Thursday, March 17, 2011

Sunday Dinner Questionnaire: Dean Norman

Dean Norma's Ring Bauerware collection.  Photo courtesy Carla Richmond.
This Sunday Dinner Questionnaire is a little unusual because it comes from someone I've never met-- or even seen in a photograph.  I have, however, heard Dean Norman's voice in my new favorite podcast Homely Living 101.  Dean Norman is the founder of the Institute for Homely Living, which bills itself as "the only school west of the Rockies dedicated to home economics from the male perspective."

Dean Norman and Julie, the only female student at The Institute, host a weekly podcast that profiles various topics in the field of home economics.  It's definitely a podcast for grown-ups, and that's one of the things I like best about it.  Sometimes even mommies need a dose of adult humor.  Listening to Dean Norman and Julie also reminds me that homemaking can be fun if you don't take it too seriously.

I recently discovered that Dean Norman and I have similar feelings about about the importance of getting to know your neighbors.  In Episode Six: Pie and Neighbors, Dean Norman and Julie discuss the disturbing, but not especially surprising fact that Los Angeles has been voted the "Rudest City in the United States".  They discuss the fact that it can be difficult to get to know your neighbors when you live in the city and Dean Norman gives Julie the assignment to introducer herself to one of her neighbors, which she reports back on in this podcast.  I don't want to spoil the listening experience, but their fabulously bawdy discussion is a timely one considering the ongoing catastrophic events in Japan and focuses on homemade pie and the inevitability of "the big one" hitting Los Angeles.

While I wait for next week's podcast, I think I may go make a pie.  But after hearing about Julie's recent pie-making experience, it probably won't be a lemon meringue pie.

Many thanks to Dean Norman and Julie for their participation and enthusiasm, and to Carla Richmond of go-carla-go for the photographs.

The Official Sunday Dinner Questionnaire:  Dean Norman

1.   What is your favorite food to eat?  Why?
I am wild about Thai food…the hotter and spicier the better as long as there aren’t any peanuts (or for that matter, any kind of nuts).   I don’t know why I just don’t like nuts in my cooked food.  Yet most unsalted raw nuts are great nutrition!  Go figure!  The reason I believe I like Thai food so much is that it so far away from the food that I was brought up with in Nebraska – primarily German, Polish, and Czech in background. Thai food is exciting to me.

My first taste of Thai was in the early 80’s upon my arrival in Los Angeles.  There was this incredible little place called Tommy Tang’s on Melrose Ave when Melrose Ave. and it was hot!  It was just so fun.  It wasn’t the best I would ever eat, it was just my first.  You always remember your first!  I wouldn’t attempt to cook Thai myself until around 2005 when I got up some courage and found myself in a Thai grocery store up on Hollywood Blvd in “Thai Town”.  No one spoke English and the labels on the jars, bottles, and cans weren’t very much help, unless there was a photo.  God knows what I was cooking, but it was absolutely divine once I went through a few trial and errors in putting things together.  Now I can throw together a great healthy meal of five dishes in under an hour that’s pretty damn fine.  It’s like anything in cooking.  You try something, you modify it down the road to improve it, and eventually you will achieve a perfection that you as the cook can accept-- and more important that you like!  PS….also always remain open to changes even if you think it is perfect.  That is how you improve as a home cook.

Photo courtesy Carla Richmond.
2.   What is your favorite food to cook?  How often and under what circumstances do you make it?
I really enjoy baking and pies are my specialty.  I don’t make pretty pies. I don’t have the patience to roll out and cut “autumn leaves” for the tops of my crusts. I don’t do lattice crusts…there isn’t enough Xanex in the world to calm me down after that basket weaving!!! Who’s got the time or patience?  Martha Stewart, oh hell, she has more help than The Queen!  It’s a divine miracle if I can pinch the crust to completion all the way around.

I make pies that will knock your socks off even if you aren’t wearing any!  I have a simple crust that was handed down from my maternal grand mother which remains still the best I have ever tasted.   People have asked me if I could just make a crust for them to take home, curl up in bed with and have a love affair with. I do a whole range of pies - banana cream, coconut cream, sour cream raisin, blueberry, peach, strawberry rhubarb, blueberry rhubarb, lemon meringue, etc.  However, my favorite to make is just a simple apple pie.

My family has had a big apple orchard in Nebraska since the early 40’s.  There are no better apples in the world than the ones my brother and his family now grow and sell out of their large roadside barn on Highway 81 between Madison and Norfolk in Nebraska.  Every fall they send me a bushel of my favorite pie apples so I will have a stock to turn into pies all the way through Thanksgiving!  If I can stretch them out I make a great apple cranberry pie for Christmas.  My pie baking theory is going for the flavor of the type of pie it is and don’t let the spices or use of excessive sugar overpower the final product.  I make at least a pie a month.  I try to make fruit pies that correlate with when those fruits are in high season.  They deserve that consideration.  In December, you aren’t going to be seeing a strawberry rhubarb pie from me unless I’m in New Zealand!

3.   Who or what is your greatest culinary influence?  Why is he/she/ it an inspiration to you?
Without a doubt it was my mother’s mother Maria Tabola Lintner…a stout Czech woman who always wore her waist length hair wrapped up like Princess Leia.  I remember staying at her house as a small boy and watching her wash her hair from the water she collected from a rain barrel under the eaves of her house.  The fat hanging down from her upper arms would just giggle when she laughed which was pretty much all the time.

She had a really hard life.  She raised five kids in The Great Depression without electricity, running water, or indoor plumbing.  That’s right she had an outhouse!  In fact she wouldn’t have indoor plumbing until the mid 1970’s.  She said she just didn’t need it.  She worked a number of low paying cooking jobs at various cafes throughout her life starting off at the age of 16 at her Czech uncle’s bakery in Verdigre, Nebraska.  This is where she learned how to bake.  Her baking was legendary.  In her house she had an old coal burning stove that she would stoke with corn cobs and coal.  She didn’t use a thermometer, instead she would pull off one of the large circular plates off the top…look down in the embers and she could determine the exact perfect temperature to bake anything.  Pies, cakes, twisted golden loaves of bread with caraway or poppy seeds…and of course kolaches of all flavors of filling.  If you have never had a great kolache, you do owe it to yourself to search one out.  I owe all of my baking skills to her.  When my mother passed, I only wanted two items - my mothers’ and my grandmothers’ recipe boxes.  I have them both on my shelf next to my stove and someday I’m going to aspire to be the incredible cooks that they both were.  Whenever I want to take a trip down memory lane, I work on one of their recipes and all my cares just melt.  Those trips down memory lane are always a wonderful journey.

Photo courtesy Carla Richmond.
4.   What is your favorite kitchen utensil and why do you love it?
I’ve got two of them that I love both of them based on utilitarianism.  They just simply work for what they were designed for!  Both are also based on times past.

The first is the set of colored Pyrex nesting bowls that must have graced millions of kitchens across the country.  In order of decreasing size:  yellow, green, red, and blue.  They just make me smile every time I used them.  They remind me of another time when things were a lot less hectic and people were a great deal more social.  I pick them up out of thrift stores or garage sales whenever I see them reasonably priced so I always have backup bowls of all four colors in case I ever break one.  However, they are incredibly sturdy which is so welcome so I rarely have broken one.  A set of them also makes a great gift for very little cash!

Photo courtesy Carla Richmond.
The second is a 3 inch counter mounted (via 2 screws)  knife sharpener from the 20’s – 30’s which was originally owned by my mother’s mother and eventually was passed down to me after my mother passing. I’ve included a photo because it is just too hard to describe. Basically it works by passing the sharp part of the blade between two sets of metal washers that rotate and create a new sharper cutting surface.. 90 years later it still works perfectly!

5.  What did you eat for dinner this past weekend?
An old fashioned seven bone pot roast; slow cooked in a covered Dutch oven.  Whole carrots and sliced potatoes added in the last 45 minutes. I like them al dente because they are more nutritious and just have better flavor. Besides it makes its own great gravy!  Freshly made tapioca pudding for dessert just finishes it off perfectly.  It’s all simple with a total prep of about 20 minutes for everything!  It always turns out great too.

6.  When you were growing up, did you eat Sunday dinner or another meal that brought your friends and family together on a regular basis?  If so, what did you eat? 
 You know I grew up on a farm, and farmers are an extremely hard working lot that is always at the mercy of nature.  Days and evenings are almost always taken up with work of some kind, even in the winter especially if you have farm animals.  I’m really proud to say that until I left for college at the age of 17, we as a family sat down at the kitchen table basically 99.9% of all three meals together, seven days a week, 365 days a year.  It was just how it was done at our farm house. Often times, we had friends or other family members join because they all knew what an incredible cook my mother was.  Sunday dinners could be all over the spectrum as far as food choices; however, my favorite was when my mother would fry up a couple of our fresh chickens, make real mashed potatoes with chicken gravy and an endless supply of fresh corn on the cob from the garden.  My grandmother would bring fresh bread that was still warm to add to the mix.

For dessert an in-season fruit pie or my grandmother’s great chocolate cake, accompanied by a big glass of chilled milk.  Then just before going off to bed an ice cold slice of fresh picked black diamond watermelon. A variety that I don’t think exists anymore…they were so dark green they were almost black in color and it was such a beautiful contrast with the white rind and crimson flesh. Of course you were up and down to the bathroom like twenty times during the night. It was a price to pay but oh it was so worth it.

7.  Do you have a garden?  If so, what do you grow in it?
Unfortunately, I only have a small slice of space to show off my gardening skills.  My little garden in the front of the apartment is filled with flowers that start with bulbs in early spring (I’m part Dutch so I think it is genetic!), then by May it bursts into these glorious poppies from Turkey, and finally I finish with a rainbow of zinnias that last from July to November. I have people stopping and photographing my garden all the time.  It’s not much effort but it incredibly rewarding.  I suggest gardening as a great stress reducer, throw away the Xanex and plant some flowers!

On my side patio I have a number of fresh herbs….some of my plants are over 3 years old! I purchased them all from a plant vendor at the local Silverlake farmers’ market ($2.50 to $4.00 per plant).  I can’t think of a better investment!  Right now I have sage, rosemary, oregano, basil, lemon verbena, parsley, and cilantro.  You just step out the door and do a few snips and it’s just absolutely fabulous.  Why spend a fortune for fresh herbs when with a little water, fertilizer, and occasionally grooming you can have all these goodies at your finger tips?   I keep all the little empty bottles of dried herbs that are in my pantry and refill them with dried herbs picked fresh out the garden.  Once again they smell and taste much better than most anything you can buy!

Finally I would love to be able to grow a decent tomato here in Southern California, but for some reason I’ve not been able to master it with the exception of red or yellow cherry tomatoes.  I miss those days on the farm when we had a substantial plot of delicious tomatoes of all varieties at our disposal from July through the first frost!  If anyone has any growing tips for Southern California, I would more than welcome your growing secrets!!!  There is nothing better than fresh home grown tomatoes.

8.  What is your ultimate food fantasy?
My ultimate food fantasy has a bit of personal history to it.  I imagine a great many people’s selection of ultimate food fantasy may have a certain time in their lives imbedded in their choices.  In the late 70’s early 80’s I had the opportunity to live in Boston.  In the spring of 1979, I found myself immersed in this wonderful affair.  Oh “Sweet Bird of Youth”!  On countless weekends we would drive out of the city on day trips to the North Shore., pouring through antique shops and art galleries; drooling over treasures we couldn’t even begin to put a down payment on.  Inevitably we would end up in Essex, MA.  Essex and the neighboring village of Ipswich are surrounded by these incredible estuaries that are the home to the most heavenly clams in the world “Essex/Ipswich littleneck clams”.  We would take several pounds of these beauties back to Boston.

These could be prepared a number of ways, but our favorite method is also the favorite of the locals.  We would steam the clams in natural seawater, a little white wine and a crank of fresh ground pepper, making sure not to over cook them. Once the shells open they are done! Heap them steaming hot in a big bowl in the center of the table.   Grab them by the “feeder” foot, pull them out of the shell, and wash them in a bowl of the hot juice reserved from the steaming to remove the sand.  Then dip them in melted lemon butter and just go insane.  Usually we would accompany them with a simple green salad, some sourdough, and a cheap bottle of champagne.  We just made pigs of ourselves.  It was an incredible mess….but it was heaven..  The affair lasted almost twenty years.  He passed in ’98. It is my favorite food fantasy. Now I only take the journey in my dreams.

9.  If you could choose to have any person living or dead prepare a meal for you, who would it be?  What would you want to eat? 
My mother or her mother, it makes no difference. They are as one to me.  Anything, I would be happy with anything they wanted to prepare; even if they just served me a bowl of warm water.  I would be just fine.

10.  Fill in the blank:  "The most important element of a good meal is __________." 
Good conversation with good people surrounded by simple but decent food and drink.  It doesn’t get any better.