birthday request dinners, chopped chicken liver, fried chicken, lemon meringue pie, michael pollan, Mother's Day, signature dishes
“Culture, when it comes to food, is of course a fancy word for your mom.” ― Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto
I don’t know if it’s a cliché or not, since I am still rounding out my first year with this blog, but I feel it my happy assignment to shine a spotlight today on my mom’s specialties. The sanctity of “Mom’s cooking” is one of those precious elements in this world that most of us can attest to, even if the favorite dishes vary hugely from mom to mom. (And yes, there are millions of dads who are stellar cooks with dishes that their children clamor for, but we are not talking about them today.) If we were lucky enough to grow up in a household where a parent cooked, then we probably got to choose a special birthday dinner or cake or have a special meal made for us when we came home for a visit, if we moved far away in adult life. (I am always curious to know what that dish is for people if the subject turns to memories of favorite meals – so please weigh in if you have the time and inclination to leave a comment.) My daughter already has a list of the dishes that her grandma makes better than anybody else. She, in fact, never fails to mention that my mom’s scrambled eggs are superior to the ones I serve her. Or, in the highest form of praise I’ll get a “these are almost as good as Grandma’s.” Mom’s method: Individual batches of eggs cooked in an iron skillet, and don’t skimp on the butter.
Below are what I consider my mom’s signature dishes, though she has developed many other specialties and staples over the years.
My mom was born during the Depression and raised in central Florida, the youngest of five children. She is that rare but wonderful subset of Southern women, the Jewish Southern Belle. I’m here to tell you, she makes incredible fried chicken and a killer lemon meringue pie. When each of the three of us kids graduated from high school, my parents threw a party where the faculty from our high school was invited. A palpable buzz built from the first of these parties to the last, that Sonya would indeed be making her fried chicken. The faithful arrived in great numbers. (My mother also taught high school English in a neighboring district and has still been called in to substitute from time to time, as recently as last month.) A day before the party, mom would set up shop in the basement for a high-volume operation, with a deep fryer positioned on my father’s workbench and an electric skillet on top of a spread of newspapers on the ping pong table.
She wouldn’t spice the flour heavily. Just salt and pepper added to the Ziploc bag full of flour that the chicken was shaken up in. If there is any secret to the success of my mom’s fried chicken, she would say that ‘you just have to use fresh Crisco.’ And you have to tend it carefully. Fried chicken is not a dish that she makes much anymore, alas; it’s too much of a guilty pleasure for us to request it, and she and dad have mostly stopped eating fried foods.
Lemon Meringue Pie
Mom’s lemon meringue pie was always a great treat, and the one mom makes is pretty much straight out of her Good Housekeeping cookbook. She will use a frozen pie crust or might make one from scratch. It’s all about the filling and the etherial, toasted meringue. For the purpose of this blog post, I asked her if she had any tips about that pie, and she said not really, just that she might often use another egg white beyond what the recipe calls for so that the meringue will really cover the filling layer – pairing that extra egg white with extra sugar, keeping with the egg white to sugar ratio in the base recipe.
While I know chopped liver isn’t for everyone, empires could be built upon the extraordinariness of my mom’s chopped liver. Like most kids, I turned up my nose at chopped liver while I was growing up, though my older sister and brother loved it. I didn’t come around to it until I was about 19 or 20. My husband is a big fan of it and says he didn’t really like it before trying hers. Mom gave ready permission to provide the recipe here, but I must tell you that she has a certain magic with it – let’s call it the je ne sais quoi factor – such that I cannot explain why it never achieves the greatness of hers when I make it. Filial piety? Perhaps. Though if you have a go at it, it will still be pretty great, by commercially available and deli standards. I don’t think you’ll be sorry that you tried it if you like liver. As with most things, the better the ingredients you put into it, the better the finished dish will taste.
Sonya’s Chopped Liver
- 1 pound of fresh chicken livers [Editors note: preferably purchased from a butcher, not prepackaged]
- 2 medium onions, one sliced, one chopped and added later
- 4-5 hard boiled eggs
- ¼ cup cream sherry
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 2 tbsp butter
- salt and pepper to taste
Boil eggs and set aside. Rinse the liver and trim if necessary. Heat olive oil in sauté pan on medium/hot heat and add the sliced onion, cooking until translucent. Add the chicken livers and brown them, for perhaps 4 minutes. Add about ¼ tsp salt. Reduce heat, cover and cook for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, before adding the sherry. Cook for another three minutes until liver is cooked through. (Test by slicing into one of the pieces, it should lose all pinkness but be a pale brick brown color.) Take the liver off the heat and let cool.
Chop the uncooked onion in the food processor and process the boiled eggs while still warm. When the liver and onions are cooled down enough to work with, add it along with some of the leftover juices from the pan to the food processor. [Mom now uses a food processor, though she used to chop the liver in a wooden bowl with a chopper. I like using my KitchenAid chopper and bowl combo. Whatever works for you, the consistency of the liver in a food processor will be more fine.] Pulse the sautéed liver and onions in the processor, scraping the contents down toward the blade with a small spatula to ‘rebalance’ as necessary, until there are no large chunks left.
Scoop the chopped liver onto a plate and mold gently into a mound. Cover with foil or saran and place in refrigerator to chill for an hour or so. Garnish with parsley, olives or radish slices before serving. Chopped liver goes well with multigrain crackers or dark rye bread. It also makes a fine sandwich the next day if there are leftovers.
I should also mention that my mom did a fantastic job of converting her cooking style to embrace low to nonfat cooking methods when my dad’s health required it. She refused to let the food she served up be less tasty for him and found substitutions for the fat in recipes, cooking new dishes fearlessly and creatively. Marsala wine was her new best friend, as it served as a substitute for olive oil on many occasions. We all benefited from her good work and she will credit the books of Dean Ornish and Just What the Doctor Ordered by Goodman and Morse as important sources for her. I felt like I was following in her footsteps, when I had to get creative about reducing salt intake in our household. I like Michael Pollan’s thought that Culture, food-wise, is another word for your mother, and for me Mom’s Cooking is inextricably linked with those labor of love on a plate that we share and treasure together.
Happy Mother’s Day, Mom!
Nate Friedman said:
There’s nobody like her, is there?
I’d add her stuffed cabages & peppers to the list. Mmm
Oh, right you are, Nate! On both counts.
Tara Nickerson said:
What a great tribute to mothers everywhere! Makes me dream of pot roast and Yorkshire pudding, with that pan gravy that my sisters and I could never quite reproduce as grown ups. Mmm mm good.
Thanks, Tara! Oh pan gravy. I think that must be a lifelong pursuit, getting to that golden shore. There’s been some speculation as to whether you have to have become a grandmother to reach the top plateau on some of these recipes. Maybe need a scientific approach to figure this out.
Tara Nickerson said:
Also makes me wonder what my daughter will look back on as the special foods of mom. Oh, the pressure!
I know, I’ve been thinking of that same thing today. Mine loves it when I make biscuits and that recipe has your name on it, as I recall… 🙂
Hope you had a great Mother’s Day!
Vinny Grette said:
Wonderful quote from Michael Pollan, whom I admire so much, and a beautiful tribute to your mom on mother’s day!
Thank you, Sharon. It’s so nice of you to write with these kind thoughts. I hope you had a lovely mother’s day!
frank friedman said:
hey Nan – that was really nice. And quite accurate – I might add, Mom’s brisket is pretty hard to top and her salmon is unbelievable….
Still, reading this made me want to revisit her fried chicken.
And, Happy Mother’s Day yourself.
Hey thanks, and welcome, Frank! I appreciate the comment. I should have included that salmon. I need to get the recipe, she embellished a simple poaching one I had given her many years back and made it brilliant. (The star ingredients she added are vodka and orange juice, I think. But we do not call it screwdriver salmon, :-), maybe we should…?) Her brisket is sooo stellar as well.