Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Heaven and Earth

Sometimes it takes many reminders to appreciate what we have like our health, good friends, family. Other times one hits you in the face.

My Gramma passed away last week.
My mourning is wrapped up with new insight to really appreciate my friends and family, and take better care of my body so I can live to 88 too. The same day as my Gramma's funeral my sister Liz gave birth to her first baby. A bittersweet reminder of the beautiful comings and inevitable goings of existence on earth. The arresting truths that life is a breathe towards birth and heartbeat away from death are ringing in my ears.

One way we all appreciate life in the moment is through food, savoring flavors and the company you are with. With my Gramma's passing I have thought a lot about our family history and those traditions that included her, the constants in our lives together. I pulled out a family cookbook my sister Theresa made a few years ago, put together for my five siblings and I, filled with family recipe favorites from my grandparents and my parents. It flooded me with memories of holiday dinners and the dishes she regularly made to nourish and fill us with love. In her intro to the book Theresa states- "Growing up we were all affected by the foods we ate."

I have to share how important my Swiss grandmother Florence Knusel was to my love of food and entertaining.

She seemed to always pickling and canning something such as sweet dills, yellow cherries, or prune plum jam. Our family always had a healthy stock of jams and applesauce from her hard work. She was dutifully preserving the harvest my grandpa tilled, the boxes and boxes of prune plums from the dozens on their property, or gifts of produce from her country neighbors.

We all looked forward to the a ridiculous spread of snacks(see recipe below) she had waiting for us after the long drive from Seattle to the Knusel home in Scappoose, Oregon. It always included homemade pickles, tinned fish like smoked mussels and chex mix with hazelnuts. As we got older we were able to take advantage of the the full liquor cabinet ready for any mixed drink. She told me how, once upon a time, her and my grandpa, following an old bar book, stirred up a different mixed drink every day.

Lunch was usually a grand "supper"- Swiss macaroni (see recipe below)and broiled garlic studded steak, green beans cooked 'til soft (Swiss style, she hated crispy green beans), and always some sort of yummy dessert. Her enjoyment of sweet breads, "gristle", tripe, liver, and other such meat bits definitely rubbed off on me. She, and now I too, never let a bone go with out nibbling off the fatty chewy parts. For breakfast we often had rosti potatoes with sunny side up eggs or the best pancakes--she just used Bisquick mix but for some reason they were so good, she knew how to perfectly cook and infuse them with her love. Cooked fresh fruit in syrup always ended the breakfast meal. Sometimes it would be Swiss style berry brie-cooked fresh berries or cherries with a white sauce mixed in- like a cold creamy fruit soup.

In the last years, as she had a harder time walking, I would help her with the annual summer parties she loved to throw. There was the Swiss party of old friends and musicians that have known my family for decades. This always included festive music and singing and bratwurst. The other was the "Spanish speaking"(as my gramma said)- parishioners my uncles Frankie's churches he is a priest at. There was still bratwurst at these, in addition to piles of taquitos and salsa someone would inevitably bring.

The last time I saw Gramma I brought a container of corn chowder with seabeans and thyme to the hospital. It was still warm from the stove and after a hard meeting with her doctors about her state of health I gave her a cup. As far as I know it was the first non-hospital home-cooked food she had eaten in a long time, and it was full of salt which she was restricted from. At this point restrictions didn't matter though, and I sat next to her with my arm around her shoulders while she ate. She kept saying how good the soup was and wanted to know everything that was in it.
I said my good bye and I love yous, not knowing it was for the last time. The next afternoon she said good bye to this world for good. I feel happy to know she enjoyed her last meal, and I was able to give back to her a little of something like she gave me.

The following recipes are adapted from
Get To The Table Mable: The Choi Kids Family Recipes, by Theresa Choi

Himmel and Erde Hardaepfel

Means heaven and earth potatoes in Swiss German.

3 medium potatoes, peeled and quartered
1 apple, peeled and quartered
1 tbsp sugar
1/2 tbsp salt
1 tsp pepper
2 slices bacon, diced
1/2 medium onion
2 tsp vinegar
1/4 tsp nutmeg

Combine first four ingredients in a pot, cover with water and cook until tender. Meanwhile fry bacon slices until crisp. Remove from fat and add sliced onion and saute until light brown. Drain potato mixture, add vinegar and pepper, and mash coarsely. Transfer to serving dish and top with bacon, onions and nutmeg.
soft-cooked green beans with bacon and swiss macaroni

Gramma's Swiss Macaroni

This is a dish we ate hundreds of times at my Gramma's house. Gramma always used whatever mix of old cheese ends there was in the fridge, the more pungent the better. Because the cheese always changed, it tasted a little bit different every time. I always tried to get as many burnt onion bits possible on my serving.

1/2 pound elbow macaroni
1 1/2 cup grated cheese- Swiss or whatever is in the fridge
1 medium onion, halved and sliced
1/4 cup butter
1/2 cup milk
Maggi seasoning to taste

Cook macaroni in boiling salted water until very tender(almost overcooked). Drain and and while still hot layer macaroni in casserole pan with grated cheese until cheese is the last top layer.
Brown onion in butter until burnt on the edges. Add milk and Maggi, heat through and pour over macaroni. Serve immediately or hold in a warm oven until serving.

Variation: for Alper Macaroni- add cubed cooked potatoes while layering cheese and macaroni. Bake in a 350 F oven until browned. Serve with sliced cooked apples. YUM.
Gramma always browned the onions in this old enamel pan

Gramma's Appetizer Platter

Gramma always had snacks for us when we arrived at her house.
Put a selection of the following in serving trays with separate compartments:
black olives, ham and cream cheese rolls, homemade cuke or sweet onion pickles, tinned smoked fish or shellfish, cheese spread, celery or other veggies, creamy dip like clam or onion, salami, liverwurst, assortment of crackers and chips, bread or toast, and chex mix.