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GREAT HOME COOKS : A Long, Delicious Life

June 22, 1995|BARBARA HANSEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Shirley Tanner has a collection of recipe cards dated all the way back to 1926. But this 88-year-old cooks in the present as well as in the past. She can make anything from black bean enchiladas and pesto to pad Thai and Korean chicken wings. Experimenting, she says, "makes life interesting."

A widow, Tanner lives in a Village Green condo with a charming patio and a small, well-equipped kitchen that sparkles in the morning sun. There she cooks regularly, freezing soups and casseroles such as meatless lasagna in small portions to use as needed. Her signature dishes, though, are eastern European specialties such as knishes, mandelbrot and honey cake.

In days long past, Tanner stretched the dough for knishes herself. Now she uses packaged filo sheets, which she stuffs with mashed potato and buckwheat groats. "It's just as good," she says of the filo pastry, "and it gives a crisper finish." Earlier this month, Tanner took 200 knishes to her son Dennis, a professor of chemistry in Edmonton, Canada, where she'll celebrate her 89th birthday Sunday.

Small and slim with pretty blue eyes, Tanner got a grade of "perfect" after her latest physical exam. Good genes may play a roll in her longevity, but she also walks daily, studies tai chi chuan and trims fat and salt from her dishes. "Many years ago, we ate more heavily," she says. Chicken fat was used for cooking, and salads were regarded as something for cows to eat, not humans.

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Tanner was born in Montreal to Russian immigrant parents. As a young girl, she learned to dress chickens, make gefilte fish from scratch and keep a kosher household.

In the first year of their marriage, her husband gained almost 50 pounds from her tempting meals. Harry Tanner had to battle weight constantly, but he too must have had good genes. At 86, he was still working as a car salesman.

When they first met, she invited him to a home-cooked meal and served roast duck. She recalls his delighted response: "If a girl can cook like this, I've just got to marry her." Their daughter Susan Tanner, who lives in Mt. Washington, remembers growing up with an abundance of good food. "I don't think we ever had a repeat of the same dinner two nights in a row," she says.

Today, Shirley Tanner hunts for organic vegetables at a nearby farmers market and frequents natural-food stores. You might also find her in a Chinese market buying chicken feet for soup. She gave up driving last year and gets around by bus, shares taxis with friends or rides with her daughter.

Tanner has added new ingredients to her repertoire, such as baby bok choy and mirin (Japanese cooking wine), and eats less of things she enjoyed in the past, such as red meat. She breakfasts on nonfat yogurt with sliced banana, accompanied by a small serving of granola or a slice of whole-wheat bread. For lunch, she has soup, accompanied by whole-wheat bread or toasted lavosh and fruit. Favorite soups include cabbage borscht and split pea soup with zucchini and spinach. Dinner might be broiled marinated chicken breast, a baked yam and a green vegetable such as beet greens or Swiss chard.

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Tanner leaves salt out of her knishes (but for her son, she puts in the chicken cracklings known as grieben ). And she has cut back the oil in her mandelbrot. But that crunchy, sweet pastry is better than ever, partly due to additions such as orange juice and almond extract.

The mandelbrot recipe goes back to 1930. Tanner, whose first child was born that year, took part in what was then typical recreation for housewives--playing bridge and exchanging recipes. Her circle included a Romanian woman who gave her the recipes for mandelbrot and a scrumptious honey cake that became a family favorite. Tanner laments that she can't get the right honey for the cake here. The dark, heavy honey that she bought from farms in Canada gave the best results, she says.

Shuffling through her recipe cards, Tanner reads off dish after mouthwatering dish linked to her family history. Brisket with prunes and potatoes is dated 1926, but the recipe goes back at least a century, she says. Strawberries and sour cream in a nut-meringue crust, from 1952, was her husband's favorite. The card for a raisin-nut cake known as "Shirley's standby" is brown from age and use.

Tanner does not depend on cookbooks, and she measures freely, without leveling off cups and teaspoons. The original recipe for mandelbrot specifies "three cups flour, not even," "scant cup sugar," and "heaping teaspoon baking powder." The honey cake requires three cups flour, "not level", and a little coffee; it bakes at 350 degrees "until done". Here are both recipes, the quantities and baking times nailed down by The Times Test Kitchen.

SHIRLEY TANNER'S MANDELBROT

3 extra-large eggs, at room temperature

3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar

3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons canola oil

2 tablespoons orange juice

1 teaspoon almond extract

3 3/4 cups unbleached flour

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