Other than Michael’s potluck Tuesdays, the occasional sushi night, or the obligatory monthly takeout from Boston Market®, I cooked all of Mom’s meals—not a simple task. This woman whose taste buds retired years ago still had a particularly picky pallet. Whether it was the color or texture, I don’t know, but her comments could be brutal. She scolded Michael. “Not your soup again!” Or when serving a breakfast dish she hadn’t enjoyed in years, I asked, “Best French Toast ever?” She forced a smile, then shook her head, no. So, to avoid any more ego-crushing, I tried to keep things fresh and exciting. When whipping up my world-famous ratatouille, emphasizing “World-Famous” catapulted this healthy meal onto her favorites list. My homemade chicken soup and my special French Toast—whether she admitted it—also made the list. She loved spareribs, so I bought a grill to barbecue them year-round. Another blast from the past treat she enjoyed was corn on the cob. But for Mom and her loose dentures—she refused to let me secure—getting the corn off the cob proved too difficult, so I stripped those kernels off with a knife as my babysitter did so many years ago. Thank you, Mrs. Becker.
But my number one favorite dish of all time? Mom’s lasagna. As a kid, I remember being seduced by the intoxicating aroma of ground sirloin, fresh garlic, seasoned salt and black pepper browning in an easily accessible pan. Though I offered to help, I couldn’t resist swiping spoonfuls of the succulent meat while she focused on the savory simmering tomato sauce. And my chalking it up to “quality control” did not pass muster with Mom, as my control was spotty at best. After promising to behave, she let me stay, and I watched, and I learned.
While the lasagna noodles boiled, she combined the meat that escaped me, the sauce and a secret ingredient that will remain a secret; an irresistible blend of herbs and spices. She then layered noodles, sauce, ricotta and sliced mozzarella cheeses and topped it with a blanket of grated parmesan. Watching it bubble and bake through the tiny oven window was yet another test in self-control. But the greater test came twenty minutes later, while waiting for it to cool.
Over the years, I experimented with vegetarian versions, but for Mom I wanted to recreate the magic of the original. I also recreated my uncontrollable quality control. To cover the losses, I cooked extra meat. When I served it to her the first time, she looked it over before plunging her fork into the near-crispy crust of melted parmesan, releasing a familiar whiff of bliss. I saw her often absent taste buds come alive, confirmed by her ear to ear grin.
Where this Irish girl learned how to make lasagna remains a mystery, but those who have been lucky enough to taste it have experienced Heaven on earth.