A lot of people have fond recollections of cooking with their grandmother. I have exactly one. It’s a random memory of her showing me the key places to tuck pats of butter on a roasting chicken or turkey to give the skin a perfectly caramel color and crunch. That was back when everybody eagerly ate the skin. Today it seems more like a wrapping paper that we discard. A tile of butter tucked between the body and each wing was her secret, then it was our secret. I still put butter there whenever I roast a whole bird even though we never eat the skin. It makes me smile—that little square of secreted fat—and lets me hear her cussing about that damn dog or my no-good son-of-a-bitch brother, both of whom she deeply loved.
In her later years there was very little romantic about my grandmother or her cooking. She prepared bland budget-minded dishes for the purpose of staying alive. Flavor was secondary to economy and straight up sustenance. Flavor was relegated to butter, sugar and salt. As a kid growing up I was perfectly happy with that and the fact that a bowl of gravy and three slices of bread cut into strips was a meal.
Grandma’s personal culinary repertoire also included chicken fricassee (never a favorite), homemade spaghetti sauce (with sugar), mashed potatoes (heaped with butter and salt), pan-fried meatballs, and fried egg on white toast where the yolk (sunny side up, never over easy) always sat perfectly centered in the middle of the egg white and the toast. She was a master of egg on toast.
Halushki is another of the few dishes I remember grandma making though we never made it together. I don’t know where I got this recipe. Maybe I divined it from an old photo. When I make this dish, the smoke from one of her unfiltered Chesterfield kings seems to waft into my kitchen. She takes a drag, grumbling, “I got nothing,” and re-shuffles her worn, felt-edged deck of cards for another game of solitaire.
Cabbage was on sale this week in honor of all the Irish so I bought one but skipped the corned beef. I made this last night. It’s a peasant dish from the old country. It’s exquisitely unsophisticated, hits the flavor trifecta: butter, sugar and salt; and is fucking delicious just the way my goddamn grandmother made it. Here’s the recipe. You might like it, but never as much as I do.
4 cups wide egg noodles
1⁄2 cup butter
2 cups onions, thinly sliced
2 teaspoons brown sugar
6 cups cabbage, (about a half large head) thinly sliced
1⁄2 teaspoon salt
- Cook egg noodles according to package directions, strain, and set aside.
- While noodles are cooking, melt butter in large, deep skillet over medium-low heat.
- Add onion and sprinkle in brown sugar.
- Sauté, stirring occasionally, for 5 to 10 minutes or until softened and beginning to turn golden.
- Add cabbage to pan, stir well to incorporate with onion. Sauté for another 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.
- Cover, reduce heat to low, and let simmer for 10 -15 minutes.
- Increase heat to medium, add cooked noodles, salt and pepper, and stir well until noodles are heated through.
- Eat and remember.