more than food

It’s about time I made a formal introduction. Dear reader, meet Amy, my stepmom.

If you have been following Sweet Amandine for a while, you may have caught a glimpse of Amy in passing, stirring a pot of risotto, or pulling a yellowed recipe card from her file. Or maybe you remember her as the woman behind the almond tart that inspired the name of this blog. The truth is, Amy is a much bigger part of my kitchen than I have let on. Recipes. Menu planning. Stove-side crisis management. More than once, I’ve considered installing a special red phone in my kitchen that rings through straight to her.

I first met Amy at a Dairy Queen in Cleveland. (Smart move, Dad, staging our first encounter over ice cream.) She wore silver howling-at-the-moon coyote earrings. She ordered a Blizzard. I liked this woman. Good thing, too, because when I was eleven, she married my dad.

Right away, I noticed something about Amy. Hers was a kitchen where food just tasted good. I never gave it much thought. I simply knew it to be true, and that I wanted to have a kitchen like that someday, too. Amy kept her sugar and flour in old tinted-glass canisters with metal lids. She swirled homemade salad dressing in an empty Grey Poupon jar, and mixed chocolate chip cookie dough in a yellow plastic pitcher. Her spoons were wooden, her pots heavy and worn. Amy’s kitchen was more like a studio of sorts, with its tools and towels and three kinds of flour. It was beautiful. And it was there that I began to figure out that food is about a heck of a lot more than food.

In the kitchen, Amy taught me the virtues of a tall glass of water before bed; that butter should soften on the counter before it hits the table; how to toast pine nuts in the oven, and say your own name out loud with proper exasperation when they burn. Before I had ever heard of Alice Waters, I learned from Amy that the best food is food that tastes like itself, simple and clean.

Amy and I talk a lot about food. And about things that have nothing to do with food. Very often, we do both at once.

This story could have gone very differently. Stepmothers are, after all, quintessential fairytale villains. Lucky for me, Amy’s not so into poison apples.

I love you, Amy. Happy birthday.

Green Beans and Red Potatoes Vinaigrette or, “Amy’s Potato Salad”
Adapted from the New York Times, via Amy’s kitchen

Until I met Amy, potato salad meant one thing: lots and lots of mayonnaise. That Amy’s tangy, crisp potato salad went by the same name as that gloppy stuff amazed me. When I asked Amy for this recipe, she added the following note: “This one is very forgiving -- halve, quarter, or use what you have on hand. I often go easier on the olive oil because I like a tangier dressing and hate to be swimming in olive oil.” I suggest starting with 7 T. of olive oil, tasting, and adding more olive oil as you see fit. I like eating this salad with the potatoes still slightly warm, but it’s great chilled, too.

2 lbs small red potatoes, scrubbed
2 lbs green beans, washed and trimmed

10 T. red-wine vinegar
7-10 T. olive oil
2 t. dry mustard
1 c. sliced scallions
1/4 c. chopped basil
Salt and pepper to taste

1. Boil the potatoes in lightly salted water until fork-tender, approximately 10 minutes.

2. While the potatoes are boiling, whisk together the vinegar, olive oil, mustard, and scallions. (Or, shake the vinaigrette together in a Grey Poupon jar, à la Amy.)

3. Lightly steam the beans, or try this shortcut: Slide the green beans into the pot, alongside the fork-tender potatoes. After about a minute, the beans should be tender, but still crisp. Remove the pot from the stovetop, and drain. Run the beans under cold water to keep them from cooking further.

4. Cut the potatoes into quarters and stir them together with the dressing. Season with salt and pepper and set aside, until ready to serve.

5. Just before serving, toss the beans and basil with the potatoes and adjust the seasonings.

Serves 8.


Amy’s Salad Dressing
Adapted from Amy’s Kitchen

I feel a little silly sharing such a simple recipe, but I can’t resist. I love this dressing, with its vinegary kick and confetti of fresh herbs. This recipe is best prepared with a pile of lettuce leaves nearby, so that you can dip and taste and adjust as you go.

2/3 c. olive oil
1/3 c. red wine vinegar
1-1/2 T. Dijon mustard
1-2 cloves of garlic, minced
2-3 T. of finely chopped herbs (Parsley, chives, basil or any combination)
Ground salt and pepper, to taste

Whisk all ingredients together in a bowl. Or, take your cue from Amy, and shake together in a Grey Poupon jar.


oneordinaryday said...

That is such a beautiful tribute to your Amy. I feel that same complete and utter love and devotion to my "stepdad." (I actually hate that word and would never call him that in real life!)

slowlikehoney said...

You are quite lucky with your stepmom. I don't know my stepmom that well unfortunately, but I know I could learn alot from her.

Anonymous said...

I know Amy and can vouch for her in every way--direct, funny, talented, lovely cook, busy mom and wife, and a classic, natural beauty. Where I meet her most often is at our local gym, where she is working out at 7:30 AM before going on to her workday!

Rosiecat said...

I love your description of Amy's kitchen, especially the line about it being "more like a studio of sorts." What a memorably lovely analogy! That's how I think of my own kitchen, especially on those days when inspiration strikes and the impromptu recipe makes for a meal worth remembering.

Anonymous said...

I, too love Amy, and have witnessed many of her talents. Her typical day starts with a workout at 6 am, a drive to her husband's ad agency to produce a tv ad, back to school to lead a writing workshop for middle schoolers, home to write press release for the district, photograph a concert, record school board notes and have lunch with friends - all in an afternoon. She can be relied on to dress up any conversation with a cornball idom or folsky anecdote. Sitting alongside her at a soccer game last Fall she chimed in with this winning cheer from her school days in the South: "Porkchop, porkchop, greazzzy, greazzy,
We're gonna beat you easy, easy."
Invoking food in a cheer? No wonder Amy is a constant figure in Jessica's marvelous food blog.
And by the way, as being frequent recipients of kindnesses, cards, home-cooking, and favors, being a friend of Amy's is to feel her fierce, forever love. She is, simply, supremely Amy. There is no one better.

maybelles mom said...

As a Clevelander, it makes me wonder if our dairy queens have secret power... I adore a vinegary potato salad. I just recently posted my grandmother-in-laws recipe.

Q. said...

"Amy’s kitchen was more like a studio of sorts, with its tools and towels and three kinds of flour." -- That is a beautiful sentence:) What a great post. I may have to put my sack of red potatoes to use on this recipe!

thomfech said...

you all are makin me cry

suzi banks baum said...

Oh well, I am right in line with that thomfech, weeping in to my chai cup here this morning. I claim knowing Amy long before the ice cream date and I knew those worn pots and wooden spoons, back when they were new. Oh, what a complete tribute to my AmyNel written by the girl who deserves a tall glass of iced lemonade and big slice of some nice cake- you are a delectable stepdaughter- you have brought your family innumerable joy and your post here is a sample of your HUGE heart. Happy July to you all. I am off to brew sour cherry juice. HUGS! from Suzi

Erin said...

I just love reading your posts Jess. You have such an effortless writing style. I hope your step-mother reads your blog. I'm sure you brought her to tears with your kitchen reminiscences.

Jess said...

oneordinaryday - Thank you. I love that you wrote "your Amy." I once had a conversation with my dad about how difficult it is to assign a title to the role that Amy plays in my life. He said, "Well, I guess she's just your Amy." It sounds like you understand.

slowlikehoney - Yes, I am very lucky. If it's what you want, I hope you'll have the chance to learn from your stepmom (and she from you) like I have from Amy.

Anonymous and Anonymous - Well, we have quite the Amy fan club going on here, I see! And with good reason. Thank you so much for speaking up. It makes this space feel like a genuine birthday party. (And I LOVE that soccer cheer.)

Rosiecat - Thank you. I know just what you mean about those kitchen improv moments.

maybelles mom - I like the thought of our humble Dairy Queen possessing super powers. You never know.

Q. - Thank you, and congratulations on the new blog!

thomfech - Amy, you are so loved.

Suzi - Hello! Wow, everyone is piping up over here! You know, I don't think I ever paused to consider a time when those pots and spoons were brand new. Thank you for that image, and for your very kind words. A big slice of cake sounds wonderful, but can I swap in some of that cherry juice for the lemonade? That sounds amazing!

Erin - You are just the sweetest. Such high praise from one of my favorite bloggers means so much to me. Thank you.

Shannalee said...

What a sweet post! And I love, love what you wrote about saying your own name out loud when something goes wrong - I do that more frequently than I should admit!

megan said...

My jar is a jam one and the beans at the farmers' market were yellow but it still tasted delicious! I could have been a little better at following instructions - I didn't really believe that the potatoes would only take 10 minutes. Par for the course: I usually get it just right on the third try or so...Thanks for another staple!


Jess said...

Shannalee - Thank you!

Megan - You and your yellow beans and jam jar; you are so fun. As for the potatoes - just give them a stab with a fork at around 10 minutes. You'll be able to tell if they are done, or if they need another minute or two. Good luck with attempt number two. I've got my fingers crossed for you.

megan said...

Attempt number 2 took place on Saturday - I'm still having trouble trusting the potatoes...but it was much better. Thank you for an excellent picnic!


Jess said...

You're hilarious, Megan. Have you tried the old fork stab method? That will take the guess work out of it. Good luck with attempt number three. I'll keep my fingers crossed for you.

megan said...

Oh, Jessica - like any language, the potatoes have their own subtleties and I need more time with them...tender = just stabbable with the fork? quite yielding to the fork? crumbling from the fork? (Clearly not the latter two.) I'm confident the third time will be the charm.

Jess said...

Megan - You're the cutest.

Jen said...

This ode to a stepmother gets to my heart. I fell in love with a divorcee and specifically remember the first day I met his (then) 12 year old--who is now the sun that all of my free time revloves around. I can only wish she think of me half as highly when she grows up!

Jess said...

Hi, Jen. Thanks for your note. It sounds like you and your stepdaughter are off to a great start.