On our fifth wedding anniversary, Melissa and I went to Grand Marais, MN where we renewed our wedding vows; having our marriage blessed in the Catholic Church. The day after the ceremony, we headed up to a cabin we enjoy renting on the Gunflint Trail, called Wearing Water. Melissa’s mom and dad joined us and the four of us would spend the next few days exploring the North Woods.
Our adventures took us canoeing in the Boundary Waters, hiking, spotting moose, along with other wildlife and more. One particular day, we hiked the Blueberry Hill trail; a part of the Chik-Wauk Museum and Nature Center. It is an awesome trail. With its “moderately difficult” rating, it provides a good workout. The trail leads to the top of Blueberry Hill, giving those who follow the entire trail a breathtaking panoramic view of the woods and waters below. That’s where we took the picture of the four of us, when June licked my mouth…but that’s another story.
When we came back down the trail, we visited the Chik-Wauk gift shop and museum. After looking around for a bit, Melissa decided to buy her parents a jar of jam. This was not just any jam, it was Gunflint Trail Jam from Jams by Jan, made right there in Grand Marais, MN. The flavor she chose was “Fruit of the Loon.” The ingredients are fruit, sugar, fruit pectin and lemon juice. That’s it. This is the good stuff.
When we got back to the cabin it was time to cook, and cook we did. For breakfast I made an egg scramble with ham and cheese, mushrooms and all the veggies. Instead of toast, I made a batch of baking powder biscuits. They came out of the oven, steaming hot, light and fluffy; they practically fell apart. This is when the Fruit of the Loon jam came out and I have to tell you, the jam didn’t last long.
Meals in the woods with family and friends are a special time for me. I have always enjoyed homemade egg noodles, but I had never made them before. Carol makes a pretty darn good noodle herself while Phil fixes a tender beef roast. Together, they make great beef and noodles.
I asked Carol if she would teach me how to make noodles. The recipe was simple, an egg, some salt and flour; that’s all that went into the mix. The rest is technique. She gave me instruction, some correction here and there, lending a hand when needed. In a short time, she had me hooked on making my own noodles. I’ve made noodles many times since.
At the beginning of the Lenten season, I decided I would cook for a different family each of the six weeks leading up to Easter. I wanted to reach beyond my usual circle of family and friends to cook for people I would not normally think of cooking for. I asked for suggestions from Facebook friends and plenty of names were provided. One suggestion, from Lori Alcala, was to cook for the residents of Hillside Apartments. My first thought was, “Is she crazy? That’s a lot of people.” She raised my curiosity, I thought about it, then decided to look into it a bit more.
I met with the building manager, Alesia Van Velsor. She said, “Expect 12 to 15 people – maybe 18, you just don’t really know how many will show up.” We set a date. With this many people, I decided it would be best to make something like beef and noodles. I told Alesia I would make mashed potatoes to go with it, mixed vegetables, homemade rolls, and pies for dessert. She said there would be a group of singers coming in that night, so we decided dinner at 5p.m., followed by singers at 6p.m. Alesia said she would post signup sheets on each floor.
The first time I checked in Alesia said there were 12 people signed up. No problem. On Tuesday we met to get the final count – 36 people were coming. I added the people who would help me serve dinner: my wife, John and Lorri Swarney, their girls Tavia and Lydia and Lori Alcala. Alesia would also help, along with some members of her family. I assumed they would all eat with us – holy smokes! We’re talking about 50 people! My heart raced for a moment, then, a little voice in my head said, “Tom, you’ve cooked for more than 50 people at family gatherings.” “Oh yeah.” I replied. I can do this easy-peasy…with some planning… It dawned on me I was talking to myself in my head with Alesia sitting across the desk. “No problem,” I told her. “Dinner at 5, music at 6 – I’ll be here at 4.” I left, thinking about my agenda and schedule to make this happen.
The pies would be made Wednesday night. Noodles Thursday morning. While the noodles are drying, start the rolls, peel potatoes while the dough rises…this project is in the bank. I would do my morning radio show on Thursday, go right home and start cooking at 10 a.m., so I could cook the beef on Thursday also.
The grocery shopping was done Wednesday night. I made six pies; peach, apple and strawberry rhubarb – two of each. The pies would serve 48. If I ran short, I could cut the slices a bit smaller.
Thursday; it would all come together today. I guess I hadn’t counted on so much of my station work and projects being delayed until…you guessed it – today. I wanted to be home, cooking by 10 a.m. It was noon when I walked in the door. Four hours – I’ll have to rush, but I can do this.
I started the noodles first as they would need time to dry. Making batches to serve 12 at a time seemed to be a workable amount of dough. I didn’t want to run short, so I made an extra batch – enough to serve 60 people. Cracking and beating eggs, a dash of salt, flour, stir, stir stir…it can’t be too sticky, but it can’t be too dry – kneed it, make a ball, put it in the glass dish, cover it with a damp towel and let it rest. By the time the fifth dough ball was done, the first had sat 30 minutes and was ready to roll.
I rolled out the noodles on parchment paper, 15 inches by 36 inches, so they would be easy to move. Where was I going to put all of these? “Melissa!” I bellowed, “We’re going to need the leaves in the dining room table.”
With the five large sheets of noodles now drying, I would run to the store to get the potatoes I forgot last night. As soon as I returned home, I would start the meat. I like to pressure cook the beef, it’s very tender and full of flavor. I have 3 different size pressure cookers. With 8 1/2 pounds of beef to cook, I was going to need the big one! This bad boy only comes out when I am doing some serious cooking. Today was such an occasion.
With all of my secret ingredients added, I put the big pot on the largest burner, turning it on high. While at the store, I also ran to O’Hara Hardware to get one of those noodle cutters. I began cutting the noodles, but I wasn’t sure I liked the way it was working. There was no time to experiment today. I set the new tool off to the side and grabbed the pizza cutter. The noodles weren’t dry enough yet and time was becoming an issue. I cut the large sheets into strips, allowing them to dry a bit faster, then I would stack the strips three or four high to cut them into noodles with a kitchen knife.
After the noodles are cut, they have to be “crinkled and bent.” Failure to do so will cause the household critic to claim, “They’re not like mom’s unless you crinkle and bend them a little.” With all the noodles cut, crinkled, scattered and now drying, I took a breather. The sound of the pressure cooker is very comforting to me; pfss, pfss, pfss, pfss, pfss, as the weighted regulator rocks and rattles in a steady rhythm.
Checking the clock, the meat needed another 15 minutes of cooking time. I would start peeling potatoes. It was 2:30. Everything was going well. I wanted to be loading the car, headed to the Hillside Apartments by 4:00. This should work out just right if the rolls rise on time. THE ROLLS!!! I forgot to start the rolls! “Melissa!!”
Arriving in the kitchen, she asked what I needed. I explained I needed to start the rolls. Could you please peel the potatoes for me? “How many?” She asked. I told her the whole ten-pound bag. I intentionally did not mention the rolls had completely slipped my mind, knowing she would say, “Skip the rolls, just take bread and butter.”
I had already put a pan of water on the stove for the potatoes. In record time I had the dough mixed, kneaded and back in the bowls to rise. I was beginning to worry about the time. Melissa suggested we may have to skip the rolls for this dinner. I gave her an evil glare. “Skip the rolls? Never! That would be like not putting beef in with the noodles!”
Giving up on the idea of being early, I was now praying to just make it there before the singers started singing at 6:00. Melissa peeled potatoes and I cut them in pieces, tossing them into the pot of boiling water. I finally confessed I was worried about my time. I was using very large pots and my stovetop was out of room. There was still the issue of the mixed vegetables. Melissa called Lorri Swarney: “Hey, how would you like to do me a favor?”
In a few moments the Swarney’s were at the back door. In the car, Tavia, who knows us well, instructed her mother, “There’s no time to chat. Use only two words…frozen vegetables…and immediately return to the car.” Whew! One less thing to worry about. I was cutting dough and making rolls like a machine. Done. 78 rolls off to rise.
Next, I pulled the beef from the pressure cooker. I prepared the broth, and added the noodles. Melissa was stirring noodles in both large pots, while I shredded the beef. The Swarney’s returned and began transporting the pies to the Hillside kitchen. I was mashing the potatoes. When they were done, I poured them all into one pot, covered them and sent them off with the second load of pies.
At 4:40 I put as many rolls in the oven as would fit. Melissa called Alesia, asking her to preheat the Hillside kitchen oven to 400 degrees. I would bake the remaining pans of rolls there. Lori Alcala was already at the dining room and would make sure all the service tables were ready to go. Adding the meat to the noodles as I put the final stirring on the big pot of beef and noodles, I smiled. “Look here.” I said, pulling it from the pot, “The seventh bay leaf. They are all accounted for!” John Swarney loaded the big pans of hot beef and noodles into his car and they were off.
I removed the pans, full of hot rolls, from the oven. Melissa lined the large bread basket with linen while I brushed the hot roll tops with melted butter. I wanted to eat a roll, but there was not time. It was 4:56 and we were out the door.
As we walked into the dining room, the residents were all seated, ready to eat. More people came to the dining room then we anticipated. The service table looked great. We said a prayer of blessing and began serving our friends.
Everyone had something to do. We had not planned who would do what, it just happened – seamlessly – smooth. When all in the dining room were served, meals were taken to the apartments of those who could not come to the dining room. The guests seemed to really enjoy their meal. The Swarney’s, Lori, Melissa, Alesia and her daughter all had looks of pride on their faces – as they should. We all felt very good about what we were doing.
Myself and all the serving crew then sat down to eat as well. Several guests were back for seconds. What a great feeling! Many had commented how they don’t often get a home-cooked meal like this. The expressions of their appreciation and satisfaction were absolutely priceless. When all was said and done, one guest handed me an envelope and thanked me again for our gift. I gave due credit to all the people who helped and thanked her for having us. Inside, was a thank you card signed by each resident of Hillside Apartments.
One wrote: “Dear Tom, Thank you very much for thinking of us this Easter Season. God bless you. Jeanne Dillon” That choked me up a bit. It was just a simple dinner of beef and noodles, but it meant so much to them. Spending some time with our new friends after dinner, Melissa’s aunt, Delores Carlo, led us as we sang a few gospel songs, accompanied by the piano, guitar and a harmonica.
it turns out, her suggestion was truly a gift, especially for me. My life is better for having been a part of that evening.
It seemed so simple – the lesson my mother-in-law taught me that day in a cabin out in the middle of the North Woods. She gave me instruction, some correction here and there, lending a hand when needed. But who knew noodle making would carry on as it has? Carol taught me to make the noodles, but more importantly, she gave me her time and she shared her talent. The people of Hillside Apartments enjoyed the noodles, but I felt like they mostly enjoyed our time spent together, sharing our talents.
To serve others, was an amazing Easter blessing for me.