Sunday, November 29, 2009

Back Home in Louisiana

Last night Roger and I arrived in New Orleans for a brief stop before we head out to New Iberia and start filming on the "Ma Louisianne" project. We came in at night so I really couldn't see the bayou flanking I-10 but as soon as we hit the familiar streets the tension rolled off my shoulders.

We've been planning "Ma Louisianne" for 3 years now. It started when we ran into Chef John Besh backstage at the James Beard Awards when Spatulatta won in 2006. The amount of work leading up to this shoot is unlike any other we've done. Besides the usual ducks that must be gotten in a row there was the fundraiser last September. I haven't really had a day off since then.

So when we walked into Drago's last night and saw the happy crowd we knew we were home. I ordered a split of champagne to celebrate the fact we had arrived at last. We'd been on our cells phones in the car on the way down borrowing waders from cousins, booking hotel rooms, making contact with friends. But now we could kick back and relax.

Roger and I just looked at each other across the plates of char-broiled oysters and thanked each other for the work each of us has done to get us to this place and for the commitment to our marriage and our goals.

New Orleans seemed to rejoice with us. All the laughter of the happy holiday revelers engulfed us and welcomed us home.

Friday, November 13, 2009

It's the Nuts

I had the opportunity to test some of Fisher Nuts Culinary Touch Add-ins and Toppings and Fusion Snack Mixes. As soon as I popped open the first bag I knew I was working with a quality product, the aroma was great. I have had problems recently with walnuts from other vendors which smell old and slightly rancid when you open the bag. So I was pleased by the wholesome, fresh aroma.

I added 1/2 a cup of Fisher Culinary Touch Pecan, Cranberry, and Orange blend to give a new twist to the my favorite banana bread recipe. The additional fruit and nuts really gave the bread a wonderful range of flavors. Each bite was a surprise.

I used the rest of the bag as topping for a green salad tossing it all together with extra virgin olive oil and Lucini 10-year Gran Riserva Balsamico vinegar. Again, it was like a symphony for the tongue - a hint of orange here, a bit of tart cranberry there, then the satisfying texture of the pecans.

About that time, we where throwing a big gumbo party fundraiser for our "Ma Louisianne" project and I used the Fisher unsalted cashews as the protein in a vegan gumbo. (The recipe is posted below.) I added the nuts at the end of the cooking so they wouldn't become too mushy. They gave the gumbo an incredibly rich flavor. Chef Melissa Graham of Monogram Events, one of our guests that night, said it was her favorite gumbo out of the 4 selections. She thought I had added cashew butter but it was just the lovely cashews themselves.

The Fisher Fusions snack mixes were a bit too sweet for me. The Ice Cream Sundae mix was especially sweet. If you read the ingredients, all of the fruit was sweetened: pineapple, banana and strawberries. Those were then mixed with marshmallows and chocolate covered peanuts. Whoa! I'll stick to the nuts.

The great thing about the Fisher Culinary Touch bags is that they are small enough to put in ones' bag for a healthy snack on the go. I'd like to see Fisher go even further and make smaller size snack bags of their nut mixtures as an alternative to candy.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Gaylon's Cashew Vegan Gumbo

This is a cut-down of a recipe I put together for the "Big Easy Gumbo Party" we hosted last July as a fundraiser for our "Ma Louisianne" television project. I had a number of vegetarian guests and one vegan guest who couldn't eat the other gumbo offerings. I looked around for vegetarian gumbo recipes, but none of them had the hardy, earthy taste I wanted.

Roasted corn and smoked paprika stand in for the smoked meat and I added cashews as an homage to shrimp, another traditional gumbo ingredient. The original recipe was enough to serve 75 people using 5 pounds of okra. Here's a version for 4 to 6 servings.

2 ears of corn

1 cup oil

1 cup flour

3 stalks of celery - chopped coarsely

1 large onion - chopped coarsely

1 large green pepper - chopped coarsely

3 cloves garlic - finely chopped

3 cups vegetable broth

1.5 tablespoons of fresh thyme

1 serrano pepper - chopped finely

3 Roma tomatoes - peeled, cored and seeded, chopped coarsely

1.5 cups of sliced okra

2 tablespoons smoked paprika

1 cup raw, unsalted cashews

Salt to taste

Roast the corn on the cob ahead of time. Soak 2 ears of corn, with the husks on for 30 minutes then put them on the grill. Turn the ears as the husks began to burn. You want the kernels to darken on the edges but not burn. When the husks are blackened all over, remove the corn from the grill and let cool. Remove the husks, pull off all the hair and slice the corn away from the cob. Set aside.

Make a roux by putting 1 cup of oil and 1 cup of flour in a heat-proof bowl. Mix well. Microwave uncovered for 6 minutes. Let the roux set in the microwave for a minute or two. It will continue to cook. You're aiming for a roux the color of the the outside of a hazel nut. Whisk out any lumps and put the bowl back in the microwave for 2 minutes.

When the roux has reached the correct color, pour it into a heavy bottomed pot. Add the "holy trinity": celery, onions and green pepper. Add the thyme, garlic and hot pepper. Sauté until the vegetables are soft.

Add the vegetable stock, bring everything to a boil then simmer for 1 hour. (I made my own stock from the dozens of onion skins, parings from the peppers and celery I had after making 4 gumbos for 100 guests. I added 3 carrots, 6 bay leaves and a handful of black peppercorns. It boiled for 2 hours then I strained the vegetables out then reduced it. The stock was slightly sweet.)

The corn, tomatoes, orka and cashews go in for the last 1/2 hour of cooking. I don't like okra to get slimy and I've found that if you don't overcook it, it will retain its shape and texture.

Lastly, I added the smoked paprika and tasted. Then added the salt, a little at a time, until I hit the right flavor balance.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

POM Wonderful Juice

Am I the best person to taste test POM Wonderful juice?

Pomegranates are my favorite fruit. I think it's genetic, because pomegranates are a hallmark of Armenia. Maybe it's because of their tough skin. Once you get past the nearly impregnable skin there are the bright red, juicy seeds shining like jewels. The pomegranate has been a symbol of fecundity since ancient times and in my lexicon creativity.

I get really excited in the fall when pomegranates start to appear in the stores. I'd love to take a whole crate home. A few years ago, I made up a refreshing pomegranate and grapefruit salad that appears in the Spatulatta Cookbook. When pomegranates are in season, I eat the salad for breakfast and dessert.

Their crisp refreshing flavor is something I hunger for year round so I was glad to see POM Wonderful appear in the refrigerated cases at the grocery store. Seeing the bottles refrigerated, rather than sitting on the shelf with the other juice, signaled that there were no preservatives.

Plus, I've been hearing wonderful things about the ability of pomegranate juice to reduce accumulations of plaque on artery walls. Big issue in my family.

Okay, so I was really looking forward to my first taste.


Then I detected a slight undertaste from the white membrane that surrounds the bright red seeds. It was hard for me to overlook and it never diminished as I continued to sip.

I wound up pouring soda water into the POM Wonderful and squeezing in a bit of lime. Yum!

So I tried POM Wonderful out on other people. I started with Joe, the 9-year old taste tester from Spatulatta. Joe's immediate reaction was a scrunched up face. "It's tart!" And then after another sip he said, "And sweet!" After the initial shock (he was expecting it to be like cranberry juice) he did indeed drink the whole 6-ounce bottle.

Next taster was Farrah, a visiting peace advocate from Iraq. Pomegranates are a favorite fruit in Iraq and Iran. Farrah took a sip and decided to add soda water as well. Likewise, my film editor friend, Jan who is a connoisseur of non-alchoholic beverages.

The last taste tester was my 14-year old nephew Max who was visiting from Japan. Max loved the POM Wonderful. He sucked down every drop he could get his hands on.

So my analysis? It was tasty. Not a flavor you come across everyday. My adult friends found it lovely in a mixed non-alcoholic drink, kids who like tart things really get into it, and hide it from your teenagers!

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Little Chefs Race to the Taste in Ireland

I just got the cutest e-mail from Julie Kane at Cactus PR. Julie's doing public relations for the Belfast Taste and Music Festival. Julie writes:


Little chefs Jake O'Neill (aged 7), Daniel Catterson (aged 11), Matthew Catterson (aged 8) and Jasmine O'Neill (aged 9) race to welcome Team Spatulatta which will be making their UK and Ireland debut at the Belfast Taste and Music Fest which runs from 6th to 9th August 2009.

Team Spatulatta is really looking forward to meeting our Irish friends in person. It's been months in the planning and soon we'll actually be getting on the plane. We'll be doing cooking demos and activities for kids during the Festival in the Belfast Botanic Gardens.

I'll be blogging from the festival so stay tuned!

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Small Plate Diet

A couple months ago, my nano-tech engineer brother-in-law, Matt came up with a great new diet and he lost 15 pounds with one simple trick.

He started serving meals on smaller plates.

He'd figured out that he could trick his brain into not noticing that he was serving himself smaller portions. And it worked!

So I got excited when I came across a cookbook Small Plates: Appetizers as Meals by Marguerite Marceau Henderson, published by Gibbs Smith. Henderson has a around 200 recipes for appetizers that pass as very, very satisfying entrees.

The first recipe I made was Calamari with Fingerling Potatoes and Fennel. I picked that it because I just happened to have all the ingredients in my refrigerator. You scoff. Don't.

My husband is such a stickler for following recipes to the "n" degree that we had an extra bulb of fennel languishing around from something he'd made the week before. We had kalamata olives from a Spatulatta cooking demo and fingerling potatoes looked so good at the farmers' market that I had to get some. So all these great ingredients were hanging around, waiting for an opportunity to be turned into something wonderful.

And then I cheated. It was 6 PM. I'd just come back from a meeting downtown and I wasn't about to go out to the store for calamari. So I thawed out some talapia instead. But that's the joy of cooking for me, improvisation.

I baked the talapia separately with a little olive oil and spices. At the same time I was roasting the potatoes, fennel and olives.

The potatoes came out toasty brown, the fennel nearly carmelized, the olives added a salty hit, and the red pepper flakes gave a little heat here and there. My new favorite dish!

Henderson includes some tapas and traditional recipes from Italy. There are all-vegetable dishes, seafood and meat small plates. Inventive salads like Two Melon and Cucumber Mint Salad really peaked my interest.

And I have to applaud her, she not afraid of spices. She uses plenty of herbs, giving one's taste buds a lot of exercise. I find if a dish is spiced well, its richness will satisfy me in a way that mere volume won't.

Take for instance, Coffee and Spice Lamb Kebabs. What a concept! The coffee and spice rub, which includes cinnamon, cumin, allspice and fennel, gives the lamb a wonderful exotic flavor.

So why not try the small plate diet with a little help from Small Plates: Appetizers as Meals?

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Chip and Dale they are not!

This is only the second year we've had chipmunks in our garden. Cute little devils.

One busies itself with snatching seeds when they drop from my neighbor-to-the-south's birdfeeder, running across my yard and diving into the shrubbery on the neighbor-to-the-north's yard. There's another who's dug a hole until the cement pad my garage sits on.

My husband, Roger and I were sitting eating dinner on the patio and watching the comings and goings. I'm the type of person who observes, Roger is the type of person who grabs a book and researches.

So he goes into the house and brings out a book on animal behavior. He reads that chipmunks make burrows that can by up to several feet in diameter and hide gobs of food for the winter. Hmmm. Does this mean our garage floor will cave in at some point? Not good.

But then he reads that they also eat slugs and other nasty critters in the garden. What nice, little creatures!

They can stay as long as they want. They have a smorgasbord going on out in our garden with all the hostas. Let them at the juicy slugs that I have been trying to get rid of by drowning in beer!

Some mornings I open up the back door and standing there, looking up, ready to dash is my charming garden mascot. I make some ridiculous noises at the chipmunk trying to be friendly. He or she looks at me like I'm insane, then bolts, tail in the air, bounding down the steps like an animated cartoon character.

My yard has become like a scene from a Disney film: sparrows chirping, doves cooing, and chipmunks, with their little cheeks filled with seeds, scooting by. They are very busy little characters and I assume they are gobbling up lots of slugs between trips to the birdfeeder.

But no.

The slugs are out of control. They have eaten huge holes in my hostas and my rhubarb. They never touched the rhubard before.

Where are those chipmunks?

My cherry tomatoes are just starting to set after our long cold spring. And yesterday I was out in the garden admiring the clusters of green fruit on the Sungold tomatoes, calculating how long before I can pop them into my mouth. They are sweet as candy and I usually eat them out in the garden, still warm from the sun.

Tonight, I went out to look at them again and half the tomatoes are gone, just the stems are left. Roger says, "tomato horn worms." I doubt it's horn worms because they usually eat the leaves, leaving the left stems behind. We have raccoons but there is no sign of any tearing of of the plant that clumsy coons would manage trying to get at the green tomatoes.

My suspicion?

Cute, little, light-footed devils dancing out on the branches to pluck the still green fruit.


I wouldn't mind losing a few tomatoes to a chipmunk that eats its weight in slugs everyday. But this is too much!

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The Real Dirt on Farmer John's Cookbook

I met John Peterson AKA Farmer John years ago through my friend Taggart Siegal. At the time, Taggart was working on a film called "The Real Dirt on Farmer John." Let's say John travels to the beat of a different drum, so I was interested to see what his cookbook would be like.

I have a habit of opening a book up in the middle and just starting to read from there. I happened to choose a page that featured a quote from Rudolf Steiner. It reminded me of a Doctor Bonner's soap label, lots of lofty, but odd connections between food and philosophy. John is a follower of Steiner's theory of Biodynamics and his farming is aligned to the guru's philosophy. This was more than I bargained for.

So I went back to the beginning and read Farmer John's preface. "I've been farming for over forty years on the same farm. I stated in 1956 when I was seven, taking care of the chickens. By age nine I was milking seventeen cows a twice a day." Kid + farm and I was hooked. And I loved the page of acknowledgements where Farmer John gives credit to all the people who helped in the collaborative effort.

The recipes are arranged by season and then by the vegetables available in that season. Early Season ranges from Mid-June to Late July and includes things like sugar snap peas, beets, radishes, cucumbers and cooking greens. Mid season is celery, eggplant, peppers, fennel and sweet corn.

I'm a big fan of bitter greens and I use them a lot in cooking. The cookbook had interesting combinations that I would have never thought of. I hate cutting off the lovely greens of radishes and sending back to the compose. I find them little hairy to eat raw in salads but throw them in anyway. The cookbook has a recipe for radish greens with miso sauce. Cooking, what a novel concept!

The book is vegetarian without making much, if any, mention of it until page 320 where Rudolf Steiner's theory about the three kinds of food: milk and milk products, plants and meat, is discussed. The vegetables are spiced and cooked in a way that you don't miss the meat. And that's the point. Some recipes use eggs, some milk products but the majority are vegan.

If you have trouble identifying some of the more unusual vegetables mentioned, there's even a chart of line drawings of each variety. It's printed in a soothing green that is echoed throughout the book. The overall feeling of the book is of freshness - of ingredients and ideas.

The book is full of sidebars. There are notes on how the vegetable grow (Corn will grow 6 inches a day in hot, humid weather) and quotes from Angelic Organic shareholders - a testament to the community that has sprung up around this farmer and his farm. There's also these funny "overheard" comments that give you a perspective on how little some people know about their food and where it comes from.

Although the book seems dense, it's full of wonderful information. It's not a book to read cover to cover, so take your time exploring. You'll uncover something new every time you pick it up.

Monday, June 8, 2009

A Cook-off To Be Proud Of

Yesterday, I was privileged to be involved in a very special cook-off at Kendall College. The cook-off was a fundraiser for Share Our Strength, an organization that works to end the invisible threat of child hunger here in the US.

I was there accompanying Spatulatta's newest youth spokespeople, brother-sister team Matt and Alisia. They were pitch hitting for Liv and Belle because the girls had a previous engagement. Belle was graduating from junior high. Graduation trumps cooking any day.

The Cook-off was held in Kendall College's 3 professional kitchens. Eighty kids split up in teams of 2 and were paired with Kendall College students. Each of the 3 kitchens was assigned a secret ingredient, Iron Chef style: carrots, sweet potatoes and tomatoes.

Team Tomato, Team Carrot and Team Sweet Potato came up with their own chants and cheers as took their stations and the competition began. Celebrity chefs, Michael Kornick, Paul Kahan, and Erik Williams were on-hand to give teams advice and encouragement.

Left to Right: Chef Michael Kornick of MK Restaurant, Chef Paul Kahan of Blackbird Restaurant, Chef Erik Williams of MK Restaurant.

Alisia and Matt interviewed the young cooks, ranging in age from 8- to 13-years old, about the inspiration for their dishes. The teams had one hour to come up with a recipe, cook it and attractively plate it. Even with the pressure on, cooks and chefs found time to stop and chat with Alisia and Matt. Thanks to the crew at Event Architects, interviews were fed live to the Kendall auditorium where the moms and dads got a chance to experience the kitchen action without feeling the heat.

When time was called, the teams put down their spatulas and laid out the dishes for the judges. Of course beautiful plating was considered, but inventiveness scored high points. Unexpected uses for familiar ingredients abounded. Tomatoes became jam, sweet potatoes became custards and carrots filled quesadillas.

One winner was chosen from each kitchen. After a break, the semi-finalists from Team Carrot, Team Tomato and Team Sweet Potato entered "Kitchen Stadium" for the final round.

Two of the teams were paired with celebrity chefs Michael Kornick and Erik Williams of MK Restaurant. Team Tomato retained there Kendall Student Chef, Brian. He'd seen them to the semi-finals and they were sticking together.

A new secret ingredient was announced - quinoa!

Not many in the audience had heard of the protein-rich, South American grain let alone cooked it. But the chefs and their teams didn't miss a beat.

Tension built in the final minutes. Sautés sizzled and steam bloomed everywhere. Chef Kornick produced an beautiful asparagus flan to accompany his quinoa curry dish.

But the judges had a surprise for us all.

It was the Tomato Team under Kendall's own Chef Brian, who produced the winning dish. A quinoa and kale salad surrounded by perfectly steamed asparagus, brussel sprouts and of course tomatoes.

Go Tomatoes Go!

Many thanks go to the folks at the ConAgra Foundation, who generously sponsored the event and the folks at Whole Foods, who donated the marvelous ingredients.

Visit Cooking: The Exhibition Chefs

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Tomatoes' Day in the Sun

I'm taking a chance today. I'm putting in my tomatoes. Usually, I start them from seed in January and grow them on my second floor enclosed porch. The porch has storm windows but it's still pretty chilly out there. My office has not one, but two heat vents so I assume that the former owner might have done something similar, leaving the door between open to keep the porch warm.

But this winter was ruthlessly cold. The cold ground on and on without a break. I flew to California to visit my 81-year old dad instead of washing and bleaching my seed starting trays. I ordered my seeds late and when they arrived in February I had no ambition to do anything with them.

I finally got the seeds started in March and was worried that the plants wouldn't be ready to set out in late May. The seedlings were so slow to start. I'd bring the trays into my office each night and set them right on the heat vents so the soil would warm. During the day there was precious little sun. In past years, that porch has heated up to 90 degrees during the day because it has windows on three sides and low winter sun pours right in.

Rather that being gratified with the promise of new growth, I was demoralized as day after day went by without any sign of green shoots. One tray became spotted with tufts of white mold because I'd left the transparent lid on too long. The other tray just sat there, the blank soil adding to the bleakness created by our economic conditions and the bitter weather.

Then one day there was a tiny green comma in one of the seed tray cells and then later that day another. The commas unfurled to reveal a thin stalk sporting a seedcase still clinging to minuscule leaves. As the days went by more and more tomato seedlings showed up. By late April they were finally ready to move to paper cups. My friend Joy, bless her heart, poked drain holes in each cup and filled them with potting soil while I gently extracted the seedlings from the cells, untangled their roots and set them in their new "digs."

Since then they have been growing steadily and happily despite the fact that we have had one of the coldest wettest springs on record. Once the days got longer the tomatoes decided to put on the speed. In fact, the other day I went in and found my single, gangly beefsteak plant sporting 3 flowers. It was time to make a move.

Over the years, I have tried various ways to get my tomatoes set out early: walls of water, paper bags, plastic sheeting. This year, we would have one day of warm and two days of cold, dropping almost to freezing. So I waited and waited. Usually I put my tomatoes in on Memorial Day weekend but this year the holiday came early and the weather didn't cooperate.

So now, we're a third of the way through June, just 2 weeks from the longest day of the year and my tomatoes are about to be set out. This year I'm going to try putting dry cleaners bags over the tomato cages because we're supposed to have a couple more cool, wet days back to back.

My favorite tomato by far is Sungold, a yellow cherry with a magnificent sweetness. The first year I planted them I never brought a single Sungold tomato into the house. I ate them, warm from the sun, right in the garden.

I going out to plant my tallest spindliest Sungold plant out in the garden right now. I have two other shorties on the porch as back-up, just in case we get a freak snow storm or something. The promise of that sweet and slightly acid flavor is enough to get me out in the garden this morning, out to the bed I've had prepared for weeks. The darkest, richest compose I can every remember coming out of my composer has been tempting me but I have resisted. My seedlings have become too precious to risk being shocked and stunted by the cold.

But the tomato plants and I have waited long enough. Today is the day!

Monday, May 11, 2009

Maddening Morel Hunt

morel photo - copyright 2009 Diane Korling

About a week ago, my friend Diane Korling, edible wild plant officiando, and I drove out to Palos Heights to join a hunt for morel mushrooms. The hunt was sponsored by a local foodie organization and we were thrilled to be included. Morels are the yummiest mushrooms I've ever tasted and they are hard to find. So a hunt with a seasoned guide was too good to be true.

It was an hour and a half drive early on a Saturday morning, much earlier that I would have liked. As we pulled into the nature center parking lot, we realized an argument had broken out.

It seems that the foodie group had not obtained permission to hunt on the property and the park ranger was up in arms. He was surrounded by 40 people holding baskets and knives, ready to cut down every morel in sight.

It only made matters worse when the foodie group leader blurted out that they had been harvesting mushrooms there for 6 years and no one had ever said anything before. She reasoned that it must have been because they came on Sunday when no one was on duty. The park ranger began to shake and turn red. He was about to explode.

Diane and I didn't wait around to see what happened next. We drove to the nearest Starbucks.

But the idea of morels missed never left the conversation. Morels appear only in the spring. Diane, ever the naturalist, says "when the red oak leaves are as big as mouse ears." And for days, we had been imagining them sizzling in butter.

We tried to figure out where we might find some morels that were not on park land or behind a cyclone fence. We pulled out several maps and found a likely area that featured oak in the name.

We drove to there - oh yes, I'm being very secretive like all good mushroom hunters - and took a walk in a meadow full of spring beauties into a copse of oak. All the right signs, but no morels.

Diane and I drove the hour and a half back. Next spring, we said, maybe next spring we'd have morels and fiddle head ferns for breakfast.

Arriving home, I saw my neighbor George who claims to have had morels in his backyard. I have to take his word for it. I've never seen, or for that matter tasted, his morels. He asked how the hunt went.

I tried to make light. Hunting morels is like golf. A good walk spoiled - if you don't find any.

Four days later, I was walking out to my composer to dump kitchen scraps and I couldn't believe my eyes. There growing between the bricks in the path was a mushroom, a very distinctive looking mushroom.

I ran across the street and made George stop what he was doing and come look. He got down on his hands and knees and looked the mushroom over carefully. He pronounced it a morel, though a very old morel. Probably at least 3 days old.

We looked around and there were two more equally ancient morels behind the composer. Morels in my own backyard!

I called up Diane and she said she too had morels in her backyard. She hauled out her mushroom books to give me the Latin name.

As I was listening to her read the descriptions of shaft and cap size that might help me determine what variety of morel I had, I was gripped by a sinking feeling.

The elusive morels were actually taunting me. They were most likely blooming in my backyard on Saturday - while I was out looking for them some 50 miles away!

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Spontaneous Spring Celebration

Spring was announced with a loud POP at our house yesterday. So loud in fact that I ran down stairs expecting to see something had exploded. Instead, I found Roger, my husband, laughing hysterically.

To say the least, this last winter was miserable and cold. We endured day after day of gray, gloomy skies. Winter had started on November 7 and by tax day there still was no sign of Spring. That coupled with dialing down the heat to save money made me one unhappy camper.

Well yesterday morning, the temperature in Chicago finally made it into the upper 50s. Sun was streaming in through all the windows of our drafty old Victorian. I had spent my lunch hour, still in my winter jacket mind you, raking leaves in the garden. A few daffodils were open but I could see signs of more flowers to come. Bloodroot shoots were starting to unfold and startling, pink sprouts of Solomon's Seal were breaking through the dirt. I felt like life was worth living again.

Back at the computer on a Friday afternoon, I could hear bird song. The first day of Spring was unfolding outside. The temperature was climbing into the 60s. I was having a hard time concentrating on grant writing when I heard the loud pop.

Down in the kitchen, Roger was waving a bottle of champagne around. We had been given it for the holidays but we were not into celebrating at the time. The bottle sat all winter on the kitchen counter near a narrow window where a pot of forced paperwhite narcissus kept us off the suicide watch.

A beam of sunlight had come through that window, this year's first it seemed. It struck the dark bottle, warming it. Pressure built up and whammo!

So Spring announced herself at our house by popping the cork on a bottle of champagne. She forced us to knock off work early, take our glasses out to admire the daffodils and celebrate!

Thursday, April 9, 2009

All for the love of Sweet and Sour Cabbage Soup

It's Passover and good ex-Catholic girl that I am I had a longing for sweet and sour cabbage soup.

This soup is what got me through college, literally. I worked in a deli and served up millions of gallons of the rich, steamy soup at a place called Mushroom and Sons in Highland Park, IL. The deli was my life for six shifts a week. I was picking up Yiddish to boot.

And yes, I cleaned under the steam table like in the Roches song. One time getting a jolt that threw me about 6 feet when the back of my hand touched a bare wire dangling from the heating unit. I found out that a wet rag on stainless steel is one hell of a good conductor.

The waitresses, myself included I must confess, would dig through the cabbage to find lumps of yummy skirt steak cooked to the point it would melt in your mouth. Ah, what memories.

But my challenge today was to make the soup without beef or sugar. You see, I turned a corner on Ash Wednesday this year. I gave up animal products and sugar. I feel so good it maybe I won't change back into a raving carnivore on Easter. Though to ask an Armenian to forgo lamb is quite a tall order.

I've been questing for the perfect vegetarian stock and after a few tries I came up with a great one to be the cornerstone of my vegetarian cooking. It's even dark colored like beef stock thanks to the yellow onion's peel.

The stock:

2 stalks of celery
2 big carrots
1 large yellow onion with the peel on
1 tsp whole black peppercorns
3 bay leaves
1/4 cup of parsley
4 cloves of garlic
2 quarts of water

Cut the onion in quarters. Cut the carrots and celery into rough chunks. Put all the ingredients into a stock pot. Cover. Bring to a boil and let boil for 30 minutes. Turn the heat down, and simmer for another hour.

Remove the vegetables from the stock. The stock was ever so slightly sweet from the onions, carrots and bay leaves.

Now it was time to start the soup! So I called up my dear friend and kitchen maven Marcia Streicher. I told her what I was up to and she laughed. She said the trick would be to get the sour quotient correct the first time because once the soup got too sour there was not much I could do except use sugar. So we went forward a 1/2 teaspoon at a time, with the phone perched on my shoulder, until I got what I wanted.

Marcia suggested I add Worchester sauce but it contains anchovies and is not vegetarian. I looked at the ingredients and noticed tamarind paste. I just happened to have some left over from a Thai recipe. If you don't try 1/2 teaspoon of apple cider vingar instead.

Here's the recipe:

1 1/2 quarts of vegetable stock
3 tbsp. of olive oil
1/2 of a large white onion
3 cloves of garlic, minced
15 oz. can of whole tomatoes, with their juice
1/2 head of green cabbage, shredded
1 1/2 tsp. of paprika
Juice of 1/2 a lemon
1/4 tsp. tamarind paste
A dash of red pepper

Saute the onions in the oil until translucent. I know it sounds like a lot of oil but this is a big pot of soup and I'm trying to simulate the puddles of rich fat I remember with such relish.

Add the garlic and saute 5 more minutes. Add the onions and garlic to the stock. Cut the tomatoes into chunks. Add them, the cabbage, paprika, lemon juice, tamarind and red pepper.

Bring to a boil then turn down the heat and simmer, uncovered, until the cabbage is wilted and the stock is reduced by 1/3.

Not the cloyingly sweet soup I remember. It's a better version.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

All's Fair in Love and Food

My first date with my husband was an invitation to make locum, better known as Turkish Delight. I entered his apartment through the kitchen. What a mistake!

He was the worst housekeeper I'd ever seen. His kitchen table was piled high with strata of magazines, dishtowels, mail, cookie sheets, books, more magazines. The stack climbed the wall and left just a six inch ledge where he could balance a plate while he piled things onto it. I didn't want to touch anything for fear of a landslide. To this day he still perches dishes on the edge of the counter rather than sit them firmly on the expanse of counter top.

The first meal he ever made me was trout with pecan sauce on top, nestled in a pool of browned butter. Who knew the way to a woman's heart is through her stomach?

He's from New Orleans and he loves to cook and talk about food. He'll be eating a fabulous lunch and casually ask, "What's for dinner?"

I don't think that far in advance. He's a cookbook cook. I love to improvise. Show me what's in the refrigerator and stand back. I have no formal training. I'm just a good home cook and proud of it.

I cook by color as well as flavor and I come up with things like Pomegranate Salad which is a tribute to the Armenian side of my family. Pomegranates are the beloved fruit of Armenia. The grapes are a tribute to my Aunt Peg and Uncle Mesik who raised grapes for raisins. The walnuts are for the stories my dad, Horan, tells about shelling walnuts when he was growing up in Selma, California. He can identify every fruit and nut tree as we whiz by the fields at 65 mph.

The honey, is for my grandparents, Elisa and Krikor who made a life here in the States after a world of heartbreak. My grandmother surrounded their house with a hedge of gardenias. I remember the smell of their blooms even though I can't picture her face. That hedge stood for years after her death, a testament to her desire for sweetness.

Here's the recipe:

3 tbsp. of honey
2 tbsp rice wine vinegar
1 large grapefruit, peeled and cut in chunks
1 1/2 cups green seedless grapes, cut in half
1 cup broken walnut pieces
The seeds of one pomegranate

Make a dressing with the honey and vinegar. Whisk until the honey is dissolved. Put the fruit and nuts into a bowl. Pour the dressing over the fruit and mix until all is coated. It's best if you refrigerate it for at least an hour.

We eat it for breakfast, as a side dish or for dessert. It first appeared on the Spatulatta website in 2005 and also appears in the Spatulatta cookbook.

In the Beginning

This is my story. I began my cooking training before I could walk. I remember being hoisted up by my grandmother, Anna, and sitting with my bottom on her left arm as she stirred soup or fried pierogi with her free hand.

You'll say that's not training but it was. I was watching dough went from opaque to opalescent, listening to the burble and crackle, smelling the browning butter. I watched Anna turn the cutlets and press on them with the back of the fork. I listened intently to whatever she had to say, "Now we turn down the fire and let it cook." She probably said it in Polish though her native tongue was Magdar.

My grandmother was such a fabulous cook, gardener and seamstress that my mother never really bothered to learn too much. But I sucked in everything Anna taught me. She never talked down to me, she always assumed that I was on the same wavelength.

I was fortunate because I was with my grandmother 24/7. I was also fortunate that she started training me so early because I only had Anna for seven years. Maybe she knew we didn't have all the time in the world.

I don't think about her every day but every day I keep the same kitchen rituals. And I try to pass on not only what she taught me but how she taught me in calm stead voice and with tenderness.