Friday, November 13, 2015

Remembering A Natural Cook, Estelle Byerly

Today would have been my grandmother’s 102nd birthday.  I’ve been without her for only 5 short years.  I can’t believe it has been such a little time.  It feels like I’ve been missing her forever.  Mamaw was more than a grandmother.  She helped raise me.  She was my second mother and the woman I spent the most time with as a child, since my own mother had to work.  She is also my cooking role model.
Mamaw never learned any advanced techniques.  She never did a croquembouche.  She never drank a latte.  What she did was honest southern cooking and she did that so darned well.  I was really lucky.  She made her foods from unprocessed ingredients and hardly ever did anything out of a box.  The only thing I remember her ever doing out of the box was Kraft Macaroni and Cheese.  That was a rare treat.
Mamaw was born near the Texas, Arkansas and Louisiana meeting point, called Three States.  I think it lists Ravanna, Arkansas as her birthplace on the birth certificate I have for her.  She had 13 brothers and sisters that made it to adulthood.  He mother was a tiny thing who outlived two husbands and taught my grandmother to cook on a wood stove.   Mamaw worked hard as a child.  She took care of the farm animals, helped out around the farm, picked cotton and helped deliver it to Jefferson for sale.  She didn’t stop working until old age finally caught her, at around age 95.  Before that, I seldom saw her sitting still.
Back to her cooking!  I miss her very simple pinto beans.  She only used a few ingredients but somehow it was the best thing I ever ate as a kid.  Her hot water cornbread was AMAZING.  I can’t forget the crispy texture and the goodness of it with her fresh cooked yellow squash.  I will ALWAYS make my fried okra in her style.  The other stuff reminds me too much of the bagged junk that SYSCO churns out and people rave about.  Blech. 
Mamaw always disdained fried food.  I guess she was ahead of her time.  We ate it very seldom.  Generally it was fried chicken, which she had cut up herself.  I remember pulling the wishbone with my Pawpaw.  He always got the breast.  It was his favorite.  I got the drumstick for a long time, till I decided it was yucky.  I don’t remember when that was.  We ate fresh food every day.  For most of my life, that was food that we had grown, unless it was winter time and we had not put up enough for us to have.  In the early years, living in that New Moon trailer, we couldn’t put up much.  Once Mamaw and Pawpaw got their place near Atlanta, Texas, we could do more.  They bought a huge upright freezer and Mamaw filled that thing up with the good food that she and Pawpaw grew.  I worked in that garden more than I wanted to, but now I know that I actually loved it.  I wish I could do it again. 
The way my grandmother cooked was simple.  She didn’t like complex meals.  In general, her dishes featured bell peppers and onions cooked with something else.  Tomatoes mixed with those could be used to make spaghetti sauce or added to ground beef and okra to make a filling “gumbo”.  Mix up the onions and bell peppers with chayote squash and you have a tasty treat, add tomatoes, even better.  That simple combination has carried me to places I never thought it would. 
Mamaw never let me cook with her.  She worried that I would cut a finger or burn myself.  I watched her though.  I watched her skillfully handle a stovetop full of pots and pans.  I watched her mount a huge effort for Thanksgiving and Christmas.  She could make cornbread stuffing that would put any chef to shame.  We would fight over it as the supply dwindled.  She made the most amazingly delicious sweet potatoes with just pumpkin pie spice, brown sugar and some margarine.  Not sure what her ratios were to this day and I can’t make it the same.  I can’t make any of it the same, no matter how I try.  I have not been able to crack her simple code.   Maybe it was just her love for me and my love for her that seasoned everything so well. 
In spite of the fact that I can’t match her dishes, I still try.  I also have branched out and tried all kinds of cuisines and techniques that she would never thing of attempting to cook, let alone eat.  Be that as it may, the things that I love to make the most and the things that go deepest to my heart are those simple dishes she made so lovingly well with fresh, simple ingredients and years of love for me and the rest of her family.

I miss you, Mamaw.  Happy Birthday.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

A Thawing of the Hearth-fires and Chana Masala for Diwali

We have been a long time away.  Since our last post, we have experienced loss in the family, some gains and moved to a new home.  During the away time, we found ourselves in a deep and abiding funk.  Depression often comes with loss and I must say that we have experienced our share of it.  Personally, I have only recently felt like I was really coming out of the depression, like a great spring thaw.  I am starting to enjoy my new home and starting to enjoy cooking in it.  A house cannot be "home" without an active hearth.  We now have that beginning.

Diwali celebrations are in full swing in the Hindu cultures of the world.  Being a festival of lights, it is similar in tradition to ancient Solstice celebrations in northern Europe and even the more recent Christmas celebrations are a nod in that direction with our fascination with lights at this time of year.  I am lucky enough to work for a wonderful company that helps us thrive in our appreciation of the diversity of our workforce.  Recently, we have added many great folks from the wonderful country of India.  We are enjoying a great deal of cultural exchange.  One point where we can all come together is the table.  Folks at my workplace love food.  Who doesn't.  We also use food as a way to share our cultures and to tell our coworkers that we care about their traditions and cultures.  Every year, since I've joined, we have had a Diwali feast.  This year's was the best yet.

We had lovely decorations that were hand made by our staff and many of us brought food to share for the occasion.  Most of it was made by Indian cooks, so we had some of the tastiest and most authentic food you can get.  Some of us European rooted folks made things that belonged on a traditional American table.  Others, such as myself, thought that we should try to get into the spirit and make some food from India.  I was nervous about serving a food to folks who grew up with it, but it all turned out just fine.  I'm pleased to say that my Chana Masala (Chickpeas in a masala curry) turned out pretty good.  I now have some refinements that I would make for my table, but overall, it was a good attempt at a basic dish.

I used the recipe from   It is for a drier version of the dish, which I thought would be nice. I tripled the recipe, since I knew I needed a bigger batch.  That basically meant I was winging it through the multiplication of the spices.  Tripling the peas to 3 cans was easy.  The spice list was pretty standard, so I felt like I was up to the task.

I made some changes in that I added more of the spices than the recipe called for.  I especially added more of the pepper flakes and used a few varieties.  I used our standard American red pepper flakes along with some Paprika for a sweetness.  I then added in a couple heaping teaspoons of Korean chili powder for good measure.  I like the way the Korean pepper doesn't hit you in the face but comes as a slow building burn in the back of your mouth and blooms like some fiery flower in your mouth.  I also used ground cumin instead of cumin seeds.  Although the seeds are much more traditional, I think that the powder gives you a better mouth feel so you don't wind up with little seeds sticking in your teeth and gums.  Finally, I upped the ante on the onion.  I added one and a half onions but instead of chopping them, I pureed them.  Making the onion paste is a bit more like the methods used in a lot of Indian kitchens and it magnifies the onion flavor while not adding a lot to the volume of the food.  I liked doing the paste and it is called for in the recipe.  Don't skip the puree.  It is what really makes the sauce cook quickly and come together well.  

Best of all, this is a one pot meal and cleanup was a breeze.  I liked that I wasn't in the kitchen for hours cooking and cleaning for this one.  I was done in about an hour.  Nice.

Finally, I did get some compliments from the folks at the party.  I sincerely hope they were not "just being nice".  I don't think that was the case, as I liked the dish pretty well myself and it was all gone by the end of the lunch.

I wish I had some pictures to share with you, but I don't.  I do have some Diwali wishes to share.  May the light of love and family shine every brightly on you and your family.

It's good to be back.


Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Quick Cocktail - Orange Bourbon Soother

So, I'm not a big drinker.  When I was growing up, there was hardly ever any booze in the house.  Mamaw frowned upon it.  That's not to say she didn't imbibe as a younger woman, she did.  As she got older, however, she reverted back to her Baptist upbringing.  So, I really didn't understand booze until I was much older.

Now, as an even older gal, I'm coming into my own with the boozahol. I've infused my own vodka with hatch chili peppers, done black pepper vodka with the hub, and made my own limoncello. I've also experimented with making my own cocktails. Tonight, I made a keeper.

I regret not getting some pictures together, and I will, but I wanted to share this with you right away. I made a simple bourbon and coke, really, but with a delicious twist. I found a beautiful orange peel preserve while at Phoenicia Market the other day. They're Granny's Secret Homemade Whole Fruit Preserve Orange Peel. They come in a really beautiful jar too. That's the addition that I found I loved. Here's what I did.

In a highball glass, I put in 1 tbsp. of the orange peel syrup. I added a pony jigger of bourbon and topped it off with Mexican Coke. Please use Mexican Coke. It tastes better. I added a few ice cubes to keep it cold. I garnished with a rolled orange peel and a Maker's Mark bourbon infused cherry. Delicious and soothing. Bourbon just says "relax" to me. The orange flavor just blends so well with the bourbon and the Coke. It was blissful sipping, let me tell you.  I can't wait to play with this beautiful condiment some more.  I am percolating on the idea of using the orange preserves with limoncello.  I just need to devise the vehicle for it.

So, dear friends, I'll follow up with pictures tomorrow.  I wish you happy dreams and happy drinks.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

The Afterglow, or Adventures in Leftovers

Mamaw was nothing, if not frugal.  She could stretch out a dish like no body's business.  Now, that's not to say that she could convert a pot of beans into a classical cassoulet.  No, but she could transform something like meatloaf into a sandwich or little cubes to put in some spaghetti sauce and serve over pasta.  Her leftover action was more practical. 

Me, being a major food snob, I'm not a huge leftover fan, but with cooking for two not exactly our long suit, we need to do something fun with leftovers so we don't have any more mammoth food wasteage than necessary.  I'm working on getting my leftover mojo going, and so far, I've been doing OK.  Here is a story about a couple of things I did just this weekend, while my Mom was here for a visit.

When Mom is here, we go out to eat a lot. Mainly, this is because she doesn't get much of any food variety where she lives.  Secondly, this is because my Mom is the woman who taught me to be a food snob.  I thank her for that every day.  So, first thing we did when she arrived for her holiday visit was head over to Chimichurri's in Kingwood for some delicious meat action.  This lead to us coming home with about 6 large Frenched lamb chops.  Also, my husband made a rib sticking breakfast for us on Friday morning.  This included some nice bacon and some really good home made venison and pork country sausage.  Those ingredients lurked around the fridge a little while and my brain percolated on them.  Then, when the inspirations hit me, I pounced to make the best use of them I could think of.

Use #1: Yellow squash, bacon, sausage frittata
So, the father-in-law owns some land and a nice flock of Rhode Island Red hens.  This means we can get our paws on some fresh, delicious eggs that are actually laid by free range birds.  They peck bugs and plants as they run around his land, living the good life.  We ended up with a whole lot of them recently.  So while watching Extra Virgin on the Cooking Channel and seeing their frittata, I had a brainwave.  I knew I had some yellow summer squash and the left over breakfast meats.  I also had beautiful red peppers and herbs from our garden and onion.  It was time to make my own frittata.

3 small yellow summer squash, washed thoroughly and sliced thinly
1/2 of a red onion, diced
1 red bell pepper, diced
1 garlic clove, minced
1 medium heat pepper of your choice or a red jalapeno, minced
1/2 tsp to 1 tsp fresh thyme
1/2 tsp fresh oregano
1 tbsp. fresh chives, minced up finely
2 fresh sage leaves very thinly cut into chiffonade 
2-3 oz of a nice hard cheese like aged pecorino Romano, Grana Padano, or Parmesan
5-6 eggs

To keep your frittata from being waaay too moist, you need to get the moisture out of the veggies, especially those squash.  To do this, you should sautee them.  I put my squash on a lightly oiled griddle and got them going first.  When I saw that they were shrinking and there was browning on the one side, I stirred them up and redistributed them on the griddle to sear and brown on that side.  I then added my onion spicy pepper, and bell pepper.  While this was going on, my Mother and Hub were doing the prep work on the herbs and the eggs.  Hub cracked the eggs into my big bowl, added the thyme, sage, oregano, salt, pepper, 2/3 of the cheese and half the chives and whipped em up to a frothy goodness. 
Once the veggies were nearly ready, I threw the garlic on the griddle with them and briefly sautéed that, probably about 30 seconds more.  Then, I took all those ingredients and put them into the pan I planned on cooking the frittata in.  Why did I use two pans?  Well, I wanted to be sure that the veggies went into a moisture free pan.  May not make a real difference, but that's what I did.

Once the veggies were in the new pan, I took the left over bacon and sausage and crumbled those in the pan with them.  I turned on the heat and got the pan hot.  When the pan was hot enough that I heard the bacon and sausage sizzle, I poured in my egg mixture.  I made sure that the eggs and other ingredients were distributed evenly, then I put the lid on the pan, reduced the heat to medium low and walked away for a few minutes.  The pan must be lidded to allow for the accumulation of steam to cook the top of your frittata, especially if you're using a stove top method, as I was.  After a few minutes, I checked the frittata and sprinkled on the rest of the cheese and a few more chives.  I reserved a few chives for plating. 

I kept checking the frittata every few minutes till I saw that the top was set.  When the top is set to a slight jiggle, the dish is done.  You will know when it's done enough for you.  The egg jiggle factor is something all cooks start to recognize and know when it's done enough for them.

To serve the frittata, you just turn it out on a large platter and then slice it like a pizza.  It is a great breakfast, or any time meal.  Dinner comes to mind as delicious with a nice salad done with a zippy vinegar dressing. 
A slice of delicious fresh frittata and  some iced tea
So, that's the first of my adventures with the delicious leavings from a wonderful meal. My next installment will be the report on what we did with those cold lamb chops.
Cold, left over lamb chops, transformation to come
in the next installment of Afterglow, Adventures in Leftovers!

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Beans, no rice, please!

As I mentioned before, my Mamaw made delicious beans.  A humble food, beans are often overlooked as being a satisfying and sustaining main dish.  As a society, I think we've turned away from our more traditional beans to patronize the more "interesting" and exotic beans from other cultures.  I am personally guilty of this, but have recently come back home to good ole beans like my Mamaw used to make.

Mamaw always cooked pinto beans.  They were her favorite and I can't blame her.  When cooked using her method, the beans are soft and creamy and the pot liquor is rich, silky, and flavorful.  With or without a few fixin's, this is really a treat in a bowl.

The key to this recipe is time.  Don't get all discouraged.  I don't mean attention hogging obsessive stirry and labor intensive time.  I mean letting time do the work for you.  In our culture of instant gratification and heat and eat foods, we are losing the concept of letting time do the work for you.  This type of cooking was a godsend before the advent of near instant microwave cooking and the prepared food boom.  My grandmother and people before her used this type of cooking to free them up to do their other chores or take that seldom but hard earned break.  So, you will need to remind yourself to get this recipe started on the day BEFORE you want to eat it.  You'll also need to leave a few hours to cook the beans on the day you want to eat them.  Don't be daunted.  Good things come to those who wait.  I promise.

The Ingredients List Is:
  • Dried Pinto Beans (a small bag or at LEAST 1 cup of beans)
  • Water
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • Cayenne Pepper
  • Ham hock or jowls
Your kitchen tools are:
  • Heavy pot with a lid for cooking the beans in.  I like my enameled iron pot.  You probably have a favorite.  Just be sure it's heavy.  Long cooking is a heavy subject.
  • A colander in which to wash and drain your beans
  • Electric kettle or a pan of boiling water (use this during the cooking phase)
Ingredients, simple
Yep, that's it.  Mamaw was never a fancy cook.  She prepared simple, homely food that nourished and satisfied.  That's what food is really for.  Although I am a food fan and love examining and experiencing other cultures through cuisine, the fact of the matter is that food, at it's most basic level is there to give your body fuel to burn and make you feel satisfied.  Anything beyond that is gravy.  (har har har).  All the culinary contortions of haute cuisine are there to make people feel other things such as superiority or excitement in the exotic.  They elevate food beyond the most basic level and that's nice.  However, when you look at a humble food, like Mamaw's pot of beans, you see the roots of cooking and of your home life, if you were lucky enough to have a mother or father, sibling, or grandparent who could cook.  The simple flavors of this homely style of cooking allow you to taste the ingredients.  They rely on good quality ingredients to make the meal something enjoyable.  This "taste the ingredients" approach is something that the culinary world is coming back to.  Some say it's an Asian influence, but I say it's a return to home and real home style cooking.

Getting off the soapbox now.  Back to the regularly scheduled program, the Prep Phase.  De-clutter an area on your counter.  It needs to be big enough to spill your beans onto.  (ha!)  Clean it up and then spill your beans.  Pat them out so that they are a one bean thick layer.  Look for any beans that look bug eaten, off color, or just yucky.  You have plenty, so pick out the ones you don't like.  Don't get obsessive, though.  You don't want to be here all day.  Also look for any stray pebbles or clumps of dirt that may have slipped in disguised as a bean.  It still happens, despite our modern processes.  Now, put your beans into a colander and put them under cold running water.  Swish them around a good bit to wash them thoroughly.  The last thing you want in your beans is gritty dirt.  3 minutes of washing is more than sufficient, if you are semi-vigorous.  You can put the beans in pot you're going to cook them in.
In their bath, ready to soak overnight
Cover the beans in the pot with cold water.  I generally use a whole lot of water with 2-3" over the top of the beans.  The beans are going to suck up a lot of this water.  You want them to have more than they can drink.  Now, sit the pot in a quiet spot on the counter or your stove top; walk away, and stay away.  Here we come to the first instance of letting time do the work for you.  These beans need to take a good long drink of water.  They need at least 8 hours of drinking, in my humble opinion.  That's why I like to get the beans ready and in their bath the night before I cook them.  I put them in and wish them a good night.  When I get up in the morning, I can make my tea and get them wound up for the Cooking Phase.

So, after your beans have enjoyed their bath, they're ready to experience the jacuzzi.  Drain off 2/3 of the bath water that your beans were in.  There should be clear water on the top and a brown color on the bottom.  I leave that brownish bit in as I feel there is flavor in there.  Some people don't ascribe to that and drain off all the water.  There is even a school of thought that this helps decrease gas production in the gut.  I'm not sure about that, speaking from personal experience.  Add back enough cold water to cover your beans by 1".  Add in your ham hock or jowl.  Now, put the beans on the burner and crank it up.  You want the beans to boil and there is no need to be shy here.  Once the beans are boiling, reduce the heat to low and put on the lid.  Go ahead and get ready with a pot or pan of hot water.  Keep it hot and ready. You only want to add hot water to your beans as they cook.  I do think that adding cold water to the pot is detrimental to the cooking process.  Let your beans simmer slowly (blurp, burp, blurp) for a while.  Check your beans every once in a while to see if they need some water added.  When you add water, remember to only add the HOT water.  You are going to cook those beans low and slow for about 3 hours, maybe 4.  The longer the better.  You're going to make those beans start unwinding themselves into that pot.  Their proteins are going to come out and the starches cook apart.  Your broth is going to get thick and, well, bean colored.  After about 2 to 3 hours, add salt and your cayenne pepper.  Salt to taste, so add a little, taste and then add a little more.  You will put in more than you expect, but like potatoes and other starchy foods, beans can take a lot of salt before some think they're tasty.  As for the cayenne, add at least 1/8 teaspoon to a full bag of beans.  I use more, but we like things spicy.
These beans cooked low and slow for 8 hours today with home made bacon
The Eating Phase: The beans are ready when they very easily smoosh between your fingers.  Yes, that is a technical term.  I serve them plain in a bowl with some chopped white onion on top.  Eat them hot with some cornbread for a heart warming treat.  Plus corn and beans give you all the amino acids you need, so it's a complete meal.  Another great thing about  beans is that they're better the next day.  When you get them out of the fridge, you know you've gotten it right when the beans are thick and almost gelled. Flap those bad boys in a bowl, nuke and eat some more.  NOM!
Notice the thick, rich "broth", so silky

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Cooking - A Calling and/or A Skill Plus My Cooking History In A Nutshell

I have been thinking about why some people just can't cook.  Honestly, growing up with a grandmother that was a whiz bang cook, it never even occurred to me that someone who attempted to cook could not do so.  It was such an innate thing for her.  She seldom used recipes.  When she did use them, she generally only did so for baking, which she did infrequently.  This worked to give baking a mystical status for me.

When I was growing up, I wasn't very interested in cooking because it wasn't science and because I considered it a gender stereotypical activity.  I was a raging feminist as a child and as a young woman.  After I got married and moved away, I stood there in my own kitchen and suddenly realized that "I have to cook". I had many of the tools I needed, but when it came down to the act of doing it, I realized that I had no skills to speak of.  I had seen my grandmother do things, but never really done them myself.  At first I was daunted, but after buying a ton of boxed food and working at preparing it (hello, Hamburger Helper) I really was not cooking, but I could put something on the table.  I had fallen into the uneducated cook realm.
Oven roasted goodness
After my first marriage ended, I found myself in another kitchen with time on my hands and no one's food preferences to consider but my own.  Being a single gal, I was also on the go a lot.  I ate out most of the time.  But eating out at places that interested me gave me new insights and a desire to maybe make tasty things on my own.  Then one day, I decided to make a croquembouche.  Don't ask me why a kitchen semi-literate decided to take that on.  It was probably because I was kitchen semi-literate.  But, I got my recipe out and started to work.  Something magical happened with that project.  I had fun.  I had a lot of fun, even though the sugar "glue" that was supposed to stick the cream puffs to the form didn't work and I could not really get the sugar to the hard crack stage.  I blame that shoddy little electric stove in that apartment.  I remember pulling the just baked puffs out of the oven and popping one in my mouth.  IT WAS DIVINE!  I liked trying this new activities and I liked the results, even if they ended up being a tray of cream puffs instead of an elegant tower of tasty goodness.  I had just been bitten by the cooking bug.

The pureed peppers about to become Sriracha
Things kind of progressed slowly from there.  I was still a single girl and eating out was still a major means of putting food in my gut.  I was still building a flavor palette, though.  When I met my current spouse, that did it.  We started cooking together and have not stopped since.  That's not to say that we don't cook separately.  We do.  But we still like to cook together and to enlist the other's advice if we're working something up from out of our heads or tweaking a recipe.  Hub is an invaluable help to me as he helps me consider options and alternatives for my dish or cooking method.  I would like to think I do the same for him, plus delivering the services of a finer grained tasting ability than he seems to have.  You should see us standing in the kitchen tweaking and tasting a pickling brine or sauce.

Beautiful home made ramen with quail egg
So there is the story of my cooking life.  What does this have to do with it being a calling or a skill?  Well, I think it answers the question, in a roundabout way.  I think I have been called to cook, but the call came later in life, upon my joining in the adventure of marriage with my Hub and finding the joint passion we have for cooking.  I also think that along with him, I have acquired the skill to cook rather well.  So the answer is cooking is a calling and a skill.  Isn't this the way with all callings?  We are not born with an innate ability to be a cook no more than we are to be a doctor.

I do think that there are people who will always perform the activity of cooking more proficiently than others.  That will be because of the passion or calling, but it will also be because of their innate abilities.  I often talk to people about cooking and making up my own recipe and they say "How do you know that will work?".  When I say, "Well, I thought about the different flavors of the ingredients and decided they all went together." they're taken aback by that statement.  I have been concomitantly amazed that others don't have that ability.  When I think of foods, I generally think not of just the way they look, but the way they taste and smell and even sound.  Think of a platter of sizzling, smoking, fragrant fajitas being sat before you.  Get it?  Can you taste them?  Some people say that they can't.  How sad that is to me. Being able to imagine single constituent flavors and then bring them together is a skill or natural ability that allows me to just wing it to make things come together in a pot and on a plate.  I don't think this ability is required to be a cook, but I do think it helps defines what I think of as a "natural" cook and someone who is a practiced cook.

Our first attempt at making our own pasta
I am also very fortuitous to have been raised in a family of good cooks.  I didn't mention my mother above, since she and I didn't cook together much, but I'll get to that too, one day.  Growing up with people who are capable in the kitchen can give a person the sense of "I can do it."  I think if I had not been given the impression that cooking was a skill anyone could learn, I would have been less confident in trying, when my time came.

I'm very glad that I attempted that croquembouche. I'm even more delighted that I met my darling Hub and that he helped to bring out the natural cook inside me.  Cooking is a passion of mine, as much as eating is.  I can't imagine my life without the adventure of the kitchen or of eating new and exciting foods or better yet, learning to make them myself.

Making our own Limoncello

Monday, June 24, 2013

Chili-Mac - The Dish That Made Me Run Away From Home

My grandmother was an extremely good cook.  I honestly do not remember her ever having a screw up.  We never had to suddenly run out to get some burgers or some dogs from Burger Chef from Der Weinerschnitzel.  She generally made a wide variety of dishes that kept us all happy and we were never bored to death of anything.  Never, that was, until the advent of chili-mac.

Maybe it was the ease of cooking or the fact that it was a meal in and of itself.  Maybe it was because my grandfather loved it.  I don't know why, but she seemed to fixate on one summer.  We had it several times every week.  Maybe beef was cheap.  I dunno.  Anyway, I liked it fine, to start with. Over time, though, I grew to dread and despise the stuff.  Maybe that should have been the signal to me that I was a food snob.  I did not take the hint.

One day, before running out to play with my friend, Darlene, I asked Mamaw what was for dinner.  "Chilimac" she said, as she scrubbed, or swept, or dusted something.  I cringed inwardly.  I did not live in a family where it was accepted to speak out about my feelings on the food on the table.  My grandfather earned the money to put food on the table and my grandmother worked hard to cook it.  It was my job to eat it all up, tell Mamaw how good it was, and kiss my grandfather good night when he went to bed early so he could get up and go to work again.  Even though I had had enough of chili-mac, I could say nothing.

As I soberly walked down to "the field" where we all congregated to play murderous kick ball or where Darlene and I ran through the thickets playing "Indians", I was appalled to think that I would have to choke down another bite of chili-mac.  Again, it was not bad food.  It was good food.  I was just sick and darned tired of the stuff.  It was at this point, I decided to run away from home rather than eat that stuff again.

I didn't tell anyone else about my plan.  I figured someone would give me up.  You could always count on some weaker kid to narc on you when the grown-ups put the thumbscrews to 'em.  I didn't have anything with me and quite frankly I didn't have a plan.  As time came to go home, Darlene said goodbye and I put my "plan" into action.  Ok, the plan consisted of hiding under this trailer's skirting.  It was the only trailer in our park with skirting.  Not much of a plan, but they had a water hose, so I could get a drink.  I sat under that trailer and time to come in for dinner came and went.  Mamaw came out to call me.  I could hear her calling as she walked up the crunch oyster shell road we lived on.  At first, she sounded put out, then she sounded aggravated as heck, then she started to sound worried.  Listening to her, at first I felt vindicated for having to eat the same thing all the time.  Then I felt smug and sniggly.  As she became more worried, I started to feel badly.  She called and called as she walked further into "the field".  I felt worse and worse.  I also realized I was hungry.  As she started coming back, she sounded frantic.  I thought about how worried she must be and I thought of how much trouble I was already in.  I knew I couldn't cross the street or go outside my neighborhood without permission, so I was trapped anyway.  Yes, I COULD have been a stand-in for Beaver Clever.  So, I hatched another plot.  I would just tell her I was playing a joke.  She'd laugh and say "You got me there", wouldn't she?

I poked my head out of the gap in the skirting as she walked by and said "Boo!"  It did make her jump.  She was so happy to see me and so mad at me, she couldn't say anything for a little while.  Then she started fussing at me and assuring me I was going to get the switch.  She did not laugh.  She did not think it was a funny joke.  I got home and I got fed.  I got a little bit of the riot act, but I don't remember getting switched, nor do I remember getting spanked.  Those really didn't happen often, so I remember the times they did.  I don't think she ever told my mother about my antics, so I guess I sort of got by with it.  I did feel horribly about scaring her.  It seemed to have pushed her panic button.  I had not figured out that, as an only child, I was particularly precious to them.

These days, being a food snob, I kind of sneer at the homely simplicity of chili-mac.  It is a simple food.  It is also filling and cost effective.  A pound of ground beef, a can of diced tomatoes, some tomato sauce, an onion, a bell pepper, a bit of pasta, and some Italian seasoning is really all it takes to make a meal that will fill some bellies.  It is a food that makes sense when you have mouths to feed and you want to save some dimes doing it.  Here is my adaptation of her recipe.  I will tell you her standard items if I've put in my own tweak.

Ingredients list:
1 pound of ground beef
1 regular size can of diced tomatoes
1 jar of your favorite ready made spaghetti sauce (or two regular cans of tomato sauce)
1 tbsp. of tomato paste (optional, but she used it)
1 onion, diced
1 bell pepper, diced (she used green, I like red or yellow)
2-3 cloves of garlic (use more or less, as you see fit)
Italian seasoning
Bay leaf
Elbow macaroni (this is traditional, but I also like shells or rigatoni or penne) Use as much as you like.  More pasta = more stretched sauce.
Shredded cheese (to put on top, use what you like)

Heavy skillet
Pasta pot
A large collander

In a heavy skillet, brown your ground beef.  Brown it really good, so that you get the dark brown tasty bits on the meat and in the pan.  Once the beef is brown, turn off the fire and drain the meat in the colander.  Catch the grease so it doesn't clog up your drain.  Yes, I have had this issue.

Right about now, put your pasta on to boil.  Add in the water and put salt in it.  Put a lot of salt in it.  Your pasta water really should taste like the ocean.  Bring that pot to a rolling boil and add in your pasta.  You can multi-task here as you also should be working on getting your sauce cooked.  Set a time on your pasta for 8-9 minutes.  When it goes off, check that the pasta is exactly the way you like it.  When it is, drain it and put it back into the pasta pot, with the lid on and let it wait.

In the meantime, put the skillet back on the stove and turn on the heat again.  Add in the onion, pepper, and garlic.  Add a pinch of salt to get some of the veggies juices flowing.  Cook these over medium high heat for a while. You want them to brown a little.  That carmelization is flavor, so don't be afraid.  Stir it around and get the brown bits off the bottom of the pan too.  When they're soft and the onions are translucent, add in the tomato paste, if you decide to use it, and stir it around for a few minutes.  You're kind of blooming the paste.  If you don't do this, you get a raw tomato paste flavor and it's not good.  Keep stirring, because the paste will burn.  Now, add to tomato sauce or the spaghetti sauce and the diced tomatoes.  Stir the concoction up to incorporate the paste, if you added it. 

Now, add you Italian seasoning, bay leaf, salt, and pepper.  How much?  About 2 tsps. of the Italian seasoning.  Salt and pepper is to taste.  You can start with a little and add as you go.  You can't take salt out, or pepper.  I don't care what kind of "tricks' you've heard of, you can't do it.

Cook your sauce on medium now for about 15-20 minutes to marry things up.  Stir it occasionally to make sure nothing sticks or burns. There is a lot of natural sugar in tomatoes and the stupid food corporations put it in the sauces too.  If you're not compulsive about checking to make sure your sauces don't have it, you'll be putting hidden sugar in your pot.  Anyway, let her plorp, plop, plip for a while.  Taste the sauce while it cooks.  Is there enough Italian seasoning?  Is there enough salt and pepper?  Adjust things along the way.  This is your fine tuning time.

When the sauce has married and is as blended as two lovers in their embrace, it's time to turn off the heat and put the sauce into your pasta pot with the cooked pasta.  Now, stir things up and let them sit for about 5 minutes, while you get the plates, some bread, and build your iced tea.

Serve your chili-mac with some nice bread and a sprinkle of your favorite shredded cheese.  I personally like pecorino Romano.  You could serve a salad too, if you like. 

I hope you enjoy Mamaw's simple little dish.  Once you've made it a time or two, you can start riffin' on it like it's your own.  Just don't make it several times a week.  If you do, you may end up with a kid hiding under the trailer down the street. 

This recipe is also a salute to my childhood friend, Darlene Tucker, who recently passed from this Earth way too darned soon.  I hope she's running through Heaven's woods like the happy wild child I remember as my best friend.