Straight Talk from a Comfort Foodie - The Gravy Train
In all fairness to my mother and the great homemaker that she is, our family did enjoy the fruits of her "from scratch" dishes. She made great tuna fish sandwiches, and her pancake batter never had any lumps. Pepper steak from the electric wok was one of my favorites; I didn't care for the peppers, or the onions for that matter, but the thin slices of beef that had been soaked through and through with salty teriyaki sauce was right on the money. Come to think of it, that may have been the only dish that mom made that had sauce. I just seem to remember most of my childhood meals being very dry. I don't think she liked gravy much, because we never got it; which was the case with a lot of seemingly traditional foods.
I was standing in line at the school cafeteria with a tray full of carbohydrates. It was Thanksgiving time, and through the cardboard cutouts of cornucopias I spotted an odd-looking orange dessert. The other kids on line were grabbing at the plates as if they were a blue-light special, so I took their lead. When I had finished my slice of pizza, a buttered dinner roll, and some French fries, I again focused on the little paper plate with the orange concoction. It was smooth and sweet and tasted like spice cake pudding. The dense texture filled my mouth and was a perfect match with a pony of cold milk. When I came home that night and told my mother what fantastic dessert I was introduced to, she simply replied, "Oh that was pumpkin pie."
In amazement I asked, "How come we never have that at home? It's really good." She looked at me rather flat and said:
"My mother never served it. It's not a very Jewish dish". I didn't understand the explanation and still don't. My mother is an Atheist - but I assume she recognizes herself as a "Gastronomic Jew". If it doesn't fall within the confines of traditional Jewish baking, it's not worth serving. To my mother, Thanksgiving was an assimilated holiday. She celebrated the event with little passion all the time knowing that those people weren't her forefathers. There hadn't been one Jewish Pilgrim at the original Thanksgiving table, and she resented that. She held out on the pumpkin pie for as long as she could. Now that the secret was out: she had no objection if I ate it, she just wouldn't bake it! From that year on, I had to purchase Entenmanns's from the convenient store if I wanted to have pumpkin pie with Thanksgiving dinner.
Mom pulled out the culinary stops when it came to the Jewish holidays, though. The matriarchs of the family, Grandma Lil and her nieces, sisters Sara and Bertha (both married to guys named Sam), would arrive two days early to start cooking the meal. This group of four women, none of whom stood above the five-foot mark, cooked and battled from dawn to dusk. Grandma would start the morning at 7:00 a. m. without even a cup of coffee to get her going; the competition alone got her adrenaline flowing. Her specialty was Brisket of Beef, and it wasn't until I was a married woman that she revealed the secret ingredient to her sauce.
"Don't tell anyone," she had said.
"I promise", I had assured her. "Don't even speak the words, just point to it".
She admired my conviction. "A bottle of ketchup," she humbly admitted. That was it. The secret ingredient that I had waited to hear about was ketchup? Even Grandma's entry to slow food had convenience written all over it.
The three older ladies, two with bottle-red hair, and the other with a blond bee-hive, planned every morsel that our family would devour over the two-night Passover feast. When they couldn't agree on whose recipe to use, they simply prepared two versions. My mother would make a turkey for the night following the brisket. I couldn't convince her to place the stuffing inside of the bird as I had seen it done in TV commercials. Instead, her stuffing was always baked in a metal pan, so that when it was done, the top was charred, and the contents resembled wood shavings. The gravy boat had been taken out of the china cabinet along with the good dishes, but it never made an appearance at the table.
My best friend's mother had the market cornered on preparing lamb. I just couldn't get over how juicy the stuff was. I had her call my mother, right from the dinner table, to set her up with the recipe. Mom felt a bit put off by such an elementary lesson on broiling until the weapon of succulence was revealed: gravy made from the pan drippings. I forced Mom to try and recreate the dish in her own kitchen, but to no avail. She just didn't have the gravy gene.
It wasn't until I started having dinner at my mother-in-law's house that I was able to soak up every piece of meat, potato, or bread with a rich helping of gravy. Her cooking followed the English style of heavy-handed measurements of butter and cream. The roast beef with Yorkshire pudding that we were served on Christmas Eve was legendary within their family. She taught me how to spin gravy drippings into soufflй gold. It would rise in the oven and fell when it hit the air, then lay flat on the plate just waiting to be doused with warm brown sauce. We all knew that the Gout was a disease that would rear its ugly head in that family. We just didn't know when.
1 1/4 cups beef broth, divided
1/4 cup soy sauce
1 1/4 teaspoons ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1/2 cup thinly sliced mild onions
1 (1 1/2 pound) boneless round steak, cut into strips
1 garlic cloves, minced
1/4 cup olive or vegetable oil
4 medium green bell peppers, cut into julienne strips
2 large tomatoes, peeled and chopped
3 tablespoons cornstarch
Hot cooked rice
1. In a small bowl, combine 3/4 cup of the broth, soy sauce, ginger, sugar and pepper; set aside.
2. In a skillet or electric wok over medium-high heat, brown beef and garlic in oil.
3. Add peppers and tomatoes. Cook and stir until peppers are crisp-tender, about 3 minutes.
4. Stir the soy sauce mixture and add to pan. Cover and cook until the meat is tender, about 15 minutes.
5. Combine cornstarch with the remaining broth until smooth; add to pan. Bring to a boil; cook and stir for 2 minutes.
6. Serve over rice.