Category: Family Reunions

Father’s Day, A Tribute to Dad

Many of you know my dad passed away late December in 2008 at the tender age of 85. I’ve written before of his signature dish, Eggs In A Frame, and of his despising melted cheese in any form even though I have a photo of him eating pizza. But while I’ve posted a lot more about mom regarding her cooking techniques and recipes, I really haven’t spent a whole lot of time discussing dad’s cooking techniques. And the Eggs In A Frame dish is really his only recipe that I’m aware of.

That’s because dad really didn’t cook much that I can recall. Why?

Because when it came to cooking or even doing dishes, that was mom’s job.

Dad was a classic child of the farming communities of the 1920s and 30s. The menfolk, if you will, headed out into the fields or the livestock barns and worked their butts off. Meanwhile, momma and the girls would be inside taking care of the cooking and cleaning. That’s just how it was. Dad told us he would look forward to coming home to find a couple slices of thick, buttered and still-warm bread on a plate in the kitchen as an after-school snack. Of course, that was after the 4-mile walk from school so he was pretty tired, ya’ know?

Early in my own life I do recall he had his outdoor cooker. However, it wasn’t much. No matter what time-period I think back to, there was that Hibachi. He always had the little cast iron version, set on top of a 2′ square concrete block set on its side on the patio. He would use both wood and charcoal to fire it, along with paper and lighter fluid. Dinner then was hot dogs and burgers, with the burgers being rather thin and kinda dry. Still he tried so it was good. He might also put a can of baked beans on the grates to heat as a side dish.

One time, when he was finished and was getting ready to clean that Hibachi, he set the grates on the patio tile to dump the coals … and promptly put all of his weight on the still-hot grate. He had to peel that grate off his foot before going to see the doctor. I believe he probably still had that scar when he passed away.

For most of the time they lived in that house from the late 1950s onward, dad had a rather active garden. I remember being directed to go out there to weed, or pick beans, or help plant the corn. There was always the corn and beans, along with onions, carrots, cucumbers and peas. Dad also dabbled in potatoes and peanuts. One gentleman from the GM plant dad worked at wanted to plant some lima beans but no one would let him use their garden space as he was black. So he ended up planting at our house, to which I owe my love for those limas. But I do hate gardening.

Dad wasn’t a hunter (I haven’t hunted a single day in my life) but he fancied himself a pretty good fisherman. He had a lot of old fishing poles, a couple casting reels, a fly-fishing reel or two, and even a couple bamboo poles we could tie lines to. We’d go to one of the “fish farm” ponds up on old US-23, but mostly we went to what was then Wildwood Park, a Michigan State Park south of Flint. We’d rent a canoe and head out for perch, trout, bass … whatever we could find. We’d get it home and mom would either cook it up, or wrap it in foil for the freezer only to throw it away a couple years later after it ended up with some bad freezer burn.

In the mid 1970s Dr Walker diagnosed dad to be hypoglycemic. Dad mis-interpreted the diet page to mean he was supposed to eat six times each day, including a half head of lettuce. This made for dad occasionally eating way more than he could handle, and ending up being miserable by the end of the day. None of us had the heart to sit down with him and explain it correctly.

When it came to restaurants dad had a tendency to seek out some seriously good family places. We had a tradition on Friday evenings of heading out for dinner at a restaurant and then we’d go to the grocery store for the week’s shopping. (Dad always disappeared to the meat department and spend the whole time shopping finding six packages of meat.) On occasion we’d go to a Flint coney place or Haloburger for a deluxe cheeseburger. But dad’s penchant for finding good family diners was unmatched. As it turned out, dad was finding Greek-owned places that had become all the rage for what was “real food”.

Dad would have a real issue later on when prices started climbing above $3.50 per entrée. He felt no meal was worth more than that, and that particular price-point, along with the demise of Hamady Bros. grocery in the Flint area, marked the beginning of the end of our Friday night family tradition.

While I was in college I asked dad when he was coming to Columbus to visit. He said he’d have to ask mom, to which I said I wasn’t asking about her. After a pause dad mumbled, “I’ve never been anywhere without your mother.” He came down to Columbus by himself for a four-day weekend during which he enjoyed a Bahama Mama at Schmidt Sausage House, and some good ribs. Later during my own US-based travels with the Navy I got dad to eat some more “exotic” foods outside of his Veal Parmesan comfort zone, such as crab legs, and steak that wasn’t always cooked to be well done. In the years after my divorce he’d eat chilled taco salad, my oven-roasted potato salad, Tex-Mex breakfast burritos, and even some good Hungarian food.

In the last few years before his death the old softie, who fought the savage “Japs” in WW II, acquired a taste for both Japanese and Americanized Chinese foods, happily visiting the Chinese buffet in his hometown many times.

Helping him eat a couple last meals in the nursing home, I got to thinking about what I was feeding him. Obviously it cost a bit more that $3.50 for the whole meal from the nursing home kitchen. I doubt he would have liked that at all.

Happy Father’s Day, dad, I miss you, my friend.

Recipe: Cherry Chili Chicken, and Zack’s 27th Birthday

A serving of Cherry Chili Chicken from the book Cooking Jewish, plated on a bed of buttered white rice. Click on any of the images in this post for larger versions.

Recently Mary and I have become very interested in what might seem an odd combination of cross-cultural holiday celebrations. A few years ago one of the Toledo television stations, 13abc, did a batch of Sunday morning live shots from an event my wife and her girlfriends were having, a fund-raiser for one of their own who has multiple myeloma. The young reporter they sent out, Zack Ottenstein, hit it off so well with Mary and I that before he left he handed me his card, wanting to get together with us outside broadcasting. Since that time he’s become a dear Jewish son to us Christians, and an older brother to our six kids.

A couple years ago Zack had his first Christmas Eve dinner with us and some of our friends here in Luna Pier. An hour prior, he called to ask, “Do I need to wear a suit? I’ve never been to one of these things!” One Christmas after we gave him a Hanukkah card he performed the proper candle ceremony with us … and then promptly helped us finish decorating our Christmas tree.

A year ago last March when this here German Lutheran was holed up in a Catholic hospital, Mary found the book Cooking Jewish in the hospital’s gift shop and bought me a copy. We love this book! There are some incredible recipes in here and while there are no photos of the completed dishes it’s not difficult to visuallize how they’d turn out. (As you can see in the photos, the Cherry Chili Chicken was beautiful even while it was being prepared.) But what’s even more endearing about the book is the whole “family” aspect of the overall writing. The family tree is laid out, charts indicate which family member is related to which and how that happens (i.e., Fanny Vitner is Silvia Robbin’s mother), and a written history goes back over 100 years.

Yesterday evening Mary made Hilda Robbins’ Cherry Chili Chicken from Cooking Jewish and Zack joined us for his 27th birthday, along another serving of this dish. Of course for dessert he had to have the Chocolate Chip ice cream with sprinkles. We’re all still kids after all.

The seasoned chicken being browned in a large skillet. Note how the pieces progress from unbrowned at top-left to browned at bottom-right.

This recipe makes a lot of food. The book says it serves 8 but take a closer look. There are two chickens 3 – 4 lbs each, each cut into eight pieces (Mary had to spread it out between two roasting pans). Depending on what you might be serving this with, and what your family’s appetite is, serving 10 – 12 people isn’t unreasonable.

We love the concept of using this as a cross-cultural Easter dinner dish (I mean, hey, Christ was Jewish) with a distinctly Michigan bent (i.e., cherries with chicken), particularly since Mary’d bought the Jewish cookbook at a Catholic hospital for a German-Lutheran and used PAPA Sweet Hungarian Paprika (available at Kroger) when preparing the dish. I think the chickens may have even been Amish …

A few changes we made were to use golden raisins vs. dark raisins, granulated garlic instead of powdered, and a Chardonnay for the white wine. Mary also served it on a bed of buttered white rice.

With the publisher’s permission I’m going to include the preface to this recipe from the book itself so you can see how delightful this book is.

The browned pieces of seasoned chicken being loaded into one of two roasting pans lined with sliced onions.

Cherry Chili Chicken
from Hilda Robbins

*Excerpted from Cooking Jewish
Copyright © 2007 by Judy Kancigor
Used by permission of Workman Publishing Co., Inc., New York
All Rights Reserved

For some it’s a rabbit’s foot. For others it’s a lucky penny. For me it’s Cherry Chili Chicken.

My lucky recipe was Aunt Hilda’s specialty, her decades-old signature dish, eagerly anticipated by all (although she just called it “holiday chicken” – I always was a sucker for alliteration.) Sweet yet zippy, pretty plump cherries peeking through the piquant sauce, Aunt Hilda’s holiday chicken ushered in countless New Years, heralded scores of birthdays, and graced many a holiday table.

When the self-published Melting Pot Memories came out I noticed a very strange thing. Everyone who told me they were trying the recipes seemed to start with the same one. How odd is that! You guessed it … Cherry Chili Chicken. Then four food editors who featured my book in their various publications also selected the Cherry Chili Chicken to highlight their holiday stories. So forgive me if I attribute magical powers to this recipe!

But where did it come from, I wondered. After much research I found a similar recipe called Chicken Jubilee in that fifties classic, long out of print, called Thoughts for Buffets. Did Aunt Hilda own that book? Cousins Bonnie and Jackie don’t remember it. We’ll never know.

Serves 8, medium difficulty

3/4 cup raisins
1 cup (16-1/2 ounces) pitted black cherries, undrained
2 large onions, thinly sliced
2 chickens (3 – 4 pounds), each cut into 8 pieces, rinsed and patted dry
Garlic powder to taste
Paprika to taste
Kosher (coarse) salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 to 4 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 cup dry sherry or white wine
2 bottles (12 ounces each) chili sauce, such as Heinz
1/2 cup (packed) dark brown sugar

1. Put the raisins in a small bowl and pour the juice from the canned cherries over them. Set aside.

2. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Scatter the onion slices over the bottom of a large baking pan or roasting pan. Set the pan aside.

3. Season the chicken with garlic powder, paprika, and salt and pepper.

4. Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat until it is quite hot but not smoking. Add the chicken, in batches, and cook until browned on both sides, 3 to 4 minutes per side, adding the remaining 1 tablespoon at a time, if needed. As the chicken pieces brown, arrange them, skin side up, on top of the onions in the baking pan.

5. Remove the skillet from the heat and discard all the oil. Add 1/2 cup of the sherry to the skillet and scrape up all the brown bits. Stir in the chili sauce, brown sugar, 1/4 cup water, and the plumped raisins with the cherry juice. Bring the mixture to a boil, and then pour it over the chicken. Roast, uncovered, basting occasionally, for 25 minutes.

6. Pour the remaining 1/2 cup sherry around the chicken, distribute the cherries throughout the pan, and baste. Roast, basting occasionally, until cooked through, 20 to 30 minutes.

7. Transfer the chicken to a warm serving platter and cover to keep warm. Strain the liquid into a medium-size saucepan, reserving the solids. Bring the strained sauce to a boil over medium-high heat and boil until reduced by about one-third, or until thick, 8 to 10 minutes (longer if you like a thicker sauce).

8. Spoon the onions, cherries, and raisins over the chicken, and pass the sauce.

Cherry Chili Chicken, after 25 minutes of roasting, topped with cherries and basted.

Seniors and Food

My parents at Genesys Medical Center, Grand Blanc, Michigan, in December 2008 during one of their last times together.

Note: On June 15th, my kids lost their third grandparent since December. They’ve lost both my own parents and now their Grandpa Elijah, a week shy of his 91st birthday. My heart goes out to those wonderful kids of mine.

There used to be a restaurant chain called Bill Knapp’s here in the midwest. Some parody I heard somewhere mentioned a ‘Blue Hair Special’; A single, lukewarm salt-free egg, some barely-toasted white toast with no butter, and a half-inch of orange juice in a tall glass. Leftovers would be re-plated.

Sometime last year at dinner at my parents’ house I asked dad for some milk. I got an inch of milk in a tall glass.

Yeah buddy, that’s just what this 47-year-old wanted.

I loved my parents, loved them deeply, dearly, and always will. But sometimes they were just plain funny when it came to food.

My dad refused to eat melted cheese. My whole life dad would have no grilled cheese sandwiches, none of mom’s exceedingly popular Velveeta Macaroni and Cheese, none of the Philly Cheesesteak sandwiches I’d make, none of Barb’s Chicken Cordon Bleu … not even a cheeseburger. He always said it was “a texture thing”, that he was never able to get past how the melted-but-partly-resolidified cheese felt in his mouth.

But then there’s this picture. I took this pic of dad eating pizza in his garage on Halloween night, 2003. We had the garage door open and the trick-or-treaters could come right in and get their requisite candy in a well-lit room. For those kids mom and dad knew (which was most of them), there were, like, eight pizzas as well. And dear old dad just plated some up and started munching away! Of course he would deny it later, making the “I can’t stand cheese” claim all over again. But see dad, I have this pic …

Mom was taught cooking in what was considered “the old days”. Her staples were meatloaf, baked chicken and baked pork chops. For the chicken and pork chops, for decades she would brown these in a skillet on the stove prior to putting them in a pan to bake in the oven. She was taught this back in the 1930s and 40s when illnesses from these meats and poultry were considerably more common than they were even in the 1960s when I was little. She never really did change this habit at all simply because none of us ever thought to tell her these ingredients are safer now. Besides, the chicken did end up with that nice, crispy skin …

Mom came from a long line of what might be termed “servant women”, ladies who waited on you hand-over-foot whenever you were in their presence. Her mom, my Grandma Ella, and Ella’s sister, who even I called Aunt Fern, would continually serve you when you were eating at their home. I recall grandma not even having a chair at the table. Ever. Not once did she sit down with us. That is, until I made her … I was probably 16 or so when grandma’s being in the kitchen when a dozen-or-so of us eating at her table got the best of me. I grabbed another chair, made room next to me and made her a place-setting. I remember Grandpa Richard saying, “David, I don’t know why you’re bothering …” The next time grandma came to the table, I took whatever it was she had in her hand and led her, confused and bewildered, to the empty chair. She sat there all of about 10 seconds. Grandma then mumbled, “I can’t do this”, got up, and headed back to the kitchen. I left the chair there, just in case, for the rest of that meal. I never did try again.

My mom and her sister Doris … they’re kinda the same way as those Ostic women were. Not as much, but you could see it. You’d be right next to something on the counter, turn to get it, and they’d come from the far end of the table to get it for you. My kids have this same gene, waiting on people like crazy when the situation calls for it. At our wedding reception in 2005, little 8-year-old Ryan spent the whole time with a water pitcher in his hand, making sure every one of the 100-or-so people in the hall had fresh water at all times. At the age of 12 now, he still works that way.

Maybe when the next generation takes over, it won’t be so bad after all.

Eat This Blog: Oven-Roasted Potato Salad

With mom being with God now, I wonder if she’ll be able to bring a halt to the Liske family curse of it raining whenever one of us makes potato salad? Maybe. I mean, the curse did start with her decades ago …

I’d made this particular batch of my Oven-Roasted Potato Salad last Saturday for our buddy Zack. In January when I blogged about this recipe being in that month’s issue of the venerable Grit magazine, I’d mentioned I was going to rewrite the recipe a bit in the future:

Truth be known though, I’m in the process of giving this recipe a redevelopment. Meat is included, and almost every time I’ve made it someone has said, “There’s meat in there? I can’t have it.” There will be two versions; A base version with no meat, and optional additions to include the beer-braised Polish kielbasa if you’d like.

Honestly though, Zack’s Jewish. Even though he doesn’t keep Kosher as many Jews do, the fact that I almost invariably feed the man pork when he’s here for dinner has recently been cause for some good-natured teasing. He loves the results of this potato salad recipe and asks for it often. But with its pork-based Kielbasa … well, it was time for to make the change to meatless last weekend.

It turned out quite nicely. I spent a little extra care with roasting the cubed potatoes so they’d come out of the oven a golden brown. The pre-roasted onions and peppers tasted better after being sautéed and caramelized in unsalted butter vs. the olive oil I’d always used. And as I was out of horseradish mustard, I found that using good yellow mustard and some pure ground horseradish made for a great flavor.

Just about everyone had seconds of this salad after their steaks were gone. There was about a pint of the salad left over, which Zack packed up and took home with him.

I can’t quite put my finger on why, but I get the feeling he probably liked the porkless version just a little bit better …

Holding Hands Again; The Snoring Has Stopped

My parents hold hands in October 2008 ago when we brought them together from different ends of the same hospital.

My dad always said he appreciated mom’s rather intense snoring because, if that sound ever stopped, it meant she was gone. She still snored after he passed away this past December 29th.

Her snoring stopped at 12:30 a.m. this past Tuesday, April 21, 2009. My sister Carol was in mom’s room at Genesys Hospice in Goodrich, Michigan, and heard that last snore. Mom’s funeral is this morning … I’m blogging from the lobby of the Americinn in Flint on the guest computer.

Her visitation yesterday was interesting as people I hadn’t seen in a long time showed up to pay respects. I hadn’t seen Kerry Gonser since he graduated high school a year ahead of me in 1978. Yesterday when he showed up at the funeral home I found him to now be the Reverend Dn. Kerry Luke Gonser of St. Nicholas Orthodox Church. I gotta tell ya, he’s a Hell of a guy …

So, this blog’s on hiatus for a few more days. When I come back, I have some amazing food photos from the Oink Joint near Frankenmuth, Michigan, where of course server and co-owner Anne believes herself not to be photogenic whatsoever. Yeah, they all do that, don’t they?

Today is about mom and her amazing life. Time to go wrap my head around that.

I hope all of you have a very nice day. If you’re in Michigan, especially near Flint, enjoy this amazing weather. And remember, this weather is from God, probably in honor of mom, whom He likely built an exceedingly nice heavenly piano for.