My mother was a great cook. She was incredibly messy in a dotty, Julia Child sort of way. For instance, she’d hurl pork cutlets into a skillet about a yard away, landing them dead center, olive oil spattering. It was fun to be around my Mom when she cooked. Perhaps it was the strength of that splatssstt on the meat, instantly searing it that made for such delicious fare, or simply that she was happy in her kitchen, or maybe it was just the madcap way she conducted herself there, a style that followed her no where else in her life.
If Mom was a great cook my grandmother Sophia must have been a summa great cook. She made everything from scratch, typical of her time, but her everything included marvelous poppy seed cakes, buttery cookies and pierogis to feed her family of eight. I know this because my Mom made these foods too.
My grandfather, Antoni, had a huge vegetable garden outside their small white clapboard house in Millville, Massachusetts. He grew cucumbers, tomatoes, cabbage, horseradish, potatoes, herbs, garlic, beets, the works. My grandparents left Poland as teenagers and never saw their parents again but the foods of their childhood were a constant throughout their lives.
Mom moved to Washington DC in 1941 then years later, to St. Louis with my stepfather. One snowy day shortly after leaving DC Mom was homesick. She started making pierogis. That’s when my grandmother visited —sort of—for it was as if they were mixing the ingredients together, the flour, eggs, sour cream, then stirring, kneading, rolling, and filling the little pastry pouches with steamed cabbage. It took most of the day, flour dust everywhere, while a large kettle was boiling, polka music playing on the radio.
That snowy day in St. Louis I didn’t learned how to make pierogis. Instead I learned crucial things about my mother and grandmother. What you did in your kitchen can feed you in many ways. I also learned the value of starting with fresh, natural ingredients. These are lessons that still resonate with me, specially now, a year since Mom died, at age 88.
Mom’s approach to cooking was very ‘Old World.’ She was a natural foods advocate her whole life, and an early fan of Adelle Davis, one of the first pioneers of unprocessed foods in post-World War II America.
With these biases on the table let me now make the case for making your OWN croutons and salad dressing which can save you at least $200 a year, plus give you more control over what you eat. I'll save yogurt for another blog. The kicker is we’re only talking about a 30 minute a week time investment.
My BC cookbook is now very tatty, held together with yellowing Scotch tape after Jim’s repaired it umpteen times. It is the first book I look for in any used book store, always to no avail. The Caesar salad recipe included instructions for croutons. There’s a hint of garlic, not the blast you out of your socks taste of the typical over-processed croutons on your local grocery store shelf. Long ago I stopped buttering the bread before baking--unnecessary calories, little flavor.
Carol's Simple Croutons
1 loaf stale French bread, diced into 1/2 to 1 inch cubes
sprinkle of garlic powder - optional, I no longer do this and still, great
Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Cube bread. Spread one layer thick on a cookie sheet. Bake 10 -15 minutes, stirring once. If not toasty enough bake 5 more minutes, check again. Remove from oven. Cool thoroughly. Store in airtight container. Serve on salads, soups or as a snack. Baking the bread cubes give them a long shelf life IF thoroughly cooled and stored in an air-tight jar.
Time: 20 minutes, including 15 minute baking time.
Cost: It can be argued this is a cost free recipe IF you would normally throw out stale bread. Otherwise, $2 for a loaf of French bread.
Cost of Store Bought: 8 oz. box of croutons: $2-$4.
Potential Savings: 0 to $2 per month, up to $24/year
My college French teacher, Rosine Tanenbaum who was born in France and moved to the USA after college), helped me transcend Mom’s basic make-it-yourself ho-hum dressing into the sublime. Long after my memory of French verbs faded, her sweet lesson on genuine French salad dressing is a constant in our house.
Rosine's Fab French Dressing
Salad for four using approximately 10 oz. of lettuce leaves:
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 Tablespoon champagne, sherry or
A slice or two of a small clove garlic, minced
½ to 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
pinch of basil or other fresh herb
Whisk these five ingredients until the olive oil looks cloudy. Pour onto lettuce leaves. Rosine insisted one must toss the dressing at least 100 times for it to be a proper French dressing. I often fudge on this and the herb part. You cannot omit anything else otherwise it will disappoint.
With Rosine’s dressing you are no longer faced with ingredients you cannot pronounce or visualize, or the frustration of trying to squeak out the last tablespoon of expensive dressing from skinny bottles.
Time: About two minutes.
Cost: depending on quality of olive oil and vinegar—5 cents to 35 cents for two servings.
Store Bought Cost: an 8 oz. bottle of salad dressing: $1.50 to $6, approximately 50 cents to $2.00 for two servings, not factoring in old half empty bottles tossed into the trash. You never toss Rosine’s for it’s fresh each time.
Potential savings: For two salads/week $1 - $4.00. Times 52 weeks = $52 - $208 .
Olive oil: If you get keen on making this dressing you may consider spending what you save on high end olive oils, such as Pasolivo California if you prefer a really mild flavor or my favorite, Nicolas Alziari extra virgin olive oil from Nice, both sold at William Sonoma. I’m usually not so flush so Trader Joe’s is just fine, such as a basic extra virgin olive oil for $4.99 for 17 oz.
Vinegar: For a more subtle taste, I use Trader Joe’s White balsamic vinegar from Modena or, my current favorite, Lucini's Dark Cherry Balsamico vinegar-the sweetest I've ever tasted, from Whole Foods for a whopping $14/8.5 oz. bottle. But every few months, it's on sale for $10, so I stock up then, as it's a grand vinegar.
Garlic: About 95% of all garlic sold in the USA is grown in China. I only purchase American grown garlic, available at Whole Foods for $4.99 per pound. The average bulb weighs about 2-3 oz. so that doesn’t break the bank.
Mustard: I use Grey Poupon's Dijon mustard from France, sold in bulk at Costco for a fraction of what it costs elsewhere.