TND – Nostalgia for a Childhood I Never Had

January 18, 2013

braised garlic

Is it possible to be nostalgic for something you’ve never had before? Or have a sense memory of a dish you’ve never eaten?

It will probably surprise no one to learn that I did not grow up in a Spaghetti-O’s kind of house. Ditto on microwave dinners, sugary cereal, delivery pizza, Doritos, or pop tarts. Some of these childhood staples I did sample at friend’s houses with greater or lesser degrees of enjoyment – microwave dinners never did much for me, but I always looked forward to sleeping over at the houses of friends whose mother’s stocked sugary cereals. One way or another, however, I never had Spaghetti-Os in my childhood. This lacunae in my epicurean education did not stop me from experiencing a peculiar form of constructed nostalgia for the TV version of an American childhood I never had, nor particularly ever wanted, when I came across a recipe for homemade Spaghetti-Os. As I read the recipe I could taste the tender meatballs floating in the rich tomato-y soup, and giggled in anticipation of the pleasure of slurping alphabet shaped pasta from my spoon.  I still can’t speak to the pleasures of canned Spaghetti-Os, but I can say with authority that the homemade version is exceedingly tasty.

Oddly, given how much I obsess about food now, I don’t actually have a lot of food memories from childhood. I have some obviously*, but what I remember more clearly than any particular dish is the performance of dinner every night – my mother sipping a Campari & soda while she cooked; setting the dining room table with my parents’ wedding china; selecting the appropriate cutlery from where it was nestled in felt holders in the silver chest (and attempting to convince my father that the round soup spoons were for use with consumes and desserts, the oval shaped soup spoons were for thick soups – yes, I came from the kind of house that had two different sets of silver soup spoons, and the kind of house where you knew what the difference was). And then after we’d eaten, doing everything in reverse – clearing the table and putting away the leftovers; tucking the napkins into everyone’s personal napkin ring for use the next night; my mother washing the dishes while my father dried; putting water on to boil for coffee and tea while dishes were returned to cabinets and silverware was neatly tucked back into its designated space.

The performance of dinner as an everyday ritual wasn’t something that I particularly valued at the time. By that I don’t mean that I didn’t like it, I just never considered the effort it took to achieve, or the value that setting aside time and space for a meal can add to your day. It’s only now that I’m older and have my own household; now that my life is busier, and more scheduled, and carving out time to sit down and eat and converse is sometimes a real challenge that I can really appreciate the value of dinner as something that is more than just the act of eating food.

Setting the table, sitting down to eat and talk, is a punctuation point. It’s a semicolon between the activities of the day, and the activities of the evening. It allows you to pause, to take a breath, to catch up, and unwind. Some weeks I manage dinner at the table almost every night, and some weeks Dinner is the only night of the week that I sit down at a table to eat. I have always loved Dinner, but it has taken me until very recently to realize how much of what I appreciate about it is the commitment from everyone to gather together and share a meal, to stay connected and involved in each other’s lives at a time when we’re all over scheduled and too busy. Without wishing to be too saccharine or maudlin, thank you to all the Dinner folks for making time every week to congregate and share a meal around my table.

* When I was little and still eating dinner before my father got home I vividly remember rooting for what my mother referred to as ‘cold supper’ which involved a rotating cast of characters, but always included apple slices with peanut butter, and a hard-boiled egg. When I was older, I remember my mother and I indulging in artichokes with mock hollandaise sauce, followed by coddled eggs on toast draped with the rest of the hollandaise whenever my father was away for business (because he thinks that artichokes are more work than they’re worth).

Braised Garlic Bread
Salad w/ Ranch Dressing
Fruit Platter

(serves 4)

I find 6 oz of chicken an irritating amount of ground chicken to use (because you’re left with 10 oz of ground chicken and all my recipes are in 8 oz increments), so if you wanted to use a more useful 8oz increase the soup base by ½, and multiply the meatball recipe by 1/3.

If you’re not allergic to nuts, or not serving someone allergic to nuts this is a stupidly simple recipe because you can use a nice quality store bought pesto. If you are – like me – serving someone allergic to nuts this is still a pretty simple recipe, you just have to backtrack slightly and make your own pesto substituting either unsalted pepitas (shelled pumpkin seeds) or unsalted sunflower seeds for the usual pine nuts (see below for a basic pesto recipe).

And finally, if you find yourself in the position of needing to make this a vegetarian recipe – substitute vegetable stock for the chicken stock; omit the meatballs (obviously); and add 4 oz grated cheddar cheese to the soup after the pasta has cooked.

mini meatballs

6 oz ground chicken
3 Tbsp pesto
3 Tbsp dried breadcrumbs
1/8 tsp salt
Pinch pepper

Combine chicken, pesto, bread crumbs, salt and a pinch of pepper in a bowl. Mix well.  Using a heaping tsp gently form mixture into small meatballs (reliably works out to about 9 meatballs/serving).  Refrigerate until needed.

1 Tbsp olive oil
1 onion, coarse chopped
1 carrot, peeled & chopped medium
1 rib celery, coarse chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 ½ cups chicken stock
2 (15 oz) cans diced tomatoes
4 oz small pasta (like ditalini, or if you can find it alphabits)

Heat oil in a saucepan until shimmering.  Saute onions, carrots, and celery until onion is softened. Add garlic and cook 30 seconds.  Add broth, tomatoes in juice and scrape up any browned bits. Bring to a simmer.  Cook, covered, until carrot is softened (15-20 minutes).

Blend soup until smooth.  Bring back to a simmer. Season to taste.  Add pasta and meatballs and simmer 12-15 minutes until meatballs are cooked through.

Pesto (makes about 1 cup)
4 cups fresh basil
¼ – ½ cup olive oil (if using pepitas you may need more because they don’t have the same fat content as pine nuts)
1/3 cup unsalted pepitas (or pine nuts)
2 small cloves garlic
½ cup parmesan
Zest & juice of 1 lemon (to taste)
Salt/pepper (to taste)

Combine the basil, ¼ cup olive oil, pepitas and garlic in a blender and pulse to form a paste. Add the parmesan, lemon zest, and some salt/pepper. Blend until smooth. Add additional olive oil as necessary until you reach the consistency you desire. Adjust seasoning to taste.

Should not be made much in advance of when you plan to use it because the basil will blacken. Can be made and frozen, to be defrosted as you need it.

Braised Garlic Bread

Recipe previously given: Dear Food & Wine

garlic bread

Salad with Ranch Dressing

Ranch Dressing cribbed from this recipe: Cajun Chicken Salad (omitting the cayenne, and adding more lemon zest/juice)

Fruit Platter
Everyone is sick. And by everyone, I mostly mean me. I have tail end of a cold that will not die, and I provided piles of fruit – oranges, pineapple, kumquats, asian pears, kiwis – in an attempt to cure myself, and forestall anyone else from succumbing.

fruit plate


One comment

  1. Sniff. Thanks for hosting us all every week.

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