Strawberry bliss

How a chef’s mother turned the simplest ingredients into a delicacy

By Richard Hyman


hef’s have all sorts of reasons for getting into this racket. Some come from families entrenched in the business; others, as a last resort before prison. I learned how to cook to keep myself from starving. My mother was incapable of cooking. She would incinerate the finest cuts of beef and destroy the freshest of vegetables. Most of what I ate growing up came either from cans or Stouffer’s. The TV dinner was my mother’s greatest discovery.

What my mother did do well was to dine out. Arlene was, then and until the day she died, a stunning beauty of a woman. Men would stop dead in their tracks when she passed. (I used to complain about that fact whenever we’d be out in the street). She was courted by some very interesting characters, all of whom would treat her, and subsequently her children, like rock stars. I can clearly remember dining at places like Chasen’s, the Brown Derby, Sneaky Pete’s, the Polo Lounge and Nick’s Fishmarket every weekend. I ate foods that most kids my age would choke on. Escargot, Foie Gras, and Caviar were the norm. I would order dishes that had cool names like Steak Sinatra and Crab Louis.

However, what I believe made the biggest impact on me was what my mother did make. She could make a noodle kugel that would bring tears to your eyes. (Although there was a 20-year battle between my mother and grandmother about raisins in kugel.) Her brisket was divine. But, what stands out in my mind more than anything is what she would call, “Dairy Night.” Looking back on it, I now know that Dairy Night was just another way of my mother saying, “I really don’t want to cook tonight.”

For whatever reason, Dairy Night was sublime and included the simplest of dishes — cottage cheese topped with either canned peaches or, on special occasions (so I thought), fruit cocktail and the syrup it was packed in; bananas and yogurt drizzled with honey. She would fry up cheese blintzes in lots of butter and serve them hot, with sour cream. But the best of the best, the piece d’résistance, was how she served strawberries. To this day, I have never had a more perfect combination of foods: three ingredients that form the greatest of culinary harmony. Strawberries. Sour cream. Brown sugar.

For this dish you will need the following: 1 cup of ripe sweet strawberries, cored and halved. Two tablespoons of sour cream (or even better, crème fraiche) and 1 tablespoon of dark brown sugar.

Place strawberries in a bowl (preferably Depression glass), top with sour cream and sprinkle with brown sugar. Enjoy!


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