“My grandmother was the best cook, ever.”
That is a testimonial I hear all of the time. It’s usually delivered as a cold, out-of-the-blue opening statement. Someone will approach me at a book signing or after a speech and the conversation typically goes something like this:
“I read your column, and it reminds me of my (insert favorite relative here), she was the best cook.”
“Thanks. So what did she cook?” I ask.
“You know, what was her specialty?”
“Hmmm. I don’t know. Everything. She was a really good cook.”
Nine out of every ten times people have a hard time naming a single item that was a favorite. “Everything,” becomes the popular dish.
In the early days I would keep prying, hoping to get the person to think of a specific recipe or meal. It seemed important to the conversation. If someone is a great cook, they more than likely have one or two “go-to” dishes in their repertoire.
Usually though, the person would continue to stammer and pause naming random dishes but never seeming too sure of their answer. The conversation became awkward instantly.
Then one day I came up with a question that brought forth an accurate response every time. As soon as they started searching their memory bank to find a “best dish,” I would ask, “So if it’s your birthday, and your mother/grandmother/aunt asks, ‘what would you like me to cook for your birthday?’ what is your response?”
I typically receive an answer instantly, and almost all of the time it ends up being the recipe or dish the relative was best at in the kitchen. Birthday dinners are the key. I can tell you in a matter of three seconds what I would request from my maternal grandmother, pancakes, if asked by my paternal grandmother, leg of lamb.
My mother doesn’t have to ask what I what I would like for her to cook on my birthday. It’s been the same answer for most of my life.
Recently I turned 52-years old— a full deck of cards without the jokers. My mother called and offered to prepare a birthday supper. “Stuffed peppers?” she asked. It was a rhetorical question of the highest order. It’s that paternal shorthand that we develop over the years. It was all she needed to say.
“Of course,” I replied.
That was my go-to birthday meal— stuffed peppers. If she were speaking parental shorthand to my brother the question would be, “gumbo?”
Stuffed peppers are a very unlikely favorite food for me. I don’t like bell peppers, and don’t even eat them when served stuffed peppers. To me, the bell pepper adds flavor and serves as a vessel to hold the ground beef. My mother’s recipe is basic: Ground beef, canned tomatoes, bell peppers, salt, and pepper.
Rice, which is a typical ingredient in most stuffed peppers, is not an ingredient used in my mother’s recipe. That’s fine with me because rice is only there to be used as a filler to make the meat stretch a little farther. It’s probably something someone threw in during World War II rationing to help ease budgets and the meat supply.
If you ask my son what he wants for his birthday meal, he will probably reply, “steak.” We didn’t eat a lot of steak when I was a kid. Though had you given me a choice of what I wanted to eat for supper on my 12th birthday— steak or stuffed peppers— the answer would have been, “stuffed peppers.”
Today, no one needs to ask.
Sitting alongside my stuffed pepper will always be a pile of mashed potatoes with a nest of English peas on top. For dessert: Yellow cake with chocolate icing.
I can eat steak if I want. We have hundreds of pounds of fine cuts and even USDA Certified Prime filets, ribeyes, and strips in the restaurant inventory. But for this past birthday, as with all others that have come before at my mother’s home, I ate stuffed peppers.
I developed a stuffed recipe for a grilling cookbook I wrote a few years ago. It’s not as basic as my mother’s recipe, and the peppers can still be baked if you’re not in the mood to fire up their grill. It’s a great recipe, but it doesn’t come with a mother’s love.
Stuffed Grilled Peppers
1 Tbl bacon fat
1 cup yellow onion, small dice
1 tsp steak seasoning
1 tsp kosher salt
2 Tbl sugar
1 tsp black pepper, freshly ground
2 tsp fresh garlic, minced fine
1/4 tsp dry basil
1/4 tsp dry oregano
1/8 tsp dry thyme
2 Tbl tomato paste
1 egg, slightly beaten
1 1/2 pounds lean ground beef
1 28 0unce can diced tomatoes, drained very well
6 large bell peppers, tops and seeds removed
In a small sauté pan, heat the bacon fat over medium heat. Add onions, steak seasoning, salt, sugar and pepper and cook 3-4 minutes. Add the garlic, basil, oregano and thyme and cook one more minute. Stir in the tomato paste and cook 4-5 minutes, stirring constantly.
Remove mixture from the heat and transfer to a large mixing bowl. Allow to cool completely.
Once the mixture has cooled, mix in the egg, ground beef and drained tomatoes. Fill each pepper with the ground beef mixture.
Prepare the grill. Cook the peppers over indirect medium heat for 20-25 minutes.
Remove from the grill and serve.
Yield: 6 servings