Updated: Mar 1
(by Ana Sortun)
My mother grew up on a small family farm in the Green River Valley near Seattle. Our visits to the Johansen farm were extraordinary—we all fasted beforehand so we could eat more of my grandmother’s homemade rolls and hand-churned butter. “Mama Jo” milked the cows herself for ice cream and sliced almonds over beans from the garden.
So my mom, Jennifer, acquired a lifelong respect for pure ingredients and became something of a food snob. She was reading labels long before it was common practice, and would push the food around her plate if invited to a meal where she detected margarine. We made strategic plans so that we didn’t have to spend holidays with my father's relatives.
As a kid, I really wanted what she called junk food whenever I had a babysitter. TV dinners and SpaghettiOs—that was heaven. But gradually my mother’s voice could not be drowned out. On a family trip to Europe, we spent hours in the markets picking out the best cheeses, chocolates, and croissants. Ultimately, she set the standards that I came to use in my profession—I knew that continuing to eat great food meant learning how to cook and source ingredients.
When I decided to study cooking in Paris, it was a difficult experience, and I’d call my mom complaining that the chefs were mean and the people were rude. She encouraged me to stick it out, reminding me that it was a necessary education for the path I’d chosen. Later, when I called to tell her that I’d been invited to study in Turkey, we were both kind of in stitches. “You mean genies and flying carpets?” she asked.
Turkey was a seminal experience. A wonderful cadre of culinary godmothers taught me about the depth of flavor from complex spices. A spread of snacks would emerge from a humble kitchen with no oven—homemade pickles, almonds soaking in water, pistachios of a color I’d never seen. My cooking today is a happy adaptation of those exotic tastes and seasonings to my mother’s passion for freshness and quality.
My family was always supportive, although never really grasping the idea of cooking for a living. But when I opened my first restaurant in Boston, my mom moved there for a while, getting to know the people in my life and understand what I was doing. For those few years, she really got it. And every Mother’s Day, she got to see some of her dishes featured on a special brunch menu, with a place of honor given to her crab melts.
I’m still making them.
Mom's Crab Melts
This is a variation on a crab melt my mother used to make. In Seattle, we used Dungeness crab. I love having these with tomato soup.
2 c. heavy cream
2 T. brandy or ¼ cup white wine
pinch of fennel seed
1 bunch scallions
1 lb. Maine crab meat
2 c. grated Asiago cheese
salt & pepper
4 English muffins, toasted
Heat cream with brandy and fennel seed until reduced by half.
Clean and cut scallions into 1-inch pieces, and stir into cream mixture.
Squeeze excess water out of crab, and fold into cream.
Stir in asiago cheese.
Smear onto toasted English muffins, and broil for minute or two until bubbly.