Originally Published in the Herald Sun 5/14/2012
I’m pretty much cross-eyed from evaluating thousands of pairs of shoes online.
One of my oldest and closest friends (we were actually in the Brownies together), Rhiannon, told me our high school class is having a reunion in September.
It is not too early to window shop webtastic windows. September will be here before we know it. In the past I’ve used getting jury duty and a trip to the dentist as an excuse to look for new shoes.
I have the perfect dress (J Crew, dark heather gray jersey wrap dress, timeless and simple), but I need absolutely fabulicious kicks, and bag, and wrap, and…
In 1982, I graduated from Northeastern High School, in Elizabeth City. In the only public high school in the county, I was ranked 17 out of a senior class of 362 (It’s sad I need for you to know that, isn’t it?).
Fourteen months later, I married Petey.
Although, as a child, I’d taken cooking lessons a few times (including classes at the VEPCO building on Ehringhaus St, in E City), I was no cook. I was a restaurant-frequenter, and a heater-upper.
Luckily for my new groom, this was when all the microwave meals started coming onto the market. Otherwise it would have been peanut butter and jelly on Wonder bread, or ptomaine under an oxygen tent.
We supped at Copeland’s Grill four or five days a week (Tragically the Hughes Blvd diner is now closed). For $1.49, we ate a meat, two sides, bread, drink, and a dessert. I always ordered popcorn shrimp and double potato salad. They also had a stripped down version; meat and two sides for 99 cents.
Truthfully, I think Copeland’s contributed to the survival of our marriage (and us) those first years.
I took a few recipes and the Betty Crocker cookbook along with me to our honeymoon cottage. My mom gave me her famous pork chops and mushroom gravy recipe (apple sauce offered, but optional).
She’d made it since her own wedding. It was one dish from a repertoire of only two or three held by the new bride almost fifty years ago.
The first night she made them for her strapping six foot, two inch new husband, she made two. He ate both. She wanted him to get enough to eat, so the next time she made three. He ate them. Every pork chop dinner, one more chop; every night, he finished them all.
Finally, on the night he had finished seven servings, all was revealed.
Mom was sick with the financial worry of satisfying her new spouse’s bottomless pit. My poor dad? Just sick.
In O’Henrian fashion, Mom wanted Dad to get enough to eat. My sweet father didn’t want to hurt his bride’s feelings by not eating all she had prepared for him.
I’ve made this porker dish since the very beginning of my marriage. The recipe and flavor, like my cooking abilities, have become deeper, and more complex over the years. But one thing hasn’t changed in almost thirty years, the boring couple that ate it in a 12X60 trailer, still do, only now in a 1600 square foot Victorian in Durham, NC.
Before I give up the recipe, I want to talk about one ingredient: the onion marmalade.
Every couple of months, I buy five or six pounds of regular yellow onions. I then take a full day to cook them down into about two cups of deep, amber-colored caramelized onions.
If you can’t, or won’t, do this, you still need slowly, deeply browned onions.
Debbie Covers Mom’s Smothered Pork Chops
4-6 3/4-1 inch thick pork chops (whatever cut you like), approx 2 lbs.
1/4 cup onion marmalade *
2 lbs cremini mushrooms, cleaned, stems removed and sliced into 1/8 inch slices
3-4 cloves garlic chopped finely
1 cup marsala wine, apple brandy, or beer
1 tablespoon tomato paste
3 cups chicken stock
2 cups beef stock
1/2 cup whole milk, half & half, or cream
2 tablespoons low or no-fat milk
2 tablespoons dijon mustard
1 tablespoon apple jelly or honey
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon fennel seed, crushed in mortar and pestle
(they can be a bit tough to find in the store, but add a really complex, resonant flavor like
1 teaspoon dried thyme
2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh rosemary, dried; use 1/4 teaspoon
1 large or 2 small bay leaves
Salt and pepper to taste
1/2 cup butter
1/2 cup flour
Cook together slowly in a small skillet until the color of peanut butter.
Pre-heat oven to 325. Shake chops in a bag of seasoned flour, shake off excess, and brown in a large, heavy, Dutch oven (they only need browning, they’ll finish in the oven).
Remove to a holding plate.
In same pot, cook mushrooms, with salt, pepper, and thyme.
Cook until all the moisture is cooked out, and you can see a good amount of browning. Add garlic, and cook just ’till it barely starts to color. Put in onions, then deglaze pot with booze. Add the tomato paste while you can still smell the alcohol, the tomato has flavors that are only released when exposed to spirits. Let it reduce until it’s very thick.
Stir in remaining ingredients, except for roux. When it comes to a boil, slowly whisk in roux, until smooth, and gravy thickens. Check for seasoning, and balance of flavor.
Put chops back in, cover, and bake in oven for 1 1/2 hours.
Let pot sit on counter for ten minutes before opening.
To serve dish:
Remove pork to serving platter (carefully; they are literally falling apart tender). Whisk sauce in pot to smooth out, remembering to scrape all the goodness off the bottom.
Serve with buttered rice, and salad or spring veg.
*Faux Onion Marmalade: 2 yellow onions, peeled, cut in half, and sliced into 1/4 inch half moons. Cook onions on low with 1/2 tablespoon olive oil, 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme, a splash of balsamic vinegar, and salt and pepper. If you have an electric skillet, use that, otherwise, use a heavy bottomed frying pan.
Done well (read:slowly), this will take up to an hour. But you can do it days ahead.
It will definitely shock some old friends from NHS that I have a food column that’s not about dining out.
Sonic was and is a favorite for grab and go grub. In fact, when we were dating, Petey wooed me with their pink lemonade.
They don’t have it on the menu anymore. Also absent, a guilty pleasure; “Frito chili pie”. Luckily, I know the difficult, top-secret, recipe.
Frito Chili Pie
1 cup Fritos
1/2 cup canned chili (Petey likes Wolf Brand), heated
handful shredded hoop cheese
Top Fritos with chili and cheese, and put under broiler, until gooey, melty, and lightly browned. You can also tear open the front a snack size bag of Fritos, and pour in the hot chili and cheese, and put the whole thing under the broiler, for more of a cave man experience.
There are countless amazing cooks in the Harbor of Hospitalty. Rhiannon’s amazing, beautiful, talented grandmother, Georgie, was one of them. I can’t tell you how much wonderful food I put away in her kitchen, while wearing my nightgown.
The Kid met Miss Georgie, and Rhi’s strong, stubborn, secretly sweet, grandfather, Mr. Harland, as a toddler. It was eternal love at first sight for all three.
Miss Georgie’s friendship was one more link that led to culinary school.
While living in E City, I was too immature and uninterested to ask for cooking lessons, from her, or anyone else. I can never get that chance back.
Please, let me be your “Don’t Bee”:
If somebody cooks you something amazing, or is generally a wizard in the kitchen, ask for lessons!
One of these days, I’ll spill about my first attempt at a dinner party, in 1983, in my little skirtless home, in Steven’s Mobile Home Park, a lonely drive of twenty three miles from the bright lights of Elizabeth City.
Thanks for your time.