Monday, May 11, 2009

My Mother, Kitchen Goddess

I was an incredibly picky eater as a child. It’s hard to believe now, looking back, that I was just so scared of most food. There were many things to avoid! Tomatoes were filled with gross seeds, steak contained nubs of shudder-inducing chewy fat, and milk smelled strange—not sour, mind you, just…strange. I didn’t like my mother’s corned beef or her hamburgers, although everyone else in my family ate them hungrily, showing their approval with empty plates. My parents were deeply worried about my protein intake, given that most of my food hang-ups revolved around meat. Perhaps it’s not surprising now that I grew up to become a vegetarian, and that I’m always double-checking my meal plans to make sure they include a nice source of protein. I may have lost my chance to grow up tall, but I’m determined to be as strong as I can be!

Despite my aversion for most meat, I absolutely loved my mother’s tuna fish sandwiches. It’s so odd! I disliked beef, but I liked fish? Beef is so hearty, so satisfying, so rich. Tuna is…fishy. Its flavor is sharp, almost metallic, and after you eat it, you have tuna breath, which makes the cat unusually interested in your mouth. My mom knew just what to do with a can of tuna to make it sing with flavor. I think her version started as most versions do, with mayonnaise, and she dolled it up with chopped fresh celery. There may have been a bit of onion involved, and a few shakes of celery salt, and of course plenty of pepper. Whatever she did, it was marvelous served on toast, preferably gobbled down within minutes of mixing up the tuna sandwich spread. I never had any problems putting away tuna sandwiches.

My mom was a good sport about my odd eating habits. For the most part, she let me be, although my shockingly high sugar consumption did not go unnoticed. My mom let me eat what I thought tasted good, and it didn’t matter if it was totally bizarre. I used to eat hot dogs straight out of the package. I’d fold slices of American cheese into a little cheese stack and eat the stack, one tiny slice after another. I liked peanut butter off a spoon (come to think of it, I still like that) and lots of cinnamon toast. My mom used to make something she called “French toast,” which involved buttered, toasted white bread on which she’d pour some syrup and then plunk it down in front of me. It wasn’t real French toast, but it sure was tasty. And when we ate rice, we’d top it with a pat of margarine and douse it with soy sauce. That was exotic eating at its best in our house.

My eating habits today don’t bare much resemblance to those of my childhood. Sure, I still love cinnamon toast and I think few things smell nicer than a pot of cooking rice. But I’m no longer a junk-food addict, and dinner is likely to be something a little more substantial than a bowl of cereal. Learning to cook changed everything for me, and I credit my mom’s relaxed attitude for my own happiness in the kitchen. If I wanted to cook something, that was cool with her. I remember one time we set out to make a mocha cheesecake just because I wanted to. That day, the power went out while the cheesecake was baking, so we ended up with this weird sort of half-baked, half-raw creation. I think it tasted okay; I do remember eating a LOT of this ill-fated mocha cheesecake! I have yet to try that recipe again, but my guess is that it actually tastes pretty good when made properly.

I don’t think my mother was ever really rattled by my kitchen endeavors, and for that, I am very thankful. Because of her, I have a never-ending sense of optimism in the kitchen—cooking is always an adventure. I feel good about my ability to make good food, and I don’t spend much time thinking about what happens if my cooking turns out poorly that night. I’m not immune to kitchen disappointment, but it doesn’t permeate my sense of confidence. Cooking is the one area of my life that I can lean on for reassurance when everything else is falling apart. It is my rock, my beacon of hope, my comforter. Mom gave me life, and then she gave me the tools to take care of myself. It’s hard to ask for anything more.

I may no longer eat tuna fish, but I still love the flavor of tuna fish sandwiches. You can imagine how ecstatic I was when I discovered that vegetarians have their very own version of tuna fish, a surprisingly tasty mixture of mashed chickpeas, mayo, and an assortment of vegetables and herbs. I first made it with some skepticism, but after a single sandwich, I was won over. It’s a recipe I’ve written about before, and while the classic deserves its place in my recipe archives, last week I was introduced to a newcomer who ought to become a part of my summer rotation this year.

I call it “The Robin.” It’s Robin’s sandwich, really, she of Caviar and Codfish, a blog I don’t read nearly as often as I should. I don’t know of anyone who takes more gorgeous photos or who writes as lovingly as she does about eating locally produced food. She makes me want to move to the country, right now! While I remain city-bound, I’ll just stop by her blog for delicious food and even more delicious stories. Last week, Robin gave us a recipe for a dreamy tuna fish sandwich, one made with pesto, avocado, and radishes. Yum! I wanted one, too. So I went home and made an impressive vegetarian version. I was particularly pleased that I didn’t even have to stop by the grocery store, not because I’m opposed to that sort of thing, but rather because I seem to be spending more money than I should these days. Anyway, I thought you should know about this sandwich too, if you haven’t already heard about it. Pay Robin a visit, or contemplate a vegetarian version like the one I’ll give you now. And call your mother to tell her you love her, even though you were the pickiest eater out of her whole brood.

“The Robin,” or Vegetarian Tuna Fish Sandwich with Pesto and Avocado
Serves 1

This sandwich is outstanding: hearty, nutritious, and packed with interesting flavors. I didn’t have any radishes on hand when I made my sandwiches, so I’m going to list those as optional here. I do think they’d add a nice crunch though.

Note that the chickpea mash (the “tuna fish”) makes enough for 3-4 sandwiches. I like to eat this sandwich as an open-faced version on two slices of bread, so it’s sort of like two sandwiches in one.

For the vegetarian tuna fish:
Several tablespoons of plain yogurt (low-fat is okay) to taste
1 can chickpeas, rinsed and drained
Fresh lime juice to taste
Salt to taste
Freshly ground pepper to taste

For a sandwich:
2 slices of good sandwich bread
A few spoonfuls of excellent green pesto (I used Cibo Naturals Classic Basil Pesto)
A generous portion of vegetarian tuna fish (see above)
Half of an avocado, sliced into thick slices
A radish or two, thinly sliced (optional)
2 leaves of Romaine lettuce, chopped

1) To make the vegetarian tuna fish, line a mesh strainer with a clean (unused) coffee filter. Place the yogurt inside the coffee filter and place the strainer over a bowl. Let the yogurt drain for a few minutes to thicken it.
2) While the yogurt is draining, place the chickpeas in a large bowl. Use a potato masher to mash them coarsely. Add enough drained yogurt to moisten the chickpeas into a nice, spreadable mixture. Squeeze some lime juice into the mixture and season to taste with salt and pepper. Taste the chickpeas and decide if they need any more yogurt, lime juice, salt, or pepper. You might be inclined to season them with something else—go right ahead!
3) Assemble your sandwich. Toast the bread. Slather some pesto on top of each slice of bread. Top with a few spoonfuls of the chickpea mixture. Lay the avocado slices on top and finish with the radishes (if using) and a nice handful of chopped lettuce over the avocado. Serve immediately.


ttfn300 said...

oh how time have changed! i, too, was a picky eater... i would pick out peppers and onions and line them around the edge of my plate. Brussels sprouts and beets had to be at the other end of the table!! i've seen this mock tuna salad for the second time today, guess that means it's time to get in the kitchen :)

ammie said...

I wouldn't even eat lettuce for years as a child and even into high school and college. That's one of the most ridiculous things i can think of not eating now. But anyway, this sounds delicious! I like tuna fish still, but I'm going to make the veggie version as soon as I get the chance :)

Rosiecat said...

Hee hee! ttfn, I only eat Brussels sprouts and beets when someone else makes them for me. I'm just not a huge fan. Does that mean I'm still a picky eater? But peppers and onions: yes please! Raw, cooked, it doesn't even matter. I love them.

This mock tuna salad DOES seem like the kind of thing you'd like--a new healthy spin on an old favorite. If you try it, let me know what you think! (PS It's really good with provolone cheese, too.)

Lettuce is awfully menacing, Ammie...I can see why you were suspicious ;-) I think The Robin would be great with either tuna or mock tuna. If you try either, report back with your results!

JD said...

I am unusual in that as a kid, I used to loooove black olives. MY brother and I would fiht over who got the pizza slice with more black olives... now I can't stand them. I have no idea why, I just hit this point where they were no longer good. I know most people expand their culinary tastes as they get older, and I have as well, especially with regards to onions and peppers. I just thought it interesting that I have a reverse experience on something.

Rosiecat said...

JD, that's so funny. It's taken me years to learn to enjoy black olives on pizza. Now, even just thinking about them makes me crave a slice of pizza with black olives and green peppers on top--yum!

Have you tried black olives recently? Maybe you just needed some time off from them.

Hey, quick random question for you. Do you and the Wife grow tomatoes in your garden?

JD said...

WE most certainly do grow tomatoes. We even make our own salsa and can it. Its might tasty is I do say so myself. I believe we are planting the baby plants this weekend.

Nicole said...

It's funny-- black olives are one of the very few foods that I CANNOT eat. In fact, when I accidentally took a bite of an olive sandwich (thinking it was something else), I gagged and had to spit it out in my hand, despite the complete rudeness of doing so. Yuck. The worst was that we always had to get black olives on pizza because my sister liked them and I "could pick them out." They just don't realize that black olive essence permeates everything! Blech!

Conversely, this sandwich (in both tuna and vegetarian form) sounds delicious! I should try it sometime soon! :)

Rosiecat said...

JD, how exciting! I'm wondering if you and the Wife might consider a humble request when I visit you in September: fried green tomatoes. I've got some recipes that call for pan-frying (rather than deep-frying). It just seems like such a fun thing to make together. What do you think? Can we twist the Wife's arm into some frying fun?

Good luck with the babies this weekend!

Oh, Nicole, you poor long-suffering woman! I know what you mean about black olives contaminating everything--they're just so potent! I only like olives in small amounts. Once, I dared myself to try a muffaletta sandwich (essentially an olive sandwich), and it was just awful. Blech. This is one of the things I love about being a home cook: you can make everything exactly as YOU like it.

Caviar and Codfish said...

Wow, I can't even put to words how wonderful you just made me feel! Such nice words! You are so great. :)

And I loved reading about your picky childhood. I was the complete opposite (still am). I'd eat anything, even the grilled red onion, banana, and peanut butter sandwiches that my uncle would make.

My father and my sister, though, are different stories. My sister broke my mother down with her pickyness until my mom let her eat this sugary cereal called Waffles and sugar dusted crepes and french toast almost ALL THE TIME. Meanwhile, I was munching on my favorite foods: raw green beans, raisins, and fig newtons. :)

I'm definitely trying your version of the sandwich. I even have a can of chickpeas in the pantry, just waiting for lunch.

Rosiecat said...

Thanks for stopping by, Ms. Caviar and Codfish! Your comment made my day. I envy your fearlessness when it comes to food. But that grilled red onion, banana, and peanut butter sandwich sounds strangely appealing to me...I love all of those foods! And the onion just *might* work...

Your poor mother! At least she knew you'd be happy at the table no matter what :-)

I'm keeping up with your blog these days, although I often like to read along without saying anything. So keep on cooking! My belly and I thank you.