Cottage Cuisine

This post originally appeared in the Bloomington Herald Times on August 10, 2005

I spent most of my
summers up till the time I was about 16 on the wind-swept, duney shores of Lake Michigan.  Everything about going to the lake was
bliss to me – a world apart from my life in New York, where  where my days were dogged by
all the fleeting joys and enduring embarrassments of adolescence. Going to the
lake was a respite, a chance to reinvent myself. I was still a moody, dreamy
teenager, but as I walked the sands, gazing into the sunset and smoking
clandestine cigarettes, it was possible to believe that this, too, as my mom
always promised, would one day pass.

Well
pass it did. (Mom is always right.) When I think of those wonderful lake days
now, what I mostly remember is not the angst but the sparkling water and
burning hot sand, the good and lasting friendships and – surprise, surprise –
the food we ate.

We
never ate fancy at the lake – we never ate fancy anyway in our house, but at
the lake, we were lazy and hot and sticky with sand, and the food was as simple
as we could get it. I remember meals like my mom’s incredible potato salad,
full of eggs and cucumbers, and cold cuts from Drier’s Meat Market in nearby
Three Oaks. Gorgeous fresh fruits and vegetables from the stands that line the Red Arrow Highway. 
And in the morning there was the Swedish Bakery, up on the corner of the same
road. We’d make early morning forays, returning with bear claws (all flakey
pastry, almond paste and crunchy nuts), sticky sweet elephant ears, and every
imaginable kind of fruit Danish.

Some
20 years since I’d last been there we had the chance to go back to the lake
again this summer, spending a week with my mom and my aunt in a little blue
cottage called the Milk House (named for its one-time existence as the milking
shed for poet Carl Sandberg’s goats.)

Being
back in our little beach community was a treat beyond price – we caught up with
old friends, took long walks on the beach, and relaxed for the first time in
months.

And
joy of joy, we ate just the way we used to. The whole area has gone more
upscale and touristy than it once was, but Drier’s is still there (where it has
been since 1875), selling smoked meats and cheese. The Swedish Bakery is under
new, non-Nordic management, but the pastry is just as flakey and fruit-filled.
And though the fruit stands are now almost outdoor supermarkets, the produce is
local and luscious all the same.

But
it was my aunt who supplied the trick that really made our vacation meals easy
and good, teaching me a lesson in what I came to think of as "cottage
cuisine" – the kind of cooking you do when you aren’t cooking in your own
kitchen and don’t want to stock up from scratch. Wisely realizing she couldn’t
tote her entire spice rack (just the kind of ridiculous thing I would try to
do), she brought a couple of spice mixes instead.

It
would be easy enough to make up one’s own – just throwing together favorite
spices or herbs that complement each other. My aunt got the prepackaged kind –
a curry powder and a Cajun seasoning and I got into the spirit on a run to
Drier’s, picking up something they call Lake Michigan Brand Seasoning
("doesn’t taste a bit like sand," says the package, though that is
exactly what it looks like.) Using those instead of a lot of other individual
ingredients, we ate like lazy vacationers everywhere want to eat-without a lot
of fuss and trouble. (And I even got my mom to make her potato salad too.)

Bread
Salad with Lake Michigan Brand  Spice Mix

4
cups of day-old French bread, cubed

1
green pepper, diced large

1
red pepper, diced large

3
large tomatoes, diced large

1
sweet onion, diced large, or 1 red onion, chopped small

4
ounces feta cheese, crumbled

1/2
cup olive oil

5/8
cup red wine vinegar

Lake
Michigan Brand Seasoning mix (a mix of salt, pepper, celery salt, dill, white
pepper, sugar, paprika, garlic salt and onion salt. You can improvise on your
own, or buy this here), to taste.

Toss
together the bread cubes, vegetables and cheese. Whisk the oil and vinegar
together in a small bowl and add seasoning mix (about 1 teaspoon to start –
more if desired; taste to check). Drizzle dressing over salad and toss to coat
thoroughly. Let salad stand for a couple of hours so tomatoes give up their
juice and bread soaks up the liquid. Adjust seasoning and serve.

Serves
four to six.

Auntie
Chris’ Curried Salmon Pasta Salad

1
can salmon, without bones or skin

1
red pepper, chopped

2
stalks of celery, chopped

1/2
cup grated carrots

8
ounces small macaroni pasta (penne or elbows), cooked according to package
directions, rinsed thoroughly, and chilled

4
– 5 teaspoons sweet curry powder

3/8
cup mayonnaise

Salt
to taste

Flake
the salmon and combine with the chapped vegetables and chilled pasta. Stir
together the curry powder and mayonnaise. Toss dressing with salad until it is
all thoroughly coated. Adjust seasonings, adding salt if necessary.

Serves
four

Auntie
Chris’ Chunky Chicken Vegetable Casserole

1
package skinned, boned chicken breasts, cut into chunks

2
sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks

5=6
new potatoes, scrubbed and cut into chunks

2
summer squash, cut into chunks

1
onion, cut into chunks

5-6
mushrooms, cut into quarters

2
red peppers, cut into chunks

Paul
Prudhomme’s Magic Salt Free Seasoning Blend (in the blue can)

1/2
cup olive oil

Preheat
the oven to 350 degrees. Toss all ingredients together, including 1-2
tablespoons of the seasoning blend. Start with one tablespoon and taste it
first to see how strong you like it. Cover tightly and bake for 1 1/2 hours.

Serves
four.

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