jude's culinary journey

Homestyle cooking on the road

By JUDE WATERSTON
Posted 3/24/21

In November of 2004, my sister, Janet, and I were making the long trek from our house in the Catskills to visit family in a suburb of Philadelphia. Anticipating the long drive ahead, we wanted to …

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jude's culinary journey

Homestyle cooking on the road

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In November of 2004, my sister, Janet, and I were making the long trek from our house in the Catskills to visit family in a suburb of Philadelphia. Anticipating the long drive ahead, we wanted to have an ample lunch under our belts. We drove to a charming café, called Déjà vu, in Honesdale, PA. Unfortunately, we experienced our own déjà vu as we pulled into the deserted town and remembered, too late, that the restaurant was closed on Sundays.

We decided to take our chances and stop at a diner in Scranton, which we had to go through anyway. Instead, we came upon a roadside restaurant. Hanging from two heavy chains above the door was a wooden sign that promised “homestyle cooking with a warm and friendly atmosphere.”

“What do you think?” Janet asked hopefully.

“It just might be really good home cooking,” I said. I had a good vibe. “Let’s try it.”

I envisioned such offerings as meatloaf, juicy, thick-cut pork chops and crispy-skinned roast chicken served with fluffy mashed potatoes and steamed broccoli. We entered the restaurant and were led to a knotty-pine paneled dining room complete with shelves of kitschy knick-knacks and lots of carved curlicued wood reminiscent of a Swiss chalet. A fake rose in a thick-cut glass, milky-white bud vase sat on each table. A genial waitress handed us menus and placed a relish dish between us. As a child, I had always delighted in this gratis treat, but now, some 40 years later, there was something dismaying as I surveyed the very same bland pimento-filled canned olives and slightly wilted carrot and celery sticks. I popped the lone, dried-out radish flower into my mouth and warily opened the menu.

Janet glanced around, leaned in toward me and said, “We’re a good 20 years younger than everyone in the room.” I looked up from the menu to a sea of gray heads. Right she was. My heart sank as I scanned the lunch options. Everything was deep-fried, which is a preparation I never favor in or out of the home. The exception was a steak, which Janet—also no fan of fried food—decided to have. I finally chose fried shrimp simply because I rarely eat shrimp since Janet developed an allergy to them some years back and I don’t prepare it at home. It came with a choice of one of three dismal-sounding sauces. Both entrees included a salad, soup and side vegetable or potato.

A telling sign of things to come was the salad. It came in a small white styrofoam dish and consisted of shredded iceberg lettuce and a slice of eerily pale, mealy tomato accompanied by a plastic ramekin of thick, gloppy salad dressing. Our clam chowder turned out to be vegetable barley soup that had a couple of miniscule, tinned clams thrown in. The side vegetables mystified me. “What are Harvard beets?” I asked the waitress when she announced them along with the other only choice of “vegetable medley.” “Oh, they’re served hot and they’re kind of sweet. They’re very good,” she assured me. “I think I’ll go with the mashed potatoes instead,” I said. Janet ordered her steak “as rare as possible” with French fries.

I was shocked—I’m not sure why, at that point—to be served a plateful of what were clearly packaged frozen shrimp. The gummy coating concealed a tiny, tinny tasting shrimp, and the blob of mashed potatoes was made from a box of potato flakes and doused with a ladle-full of canned beige gravy. The sauce for my shrimp came in a small plastic tub, like the jam you get in a diner. I would have had to peel off the aluminum foil lid to expose the “Taste Pleasers GOURMET Seafood Sauce” had I had the stomach to try it. Before setting Janet’s steak on the table, the obliging waitress said, “If it’s too rare, the cook won’t be at all offended if you want to send it back.” It was just as Janet had ordered it, but the fries were obviously supplied by the Orieda frozen food company and it soon became nauseatingly clear that the steak, for unknown reasons, had been grilled in loads of butter. “I guess homestyle cooking has nothing to do with home-made cooking,” I said to Janet as we picked at a piece of doughy, lukewarm, clawingly sweet apple pie.

At a table a few feet away, our waitress sweetly sang the first few bars of “Happy Birthday” to a silver-haired woman. As her voice trailed off, the husband piped up, “I’ve never had to give her a birthday gift for all our married life—because I gave her me!” He spread his arms wide for emphasis. “Our anniversary is tomorrow,” the wife announced in a tired voice. “How long have you been suffering, honey?” the waitress laughed. “About as long as they’ve been coming to this restaurant,” I whispered to Janet as we pushed our seats back from the table and waved good-bye.

Baked pork chops

Serves two

McCormick makes an Italian herb seasoning blend that comes in a spice grinder. It has a little heat from chili pepper flakes and lots of flavor. That, along with mixed dried Italian herbs or just dried oregano gives good, strong Italian flavor to these moist chops. Brining pork chops prior to cooking them results in moist chops.

For the brine:

Pour about a quart of warm (not hot) water into a large bowl and add 1/4 cup each of salt and sugar. If you like, you can also add 1/4 cup of white wine or sherry to the bowl. Add the chops and make sure they are totally covered by the water. Refrigerate for at least an hour and up to six. When ready to cook, remove the chops from the brine, rinse with cold water and pat them dry with paper towels.

For the chops:

2 bone-in, center-cut pork loin chops (weighing 1/4 pounds each and 3/4 to 1-inch thick)

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 teaspoon mixed Italian herb seasoning and dried oregano

Lemon wedges, for serving

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Brush the pork chops on both sides with olive oil. Season generously on both sides with salt, pepper and the spice and herb mixture. Heat a large cast-iron skillet (big enough to lay the chops side by side) on the stove over high heat for a couple of minutes. Once the pan is super hot, add the pork chops and cook for 3 minutes. Carefully, flip the chops using tongs. Cook for 2 minutes. Using oven mitts, carefully transfer the skillet to the oven. Cook for about 3 minutes, then remove the skillet from the oven. The pork chops should have reached an internal temperature of 145 degrees. Transfer the pork chops to a clean plate and loosely tent with foil. Let rest for about 3 minutes, then serve with lemon wedges.

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