This appeared as my column “Dish” in the Toronto Star in 2002.
Today is Mother’s Day and this is a tribute to the person who first inspired my love of food and cooking – my mum.
I call her “mum” because of the formative years – from age four to 19 – I spent living with my parents and two brothers in London, England.
It was by phone from the North London home she shared with my dad until his death two years ago, that my mother recently told me about the food of her childhood, learning to cook and what breaking bread with others means to her.
My mother, Ruth Schachter (nee Nisse) is 79. She has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in science from McGill, taught high school biology for many years, speaks five languages and has worked as a translator from Russian and German into English.
She’s a bookworm who likes to read Goethe’s poetry, in German, with her morning coffee – “I find it soothing,” she says shyly – and enjoys a good Proust or Dostoevsky novel at bedtime, in the original.
She is also a fantastic cook who knows how to welcome guests into her home like few others.
A holocaust refugee who once told me to watch Vittorio di Sica’s magnificent, heart-wrenching film The Garden Of The Finzi-Continis to best understand her past, grew up in a wealthy, educated Jewish family in Riga, Latvia.
Today, through the veil of survivor guilt, she recalls a “golden childhood” that suddenly ended in 1939.
That was the year she, her parents and younger sister left for North America, spending a year en route that included stays in Sweden and Japan. The hope of my oil tycoon grandfather Aaron Nisse was to help the many relatives still at home escape. Sadly, they all perished at the hands of the Nazis.
Still, my mother’s memories of life at the family’s 10-room, art nouveau apartment on elegant Elizabetes St. in downtown Riga and at their nearby seaside summer house – the dacha – border on idyllic.
Food was the responsibility of a professional, live-in cook. My grandmother Agnes was a pediatrician who operated a clinic in a poor neighbourhood and never learned to boil an egg. Her duties consisted of suggesting menus and ordering groceries which were delivered via the back stairs.
Cuisine in the Nisse household, where a large extended family and many friends were frequent visitors, was, says my mum, “a fusion of Russian, German, Latvian and Jewish fare.”
When there were guests, meals were leisurely and long. “We grew up with a culture of feasting and festivity,” she recalls fondly. “With people of all ages sitting around the table – often for several hours.”
As a child, she remembers having “ersatz coffee” at breakfast along with “little rolls, smoked fish and cheese.”
Lunch was “a hefty midday meal.” Among the German entrees were sauerbraten (marinated, braised beef), rouladen (stuffed, rolled-up beef), sausages and wiener schnitzel.
Favourite Russian dishes were little meat pies called pirozhki, beef stroganoff, coulibiac (salmon in puff pastry), meat patties called kotleti, borscht and a gelatin dessert made with fruit called kissel.
At Friday night dinner, Jewish standards like chicken soup, gefilte fish, chopped liver and chopped herring were de rigueur.
At that time, Latvia was, she says, “a land of milk and honey.” Fresh ingredients like cranberries, all manner of fish, sour cream and butter were of top quality and plentiful.
The Latvian staple of salt herring with boiled potatoes and sour cream is still, she says, her “favourite dish of all time.”
She recalls going to the local patisserie regularly to buy one of that country’s famous “apple pies made with puff pastry on the top and bottom,” and the wonderful taste of the famous local bread: sweet-and-sour rye.
“It seems odd now,” my mother notes, “but red caviar was an everyday hors d’oeuvre. On the other hand, tinned sardines, chicken and turkey were real treats. Our family only had tinned pineapple when there were guests.”
Not surprisingly, she grew up with no idea of how to cook. Things didn’t improve when, living in Stockholm at age 17, she took cooking classes. “The food we made was supposed to go to a deli,” she says with a laugh. “Mine had to be thrown out.”
A year later, once settled in Montreal, she picked up the Joy Of Cooking (Scribner) by Irma and Marion Rombauer and baked a cheesecake that failed miserably. Her new husband, my dad, by now a doctor, took charge and produced a perfect cake. Able to laugh at it now, she says, “He told me I didn’t know how to do accurate work.”
When he took a job teaching physiology at Dalhousie University in Halifax, she honed her cooking skills on friends. “We had elaborate dinner parties,” she says. “I got very ambitious.”
After the move to England, the home entertaining began in earnest. Soon, our family was known for gatherings at which good food and lively conversation reigned supreme.
My mother says she learned her hosting talents from her grandmother Marianne Berner after whom I’m named. “My granny was a terrific cook who poured all her goodness into her food,” she explains. “I love to have people come and enjoy themselves, to feel welcomed and a bit spoiled.”
On a daily basis, she had an appreciative audience. “Cooking for your dad was sheer pleasure,” she says of the corpulent, rambunctious man with whom she shared 55 years. “He loved food. You kids, too.”
These days, my mother’s eclectic culinary repertoire includes European baking from kugelhopf and linzertorte to strudel and kuchen. She makes a mean lamb curry, delicious roast duck with red cabbage, all kinds of stir-fries and a yummy prawn rice salad.
But she hasn’t forgotten her Eastern European roots and often prepares what is arguably Russia’s most famous dish: beef stroganoff. This version is adapted from her favourite, well-worn cookbook: How To Cook And Eat In Russian (G.P. Putnam’s Sons) by Alexandra Kropotkin.
My mum is adamant that this is a quick, pan-fried dish, not a stew as it often is in restaurants. Also, you must use top-notch beef like tenderloin, sirloin or New York steak. She likes to use brown mushrooms. Don’t use low-fat sour cream or yogurt; they may curdle.
1½ lb/750 g beef tenderloin
1 lb/500g mushrooms, halved
½ tsp each: Salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 tbsp vegetable oil
1 small onion, peeled, chopped
1 tbsp all-purpose flour
1 cup beef or chicken stock
1 tbsp dijon mustard
1/3 cup sour cream or plain yogurt
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Chopped fresh parsley
Cut beef into strips about 2 inches/5 cm long, 1 inch/2 cm wide and ¼ inch/1 cm thick. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.
Heat 1 tablespoon of oil over medium-high heat in large heavy skillet. Add mushrooms. Sprinkle with salt and pepper; cook, stirring, until browned, about 4 min. Transfer to bowl.
Add remaining 2 tablespoons of oil to skillet. Using tongs, add only enough beef to fit in single layer. Cook, in batches if necessary, turning once, until browned on both sides, about 3 min. Transfer to bowl.
Reduce heat to low. Add onion to skillet. Cook, stirring, until soft, about 2 min. Add flour. Cook, stirring and scraping up browned bits from bottom of skillet, about 1 min. Whisk in stock and mustard; cook, whisking, about 2 min. or until thickened.
In small bowl, combine sour cream and 2 tablespoons of sauce from skillet. Add to sauce in skillet; cook, stirring, until heated through, about 1 min.
Return mushrooms and beef to skillet. Stir to coat with sauce. Cook until heated through, about 1 min. Taste; add salt and pepper if necessary. Garnish with parsley. Serve with egg noodles.
Makes about 6 servings.
My mother’s trademark European dessert is now a favourite with me. Once you’ve tried this, you’ll never look back.
1¼ cups whole unblanched almonds, skins on
¾ cup butter, at room temperature
½ cup granulated sugar
2 egg yolks (reserve 1 white)
1 tsp grated lemon rind
1 tbsp fresh lemon juice
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 tbsp cocoa powder
½ tsp ground cinnamon
Pinch ground cloves
About 1 cup good quality raspberry jam
In food processor, chop almonds, pulsing with on/off motion, just until ground.
In large bowl, using electric mixer, cream butter and sugar until fluffy. Add egg yolks, lemon rind and lemon juice. Beat until smooth.
In separate bowl, combine flour, cocoa, cinnamon, cloves and chopped almonds. Stir into butter mixture to form soft dough. Gather into ball, wrap well in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 1 hour or overnight. (If chilling overnight, bring to room temperature 30 min. before using.)
Preheat oven to 350F.
With floured hands, evenly pat two-thirds of dough on to bottom and up sides of 9-inch/23 cm springform pan or fluted flan ring with removable bottom. Carefully spread jam over dough.
On floured surface, roll remaining dough into oval ¼ inch thick. Cut into strips ¾ inch wide; arrange in lattice on top of jam, pressing edges into edge of torte. (If strips break, simply press them back together.)
In small bowl, lightly beat reserved egg white. Brush on to lattice strips and edges of torte.
Bake in centre of oven about 45 minutes or until pastry is well browned. Cool completely in pan on wire rack. Remove sides of pan. Dust with icing sugar before cutting in narrow wedges. Serve with vanilla ice cream, sweetened plain yogurt or crème fraiche.
Makes about 10 servings.