My dad, Jack F. McJunkin Jr, was the busiest man I knew. When I was growing up in Indiana, he worked as the business manager and the director of planned giving at Earlham College (jobs he did simultaneously and which I never understood no matter how many times he explained them to me). He also taught Asian history and religion and a squash course at the gym. He chaired the faculty nominating committee, the first administrator to be elected by the faculty to that position, among other committees. He served on the boards of the local mental health center and the Richmond Symphony Orchestra, ran at least five miles daily, if not more—twenty-six on weekends.
And to top it all off, he was always cooking. He and my mother entertained frequently and Dad was widely acclaimed in East Central Indiana for his culinary skill. (My parents had even written a cookbook together—The I Hate to Chew Cookbook: A Gourmet Guide for Adults Who Wear Braces, inspired by my mom getting braces at age forty. Then my parents and I wrote Teen Cuisine: A Cookbook for Young People Who Wear Braces.) My dad could whip up shrimp bisque or Marchand di Vin for sixty people easily, and was always trying to teach me the right wine to go with beef Wellington. This was maddening because when you are a teenager, all you want to eat are normal things like hamburgers and Kraft Macaroni & Cheese out of the box. My father made his macaroni and cheese from scratch. It took hours. He even made the noodles by hand.
Dad died in 2002. He was only sixty. But I have his recipe book: a fat brown binder with the recipes carefully typed out on over-sized index cards. I am not the chef my father was-- I survive largely on Trader Joe's prepared food-- but on New Year's Day I picked up the binder and started flipping through the pages. And I made a New Year's resolution: I will work my way through his recipes. After all, Dad would have liked that. (Even though I already know he will be standing over my shoulder, frowning at this, grumbling at that, and wishing he could take over.)
In the spirit of a new year and new beginnings, here's the recipe for today (it also happens to be one of my favorites):
Cheese Straws (yields about 20)
These crisp and mildly spicy twists of puff pastry have been our most popular "nosh" for years. Arrange a basketful on the bar/table and watch them disappear.
1 pound Puff Pastry
3/4 cup grated imported Parmesan cheese
1. Roll out puff pastry dough into a rectangle 20 by 24 inches. Sprinkle half of the Parmesan evenly over the dough and gently press cheese into the dough with rolling pin.
2. Fold the dough in half crosswise, roll it out again to 20 by 24 inches, & sprinkle on remaining cheese.
3. Using a sharp thin knife, cut the dough into 1/3-inch strips. Take each strip by its ends and twist until evenly corkscrewed. Lay the twists of dough on an ungreased baking sheet, arranged so they are just touching each other; this will prevent shrinking.
4. Set the baking sheet in the middle of a preheated 350 degree oven & bake until the straws are crisp, puffed and brown, 15-20 minutes.
5. Remove from the oven, cool for 5 min., then cut apart with a sharp knife. Finish cooking the straws on a rack, then store them in an airtight container or plastic bag until serving time. They will stay fresh for about 1 week.
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