These last two weeks have been rather surreal for me. My dad, 5000 miles away, was in and out of hospital with various worrying ailments. He and my mother were, as opposed to hanging out in a hospital having copious scans and tests, supposed to be on holiday, with a visit to London tacked on at the end. I had been thinking about what to cook for their visit for months prior; a favourite pastime for a planner like me. It is also my mother’s 64th birthday on what would be their first evening with us, so I have been thinking a great deal about what to make. I wanted to do something that was special to mark the occasion, but it is also a family tradition that the meal is chosen by the birthday boy or girl in question. When my brother and I were little, we could have anything we wanted. My health-obsessed mother allowed us a once-a-year free pass to eat the things we were never allowed to have. When I asked her what she wanted for this birthday meal, she said “surprise me”. Indeed.
My mother is a good cook and we were well fed when we were growing up. Now that I’m an adult I appreciate even more how much she tried to feed a family of four, healthily, on a supremely tight budget. She grew her own vegetables, teaching my brother and I along the way the art of the vegetable patch. She mastered cooking with inexpensive ingredients like tinned tuna and her tuna casserole and tuna muffins are still family classics, which, even though my parents are far more solvent than they were when we were children, are still requested on the rare occurrence that the four of us are in the same place at the same time. She would also shop at local farms for seasonal produce, take us berry picking, make preserves and can the vegetables we grew at home; she was more progressive than I realised. This now seems an idyllic way of living.
All that went out the window, however, when it was our birthdays. I can never remember the meals my brother or father would choose, but to my adult shame, I very often asked for KFC for my special dinner. We’re not just talking a cheeky Zinger burger here, oh no, we’re talking the family bargain bucket with “mash potatoes” and “gravy”, if that is what you could call rehydrated powder. And it was heaven. All the salt and fat my little high-hipped 10-year old body could take. After that, it’d be my mother’s unbelievable homemade chocolate cake with vanilla ice cream, and I would collapse into a hypoglycaemic coma. Brilliant. Of course now I would never choose KFC for a birthday meal; KFC is clearly now reserved for nights when I’ve over-imbibed. The last birthday elicited dinner at St John; times have definitely changed.
And so what to cook for my mother for her birthday? Of course, it is a moot point now, but I still love to plan, even if it isn’t going to happen. Planning menus is a wonderful way to pass the time, especially when much of my time at the moment is spent at a job that requires little or no action or thought on my part.
First, as it is July and we can get local-ish tomatoes that actually taste like tomatoes, I thought I’d do a simple bruschetta, a nod to my mother’s Italian heritage. I’d chop and leave them to stew in their own juices with some of extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper, crushed garlic and lots of fresh basil. I’d serve it on some fabulous sourdough from Wild Caper in Brixton, which I’d slice, brush with olive oil, grill, and subject to a good rubbing of fresh garlic.
Next, I’d have gone to William Rose in East Dulwich and picked up a wonderful piece of flank steak. I associate this cut with my mother so much. She would make it often during the summer for the barbecue, marinated in a blend of soy sauce, honey, garlic and other ingredients, which I’ve still never managed to recreate. My own favourite marinade is made up of honey, garlic, olive oil, freshly cracked pepper, a good dousing of wasabi teriyaki from the Japanese supermarket, cut with soy sauce, and chilli flakes. After letting the meat soak up these umami flavours for a good 3-6 hours, you can cook the leftover marinade down to create an unbelievable drizzle for the meat.
On the side, I would serve grilled artichokes hearts with melted butter, as she was the first person to teach me how to peel back the petals, dip them in butter, and scrape them with your teeth. Once we’d reached the centre, she showed me how to scrape off the little furry insides and my first taste of this creamy vegetal flower, shrouded in warm salty butter, was burned into my brain. And of course there would be a salad too. No family meal, in my mother’s opinion, is complete without a green salad.
Finally, it would be homemade chocolate cake, with chocolate frosting, with healthy scoops of vanilla ice cream on the side. What else could it be, really? There would be lots of wine and of course, my mom would say “don’t let me drink too much because it affects my sleep”, but she would have a couple glasses and hopefully get a bit giggly and maybe a little hiccup-y.
That is what I would have cooked and why.