A food-loving friend of mine in New Jersey lost her mom earlier this year. The jolt of the unexpected loss coupled with its sober reality sent her in search of comfort. Not surprisingly, she found a bit of solace in places where the familiar smells, sights, and sounds elicit virtual hugs: her home kitchen and the instructional kitchen where she teaches cooking. She whipped up cupcakes from her childhood, chicken piccata, and a Passover meal that was perhaps more symbolic this year than others.
My friend is a writer, and like most writers who channel their thoughts about food onto a computer screen, the memories and emotions that swirl around cooking, favorite childhood dishes, and handed-down recipes are filed in the forefront of the mind. And so it is with my friend, whose recollections of spending time in the kitchen with her mom are crystal-clear, as though it was just yesterday they cleaned up the dirty bowls and measuring cups and mixers produced during a baking marathon.
Many of my friends love to cook and are very good at it: they turn out pans of fragrant cinnamon rolls for holiday breakfasts, serve authentic Indian food for dinner parties, and grill like competitive barbecue masters. I don’t cook for a living anymore—I was a caterer for 12 years—but I roll up my sleeves and get into the kitchen for sustenance and most importantly, for therapy from stress-induced deadlines. Although it’s not always the memory of an aproned mother standing at the stove offering me and my pals tender guidance on the finer points of preparing a weeknight dinner for the family, undoubtedly there is the essence of women from generations past whose influences are gently folded somewhere into our culinary genes.
When I was a little girl and spent time in the kitchen with my mom, watching her make a roux for scalloped potatoes or scraping the batter for her famous buttermilk chocolate cake into a well-used sheet pan, there was the ghostly presence of reinforcements: her mother Mary and grandmother Florence. It was the latter cook, my great-grandma, who set the family’s standards for food. Her kitchen remains a perfect snapshot in the recesses of my mind as an efficient and well-equipped room always prepared for action. I remember great-grandma’s ample figure bent over some surface of her small kitchen, kneading dough for a loaf of whole wheat bread, rolling out a piecrust destined to cradle a rhubarb filling, and lifting a heavy roaster splattered with the juices of golden-brown roasted chicken, potatoes, carrots and onions from the oven.
Mother’s Day will be bittersweet for my New Jersey friend as she marks the first without her mom while celebrating with her own children. She will be comforted by the magical memories of those marvelous pink cupcakes but won’t have the woman who was her faithful companion during delightful hours of kitchen time. I’m sure of one thing, though. If my friend chooses to go into the kitchen on that Sunday, it will be crowded with the spirits of her mom and the women before her whose culinary inspiration taught her well.
Raise your glass on May 13 to the women who have taught you well—in sustenance, and in life.
-Kimberly Winter Stern
This Mother’s Day, cancel the brunch reservations and venture back to your roots: prepare a meal that requires a bit of effort in the kitchen, maybe fueled by the memories of the generations of cooks who impacted you. Mom is sure to appreciate these herb drop biscuits and the springtime freshness of the chilled asparagus soup; to round out the meal, add a simple salad and for dessert, purchase gelato from your favorite hometown creamery and serve with fresh berries.
Recipes shared by Dean & DeLuca/Leawood, Kansas, Executive Chef Kevin Johnson
PETITE HERB DROP BISCUITS WITH COUNTRY HAM & CHEDDAR
Serves 10 – 12
2 cups all-purpose flour
3 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon kosher salt
4 tablespoons cold shortening
1 cup whole milk
12 ounces rosemary ham, sliced thin
12 ounces cheddar cheese, sliced thin (white or yellow)
Preheat oven to 450°.
Sift all dry ingredients together into a bowl, and then cut in the shortening. Add the milk to make moist, soft dough. Using a spoon and your finger, drop biscuits onto a greased baking tray, and bake in a hot 450° degree oven for 12 minutes. Serve hot with a small piece of rosemary country ham and sliced cheddar.
ASPARAGUS SOUP WITH LEMON CRÈME FRAICHE
Serves 4 – 6
2 pounds medium asparagus (2 bunches), cut in half crosswise
as needed kosher salt
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 Spanish onion, chopped
1 celery stalk, chopped
7 tablespoons all-purpose flour
¼ teaspoon fresh thyme, minced
1 bay leaf
½ cup heavy cream
¼ cup dry white wine
2 tablespoons fresh-squeezed lemon juice
LEMON CRÈME FRAICHE
½ cup crème fraiche
1 tablespoon honey
1 teaspoon lemon zest
¼ teaspoon fresh thyme, minced
Kosher salt to taste
Ground black pepper to taste
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Fill a medium bowl with salted ice water. Working in two batches, add the asparagus to the boiling water and cook until just tender, about 4 minutes per batch. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the asparagus to the bowl of ice water. Drain. Reserve 8 cups of the cooking liquid.
Thinly slice 18 of the asparagus tips on the diagonal and reserve for a garnishing the soup. Chop the remaining asparagus spears into small pieces.
Melt the butter in a large pot over medium heat. Add the onion, celery and cook, covered, stirring occasionally, until soft, about 12 minutes. Add the flour and cook, stirring with a wooden spoon, for 2 minutes more.
Pour in the reserved asparagus cooking liquid and bring to a boil while whisking constantly. Add the thyme, and bay leaf and add to the soup. Lower the heat, and simmer for 10 minutes.
Stir in the chopped asparagus and bring to a boil. Remove from the heat and allow to cool.
Working in batches, transfer the asparagus mixture to a blender and puree until smooth. Using a sieve over a large bowl, strain the asparagus soup. Return the puree to the pot and reheat over medium heat.
Whisk the heavy cream, white wine, and salt into the soup and season with pepper. Allow soup to cool before serving. Divide among chilled soup bowls, top each soup with the reserved asparagus tips, and a dollop of lemon crème fraiche and serve immediately.
Overland Park, Kan.-based freelance writer Kimberly Winter Stern writes travel, food, lifestyle and design. Also known as the gregarious and cuisine-informed Kim Dishes, listeners tune in weekly for her on-the-road segments on “LIVE! From Jasper’s Kitchen,” a popular Kansas City radio food show. Prolific in eating, writing and discovering, this foodie satisfies an innate desire to sample the world’s gastronomic rainbow by meeting food artisans and trendsetters, gaining insight into the culinary points-of-view of everyone from cheese makers, chocolatiers and chefs who set their city’s locavore pace to farmers who are passionate producers. Stern is a sought-after writer, with work appearing in Better Homes and Gardens, Unity, KANSAS! Magazine, 435 South magazine, KC Homes & Gardens, Generation Boom, Shawnee Magazine, KC Magazine, KC Home Design, KC Business and Midwest CEO. Stern is a national blogger for the Dean & DeLuca Gourmet Food Blog where she cooks, styles, shoots and writes about life and cooking … and loves to lick the bowl clean. This writer may have been given product and/or other compensation from Dean & DeLuca for this post.
Photo by Kimberly Winter Stern