake, upon which I believe I collaborated with my older sister. We neglected to get the all-important Cake Snapshot before the family fell upon it. Note the glass milk bottles on the table, kids. That stuff is 20th century, that is.

Cake No. 3: Another shower cake. This one was for a baby shower my co-workers gave me when I was pregnant with my oldest. It was a lovely party, but I have to confess, the baby figure on the cake scared me a little.

Cake No. 4: Life then segued into a series of cakes that reflected kids’ obsessions. This train cake was for my older daughter, Nora, during her Thomas the Tank Engine toddlerhood. It is not really a cake per se, but an artfully arranged collection of cookies, wafers, licorice and frosting. Take that, Cake Boss.

Cake No. 5: Kid Obsession No. 2: Earlier this year my younger daughter fell in love with la belle France and decided upon a Parisian-themed birthday party, despite the fact that neither of us really knows French. I served pommes frites, among other things. And I put a French word on the birthday cake.

Cake No. 6: For my own birthday a couple of weeks ago, I was determined to make myself a Devil Dog cake — a giant-sized version of a treat commonly available in the northeastern U.S. that was the Platonic ideal of snack cakes in my childhood. Two rich devil’s-food layers plus one batch of marshmallow frosting later, I had my dream.

As is often the case with cakes and dreams, it did not last long. But there’s always next year.

Ancestral Dish: Candied Peel

Let’s be frank: Candied peel (in all likelihood) is not one of my personal ancestral dishes. It involves citrus, and back in the day citrus was an expensive treat. My ancestors did not have the big bucks.

In fact, citrus was still a big deal at Christmastime during my mother’s Brooklyn childhood. So I have a hard time imagining my 19th-century immigrant forebears springing for a bag of oranges just to candy some peel.

Even so, I could not resist having a go at candied peel. (1) It’s a classic old-time confection. (2) It just looks so darn pretty. (3) Oranges have been on sale at my local supermarket.

And the taste! I’ll admit I was dubious when, after a long stretch of peeling and simmering and sugaring, I took my first bite. A revelation.

“Chuckles!” I said.

“?????” said one of the offspring, who is not familiar with this movie house candy  we gorged upon as kids.

But that’s all I could think: So this is what the Chuckles people were imitating! Those rascals. There is no comparison between the jellied replica and the real, intense thing. It’s a sharp, sweet and above all pure taste. Citrus cubed.  Bonus: The kids loved it as much as I did.

I used this recipe, from Luna Cafe. The method is the same whether you use lemons, oranges or limes. You don’t need high-level culinary skill to candy peel, but you do need a lot of patience. It’s a long-winded, frankly boring process — peeling the oranges, removing the bitter white pith from the peels, triple-blanching the peels and finally, simmering them in a sugar syrup for as long as it takes.

The key here is “as long as it takes.” Some recipes tell you the peel will be done in 15 minutes. Peel must vary wildly. Mine simmered for an hour, and that was about right. You want some give to the bite, not too chewy. Test it by removing a piece from the syrup and biting into it — if you can bite easily, it’s ready.

After you dry the peel on a rack and roll it in some sugar, it’s ready to go.

And it goes — fast. Trust me on this.

Ancestral Dish: Soda Bread 101

Top of the morning to you!  Now, kindly put down that cellophane-wrapped loaf of soda bread.

Why is Irish soda bread on a supermarket shelf, anyway? It does not have a shelf life. Heck, it barely has a plate life. It tastes great – but it does not keep. Fortunately, soda bread is ridiculously easy to make, so when it gets dry and crumbly (and it will, it will), you can always freshen things up.

In Irish houses, it was the everyday, cheap bread baked and eaten daily. As Irish cooking expert Rory O’Connell tells Epicurious, it’s the epitome of a daily staple: not pretty, but easy and tasty.

Plain soda bread tends to go fast, which is a good thing, believe me.

In her charming Recipes for a Perfect Marriage, novelist Morag Prunty sums up Irish soda bread nicely: “Every woman found her own way of doing it, and the ingredients were certainly never measured except in the cook’s eye for what looked right. You might be feeling generous the odd morning, and add a handful of fruit or a spoonful of cooking fat if you had it on hand. After a while, you learned how much flour would suit you and how much buttermilk would wet it.”

There are many, many soda bread recipes out there, but the one that made the most sense to me first appeared in 2005 on the foodie site 101 Cookbooks. It’s a good solid blueprint recipe, and at this point, I can say I have a system down. But as Prunty writes, the cook is always free to use her imagination. I expect this bread to continue evolving.

The recipe’s on the jump, if you want to have a go at it. Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

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Ancestral Dish: When is a Goulash Not a Goulash?

Answer No. 1: When it doesn’t have paprika in it.

Answer No. 2: When we say it isn’t. Take that, Answer No. 1.

I do understand that the classic Hungarian dish must contain beef, onions, tomatoes, sweet paprika and peppers, or else it gets its citizenship revoked. The same goes for its classic German cousin, Rindergulasch, which is very similar to the Hungarian version.

Nevertheless, ”goulash” is what we called the delicious braised beef my mom made, which has neither peppers nor paprika nor tomatoes. And I can’t call it anything else. It’s in the genes.

Now, there is a grand old North American tradition (according to Wikipedia) of slapping the name “goulash” upon any dish made with “miscellaneous leftovers.”

But there is nothing miscellaneous about Mom’s goulash, although it is extremely simple. Here is one way to make it for four people. If you have more people, add a half-pound of meat here, a carrot or two there, another slug of beer. Honestly, this dish won’t mind.

Basically: Take a pound of stew beef cubes (or beef chuck roast you cut up yourself) and brown it in a heavy ovenproof Dutch oven in 3 tablespoons of oil. Season the meat as you brown it with seasoned salt and pepper. When the beef is browned on all sides, add 2 cups of liquid, which can be water or beef broth, or nice, dry Belgian ale, or any combination thereof. Then add 1 to 2 diced yellow onions, 5 to 6 diced carrots, and a big bay leaf. Cover and bake about 2 1/2 hours in a 300-degree oven, until meat is tender. Serve over hot cooked egg noodles.

Years ago, I got into the habit of sticking it into the oven; I don’t remember why. But this beef can also be braised on top of the stove, which is how my mother did it. In this version you use less liquid — about 1 cup — but you have to keep checking it from time to time to make sure the bottom doesn’t burn. If needed, add more liquid.

Either way, at the end of the cooking time, the liquid in the pot can be boiled down to make thicker gravy, or it can just be served as is. As kids, we liked it whichever way Mom chose to make it, as long as there was enough for seconds all around.

OK, so it’s not classic goulash. But it’s simplicity itself, and perfect midwinter comfort food.

(Another post in an occasional series of Ancestral Dishes.)

Ancestral Dish: Stuffing Wars

Once I was a food section copy editor, and each year I fact-checked glowing Thanksgiving stories of the hallowed family traditions reflected in each cholesterol-busting side dish.

And I felt a bit left out. We make a fine Thanksgiving feast at my house, with all the proper things. But we really don’t have any truly unique ancestral side dishes.

The only noteworthy side dish was the stuffing, not because it’s unusual, but because it was the focus of a fierce tug-of-war between my parents. (Which is also not unusual. People are passionate about stuffing. Or dressing. Or whether it’s called stuffing or dressing.)

It was a face-off between Her Mother and His Mother, but indirectly, since my father’s mother, sadly, had died before Dad and Mom met.
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