Seasonal Shifts

A classic Minnesota hot dish with cheese.

A classic Minnesota hot dish with cheese.

It’s getting chilly again.

This is a somewhat predictable occurrence on the North Coast in Minnesota. Yet it remains surprising when it occurs following a week of temperatures in the 80s.

One day, we’re working up a sweat in shorts and tees, and the next; it’s barely possible to counter the frigid air with two to three layers of increasingly fluffy material.

All of this, of course, leads to thoughts of kitchens, cooking, and food, and not just any old food, no.

This season calls for food that is simmered, stewed, or otherwise cooked in a slow cooker, or in a cast iron pot on the stove. It’s time for casseroles, cassoulet, dafina, or as they call it here, hot dish.

Up north here they put tater tots on anything with saucy ground beef and some form of noodle, and it’s hot dish for a party. This would be a huge step up from the recipes served in my childhood home.

Food, or preparing food, at least, was not one of my mom’s favorite things. Oh, she could cook. She had some great “salads” frequently requested for family gatherings that usually contained gelatin in one form or another. And she could pull together a meal when the occasion called for it.

Her domestic hero was Peg Bracken, author of “The I Hate to Cook Books” that required a cupboard filled with soup cans that were creams of nearly everything. 

The most famous of her inventions – and I honestly don’t know who to blame or thank for this one – was her version of a lazy lasagna. 

Just imagine this – start with a square glass pan. Spread a little tomato sauce on the bottom, and then arrange four slices of white bread on top. Yes – white bread, preferably without the crusts, but if that takes too long, just smush them in there with the crusts. 

On top of the bread, arrange half of a package of frozen spinach, preferably thawed, but again, not necessary if you, like my mom, have a distractedly busy schedule. Then the sliced cheese. She thought it was supposed to be sliced mozzarella, but sometimes there was only sliced Swiss cheese in the house, so that would do.

Follow the cheese with more tomato sauce, white bread, spinach, cheese, and …that’s usually where her interest and attention span ended.

She would push it all together, and then bake in the oven until the cheese was melted.

I can’t even think about it without a shudder. The first time she served the dish, we each put a bit on our plates, took a bite – and then moved on to the side dishes.

Those leftovers became a remarkable science project with the entire pan becoming fuzzy and turning an aqua blue-ish color where it came to rest in the very back of the refrigerator.  

The curious part is that she made it more than once.

And that’s why I learned to cook at a relatively young age. Self defense.

So – a beef bourguignon or Moroccan dafina, or maybe a Caribbean chicken stew – the weather is now right for any of those.