It’s a wonderful thing when you like your mother-in-law. Thirty-eight years ago, I wasn’t sure I liked mine. At the time, I couldn’t decide why I thought I didn’t like her, except that it’s always a tough job to replace a guy’s mother. I think, for a while, we struggled over whom he liked best. Once we decided we weren’t in competition, we got along famously … in fact, discovered that in many ways we were a lot alike. Big surprise!
Ilse Gutman, my father-in-law Heinz, Michael and his sister Iris emigrated from Germany to Canada in the 1950s. Her cooking sensibility was very European. She liked to work with fresh produce, could make gravy out of almost anything and introduced me to fried onions and goose fat spread on bread. She also gave me my first garlic press, which I still use to this day. (It’s also an olive pitter, which I only just discovered a couple of years ago – amazing!)
Besides being a really good cook, a terrific grandmother and deeply thoughtful woman in all things regarding my family, I will be forever grateful for her introducing me to garlic. My mom and grandmother never cooked with garlic, while Ilse put it in everything from soup to vegetables, sautéed with meat, you name it. Garlic has been a key ingredient in my cooking ever since.
Also, Ilse was big on leftovers. Nothing went to waste in her kitchen. If it smelled okay, she used it. Often at breakfast or lunch, in addition to whatever she served, one would find little dishes of leftovers on the table – like tapas – inconspicuous yet demanding to be eaten. Leftover vegetables or meat often went in soup or some other dinner concoction. It was fantastic. (I told you we were alike.)
Michael used to tell a story about his mom and leftover spinach. He says he never liked cooked spinach. In fact he shudders to think of it, which is interesting because this is a guy who eats everything. But when he was a small boy, Ilse would make it anyway, believing that if one just continued to try a food, eventually he would like it … besides it’s good for you. Every time she offered it, Michael would press his lips together, cross his arms and refuse to eat it. Not to be denied, Ilse would keep the spinach and serve it to him again the next morning for breakfast … then lunch … then dinner again. She hotly denied that she did such a thing, but we always had a good laugh over the story.
As the years have gone by I’ve tried to sneak cooked spinach into various dishes but, like a bloodhound, Michael always sniffs it out with his signature shudder … “That’s not spinach in there, is it? I have managed to get him to eat spinach salad, though. I think Ilse would be proud of me.
My mother-in-law passed over twenty-five years ago, but I still think of her often. Last night I made a version of the potato salad she used to make for us on warm summer evenings when we visited her in Courtenay, B.C.. She was not a frenetic cook – all was slow, deliberate and care-ful. I loved that about her.
I remember her putting the potatoes on to boil and then making her way out to her little garden to snip clusters of parsley and chives. Hers was a warm salad, tossed with the herbs and apple cider vinegar, left to sit and then mixed with a touch of mayonnaise, salt and pepper before serving.
My herb garden is lush right now so I amped up the flavorings and used red potatoes I had on hand, but the essence of this recipe is all Ilse.
Mom Gutman’s Potato Salad
4 medium-sized potatoes (red or white)
2 cloves of garlic, minced
2 T apple cider vinegar
1 T each of fresh parsley and chives, chopped
(I added ½ t oregano, ¼ t thyme, 1 leaf of basil, 1 leaf of sage – all fresh and chopped)
1 heaping tablespoon of mayonnaise
1 heaping tablespoon of Greek yogurt
Salt and Pepper to taste (I like Jane’s Crazy Mixed-up Salt for this dish)
Clean potatoes (leaving skins on if you choose) and cut into bite-sized pieces. Add potatoes and minced garlic to a pot with water. Boil until potatoes are fork tender, drain and put in a mixing bowl. Let cool slightly, approximately 3-5 minutes.
Add vinegar and herbs to potatoes and mix carefully. Cover and let stand at room temperature.
Just before serving, add mayonnaise, yogurt and seasoning. Taste. Add more mayo, yogurt and/or seasoning to suit.
At dinner last night I felt as if Mom G was with us. And she was – through the memory of the dish we shared together so often. This is the magic of food and memory. This is what I am asking you to share with me, if you will.
What food brings someone special back to you? Enjoy the food. Enjoy the memory.
Eat well. Be happy.