My Mom, Billie, was a great home cook. She came by it honestly as her father was a chef in the San Fernando Valley during the early 1920s and had one of the first drive up restaurants in Los Angeles.
The restaurant, called “The Mushroom Inn” was located just behind Paramount Studios (which since then took over the area where the restaurant stood) and was actually shaped like the beloved culinary fungi. My Grandad, Will, cooked up some of the best pit barbecue in the area according to my Mom and there were plenty of bit actors trekking over from the studios to pull up a stool at the open air counter.
I think Mom liked taking the journeys down memory lane to relate stories of some of the old-time cowboy actors who would show up for lunch when she was just a little kid.
She fondly remembered the time when Tom Mix, who was a very famous movie star of the early westerns, sat her on his knee while enjoying Grandad's fare. Some of her stories focused on cooking techniques her father used which were quite different then and much slower.
Food was something carefully prepared sometimes over days, weeks or months. She told me stories of him making Christmas fruitcakes that were ritually smothered now and then over a period of a couple of months with brandy, and the process of aging meat that involved hanging cuts in a cold locker which after it aged, growing a layer of mold, would be scraped and carefully cooked.
I'm sure it was her observations of his methods that allowed her to make any cut of meat tender and tasty, along with the ability to coax the most wonderful gravy from all of it.
Her real skill however was baking. Cakes, cookies and pies, were always a staple even though my Dad would commonly comment that you never ruin a good meal with dessert! I can remember my brothers coming home from school to a tray of chocolate chip cookies, grabbing what they could stack between their middle finger and thumb, commandeering the gallon of ice cold milk from the refrigerator and disappearing to their bedroom to do homework.
Later in life, when all the kids were grown and gone, she took to making homemade bread. Nothing like coming to the house filled with the smell of a hot loaf just out of the oven. She'd always offer me a warm, thick slice with a generous blob of butter oozing precariously across the top.
Mom passed way in 2013 and I'm still bummed I can't find the apple sheet cake recipe that everyone loved amongst the cherished recipes she left behind.
I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area in the “village” of San Lorenzo. Our neighborhood was filled with kids my age which included the family across the street boasting an Italian grandpa, Checko, who had actually been a chef in the old country and luckily their daughter Tisa was one of my best friends.
I ate there often, especially when my Mom made liver and onions (she would always warn me of the impending menu so I could find somewhere else to eat dinner which was usually at Tisa's). On occasion, my friend would invite me on one of their very early morning fishing trips to the docks on Treasure Island.
Checko and his son John, Tisa's father, were avid bay fisherman. My parents were fisherman too but mainly stream fishing for trout in the Sierra Nevadas. Fishing with Tisa's family usually meant we were fished out by 8 or 9 in the morning and would come home with some beautiful fish.
I specifically remember hooking into a school of rock cod and bringing several dozen home which Checko filleted and prepared that night for a special dinner... and special it was.
The other family I ate with a lot was my friend Debbie and her three sisters. This was a different cuisine however than the classic Italian and American fare I was used to. The most memorable meal there was, believe it or not, hamburger and potato tacos. Debbie's Mom, Janet, would cube potatoes into small chunks and fry them until golden brown while she cooked the hamburger in a separate pan, then mixed everything together and stuffed it in fried corn tortillas.
It was so exotic to me and I loved taco night Debbie's house! I'm not sure my Mom even knew what a tortilla was.
We always had dinners together, all 7 of us, when my older siblings were still at home. One by one, the dinner table shrank unless we brought friends or significant others, until finally I was the only one left.
I was 7 years younger than the next youngest child so I was left at home with Mom and Dad and during that time, I began cooking for them. I think after all the years Mom put all those delicious meals on the table for her family, she was quite thankful that I was willing to step in and take over once in awhile.
I will always think of those childhood friends with fondness. The potato and hamburger tacos were something I will never forget. It's said that throughout our adult lives, we look for those experiences that remind us of fond memories of our childhood so maybe that's where I got my love of experimenting with Mexican cooking.
And speaking of Mexican cuisine, I love the recipe I developed below as my take on a fresh cilantro sauce which we love to slather on marinated steak tacos, shredded pork tamales and especially huevos rancheros. The measurements are suggested depending on your favorite tastes. If you especially like the taste of cilantro, put in more. If you don't like so much of the garlic heat, pull back on a few bulbs. Add more cheese if you like it cheesy! Experiment, but make sure you keep it chunky.
1 bunch cilantro
1 entire bulb of garlic
¼ cup roasted pumpkin seed
½ cup avocado oil
¼ cup grated manchego hard cheese
salt & pepper
red pepper flakes (optional)
Before you wash the cilantro, cut off the bottom section of stems below the twist tie. Wash thoroughly and cut the bunch into three sections.
Place cilantro, lime juice, pealed garlic bulbs, pumpkin seeds and avocado oil in food processor. Pulse until it is rough chopped in little chunks.
Add the cheese and briefly pulse. Remove from processor and add salt and pepper to taste and a few red pepper flakes.