05 May 2015

The hospitality of a Midwestern potluck

Last month, my grandma died. It's bad news, to be sure, but this blog post is about family and the sense of community that a good old Midwestern potluck creates, so put away your hankies. For those of you more familiar with mocking Midwestern cuisine than appreciating it, sit back and get ready to learn.  For those of you lucky enough to claim Midwestern roots, welcome to my nostalgia trip.  And for those of you who never left the Midwest, know that those dishes you're so sick of seeing at potlucks actually have the power to move those of us who left.

I traveled by car, plane, and car again to reach what my grandma so aptly deemed "Forgottonia", a region of Western Illinois where no interstates or reliable airports fear to tread. (Though the not-famous-enough horseshoe sandwich does originate here.) Christ, it is a tedious trip.

After the simple, 30-minute funeral service (where we all artfully hid our crying because that's how we do it in the Midwest), we all trudged the few blocks over from the funeral home to the Methodist Church, where, at 10:30 in the morning, a banquet feast was spread before us in the basement. In this town of 3,000 people (it's a big one), this is tradition; local volunteers--all ladies, of course--bring in a huge spread of food to comfort the bereaved.  It's beautiful, really, and in her better days, my grandma was the bringer of the baked beans (more on this later).

I filled my plate with tan things I hadn't eaten in years, and I was torn; these dishes reminded me fondly of every Thanksgiving, Easter, and Christmas dinner we had down here, but my older, more boring self wondered if there was a way to make some of it a tiny bit healthier, maybe utilizing some fresh vegetables. Here's what I ate:

From left to right, we have fried chicken, cheesy mashed potatoes, scalloped corn, some kind of pea salad I've actually never seen before, broccoli rice, and baked beans in the middle.  What I didn't take, but were available, included green bean casserole, white dinner rolls, mac-and-cheese, and a shite-load of cakes and fruit salads of indeterminate composition (dear Aunt Joan: I still have no idea what that strawberry thing was, but I'll keep working on it). 

I'm not touching the fried chicken, because there are so many genius recipes out there already, and it can't be cleaned up too much and still be fried chicken. My grandma experimented with a version that involved corn flakes and was baked in the oven after she was told she had high cholesterol, but it was never quite right. Just go all the way and make the racist diabetic's version; it's really good. 

The mashed potatoes are also an art in themselves; ranch dressing is mixed in and they're spread into a casserole pan, then covered with cheese and baked until melting. I prefer to mix my mashed potatoes with some plain yogurt, minced garlic, and shredded cheddar, but I see now where I got that proclivity.  

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Let;s talk about the scalloped corn, because we can do better. It's basically a corny bread pudding. Good, right?  Let's make some alterations here: 

Easy Scalloped Corn

Serves 4 as a side

1 egg
1/4 cup milk or milk alternative
2 cups fresh or frozen corn, cut off the cob
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoon butter
1/2 teaspoon chopped fresh tarragon
zest of 1/2 lemon
1/4 cup crumbs, preferably made from homemade bread (wheat, pumpernickel work well)

Beat egg with milk. Add corn, salt, tarragon, and lemon zest. Place in a casserole dish. Dot with butter and sprinkle with crumbs. Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes.

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That pea salad was something I've never seen before, but people loved it.  It was a bunch of frozen peas, grated (mild) cheddar cheese, peanuts (yes, you read right), and mayonnaise.  Here's how I do it now that I'm home:

Quick Pea Salad

Serves 4 as a side

2 cups fresh or frozen peas
1/2 cup peanuts (trust me)
1/2 cup plain yogurt
1 teaspoon prepared mustard
1 tablespoon chopped fresh dill
1 small garlic clove, minced
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Put all of the above ingredients into a serving bowl and mix until thoroughly combined. Do not add cheese. That's just gratuitous. 

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Broccoli Rice Casserole: this is made with cream of chicken soup, but you could easily re-imagine this as a quick risotto, which is basically what it is. 

Broccoli-Cheddar Oven Risotto

Serves 4 

4 cups low-sodium chicken broth
1 bunch broccoli, cut into small florets
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 small onion, finely chopped
1 3/4 cups arborio rice
1/4 cup dry white wine
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
1 cup grated sharp cheddar cheese (about 4 ounces)

Position racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven and preheat to 425 degrees F. Bring the chicken broth to a low simmer in a saucepan. Toss the broccoli with the olive oil on a rimmed baking sheet.

Melt 2 tablespoons butter in a large Dutch oven or ovenproof pot over medium-high heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until slightly softened, about 2 minutes. Add the rice and stir to coat. Pour in the wine and cook until evaporated, about 1 minute. Add the hot broth, 3/4 teaspoon salt, and pepper to taste; bring to a boil. Cover and set on the bottom oven rack. Place the broccoli on the upper rack. Bake, stirring the rice and broccoli once halfway through cooking, until most of the liquid has been absorbed in the rice and the broccoli is tender, 20 to 25 minutes.

Remove the rice and broccoli from the oven. Add 3/4 cup hot water, the remaining 1 tablespoon butter and the cheese to the rice and stir until creamy (add a little more hot water to loosen, if necessary).Stir in the broccoli.

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Yes, I have added some citified ingredients (fresh herbs really do a lot) to these dishes, but they're still easy to make, they dirty very few dishes, and they can be placed on a table for hours and served at any variety of temperatures. This is food made for crises, when you need to take care of yourself without fuss, and when your neighbors are trying to find a simple and loving way of saying I'm sorry.

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The baked beans were actually delicious as-is, and I asked my grandma's friend, Lynn, who had made them.  She said she did, using my grandma's recipe.  Knowing that Grandma doctored the hell out of canned food, I knew her recipe was going to be a gem, but I also knew that it worked. Here's what Lynn emailed about the specifics afterward (thanks, Dad, for forwarding):

"When we first started having the funeral dinners Catherine (that's my grandma!) was always asked to bring the Baked Beans. I told her the recipe was similar to mine and what was in it. She said Bushes Beans, onion, catsup, brown sugar, either molasses or pancake syrup, bacon grease and tobasco sauce and bacon Well that what was in mine and I used the recipe from the Joy of Cooking. She did too. It is on page 268 in the book from 1953. As follows:

Bake at 375 for 30 min grease the dish.
(One) No. 2 can of Baked Beans(Catherine used Bushes Original) and this is 20 ounces.
2 Tbs. bacon drippings
4 tbs, catsup (Heinz)
2 Tbs. mollasses or syrup (Log Cabin)
2 Tbs. Brown sugar (packed)
minced onion to taste
3 drops of tobacco sauce
salt and peper to taste
Cover with bacon slices or frankfuters

For this dinner I used three large cans of Bush’s Beans (original) and a 9x12 pyrex dish.
so I upped the ingredients. but I do not use bacon, so there was no bacon in that casserole. I like onions so I used a half of a large yellow one. The syrup was Log Cabins Sugar Free. ( no Molasses)
(I have made this with brown sugar by Splender but did not have any) so I cut the brown sugar in half and used more syrup. Hope this helps. At 30 minutes the casserole was not as cooked as I would of liked it so the ladies in the kitchen put it in oven until we served the food. I usually make this recipe by gosh and by golly and taste as I go along, but I did stay to the recipe this time. Cahterine was a good cook and loved cooking. I really miss her and Bob.

ps. I have three copies of”Joy of Cooking" and in the book printed in 1963, Mrs. Bombauer recommends oven at 350 covering the dish 30 minutes and then another 30" uncovered ."

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BONUS RECIPE: Grandma Riner's Cherry Salad

1 can crushed pineapple
1 can cherry pie filling
1 container Cool Whip

Mix ingredients together and serve in a crystal-cut serving bowl.  This is a salad, not dessert, so put it right next to the ham in the center of the table.