Lighter Fare

March 31, 2004 | 39 comments
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In the long tradition of Mormon women trying to ease discomfort of all kinds with food, I thought I’d try to distract us from contentious topics with casserole talk.

My children have recently discovered Jello. This is a development I have worked hard to avoid for 7 years, and I am chagrined. Naturally they love it–after all, what’s not to like about a tasty combination of sugar, animal hooves, petroleum byproducts, and scary chemical dyes? But my resistance to this peculiarly Mormon food has been a point of honor for me for a long time, and I’m having a small identity crisis.

My mother grew up Catholic on Long Island, so funeral potatoes and Jello salads were not in her repertoire. In fact, there wasn’t a great deal in her repertoire, and much of it was awful, so I grew up rather envious of my Mormon friends whose Moms believed that shredded carrots in Jello counted as a serving of vegetables. I remember looking forward with almost as much anticipation to the Relief Society dinners as to the actual *babies* when my younger siblings were born. But as I got older, partly out of solidarity with my “Jello-is-NOT-salad!” mother, and partly as a gesture of adolescent rebellion, I refused to eat Jello and anything made with Cream of Mushroom soup. (Ha! You won’t let me drink or smoke? Fine! but I’ll be danged if you can make me eat Jello!!) I have persisted in this foolishness long past adolescence, and am proud to say that no can of Campbell’s cream of anything has crossed the threshold of any household of which I’ve been mistress.

Still, I have to confess that I *like* funeral potatoes. I even like chicken casserole with rice and cream of mushroom soup. And pies made of pudding and Dream Whip. (Does Dream Whip still exist?) Lately, I’ve needed to bring dinners to the family of a friend who’s in the middle of chemotherapy, and I’ve been wishing for more casserole know-how.

So here’s my question: is there a third way in Mormon cuisine? Can we Gen-Xers (and you young whippersnappers reading this) take the nurturing and tasty aspects of our mothers’ (well, YOUR mothers’, anyway) Mormon cooking and make it hip and righteous for a new generation? Or does this nouvelle Mormon cuisine already exist and I just don’t know about it? (Heather, you mentioned your standby RS dinners–what are they? I want recipes!) What do y’all EAT besides trendy ethnic takeout? What are you nostalgic for?

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39 Responses to Lighter Fare

  1. lyle on March 31, 2004 at 10:21 pm

    maybe this isn’t neo-Mormon cooking, but…is dipping bananas in jello powder a Mormon thing? I’ve always wondered…but none of my Mormon friends are ever acquainted with it…and I don’t know how I got it actually.

    I’m afraid that I don’t really count…
    the best I do is:

    mixing different types of pasta, cooked al dente, together. i.e. some angel hair, some No. 11, some mac&cheese shells, etc…along with some pasta made w/spinach, tomatoes, etc. Not hard to do…but it does look festive & have the “in the mouth” 3D texture feel.

  2. Julie in Austin on March 31, 2004 at 10:27 pm

    Sorry to get all deep on your lighter fare post, but this is what I am nostalgic for: the attitude that it is worth it to make spaghetti sauce from scratch, even if you have to babysit the stove for 6 hours, instead of opening a jar of Five Brothers.

    I was raised by serious Italian Catholics who may be more offended by my culinary heresies than my religious ones.

  3. Gordon Smith on March 31, 2004 at 10:29 pm

    Well, tonight we had the best Chinese takeout in Madison. This is a bit like having the best Cajun food in Sweden, but we all were filled.

    After attempting unsuccessfully to market the Air Gordon Diet (see http://www.venturpreneur.com/weblogs/archives/000090.html), I have decided to become a “flexitarian.” See http://www.cnn.com/2004/HEALTH/diet.fitness/03/18/flexitarians.ap/. In fact, I think there is a good argument that Mormons are required to be flexitarians — just read D&C 89; I don’t have time to spell it out.

  4. Logan on March 31, 2004 at 10:34 pm

    Hey Gordon — we had Chinese take out, too. Except ours was in New York City. Mmm.

  5. Gordon Smith on March 31, 2004 at 11:01 pm

    Logan, that is not fair!!! Julie just told all of us to be more civil!

  6. Kristine on March 31, 2004 at 11:26 pm

    Julie, I don’t do tomato sauce, but I did recently start baking all of our bread. I occasionally cheat and let the Kitchen-Aid do the kneading, but mostly I do it by hand. It does matter. Matter matters, and food is a good place to notice that.

  7. Julie in Austin on March 31, 2004 at 11:39 pm

    Kristine,

    Amen to that. But–I have to admit that sometimes this becomes a feminist issue for me: the more time I am cooking, the less time I am doing brain work. Fish sticks or study Hebrew?

  8. Jim F. on March 31, 2004 at 11:59 pm

    Cooking is one of the few areas of life in which I feel I have talent approaching my interest, so thank you VERY much for this thread.

    The main thing in cooking is the ingredients. I once received a Cordon Bleu short course as a Christmas present from my children. Half way through the poached fish, I realized I’d misunderstood the directions. “I’m afraid I’ve ruined my plate,” I said. To which the chef replied, “That isn’t possible. We gave you excellent ingredients.” He was right. In the end, others produced prettier plates than I and still others produced better tasting plates, but there was nothing wrong with mine. So: make funeral potatoes with fresh ingredients and they will taste even better.

    Instead of canned mushroom soup, for each can of soup, use 2 T of butter, 2 T of chopped mushrooms (or about 2 T of any combination of mushrooms, celery, and onion–as you like it), 2 T of flour, and 1 cup of milk, creme fraiche, or sour cream. Melt the butter in a saucepan and saute the mushrooms in it for a few minutes. (If using onions, saute until they are limp.) Blend in the flour and cook, stirring. After a few minutes, blend in the milk, creme fraiche, or sour cream. If using sour cream, you must add it only at the end because you can’t cook it–a good reason to use milk or creme fraiche.

    Perhaps out of humility you will not want people to know that you didn’t use canned cream of mushroom soup. Or perhaps you don’t want them to know so that they’ll think that somehow you made a better dish than anyone else with exactly the same ingredients. In any case, whether out of pride or humility, if you want to imitate the consistency of canned cream of mushroom soup, blend this after you’ve made it.

    This replacement for canned mushroom soup takes a little longer, but not much, and it tastes better. Besides, if I plan the other parts of the work right, I can make the mushroom soup replacement while I am waiting on something else.

  9. Heather Oman on April 1, 2004 at 12:00 am

    Now that I have recovered from the shock of somebody asking ME for a recipe, here is my standby Relief Society dinner of Taco Soup that takes minutes to prepare, once you’ve thawed the hamburger:

    1lb hamburger, browned
    1 can corn
    1 can kidney beans
    1 can garbonzo beans
    1 can black beans
    1 can diced tomatoes, or if you have time, cut up some fresh ones and throw them in.
    1 packet taco seasoning

    Open up them cans, throw everything in a big pot, and simmer until warm. If you want to get creative, you can throw in some hot sauce and some fancy seasonings, like cumin and oregano and garlic. Basically anything you think will taste good. And you can substitute the beans–those listed just happen to be the ones I prefer. It makes a huge amount, is easy to freeze, and makes great leftovers. Serve with sour cream, cheese, and chips. My two year old eats this stuff literally by the handful.

  10. Jim F. on April 1, 2004 at 12:05 am

    A can of corn also goes nicely in Heather’s taco soup/chili. If you want to avoid the taco seasoning, do as Heather suggests: add cumin and oregano to taste along with either hot sauce or cayenne flakes. If you want onion or garlic, fry a few rings or cloves in the hamburger juices after you brown it. Then add everything else.

  11. Lyle on April 1, 2004 at 12:22 am

    Mac & Cheese … with fresh picked green peas added in. Um…it turns a cheap dish into a nicely balanced sharp, yet still moist, treat.

  12. Heather Oman on April 1, 2004 at 12:22 am

    Thanks Jim. I’m always looking for a way to make that particular recipe a little more fresh. My family loves it when I make it, but every time I do, I can’t help feeling like we are getting our years worth of sodium intake.

    Julie, this is somewhat of a feminist issue for me as well, but I think for different reasons. I feel defensive about it because I have some irrational thought that in order to be a good mother, one should be a good cook. Since I have only recently become familiar with what one does in the kitchen, I feel that any failure on my part in the kitchen reflects an overall failure as a parent. Then I get angry at the imaginary judges hovering over my stove, and start thinking about all of the other things I could be doing to contribute to society rather than trying to wrestle with the eternal question “what’s for dinner?”. Although I must admit, studying hebrew would not be on that list!

  13. Heather Oman on April 1, 2004 at 12:23 am

    Thanks Jim. I’m always looking for a way to make that particular recipe a little more fresh. My family loves it when I make it, but every time I do, I can’t help feeling like we are getting our years worth of sodium intake.

    Julie, this is somewhat of a feminist issue for me as well, but I think for different reasons. I feel defensive about it because I have some irrational thought that in order to be a good mother, one should be a good cook. Since I have only recently become familiar with what one does in the kitchen, I feel that any failure on my part in the kitchen reflects an overall failure as a parent. Then I get angry at the imaginary judges hovering over my stove, and start thinking about all of the other things I could be doing to contribute to society rather than trying to wrestle with the eternal question “what’s for dinner?”. Although I must admit, studying hebrew would not be on that list!

  14. Jim F. on April 1, 2004 at 12:42 am

    Heather, I apologize in advance for taking this chance to be preachy. So:

    (1) One should be a good cook only because one loves to cook. One must be an acceptable cook only if one is a parent who must sometimes cook for children. I like cooking and eating, but I do it for pleasure. When I cook out of necessity, such as for at least some of our Sunday dinners with the kids, I often settle for “acceptable.” The point of those dinners is to share food and time together, not to demonstrate my culinary prowess. The point of many ordinary family meals is to keep us from starving. “Acceptable” will do that quite nicely.

    (2) Fresh ingredients make anything better, but our fears about food additives and such are blown far out of proportion. No one should switch to my “fake mushroom soup” out of guilt. In moderation, we should enjoy our food, not fear it.

  15. Jim F. on April 1, 2004 at 1:16 am

    One thing is missing from the mushroom soup recipe: if you are using creme fraiche, you don’t need to add the flour. It’s only there to thicken the milk anyway.

    If you don’t have a source for creme fraiche nor the time to make some up (recipes as well as cultures are on the web), use the flour and buttermilk instead. You’ll get approximately the same tang.

    Sorry to have become so obsessed with posting on this thread. I’ll try to restrain myself tomorrow.

  16. Cath on April 1, 2004 at 5:15 am

    My mom, bless her heart, wasn’t even “acceptable” much of the time. But with enough fruit, milk & cold cereal, Great Harvest Bread, and the occasional tasty tacos and spaghetti, I made it to adulthood in relatively good health. Maybe it’s from having grown up in California with a Spanish-American mom…I don’t think mi mamacita really knows how to make a casserole with cream of anything soup. If you dig under the Mormon culture surface, I think you’ll find a lot of us grew up without funeral potatoes (and feel deprived because of it) – I freely admit to having looked forward to my mom giving birth, because it meant a few days of yummy casseroles and dessert! Hurrah for Relief Society!

  17. Russell Arben Fox on April 1, 2004 at 8:15 am

    I’ve never called them “funeral potatoes”–my grandmother always called them “Lion House Potatoes,” and as it’s her (secret, but not really all that unique) recipe I use, that’s what I call them. Here in Arkansas, folks have been much impressed by them (“these aren’t your usual cheesy potatoes!” I’ve been told on more than one occasion). I have no idea if they were ever served at the Lion House, but I really don’t care. It’s a good recipe, though frankly, it’s probably the name which makes them taste so good.

  18. Mary on April 1, 2004 at 9:43 am

    Jim, I made my first batch of true cream of mushroom soup the other week. It was wonderful. I love to cook, though I only get to try out a new recipe about twice a month.

    I’m also with Jim when he says that you need to use fresh ingredients and it will all be better. I’ve started buying fresh herbs and spices, (and this summer I plan to grow my own) and fresh basil in my spaghetti sauce with some good olive oil and crushed garlic… it makes a difference.

    And you can be a feminist and a cook. I think cooking can be just like any other hobby–if you love it, you’ll put time into it, like reading Hebrew or studying math, or learning how to make web pages.

    –Somewhat related to this thread: Everybody should watch the Iron Chef on the Food Network–now that’s good fun.

  19. Melissa on April 1, 2004 at 10:16 am

    Julie,

    Be careful about the fish sticks! My little brother has the mistaken memory that we had fish sticks every night growing up and that because of this he had a deprived and neglected childhood :) Scatter some macaroni and cheese nights in there too.

    Kris,

    I think sauteeing minced garlic and onions in some olive oil is an easy way to start a meal. Throw in some chicken or pork and you’ve got a good base for a stir fry.

    I bake all my own bread too, as you know. The liquid base ingredient of all my bread recipes is buttermilk. With the leftover buttermilk you can make a low-fat, tangy alfredo sauce that’s fairly easy.

    One variation on Heather’s Taco Soup–is to leave out the corn and put in a coarsely chopped green pepper. Instead of taco seasoning I use 2 Tblsp of Chili Powder. With some fresh bread this is very hearty (high in protein and fiber, low in fat and sugar) One of my favorite comfort foods.

  20. Kristine on April 1, 2004 at 10:32 am

    Melissa–olive oil, garlic, onions–yup! You can also do this, add a little ginger, bang some pots and pans around in the kitchen for a few minutes, then hide the takeout containers and pretend you’ve made a delicious Chinese dinner from scratch to impress a date (not that *I* would ever stoop to such subterfuge–well, not more than a couple of times, anyway).

    My snobbish and impractical (but very, very yummy) version of cheesy potatoes uses half russets and half white or yellow sweet potatoes (not yams). The sauce is onions sauteed in walnut oil, flour & milk, fresh sage and Gruyere. I’m good at Christmas and Thanksgiving dinner, less good at day-in, day-out keep the troops fed cooking. My husband will eat absolutely anything, and just wants there to be a lot, while Peter will eat almost nothing, and changes his 2 or 3 acceptable foods without reason or warning. Fortunately, my younger two are a little more adventuresome, and I think Lulu will be a restaurant critic when she grows up–loves to eat, loves to talk about food, loves to help me cook, and said “needs some more cumin” when she was 3. It’s hard to please them all, even some of the time!

  21. Kristine on April 1, 2004 at 11:15 am

    Jim, don’t restrain yourself! It’s always fun to find a closet foodie.

    btw, I recently discovered that it’s almost as much fun to *read* about food as to cook–MFK Fischer is, of course, amazing, and Ruth Reichl’s first book was fun. Also, two little-known books of essays by Laurie Colwin–_Home Cooking_ and _More Home Cooking_ are a wonderful introduction to the genre, with great recipes to boot.

  22. Kristine on April 1, 2004 at 11:17 am

    Ack! How could I forget? Linda Hoffman Kimball’s _Saints Well-Seasoned_ has some great food-writing by Mormon types and with Mormon themes.

  23. Melissa on April 1, 2004 at 11:23 am

    Kris,

    The berry galette (or whatever it was) you made for New Year’s brunch was fabulous. You gave me the recipe that day, but I used it for a bookmark in the library book I read on the way home. I accidentally left it in the book when I returned it to the library. Whoever’s reading Tillich in Providence will get a bonus.

    Care to post it here for everyone?

  24. Kaimi on April 1, 2004 at 11:49 am

    I like to cook; I usually make the Sunday dinners around our house (when I’m not at work).

    One favorite is chicken with capers. It varies each time I make it, depending on what’s lying around. The general idea is:

    Start with butter or olive oil, add onions and garlic, sautee. Toss in cubed chicken (often marinated in balsamic vinegar before, or in something with rosemary). Add some chicken broth or wine; add capers; simmer for a while; serve over pasta, rice, or cous cous.

    It’s also good with artichokes and/or peppers (but not when Logan comes over for dinner; his wife doesn’t like peppers). You can throw in some cheese or cream for a different flavor, or add some portabello mushrooms or olives.

    Another of Mardell’s favorites is chicken marsala:

    Start out with onions, garlic, portabello mushrooms, brown them in some butter until they start to smell really, really good; add the chicken, start it cooking, then toss in marsala, let it cook together. (You can always add some capers or asparagus or brocolli or anything else you happen to have laying around).

    These recipes change every time I make them, depending on what we have on hand.

  25. Thom on April 1, 2004 at 11:54 am

    Having served my mission in Thailand, we eat homemade Thai food at least once a week at my house. Wife wife and kids have joined me in the addiction.

    Two easy tips for making any stirfry fantastically better (and more Thai-esque):

    1. Always use Jasmine (Thai) rice for all your rice needs. You can buy it in large and small bags at most major grocery stores these days, and they always have it at Asian markets. It smells and tastes so much better than any other kind of rice (beats batsami hands down) that once you’ve tried it, you’ll never be able to touch Uncle Ben’s again. Really.

    2. Stir about a half cup of crunchy peanutbutter (no I’m not kidding) into your stirfry. While it doesn’t exactly count as Thai peanut sauce, it comes amazingly close in a pinch, especially if you’ve used lots of good garlic and spicy peppers in your dish.

  26. Thom on April 1, 2004 at 11:57 am

    I can’t believe I have a typo that says “Wife wife and kids” in the post I just put up. It makes me sound like a polygamist or something. I meant to say “My wife and kids. . .” Sorry.

  27. Melissa on April 1, 2004 at 12:02 pm

    Here’s another easy recipe I make often. (Kris, Peter probably won’t eat it)

    coarsely chopped green pepper
    Sun-dried tomatoes
    chunks of pepperoni (half a stick)
    bite-size chicken pieces (2-3 breasts)
    Cream

    Brown the chicken in a bit of olive oil. Add the sun-dried tomatoes, pepperoni and peppers and a bit of white wine (or water). Let cook for 15-20 minutes. Add cream the last 5-10 minutes. The tomatoes and cream make a wonderful sauce. Serve over whole wheat pasta.

  28. Kaimi on April 1, 2004 at 12:08 pm

    One benefit at my house of having a pasta dish is that the kids will eat the noodles (ziti, spaghetti, shells, spirals, whatever) with a little red sauce on them, while everyone else can have a full meal.

    Neither of my boys will eat chicken (but Indigo loves chicken strips, and she’s not even two yet). The boys pretty much exist on cheerios, PBJ’s, ham, pizza, noodles, and fruits. And lots of milk and cheese. About the only real dinner they will eat consistently is noodles or pizza (we often make mini pizzas). It’s not uncommon to end up having cheerios for dinner at our house.

  29. cooper on April 1, 2004 at 12:13 pm

    My all time favorite take in meal is Chicken Ceasar Salad. You buy one of those really great baked chickens and bone it. Buy the freshest mixed greens you can find and add in some chopped romaine lettuce. Use a small casserole dish to assemble ingredients. Arrange your lettuce and greens mix. Then arrange chicken on top. Take along a homemade ceasar dressing and voila… you have a great family dinner. Also a good sliced kalamata olive bread or evena sourdough loaf finishes it off.

    I grew up in California and had never heard of funeral potatoes until my oldest daughter got engaged (and now married) to a Smith.(long story)

    Another favorite is pounded center cut pork chops. Saute chopped garlic and shallots in 2T of olive oil. Once they’re tender add 3 cups of fresh sliced mushrooms, cook until tender. Pound your chops until they’re 1/4 inch thick. Remove Mushrooms from pan. Add chops brown on both sides. Add mushrooms back along with 1 can of artichokes (not the marinated ones). Add 2T of mustard (regular brown) and lid the pan. Cook on low for 15 minutes. Add a half cup of heavy cream to thicken sauce. Serve with a fresh salad. It’s great.

  30. Kristine on April 1, 2004 at 12:23 pm

    Thom, yum. I love Thai food. In college I dated a returned missionary from Thailand who used to take me to really good Thai restaurants and convince them to cook things the real way. I think I prolonged the relationship long past the point I should have because I just loved that food!! For homemade imitations, coconut milk curry is also hard to make bad, and it’s great with whatever vegetables or meat one has around.

  31. Thom on April 1, 2004 at 3:29 pm

    Wait a minute Kristine. . .I thought your name sounded familiar! Hey, now your picture looks really familiar too!

  32. Dan on April 1, 2004 at 3:59 pm

    Doesn’t anybody else out there call them “Nauvoo Potatoes”? I’ve only heard of “Funeral Potatoes” as an adult. And if you go to the all-you-can-eat buffet at the Nauvoo Hotel, they always have them.

  33. Mardell on April 2, 2004 at 10:52 am

    Growing up my family had a particualarly finanically hard year, and we lived on our food storage. My mom could feed up beans and wheat every day for a week and we never ate the same meal twice.
    My favorite is what she calls church beans. She would put the beans on to cook about and hour before church started with a little bit of salt and butter in the water. Then when we got home from church she added raw hamburger chilli powder and a small can of tomato sauce. She would then let them simmer until the hamburger was cooked.
    My brothers and I ate these just straight or used them for taco salad (our favorite), burritos, and chip dip (put them in a blender with sour cream and salsa).

  34. Kristine on April 2, 2004 at 10:56 am

    Mardell, thanks. That’s just the kind of Mormon ingenuity I was wondering about. I’m such a food snob that I’m just lost if I don’t have a couple of ethnic grocery stores and a Whole Foods market nearby. I feel a little less like I’m a disappointment to my pioneer foremothers in the summer, when I can at least grow a lot of my own ingredients and/or buy them at a local farmers’ co-op.

  35. wendy on April 2, 2004 at 11:21 am

    My mom got me a copy of our ward’s Relief Society-produced cookbook when I was a teenager, to put in my “hope chest”. [There was no actual chest -- it was more a state of mind that I was supposed to be cultivating.] I was super annoyed — as if when I was 14 years old I was thinking at all about what recipes I’d be cooking up for my family someday! But now I’m glad to have it. I’ve never cooked from it, but reading over the 10 recipes for “enchilada pie” (some with fritos, some without) and the 20 variations on cream of mushroom chicken make me nostalgic for my childhood and that homey Mormon way of life.

  36. Jim F. on April 2, 2004 at 11:44 am

    Thom, you can’t be serious saying that Jasmine rice is better than short-grain Korean rice. Of course Jasmine is better than Uncle Ben’s. What isn’t? But as good as Jasmine rice is, the REAL rice is short-grained and comes from Korea.

  37. Thom on April 2, 2004 at 2:39 pm

    Jim,

    Admittedly Sir, I have no experience with short-grained Korean rice. If you like it so, you may have it. As for me and my house, we will eat the Jasmine.

  38. sid on April 3, 2004 at 11:05 am

    I was raised in India, so, Ido like Indian food – mostly North Indian comfort foods that are easy for the single guy to make, and where the recepies are none too elaborate. LIke eating South Indian food, but, I dont think that will happen util I g et hitched, and have a fully equipped kitchen.

  39. Kristine on April 3, 2004 at 11:37 am

    But Sid, you’re in Ann Arbor!! There are (or were, at least) a couple of Indian restaurants that are pretty good, right?

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