Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Memories that Nourish, Tastes of Home

I know Proust already said it, and lots better than I ever could, but isn't it amazing how one taste or a waft of aroma can instantly transport us to another time and place in our lives? When I smell gingerbread it's Christmas-- and I'm decorating gingerbread men for the tree with DS and the was-band.

For me, popovers are a memory food.

The year that I was three, my mom, my sister, and I lived with my grandparents (my dad's parents) in Port Orchard, Washington.

My grandparents, Elva Isham Brown & Stephan J. Brown, Sr.

My grandmother, in the roaring 20's: a real fashion plate!

My dad had been stationed at Clark Air Base in the Philippines, and there was no housing for us, so we had to stay Stateside.

Dad in the Philippines

My grandparents happily welcomed us into the small, green house that my Grampa built with his own hands, when they left the Reservation for the West Coast during WWII.

Grampa and Great-Grandma Brown (his mom) by the front steps
I only met her once, when I was a toddler. She spoke no English, only Anishinaabemowin

The first floor revolved around a central staircase, and I remember that I used to race round and round the stairs, towing a little wooden dog on wheels by his red plastic leash (my favorite toy) in my wake. Grampa and Gramma never told us to "settle down" when we were playing, and my freedom was exhilarating. 22 years later, on a rare visit to Port Orchard, I felt the most intense thrill of recognition as I glanced into the toy basket by the stairs, and saw my battered little dog on wheels, now beloved by the great-grandchildren!

Gramma & I, at the ocean during a visit
(I was 11, and hated being the tallest person in my class)

That little green house was homely- Grampa never got around to sheetrocking the upstairs bedrooms-- but it was full of love.

Grampa & Gramma next to their house

It was always a magical place for me, and for vagabonds like us-- a new year, a new air base-- it was "home" for a good many years. Gramma and Grampa's door was always open-- and their modest home was frequently a safe haven for friends and relatives who might temporarily be down on their luck. Ironically, my grandparents never got over being homesick for Nett Lake, and to them, the Reservation, not Port Orchard, was always "home."

You never knew who might show up on the doorstep. My Uncle Chipper, home on unexpected shore leave, laden with presents. Maybe somebody's cousin's sister-in-law's brother, home on leave from Okinawa, or just out of jail for a drunk and disorderly, or just off the bus from Minnesota and flat busted broke. Someone was always visiting, and miraculously, there was always room for everyone, and everyone always felt welcome. It was just part of who my grandparents were: they would help anyone in need.

Kind of reminds me of the old Indian Country joke about the success of the post-Powwow 49 party: You know it was a good 49 when... you wake up the next morning and there are 50 strangers in your kitchen, cooking your eggs and bacon and calling you "Cousin!"

Everyone was family at the little green house on Locker Rd.

One of my favorite memories is lying in bed giggling with my sister on Sunday mornings, while the enticing smell of popovers in the oven wafted temptingly up the stairs. Although Gramma usually cooked, Grampa always made Sunday breakfast. And he always made popovers. We'd all sit at the kitchen table and my sister and I would stuff our popovers with jam and lick our sticky fingers. I had to be quick, though-- because in a flash, my mom would drag me over to the the kitchen sink and wash my hands so I wouldn't get jam-prints on the tablecloth. My sister, being older, was trusted to make proper use of her napkin.

My sister & I on Easter Sunday in Port Orchard
I believe there was some notion that I was to wear a hat for Easter Mass.
I promptly vetoed this idea.

My Grampa was the sweetest, kindest person I ever knew. He must have mellowed with age, because it was the stuff of family legend that as a young man, he worked as a cook in a lumberjack camp-- and had a cook's fiery temper, too! The closest thing I ever saw to this was Grampa's hearty exhortation to "Eat it or wear it!" on the rare occasions he made dinner.

Chicken pot-pie takes me back to family suppers on Sunday nights in the North Carolina house my parents proudly bought when my dad retired from the Air Force.

My parents, Stephan J. Brown Jr. & Elsie Brooks Brown,
on their first anniversary
(my mom was holding my sister, 2 weeks old, on her lap)

My parents, my sister, & me, a few months old
(you can see why there are almost no baby pictures of me!)

On Sundays, oh joy of joys-- we were allowed to eat on TV trays in the living room so we could watch Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom, followed by The Wonderful World of Walt Disney. I had to rush to get bathed and into my PJs by the time supper was served, because the deal was, I had to go straight to bed after Disney.

After my bath, my mom would safety-pin a towel under my chin to make a super-hero style cape so my long, freshly shampooed hair (thank God for Tame-- remember that stuff?) would not drip on my jammies.

I always loved it best when we got to eat chicken pot pies-- the exotic Swanson's frozen chicken pot pies! I would surgically excise and remove the top crust and eat the filling with relish-- leaving the naked bottom crust untouched in its little tin. Just one bite of chicken potpie, and there I am again, in my towel-cape, listening to Marlin Perkins.

The recipe below is the double whammy of comfort food: Popovers filled with chicken and vegetables in a velvety sauce. It's a great way to use up those little odds and ends in the fridge, and it's quick and easy to make, to boot! I have successfully made both the popovers and the filling with unsweetened almond milk. DS has never noticed.

When the was-band and I lived in Wisconsin, on special occasions, we would eat at a charming restaurant (Quivey's Grove) that had once been a rustic farmhouse. Stuffed popovers were a trademark lunch dish at the restaurant. Kind of a fancy version of chicken and waffles, I guess, sans waffles! My version is below.

Chicken-Pot-Pie Popovers
by DomesticMuse

Popovers: Makes 6 popovers
1 1/2 c. milk
3 eggs
3 T unsalted butter, melted
1 t. salt
1 1/2 c. flour

Chicken-Pot-Pie Filling
2-3 T unsalted butter

3 T flour
1 1/2 c. milk, heated almost to scalding
1 chicken bouillon cube (preferrably Knorr)
1/4 t. dried marjoram
1/2 t. dried thyme leaves
8 oz. cooked, diced chicken
1-1 1/2 c. frozen peas and carrots
Chicken broth to thin the sauce if needed

First, get the popovers going.
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Thoroughly grease a popover pan. If you do not have a popover pan, grease 6 glass custard cups and set them well apart on a baking sheet. Space for the hot air to circulate is crucial to success.

In a blender, combine the milk, butter, eggs, and salt. With the motor running, carefully pour the flour in through the hole in the lid (do NOT run the motor with the lid completely off, trust me, you don't want batter in your hair and all over your kitchen.) Blend 2-3 minutes, until there are no lumps. Scrape the sides down with a rubber spatula at least once.

Pour the batter into the popover wells or custard cups, filling them about 2/3 full.

Now, this is important: Bake in a fully pre-heated oven for 30 minutes WITHOUT PEEKING.
If you open the oven door at the wrong time, all will be lost. No one will eat the resulting lumps of styrofoam. I speak from sad experience. A hot oven and undisturbed cooking time is the secret to feathery light, golden popovers.

If you prefer your popovers on the crisp side, briefly slide them out of the oven and poke a hole in each one with a skewer. Turn the oven off and let them sit in it for 5-10 minutes to crisp up.
Otherwise, remove your popovers from the oven and allow to cool for a couple of minutes, then remove from the pan.

Back to the Filling:
While the popovers are baking, spray a sauce pan with non-stick spray and melt the 2-3 T butter over medium heat.

While the butter is melting, you can pour the milk into a glass measure and heat in the microwave until hot but not boiling.

When the butter is melted, sprinkle in the 3 T flour and whisk vigorously with a flat whisk for 2-3 minutes.

Add the marjoram, thyme, and fresh ground black pepper to taste. Still whisking, pour the hot milk into the butter-flour mixture all at once. Continue to whisk, breaking up any lumps and being sure to get into the edges of the pan. Add the chicken bouillon cube, and break apart with the whisk (the Knorr ones are large and soft, so easy to incorporate).

The sauce should thicken up in a minute or two.

Voila! It's sauce now!

Add the peas & carrots and chicken to the sauce. Thin to desired consistency with chicken broth, if needed. Cook, stirring from time to time, until heated through. DO NOT COVER. (See NOTE below.)

By now, the popovers should be out of the oven.

For each serving, split a popover in half and gently nudge the insides around to form a hollow for the sauce.

Ladle the sauce over the popover halves. Some chopped fresh Italian parsley or chives sprinkled on top would be nice, but I didn't think of that until now.

DS's plate:

NOTE: There is a small window of time when the peas will be fairly tender yet still vibrantly green. You want to time it so the popovers are coming out of the oven just as you are adding the vegetables to the pan. If you cover the pan, or if you cook or hold the sauce for too long, your peas won't be pretty anymore.

I recall, as a new bride, proudly bringing a rather pretty casserole (or "hot dish" as it was called in Wisconsin) to a church dinner and being horrified upon lifting the lid to discover that my formerly vibrantly green veggies had turned a sad shade of olive drab. "But it was green when I left the house!!" I said. My friend Steve, glancing from the dish to my stricken face, quipped, "How Green Was My Hot Dish!" and quickly moved out of smacking range.

Happy memories, and Buen Provecho!

1 comment:

  1. Such great stories & I agree certain smells & tastes can totally bring back so many memories.


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