For five years I lived a block away from my grandparent's "city house." Though, in hindsight, I'm sure it was a mixed blessing for my parents, it was nothing but wonderful for me. It is all too rare these days for a child to be able to visit his grandparents more or less at will. It is a life-changing experience; an education that cannot be gained any other way.
My memory of that house is forever colored by magic. Though it was a fairly typical Victorian, compared to our apartment, it seemed huge. Its double-lot was perfect for tag or baseball. An ancient pear tree stood sentry beside the garage, guarding the remains of my uncle's 1932 Ford coupe. The woods behind were always ready for childhood adventures. Seamus, the elderly Scottie next door, provided hours of live entertainment.
Inside was even better. The house was full of treasures. Of course, only a child could conjure the spirits hidden in them. A wooden-handled chisel polished smooth by my young grandfather's hand. A pillbox hat worn to Midnight Mass in 1953. A cap gun last played with by my father thirty years before. Three green glass cookie jars that never emptied. The spirits awaited my touch like the genie of the lamp.
Under the watchful eyes of Jesus, Mary, and JFK, these ghosts preserved the house and its memories. I often spent the night and, if the mood was right, I could almost see them as I went upstairs to bed: my aunt doing homework lying on her bed, my uncle quietly building a model airplane, my father hanging a gunbelt and cowboy hat on his bedpost. As I drifted off to the murmuring television and the percolator, I wondered if I would awake to find my grandparents thirty years younger.
My grandparents were quietly devout, in the Irish-Catholic way. My grandfather bore the mark of the Jesuits and would happily defend the faith. My grandmother kept her own counsel. Though she, too, professed to believe all the Catechism contained, her views were not open for discussion. I knew she was far too intelligent to have given the matter no thought. I also knew that those thoughts would never be shared. They never were.
Keeping the faith was as much a matter of tradition as devotion. To my delight, one tradition my grandparents kept was serving fish on Fridays. My mother was a fine cook, back when she still used ingredients. Unfortunately, my sisters were not fine eaters and one thing they hated was fish. Hated. Fish. For the sake of her own sanity, my mother rarely served it.
Now I loved fish. I was an adventurous child who would try anything. This would later be a problem when I became an adventurous teen who would try anything. Still, I loved fish, so I made it my own tradition to join my grandparents for a fish dinner every Friday. They were happy to oblige me. My grandmother loved to cook, but she loved cooking for an appreciative audience even more.
If I could, I would share her recipes. The problem is there are no recipes. She did not cook that way. To her, cooking was a game, a challenge, an art. Fortunately, she taught me the rules of the game. In short, they are these:
1) The meal must make use of what is on sale and in season.
2) The meal must taste good and be easy to prepare.
3) The meal must appear to be much more work than it really was.
Of course, she broke these rules herself as often as not. She would slave away at a dish if she thought the end result worthwhile, or if she was inspired, or if she was just so bored with what she had been making she was desperate for change. Still, as rules go, they are good ones. Since it is Friday, and if you have no better ideas, should you wish to recreate one of these wonderful meals, a rough guide follows.
First, you begin with your supermarket circular. This is the hardest part of the game. Find the least expensive fish. This week in my area, it is tilapia fillets at $3.99/lb. So I will be making that. Since it is December, fresh vegetables are not plentiful. Butternut squash or carrots might be an option. However, in my grandfather's memory, I will be baking potatoes. For me, that rules out squash, as I don't want two relatively mushy items. Carrots might be better, especially if you have a child or grandchild to julienne them for you. If not, you could just slice them according to your fashion. So, our menu: broiled tilapia, baked potato, carrots.
To channel my grandmother's spirit, take a couple of tablespoons of mayonnaise and marinate the fish fillets in it for an hour or so. Don't worry about the fat. It will all cook off as you broil it. You might also flavor the mayonnaise, perhaps with lemon juice, or some lemon pepper, or a bit of curry. I'm going to go with the curry, myself. Set the fish aside, refrigerated.
Now my grandmother firmly believed that dessert is something you buy. Still, every now and then, when she wanted to show her heart was truly in a meal, she would make one. Here is a Nana-approved dessert. It is delicious, and only slightly more difficult than making a ham-and-cheese sandwich.
Mash up two 8 oz. bars of cream cheese in a large bowl. Take two boxes of Jell-O, perhaps lemon or orange, I'll use lemon. Dissolve them in 2 cups of boiling water. Mix that with the cream cheese. Now you pour the mixture into a pre-baked pie shell, or a graham cracker crust, or into cups for that matter, and put it in the refrigerator to set, an hour or two should do. Since I will be making lemon pie, I will serve it with a sprig of mint and some whipped cream.
Set the potatoes in to bake, about an hour at 350, or just microwave them, if that's more your style. Julienne the carrots and cook them in as little water as possible, covered, about 10 minutes, then turn off the heat. While the carrots cook, put your fish under the broiler, perhaps 10-15 minutes, depending on the thickness. Keep an eye on it and don't overcook. Let your plates warm on the back of the stove if you can.
When everything is done, strain the carrots and toss with a little butter. Plate your fish, carrots and potato. Sprinkle a little chopped fresh parsley on the fish and put a lemon slice alongside. Serve with sour cream, butter, and chive for the potato, and some Pepperidge Farm or Arnold's white bread. Don't forget to say grace. Have some pie while the coffee brews. Have some coffee and relax at the table. Wash the dishes together or leave them for the morning. Enjoy each other's company.
Repeat each Friday. You never know how many there will be.