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What I Learned From My Mother

 

I learned from my mother how to love
the living, to have plenty of vases on hand
in case you have to rush to the hospital
with peonies cut from the lawn, black ants
still stuck to the buds. I learned to save jars
large enough to hold fruit salad for a whole
grieving household, to cube home-canned pears
and peaches, to slice through maroon grape skins
and flick out the sexual seeds with a knife point.
I learned to attend viewings even if I didn’t know
the deceased, to press the moist hands
of the living, to look in their eyes and offer
sympathy, as though I understood loss even then.
I learned that whatever we say means nothing,
what anyone will remember is that we came.
I learned to believe I had the power to ease
awful pains materially like an angel.
Like a doctor, I learned to create
from another’s suffering my own usefulness, and once
you know how to do this, you can never refuse.
To every house you enter, you must offer
healing: a chocolate cake you baked yourself,
the blessing of your voice, your chaste touch.
Julia Kasdorf

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(This is a long story and a bit of rambling. If you just want the recipe for Greek onion stew, please just skip down to the recipe below.”

I don’t remember the first time I climbed onto the seat of a kitchen chair, opened the cabinet above the stove and slowly edged the Imperial coffee grinder from the shelf. I was old enough to know what it was and that I was to be very careful with it. It was a chore I would be asked to do many times in my youth . Each time I reached up for the grinder, I knew what my next chore would be – grinding the spices. I would instantly savor the scent that clung to the aged wooden edges of the grinder’s drawer and anticipate the aromas that would eventually rise from the slow, bubbling pot on the stove. This humble meal of meat and onion stew that would be scooped onto our plates come suppertime. 

The coffee grinder was part of my grandmother’s dowry. It still grinds quite well, however, it is showing its age after more than a century of employment, with nicks and bruises and the signature patina of aged wood. It was, I am told, first used for grinding coffee beans, but, that is family legend to me.

The grinder moved with my grandmother, from the large family two-flat on Congress Street to our small, suburban home in Maywood, then to a north side apartment. When Yia Yia moved in with my aunt, the grinder stayed with my mom who eventually gave it to me when Tom and I bought our first home.

Like many of the dishes and delicacies of my Greek family, there were no written recipes. Yia Yia passed away before I had a chance to gather measurements, though others transcribed many that have been shared. Oddly enough, stefado never made it to a recipe card, a slip of paper, an envelope – those pieces of all of our lives that record our favorite foods.

Stefado was a favorite of mine and I was determined to make it, especially upon discovering a recipe for it in a magazine. “Women’s Day”? “Better Homes and Gardens”? “Family Circle”?   I no longer remember where it appeared, but, find it I did and it used ingredients I remembered. I conferred with my aunt, who said the ingredients were what Yia Yia used and yes, she used pickling spices. Aunt Christina reminded me of the grinder, but, I was miles and miles away and so  – I just threw the pickling spices into the stew!

Have you ever bitten into pepper corns? coriander? mustard seeds?

The stefado tasted right, but, biting into those spices was no fun at all. I called Aunt Christina, frustrated at my results and piqued at the money I’d spent on the meal. She calmly said “It happens. You are just learning. Next time, make a small sack out of cheesecloth, put the spices into it, tie it with twine and put the sack in the pot. ”  As I look back, her advice was invaluable, but it was two words she used –  “Next time” –  that were a gift. Those words gave me license and determination to try again.

TADA!

That worked and I employed that method for several years until Ma came over to our house, carrying the ancient coffee grinder in her signature shopping bag. “Here, Penny. This is now yours. You make stefado and you are your grandmother’s namesake. This is yours now.” – and so, it was and still is, a treasured possession. I still use it, though infrequently, when I make this hearty Greek stew.

A week or so ago, with onions so prevalent and sweet at the markets and a longing for flavors of my youth, I stopped at Penzey’s for a fresh jar of their pickling spice and I picked up some stew meat at the grocery store. Once home, I retrieved the coffee grinder. It sits a shelf where I keep treasured cookbooks. I set the grinder on the counter and slowly, carefully, purposefully opened the little drawer on the bottom, whereupon my childhood rushed out to greet me, as if to say “Penny, what took you so long?”

I put a spoonful of the pickling spices into the top, slowly closed the slot and began turning the grinder, pushing the seeds past the blade and into the drawer below, just as I did as a young girl, helping my Yia Yia in this simple, methodic, fragrant ritual. I ground the spices and then opened the drawer and for a brief, magical moment I was a young girl again.

The onions and meat married in the stew pot with the sprinkling of spices and other ingredients in attendance. I pottered around, monitoring the meal in anxious abeyance, peeking under the lid, stirring my senses along with the stew. A loaf of warm crusty bread – and there we were, my Antler Man and me and this savory meal – and for a brief moment my family of origin was sitting right there beside me.*

Stefado (Greek Onion Stew) 

3 pounds of cubed beef (lamb, venison, or other meat can be used – I prefer beef)

3/4 cup butter (you can substitute oil)

1 1/2 pounds small onions (or larger onions cut into chunks – you want chunks so that the onions will hold up)

Ground pickling spice to taste. I use about 1 Tablespoon ground.  Salt to taste. You can use an electric coffee grinder or even a food processor to grind the spices, or put the unground spices in a cheesecloth sack and put directly into the pot. 

1 small can tomato paste. 

1 cup water plus a little extra water in tomato paste can to scrape any tomato paste left inside.

1/2 cup red wine vinegar

Brown meat and onions in butter, then add rest of ingredients. Stir well, cover, simmer until tender – about  1 1/2 hours

Can be made day before. Flavors meld and mingle and make magic IF you can wait until the next day.  

 

 

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IMG_3987Last Sunday, this young lass and I made granola.

We also made a mess. Papa thoughtfully cleaned up for us.

Kezzie is a “cook fantastic”.

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