Why is this night different?

This is beginning of the question that the youngest asks on Passover. Why is this night different from all other nights.? It is the start of the traditional “Four Questions” the part of the seder that was looked upon with anticipation and sometimes dread by the children at the table. As we enter into our second Pandemic Passover, this phrase, this question is particularly meaningful and relevant. It’s a year since we entered into the Pandemic Phase of our lives and with that has brought about a new way of living, a different way of living.

As many of you know if you have been following my blog, I lost both of my parents – first my dad 16 years ago, and then my mom just 3 years ago. Most of my family lives in Florida, so first off, this night is different because I will not be spending Passover with any family. Many of us who would normally travel or have a large family gathering, will once again be Zooming, HousePartying, GoogleHangingOut or whatever virtual means we chose to try to bring our loved ones into our lives. Things are getting better but still not safe enough for us all to be close. A dear friend of mine who I’ve known since high school came over for a small dinner, as she too has lost both of her parents and her siblings live far away.

I think this is the holiday that I miss my grandparents the most, especially my paternal grandmother — the one whom I write of often. Passover at her house was always something I looked forward to; it was kind of like a Jewish Thanksgiving Dinner (since she never had a Thanksgiving). The long table was laid out with her finest linens, Passover Plates and flatware, the door was left open so that Elijah could come in — or the cooking fumes could get out, and the table was filled with food. Grandpa would sit at the head and read, and read and read, while grandma would yell — Irving, “genug, enough” and of course he’d ignore her and keep going. We’d dip, we’d sing and we’d “essen fressen” — or eat until we were like a stuffed derma. Speaking of stuffed derma, that was one of the many amazing foods she’d have on the table. This is a Jewish style sausage, no pork of course and stuffed with savory matzo meal and paprika spiced stuffing. We’d congregate in her little kitchen because before the meal started, there would be plates of chopped liver with horseradish that she hand-grated with beets. Sweet and spicy, with the rich chicken livers cooked in schmaltz, (Jewish olive oil) I can still taste it. Organized chaos was really how the meal went, grandma with no patience, grandpa continuously reading, the kids getting stir crazy running in the halls, or getting yelled at to stay away from the windows — “You know could fall out…” We’d be shvitzing as if we were in a Turkish steam bath because of the building’s heat and the fact that grandma was too afraid to open the windows because as I said ” You could fall out.” We’d start off with bowls of steaming chicken soup with matzo balls, and her egg noodles — not the kind you find in the store, but more like ribbons of the thinnest egg crepe you could imagine. Next would be plates of her famous gefilte fish. She’d grind the fish by hand, a combination of “winter carp” pike and whitefish. I have a vague recollection of stories of her keeping the carp in the bathtub though I don’t ever remember seeing it there. I know that this is something that was done, there’s even a children’s story book called “The Carp in the Bathtub”. Can you imagine — you go to the bathroom to do your business and find a fish in a bathtub, Oy Vey! Anyway back to the gefilte fish, she boiled not baked hers and it was always served with a carrot round and loads of more horseradish. Then would come out the platters of meat, usually breast of veal stuffed with schmaltz laden matzo meal stuffing and beef ribs, carrot and prune tzimmes and maybe a boiled potato. Wine is a traditional part of the meal and grandma would only want the sweet stuff — Manischewitz. Once we brought a good bottle of wine and she took one sip, spit it out, said it was sour and asked where the Manischewitz was. This is a traditional Galitizianer, Eastern European style Passover meal.

Flash forward to this year’s Passover and from wine to food, to company, it was different. Before Passover night, I along with Les Dames d’Escoffier, presented a fantastic tasting via Zoom, of the Judean Hills Quartet Wines of Israel. Led by my friend Tali Dalbaha, we tasted four of the most amazing wines along with the winemakers — sorry grandma, this is what Passover Wine should taste like! Different, done by Zoom, not in person, but informative and fantastic.

Next was the actual dinner. So different from what I would normally have eaten, this time I wanted to go Sephardic. Whereas the Ashkenazi are of Eastern European dissent, the Sephardim are mostly from the Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and North African regions. The foods couldn’t be more different! The Eastern European cuisine was based on Polish and German style cooking, heavy, heavy and well nothing light. Sephardic cooking combined the cuisines from the Spanish and the North Africans so it is much more aromatic and spice infused. We didn’t do much else very traditional, no reading from the Haggadah, no Seder plate, no dipping to commemorate the plagues, we just ate. But, to keep some tradition alive, I of course started with a traditional matzo ball soup, because it just wouldn’t be Passover without it! When I make mine, I always start with a whole chicken, carrots, a small amount of parsnip so the broth doesn’t get too sweet, a celery stalk and a few sprigs of parsley and a bay leaf, then I cover the whole thing in chicken stock and water — 2 parts stock to 1 water. To get a nice clear broth, bring to a boil then reduce to a just barely bubbling simmer and skim. The main was a delish recipe by Joan Nathan, and was layers of eggplant covered in caramelized onions and garlic, topped with pieces of browned, chicken coated in allspice, lime powder and tumeric and finally topped with chopped swiss chard. Instead of the traditional tzimmes (sweet carrots and prunes) I made roasted rainbow carrots coated in harissa paste and honey.

Lastly was dessert. Dessert at grandma’s would have been all kinds of sweets from boxes spread all over the table. Don’t get me wrong, I miss the jellied, sugar coated fruit slices that didn’t taste like fruit. There would be chocolate covered jelly rings, or chocolate covered cherries and chocolate covered matzo — don’t knock it until you try it! She’d have an array of Passover cakes which were usually jelly rolls — see a jelly theme here? Nothing home baked so I decided again to break tradition and bake. I found a fantastic recipe for an Orange, Chocolate Flourless cake by Nigella Lawson. What was so interesting about it and different was that you boil the oranges whole until soft and puree them whole with all the rest of the ingredients and bake. Amazingly fragrant, chocolate-orange goodness, you’d never know it doesn’t have flour. I’m sure she didn’t intend it for Passover but it was the perfect cake to end the meal. Oh yeah, wine, forgot wine. As I said no Manishewitz for me thank you, (sorry grandma)! We enjoyed the leftover wines from the Judean Hills Quartet — Sphera Sauvignon Blanc, Castel Rose, Tzora Shoresh Red and Flam Classico.

My Passover night was different from other nights, like my year was different from other years. But isn’t that how it should be? Every day is different, every year is different. We ask ourselves, “Why is this night different from all others?” and the answer is well, because it should be. We need to embrace the new, and not be afraid of the different. Try something new, out of your norm, out of the comfort zone. This past year has taught us that we need to find new ways to forge ahead, to embrace change and not be afraid of following a different path. So Chag Sameach, a Zissen Pesach, Happy Passover embrace your traditions but also don’t be afraid to try something new.

Time Travel

Who is not ready to get out and start traveling? I know I am itching to go somewhere. This is the longest I’ve not been on a plane in I don’t even know how many years. I think about travel, dream about travel almost every day. I miss the craziness of being in an airport, being on a plane, hearing the loudspeaker say, be prepared for take off. I find myself surfing through my favorite country travel sites on Instagram and Facebook or watching travel related cooking shows. I also find myself reminiscing a lot about where I’ve traveled to and with whom. I can’t believe I’m writing that it’s been 3 years since my mom’s passing. Time does travel, sometimes all too fast. I wanted to share a story about a trip she and I took to France many years ago. It was a gift of my dad’s to us, so that we could spend some quality time together in France; a place he and I had spent time in when I was a teenager — that’s for a whole other story! Dad was himself very sick at this time and mom and I were hesitant about going but he insisted and we knew that our going would make him happy. That’s how he was, he never wanted anything big for himself, he got the most pleasure in giving. He knew we needed a break, and for those of you who’ve been through it, being a caretaker is very hard. So mom and I went on our first long mother – daughter trip to Paris, the City of Light, Art, Beauty and Wine & Food!

I set the itinerary and we would hit all the great sites in Paris, go to Versailles and make a special visit to Champagne Pol Roger, since I worked with them for many years while at my previous company. I’m pretty organized with trip itineraries, ask anyone who’s been on one with me and this was no different! I do a lot of research so that a trip comes together seamlessly to make it easy for all. Not having stayed in Paris for eons, I asked a friend for a recommendation for a hotel. I have to admit, I’m pretty picky about my hotels and don’t usually take recommendations for small boutique hotels, but I did this time. Lovely place in the 7th, seriously quaint, but as we all know, quaint doesn’t just mean cute, it also can mean small. And this place sadly was small. A double room as I learned meant just a room for 2, not a room with double beds. This one had one queen size bed in a room where we could pretty much touch the walls. So I freaked out a bit, talked my way out of the reservation and moved us to the Radisson Blu just outside the main part of the city. Now before you scoff at the American hotel chains, remember they are so much more grand when you get out of the US, almost like you’re not in a chain hotel. We were now comfortable, a little remote but it fit the budget and made us happy. Now we were set to conquer the city. I had been to Paris many times so I was super happy to be showing this to mom who had never been. I loved seeing how she loved the city. She was in good form and was able to do a lot of walking thank goodness, since Paris is truly, like New York or London, a walking city, best seen on foot.

Of course we went to the Louvre, Montmatre, Montparnasse etc… and to Versailles. We ate and ate and ate more. Dad allowed me to splurge on some amazing meals and I took her to 2 of my favorite places, one’s I had been to with dad when he was here — Taillavent and La Tour d’Argent. Walking into Taillavent with her was an experience. You stand a litle straighter, immediately feel elegant, and special. The food was extraordinary, the service was beyond reproach, your every wish is anticipated, you never feel surrounded by service, you just enjoy the moment. I also took her to the famous Tour d’Argent for their famed Canard a Presse, their pressed duck. Overlooking the Seine, it’s like you’ve stepped into a museum of food and wine. Their wine collection is fabled, but it’s the duck we were there for! Here’s an image of the famed Presse a Canard, the duck press, I will spare you the details, but you get the idea. If you want to look up how it’s used go ahead, it looks like a medieval torture device, but at the end of the day the duck was incredible.

We sipped coffee at Les Deux Magots, went to Fauchon where I think mom could have moved in, but one of our most memorable meals was at a Moroccan Restaurant called Al Mounia. We wanted to do something that wasn’t heavy french food, we wanted something that Paris was known for and Moroccan food was it. We went in and it felt like you were stepping into Morocco. I can still smell the spices today and remember vividly the Pastilla that we shared. A chicken pie that’s not just a chicken pie but a blend of warm spices enveloping chicken surrounded by a flaky pastry and topped with cinnamon and powdered sugar. Sweet, savory, warm and just oh so amazing. But it was the mint tea at the end, that I can still taste and smell just by remembering. I had never tasted anything like it, mint steeped in sweet water, it was truly delicious.

Other than Versailles, our only other excursion out of the city was to Epernay, for a visit with Christian and Danielle Pol Roger of Champagne Pol Roger. I hadn’t been back to that area of Champagne in many years. When I was in High School I spent a summer in Reims when I worked as a tour guide at Mumm, so I was eager to go back and bring mom. Christian Pol Roger was a gentleman in the truest sense. Elegant yet approachable, just like his Champagne, sums him up perfectly. Christian and his wife Danielle, could not have been more welcoming. Danielle took pride in showing mom her rose garden, where she had recently had a rose named for her. After our tour of the caves, we went back to their house and had a lovely lunch. I can still remember the fish pie she served us, it was the first time I had had one and it was delicious. I think it was accompanied by a Chablis from Moreau. At the end of the visit, Christian presented Mom with a bottle that he autographed and said that she and dad should share it for their upcoming anniversary. I recently heard that Christian passed away, and I can say that this is a loss for the world of wine, and Champagne in particular. At my old company, we had this wonderful winemaker tour called the Grand Tour, Christian was a cornerstone of this group of legends in wine. One day he and Olivier Leflaive turned around and started calling me “La Farine Francine”, which I took as a term of endearment. For those of you who don’t know, it’s also a brand of flour in France.

Anyway back to mom. Here’s a picture of her with Danielle and Christian in Danielle’s garden.

Time travel, time to travel, or time travels. Three years have gone by, so much has changed but the memories remain. We are lucky to be able to travel in time through our memories. Sometimes it’s a picture, a song, a place even a glass of wine, or a food that jogs our memory and allows us to travel back in time. For now I celebrate mom by traveling back in time to remember. I think I’ll open up a bottle of Pol Roger Champagne, toast her and travel a bit more in time.

A Toast to Dad

Today marks my dad’s passing, 16 years ago. I’ve been grappling with what to write so please excuse the rambling thoughts in this blog. Dad was a complicated man, yet also very simple and trying to encapsulate all into one page is hard. Crazy to think it’s been that long. As many of us who had those close to us pass, I can remember that day and the preceding day perfectly. I remember his arrival home by ambulette; him entering the house for the last time to be surrounded by me, mom, his 2 best friends and a dinner of bagels and lox. Dad was a teacher at heart and up to the end he was still telling us all how best to eat. He couldn’t help himself, in his mind he knew best, and would teach everyone he knew how to, when to and why with most things even a bagel and lox dinner.

Born on the Lower East Side to Polish Jewish parents, my dad went on to be one of the most educated, knowledgeable, curious and driven people I knew. When most people have maybe 1 or 2 careers in their life, dad had multiple; all of which he dove into full force. He always learned as much as he could about whatever he did, whether it was as a musician — his first profession; or later on in the wine industry. Dad’s parents were not very educated in the traditional sense. They were poor and had to do what they had to do to make sure their children had. Dad got his love of music, art and food from his parents. Grandma, his mom always cooked and Grandpa love music and the art of jewelry. Grandpa probably didn’t go past 6th grade as was usual back then, but he had a sophisticated love of music, especially Opera. He joined a chazan group (religious singers) that would sing at weddings, and special religious events and it was there that he heard what the voice could do and fell in love with music. In fact the great Richard Tucker was part of that “Chazan Society” of singers and thought of him as the greatest opera singer ever. He was also fascinated by jewelry, especially watches and coins. Dad went on to study the Bassoon and became a music teacher; and somewhere he also became a Coin Dealer, specializing in Russian Coins. Eventually he went back to teaching music and was a music teacher for many years. I can still remember sitting on his lap, I’d blow into the Bassoon and he’d do the keying and together we’d play Peter and the Wolf. I’d watch him make his reeds, and also make reeds for some of the kids he taught oboe or clarinet. The one instrument he couldn’t play was flute, which was what I played and eventually helped him “teach” in school. I was just a kid, and had a talent for the flute so I was really happy to help him. So this is Part one — Music Teacher, and Russian Coin Dealer.

Part two of Dad’s story is Wine Expert and Culinary Maven. Early on dad fell in love with wine, he already loved food, so wine was a natural. He became obsessed with wine and food and learned all he could. When he was really deep into wine, and ran tastings for Les Amis du Vin (I will expand on this at a later date) mom and he had legendary 10 course dinners at home for the wine luminaries who did his tastings. But what I found most interesting about him was that even though his tastes in food and wine were very sophisticated, what he longed for most were simple meals, comfort foods of a sort that were mainly reflective of his roots. Don’t get me wrong, his taste in food could be incredibly sophisticated but favorites gravitated toward the simple, mostly Jewish comfort foods. I had wanted to recreate what I thought would be his favorite meal for this blog, but when I thought about it, I realized that his favorites were either a good Corned Beef sandwich, or a Bagel and Belly Lox or even lox, eggs and onions. Now dad being dad, nothing was a simple as it seemed. Even a Corned Beef sandwich turned into an instructive event with him. At one point, pretty much the only restaurant we’d go to with my grandmother was the famed Second Avenue Deli. It was Kosher and in our opinion had the best deli meat. And if we didn’t eat there, it’s what we brought up to grandma for lunch. But dad, being dad, there was always a ritual for ordering and eating. He and I would go in if we were ordering for take out, and push our way to the counter and wait for our favorite deliman to be free. We’d only order from these 2 guys. First up we’d order a hot dog with mustard and coleslaw, which we’d munch on and Mohammad would slip us a schmear — a chopped liver on rye. Then we’d get started. We’d order the Corned Beef and Pastrami — fatty (not the PC “Juicy”) but proper, fatty. Taste of course, you couldn’t buy it without tasting it first. Too lean and you would get yelled at and feel like a deli failure. So now I’m full, and we order Corned Beef, Pastrami, coleslaw, knishes…and bring to grandma’s to eat more. Dad would make sure loads of mustard were in the bag along with pickles, which back then were just added, no charge. All of this had to be washed down with a good old Dr. Brown’s Celray Tonic and seltzer from the bottle. If we brought grandma and my uncle to eating at Second Avenue this too was a process. We’d have to have the same table, same surly waitress and we’d only order from the counter because of course dad wouldn’t trust they’d get the order right. He and his brother would yell at each other, I’d roll my eyes, mom just stayed quiet. In typical fashion grandma feigned embarrassment but in reality I’m sure she loved the show. Somehow with gold bag in tow, she always managed to walk off with the rye bread on the table, though she never admitted that she took it home. This was normal everyone took home the bread, if you didn’t well there was probably something wrong with you! There was something comforting about this ritual, and I miss it. Going to the new Second Avenue Deli, which is not on Second Avenue anymore isn’t the same without the guys at the counter, the old fashioned waitresses and my dysfunctional family.

Another family favorite was Sammy’s Roumanian Steakhouse. The place was below ground in a building on the Lower East Side, with walls adorned by pictures and pictures of all who ate there. Simple good Jewish food, accompanied by Jewish schtick. As famous as they were for their garlic laden, schmaltz coated food, they were famous for the music played by a guy with an electric keyboard who would sing old Jewish songs. Tables always had bottles of seltzer and the most garlicky pickles and pickled tomatoes, Vodka frozen in ice and syrup bottles filled with schmaltz (chicken fat). Chicken fat was to us what olive oil is to the Mediterranean diet or butter is to the French — no judgement please! Chicken fat went into everything and I mean everything even the mashed potatoes. While most folks drank Vodka or Seltzer, we often had wine. Dad would love bringing his wine friends from overseas here. He said they could have a fancy meal anytime but an experience like this was priceless. Once he brought the General Manager for Bailey’s Irish Cream from Ireland. At the end of the meal dad made him an egg cream and together they laughed as he said it was the precursor to Bailey’s. He even did wine dinners at Sammy’s. Dad loved doing the non traditional, and unexpected with wine. He was a rebel and a pioneer in the wine business and loved doing things that made people think and see wine in a different way.

So as I think about who you were, and what I am today, I thank you for giving me my love of food, wine, music and art. You taught me to love the beauty in life so today I toast you with what else, a bagel and lox with a side of Prosecco. Even now I can hear you saying, something bubbly would go best, the bubbles and the acid will cut through the fattiness of the lox. So here’s to you dad!

A Holiday Season Unlike Any Other!

2020 is about to end and I know that I can’t wait! I hear that collective sigh of relief from you all, as you wait with anticipation for the ball to drop — figuratively and literally, on what has been a pretty crazy, stressful and sometimes downright awful year. Through it all I drew my strength from my friends and family, but mostly from my friends who are my family. When I began to feel safe enough to start seeing my friends in person instead of virtually, it was such a great relief. I’ll never forget getting a call from my friend who said she was coming over. Now on a normal day that would seem well, normal; but in these crazy times I actually thought she was joking. Off to the store I went, probably in search of toilet paper, when I got a call from her saying “Where are you? Sammy’s in the window, now where’s the wine? I’m in the parking circle and you’re not home.” So I told her where the key was and where the wine was and that I’d be home in 5. What a joyous day! My first visitor in 3 months or so! We maintained our distance, sat at the table outside and just enjoyed being together after so many stressful months. My house became a bit like Noah’s Arc, they all came in 2’s, with an occasional 3rd, but no more than that! Food, cooking, eating and wine have always been an important bond with me and my friends, but never more so than during Covid. During Covid they escaped the city and came up to my suburban paradise (never thought I’d say that!) and for a moment all felt right. Of course we wore masks, sat apart and kept outside but we were together and it was amazing.

That takes me to today. We are now 9 months into this craziness and the holidays are here. Just when you thought it was getting better, we even had no more trouble getting toilet paper, it started getting worse. Warnings went up about social gatherings for the holidays and we were told to limit our personal interactions. 2020 just kept getting worse and well I just kept cooking, that was my therapy. The holidays was the time we could all depend on to get together. This year however, as we all know, is different. I decided that I would at least try to keep some of the traditions, even on a small scale, that I had enjoyed about the holidays. And for me that of course meant food. My family was not a very sentimental bunch but there were certain foods that were traditional for the holidays. I wanted to share some of them with you all, as well as some of the traditional foods that meant so much to some of my closest friends.

I decided after a lot of trepidation to go to my best friend’s house for Thanksgiving. It was only her immediate family and me. It was also her birthday and I really wanted to be there to celebrate. I decided that I’d bake a cake, but I wanted it to be meaningful so I searched through my mom’s recipes. Mom in my opinion made the best cheesecake ever. She used to say it was so rich and dense it would sink to the bottom of your toes! With it being Thanksgiving, I wanted something that spoke of the holiday and I found in her box of index cards, a recipe for a pumpkin cheese cake, woo hoo! Perfect I thought, and I took the recipe and made a few minor changes like adding bourbon, and made my own version — like a variation on a theme; the picture is below. BUT here is the recipe card for her ORIGINAL cheesecake; I can still see dad in the kitchen, mixing the cream cheese by hand. Check out her introduction to the recipe where she says “who can resist a cheesecake”. I love those little intros she wrote on her favorite recipes. I wanted to share her original one because that’s the one I remember her always making.

Next up is Chanukah, which of course as a kid meant presents, but it also meant latkes! FYI we ate latkes all year, large sized or small, but during Chanukah they tasted even better. Who amongst us can resist potatoes perfectly shredded with onions and fried in oil? In fact check out below on mom’s index card where she says they are “the closest thing to heaven”…Dad used to say grandma had stock in Planters Peanut Oil, the only thing she’d use to fry her latkes and all she’d have to do was tap the pan and they’d slide out on their own. We were traditional, no sweet potato, no beet, no way. Topped with sour cream only and it had to be potato, the starchier the better. Too wet, or too little starch and it will fall apart and no one wants that! We’d sit in the boiling hot kitchen as grandma would hand grate the onions and potatoes, and meticulously drain the liquid reserving the potato starch. Then she’d fry them to golden perfection. Later mom would do the same, in fact below is her original recipe card. On the first night of Chanukah this year, I had to have them so I made a little batch for myself. Really I think one of the best smells in the world, is the smell of onions frying and the house was filled with that scent. The next night the fry fest continued and I decided to make a batch of jelly doughnuts — my favorite food in the world! Yes I could have bought them but I really wanted to try my hand at making them as I had seen them on the Great British Bake Off. Paul Hollywood to the rescue, his recipe is perfect! 2 of my friends got wind of my making both latkes and jelly doughnuts and decided to come for a visit a few days later so I had to make them all again. Here we were in the kitchen at the table, where we belonged — socially distant and with the kitchen door wide open.

All for the love of pizzelle, is my next yummy holiday tradition. Ok well not my tradition because I never made them, but we were always gifted them during Christmas. My first introduction to this delicious Italian waffle cookie, was as a kid from the mom of a student of my dad’s. She would make us a huge plate of them and traditional Italian cookies. Delicate, beautiful and imprinted with her initials from the iron she had brought from Italy, these cookies lasted maybe a day before they were all gone. Now my friend’s dad makes them and always has a batch for me! His are laced with limoncello and are sweet and fresh and perfect with a cup of coffee. I invited them over for dinner the other night but only if he brought me pizzelle! As he sat at the table and watched me cook, I was forewarned that if he didn’t like the food I’d know it, he was not shy! I felt like I was cooking for my dad and started to get nervous, but after I put the plate of fish bathed in a lovely orange and olive sauce in front of him, I got the ultimate compliment when he had a second serving! I baked a holiday cake too, but true to his word, he didn’t like some of the cake and let me know it. He liked the cake but not the frosting, wanted another piece but told me to scrape off the frosting. He worked in many of the finest Italian restaurants in NYC and I loved sitting around the table and sharing food stories with him. Here’s a picture of his pizzelle with a coffee, and the fish dish and cake I made for him.

Next up is Christmas and my best friend (for whom I had to make the latkes and doughnuts, so you know I must love her) wanted us to carry on a tradition she used to do with her dad — Chrusciki. More frying for me! I started to think I might have a new career working as a fry cook, and I felt like I was working one of those fried dough stands at the state fair, but no I was hard at work in a kitchen in suburbia. All kidding aside, we had a great time. Once the dough was made and shaped, it was my turn to fry them to perfection and add the powdered sugar. We got into a rhythm and turned out what seemed to be hundreds, if not thousands of these little fried sweets. Ok I exaggerate because we ate as many as we fried, so who knows how many were actually made! More sugar her mom would say and we’d make it snow all over them with powdered sugar. We were in the kitchen together cooking and laughing it was a perfect day. Her cousin who is an essential worker, a doctor who is now overwhelmed by the pandemic, was supposed to be there to help us but obviously couldn’t. I don’t live far so I made a special delivery for her, left it by her door, and after her shift she ate the entire batch in one sitting!

This holiday season is downright weird. Don’t tell me it’s the new normal, it may be new but it’s not normal, as I’ve said before. We might not be able to have large friends and family gatherings. Many of us will have to connect via Zoom. Food may not be as plentiful as before. And some won’t be able to gather at all for various reasons. This is a tough year, and I know that I am lucky, I have my health, friends and family and am so grateful for all of that. It’s not about how much you have, it’s about how you are able to enjoy what you have. For me cooking, being in my kitchen and sharing whatever I have with my friends brings me joy. It’s not about fancy ingredients, it’s about the love you put into it and the memories you make in the process. However you are celebrating this holiday season I wish you all health and happiness. And here’s to 2021!

What’s in Your Pantry?

I’ve been grappling with many topics in my head and trying to decide what to write about next. What came to me this morning was spurred by a column I read in the NY Times Food Section. The creator of From the Pantry, has decided to end the series which was created to help home cooks use what is in their pantries and turn those ingredients into fabulous, tasty meals. The column was created during the height of the Covid-19 Pandemic, when ingredients seemed to be scarce due to panic. I applaud her having created this column with its easy, readily accessible ingredients. I don’t want to seem overly critical, but we are still in the middle of a Pandemic and people are still at home and not dining out as much as they could or would pre-pandemic. She says that people are now dining out more — I am paraphrasing, and not in as much of a panic to stock their pantries. Here’s where I differ. And by the way, I will address dining out in another post but, right now I’d like to focus on cooking at home.

Cooking from our Pantries, Freezers, Fridges, what I call #PantryCooking #Freezercooking and #RefrigeratorCooking, is more important now than ever. Parents are stuck at home with their children, who are “going to school” virtually from their homes. Workers are stuck at home because they cannot go back to their offices, which have not yet opened up. From the Pantry’s creator says “cooking 3 meals a day is not as daunting as it once was” well tell that to the parent who has to make breakfast, lunch and dinner for the whole family every day, do their own professional job and supervise their child’s schooling. That parent doesn’t have time to shop every day for food. As I’ve mentioned in previous blog posts, my parents always kept a stocked pantry. Maybe they feared armageddon was coming, or it was a cultural thing or just a smart thing, but I too have a stocked pantry and not just out of Pandemic Fear. I don’t want to keep shopping! So I shop in my pantry. I live in the burbs and am lucky to have plenty of space — don’t judge!

As always I like to incorporate some of my recipes and food pictures. One night I looked in the freezer and saw that I had lamb chops so they became the inspiration for a dinner. I looked in the pantry and had some tandoori spices (you can use some cumin and coriander and paprika too) so I rubbed that over the lamb and then pan fried them — simple. I looked in the fridge and saw some carrots so I coated them in cumin and olive oil and roasted them — easy. Next I had some tahini and pine nuts in the pantry, mixed with a bit of lemon juice and put that over the carrots — yum. Finally there was some cauliflower that needed to be cooked so I mixed it with some cheddar and heavy cream and boom an easy gratin. All items were in the fridge and or pantry. Leftovers the next day were reimagined into tacos. I had some tortillas in the fridge, and made taziki sauce with cucumbers and yogurt, and topped all with feta crumbles and olives from the fridge — dinner reimagined.

I mention cooking with beans above and one of my favorite meals is actually made with a can of white beans — a pantry staple. Simple, chop an onion; onions are a pantry staple, cook in some olive oil, add some garlic and tomatoes and a can of white beans. Season with hot red pepper, salt and pepper and basil if you have it, cook for about half an hour until the beans are soft, keep adding olive oil to taste and keep it moist. To accompany the beans, I cooked shrimp that I had in the freezer in a simple lemon and butter sauce with a touch of leftover rose wine and boom you have shrimp scampi. An easy meal made with pantry items. And the next day, I used the leftover beans, added some chicken stock and a handful of spinach from the fridge and had a fantastic soup for lunch.

Soon most will not be able to dine outside; it will be too cold. Our kids will still be home and most of us will still be working remotely so we will have to keep planning 3 meals a day for home consumption. With our lives having shifted home I think it’s more important than ever to find ways to make ourselves comfortable and easy. So many people today are either unemployed or underemployed therefor, helping them find ways to use what they have already is still very relevant. We’ve pivoted inside and have had to adapt. In fact I think that for many, being home is more stressful than before, with more demands, and we must find ways to make our lives easier. So here’s to all the home cooks, I toast you! And remember to look in your pantry, fridge and freezer, there are meals waiting to happen. The meals don’t have to be fancy or made with many ingredients; it just takes time and planning!

September, the Month of Change

September is the month when I notice that the sun is a bit lower in the sky and more golden in hue. It’s a transition month from the bright hot colors of summer to the warm, earth tones of fall. September is when I notice that the sun rises a little later and sets a little earlier. It’s the month when we start shifting our lives from outdoors to inside. September is the start of school and the end of our outdoor pool. It’s the month when we start eating apples and pears rather than peaches and plums. And it’s the month that filled with many of my life’s changes.

September is when I transitioned careers. It was the month I left my old work life and started my new. September is the month of birthdays. It is the month of my dad’s, mine and many of my friends’ birthdays. September is the month of holidays. It is the month the New Year, Rosh Hashanah. September is the month of change.

My dad was born in September and the 4th, today would have been his 84th birthday. Amazing to think that not only has he been gone for 15 years, but that he would have been 84.

And the 10th is my birthday and I am hitting a milestone birthday — a number that seems unreal to me as well, 55. Yup admitting it, 55 though in my head I’m still 35 lol! Dad hated birthdays. He hated to be told that he had to celebrate a specific date. He would always tell me “I’m not getting you a gift just because it’s your birthday you’ll get one when I want to give you one.” He meant that, gifts were not for birthdays, they were for when he felt like giving them to me or mom; and that was ok for me. He was generous to a fault — all mom and I had to do was say we liked something and at some point it was ours; but never because it was a birthday. He and I would celebrate at grandma’s over a Strawberry Shortcake from Gertels, the famed Lower Eastside Jewish bakery. I never had the heart to tell her that I hated their Strawberry Shortcake and so did dad, but we ate it, smiled and made her feel like she was getting us our favorite dessert in the universe. It was pareve, aka non-dairy, and overly sweet, but our eating it put a smile on her face more than ours.

Some birthdays stand out more than others and 2 of my milestone birthdays that stand out were my 16th and 50th. My 16th was not the traditional large scale sweet 16 as many of my classmates had; mine was more subdued, a family affair but at my favorite restaurant, The Four Seasons. We stopped by my grandparents first so they could see my dress which was a beautiful Bill Blass white organza cocktail dress that dad got me. I can still remember that day. It was the year that our apartment was destroyed in a fire — big change! My dad had put aside a bottle of Chateau d’Yquem 1967 for this special occasion but sadly it was destroyed in the fire. Luckily he had a friend who had one and gifted it to us unbeknownst to me. Yes I was 16 and yes I drank wine at dinner — times were different no judgements please! Remember I grew up in the wine industry! Flash forward a few years to 2015 and my 50th. Same restaurant, this time with my close circle of girlfriends, great wine and same cake. I look the same right!

September is the month of change. It’s the month of the New Year, Rosh Hashanah, and boy can we all use a new year! As with so many holidays no matter what the religion, we celebrate with food, wine, family and friends. The table will be filled with apples and honey, honey cake, challah with raisins all to celebrate the sweet year to come. I think we can all agree that thus far 2020 has been a challenging year.

My Honey Cake with Bourbon of Course!

Here’s the recipe for my honey cake — and of course I used what was in my pantry — traditional is with almonds, but I had walnuts.

  • CAKE
  • 1 cup vegetable oil, plus extra for the pan
  • 3¾ cups all-purpose flour, plus extra for the pan
  • 1½ cups granulated sugar
  • 1 cup honey
  • ½ cup light brown sugar, lightly packed
  • 3 extra-large eggs, at room temperature
  • 2 teaspoons grated orange zest (2 oranges)
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 4 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • ½ teaspoon ground cloves
  • ½ teaspoon ground allspice
  • ½ teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1 cup hot coffee
  • ½ cup freshly squeezed orange juice (2 oranges)
  • ¼ cup bourbon, Maker’s Mark is my fave
  • ½ cup chopped walnuts
  • GLAZE
  • 4 tablespoons butter
  • 1/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/4 cup brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/3 cup bourbon

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Brush a 9-inch bundt pan with with oil, line the bottom with parchment paper, then oil and flour the pan.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment,(or a hand mixer) mix the oil, granulated sugar, honey, brown sugar, eggs, orange zest, and vanilla on medium speed for one minute. In another bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, salt, cloves, allspice, and ginger and blend. Combine the coffee, orange juice, and bourbon in a bowl. With the mixer on low, alternately add the flour and liquid mixtures to the oil-sugar mixture in thirds, beginning and ending with flour, until combined. Scrape down the bowl with a rubber spatula. Don’t worry; the batter will be very liquid!

Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Tap the pan to get rid of any bubbles in the batter. Sprinkle the top with the walnuts. Bake in the center of the oven for 40 to 45 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool completely, then remove from the pan and place almond side up on a flat serving plate. Make the glaze, by melting the butter in a skillet over medium-high heat; stir in sugar, brown sugar, and vanilla. Cook, stirring constantly, 1 minute. Remove skillet from heat, and stir in bourbon. Drizzle over the cake let soak in and serve!

As we start the month of reflection about the New Year to come, let’s embrace the change. Enjoy the golden hues and earth tones. Embrace the change to come. September is the month of change!

A Rock, A Raccoon and Red Wine

I can honestly say 2020 has been one year I won’t be sorry to see end; and, we still have a little over 4 months to go. 2019 wasn’t too great either but 2020 takes the cake. Just when you think things can’t get worse or stranger they do. So that takes me to the title of this edition of my blog — A Rock, A Racoon and Red Wine. What do these 3 things have in common? And how do they lend themselves to the strangeness of 2020? Now if you don’t already know the story (and some of you close to me do) then hold on because this is one of those stories where you roll your eyes and say, “you just can’t make this stuff up!”

For those of you who know me, some find it hard to believe that I’m a bit shy. Type A at work but reserved in my personal life. I had always thought it would be a great idea to join a wine club, meet new people and enjoy a common interest, but was a bit timid about doing this alone. I can also admit that I was a bit hesitant to join a consumer club and not one filled with industry professionals. Finally I saw a club that seemed interesting with a line up of wines that looked awesome. This night’s line up featured a bunch of older vintages from one of Australia’s premiere wineries, Clarendon Hills. A relatively young winery founded in 1990, located in McLaren Vale, Clarendon Hills produces some of the region’s finest wines and was one of the first, if not the first to make a single vineyard bottling. This night’s tasting was a flight various 2010 bottlings including Grenaches, Syrahs and Cabernet Sauvignons — all very highly rated.

I arrived at the restaurant where we were seated outdoors in the back courtyard on a lovely summer night. The group was super nice and I was happy I had ventured out. We introduced ourselves since I was the newbie, gave our dinner order and then got started tasting. So here’s the RED WINE part of the tale. First wine was a bit over the hill, but the next 2 were tasting really well and I was getting excited to try the rest when…now hold on folks because the next part of the tale is well, hard to believe. What follows is the A ROCK and A RACCOON part of the tale.

All of a sudden, out of nowhere I get hit in the head, by a rock. Now this alone is crazy, but when you add the fact that the rock was shoved over a 6 foot wall onto my head by a raccoon now you have a story! Yes I was hit in the head by a 4-5 pound rock, shoved over a wall by a raccoon.

After the initial shock wore off and my head packed with ice, the restaurant’s hostess ran up behind the wall with an umbrella (as if this couldn’t get any more absurd) and tried to chase the raccoon away — since he was still peering over the wall surveying the damage he had done. I think he was just up there looking and thinking to himself — “Hey Lady, You Gonna Eat That?” Lucky for me it hit me on the top of my head and as anyone who knows me knows, I have a very hard head — part of the DNA from both mom and dad for sure! I let a few folks at home know what happened and all checked in on me and I spoke to a neighbor who was a nurse. Head’s still a bit sore, but what a tale I have to tell in the year when things just keep getting stranger and stranger. Yup, A Rock, A Raccoon and Red Wine — what a trio. I will go back to the next tasting with the group, this won’t dissuade me from doing so since what are the chances of this happening again ha!

Blackout, Cookout, Dine Out!

So Tropical Storm Isaias came and went and left quite the path of destruction in its wake. A blackout that lasted 4 days, so no tv, no radio, no lights, and the worst was a fridge and freezer filled with goods about to spoil. Living in the dark for an extended period of time with only cold water to shower and battery operated lanterns for light made me feel like I was camping in my own home. Now I’m not someone who likes to go camping. Anyone who knows me knows that I will avoid it at all costs. I think it started with the trauma of my folks sending me to Girl Scout Camp in 4th Grade and being forced to sleep in a tent and use a latrine. I went with a friend from my troop and when she called her folks, they picked her up but well, my parents told me to tough it out. Ha, I’d like to see either of them do this for 2 weeks, they’d be calling me to come get them. Call me soft, and I won’t argue! Or maybe it was in 8th grade when my school forced us to spend 10 days roughing it as part of the curriculum. Oh yeah they had their own facility in the mountains and a Searchers like program, but the day they dropped us off in the middle of nowhere with just a compass and told us to get to the base camp, I knew I was in trouble. Yuck, a 3 day hike was how it was to end, and my group hated it so much, we decided to do it in 2 days. I think this was the school’s way of laughing at us — take away our subway tokens (now I’m aging myself) and hairdryers (it was the 80’s folks) and put us in the middle of nowhere to tough it out. I won’t even talk about the food in any of these outings — no glamping here!

Not that there’s ever a good time for a storm and blackout but this one’s timing during a pandemic couldn’t have come at a worse time. Of course if you know me by now, my fridge and freezer were packed. Not only were they packed because as I’ve explained, it’s in my DNA handed down from grandparents to parents to me, but, because of Covid-19 I did not want to go out shopping as frequently. Panic set in, not just because at night my neighborhood was pitch black out, but because I was afraid I’d lose everything in the fridge and freezer. After the storm settled down and the skies cleared, I like everyone else in the complex started to grill. I live in the burbs in an apartment complex so thank goodness we all have grills. Nothing fancy, just hot dogs, and a chicken burger, but at least I had the grill — now what to do with all the rest of the food! The next morning I ran out super early and searched for coolers and as much ice as I could get. Score! Came home with both and packed the freezer with ice and hoped it would only be a day without electricity. Well no such luck, the power company had very little information but the rumor mill was that it could be as many as 5 days in the dark. I knew my ice would not hold out too long and luckily a friend came for the contents, took them home to her mom who had — now hold on, 3 freezers so she had room! A woman after my own heart, 3 freezers in her house, I knew my food would be in safe hands. The contents of the fridge, well that was another story. Sadly, and I mean sadly, most wound up in the trash. How horrible, in this time when food is in short supply due to the pandemic and folks are getting their from food pantries, I had to throw out food. What a waste but there was nothing else I could do — even the veggies were getting spoiled.

When I woke up the first morning without power, all I could think of was, coffee. Dilemma what would I do for coffee, I had no milk because I had to throw it out! Can’t live without coffee! Ok being melodramatic, but thank goodness down the hill they had power and good old Starbucks was up and brewing! I could tolerate the cold showers, but no coffee, that I could not tolerate! Now that the fridge was empty, the freezer bare, and the only way to charge my phone was in the car, the boredom started to set in. At least it is summer and I could be outdoors during the day, but at night, reading by camping light was not my idea of entertainment. I could have used the grill more for lunch and dinner, it would have worked for boiling water on it for pasta, or cooking eggs, if I had any, in a pan but I actually just didn’t want to. Besides I didn’t have much left in the fridge, so even with my still stocked pantry it was not easy to put a meal together. My complex became a ghost town with many fleeing to friends and relatives, because it was getting hotter outside and inside, so they left in search of electricity.

Night 2 a friend from the city surprised me and we had a lovely dinner outside by the Hudson River. Night 3 I got a call from one of the neighbors who suggested that we go out for dinner since she too had nothing left in her fridge, so we did. Maybe not the smartest move or best choice of dining because, the end result was heartburn on top of heartburn — who knew your heartburn could have heartburn, but you can trust me!

By day 4 this was getting old. I saw another neighbor who had stayed behind and we decided that we’d sit out on my patio and I’d grill what she had saved from her freezer. By the time I was ready to start, the electricity was back on and we were all happy again. Her saved steaks, sausages, were paired with grilled veggies a homemade chimichurri with my garden herbs, and of course wine! We celebrated the return to modernity with a feast.

Homemade chimichurri: combine 1/2 cup olive oil with 1/4 cup red wine vinegar (or more I like more vinegar) 1/4 tsp jalapeno minced (more if you like it spicy) some minced onion, maybe 2 tablespoons, and a blend of fresh parsley, oregano and I added a bit of mint, salt to taste. Chimichurri in my opinion has no formula! Every cook has her own tastes and things on hand so have fun with it, play with herb combinations. This makes 1 – 2 servings

Food and wine brings us together, I’ve said this many times. Sharing a meal, sharing stories around the table, these are some of life’s greatest pleasures. The food doesn’t have to be fancy. The wine doesn’t have to be the most expensive. It’s about the sharing, the caring, the nourishing of your belly and the nourishing of your soul.

Cooking for One Can be Fun

I’ve had a bit of writer’s block lately. Maybe it’s the slowness of the Summer. You know, those lazy days that kind of fry your brain and turn your thinking to mush. And since I’m not good at art projects, can’t focus enough to decide what to watch on Netflix other than 90-Day Fiancé and all the spin-offs, and have too much attention deficit for puzzles, I’ve turned to what I know, which is cooking. That’s been my creative outlet, and my outlet for all that pent-up energy from being home during this quarantine.

When I worked and lived in the City (New York City) I could barely be bothered cooking. If I wasn’t traveling, then I was out for dinner either for work or with friends. I was probably home 2-3 nights at most a week. If I was home, I usually bought prepared food from one of the great neighborhood places because — and I think I’ve said this before — it was cheaper to do that than buy all the ingredients to cook a meal. I know that sounds crazy but I would wind up throwing out so much because I never knew when I’d be home to use what was in the fridge. Now that we have all been home for months it’s been great watching on social media how many people have learned to love cooking!

So now to the title of my blog today — Cooking for One Can be Fun! Yes it can. How many times have you been told that it’s not enjoyable to cook for one person? How many times have you looked at a recipe and the recipe serves 4 or more? Where are the recipes for one? Why do portions not come in single serving units when you go to the supermarket? Hey, what about us single folks? We are people too, right? So I say yes, cooking for one can be fun. Who better to create something special for than yourself right? You deserve it, I deserve it. And if you make a little extra, well then you have leftovers or something to share with the neighbor. It’s ok! Cook for yourself, indulge, create, enjoy. Doesn’t have to be fancy, just use what you have on hand. Look up recipes, there are so many great apps like the NY Times Cooking app, or Epicurious, or Yummly or my blog FKDecanted. Go to them for inspiration. Go to them for guidance and create. Put good things in your belly, even the simplest meal can be yummy. So many of my friends have been asking me to start compiling the recipes I’ve been making, so going forward I am going to start incorporating recipes into my writing. And folks there will be recipes for 1 serving and sometimes for more! And well, if you want it for more you know what to do — double it, triple it … but let’s start with serving sizes for the single folks out there. Here are a few of my recent favorites that I’ve made for myself.

Ingredients for the Tuna Tartare: One 4-6 oz piece of piece of high quality tuna, cut into small dice. Marinate for about 30 minutes in the following: 4 Tbsp Soy, 1 Tbsp Mirin, 1 Tsp Rice Wine Vinegar, 1 Tsp Swad Ginger Paste, 1 Tsp Ponzu, and wasabi powder to taste.
Ingredients for the Cilantro Guacamole: 1 avocado smashed with a fork so that it’s almost smooth but has a bit of texture. 1 Tbsp Swad Cilantro Chutney, juice of 1 lime and about 1-2 Tbsp fresh cilantro chopped.
Assembly: Take a large pastry cutter, if you have one, or use a tumbler and start layering the guacamole and tuna tartare. If using the pastry cutter, place it on the plate and create your layers directly on your serving plate. If using the tumbler, then make your layers and gently invert onto a plate. Sprinkle with sesame seeds and serve with kettle style chips.
To drink: I liked my Hendricks Gin and Tonic but a wine choice should be something with good acid and fruit balance such as a Gruner Veltliner, Vinho Verde, Albarino, Torrontes and of course Sake.

Super fresh and easy, a quick Summer night’s meal made in 1 bowl!
Ingredients: 1 cup of dried egg noodles 1/2 cup spinach, 4 Tbsp Ricotta, 1 lemon zest only, handful of pine nuts.
Directions: Cook the egg noodles in boiling salted water. While that’s cooking, toast the pine nuts until lightly browned in a dry pan on the stove. In a large bowl — even the bowl you’ll eating from if you have a pasta bowl, add the ricotta, spinach a pinch of salt and pepper and mix together. Add the drained noodles directly into the bowl, the heat will wilt the spinach and top with the pine nuts and lemon zest. Season again a bit more. Even drizzle a bit of extra virgin olive oil over the top for a bit more texture. Serve immediately.
To Drink: I’d love an Orvieto or a good Pinot Grigio or even a glass of Falanghina. Acidity, floral and bright, these types of wines will go great with the freshness and creaminess of this dish.

Here’s a light summer lunch — simple in-season ingredients from the garden and farm.
Ingredients: 1 ripe tomato, 1/2 cup ricotta, 1/4 cup parmigiano reggiano, 1 garlic clove minced, 2 Tbsp chopped basil, 1 Tsp chopped fresh oregano, salt and pepper to season, extra virgin olive oil to drizzle.
Directions: Take the top off the tomato, and remove the pulp and seeds — save the pulp, drain the liquid. Drizzle tomato with olive oil, rub inside with salt and pepper set oven (or toaster oven) to 400 degrees. In a bowl mix the ricotta, parmigano, garlic, basil, oregano and the tomato pulp. Stuff the tomato with the ricotta mixture, and drizzle with the olive oil. Roast the stuffed tomato in the oven until it’s soft, but still holds it’s texture — too mushy and it will fall apart, you want to be able to cut into it. This might take about 20 minutes — but check!
To Drink: A light Pinot Grigio or even a Gavi would be a fantastic white pairing but you could also go red with a glass of Barbera or Dolcetto or even a Pinot Noir from Oregon — I’d serve them slightly chilled.

All of these meals are really simple and easy so why not go ahead and cook for yourself. And feel free to edit, tweak, modify, whatever makes you happy! Just get creative and get cooking. Like I said, you deserve it. Seasonal ingredients make your life simpler as does a well-stocked pantry. Also look at some of the on-line sites like Penzeys, or Kalustyans, or my favorite Spice Mountain from the UK, for cool international spices, rubs and chutneys. Open a nice bottle of wine — so many now come with screw caps so you can have a glass and put it back in the fridge. Or invest in a wine preservation system like the Coravin. Go ahead make a cocktail I won’t judge I would probably join you! Cooking for One Can be and SHOULD BE Fun!

Cooking for Comfort, Cooking for Joy

Sometimes you just need things that feel comfortable. Comfort comes in many forms.  Comfort can be your favorite sweater or a warm blanket.  It can be a song that makes you think of something happy, or it can be a meal that evokes a memory.  From the beginning of the pandemic I’ve been wearing comfortable elastic waisted pants and polartec fleece; now that it’s warm I only shed the fleece. In fact with all the cooking I’ve been doing I’m not sure I actually fit into my jeans — ok yes I do and for those of you concerned I’m working out at home.  I found not only comfort but also joy in cooking during these trying times.  Cooking became an outlet for me, a way to get my energy out, and do something creative.  I looked forward to the end of the day when I would peek inside my fridge, freezer and pantry and see what yummy meal I could whip up.  And since I can’t paint, I can’t draw, don’t have the patience to knit and with lots of animals around doing a puzzle just wasn’t an option, I decided that cooking would be my creative outlet.  It didn’t matter if I had fancy ingredients or the most basic, it was all about the creating. 

I would put my chef head on after a long day at the computer and look in the fridge and freezer and plan my next episode of Chopped, the Homecook edition. Now that I live in the burbs and not a tiny apartment in the sky, I am lucky enough to have a pantry!  And I think it’s in my DNA to keep it all well stocked.  My parents were always of the “You Never Know” philosophy so we always had a full fridge, freezer and pantry. And that way of thinking was most probably handed down from my dad’s mom, the grandmother I’m always referring to in my stories. Grandma was from that generation of immigrant Jews that believed that if you had food on your table all was good in the world, it was a sign for them that they “had,” even if they didn’t.  Grandma always had a full table no matter how little money she had or what the circumstances were in life. This type of thinking was handed down to my dad who lived by the same credo and he handed that down to me. My fridge and freezer are full and so is my pantry so I’ve been doing a lot of what I call #pantrycooking and #freezercooking.

When I lived in the city and had a job where I traveled a lot, I didn’t cook very much. I used to tell people that it was more expensive and wasteful to cook than buy ready-made or get delivery. Often I’d either be out for dinner for work or traveling, and most of the bought ingredients would go to waste. Now being home, I am very mindful about what’s in the fridge, freezer and pantry and am trying not to let things go to waste. This has been a good lesson, and has encouraged me to let my creative juices flow and turn these items into meals.  Both the cooking and planning brought me joy.  Each night, I think about what protein I might take out of the freezer and then think about what’s in the fridge and pantry and what I can then create. 

There is something very soothing about cooking, there’s a rhythm, a cadence that when you get into it can be very comforting. Yes of course there can be chaos too but I find the whole process very soothing even the chaos. When you find that right rhythm, have your timing down and all things flow, it’s kind of like a symphony.  When it all comes together and the meal is created, now that brings me joy. Sharing a meal, cooking it, creating the menu this all brings me joy. But what brings me the most joy is the look on my friends’ faces as they partake in what I’ve made for them — comfort and joy for me.

My inspiration today comes from all the fabulous foods I’ve seen or tasted from all the amazing places I’ve been. At times I felt like I was taking a trip through my meals — a Spanish inspired or Italian inspired dish made me feel like I was somewhere else.  If I felt a little exotic I’d make an Indian or Thai inspired meal; or if I felt like I needed something more “homey” maybe I’d make a stew or pot pie.  I love cookbooks, websites and cooking magazines and cooking shows and am constantly looking at them all for more inspiration. I have boxes of index cards from my parents along with memories of my grandmother’s cooking and I’ll take these ideas and transform them based on what’s in my fridge, pantry and freezer.  It’s hard to cook meals for yourself, most recipes are for at least 2 and usually more so you have to be very mindful about how to adapt to solo meals. Occasionally I’d make a large batch of something and I’d either freeze the extras or share with my neighbors. My former neighbor in the city used to be the recipient of extras, and she has told me on more than one occasion that she is envious of the fact that I am now sharing with others.

I’ve been drawn to making what might be considered comfort foods. Yes I know my pictures make them look fancy, I love photographing food; I think ingredients either raw or cooked are beautiful.  But in fact, most items are really non-fancy, pantry, fridge and freezer ingredients that can be put together fairly quickly, without too much fuss and with ingredients that are not too expensive. A key is to make sure that you have lots of different spices and dried herbs in your pantry.  Another key is to have lots of cans of beans, tomatoes as well as dried pastas and rices as well as stocks. 

One of my favorite comfort dishes that I recently made was my mom’s lasagna. I remember her making this rich Northern Italian recipe that would take hours to prepare. I used to love watching as she’d make each part of the lasagna, browning the sausage; cooking each noodle with care so that it wouldn’t break; making the bechamel and the red sauce; mixing and flavoring the ricotta and finally layering and assembling with loads of mozzarella. I basically followed her recipe but of course put my own twist on it to cut down on the cooking time — I used no cook lasagna noodles, and enhanced a fantastic jarred tomato sauce with some extra goodness. I had all the ingredients on hand so it was easy to make and the end result was an ooey gooey rich lasagna that I shared with my neighbors and also froze for later meals — pantry cooking and freezer cooking at its finest. Here’s the original index card from mom in her handwriting and original cooking splatters — along with a picture of my creation.

I’ve been posting my cooking to my instagram and facebook pages and who knows maybe one day I will put them all together along with the recipes into a book. Posting them and sharing them has been my way to connect with people and bring joy to those who liked seeing my creations. In these days of self isolation, we all needed ways to bring comfort and joy to ourselves.  My way was to share my creations; it was a way of reaching out with something that gave me joy and hope that it might put a smile on the face of others.  So I will leave you with a few of my favorites from our quarantine time.  All the ingredients came from either my fridge or freezer, peppered with what’s in the pantry and now my garden.  I hope they inspire you to look in your fridge, freezer and pantry and create meals that bring you comfort and joy.