My mother's name is Iris, poor thing, and that's only because for the first 18 years of my life every Mother's Day she'd receive the what-I-thought-was-clever "purple flower" in one form or another. She straightened me out in college and since then my annual quest to find something unique-enough, classic-enough, interesting-enough for Iris continues.
Got an Iris in your life? Check out this week's Things We Love: A Mother's Day Gift Guide, a tightly edited collection of things we love for mom.
We have all experienced great meals, ones that we talk and think about again and again. And then there are the meals and flavors that are so epic, they imprint on our brains forever. This, my friends, was one of those meals. It was just spectacular.
Does anyone remember Wolfgang Puck's celebrated Smoked Salmon Pizza with Caviar? It was one of his signature dishes from the 80's at Spago in Beverly Hills. In fact, it was one of the dishes that really put him on the map. I have to admit, that recipe sort of inspired me here. If Puck can do smoked salmon pizza, I can do tacos.
And living in the Pacific Northwest, fresh, wild salmon is part of the culture. And smoking it yourself is part of the fun. Now, don't worry, you can easily use purchased smoked salmon in this recipe. However, if you have the capability to smoke your own, I'm going to show you how. It is so worth the small amount of effort it takes.
Here is your set up, perfect for Mother's Day, the biggest brunch day of the year. It's a lovely spread for when guests arrive. Not to mention it's to die for with a little Pinot Noir or sparkling wine. What you see here is the flaked smoked salmon, we'll get to making that in a moment. Whipped cream cheese is mixed with Sargento Pepper Jack Cheese. The pepper jack gave the tacos a hint of heat and little more smokiness. The shredded cheese also added texture to the creamy cheese, an important factor in this dish.
Mother's Day is a special time to appreciate our mothers and the mothers of our children. A leisurely meal in a pleasant surrounding is the perfect way to celebrate the women who are so central to our lives.
Brunch is the preferred meal for Mother's Day, when a sunny late morning adds to the celebration.
Michael's Restaurant (1147 Third Street, Santa Monica, CA 90403; 310/451-0843), located on Third Street in Santa Monica, half a block north of Wilshire, has an elegant dining room with the relaxed feeling of a private home. Surrounding diners at the rear of the restaurant, a lush patio garden obliterates all traces of the busy city a few feet away.
By staying focused on farmers market fresh, seasonal ingredients, owner/chef Michael McCarty has pulled off a magic trick, staying contemporary and innovative even as the culinary landscape changed. When the restaurant opened, market fresh produce was a rallying cry for a few talented chefs. Nowadays, just about every restaurant says it buys locally and seasonally.
The difference then as now is that fresh ingredients are a good beginning but to be something special, they must be prepared by a talented chef with a great palate.
My mom is a great cook. No, really, I’m not kidding. I know everyone says that about their moms, but my mom is the real deal. I don’t think she’d mind me telling you, though, that this wasn’t always so. In fact, the family joke is that she didn’t know how to boil water when she got married. Worse, she married a guy from a big family. My Dad and his five brothers all pitched in to help their mother cook, so they knew their way around a stove—and had opinions about everything food-ish.
My mom grew up in a more formal household; there was a cook, and I don’t think little Pauletta was allowed in the kitchen too much. So when my parents were newlyweds, the first time they went to the grocery store my Mom started to cry because Dad clearly knew what he was doing, and she didn’t.
Well, that all changed. Not only did Mom learn to cook, but she fell in love with cooking, sautéing her way through Julia Child, learning to bake great yeast bread and homemade rolls, picking up on the new craze for stir-frying in the ’70s, and mastering pie crust like nobody’s business. Her spaghetti sauce (which I cooked for Roy this week—it’s his favorite) and her pumpkin bread are now legendary. Plus, she was the Mom who had warm chocolate-chip cookies waiting every day after school. (Pretty sweet, huh?)
Sundays are for suppers. Not just any suppers. Suppers made patiently, slowly, lovingly. Like the way your mother or grandmother used to do.
When I was a child, most Sunday mornings were spent rolling the meatballs. From the time I about four years old, I’d stand on my mom’s rickety yellow step stool, and eagerly dig my hands into the cold pork and beef mixture she had waiting for me on the counter top. I’d add the eggs (yes, I was an egg-cracking prodigy), the bread crumbs, the parsley, the grated cheese, and I’d being to squish and mash the mixture with delight. That is, until my hands turned purple from the cold. Then my mom would run my hands under warm water, rubbing them with her own, before she’d let me start rolling the meatballs again.
If you think 4-year-olds love to bake cookies, give them a crack at rolling meatballs — you can keep them occupied for hours. I’d roll about 40 meatballs every Sunday, filling large rimmed baking sheets end to end. Every Sunday my mom would invariably say, “Honey, are you sure your hands aren’t too cold? You want me to roll the rest?” And I’d say, “Nope, I’m fine.” Why would I want to leave the kitchen? I loved being there. Everything — the sizzling of the hot olive oil, the sharp smell of garlic, the many “sweeties,” “good jobs!,” and “loves” I received from my mother — was perfect. I would have chosen making meatballs with my mom over playing with my my play-dough. And I loved my play-dough.
Mother’s Day was always a meaningful day in my life, but not because of my own mother. Because of my father’s mother. She was born on a day in May that fell on or near Mother’s Day. Each year her family celebrated her birthday on Mother’s Day, no matter what the date of her actual birthday. Her large clan would all come to her little house, deep in the Valley, to honor her. Most of them lived nearby, but not us.
We would hop in the back of my dad’s convertible car and head over Coldwater Canyon. He drove with only one hand on the wheel. My dad was handicapped and needed his other hand for the controls that were attached to the steering wheel, both the gas and brake in one. It was very unsteady. Add to that the sharp curves going over the mountain, his cigar smoke filling my lungs, and his spit flying back into our faces that we tried dodging -- well, it was quite the E ticket ride. (For those born after they were discontinued in 1982, E tickets were for Disneyland’s most thrilling attractions.)
Finally, the road would straighten out at the bottom of the mountain for a long straight stretch till we hit Ventura Boulevard. By then, I was fully recovered, though still dodging spit and seeking a good air pocket to escape the smoke. No seat belts in those days either, and I weighed nothing, so I flew around a lot in the back of dad’s car.
My mom taught me how to cook. I was lucky she was the kind of mom who encouraged me to be in the kitchen. She would often turn her favorite room over to me, making me feel as though I was a scientist working in my own private laboratory. I would pretend I was testing recipes in the Pillsbury kitchens.
My mom did have one rule, though, that she insisted I learn and practice. When dirty bowls and pots and spoons and measuring cups started to pile up on the kitchen counter, she’d quickly remind me of the rule: "Susie, clean up as you go."
Mom believed that as long as you stayed on top of the mess, you’d have a pleasant experience in the kitchen. And everything would turn out much better. I’m pretty sure she was right about that. I was thinking about my mom as I prepared her favorite chicken salad. And I could almost hear her reminding me to clean up after each step.
It’s a recipe that has evolved over the years. I often add new ingredients and sometimes take out the old standby ingredients. Mom thought it was a real treat when I would sandwich the chicken salad in a split luncheon-size croissant. That serving style came to an end, though, sometime in the 1980′s when I attended a lecture by New York Times health columnist, Jane Brody. She said that eating a croissant was like eating one stick of butter. I haven’t enjoyed a croissant since. I’ve eaten a few — but I haven’t enjoyed them. Thanks a lot, Jane Brody.
A spring brunch just wouldn’t be complete without asparagus. Along with our grilled strawberry-brie sandwiches and brown sugar and pepper glazed bacon, we enjoyed a side of blanched asparagus spears with a garnish of gremolata at our Bass Lake Brunch.
Served at room temperature, the blanched asparagus was cooked just enough to retain some crunch. Plunging the cooked asparagus into a bowl of ice water gives it a shock that stops the cooking and helps retain the bright green color.
Traditionally, gremolata is a mixture of chopped parsley, lemon zest and garlic, sometimes held together with a bit of olive oil. In Mediterranean cooking, it is often served with veal or lamb. My Bass Lake cooking friend mixed it up with some chopped olives. It would also be wonderful as a garnish for asparagus with chopped, toasted hazelnuts or toasted pine nuts added to the base of lemon, parsley and garlic. Leftover gremolata can be tossed into pasta, spooned over a bowl of soup, whisked into an omelet or stirred into rice.
Our hostess, who always has the perfect serving plate for any kind of food, had an asparagus plate and even asparagus tongs for serving.
My mother was born and raised in Houston, which is the most “Southern” of Texas cities. Even her accent had the added rich drawl of her boarding school in Atlanta. That is why, when I think of my mother, I feel Southern. We had southern cooks and when we were not eating at the local Mexican café in Toluca Lake (California – not Mexico) memory dictates that we dined on chicken fried whatever! Chicken, of course, but also pork chops, steaks, fish, and shrimp – virtually everything (except our greens) would be chicken-fried.
To compliment our chicken-fried whatevers, mother would prepare a variety of whipped jello desserts with mini marshmallows, including Banana Cream Pie and the ever-popular Prune Whip.
It is a blessing that my father insisted on taking us to the “finer” restaurants in Los Angeles and Beverly Hills, like the Brown Derby Perino’s or Mike Romanoff’s, otherwise I guess I would be chicken-frying whatever to this day!
Twice a year, (on Mothers Day and on her birthday July 7th), my mother used to pull out her favorite phrase and say, “Attention must be paid.”
Translation? She wanted to be celebrated, and that meant The Hotel Bel Air, Sunday best, family only, no friends or ‘strangers’ pulling focus on her closeup.
Her use of the phrase drove me crazy, because of course Linda Loman’s lament was about aging and the lack of human kindness shown her salesman husband Willie, not my glamorous complicated mother on the palm-laden patio holding court.
But champagne in hand surrounded by at least two of her children with at least two of her grandchildren in tow, she got what she needed....a toast, “ To the Queen of the Day.”
Attention had been paid. Deep down I knew what Mom meant. And she knew I knew.
What better way to celebrate moms and wives than by making them breakfast. This recipe for baked eggs has been my go-to breakfast recipe since I saw Ina Garten prepare it on her show, The Barefoot Contessa.
It's perfect to serve for any meal, but it's especially nice for a Mother's Day breakfast. Serve it with bacon or sausage and some toast.
It's simple, fast, and very flavorful while also being elegant. The combination of toppings that I like to use include garlic, parsley, and Parmesan cheese, but any fresh herb can be added. Chives, oregano, thyme, and rosemary would all work well or use what's at hand.
I'm sure that whoever you make this recipe for will be very happy that you did.
Mother's Day is in one week. Are you prepared? Skip the flowers and the gift certificates, and make Mom a beautiful breakfast that she won't forget.
I'm starting with an easy frittata inspired by my mom. Nutmeg has an affinity for spinach. I learned that from her.
OK, so she didn't say "affinity," but she loves them together.
So will you.
Spinach and Ricotta Frittata
Makes 8 servings
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 1/2 cups white mushrooms, thinly sliced
2 cups baby spinach, thinly sliced
8 large eggs
4 ounces (1/4 cup) whole milk ricotta cheese, drained
4 ounces (1/4 cup) grated Grana Padano cheese, divided
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg or fresh grated nutmeg
a liberal helping of salt and freshly ground black pepper
Melt butter in an 8-inch non-stick skillet over medium-low heat. Add mushrooms; saute 5 minutes, or until lightly browned. Add spinach and cook just until wilted. Season with salt and black pepper.
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