Wednesday 31 August 2011

The Big Blue Binder . . .

I have this big blue binder that’s very precious to me. I have carried it all the way across Canada and back again. It’s even followed me here, across the Atlantic Ocean. It’s pages are tattered and splattered and careworn with love. The cover of it is starting to peel a bit from the edges now and I am going to have to do something about that. It’s more than a book, it’s a family history. It’s my Big Blue Binder of recipes that I have been collecting and treasuring now for nigh on up to forty years. It might not be worth much to the trained eye, for at first glance it is very ragged, timeworn and nondescript, but to me it is priceless.

I love to sit down and work my way through it, reading and touching each page as I go. Between it’s pages I can see myself evolving through the years as a cook, from those very first tentative baby steps, lacking in skill and knowledge, right on up to the running steps of my later, more competent, and well studied years. There’s simple basic recipes such as Cream of Potato Soup, all the way up to Tomato Onion Soup Au Gratin, and everything in between.

As a child I loved to thumb my way through my mother’s cookery books and magazines. I would drool over all the recipes and wonder what they tasted like, My mother was a very good cook, but she was a plain cook, and somewhat restricted by my father’s tastes, a man who didn’t want her to use anything to season dishes except for salt and pepper, and who had a very narrow and constricted sense of taste back then. I can remember in my teen years my mother branched out into areas such as Italian Spaghetti and Chili Con Carne . . . and my father loved them, but it took her a very long time to convince him that these dishes were actually quite tasty and worth trying out. People are amazed when they hear that I had never eaten Chinese Food until I was almost an adult, nor had I ever eaten a pizza until I was introduced to it by an old boyfriend of mine. I’ve spent the rest of my life making up for it, and those sheltered first years of my life, and the whole journey is reflected on the pages of my big blue binder.

It’s more than recipes though, because on each page is a memory. There are dishes that I tested on my growing family, and young husband all those years ago. There are recipes tried and tasted in the homes of good friends, and then laboriously copied out and taken home to try again. When I read these pages, I am taken back in my mind’s eye to a simpler day, a time when I was my children’s whole world, and I can see their little faces lined up around the table, waiting in great anticipation for whatever I had cooked them for their tea on any given night. There is Anthony’s favourite “Fly Off The Pan Pancakes“, the page all splattered with days gone by, and Doug’s "Saucy Meatballs", Eileen’s "Chicken Fried Rice", Amanda’s "Butterscotch Marshmallow Squares" and Bruce’s "Favourite Browned Meat Stew".

There are the tried and trues, recipes copied from dishes and delights tried out at the homes of friends through the years, that they so generously shared with me and allowed me to pinch and make my own. Recipes such as Mabel’s French Dressing, Mrs. McNevin’s Applesauce Cake and Leona’s Mocha Slices. Each recipe as distinct as the originator, and when I make them today, I never make them without thinking about their authors and remembering times spent with good friends, and all the love and laughter that we shared together. As my eyes scan the words, I can still hear Leona’s voice in my ear, telling me some tale in her distinctive Northern New Brunswick accent, and some of her unique phrases such as being “madder than a wet hen hauling wood.” My pieroghi recipe takes me back to the company of my good friend Esther, and I can remember a cold Albertan winter afternoon, under her tutelage, where she showed me the authentic way that Ukrainians made their pieroghis, and how much fun we had making them together. Esther had had polio as a child and so was not able to walk without the aid of crutches, but I never saw a mountain that she could not climb. Because I lived away from family for most of those years, my friends became, as they do now, family to me, and so every memory and line on those pages is indeed very precious to me.

I have recipes copied out in my grandmother’s distinctive scrawl, and with Aunt Orabel’s words . . . recipes from the cookbooks of my Aunt Thelma and Aunt Freda. I love the words, and the extra’s written in the margins . . . notes such as “Grammy always heated this” right next to the shortening measure in my grandmother’s Butterscotch Cookie recipe. When I read them I can see my grandmother leaning over the kitchen table, rolling out cookies and the twinkle in her pretty blue eyes . . . and the joy and comfort I felt in knowing that soon I’d be munching on one of them warm, tasty and fresh from the oven . . . and the love. I read the recipe for Aunt Orabel’s Matrimonial Bars, and I can smell the linoleum from her kitchen floor and hear my mother and her talking about family things, and how she always burnt her fingers when frying donuts because she had lost the feeling in the tips of them. Then there is Aunt Freda’s steak casserole, where she notes that she heats a can of gravy on the side . . . and yet another one of hers that has no title, just the ingredients and the notation that she got it from a recipe originally published in the newspaper back home, in October of 1979. An Easter never goes by when I don’t think back and remember my Aunt Thelma’s beautiful Easter breads studded with fruits and covered in delicious sugary icing. These were good cooks, family cooks . . . and these treasured recipes their legacy to me.

There are recipes clipped from out of magazines that took my fancy and that I tried and liked, new family favourites such as Chowder Casserole, Hawaiian Salad, Apple Jonathan and Sesame Beef and Broccoli. All sounding delicious and tasty. Some are quite old fashioned, some are quite modern . . . all are wonderful recipes, and in many ways a time line of cookery throughout the past forty years. I have done small cookbooks for each of my children as they got married, containing their favourites. I even did one for my Eileen when she moved out in to her first apartment. I don’t know if they use them or not, but I expect that they do turn to them from time to time. I hope that they have special memories of the dishes held therein and that they are good memories like the ones I have.

A few years back I catalogued some of the very best of the recipes into a cookbook which I self-published on Lulu Press. You can buy it here. It's very dear though, because of the colour pictures of the food. If I was writing it again I wouldn't put in the coloured photos of the food . . . and I'd probably have sold more. A download is a lot cheaper and just as good I think, maybe even better, because then you can just print and cook as you desire and eventually you would have a Big Blue Binder of your own. I do know that everyone who has ever purchased it has enjoyed it very much, which does my heart good.

As I was thinking about all of this yesterday, my eyes fell upon an old treasure that I had not made in many years, and I had a longing to make it for our supper last night. This was the old way of making macaroni and cheese. It was simple and tasty and always welcome. I’ll try to put it down so you can understand it, for it’s written only as a guideline of what to do, exact amounts having been left out . . . you know how it goes, much knowledge was taken for granted back then, it was expected that a girl would know these things by heart . . .


*Old Fashioned Escalloped Macaroni and Cheese*

Serves 4

Printable Recipe

This is not like macaroni and cheese with a super rich thick sauce, this is old fashioned in both it’s taste and it’s appearance. It is good, plain and simple, every forkful taking you back to a simpler day and time. The leftovers are very good heated up the next day, if anything it tastes even better, but a lot of the old recipes are that way . . .

½ pound of dry macaroni

1 ½ cups of whole milk

½ cup of cream

A knob of butter the size of a walnut

8 ounces of cheese, cut into ½ inch cubes

(I used a mixture of medium cheddar and red Leicester cheeses)

Salt and black pepper to taste

1 cup of soft bread crumbs

Another knob of butter, melted

Bring a pot of salted water to the boil and add the macaroni. Cook according to the package directions and then drain well. Rinse in cold water and set aside.

Pre-heat the oven to 190° C/375° F. Butter a 1 litre casserole dish and set aside.

Put the milk, cream and the first knob of butter into a sauce pan and bring to a simmer, heating only until the butter melts.

Put the macaroni into the buttered baking dish. Stir in the pieces of cheese and season to taste with salt and pepper. Pour the milk mixture over all. You should just barely be able to see the milk through the top. Mix the melted butter with the soft bread crumbs and sprinkle evenly over all. Bake in the pre-heated oven until bubbly and browned and the cheese is meltingly gooey. Delicious!

Cooking in The English Kitchen this morning another old favourite. Store Cupboard Lasagne Pie

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