Season of Missing

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It’s cold here on the east coast.  There is a biting wind outside that elevates the notion of “chill in the air” to something otherworldly. Although I am a December baby, these frigid months are especially hard for me, now … Continue reading

Plant Your Roots, and Watch What Grows

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Today is December 1 and in 29 days I will turn 50. Here’s me in Atlanta, Georgia, just six months shy of my 4th birthday. Not much has changed since then (though I do miss those white patent leather Mary … Continue reading

The Best Medicine

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My 19-year-old daughter is home from college, recovering from a tonsillectomy, and I couldn’t be happier. Not about the tonsils, mind you; I hate seeing her in so much pain. But with two kids out of the house, and one … Continue reading

Adventures in Ayurveda

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My kitchen journey took a right turn this past weekend when I reconnected with an old high school acquaintance. Susan is a certified Ayurvedic consultant with a fascinating story. After many years of living and working in the Middle East, she resettled … Continue reading

A Pot of Love

It’s February and it’s cold. Dinner begs to be made. What’s a nice Jewish girl to do but prepare a traditional, one-pot corned beef and cabbage dinner, just like the Irish ancestors she never had used to make?

Seriously, it’s an interesting thing about that corned beef and cabbage; it was actually one of the more memorable dishes my mother prepared for us as kids. And I don’t mean just in March, either. No disrespect to my mother, she had many perfectly good meals in her dinner time repertoire, but for some odd reason, her corned beef and cabbage has always ranked as one of my favorites.

As for one-pot meals, I have to admit that since I’ve begun pursuing my culinary interests in earnest, I’ve steered clear of the old slow cooker. Somehow, it seemed like cheating to me. And after my terrific but humbling experience in the kitchens of the Culinary Institute of America (see Never Too Late Risotto), I was almost embarrassed to use it.

Silly, I know. Slow cooking has been around for centuries.  It is the quintessential cook’s tool, one that predates most if not all cooking methods we rely on today. Long before the Crock Pot debuted in American kitchens in the early 1970s, home cooks were tending to pots of slow simmering meats over an open flame for hours on end.  Consider this recipe for “Brisket of Beef, a la Flamande,” from Isabella Beeton‘s The Campaign for Domestic Happiness, originally published in 1860:

Choose the portion of the brisket which contains the gristle, trim it, and put it into a stewpan with the slices of bacon, which should be put under and over the meat.  Add the vegetables, herbs, spices, and seasoning, and cover with a little weak stock or water, close the stewpan as hermetically as possible, and simmer very gently for four hours.  Strain the liquor, reserve a portion of it for sauce, and the remainder boil quickly over a sharp fire until reduced to a glaze….Garnish the dish with scooped carrots and turnips, and when liked, a little cabbage…

Sounds like a precursor to slow-cooked corned beef and cabbage to me!

Putting all nostalgia and historical context aside, one-pot meals serve an even more important role in the kitchen. They bring people together, much like I imagine Ms. Beeton’s Brisket of Beef, a la Flamande did. Gathered around a steaming vessel of aromatic mystery, friends, family, even neighbors cannot resist the temptation of what is surely to follow.

One-Pot Corned Beef

I took my cues for this dish from a beautiful blog, Recipes for Our Daily Bread. The author transformed her CB into a mouth-watering Reuben Sandwich, as well as Corned Beef Hash. Both wonderful ideas. I served it traditional Irish-style, with boiled parsley potatoes and buttery steamed cabbage on the side.

Ingredients:
1 3-4 lb. corned beef brisket
1 large sweet onion, diced
Approximately 2 c. of water (just enough to cover the top of the meat; do not add too much liquid)
1/2 c. brown sugar
1-1/2 T. yellow mustard
2 T. whole peppercorns
1-1/2 T. dried thyme
1 t. allspice
1 t. cumin
2 t. Simply Organic all-purpose seasoning

Place the brisket in the slow-cooker and add onion, water, brown sugar, mustard and all of the remaining ingredients. Cook on low setting for 8 hours. Remove brisket to a cutting board and allow to cool for approximately 30 minutes before slicing. Trim any excess fat before slicing the meat. Strain the marinade using a fine-mesh strainer or cheesecloth, discard the solids, and reserve the liquid to pour over the meat and cabbage.

Corned beef in the slow cooker.

Rhona’s Chicken Cacciatore

If I was offered a one-day trip in a time machine and given the choice to revisit the past or peek into the future, I would choose the past. Of course, the people from my childhood who are no longer here would most certainly warrant a visit. My dad, whose presence I feel every day, despite the fact that he’s been gone for more than 23 years. My grandparents, particularly my maternal grandmother, whose sense of humor and huge heart left an indelible imprint on me. High school and college friends whose time on earth was far too short. Even pets who enriched my little-girl days. I’d love at least another 24 hours with them all.

Especially in this season of resolutions and looking forward, there is something about staying connected to the past that grounds me. And in the kitchen, more often than not, I find that the past is what inspires me.

I have so many wonderful food memories — far too many to enumerate. Some are attached to meals at special places that have long since closed their doors. Savory hot roast beef and gravy platters at the local Hot Shoppes; egg salad on cheese toast sandwiches at Hutzler’s lunch counter; pizza rolls in waxy bags from Silber’s Bakery; and sticky sweet banana splits from Howard Johnson are just a few that come to mind. I often recall food “snapshots” — moments disguised as insignificant but which somehow have resonated with me. The perfect tuna fish sandwich at my childhood friend Jane’s house, for instance, or picking crabs on the deck of the venerable Phillips Seafood.

Of course, food histories are borne out of special encounters with people as well. Recently I stumbled upon an old recipe book that once belonged to my husband’s long deceased grandmother, Rhona. Reading this 1964 collection of traditional Jewish dishes transported me to that place and time when trust, love and security were abundant and everything was somehow easier to understand. The pages of Grandma Rhona’s “Recipe Round Up” are yellowed, stained with who-knows-what, and decorated with margin notes in her fine, elegant handwriting. I read it cover to cover and smiled, thinking how far we’ve come and yet, how nice it would be to go back.

I didn’t get to spend much time with Rhona. She died when my husband and I were practically newlyweds. But I do recall one dinner, the only dinner we shared at her home. The dish was Chicken Cacciatore and — no surprise, here — it was delicious. Seated around the table in her humble but impeccably decorated apartment, the three of us enjoyed an evening of good food and a lot of laughs. Rhona was a dynamo of a woman who lived a colorful, interesting life and thus had great stories to share.  Though I didn’t know her well, her moxy, both in and out of the kitchen, has left its mark on me.

Grandma Rhona's "Recipe Round Up"

Rhona’s Chicken Cacciatore (as reinterpreted from Recipe Round Up(published 1964 by B’nai B’rith Women.)

Ingredients:
1 large red or white onion, thinly sliced
8 oz. mushrooms (cremini or white)
Approximately 4 c. plum or roma tomatoes, coursely chopped
Olive oil
Salt and pepper
2 T. red wine vinegar

1 4-lb. roasting chicken, cut into 8 pieces
Salt and pepper
1 T fresh rosemary, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
½ c. dry red wine
1 14 oz. can diced roasted tomatoes, juice included
1 c. low sodium chicken stock or broth
12 oz. pasta (preferably short-cut such as penne or gemelli)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. In a large bowl, combine the fresh tomatoes, mushrooms and onions with approximately 3 T olive oil, generous amount of salt and pepper and the vinegar.  Toss to combine and spread in a single layer on a rimmed sheet pan.  Roast approximately 25-30 minutes until the vegetables are brown and have begun to caramelize.  Remove from oven and set aside.  Reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees.

Season the chicken with the salt, pepper, garlic and rosemary. Heat olive oil in a large skillet or saute pan and brown the chicken, approximately 6 minutes on each side. Transfer chicken to a bowl and set aside (*Note: chicken will not yet be fully cooked at this point).  With the heat on medium, add the red wine to the empty skillet and deglaze the pan until the liquid is reduced by about half. Stir in the canned tomatoes with juice, as well as the chicken broth and return to a boil.  Simmer for a few minutes to allow flavors to meld, then return the chicken to the skillet.  Place skillet in the oven and cook uncovered until juices run clear, approximately 30 minutes or more, depending on size of the chicken pieces.

Remove skillet from oven and add roasted vegetables, stir until the vegetables are heated through. Serve in a wide, shallow bowl over cooked pasta (or rice, if you prefer).

Never Too Late Risotto

In a few short weeks, I will celebrate a birthday, a rather significant one in that it will mark the final year of my fourth decade.  It’s not nearly as ominous as it sounds, but it does have me thinking — especially about “do-overs.”  You don’t get too many chances to reinvent, repurpose or redo, so why not grab at opportunities while you can?  You never know where they might lead.

With this in mind, I recently participated in a four-day cooking “boot camp” (more on that later) at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York.  I’m not a risk-taker, and I don’t like to leave my comfort zone, so the idea of four intensive days of cooking with a group of strangers in an unknown setting under the watchful eyes of a professional chef, was — to say the least — intimidating.  But that birthday was looming, rather like a loudly ticking clock, reminding me that such opportunities are for the taking.  “Life is short,” I told myself.  “Don’t be a wus.”

Cooking boot camp is not for the faint of heart, but if you love food — both cooking it and eating it — it’s pretty much paradise, counterintuitive as that may sound.  Our days began promptly at 6:00 am at the Culinary’s venerable Roth Hall, where my fellow food enthusiasts and I would scramble in line for hot breakfast prepared by CIA students.  Four and a half hours of lecture and recipe review, presented by the jovial Chef John DeShetler (“Chef D” to his students) followed, and then we were off to the kitchen for three intensive, heated (literally) hours of production.  Divided into teams of four, my compatriots and I plunged into a head-spinning crash course in the culinary arts, with topics including knife skills; dry vs. moist heat cooking methods; bistro and Italian cooking; cheese-making; baking and pastry; and much more.

Kitchen production was literally trial by fire, as each of us took up our stations in an effort to produce the finest, most palate-pleasing versions of the menu items to which we were assigned.  As the morning (yes, all this, and it was still morning!) wound down, we campers would proudly present our plates for Chef’s review and critique, after which we would feast.  Each day, we marveled at our food, giving ourselves a collective pat on the back for producing restaurant quality fare, despite many missteps along the way.

There is so much I learned at culinary boot camp, it would be nearly impossible to capture it all here.  I learned that meat is the differentiating factor between a stock and a broth, and that mise en place (“getting your act together,” as Chef D plainly put it) is an essential cook’s tool.  I discovered new words, like “poolish,” a starter for making certain breads, and I was delighted to learn that curds and warm water are all that is needed to create a beautiful homemade mozzarella.

CIA students prepare pies in one of the pastry kitchens.

Here are a few more take-aways from culinary boot camp:

1) Be kind to yourself.  A day did not go by when I didn’t fret over minutiae, such as the size of my potato dice, the temperature of my chocolate, or the “bite” of my risotto (see recipe to follow).  I was often reminded of the mantra one learns when joining a yoga class: be gentle with yourself; go at your own pace.  I think this is a life lesson, one that I’m still learning.

2) It’s never too late to widen your circle.  One of the most pleasantly surprising byproducts of boot camp was the friendships I made.  United by our universal love (dare I say, “obsession”) for food, our group of 15 seamlessly evolved from strangers to companions.  In  his book, Never Eat Alone, author Keith Ferrazzi encourages readers to share their passions.  “Shared interests are the basic building blocks of any relationship…it is what you do together that matters, not how often you meet.”  I know my newfound foodie friends would agree.

3) Finally, nurture your passions.  They may be fleeting or they might be forever.  No matter, as long as we take some time to recognize the pieces of ourselves that make us feel whole, content and yes, full!

Never Too Late Risotto
The recipe that follows is not mine; I borrowed it from the Culinary Institute of America.  However, I have a personal relationship with this recipe, in that it was the first real dish I cooked in a CIA kitchen.  More than technique, this recipe taught me a lot about patience, self-acceptance, and the power of do-overs.

Ingredients:
1-1/2 c. dried porcini mushrooms
3-1/4 c. chicken stock*
Salt and pepper to taste
1/2 c. butter, divided
3/4 c. peas, fresh or frozen, blanched or thawed
1/2 c. onions, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1-1/4 c. Arborio rice
1/4 c. dry white wine
1 c. Parmesan cheese, grated

*It’s not a bad idea to have a lot of hot stock available.  I would suggest having on hand at least 3-1/2 to 4 cups, just in case.

1. Place the dried mushrooms in a bowl and add enough boiling water to cover.  Allow to soak until softened, approximately 20-25 minutes.  Drain mushrooms and reserve.  You can keep the mushroom “stock” to add to the chicken stock later.  It adds a nice depth of flavor.

2. In a medium sauce pan, heat the chicken stock over low heat and season with salt and pepper.  Keep the stock hot.

3. In a small saute pan, heat 2 T of butter over medium heat and add the mushrooms.  Saute mushrooms until tender.  Add the peas and cook for a few additional minutes until the peas are heated through.  Remove from heat and reserve.

4. Melt 2 T of butter in a straight sided saute pan over medium heat.  Add the onions and saute until translucent.  Add the garlic and saute an additional minute until the garlic is aromatic but without color.

5. Add the rice and cook, stirring constantly, until the rice grains are coated with butter and have changed from completely white to somewhat translucent, but not brown.

6. Add the wine and simmer over medium-low heat, stirring until the wine is almost completely absorbed.  Raise the heat to medium-high and begin adding the hot stock, in several additions (approximately 3-5).  Stir constantly and allow the stock to be absorbed between additions.  The rice should still be tender and the grains separate but creamy.  This process should take about 15 minutes or so.  When the liquid is mostly absorbed and the rice is tender but still has a small “bite” add the remaining butter, mushroom and pea mixture, and cheese.

7. Adjust consistency if necessary by adding additional stock.  The risotto should be all’onda (wave-like), meaning it should be creamy like porridge, not firm and stiff.