All I know of them, really, is their name -- the Murphys -- and my mother's relationship to them. They were her neighbors when she was very young. The Murphys' specialties were almost as strong an influence on my mother's menus as were her mother's dishes from Central Europe.
When it comes to enjoying food, I indeed am my mother's daughter. Whether sipping, supping, experimenting, taste-testing, learning, I consider meals and in-betweens vital and significant pleasures.
Ample evidence of my mother's appreciation is exemplified by "her" strawberry shortcake. When she was a girl, fruits were seasonal, but every day that the ripe, red beauties were available, the Murphys served strawberry shortcake for dessert.
If they failed to set a place at the dinner table for their small, energetic neighbor, they surely had to add one quickly. Because there she was, at le moment juste, open-mouthed with anticipation.
And what a cake it is! Not quite a biscuit -- it is more delicate. Nor does it turn into a juice-soaked sog, as sponge cakes do. The fairly firm texture means the berries can be crushed slightly, allowing the sweet juices to moisten and flavor the cake. I never thought to ask how my mother, when so young, had the wit to obtain the Murphys' recipe for this paragon of shortcake. I was just happy to be eating the result.
Now, with strawberries almost always with us, the shortcake can be enjoyed year 'round. Or with seasonal economy in mind, put it on the table with other berries, or peaches, or bananas, or what you will.
The Murphys wouldn't have been Murphys if Irish stew had not had a place on their menus, too. Once, while teaching, I was reciting the many vegetables that could vary an Irish stew.
"No! No!" an Irish student interrupted with passionate heat.
"No carrots! And certainly no tomatoes! An authentic Irish stew," she stated firmly, "is made only with white vegetables."
"You're talking about a blanquette," I said, in amazement. "Blanquette de veau is the classic French recipe name for a veal and white-vegetable stew."
Since, I have wondered whether an Irish stew-cum-blanquette was the result of French infiltration of Irish kitchens or vice versa. Actually, names of long-time French families -- Hennessy, Hines and O'Brien (Haut Brion) lead me to believe the recipe is an Irish contribution.
The Murphys served other dishes that became part of my mother's repertoire: Irish lemons, their name for roasted potatoes; cottage ham, often substituted for corned beef, in a boiled dinner; and on special occasions, creamed pork tenderloin graced their platter.
LACE-CURTAIN LAMB STEW (Blanquette d'Agneau) (4 servings) 2 pounds lamb, cut in 2-inch cubes 1 large onion, diced fine 1/4 cup dry white wine 2 cups chicken stock, divided 2 tablespoons butter 8 small white onions, peeled 10 small potatoes, peeled 2 stalks celery, cut in 2-inch dice 4 small leeks, cut in 2-inch dice (white part only) 4 small turnips, peeled, optional Flour for thickening Salt and pepper, to taste Parsley and paprika, for garnish
Trim excess fat and gristle from lamb from leg or shoulder. Make a bed in skillet of diced onion. Top with lamb, preferably in single layer. Add wine and 1 cup chicken stock. Cover, bring liquid to boil rapidly, reduce heat and simmer gently until meat is tender, about 1 hour. Strain, reserving stock and, if desired, refrigerate meat in stock overnight. Melt butter in skillet, add onions, cover, and cook gently 10 minutes. Add remaining vegetables and remaining stock and continue cooking gently until tender, approximately 25 minutes. Strain and combine liquid with liquid in which lamb was cooked. Thicken, allowing 2 tablespoons flour for each cup, and season to taste. Arrange lamb down center of serving platter. Arrange a row of vegetables along each side and spread with thickened sauce. Sprinkle vegetables with a line of parsley and lamb with paprika.
Note: Dumplings may be substituted for potatoes.
NEIGHBORLY TENDERLOIN (4 servings) 1 pound pork tenderloin, approximately 1 tablespoon butter 1 tablespoon vegetable oil 1 cup cream 1 tablespoon cornstarch 1/2 teaspoon salt Dash cayenne pepper
Allow 1/4 pound meat per serving. Cut whole tenderloin into 8 slices. Flatten slices with cleaver as for veal scallopini. Melt butter, add oil and heat. Add pork, cover pan, and cook gently until done, about 25 minutes, then remove to a warm plate. Add cream to cornstarch and blend until smooth. Add to pan in which meat was cooked and stir over low heat, scraping up brown particles. Cook until slightly thickened, about 10 minutes. Return meat to pan, season to taste, and simmer covered 5 minutes.
COTTAGE DINNER (4 servings) 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 pound cottage ham (butt) 4 large potatoes, peeled and quartered 1 medium head cabbage, quartered or 1 pound green or snap beans
Place ham in pot and pour enough boiling water over it to cover. Cover pot and simmer until tender, approximately 2 1/2 hours. Remove ham and keep warm. Bring water to boil, add potatoes and boil about 10 minutes. Add cabbage or snap beans and boil approximately 10 minutes more or until vegetables are tender. Serve surrounding ham with vegetables.
Note: Fresh ham may be substituted for cottage ham. Remove ends if substituting green beans for cabbage.
Peel potatoes and, if large, cut in halves or quarters. Allow 1 to 2 per serving. Toss with salt (preferably coarse), freshly ground pepper and paprika. When coated, turn into a baking dish and dot with bits of fat trimmed from prime ribs of beef, steak or kidney fat (a friendly butcher may furnish the last, free). Bake in moderate 350-degree (or up to hot 425-degree) oven, spooning up after the first 20 minutes to be sure potatoes are not sticking to pan. Bake until browned and crisp, allowing about 1 hour. The longer they bake, the better they get.
STRAWBERRY SHORTCAKE MURPHY (4 servings) For the cake: 1/3 cup shortening 1/3 cup sugar 1 egg 1 cup flour 2 teaspoons baking powder 1/8 teaspoon salt 1/3 cup milk
For the Berries 1 quart strawberries, divided 1/4 cup confectioners' sugar, approximately 1 cup whipping cream
Cream shortening. Add sugar and beat until light. Add egg and beat well. Sift flour with baking powder and salt. Add dry ingredients to batter alternately with milk, beating in the former, stirring in the latter. Grease a round 8-inch cake tin, add batter and bake in preheated moderate 365-degree oven about 20 minutes or until a cake tester inserted in center comes out clean.
Cool cake, then cut in half along the equator. Reserve several perfect berries for garnish. Crush remaining berries lightly and sweeten to taste. Whip cream until just stiff. Spread sweetened fruit between layers. Top with whipped cream and decorate with whole strawberries.