DIGGING DEEP IN MY PANTRY FOR THE FOOD OF LIFE CAFÉ by Kathy Life
This is an adaptation from my forthcoming book: How Life Began: Finding Hope, Love and Huevos Rancheros at Life Café in New York City.
This series is about the heritage of the Life Café menu and the food that was on that menu. Many of the recipes originated years ago in the old pantry of my youth, way before I came to New York City and are intricately connected to the history of Life Café and its humble beginnings.
I’m going back, pulling out jars of the preserved tomatoes I made that were inspired by those my mom use to make each summer. And I’m digging into the bags of brown rice and dried beans that I took along on my two-year American road trip with my young husband at the time, David Kirkpatrick (now known as David Life) cooking up wild berry pies and bean and veggie stews over log and mud campfires.
I hope this project nourishes you as it has me over the decades. And I hope you take pleasure in the read and the recipes. There’s more coming!
We were only married a few years. The unrealized hope of a loving marital relationship caused conflict inside me that I couldn’t shake. I looked okay on the outside when I wasn’t throwing myself on the ground in tears; but really I was a total mess.
As David went about with his pals busy with their art and antiquing, I tried to shake off my loneliness. It was probably more than that; it may have been depression. I compensated by expanding my universe from inside the house to the outside and the patch of land around us. There I told myself I would plant my heart in the garden that I would make under the sun and the trees and not in my husband’s shadow.
I planted a vegetable garden and taught myself how to preserve the harvest. I became obsessive. Once I started working the land I couldn’t stop until I was totally wiped or the sun went down and I couldn’t’ see anymore.
The physical work of the garden absorbed me completely, both mentally and physically. Ladies, if inside both you and the home is an emotional desert, go outside and create a garden. I did. With every turn of the sod, I buried my crushing depression. It wasn’t the garden I was planting, it was me. I needed to grow, blossom and bear fruit.
As a child canning was something I’d watched my mother do for years, and a lot of what she did was a mystery. Now married, I taught myself the specifics. Dave and I never had enough money so I quickly learned the fiscal sense of growing, harvesting and preserving.
I remember one hot afternoon when I was eleven when I helped my folks harvest tomatoes in our back yard.
I was a picky eater, but the tomato in my hand called to me. It was still warm from the sun; I took a bite. When my teeth pierced the skin the delicious flavor burst in my mouth and the juice ran down my chin – pure, and fresh. It was the mother’s milk of the earth. That single tomato planted in me seeds of the essence of real fresh food.
Back in our little kitchen Mom’s tomato canning process took over for days. First she blanched whole tomatoes in boiling water in deep white enamel pots to remove the skins making the kitchen a sweet tomato-scented steam bath.
Next she dipped the tomatoes in cool water, slipped off the skins then crushed the pulp of each tomato with her hands over a large pot, added salt and pepper and brought it to a boil. While that was heating up she filled an even larger blue and white-speckled enameled pot with water and put that on to boil too; into it went her Ball canning jars. The jars went in and came out on a wire rack. Boiled and baptized they were now ready to receive.
Now timing was critical. Once the jars were sterilized, she quickly poured the steaming hot stew into them, set the rubber-lined lids on top of the rims and lightly screwed on the collars, carefully placing each jar onto a rack on the kitchen table to cool overnight. As I passed through the kitchen I’d hear the jars “pop” on their own as they formed a vacuum seal. That “pop” meant they were ready and our future as a family was secure.
Months later while getting dinner ready she’d call down to Dad, “Bring up a quart of tomatoes, would you Tony?” He’d built a pantry in the basement to store all her canned tomatoes and the pickles she made from the cucumbers he grew. There were also canned green beans and homemade applesauce down there. Like secrets, at the back of the highest shelf were the jars of the wild mushrooms he hunted during the fall in the woods. I wouldn’t touch them; they looked slimy, evil and dangerous, like witches’ spells he didn’t understand. Of course they weren’t, at least to him. I sat head in hands at the table as Dad heartily sucked them up. I watched and waited while he wiped his lips and burped. But that was the worst of it; he didn’t up and die. Mom and Dad weren’t that happy together, but the kitchen is where they came together.
My mother served her stewed canned tomatoes in little side bowls chummed up to plates of steaming hot boiled ring bologna, boiled peeled potatoes and her homemade applesauce. We’d smother the potatoes with margarine (butter was too expensive for her budget), salt and pepper. The flavors melded simply and wonderfully. This was one of our Lithuanian family’s favorite meals and it was heartily delicious.
For my second garden season I was buried in even more tomatoes. I’d already canned enough of them to get us through the winter. What to do? I had to act quickly. I got a “eureka” moment – homemade tomato juice! I followed my stewed tomato recipe but strained the seeds, added oregano, basil and thyme and reduced the liquid. I was so proud of myself; I’d produced the deep red elixir of tomatoes picked fresh off the vine in glistening glass jars bursting with life-giving enzymes, vitamins and minerals. I can taste it now.
But there were still tomatoes left and I was beginning to run out of steam. I decided to make tomato sauce. Fran, my lovely mother-in-law, told me it was a good idea and that instead of going through all the canning, I could store the sauce in the new Ziploc freezer bags that just came on the market. And, she said, lay them flat in the freezer so they took up less room.
She was right, as always. It was easy to pull a bag of homemade spaghetti sauce for two, four, or ten people, however many showed up at any given time.
The recipe below was used many times at Life Café, but for economy of time and space, we used canned instead of fresh tomatoes at the Cafe. Use the sauce straight on the pasta of your choice topped with freshly grated Parmesan cheese. Or, use it as a base, adding seafood, mushrooms. You can also add carrots, honey or dash of sugar to add sweetness to it.
Don’t worry if you don’t use the sauce the same day you prepare it. In fact, it’ll taste even better the next day. Once cooked, you can store it up to 5 days in the refrigerator. Otherwise, freeze it until needed. Yes, spoon it in those new-fangled zip-lock freezer bags in the portion sizes that suit you. Just remember to store them flat to save room!
ELEMENTAL MARINARA SAUCE from Life Café, New York City
Enough sauce for a pound of pasta
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
4 garlic cloves, sliced
½ white onion, diced
35 oz can whole peeled tomatoes (no not crush)
1 teaspoon dried oregano
Salt and pepper to taste
½ cup fresh chopped basil or 3 tablespoons dried
Sauté the onions in about 1-2 tablespoons olive oil for about 10 minutes until they’re transparent. Add the garlic and sauté 3 more minutes (don’t let the garlic turn brown or they turn bitter). Add the whole tomatoes with liquid and dried spices. (Hector, head cook of Life Café, said leaving the tomatoes whole helps neutralize the acid.) Bring to a simmer for 30 minutes. Remove from heat. If using fresh basil, add it at this time. Mash the tomatoes with a potato masher to the consistency you desire.