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Recipes hold time in a box: Search for soup instructions leads to nostalgic trip
Chicago Sun-Times January 18, 2006 | Leslie Baldacci Where was the minestrone recipe? The family asked me to bring minestrone to Christmas dinner. It was the day before Christmas and as clearly as I could see the recipe in my mind’s eye, I could not put my hands on it flipping through the recipe box.
It was written on a raggedy piece of lined paper ripped from a spiral notebook. The ingredients were listed on the left side. Some had been crossed out, others added, along with notes (“mash potatoes somewhat to thicken,” “collards better than spinach”) as I experimented and refined it over time. Where could it be?
Not in the “Soups” section of the clear plastic recipe box I received as a Christmas gift more than 25 years ago. The dear old lady who gave it to me was kind enough to start me off with four salad recipes.
One was for a 24-Hour Vegetable Salad but included a pound of bacon, a cup of mayonnaise, six eggs and two cups of shredded cheese. Another was a taco salad recipe that called for Doritos and French dressing. “Makes a lot serve before soggy,” she wrote at the bottom. The ’70s. Good lord.
Flipping through the “Salad” section I found the ’80s represented with a recipe for honey mustard poppyseed dressing. Why don’t I make that any more? I loved it at the time over a bed of romaine, cilantro, Mandarin oranges, avocados and tomatoes. The minestrone recipe was not misfiled in the “Salads” section. But my best friend’s mother’s rhubarb pie recipe was.
I remember the stormy day she wrote it down for me. She was explaining how to make a lattice top when a thunderclap rattled the roof. We took one look at the greenish tint to the sky and headed for the basement. “Wait! The pie!,” someone said, and Dorothy grabbed the pie and a handful of forks. If the house had blown away, they’d have found us sitting in the rubble, eating rhubarb pie, happy as could be. A hint of cinnamon was her trademark. here taco salad recipe
I refiled the pie recipe in “Desserts” and promptly bumped into my mother’s strawberry pie, in her own round, neat handwriting. I remembered picking strawberries with her one Mother’s Day on the Eastern Shore. I re-read a friend’s great-grandmother’s sweet potato pie recipe that included a quarter cup of brandy “or more to taste.” You go, granny! The final instruction from my friend: “Never tell anyone in my family I passed this on.” Now what was I looking for? Oh, the minestrone recipe.
It wasn’t in “Dinners,” but you know what was? That stupid recipe for the chicken with the dry vermouth sauce. I tried to make it three times, and every time it came out terrible. It was delicious at Debbie’s. She must have held out an ingredient on me. And what’s with the macaroni and cheese? I have a dozen recipes, not one as good as Stouffer’s.
There were others that needed the heave-ho. The cheesecake I will never, ever make. Four different recipes for deep-dish Chicago pizza, Kahlua, peach chutney, Moctec-style mole and a couple of Thai recipes. One headline warns, “Appetizing Thai satay: Not easy, but it’s worth it.” No, it’s not. It’s worth $4.95 at any Thai restaurant. Between the satay, the peanut sauce and the cucumber salad, there were 23 ingredients! I could travel to Thailand with less stress and strain. And why would anyone make Kahlua out of vodka and instant coffee when there is all the Kahlua you need at the liquor store? in our site taco salad recipe
I have never made an enchilada casserole, but apparently I’ve been meaning to for a long time. I had two recipes, one dating back to a 1992 Woman’s Day magazine. And calzones, never made them, either, but there were two recipes from the mid-80s that start “mix oe cup water, yeast and sugar in a large bowl.” Yeah, right. There was a brittle 1981 recipe for summer squash soup with exhaustive instructions that took up half a page in a broadsheet newspaper. I doubt I ever had time to read it all the way through, much less make the soup.
But look! Oh joy! The whole wheat bread dough that adapts for pecan sticky buns! That’s a keeper. Why did I only bake bread when I was home with babies? Why don’t I bake bread any more? I should. It would be so good with . . .
. . . minestrone. Now where is that recipe? Not under bread and muffins.
The search meandered on. The muffaletta recipe reminded me of the Super Bowl party we had when the Bears won in New Orleans. The “heart- healthy ranch crackers” made me think of my students because we often made them in class for a snack. The boys always angled to be the chefs. I took time to neatly rewrite the Chex Mix recipe I’d furtively scrawled in the grocery aisle after seeing that Chex cost $4 a box. I copied the recipe, then bought the store-brand version of Chex for $2.50.
I realized an hour had slipped by. The messy plastic recipe box was a time capsule and a treasure chest, filled with index cards written in the hands of the cooks who so generously shared their talent. You can Google a recipe or consult a cookbook, but nothing compares to time-tested recipes lovingly passed on to you by friends and family.
As identifying as her face, my mother’s distinctive round writing announced her ginger snaps and “Bran Muffins for the Multitudes,” a quantity of buttermilk batter that you use as needed, with whatever you feel like putting in the muffins that day: blueberries, pineapple, pecans, mashed bananas, raisins, well, you get the idea.
She tried to help organize the crazy mess once. “What categories do you want?” I recall her asking, as her little granddaughters sprinted, naked and squealing, through the kitchen and out the front door. Three of “their” recipes remain: the much-used “Play Dough” and “Bubble solution” — and the once-used bath salts.
The yellowest recipes are the most beloved. They are careworn. “Auntie Mae’s Vegetarian Spaghetti Sauce.” Simple. Perfect. “I like Contadina,” she informed me as she wrote it down on a large index card. And in case I forgot, the card specified: Contadina crushed tomatoes, Contadina tomato sauce and Contadina paste.
Some recipes are from people I barely remember. Some are from people I saw last week. Some are heirlooms, some are toss-offs. I created a new section, “Classics,” for such towering legends as Marian’s beef brisket and my mother-in-law’s meat loaf. Some recipes are so practiced I never consult the written version. I keep them just the same because one has a child’s drawing on the back and others were jotted on letterhead of former employers.
I never found the minestrone recipe, but I did weed out others that had outlasted their shelf life. The clippings folded into tiny squares for so long accordioned into a fluffy pile. I swept it into the trash.
Now I had a neat, orderly, organized recipe box to start the new year. I picked up a fresh card and wrote down the minestrone recipe from memory. It took a minute.
– – – MEATLESS SPAGHETTI SAUCE Makes 4 servings 1 small onion, chopped 5 cloves garlic , chopped Small handful chopped parsley 1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes 1 (8-ounce) can tomato sauce 1/2 can tomato paste 1 cup water Saute in olive oil the onion, garlic and parsley until transparent. Add crushed tomatoes. Simmer 1/2 hour. Add tomato sauce. Simmer 1/2 hour. Add paste and 1 cup water. Simmer 1/2 hour. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Makes 2 1/2 quarts, enough for 2 pounds linguine.
Variations: Add 1 (28-ounce) can strained whole tomatoes and/or 1/ 2 teaspoon crushed red pepper and some basil at the very end.
Nutrition facts per serving:
95 calories, .5 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 22 g carbohydrates, 5 g protein, 958 mg sodium, 5 g fiber Leslie Baldacci
Writer / co-founder