Curious Cook: Birthday dinners of days gone by

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For quite a few years now, it’s been dinner at Monterey — my parents’ neighborhood joint which also happens to be a Mexican restaurant with food so good — that for many years it was the site of my birthday dinner. Their carnitas are the kind of food that lost on a desert island, the memory of that meltingly delicious pork could drive one mad.

But my birthday dinner weren’t always chicken enchiladas Suisas, chile rellenos, and carnitas street tacos so good they could make you change your religion.

In days of yore, I used to ask for a homemade birthday dinner.

It was always ... and potato salad.

Deli bologna sandwiches, and potato salad. New York strips, so rare they were still mooing, and potato salad. Sausage and peppers (pronounced by my Jersey side of the family, “sausapeppas” — I thought until junior high my Uncle Charlie’s name was actually Uncle Cholly), and potato salad.

Once I had my first patty melt at Troy’s Diner in San Diego, it became for a very long time patty melts ... and potato salad. I have a photo of me eating at a birthday dinner when I was about 14, digging in to a plate. Caught in mid-air, my fork is bearing a load of potato salad to my awaiting gob.

Then, once I discovered the buttery, lemony miracle that is Hollandaise sauce, it became for a beautiful spring dinner of fried boneless, skinless chicken breasts and lightly steamed asparagus covered in lashings of Hollandaise, and potato salad.

Last weekend for the first time in two years, we went to my folks’ for my birthday dinner. But because of you-know-what, we didn’t want to go to a restaurant for dinner, so mom made me patty melts and potato salad.

The potato salad recipe I’ve given to you before (CN+R, 2/3/2021), gentle reader. So today I’m sharing my bologna sandwich, Blender Hollandaise, fried boneless skinless chicken breasts, and classic patty melts.

No matter what the dinner is, there is one iron-clad, no question, my-birthday-doesn’t -count-unless-it’s-there other favorite food, a creation I have literally dreamed about; Dewey’s Bakery birthday cake with extra frosting (which adds $5 to the price).

Thanks for your time.

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New Jersey Bologna Sandwich

4 slices very thinly sliced all-beef bologna

2 slices white American cheese

Sliced tomato

Red leaf lettuce

Kaiser roll

Hellmann’s Mayo

Salt and pepper

Spread a generous layer of mayo on both sides of the roll. Layer on bologna, cheese, lettuce, and tomato. Season with salt and pepper.


Mom’s Fried Chicken

4 boneless chicken breasts

Fat-free buttermilk

Self-rising flour

Salt and pepper

Oil for frying

Heat a skillet with about an inch of vegetable oil until it reaches 325°. Put 2-3 cups of flour in a shallow dish. Season heavily with salt and pepper.

Put two cups of buttermilk into a second dish.

Do a three-part dredge; flour, buttermilk, then flour again. Carefully place into the heated oil. Cook until one side is golden, flip, and cook until the other side is golden and the internal temperature is 165°.

Place on paper towel-lined plate and season immediately.

Craig Claiborne’s Blender Hollandaise

16 tablespoons (1 cup; 2 sticks) butter

4 egg yolks (save whites for another purpose)

2 tablespoons lemon juice

Salt to taste

1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper

Melt the butter in a saucepan over low heat. Heat butter to bubbling but do not let it brown.

Meanwhile, into the container of an electric blender add the remaining ingredients. Cover the container and blend on low speed. The yolks must not be over-blended or the sauce will not make. Immediately uncover and pour in the hot butter in a steady stream. When all butter is incorporated, turn off motor. Keep the sauce warm by placing the container in a saucepan with two inches of hot water. If the sauce becomes too thick, thin it with a little hot water briefly blended.

Mom’s Patty Melts

2 pounds 80/20 ground beef

2 large onions, sliced into half moons

2 tablespoons butter

8 slices cheese (mom uses American, I love cheddar, some use Swiss)

8 slices rye or sourdough bread


Salt and pepper

To caramelize onions: melt butter in heavy skillet. Add onions and a big pinch of salt and pepper. Cook on medium low until the onions are soft and the color of butterscotch pudding.

Divide beef into four pieces and make into patties. Cook in a hot skillet until the burger is crusted on both sides and cooked medium-rare to medium. Remove from skillet and build patty melts.

Place 4 slices of bread down. Lay down a slice of cheese, then burger, then onions, another slice of cheese and top with the other slice of bread.

Clean skillet and heat to medium-low.

Spread as thin a layer of mayonnaise on the outside of each sandwich as possible. Put the patty melts in the pan and cover.

Cook for about five or six minutes, or until bread is golden and toasted and cheese starts getting melty and gooey. Flip, and cook the other side until crispy and browned.


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