My Dad Was a Fantastic Cook.
Mom didn’t really like to cook. She’d manage to put meals on the table during the week though, because that’s what moms did. My Dad, my brother and I grew up with Mom’s nearly inedible meals most weekdays—things like over-salted and over-cooked hamburger “steak,” canned peas and instant mashed potatoes. My Mom had embraced the convenience food-trend of the 70’s like many other moms in those days. Pre-prepared and pre-packaged foods took off in a big way and Mom was on that band wagon, for sure.
So it wasn’t too much of a surprise to my brother and me when Dad started doing most of the cooking for the family when he retired. I was still in high school at the time. Even before he retired, I remember really looking forward to the weekends, when Dad would take over the kitchen and make elaborate breakfasts—fried potatoes with onions, big, fat, overstuffed omelets and thick, meaty bacon. Hank rocked it in the kitchen.
My Dad Ate Weird Things.
It was not unusual to walk into the “tv room” on a weekend afternoon and see Dad watching a football game while noshing on a limburger cheese sandwich with raw onions on pumpernickel. Or “rollmops”—a gherkin wrapped in pickled herring. He often subjected us to the weirdness at dinner time. When he cooked, we were served things like sauerbraten, beef tongue, steak and kidney pie and black pudding.
My Dad was not like other dads. He spent his weekends making jams and jellies (often from the fruit in our own yard), smoking salmon and trout that he caught himself and making venison jerky from the deer he brought home from his hunting trip. He would do odd things like harvest the rhubarb plant in the backyard and make a pie filling out of it. Some weekends he’d butcher some of the ducks and rabbits that we kept in the back-forty. MMMmmmm . . . I loved hasenpfeffer. Not so much the czernina.
And there was always a jar of sourdough starter in the fridge. I still have the old jar, but not the starter. Now it’s filled with flour. I love that jar.
My Dad Wasn’t Afraid to Experiment and Try New Things.
Hank was a renaissance man. He was rolling sushi in the late 70’s, before sushi was even a “thing” in the American culinary scene. When I was in high school, our family hosted foreign exchange students from Japan. Dad impressed them by rolling sushi with fresh ahi and salmon and cooking dinner outside on the picnic table with a shabu shabu pot. It was no inconvenience to him to drive 40 miles to the beach area for fresh, sushi grade fish. It was an adventure.
Hank went out of his way to expose my brother and me to new flavors and tastes. I loved trying new things and he knew that. My brother and my Mom—not so much. I remember when I was about 10 years old, my Dad wanted to make a special dinner for my Mom for her birthday. Mind you, Mom was a basic “meat and potatoes” type of woman–not real keen on funky flavors or trying new things. My Dad made a beautiful prime rib for the main course. Delicious . . . and safe. I don’t remember what he made for the sides or even the dessert, but for the starter, he made vichyssoise. Weird name. I was intrigued. Turns out, it really wasn’t anything wild. Vichyssoise is just a soup made of puréed leeks, potatoes and chicken stock, traditionally served cold. Dad got the recipe straight from Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. That was my first “encounter” with Julia Child. I was excited to try this soup with a funny name. It must be exotic! Mom’s response when she tasted the velvety smooth, cold bowl of creamy goodness? She scrunched up her nose (see the shabu shabu photo above) and said, “It tastes like cold potato soup!” My poor Dad looked defeated. From that moment on, I vowed to try anything and everything. Be bold!
I was always eager and happy to benefit from my Dad’s culinary experimentation—and I took full advantage of learning from him.
Dad Taught Me That Food is Comforting; Food is Love.
I learned early on that is it always satisfying to make someone happy, and the easiest way to make someone happy was to feed them good food. Comfort food. People often ask me what kind of food I like to cook, or what my “specialty” is. For me, it’s all about home cooking. Simple comfort foods that evoke happy memories and fill your soul, as well as your stomach.
My favorite childhood food memory is making Thanksgiving dinner in my parents’ kitchen with Dad. Every year, the turkey was perfect, the stuffing was always cooked inside the bird, the mashed potatoes were always lumpy (my Mom’s only contribution to the meal), and the gravy was always rich and smooth. Dad would always make a double batch of oyster dressing and hand a big hot dish of the good stuff over the back wall to the neighbors next door. They were from the East Coast and missed the oyster dressing that was traditional for them. Hank was happy to help them out.
When the turkey was out of the oven, Hank would always peel off some of the crispy skin and we would sample it together.
People still ask me for Hank’s gravy recipe. And I still sneak a piece or two of the crispy skin from the perfectly roasted turkey before it’s carved.
People and Your Relationships With Them Are the Most Important Things in Your Life.
My Dad told me that if I tried, I could learn something from every single person I met in life. I didn’t really take him very seriously at the time—I was just a kid. I always knew and understood that family relationships were important. But I’ve also grown to understand that family, friends, and even acquaintances can and will teach you life lessons. Break bread and enjoy a glass of wine with the people in your life. Listen to them. Listen to their stories. Watch their actions and how they respond to joy, grief, love and fear. That’s how you learn things. That’s what shapes you.
Hank is my adoptive father. I do not know a single thing about my biological father. Biology doesn’t matter to me . . . you can make a family whether or not there is a biological connection. It happens every day. It’s the best part of life. I love you, Dad!
Here is the recipe for Vichyssoise, but I’ve given it my own twist by adding fennel and garlic. It’s a refreshing cold soup, filling and satisfying.
Fennel & Garlic Vichyssoise
- 3 cups diced raw potatoes (russets work fine)
- 4 tablespoons butter
- 6 leeks, cleaned and thinly sliced (white and very light green parts only)
- 2 fennel bulbs, green fronds removed, cleaned and thinly sliced
- 2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 4 cups vegetable broth
- 2 cups heavy cream
- Chopped chives and parsley (if desired)
Cook the potatoes in salted water until just tender. Drain and set aside.
Melt the butter in a stock pot over medium heat. Add the leeks, fennel, garlic and salt and sauté for 5-7 minutes. Do not let the vegetables brown. Add the broth and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer the leeks and fennel are until tender. Add the potatoes to the leeks and the broth and season to taste with salt and pepper. Transfer the mixture to a blender or use an immersion blender and puree the soup until smooth (if you are using a blender, you will need to blend it in batches).
Chill the soup. When ready to serve, mix in the cream and garnish with chopped herbs.