Friday, May 11, 2012

Mama Always Said

This Sunday is Mother's Day, a day to honor and appreciate moms everywhere and in all forms. Mothers are special beings and certainly deserve this day. They are our caretaker, chauffeur, administer of Band-aids, cheerleader, and role model, to name just a few of the many, many roles they assume throughout our lives. I feel particularly lucky to have an awesome mom and even more blessed that she's still with me — and that I get to celebrate Mother's Day with her this year . . .  and with her own mother (who'll be turning 93 this year!). Both women gave me such pearls of wisdom and priceless memories over the years. I thought I'd share a few here. 

Of all the possible sins of my youth, saying I was bored was one of the worst in my mom's opinion. Poor judgment (stealing the car when I wasn't old enough to legally drive), fibbing (the dog knocked that over and broke it), dishonorable acts (sleeping in church), offenses (having a permanent summons on our refrigerator for speeding tickets from ages 16-18) , etc. were all generally forgiven. Not so much for comments about boredom. At the mere under-the-breath mention (which, of course moms can always hear, even if they're 3 rooms away), my mom would simply say, "Well, I have plenty of things you could do. You could vacuum, or clean your room, or polish silver, or. . . . " At that point, you quickly backtracked and miraculously found something to happily occupy yourself with. 

In reflection, I know her point was not to busy us with chores. It was to encourage us to make the most of each day. She was fond of saying, "There are no dress rehearsals in life!" I believe she was instilling in my brother and me a zest for life she possesses and continues to demonstrate.  She's a life learner and a life doer. She's always up for anything. To make us green eggs and ham when we were obsessed with the Dr. Seuss book. To let me have my first slumber party with 20 girls when I was only in kindergarten. To drive from Panama to Costa Rica to see the famous golden toad before extinction. To allow me to decorate my entire room in purple (carpet included) during my Purple Period. To bake cookies at 2 o'clock in the morning. To waterski on her 50th wedding anniversary. I love that about her. She inspires me to make each day count. To make the effort. Life is not to be phoned in. 

My earliest memories of my grandmother (whom we call Monk), is her in the kitchen. She is a country cook but I'd take her food over a fancy chef's any day. Her biscuits, country fried steak, cornbread, you name it, make my mouth water just thinking about it. Yes, it's comfort food and it's stuff you don't eat every day (certainly not in California), but it's food made with love. That's what makes it unmatched. Whatever she is serving you want. And you eat until you can't eat anymore. You push away from the table feeling lucky. Yes, lucky you had such a delicious meal. But lucky because you realize how nourishing it is—to your body and your soul. There is no recipe for that. It comes from her heart, not out of a jar. She always seemed to have enough food for whomever showed up. When asked how she knew how much to make, she simply replied, "Oh, I just make a lot."  

Monk taught me that hospitality starts in the kitchen. She is always warm and welcoming. Some people don't want you in the kitchen when they're cooking, but Monk makes it seem like that's where you're supposed to be, even if you're not stirring a pot. But with Monk, it's not just an act of getting food on the table. It's a mechanism to make sure you feel welcomed and cared for—in and out of the kitchen. It's not about following a recipe to a "T." It's about appreciating the experience and keeping your eye on the prize, which really isn't the end dish. It's having time and compassion for others. I know I got my love of cooking from her. While I know I'll never be able to replicate her dishes, I do strive to match her mindset.  

And something they both taught me was that no one ever outgrows the need for a mother's love. So this weekend do something to show your mom (or surrogate mom) that you love her back. Like make this beautiful strata and invite her over for brunch so she doesn't have to cook or clean dishes! It's a fabulous dish for an occasion like this because you do all the work the night before. The day of, you just pop it in the oven to bake as you pour mimosas and share your own favorite memories and pearls of wisdom.

"Kitchen Sink" Strata 

1 (10 oz) package frozen spinach, thawed
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 red bell pepper, chopped
8 oz mushrooms, sliced
1 small jar (6 oz) oil-packed chopped sun dried tomatoes 
3 Tbsp unsalted butter
2 tsp salt
1 tsp pepper
1/4 tsp grated nutmeg
8 cups cubed (1 inch) French bread (1 lb loaf)
6 oz coarsely grated Gruyere cheese (2 cups)
6 oz coarsely grated Fontina cheese (2 cups)
2 cups milk
1 cup whipping cream
12 eggs
2 Tbsp Dijon mustard

1. Squeeze handfuls of spinach to remove as much liquid as possible, then finely chop. 
2. Cook onion in butter in a large skilled over moderate heat, stirring for a few minutes. Then add chopped red bell pepper and mushrooms, along with salt, pepper and nutmeg. Stir in sun dried tomatoes and spinach and remove from heat.
3. Spread one third of bread cubes in a buttered 3-quart gratin dish or baking dish. Top evenly with one third of spinach mixture. Sprinkle on third of each chese. Repeat layering twice (ending with cheeses). 
4. Whisk together milk, eggs, mustard and remaining 1 tsp salt and 1/2 tsp pepper in a large bowl and pour evenly over strata. Chill strata, covered with plastic wrap, at least 8 hours in order for the bread to absorb the custard.
5. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Let strata stand at room temperature for 30 minutes. Bake strata uncovered in middle of oven until puffed, golden brown and cooked through, 45-60 minutes. Let stand 5 minutes before serving. 
Serves 8-10.

1 comment:

  1. firstly, i'll disqualify myself with admitting that i don't know about strata. never heard the word before this post. nevertheless, it sounds fantastic. would love to eat some. more to the point: the tribute paid to your mothers is sweet and fantastic. what great teachers in your life. you do them honor and justice in recognizing their example and meaning in your own life. and, i'm sure, it's a blessing to them for the tribute from you.