In honor of my mom, who died 14 years ago yesterday.
(This piece is from the collection Recipes for My Sons: Instructions on Cooking & Life by Nan McCarthy — a work-in-progress of letters to my sons about family, life, and food.)
My mom (or Nana, as she was known to you guys) loved to cook. Like many housewives in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, she cooked dinner from scratch almost every night of the week. We rarely—if ever—ate frozen meals or fast food for dinner, even during the years Nana worked as a real estate agent to support Aunt Gerarda and me after our dad (your Papa) got sick and died. Occasionally we were allowed to order a square-cut, tavern-style pizza from Geneo’s on Halsted (and later from Aurelio’s or Barton’s) but that only happened once every couple months in those days. Mostly it was homemade meatloaf, chicken paprika, pork chops, chicken kiev, beef stroganoff, fried chicken, roast beef on Sundays, fried lake perch on Fridays, and—when she was feeling casual—tostadas, pizza burgers, chop suey, or francheezies (hotdogs split down the middle & stuffed with American cheese, wrapped in bacon, held together with toothpicks and broiled).
These were sit-down meals that almost always (exceptions being the “casual” meals mentioned above) included a meat, a starch, plus a vegetable and salad. The only time we were not expected to partake of the meal being served was when Nana cooked liver and onions, which she loved but which Aunt Gerarda and I disliked so intensely we’d start to retch as soon as the liver hit the frying pan and the putrid smell began to permeate the kitchen. On those nights Nana would let us eat something different, like an Appian Way pizza from the freezer (those being normally reserved for late-night snacking) or a grilled cheese sandwich. Aside from the smell, I came to love the nights my mom made liver and onions, knowing it was the one night we’d get a free pass at the dinner table.
Nana loved trying new recipes too, and one of my favorite memories is of her sitting at our kitchen table in South Holland, both feet perched on the edge of another chair she had pulled beside her, knees bent, a Bon Appétit magazine propped open in her lap, a plate of thick-sliced homegrown tomatoes (heavily salted of course) on the table in front of her, a kitchen towel tucked into her collar to protect her blouse from the tomato drippings. Each new issue of Bon Appétit resulted in at least four or five new creations a month from Nana’s kitchen. Unfortunately I was a picky eater as a child so I didn’t appreciate my mom’s adventurous culinary spirit—which is a shame, because as I mentioned she was an excellent cook.
One dish of Nana’s that I didn’t especially like as a child but which I’ve grown to love over time is Nana’s vegetable soup, which was one of her specialties. She made it often during the cold Chicago winters, but she also made it during other seasons if someone was sick or if a neighbor had a death in the family (it was her version of chicken soup I guess). Even when no one had died or was sick, Nana loved sharing her food creations with the neighbors, especially her vegetable soup. As a child I remember being asked to carefully transport large Tupperware containers filled with Nana’s vegetable soup across the yard or street from our house to the Finlons, Scruggs, Caputos, Petrungaros, Stotts, and others. (This is obviously where I picked up my habit of sharing food with neighbors, one that grew to epic proportions when we lived across the street from my good friend Mary Taylor, who also loved sharing her delicious cooking. It got to the point that anytime I cooked something special when we lived in Grayslake, I’d make extra to send over to the Taylors, knowing Mary was doing the same for us.)
Getting back to Nana, she became known for her vegetable soup among the neighbors, and I remember being frequently asked by my playmates’ parents if my mom would be sending any more of that vegetable soup over any time soon. Of course Nana loved the positive feedback on her cooking and it wouldn’t be long before I found myself transporting another Tupperware container of soup across the yard to said neighbor.
Over the years, but especially since Nana died (and especially during these cold winter months), I find myself craving her homemade vegetable soup. At one point when she was still alive I asked her for her recipe. Like a lot of good cooks with signature recipes, it was not one that she’d written down anywhere; it was just something she made from scratch off the top of her head. But I must have asked her to explain to me how she made it during a phone call, because I found a scrap of paper that I think was from the early 1990s in which I’d jotted down some notes.
Nana’s Homemade Vegetable Soup
Brown 10-20 oxtails in butter in the bottom of a large soup pot. (I actually loved the oxtails in my mom’s soup when I was a kid; now that I’m older I find them repulsive. So in place of the oxtails, these days I sauté the vegetables in 2 Tbsp. butter and 2 Tbsp. olive oil. If I’m really craving a more full-bodied meaty flavor in the soup and I don’t need to keep it strictly vegetarian or without red meat, I’ll replace the 2 Tbsp. olive oil with 2 Tbsp. bacon grease.)
To the melted butter and olive oil (or bacon grease) add sliced carrots, celery, onions, green beans, peas, corn, and asparagus (optional). My notes from Nana say to slice the veggies “on the diagonal.” Once the veggies are softened (about 7-8 minutes), add 2 quarts chicken broth. (Nana’s recipe calls for beef broth. I prefer chicken broth. You can also use vegetable broth.)
Once simmering, add one 28-oz. can crushed tomatoes. (I use Ro-Tel diced tomatoes w/ green chiles plus an extra small can of chopped green chiles, which gives the soup a nice kick that your dad likes.) Add 1 cup medium (not quick-cook) barley, a handful of shredded cabbage, parsley (I use thyme instead), peppercorns, garlic salt, salt & pepper. (I skip the garlic salt, salt & pepper since there’s enough salt in the chicken broth and Ro-Tel already. Plus you can always add more salt at the table if you want.) Nana’s notes say don’t use potatoes in the soup because they don’t freeze well and I agree, mostly because I don’t think the soup needs another starch after the barley. Add 2 Tbsp lemon juice (my addition), cover and simmer on stove three hours. Serve with warm bread and butter.
I always double this recipe—for sharing, of course.