‘ll be honest. As I’ve grown older, many of my ideals about home and family have been, to put it mildly, completely shattered. But one thing remains true: Sharing a meal is one of the greatest expressions of love. And love is what family is all about.
As I recall, my notion of family was first shattered when my folks divorced mere months after I, the youngest child, left for college. And that was just the beginning.
I often fantasized that when I had kids, my sister and parents would live nearby, and my sister’s kids would spend time with mine, living a life of familial bliss. That fantasy remains a fantasy; my sister, who has no children by choice, lives in Brazil, and my mom moved with her current partner to a beautiful farm in Missouri after the divorce. My dad, who lived in Ohio, passed away six years ago.
When my mom, sister and I enjoy our way-too-short, far-too-infrequent, semi-annual visits, we fill our time with laughter, teasing, talking—and food. My mom often makes schmarrum, a Tyrolean omelet she learned to make from her grandma. We also order Thai food, something that they can’t readily get where they live (but is bountiful in Madison, and you’d better believe I rub that in!).
Though no one can take the place of my immediate family, I consider myself lucky to have countless friends, neighbors, grandparents, aunts and uncles who provide plenty of love and support.
The other morning, our daughter spent the better part of the morning with our neighbor and good friend, Anita. They picked beans, blew bubbles and played with Anita’s cat. We borrow eggs, we share a CSA, Anita watches the kids sometimes, we collect her mail, and we have each other’s spare key. And every so often we share an impromptu and bountiful meal together. She’s my kids’ “Auntie.” Our daughter even asked when she can move in with Anita. I’m still waiting for the answer.
When we visit my husband’s family in Chicago, we often stay with his Mean Aunt, as she’s fondly called by her nieces and nephews. Just last weekend we took our kids, along with my ex’s daughter, to Chi-town to crash the Mean Aunt’s block party. It is a serious affair complete with a slip n’ slide, a bouncy house, pig roast and, of course, tables laden with grilled meats, salads, dips, fruit, corn, cookies and cakes. My contribution was a rustic chard, g and tomato bread bake. Coolers lined the sidewalk, filled with beer, soda and a sweet, bright red liquid erroniously labeled “juice.”
At one point I stopped. Indeed, I was tired from my sprints to the slip and slide, or perhaps the culprit was the large cocktail I drank early on that afternoon. But it was something else that made me pause. Nearby our son was playing with, or more likely tormenting, his two sisters (they’re technically half-sisters, but we don’t make that distinction). My hubby and I were joined at a table by Mean Aunt, her partner and my father-in-law. This motley crew is my family, I thought, as I stuffed my mouth with another bite of BBQ ribs. Why? Because we love each other.
RECIPE: Tomato, Chard and Casserole
From Food and Wine, August 2012
5 1/2 pounds Swiss chard, stemmed
3 pounds beefsteak tomatoes, sliced 1/2 inch thick
One 1-pound loaf of day-old peasant bread, sliced 1/2 inch thick
2 large onions, thinly sliced
3 cups chicken stock or low-sodium broth
9 ounces Gruyère cheese, shredded (3 cups)
1 cup dry white wine
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1 tablespoon chopped thyme
Freshly ground pepper
In a large pot of boiling water, cook the chard for 2 minutes; drain. When the leaves are cool enough to handle, squeeze out the excess water. Coarsely chop the chard.
In the same pot, heat the olive oil. Add the onions and thyme and cook over moderately low heat, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 12 minutes. Add the chard and the wine and simmer over moderately high heat until the wine is reduced to 1/4 cup, about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.
Preheat the oven to 400°F. In a small saucepan, bring the stock to a simmer. Butter a 10-by-15-inch baking dish. Line the bottom of the dish with one-third of the bread, overlapping the slices slightly and cutting the bread to fit. Top with half of the tomato slices and season with salt and pepper. Spread half of the chard on top, then sprinkle with half of the cheese. Repeat the layering once and finish with the remaining bread. Pour the hot stock over the casserole and press with a spatula. Brush the top with the melted butter.
Cover the dish with foil and bake in the upper third of the oven for 1 hour. Uncover the dish and bake for about 10 minutes longer, until the top is browned and crisp. Let the casserole rest for at least 10 minutes before serving.
The cooked chard can be refrigerated for up to 2 days.
Photo by Otehlia Cassidy.