Finding My Past in Food [Healthier Egg Salad with Tarragon and Pickled Celery]

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My past with food isn’t as glamorous as I sometimes wish it was. I didn’t learn to mix, knead and roll pasta with my grandmother on Sundays and I wasn’t teetering on my tip toes, nose barely reaching the counter, while my Dad taught me how to break down a chicken, sear it to a golden brown and simmer it in tomatoes and capers, olives and hot peppers. It wasn’t my reality. There are times I feel nostalgic for the stories of those whose family and food lives were wrapped around each other like a sturdy vine, but I forget that I, too, have a past in food, glamorous or not. 

The older I get the more I remember the things I did learn about food from my family. They may not be the stories I longed for or the romantic ones some of my friends and peers can tell, but they were the ones that shaped me. My Dad passed along his fearlessness towards all food. Mold? Just cut it off and carry on. Leftovers there for a while? Details, details - just eat it. Expiry dates? A mere suggestion. He joked endlessly about liver and onions, terrifying my sister and I at the thought of having to join him at the table. He ate any cut, any way. If there was something on a menu that he hadn’t heard of before, there was an 80% chance it would arrive in front of him minutes later. At the time I may not have appreciated his ways with food, but theses days I embrace them. He made me a fearless eater, never one to turn anything down, never afraid to try anything at least once. Especially creamy, mayonnaise-filled items like chicken salad, egg salad, any kind of canned meat… I was my fathers daughter and it made me proud to say that I liked what he liked. 

Years later, when it was just my mom and I living in her place, I learned how to cook the first meals I made for my friends and first real boyfriend. Meaty spaghetti sauces studded with big hunks of tomato (something that made my sister squirm in disgust), tomato soup jazzed up with a hit of Worcestershire sauce, tabasco and melted cheese slice that I still crave today when I’m under the weather, dreamy whipped mashed potatoes that I can still claim as the best I’ve ever had and still make today, much to Al and my friend’s delight. She taught me that cooking for people made them feel special and showed them how much you cared for them. It was a high I still haven’t come down from despite not getting into cooking until I was about 24. Sunday dinners at her place brought us all together so we could slow down, laugh hysterically and tell our stories from the week. I still relish her cooking and it always makes me feel important and loved when she cooks for us. 

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My best friend, Amanda, is Lebanese. She comes from the kind of food background that I’ve always longed for. Her mother cooks everything from scratch. When I used to go there, back when I was only just learning to love cooking, I remember seeing hot peppers from her garden drying on the window sill. Amanda explained that she would grind them and use that as seasoning in her dishes. That nearly blew my mind. Do people do that? Don’t spices come from a clear jar with a sage-green lid in the spice aisle? She would feed us labneh, a soft cheese made with strained yogurt (also homemade) and I would sit, bewildered at her dedication to feeding her family ingredients that she pulled from the garden or created from a few humble items in her fridge. Her cooking is a nudge to her past, rich with tradition and memories of Lebanon. I remember Amanda always felt a bit weird about her entirely ethnic lunches (at least to suburban kids who ate french fries or peanut butter sandwiches for lunch), and I would be lying if I said we weren’t all a bit put off by them in the high school cafeteria, but those are the meals I now hope I can feed my kids someday. Meals rich in culture and tradition, meals that have a past and a story to them. Meals and ingredients that made with my two hands. Ones that I might even be able to say Mary Melhem, your Aunt Amanda’s mom, taught me about when I was just a bratty 10th grader. 

All of these stories shaped the way I cook, the way I eat and my relationship with food. Though I longed for more then, I realize now that I couldn’t want for any more. Fearlessness and an open mind, the knowledge that cooking equates to loving and that making a meal for someone is the best way to show them you care, and a dedication to create meals from scratch for my family and share the tradition and stories behind them. 

Egg salad always reminds me of my Dad. He liked his creamy and mayonnaise-filled (expired or not) and studded with green olives. I haven’t eaten egg salad in a long time but when I do, I prefer mine a touch healthier and with plenty of flavour from tarragon, pickled celery and hot sauce. I still thought of him as I spread it thick on bread and took a monstrous bite as the salad pushed out the sides like toothpaste. 

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Healthier Egg Salad with Pickled Celery and Tarragon
makes 4 sandwiches

Though this recipe is mostly mine, I did use Smitten Kitchen's idea of picking the celery. This adds such a welcome kick of sour bite to the salad without having to bite down on a pickle. Unless you're into that sort of thing, in which case - add a few pickles diced really tiny. 

Hard boiled egg method courtesy of 101Cookbooks. Follow it to the tee and you’ll have perfect eggs every time. 

1/4 cup (2 stalks) celery, diced
1/2 cup pickle brine (from dill pickles, sweet gherkins, pickled jalapenos)
6 hard boiled eggs, method follows
2 tbsp plain Greek yogurt
1 tbsp fresh tarragon, minced
1 tbsp Tabasco sauce (or favourite hot sauce)
1 tsp dijon
1 tbsp caper berries (2 tbsp if you really like them)
1/2 tsp salt
plenty of fresh ground pepper to taste
sliced whole wheat bread
romaine, kale or greens of your choice

Place the diced celery in a pickle brine of your choice. I used jalapeno because I wanted that spicy kick. Let it sit in the brine for at least 45 minutes up to overnight. 

Have a bowl of ice water ready. Place your eggs in a pot and cover by 1-2” with cold water. Bring to a gentle boil, turn off the heat, cover and let them sit for exactly 7 minutes. Plunge into the ice water and let cool for at least 3 minutes to stop the cooking process. 

Peel the eggs, place in a big bowl with the celery, greek yogurt, tarragon, Tabasco, dijon, capers lots of pepper and salt. Mash everything together, paying most attention to the eggs, until you’re left with a well combined, coarse textured salad. Taste and adjust to your liking. Spread a nice, thick layer onto bread and top with greens of your choice. Place the second slice of bread on top and take a big, messy bite. 

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Was your childhood ripe with tradition and history in food or did you have a past similar to mine? 

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