April 22, 2016
Our mom, Leatrice, wasn’t especially gung-ho about childhood celebrations, such as May Day, Halloween, birthday parties, etc. She wanted my sister Kris and me to have fun on these occasions, but she wasn’t into all the artsy crafty busy work that went along with it. For Halloween, Kris and I were always ghosts—two sheets with two eyeholes snipped out of each one. Voilá! With paper sacks in hand, we were ready to hit the streets. (Eventually, we did rebel and cobbled together our own costumes.) Lea’s May baskets were regular-sized Milky Way or Snickers bars with a pipe cleaner stuck in each end for handles. (Just to be clear, Mom and Dad were great parents [and still are]. They were strict in terms of our safety, but laissez-faire in most other ways.) Looking back on those years, we appreciate their non-hovering approach to raising the two of us.
(For out-of-state readers who have never heard of May Basket Day, it is a custom unique to Iowa. This is how it works: Children make baskets filled with candy and popcorn and leave them on other children’s doorsteps. They ring the doorbell, and then run away really fast because, if the giver of the basket is caught by the recipient, then the recipient must give the giver a kiss.)
The beauty of Lea’s May basket design was that Kris and I could whip up a couple dozen of them in about 10 minutes. They were easy to transport, and most importantly, there was no spillage of contents during the chaotic front-porch delivery and subsequent vamoose out of the neighborhood to avoid “kissers” lying in wait.
After we delivered our “handled bar” oddities to our friends, we would arrive back home, breathless and hungry. And, there on the porch would be a dozen or more baskets that had been left for us. The treats were predictable—five or six pieces of candy laying on top of stale popcorn filler. The baskets were often topped with a bouquet of wilting violets or dandelions, which added a distinct weedkiller flavor to the popcorn. We picked out all the premium candy and then dumped the popcorn and loose M&Ms, gumdrops and candy corn (anything that didn’t have a wrapper on it) in the wastebasket.
We especially loved the May baskets from the mortician’s son—bottles of Coca Cola! (Obviously, his mother didn’t want to help him make May baskets either!) What a refreshing thirst-quencher after a morning of trying to escape sweaty kid lips!
When we were a bit older, Kris and I decided on a bold new design for our baskets. We were a shining testament to the absence of school art programs back then. Our homely baskets were well-received only because we dispensed with the popcorn and dead flowers and included only individually wrapped candies. (These innovations were mine. Kris went along with them because I was 18 months older and because I was more savvy about what our targeted consumers demanded in their May basket content.)
On a more recent note, for many years now, my friend Connie Isaacson has made annual deliveries of May baskets to her friends. How thrilling to be a grownup and find an unexpected gift on the doorstep! Her treats have been varied—candy, cookies, flowers, plants. You never know what you will find.
Why not surprise your friends with a May basket this year? Perhaps you can’t see yourself ringing doorbells and flying off porches with that nagging plantar fasciitis of yours. You’ll be relieved to know that grownups can just skip the doorbell ringing. You can sneak onto the front porch in your sweatpants and slippers, set down the basket (or tray of goodies, or plant, etc.), and head back to the car without ever being noticed. Think about it—even if you were caught, would a little kiss or hug of appreciation from your friends be so bad? (Seriously, how many hugs did you get from your family yesterday after you changed the furnace filter and resealed your granite?)
What would you choose for basket fillers? I might suggest little cans of ready-to-serve Jose Cuervo Margaritas, with a lime and an inexpensive margarita glass to hold a bag of addictively good Spicy Fried Garbanzo Beans. That way, your friends can have two celebrations in one, since Cinco de Mayo arrives just a few days later. Or, if you would prefer to make it only about May Day, you could stick in those cute pink cans of Sophia (Coppola) blanc de blancs sparkling (which come with little sipping straws), or miniature bottles of Korbel Brut, or Bailey’s Irish Cream, along with a bag of pastel M&Ms. Or, maybe your friends would prefer bottles of Starbucks Mocha Frappuccino with some tasty fresh-baked cookies. You get the idea. Make May Day a beautiful surprise for your friends. (And thank you, Connie, for this annual gesture of love and friendship.)
Spicy Fried Garbanzo Beans
Spicy Fried Garbanzo Beans
After tasting these wonderful and unusual morsels at some great restaurants in Phoenix, I decided to try my own version. Crispy on the outside with a slightly soft interior, they are best a few minutes after coming out of the oven. If any remain after a day or two, they may become a bit softer. They are great this way, too, but if preferred, they can be re-crisped in the oven.
- 1 (15-ounce) can garbanzo beans (chickpeas)
- 1 cup vegetable or extra virgin olive oil (I use 1/2 cup of each)
- Lawry’s seasoned salt, Lawry’s garlic salt, chili powder, fresh black pepper
The day before making this recipe, drain and rinse garbanzo beans in a colander. Let stand for an hour or so. Put two or three layers of paper towels on the counter. Spread the beans out on the towels. Allow them to dry for several hours—at least six. (If you don’t, they may pop and spatter when they are fried.) Then pour the oil into a large skillet and heat on medium-high heat. Put one bean in the oil; when the oil is bubbling around it, the rest of the beans can be added. Spoon them in gently so they won’t splash. The oil should bubble all around them (stir occasionally) but shouldn’t be so hot that it spatters. After they have cooked for 3 1/2 to 4 minutes, use a slotted spoon to place them on a rimmed baking sheet. Spread them out evenly and place in a 350-degree oven for 15 minutes. Remove and place beans on a paper-towel-covered platter. Sprinkle liberally with your favorite combination of salts and seasonings. The ones listed above are the ones I used, but feel free to experiment. They are also delicious with grated Parmesan sprinkled over them. They are best served warm, but also good at room temperature. If they lose their crunch, they can be re-crisped in a 350-degree oven for 5 or 6 minutes.
Now, let’s move on to one of nature’s surprises. This elusive harbinger of spring quietly emerges from Iowa’s rich soil for only a few weeks each May–the morel mushroom. Probably many of you have reveled in its delicate flavor, which is like no other. When lilacs bloom, it’s a sign, according to my dad (Ed), that the morels have popped up and are awaiting discovery somewhere out there in the loam. Every spring, my dad, and his dad before him, would spend hours roaming their favorite secret haunts in southwest Iowa. Some years he found grocery sacks full of them, and other years, not a one. A few times, Dad allowed Kris and me to tag along with him for the hunt. Even our sharp little eyes would look right over them. A veritable morel whisperer, Dad always knew where they would be. What a thrill to see one (or sometimes even a cluster of them).
After we arrived home, the laborious task of cleaning them began. Sliced in half, they were briefly soaked in salt water, causing the soil and tiny bugs to float out from their spongy frames. Poring over the tiny craters of each mushroom was tedious work. As the resident picky eater of our family, I even surprised myself that I was willing to put my hands all over them; however, the thought of swallowing an ant, or even worse, drove me to become the quality control expert of our clean-up team.
Finally, after they were patted dry on paper towels, the morels were dipped into an egg-and-milk bath, dusted with flour (some prefer crushed crackers), browned in vegetable oil and butter, and sprinkled with salt and pepper. The feast could begin at last! (We spurned other ways to prepare morels. No gratuitous spices or fancy sauces were going to obliterate our hard-earned delicacies!)
It is a challenge these days to track down someone who hunts and sells morels. A true morel devotee is willing to pay almost any price for them. Last year I couldn’t find any sellers. Two years ago, I located some being sold for $20 to $25 a pound in Maxwell, a small town north of Des Moines, and I happily purchased three pounds. Local chefs also want them for their menus, so there is stiff competition for the limited supply.
When I really miss morels, I make this elegant recipe with dried ones (which have been rehydrated), and this at least provides me and my family with a happy reminder of their flavor. Dried morels are quite expensive (about $20 for 1 ounce), so I consider this creation to be a special-occasion recipe.
Beef Tenderloin Steaks with Morel-Madeira Sauce
Beef Tenderloin Steals with Morel and Madeira Sauce
- 1 (1-ounce) package dried morel mushrooms*
- 2 (6-ounce) beef tenderloin steaks (about 1-inch thick)
- Lawry’s garlic salt
- Coarse-ground black pepper
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 1/3 cup diced shallots
- 1/2 cube beef bouillon
- 1/2 to 2/3 cup heavy cream
- 2 tablespoons Madeira wine (not dry; sweet or semi-sweet)
Remove steaks from refrigerator 30 minutes before cooking. Rinse dried mushrooms over running water. Place them in a small bowl and pour a cup of very hot water over them. Soak 20 minutes. Drain. (Save about 1/4 cup of the mushroom water.) Cut the mushrooms in two and then cut them into similar-sized pieces. Sprinkle garlic salt and pepper on both sides of steaks. Heat a medium-sized skillet to medium high; add 1 tablespoon butter. Add steaks. Cook on each side for 3 to 4 minutes (for medium to medium rare). Remove to a plate and cover with foil while sauce is being made. Add remaining tablespoon butter to skillet. Add the shallots and morels and sauté until tender, about 2 minutes. Add Madeira and stir. Add bouillon and cream. Simmer until thickened, about 2 minutes. If sauce becomes too thick, add a tablespoon or two of the mushroom water and stir. Plate the steaks. Spoon sauce on top of each steak.
(*Note: Dried morel mushrooms may be found at Whole Foods in the produce section. One ounce costs about $20. Other grocery stores often carry them too.)
Crispy Sautéed Shaved Brussels Sprouts
A great accompaniment to the steaks are Crispy Sautéed Shaved Brussels Sprouts (pictured with the steak). Shaved Brussels sprouts can be found in the produce section. Trader Joe’s and Green Giant are both good (and usually come in 10-ounce bags). Pour 2 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil into a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the whole bag of Brussels sprouts. Sauté until brown and crispy. May need to add another tablespoon or two of olive oil as it cooks to achieve good browning. Add salt and pepper to taste. (I prefer to use garlic salt.) Serve immediately.
If there is a moral to these stories, I think it would be to remember that Childhood is a short season, as famed actress Helen Hayes once said. Write down those humorous and poignant memories. If you don’t, your family will lose an essential piece of its history. Even better, record these stories in your own voice.
We grownups may lack the gumption to rekindle the joy and enthusiasm of our youth, but … we should try! Go ahead, assemble those May baskets, set your alarm for 6:00 a.m., and then drive all over the city to deliver them. (At least you have a car now instead of a red wagon.) And, if you want to hunt for morels, maybe someone you know has a farm and would give you permission to walk the wooded areas. If you’re like me, though, you don’t enjoy sharing your blood with ticks and mosquitoes. So, do as I do—spend your time hunting for a morel hunter and hope he will sell you some.
If morels are not for you, why not cook a meal that stirs up your own olfactory and gustatory memories of childhood? If you don’t have the recipes, try googling them, or just experiment! Of course it’s risky! It could end up tasting like your grandma’s old linoleum floor or, if you’re lucky, it might taste like her finest Sunday meal! (Note to self—when trying to motivate people, use lots of exclamation points!!!)
Thank you for reading my blog. I hope you will invite your family and friends to read it, too. My next post will be published on May 6th–Tracy Mullen