Why You Should Eat Like My Grandpa: An American Soldier’s Comfort Food Reimagined (by Ian S. Levine)

When I was seven, my grandfather gave me my first cooking lesson in the kitchen of his Florida home. Surrounded by blood orange trees and the smell just before a big storm, I felt my knife’s stainless steel blade balanced, cold, and right in my hand. He cleared his throat. A sign to watch him.

Today we were learning how to test the sharpness of a knife. My grandfather flipped his over so it was blade side up, and quickly strummed the meat of his thumb widthwise over the blade. He was a surgeon, and must’ve been very used to holding sharp objects.  I, however, was not. When it was my turn, another clearing of the throat. Eager to show him how quickly I had learned, I turned my blade over and ran my pointer finger down the full length of the blade—hard.

That was my very first lesson in cooking. And it was a lesson, alright.  Because as soon as he bandaged me up; my grandfather, the former Naval officer, sent me right back out to do it again.

In the years we would spend together—cooking, mostly—he would joke about that day, always pointing to a framed needle stitch of a doctor saying God, give me more patients. That mattered to him. He would eat his meals deliberately and sip his Scotch mindfully. One Chanukah, not too long after that, he gave me my first sip of Scotch, a rite of passage I’ll never forget. Join me, won’t you?

This wintertime version of my grandfather’s simple Scotch & soda is originally by Roxanne Webber from Chow, and adapted for the health-conscious to make smoky, hot apple cider.

Smoky Sugar-free Apple Cider

You’ll need:

  • 1 cup sugar-free apple cider
  • 2 teaspoons honey
  • 2 cinnamon sticks
  • 4 tablespoons Glenlivet
  • 1/2 teaspoon Laphroaig
  • 1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice

Directions:

  1. Heat the sugar-free apple cider, honey, cinnamon stick in a small saucepan over medium heat, stirring until the honey has melted and the cinnamon is fragrant, about 3 minutes.
  2. Then turn off the heat, add both Scotches and the lemon juice, and stir to combine. Transfer to a heatproof glass and garnish with the cinnamon stick.

I still remember that after my grandfather would get warmed up from a drink, he would cross his legs, lean back in his chair, and just take in the world.

I’d sit under his arm, and he’d let me watch the blood in his blood vessels disappear and reappear as he’d raise his hand above his heart. I didn’t know it at the time, but he was getting me interested in anatomy. I would soon combine my interest in anatomy with my love of cooking to become a butcher’s apprentice. It was while under the employ of a local butcher shop that I learned how to prepare my grandfather’s comfort food, Steak Tartare. This version of my grandfather’s go-to meal is originally by Emeril Lagasse via The Food Network, and has been adapted for the health conscious to make two beautiful, raw patties. Pull up a chair. People don’t eat like they used to.

Steak Tartare

Steak Tartare

You’ll need:

  • 12 ounces organic, grass-fed 93% lean ground beef
  • Low-sodium Worcestershire sauce
  • Low-sodium, Sugar-free hot pepper sauce
  • Salt
  • Freshly cracked black pepper
  • 2 tablespoons drained capers
  • 2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
  • 1/3 cup minced red onion
  • 1/3 cup finely chopped parsley
  • 2 eggs
  • 4 slices of whole wheat bread, brushed with olive oil and lightly toasted
  • Extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 sardines

Directions:

  1. Season beef to taste with Worcestershire sauce, hot pepper sauce, salt and black pepper.
  2. Shape the meat into 2 patties of equal size and center each on their plates.
  3. Around each meat patty arrange half of the capers, Dijon mustard, red onion and parsley.
  4. Carefully break the 2 eggs, reserving the yolk.  Then sit an egg in the center of each patty.
  5. Serve the Steak Tartare with toast points, olive oil, and hot pepper sauce and Worcestershire sauces on the side.

It was staring up at me, this blob of mashed potato whiteness and chives with multiple, green unyielding eyes.

He sat himself beside me and showed me that you’re supposed to flatten the mashed potatoes to simulate a battlefield. My grandfather was one of the surgeons who saved the life of outspoken racist and Governor of Alabama, George Wallace. I don’t know if I could’ve done that. So accepting mashed potato advice was a no-brainer. Soon, everything fell into place. The peas were perfect soldiers, and soon I was—mm—popping them into my mouth. I was digging trenches before you knew it.

Get ready for war, soldier. This is our last recipe together, with a contemporary twist. And I intend to have it stick to your ribs.

Garlic & Truffle Oil Whipped Potatoes

You’ll need:

  • 2 Yukon Gold potatoes
  • 2 tablespoons low-fat sour cream
  • 2 tablespoons butter substitute
  • 1 garlic clove minced (let stand for 15 minutes before use)
  • Salt
  • Freshly cracked black pepper
  • A dash of white truffle oil
  • Parsley for garnish

Directions: 

  1. Peel the potatoes under running water and slice each into thirds. Place in heavy saucepan and put enough water over to cover potatoes. Make sure they still have room to move around in the pan.
  2. Add about 1 tbsp. olive oil to the water.  Bring to a boil over high heat, then turn the heat down to medium and continue boiling, stirring occasionally, for about 30 minutes, or until the potatoes are soft when pierced with a fork.
  3. Remove from the heat and drain excess water. Leave potatoes in the saucepan, and plug in a handheld electric mixer.
  4. Gradually add each ingredient except the truffle oil. Wait for your potatoes to cool to room temperature before adding it, as temperature affects taste.

It wasn’t until after my grandfather’s funeral that the really funny stuff came out. Apparently, he and my grandmother were once in a spat for days over what color to paint the living room. My grandfather wanted green, she wanted white. One day, my grandmother entered the living room to discover he had painted the f-bomb, in green, wall-to-wall. That’s who he was. At the funeral, my three brothers and I all coincidentally got Scotch and soda. We looked at one another, and drank a toast in silent. I guess he gave them cooking lessons, too. It’s in that vein that this entire article is dedicated to those who want to learn how to cook. (Tweet!) My grandfather got me started. Now go out and eat like your Grandpa.

Ian S. Levine

Ian Levine is an aspiring English professor and food critic who believes that eating is nothing less than a religious experience. Currently, Ian has his hand in three literary magazines, overseeing them from concept to publication. Their links, as well as some of his published poetry, can be found on Ian’s LinkedIn profile.

Interested in submitting a guest post? Email: Lauren[at]rootiefoodie.com
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