Sunday, December 13, 2009

Gram: My Portuguese Heritage

My precious grandmother, Elvira Rose Gomes, died a few years ago at age 105.  Born in the late 1800's, my grandmother graced three centuries with her presence, and made a loving and indelible mark on my life.  Her father and mother were immigrants from the Azores Islands, and at an early age, her industrious father set up a dairy farm and a barber shop in California's Central Valley.  He became prosperous and treated his wife and daughters with great respect.  Each summer he would send them to San Francisco to escape the heat of the Central Valley.  My grandmother loved to recount that her sister's favorite "first meal" upon their arrival each year in San Francisco was two dozen fresh oysters.  Grandmother attended the San Francisco Conservatory of Music in an age when most young women (especially those of Portuguese descent) married early and started their families.  During her lifetime, she traveled the western world, collecting books, stories and interesting people, many of whom remained in contact with her until they died. (Gram was unquestionably the last to go.)  It was my grandmother who introduced me to fine food, making sure I dined at some of San Francisco's finest restaurants while I was still a young girl.  The opera, the ballet and the symphony were regular venues for the two of us.  (As she grew older, she became quite adept at quietly nodding off during the best of performances.  I always felt I had done Gram proud when I nodded off during a performance of Aida, complete with live elephants, at the baths of Caracalla in Rome.)  The two of us would often go to Fishermen's Warf, buy a crab, some sourdough bread and an avocado, and sit on the lawn in front of Ghiradelli Square to feast.  Tea on her beautiful collection of Limoges cups was always a special treat and a moment to pause and chat.  My grandmother, like Auntie Mame, offered an education that no one else in my family could have given me.  And though the last few years of her life were difficult, I will always carry her essence in my heart.   Grandmother was not especially adept at cooking (there were a million things she would rather do), she made a few dishes that became family favorites.  One was her Portuguese Chicken Soup pieced together from leftover turkey carcass, rice, celery and tomato, spiced with cumin.
Another was her "tagliarini", thrown together from ground beef, fettucine, black olives, tomato sauce and wine (or Jack Daniels if she was out of wine).  And then there was her Portuguese Kale and Potato Soup, classic that has sustained Portuguese peasants for centuries.  I believe the true classic was made without the addition of any meat, as much of the time, the poor lived without meat, but I have found that most contemporary recipes call for the addition of linguiça, a very spicey, delicious Portuguese sausage.  Since it is Christmas time and I am thinking of Gram while listening to Charlie Brown Christmas music (Gram liked jazz musician, Vince Guaraldi, as do I), I thought I'd pen a simple version of the recipe.  Add the linguiça or not, as you see fit.  Personally, I'd rather let the pig see another Christmas.
1/2 lb linguica sauce, cut into rounds
1 medium onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 pound spuds, cut into 1 inch pieces
6 cups water
1 lb kale, leaves thinly sliced (in chiffonade)

If you are using linguiça, brown it in a skillet.  Remove the linguiça from the pan and drain it on paper towels.  Brown the onion in the fat from the linguiça.  (If you are planning on giving the pig a break, brown the onion in olive oil!)  Place the browned onion, linguiça if you are using it, garlic, potatoes and water in a Dutch oven or even a slow cooker and cook until the potato pieces are tender.  Add the kale and salt and pepper to taste only at the last and continue cooking for just a few minutes.  Mash a few of the spuds to thicken the soup.  Drizzle with a few tablespoons of fruity olive oil and serve.  Serve with the requisite crusty rustic bread and butter.  And oh, a glass of dry rosé for Elvira Rose.

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