Category Archives: Appetite

Sometimes, Potato Salad is just Potato Salad

You pay good money for an artisanal stuffed dachsund at a chic art-village boutique, you mail it to your beloved nephew, you picture him embracing it with big happy eyes and a bubble over his head saying, “You are my favorite aunt.” You visit months later to find the dachsund is untouched, but the $3.49 rubber frog you picked up at the 7-Eleven the last time you visited is squeezed and chewed to within an inch of its life. There’s no bubble over the little guy’s head, either.

I suspect my reaction to this phenomenon is something like the way my Mom used to feel about her potato salad.

“You don’t want my Sour Cream Apple Cake? What about this great Bon Appetit recipe for Pan Asian Cole Slaw? You want the potato salad? Again?”

No thank you, no thank you, yes please.

Sometimes you’re stuck with the tried-and-true, however bored you might be with it. And Mom, for the record, I want to tell you that this is OK when it comes to your potato salad.

Potato. Onion. Vinegar. Mayo. And a few basic but critical ingredients in just the right proportions. Boil. Dice. Toss. The best. For going on 50 years now.

All the Golembeski daughters had their staples at the family picnics, the things they’d be expected to pack in the ice coolers without being asked. They could turn them out in their sleep (or, I imagine, when sleep deprived). If Aunt Marlene did not bring her elbow-macaroni-with-shrimp salad and if Aunt Dot did not bring her potato salad, the disappointment would be palpable.

Mind you, I grew up at a time when a fresh basil leaf was exotic. If it wasn’t in a can, a jar, or a Green Giant frozen-food box, I would not know what to make of it. Creative cuisine meant making chip dip without Lipton’s Onion Soup Mix. At some time in my high school years, though, I sensed change afoot. A copy of Craig Claiborne’s The New York Times Cook Book showed up. Someone introduced red-skinned potatoes to one of our family picnics, with the skins still on! Mom even started putting wine into food, for God’s sake.

When I moved out on my own, I started getting invited to picnics of my own. I am not sure when the inevitable dish-to-pass question first came up, but I know that my reflexive answer was: Mom’s potato salad. I knew exactly how to make it. I could shop for the ingredients without thinking. It was always a snappy solution. And you know what? It was a hit! People started expecting it.

In more recent years – OK, decades — picnic activities have fallen off, my potato-salad fans have moved on, and I guess it’s fair to say I’ve tried rebranding myself. I felt I should evolve from Picnic Dish-to-Pass to Dinner Party Cuisine-to-Impress (“We’re thinking of regional Mexican next Saturday, does Oaxacan mole sound OK?”). But a call came a few weeks back, my first in ages: A neighborhood backyard picnic. Smoked pork shoulder, cole slaw, the works. I said I’d bring Mom’s potato salad before it occurred to me that the unthinkable had happened, and I no longer remembered how to make it.

Shockingly, it didn’t take long to find the “recipe,” stuffed into a folder that was shoved to the back of a closet shelf. There you go, scrawled onto the back of a Niagara Gazette memo slip, I’m sure as I was talking to her on the phone at work: Mom’s Potato Salad.

Potato. Onion. Vinegar. Mayo. And a few basic but critical ingredients in just the right proportions.

I boiled. I diced. I tossed. The muscle memory came back as I put each potato into my palm, took up a blunt-edged dinner knife, and cubed. I had jotted down proportions, but I knew they were rough. I had to use instinct. Was a time it would turn out just right after a few tastes, but that takes practice. It had been so many years that I didn’t trust my judgment about the celery seed, the sugar, the salt. I was just hoping for approximately right.

I tasted, adjusted, and thought – not bad.

I think everyone like it. It seemed to stand up well to the red-skinned competition someone else brought along. I think I’ll make another batch this weekend. I figure it’s my time of life to embrace my brand, even if it’s just white-skinned potatoes and mayo. I’m OK with that.

Thanks, Mom. And happy birthday!


Filed under Appetite

Eggplant parm odyssey, continued: The search, the showdown, the conclusion

I received some sympathetic suggestions after I disclosed my longing for a certain frozen Italian entree that local stores don’t carry anymore. Someone suggested Trader Joe’s, where I found one boring (above) and one yummy (below) option. I highly recommend the yummy one when you’re in the mood for a post-modern variation.

Trader Joe’s Stacked Eggplant Parmesan, an excellent reinterpretation if you are in the mood for a reinterpretation.

I also called the 800 number at Celentano, and left a message about my plight, including my  mailing address.

While I anxiously awaited a reply, I discovered that a restaurant in my neighborhood has an eggplant parm dish on the menu. Still plagued with a craving, I splurged and was pleasantly surprised. True, it takes liberties — adding spinach and pasta — but it was pretty darned good. The eggplant medallions were creamy on the inside, crunchy on the outside, not greasy. Skillfully done, VIA Downer.

Then I received an envelope in the mail with a form letter, three $1 coupons, and a neatly hand-written note in the margin:

“The Walmart store located at 3355 S. 27th St. carries our Celentano Eggplant Parmigiana.”

Bingo! I had some free time this week so I made the trip to the south side, carrying my letter and my coupons. Wow that’s one big Walmart down there on South 27th, a lot of frozen-food cases to search. I went up, I went down. I tried Italian, I tried frozen entrees. I could not find the Celentano. I asked a gentleman who was wearing a snowsuit and stocking frozen food.

“Uh, we’ve got the meatballs.”

“Meatballs? No! You are supposed to have the eggplant!”

“Um, the noodles?”

“No, no, no! Here, it says right in this letter!” I fear I might have waved it in his face.

“Oh, I think I know where it is.”

And he led me to the boxes. (Queue orchestral music.) Behold:

Pretty great price, too. Four boxes are now nestled in my freezer. John and I were thinking of having a nibble at Bartolotta’s Lake Park Bistro bar tonight, but maybe I’ll just stay home and heat up my oven … .

(A special thank you to my friend Deborah for assisting in my odyssey.)

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Filed under Appetite, Obsessions

Eggplant parm chronicles, continued

Dear person who recommended the Trader Joe’s Eggplant Parm:

Tonight, I needed my eggplant parm comfort food. Bad. Following your suggestion, I went to TJ’s. I found the “Trader Giotto’s Eggplant Parmesan Grilled Not Fried.” OK so I burned my hand because in loading it into the oven the frozen cube of eggplant parm popped out of the cardboard tray and landed on the oven’s bottom and I had to retrieve it. OK so my apartment now smells like burnt marinara sauce. I was willing to put that aside.

But after heating it up according to directions, I found the sauce watery, the eggplant on the tough side, and the entire dish tame-tasting.

Conclusion: Not a Celentano substitute.

I did find a second eggplant parm at Trader Joe’s. Perhaps that is what you meant. I suspect I’ll have another day like today soon and will try it. More later.



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Filed under Appetite, Obsessions

Admissions and Addictions: Celentano Eggplant Parmigiana

For some people it’s peanut butter cups, for others potato chips or maybe chocolate-chip-cookie-dough ice cream. For me, it’s Celentano Eggplant Parmigiana. I cannot remember when, but at some point in my life this particular frozen entree became my go-to stress-relief food. I vividly recall a down-on-its luck neighborhood grocery store in Binghamton, N.Y., and the path I wore out on the linoleum floor by making a beeline to the freezer case for my fix of C.E.P. through a succession of angsty finding-myself days. And then I moved to Niagara Falls, where I had to hunt it down at another grocery store so I could get through my phase of reckless finding-myself days, and then I moved to Green Bay, where I needed my beloved eggplant parm to deal with a series of a misguided finding-myself  days.

As I moved from town to town, there would be the inevitable panic phase, because not all grocery stores actually carried the line. Shocking.  So I’d load up on my trips to New Jersey, wrapping white boxes of frozen eggplant parm in newspaper and trusting they’d stay frozen in the belly of the jetliner long enough for me to smuggle them home, and, ultimately, eat them.

Here in Milwaukee, I have embraced and abandoned three grocery stores that stocked Celentano Eggplant Parmigiana, only to discontinue it. I can — and this pains me — no longer find it in my current metro market. I’ve made complaints, oh I have. I have considered lobbying my friends to make complaints, too, but my sense of shame prevented me. It is, after all, a very high-calorie, high-fat item. I should learn to live without it. And haven’t I found myself by now, anyway?

But then I happened across Celentano Eggplant Parmigiana on a trip to New York City. A place where they know a good frozen Italian entree when they see one. I was there on business and a friend was kind enough to let me use her apartment while she was out of town. She lives a few blocks from a D’Agostino Supermarket; there it was, smiling at me from the freezer case. I was reunited. The night before I left town I went back to my friend’s apartment and, in the city with the world’s densest concentration of good restaurants, I heated up a tray of Celentano Eggplant Parmigiana (in the oven, like you’re supposed to), cracked open a bottle of decent Chianti, and sat back to watch the city lights through the windows. No angst. Just happiness.

(This blog post is dedicated to my friend Suzanne, fellow C.E.P. devotee and my N.Y.C. host)


Filed under Appetite, Obsessions

The pot is on the stove

The corn I plan to eat tonight, as soon as the water comes to a boil, came from this place this morning. It was 35 cents per ear. Also for sale: laying hens $8, eggs $2, cukes 25 cents each, green and yellow beans $1.95 per lb., tomatoes $1.25 per small box. I bought four ears plus tomatoes.

Total bill: $2.65.

I threw $3 in the yellow cash box. I’ll bet they figure all the tourists round up like that.

We were on our way back from Waupaca. More about that trip later. I’ll also report in about the corn.

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Filed under Appetite, Going Driftless, Images

The tomato: Vindication and reveries

Tomatoes on my midwest balcony. They ain't no beefsteaks.

Oh where do I begin?

I have an organic connection to tomatoes. I had jobs planting them, picking them, washing them, selling them. My earliest cooking experiences were with them. My geographical identity is tied to them. My fondest taste memories are about them. They challenge my writing abilities — there is just too much tomato in my soul to express the meaning of tomatoes adequately.

I learned via an e-newsletter that Boswell Books was hosting a visit from the author of Ripe: The Search for the Perfect Tomato. So I changed my plans for the weekend and made arrangements to go. I had a very particular question I wanted to ask.

The author, Arthur Allen, is a credentialed journalist. He showed up in an almost-ripe-tomato-red button-down shirt, and he had the air of studiousness about him. We all leaned forward in our chairs to listen, but he was a lean-back kind of guy. Don’t get so excited, he seemed to say without saying it. Look at the facts. Tomatoes, it turns out, have been cultivated so long that it’s hard to know what a True Tomato is. They originated in South America, where linguists have identified hundreds of words to describe them. They were slow to catch on in Europe, perhaps because their imported cousins — potatoes, corn, squash — were less perishable. When they did eventually catch on, there were controversies. I laughed when I heard that Italian “pomodoristas” were pitted against sugar-beet growers in a certain region of Italy. The controversies continue into the organic era, where some insist the only good tomato is an organically grown heirloom. But — really?

Me, I have never had a good tomato since my days living on the border of New York and Pennsylvania. Backyard gardeners and farm stand vendors in the Southern Tier got pretty darned close to my ultimate tomato memories. Near the confluence of the Chemung and Susquehanna rivers, the tomatoes grew round and beefy and sweet. I’d take two slices of hearty bread, spread them thinly with mayo, place sliced tomatoes between them, add a little salt and pepper, and have the best sandwich I could imagine. Those tomatoes lived up to the expectations I had developed growing up in New Jersey, where farm stands were accessible and, I suppose, the large consumer market made it more feasible to pick and truck them ripe. I remember working at Mr. Sage’s produce stand on Washington Valley Road, when baskets of red tomatoes would arrive, caked with dirt. They were warm from the morning sun, and we’d dump them in buckets of water to wash the soil off. Discriminating customers would ask where they were grown, and we’d always know. They were glorious specimens, sweet but not sugary, fleshy as a good steak, resonant with earth and light.

Anyway, I was dying to ask Mr. Allen, and I did:

“I have never tasted a really good tomato since living in New Jersey. Is it just my memory?”

God bless you Mr. Allen, because what you said vindicated me after all these years in the Midwest, pining for a tomato taste I worried might only be in my imagination.

“I get that question all the time,” he said. It seems that the sandy soil in New Jersey, combined with crack agricultural science (they made Campbell’s tomato soup in Camden), does create something special with tomatoes. The Rutgers tomato, for instance, will never taste as good grown in California as it does in New Jersey.

So … it was not merely my imagination.

That said, Mr. Allen and others in the audience had reports of fabulous tomatoes from Northern Florida (sandy soil), the lower Baja, California, Louisiana.

I left the book store wistful. All well and good, but would I ever experience that taste again? If you don’t live in a place where a thing is grown, you miss the confluence of season and harvest and happenstance. You don’t pass the farm stand and see that there are bushels on display, and then stop in to ask — beefsteak? Rutgers? Picked today? And get told yes, or get told no, but stop back Wednesday.  You don’t have the chance to then drive home and decide you will never put the tomato in a refrigerator, but will have a tomato sandwich for dinner, and sit in the yard to eat it.

Gosh. I sure do miss that taste.

Maybe I can find it where I am now. Maybe it’s not a tomato, maybe it’s a string bean. But … string beans between two slices of bread with mayo? I guess you can’t go home again.


Filed under Appetite, Musings

OMG morels!

Before saute and saturation process

Friends of mine were gifted with these morels and were kind enough to invite me over to share. This is generosity of a rare kind. We sauteed them in lots of butter and a bit of finely diced onions (shallots were not available), added half and half, and then poured the yummy mess over linguine. Heaven!

Coincidentally, I had just been visiting Mt. Zion (more on why another time), which is just down the road from Muscoda, which is Wisconsin’s Morel Capital, at peak morel time, which means in theory I should have spotted one for sale. I didn’t. But I did try searching for them in the wooded areas near my lodgings, and realized quickly that I am a rank amateur in the morel-hunting business. I think it’s something I may need to learn, someone told me they are going for $49 a pound. Oy.

The Muscoda Morel Festival is this weekend, maybe I need to go!

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Filed under Appetite, Obsessions