Just as Juan Ponce de León searched for the fountain of youth and adventurers, to this day, comb the peaks of the Himalayas for their yetis, I have been – until now – on a heretofore futile mission to recreate Nana’s Puerto Rican Rice. Not nearly as sexy as preternatural beauty or as exciting as a vicious bear-man, this elusive dish with bits of pork goodness and the brininess of green olives dancing a culinary waltz with sofrito and just a whisper of tomato’s acidity rightly sent me into a search from which I could not return until its luscious flavor secrets revealed themselves to me. Lordy, this is good stuff that, yes, makes me write bad prose and most likely bad checks if that need ever arose.
My relationship with meatloaf runs the gamut from love to hate depending on whose meatloaf it is. First and foremost, anything called mystery meatloaf is out. Served at a cafeteria? Ditto. Any meatloaf made by a person who is less than particular about the sorts of ground parts than I am comfortable with (innards? animals not normally consumed in identifiable cuts? skin and feathers? You hear me McDonald’s?! … oh, sorry, off on a toot. Though in that vein, thank the gods they aren’t in the meatloaf business. Could you just imagine? I shudder to think).
Sixty picture later, I’ve just given up. It’s simply not a pretty dish. You’ll need to take my word that it’s delicious. Earthy lentils, bitter (in a good way) onions, and lots of black pepper combine to make one of my all-time favorite bean dishes. It’s hearty and filling. It’s even vegan if that’s your thing. It’s a comfort dish that transports me to Aunt Myra’s kitchen and some warm happy memories. She is a terrific cook and introduced my childhood to mint in green salads (that one took me a while to get used to), Syrian meatloaf, and this wonderful lentil dish. Later in life she introduced me to jug wine but that’s a story for another time.
If I were given the opportunity to pick my last meal on earth, I would choose, without hesitation, spaghetti ala olio. Or as we’ve called it since childhood, spaghetti ollie oley. Though some dishes have more significant memories attached or elegant ingredients, none make my taste buds happier.
Noodles in oil tossed.
Golden garlic shaves atop.
Grated cheese completes.
Casseroles have a bad rap. And rightly so if the spokesmodel for the category is that tan viscous, flaccid-noodled, hot tuna dish with potato chip topping. Oh, the inhumanity. I know people love the stuff. I, however, am of the other camp. Just entering Lent, I have had my share of flashbacks to Fridays when chances were at least a few of them would feature tuna casserole in Mom’s go-to red Pyrex bowl with gold embellishments. Lipstick that pig all you want, the stuff was horrid. No offense to Bunny, generally an awesome cook (discounting the liver and onions fiasco of my youth and her wayward foray into lima beans; bletch). The upside was that I would always consider eating the casserole as my Lenten penance for the day, freeing up whatever chocolate was around for guilt-free consumption.
A sheet-tray meal popular in our family long before they became an Instagram sensation (or there was even color television), this combination of crisp-skinned chicken, juicy sausages, and potatoes that have sopped up the delicious flavors of the meats, garlic and pepperoncini are a perennial family favorite and perfect for feeding a crowd.
Growing up in a large extended family, I learned two very important family meal rules pretty quickly. First, never giggle while saying grace. The hand of Bunny, backward with onxy ring a’flashing would be down on the back of your head in a New York second. Second, and probably even more importantly, never ever sit across from Cizzie at the table.
Back when dinosaurs roamed the earth and Al Gore hadn’t quite perfected his internet invention, a person needed cookbooks if she wanted to whip up a nice little something to eat. If a person also happened to be of a frugal mind, she might have joined one of those ten-books-for-a-penny deals which hooked her in for a year’s worth of headaches and monthly book shipments of unwanted reading materials (aka wow, they really will publish anything) which took many phone calls and returned shipments to finally end… You know that old adage “if if seems too good to be true, it probably is”? It is correct. That little gray cloud of an experiment had a silver lining though: Ten cookbooks to get my food fix a’going. Among my bargain bonanza was The Bread Book by Betsy Oppenneer (Harper Collins 1994).