By Jenna Edwards
I can't walk up to my kitchen counter without Evelyn, my two year old, getting her stool out and exclaiming "I HELP, MAMA!" And today was no different.
Cooking is a handed-down family tradition. Ever since I was young, my grandmother Madelyn Cleary, affectionately known as "Ma," offered unsolicited cooking advice. She was notorious for her chocolate chip cookies, adored for her macaroni and cheese, and beloved for her banana bread. I would sit with her and have a cup of tea at the kitchen table and hear news and current events of our family and everyone else she knew. She would ask me if I ever tried to make various new recipes.
To this day, I still have included in my iPad's "notes" a recipe for a corn casserole, and something involving spaghetti squash that I will never try, but didn't have the heart to disregard, as well as her zucchini casserole and banana bread. I have her cookie recipe all but memorized. Ma and I both had an affinity for recipe collection, execution and then adaptation. In fact, the recipes she was most famous for were adapted from recipes she got from friends, family and magazines; a lot of them scratched on and adjusted and notated for next time (a habit I too have made for myself, and highly recommend).
Potato soup came up one day while I was on the phone with Ma and told her I was baking a ham. "Now, you know what to do with the leftovers, don't you?" I paused and waited for the answer. "Make a stock from the bone, and make a potato soup!"
For some reason, every time I make potato soup I have to call Ma and ask what step I've forgotten. Did I remember to temper the cheese in the hot broth? Did I remember the dill? How much ham are we talking about? My questions to Ma aren't so easily answered now that she has passed. Every time I had a cooking question I would call. I love to cook, so this was fairly often. Our love for cooking, especially the old comfort foods, was a great bond. Now I keep her photo in my kitchen so when I have a question I can still ask. It has been there since her passing.
The Miracle of the Potato Soup
I'm standing over the stove. Ham bone is on low on the back burner. A pot rests on the stove with drying boiled potatoes. My veggies are chopped. I remembered to make sure there was dill in the cupboard. How the heck do I temper the cheese? I look to Ma. She smiles. She laughs. "Again?" her eyes ask. And it came to me. All on its own. Thanks, Ma.
Ham bone with scraps attached from yesterday's dinner (or last week's, I'm not judging)
2 cups or so reserved ham diced into pieces sized any way you like
2-3 pounds of potatoes. I like the yellow variety. They are deliciously creamy. But you can use whatever you have.
Small celery, trimmed, washed chopped
1 leek, sliced, soak in bowl of water to let sand loosen and fall off
1 cup shredded carrots or 1 handful pre-cut matchstick carrots +1 cup more for later
2 tablespoons butter
1 cup of shredded cheddar give or take - I like sharp or extra sharp
1 1/2 cups skim milk (but use what you have more fat is a richer soup)
Cover ham bone with water in large pot. Bring to a boil then drop to low for 4 hours. I'm serious. If the water level drops below bone add more. Turn it periodically. Just keep an eye on it. It's worth the passive effort.
Boil potatoes whole (salt your water), drain, throw back in the pot. Meanwhile cut your celery and leeks, and shred carrots if you didn't cheat like I do. The potatoes will dry out and cool a little. Then pull the potatoes out of the pot, throw in 2 tablespoons of butter as well as leeks, sauté on low until softened, add celery and carrots. Pour stock developed from ham bone over veggies and cook for about 10 minutes. Add milk.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, scrape your potato skins off, dice and throw into the pot about 1/2 of the potatoes. Liquefy the pot with your handy dandy immersion blender or purée in a regular old blender. I'm pretty lax with the rules. Temper your cheese. Take about two cups of this liquid and put it in a separate bowl. Slowly, gradually add shredded cheddar, whisking until dissolved. Pour it back into the pot.
Add reserved potatoes, ham, and matchstick carrots. Simmer for about 1/2 hour. And done. I didn't talk about seasoning. That's because it's a personal thing. I used what probably amounts to 1-2 Tablespoons of dill, 1/2 teaspoon of white pepper and salt to taste. Bear in mind that ham is salty. I add salt very gradually in every step so as to not over salt. Also this time I added 3 slices of leftover bacon before puréeing. So there's that. (Adds smoke and salt too). But you do what you want.
"But make sure you write down your changes because I won't always be there to answer the phone," Ma would say.
Author Jenna (Cleary) Edwards, who blogs at http://vievieandmama.com/, writes: "My family is all from South Buffalo, but my parents transplanted us to Springville right after I was born. I've been in North Buffalo since 1999. My grandparents lived on Mariemont Avenue. My grandmother was a very strong matriarch and tied the family together. Part of that is the wonderful comfort food she was always 'making' us eat, even if we were stopping by after already having dinner. My great-grandparents were first generation immigrants from Ireland. We still have ties to family over there. Vincent Talty, Ma's first cousin and father of Stephan Talty, author of 'Black Irish,' was present at her burial in 2013."