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Remembering Dear John letters, and my own dearly loved John | WHIDBEY RECIPES
Are you old enough to remember what a “Dear John” letter was? I’m not sure if such a thing still exists in this day of instant communication with our devices; perhaps now you simply text the person you want to “dump” and do it. But, during several of our assorted wars, large and small, when a soldier on deployment received a “Dear John” letter, it meant that the person supposedly waiting for him to return was, in fact, not going to wait after all, and was informing him of the situation in that letter. We all knew what “getting a Dear John letter” meant.
Well, I’ve been writing Dear John letters for a little over a year now, but they’re a bit different from the type I described above. Mine are addressed to my Dear John, whom I lost a bit more than a year ago. He’s not on deployment, but he is missing in action, gone to wherever we believe good people go when their bodies fail them. Because it was a shock then, and still is, that I no longer physically have the love of my life present in my life, I began writing letters to him to keep in touch — my dear John letters. This is one of those I wrote recently; it has to do with our kitchen.
“Dear John, What in the world did you do with your recipe for Pissaladierre? I can’t find it in any of the usual places you kept your favorite recipes, and I’d like to make it for Jay, Gina and kids when they come for a visit. I have Walla Walla Sweets and beautiful ripe tomatoes, and I know that’s what you always waited to have on hand to make your fabulous Pissaladierre. I found your Eggplant Sauce Recipe, and the one for the Mustard Ring Norell that always blew everyone away. I wonder how many friends and relatives you gave that recipe to over the years.
“I’m sure you know, John, that being in our small, one-butt kitchen without you there to bump into is one of the hardest parts of getting used to life without you. You were such a good cook, and that always inspired me to try to keep up with your insatiable desire to create great food. You were almost as good in the kitchen as you were out in your woodworking shop, and it’s difficult for me now to have the same passion to create new dishes without your input.
“In short, John, life in our kitchen is just not the same now, and would you please remind me, if you can, where you kept your Pissaladierre recipe? I have others for that particular treat, but they’re not the same and definitely not as luscious as yours. I’ll find it I’m sure, but I’d appreciate some help?
“Love, as ever, Margy”
No, I haven’t yet found that Pissaladierre recipe; when I do (and I know I will) I’ll pass it along in another column, Meanwhile, here are three of John’s all time favorites, dishes he prepared many, many times over the years and that I still use when I’m cooking for more than myself.
JOHN’S MUSTARD RING NORELL
¾ cup sugar
1 envelope unflavored gelatin
1 ½ t. dry mustard
¼ t. salt
1 cup water
1 cup whipping cream
½ cup cider vinegar
½ t. turmeric
Beat whole eggs in top of a double boiler. In a bowl, mix sugar and gelatin thoroughly. Stir in the mustard, turmeric and salt.
Add water and vinegar to the eggs. Stir in the sugar mixture and cook over boiling water until thickened and smooth, stirring constantly. Remove from heat and allow to cool (it will thicken a bit more). Whip the cream to soft peaks and stir into the mustard mixture. Pour into a 1 ½ qt. ring mold; refrigerate until firm. When ready to serve, unmold onto a serving plate lined with greens (or a paper lace mat; whatever pleases you) and fill center with fresh Italian parsley sprigs, or a handful of fresh basil leaves. Serves 6-8.
This is excellent and striking served with ham, spare ribs, grilled lamb chops or leg of lamb, barbecued/grilled or baked salmon, halibut, and it’s beautiful on a potluck table.
JOHN’S ALL-PURPOSE EGGPLANT SAUCE
1 large, firm eggplant, stem end removed, cut into about ½-inch cubes
1 head garlic, cloves peeled, minced
1/3 cup olive oil
1 can (28 oz.) plum tomatoes (or Italian pear shape)
4 cans (15 oz.) tomato sauce
1 ½ cups port wine
1 ½ cups chopped fresh Italian parsley
3 T. (packed) brown sugar
2 to 3 T. chopped fresh oregano
2 bay leaves
1 stick cinnamon
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
In a large saucepan or Dutch oven, heat oil until shimmering. Add eggplant and garlic and cook, stirring, just until softened (be careful not to burn the garlic). Add tomatoes with their juice, breaking up a bit with a spoon. Add remaining ingredients, bring to a simmer; cook until reduced to about 3 quarts and somewhat thickened. Remove bay leaves and cinnamon stick; allow to cool or use immediately; keep sauce refrigerated until ready to use.
This sauce is excellent as a pizza sauce, pasta sauce, over pulled pork or chicken, or as a barbecue sauce. You can spice it up more with red pepper flakes or chili sauce, if desired.
John and I began putting out our own crab pots during the crab season in 1981; our last pull together was in the summer of 2011, and we never tired of crab. After we’d enjoyed the fresh cooked, cooled, cracked and eaten feast, if we had enough leftover crab, John liked to turn it into a deviled crab dish he came up with, a combination from three or four other recipes he’d tried. It’s still one of my all-time top favorite things to do with freshly cooked Dungeness.
J’S DEVILED CRAB
6 T. butter
1 cup soft bread crumbs
¼ cup flour
¾ t. salt and 1/3 t. ground black pepper (or to taste)
½ t. Worchestershire sauce
½ t. dry mustard
1 ½ t. prepared horseradish
1 ½ cups milk
1 lb. fresh crab meat
1 T. fresh lemon juice
Chopped parsley, for garnish
In a large saucepan, melt the butter. Remove 2 T. of the melted butter and add it to the bread crumbs. Blend the flour and seasonings into the remaining butter in the saucepan, add the milk and cook over med. heat, stirring, until thickened. Add remaining ingredients, blend in and remove from heat.
Divide mixture into 4 small individual casseroles, (or put into one med. casserole). Top with buttered crumbs. Bake in a preheated 400 degree oven for about 10 min. for the small casseroles, or about 15 min. for one med. casserole, or until just golden brown on top. Serves 4.