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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