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 FiancĂ© 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.

For the Love of Wine — Italian Wine…

I recently attended a few tastings that really reminded me of why I love wine! I used to hate going to tastings, fighting people to get a small taste of wine. I admit it, I’m spoiled, used to early entry to tastings, sneaking behind tables because I was working. But now I’m a bit kinder and gentler and more patient — folks who know me are probably laughing and gasping. Yes it’s true, more patient. The 2015 Brunellos arrived and lived up to the expectation. First tasting was a pure consumer event at Zachy’s. Superbly run with an array of stunning wines, it was worth venturing out in the drenching rain. The vintage is being tauted as one of the finest ever and it’s really living up to it. Very fruit forward and rich with finesse and acidity is how I’d describe it in a nutshell. Next was an amazing event called Benevenuto Brunello — Welcome Brunello. An even bigger event more industry than consumer and wow what a stellar line up of wines!

When you work for a wine company, you can get caught up in the business of wine. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love that part of the industry. The business side is exciting and invigorating, but with that, you can get very caught up in just the business of it and lose site of the intricate beauty of what makes wine so special. Now I can see some of you rolling your eyes at what I am saying. Remember business is about making money and if you get too caught up in the etherial, passionate side of wine, one forgets that at the end of the day you need to move product and make money. Again don’t get me wrong, I loved the game of selling and marketing wine, that busines side, however, now that I am not tied to one company alone or promoting one particular product line, I can truly appreciate again all that’s out there. My love of wine and the business of wine came from my dad — and I will expand even more upon this in my next blog as a tribute to him as I mark an important milestone.

When I was a kid, dad used to schlep me (a very technical New York word meaning to make a kid go somewhere they don’t really want to go) with him as he’d visit every single wine store in the NY metropolitan area. Now remember this was in the late 70’s so there weren’t as many stores as there are today, but it seemed like there were thousands! So he’d pack me off in the car with him which, by the way he always bought based on the size of the trunk so that he could load it with as many cases of wine as possible. I think sometimes the car actually tipped upward it was so loaded with cases in the trunk. Two of his favorite stores at the time were Gold Star in Queens (no longer in existence) and Zachy’s in Scarsdale, NY. We’d spend hours and I mean hours at Zachy’s surveying the wines, while dad talked, and talked and talked with Don Zacharia and the crew. Dad’s zest for learing was amazing and he absorbed everything he heard. As I said in my next blog I will talk more about him and how I consider him to be one of the early pioneers in the industry. Next I mentioned Gold Star because in this blog I recently attended 2 Brunello tastings. So my memory takes me back to Gold Star which was the store back in the 70’s and early 80’s for Italian Wine. The owner was at the time considered the “founder” of the Italian Wine business here in NY. It was a time when most knew Italian wine as only coming in a jug, but Lou Iacucci introduced us all to what Italian wine could be. My dad fell in love with Italian wine when, as he said no one knew what it was. We’d spend hours at the store and then after he was done, we’d hope across the corner to an amazing Italian restaurant, owned by non other than Lidia Bastianich. Before she was known for her high end restaurant and books, Lidia has a restaurant in Forest Hills Queens. The food was as amazing then as it is now.

I’ve been pouing over pictures and memories from when my parents ran their LADV (Les Amis du Vin) chapter, and I found a group of pictures of a trip they conducted to Italy for their chapter. I also found the actual itinerary. Kismet, irony, not sure what to say here but the trip, which took place in 1980, included –Bertani, Lamberti, Melini, & Lungarotti amongst all the other stops they made. For those of you who know me, I worked at Frederick Wildman for some 29 years, much of which was spent working with Italian wines, and Lamberti, Melini and Lungarotti were all brands at Wildman. In fact I worked directly with Melini and Lamberti, and became friends with the owners of Lungarotti. Bertani which was not at Wildman is run by the former director general, Emlio Pedron of GIV (owners of Melini and Lamberti) and one of the former winemakers Andrea Lunardi who is now winemaker at Bertani. Small world this world of wine…!

So back to Brunello and tasting. As I eluded to above, my parents back in the late 70’s early 80’s ran a chapter of a wine tasting society called Les Amis du Vin. Les Amis du Vin, also the name of a magazine, had these tasting chapters all over the country and my parents ran the one for Westchester NY. It was really something, it introduce so many to wine, and my parents chapter was incredibly successful. And yes I was schelpped to the tastings to help set up, and sometimes sit in the back and watch — though occasionally a drop would come my way. Check out the below picture of a Brunello tasting they had can you believe the line up and it only cost a member $14 to taste through a line up of Fattoria dei Barbi Brunello’s from the 1970’s. Again another winery that I worked with (not directly) when I was at Wildman. And look the tasting was led by wine luminaries Mary Ewing Mulligan (today and MW) and Anna Maria Lepore.

I couldn’t imagine being in any other industry or doing anything else other than wine! I will continue to educate my palate, go to more tastings and try to be patient. Take advantage of in-store tastings like the one I attended at Zachy’s, it’s a great way to learn about wine. For the Love of Wine started with Les Amis du Vin, and will continue today through FKDecanted. Cheers to mom and dad for putting me on this journey, today I raise a glass of Brunello 2015 vintage to you, Salute!

Winter, Wine & Warmth

I don’t know about you but I like winter. I know there are haters out there, those who dislike the dark and cold days that come with winter. I see it differently! To me winter means red wine and “brown spirits” to keep me warm along with lots hearty food. I love this time of year!

So as I look out my window onto the newest blanket of white snow, my mind goes to what can I cook and what wine would I want to serve with it — and of course what cocktail I might have while I’m contemplating all of this ha!

It’s ironic that I’ve grown to love not only spirits especially Bourbon and Scotch. My dad being a wine guy, never had any spirits in the house except for high-end cognac, which is grape based so that would have qualified in his drinking repertoire. I had never even tasted Scotch or Bourbon until I was late into my 20’s and working. Now I’m hooked! Bourbon is my true love and with so many styles, I always find one that will match my mood or drinking occasion. My 2 favorite classic cocktails are a Manhattan and an Old Fashioned. I still think that there is no better Manhattan cocktail than one made with Makers — sorry Rye purists. I know I will get backlash here but I prefer Bourbon not Rye don’t argue with me that’s my taste! Makers is on the sweeter side so be careful when adding in the sweet vermouth it can make it too sweet if you add too much. And for an Old Fashioned I really prefer Knob Creek, its smooth and elegant texture with honeyed notes make it the perfect base for this classic cocktail. No comments please, I hear some of you groaning already; this is my blog and this is how I like my cocktails!

So as I looked out the window at the blanket of snow falling, I started to make one of my favorite one-pot meals the hearty Ukrainian Borscht. Now my grandmother would not have approved of this version of Borscht, her’s was a rich, sweet soup with flanken (beef). It was the traditional Jewish Polish/Eastern European hearty soup, that was often served with a potato in the center and adorned with lots of dill. As if the beets weren’t sweet enough, she’d add more sugar and a touch of lemon to balance it out. I discovered Ukrainian Borscht which is a meal in itself. The recipe is basically — 2-3 pounds of beets, 1 head of cabbage shredded, 1 large onion, 2 stalks of celery, 2 carrots (dice the vegetables) then 4-6 cups of beef stock made from 2 pounds of short ribs. Since I eyeball everything and have made this so many times, the recipe is not exact. While roasting the beets and making the beef stock, you wilt cabbage, saute onions, celery and carrots. Once the beets are soft, you carefully peel them — I highly recommend wearing gloves — and dice and julienne. Strain the broth and set aside the meat (dice it in large chunks) from the short ribs. Combine all the vegetables in a large pot, add the meat, beets and diced tomatoes (canned are perfect too), a bit of tomato paste maybe 2 tablespoons and the juice of 1 lemon and cover all with the stock — make sure it’s covered well with liquid so add more beef stock or some water if needed. I cooked this in a slow cooker for 6 hours on low — or you can do this in the oven or on the stove top, your choice, just make sure the meet is tender. The last hour I add a few tablespoons of chopped dill — adding it too early will make the borscht taste too much like dill. Also the last hour, you can add some diced potatoes — don’t add too early or they will be mushy.

Serve the borscht piping hot, with a dollop of sour cream and a sprinkle of dill. Now for what wine to serve. A meal like this with a mostly savory notes and a touch of sweetness, as well as rich notes from the beef should have a wine that will stand up well to the complex flavors of the borscht. I calls for a wine that is bright and fruity with good acid and velvety tannins — a wine that is too fruit forward without good acid won’t stand up well to such a multi-flavored dish. I chose a wine from my cellar, a Barbera with just a bit of age on it. Barbera is a perfect foil. The Marchesi di Barolo, Barbera Marai 2014 from the famed Barolo producer, has bright, sour cherry notes and undertones of figs with a touch of earthiness and velvety soft tannins. Of course a village level burgundy or Oregon Pinot Noir would also be a great choice, and even a Garnacha from Spain.

Food and Wine have a commonality. It takes patience and love to make both. And when you have a great pairing — the right wine with the right food, you have magic. This combination was magic. It was the perfect pairing for a cold winter’s night. I used to make this for my mom and I know my dad would have loved it — grandma not so much.