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 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.

The New Norm?

As I sit in my kitchen while dinner cooks in the oven, I first want to wish all reading this, good health and if you are sick from Covid 19/Coronavirus, a speedy recovery. To our first responders, doctors, newscasters, folks keeping supermarkets open and stocked, truckers, wine/liquor shops, restaurants, (sorry if I have missed anyone) thank you for your commitment and sacrifice. Thank you to the military for helping my city – New York and for helping all of us in the trying time. For those of you in any industry who have lost your job, or business, but especially for my industry — Food and Wine, my heart goes out to you. I was grappling with the title of this blog, as I don’t really want to think that what we are experiencing is the new norm. I keep hearing this phrase over and over again each time I tune into the nightly news. But I don’t think anything about this situation is normal. Stay Home Stop the Spread, Social Distancing, Self Isolating, Flatten the Curve, shortages of food, no human contact, shortages of toilet paper, pandemic, and so many other descriptors; how is any of this normal? New Yes, Normal No.

In times like this I am grateful for what does make my life feel almost normal; my friends, my work, wine, cooking and the occasional Bourbon. I can’t believe that a month has past since I came home from an amazing trip to Argentina. Forgive me if I have mentioned this before but I really can’t believe it was a month ago. Now today I sit in my kitchen, or my office at home as so many of us are doing. I find that a good part of the day revolves around meal planning. In general I love meal planning for friends, entertaining is second nature to me, passed down from my paternal grandmother (about whom I’ve written in so many past blogs) and my mom and dad who were the ultimate entertainers. But now I plan lunch and dinner every day for me with the occasional delivery or curbside pick up — support your local restaurants folks! Previously I might have gone grocery shopping 3 or 4 times a week — leftover habits from city life and a small kitchen! But now I go once and load up so I don’t have to be out more than necessary. Some days I feel like a contestant in an episode of Chopped! I look in the fridge survey what’s in there and whip up a meal. Dad you’d be proud that I’m actually using my culinary education. Remember this is the man who said to me — “You Want to Do What; You Want to Go to the CIA and become a Chef?” Well glad I did because now that I live in the burbs, there are not that many delivery choices so cooking is the best option.

Now that I live in the burbs with lots of space I have a stocked pantry — this is something mom insisted on and I am so glad she did. I have a full freezer filled with soups and sauces — a carry over from dad. And I’ve inherited from both an obsession for keeping as many cans of tuna fish and beans in the pantry as possible because you never know! Cooking for me is soothing and has become a great distraction right now. I love the cadence, the rhythm the pace in the kitchen. When you find the perfect ingredients and marry them together and get the timing right, it’s like composing a symphony.

I love looking at my social media feed and seeing others making fantastic meals and thoroughly enjoying the process. We may have physically shared meals with our friend only a month ago, now we are doing it virtually. So here are a few of my favorite meals that I’ve recently made. I’m sharing them virtually with you all in this new norm that’s not really a new norm as I’ve been posting these recipes and images for the past year hoping to inspire people to cook, and enjoy food and wine.

The Curried Chicken Pot Pie was made with poached chicken, carrots and peas, onions sauteed in curry powder, thickened with flour and chicken broth and made richer with a splash of heavy cream. Brush with egg wash, put a vent in the center and bake at 350 until golden brown. This was my favorite! As for the Mexican Peppers, I sauteed some beef and onion, add a tablespoon each of cumin, chili powder and oregano, cook until done. Add in some chopped green olives, shredded pepper jack and about a half cup of black beans. Moisten with tomato puree then stuff the peppers. Add some more tomato puree to the pan and bake at 350 until the peppers are soft and easy to cut through. These are my “Chopped Kitchen” recipes. The Chocolate Olive Oil Cake I must confess comes from Nigella Lawson, the Raspberry White Chocolate Scone is from a book of Scones I got from England and the Banana Bread is from the NY Times.

Is this the New Normal, that’s up to you, but for me I hope not. I don’t want to think that I will get used to being isolated and that this is something normal. New Yes, Normal No. I long for the day when we can all be well and un-afraid. I long for the day when I don’t have to converse with my friends via FaceTime or Zoom. I long for the day when we don’t have to have virtual cocktail hours. New Yes, Normal No. Keep cooking, drinking wine and, keep doing things that make you happy, but most of all stay safe and healthy. And again thank you to all the heroes out there working to make our lives safe and well. I virtually toast you all, you are the true heroes out there and I say Thank You.

Being Thankful

It’s the time of the year when we start counting down towards the end of the year. It’s also the time of the year when we gather together to celebrate with our families all the joyous celebratory holidays. It can also be the time of the year that is the toughest for those who have lost loved ones and find our selves in what I recently learned is a category called “Adult Orphans.” Becoming an adult orphan is a normal part of life’s cycle. As we enter our 50’s this is a normal part of our life, I get that. However it’s how you deal with the situation that is the interesting part. Family as strictly defined is group of people related to each other — but is that really the only definition of family? For me the answer is “no” that is not the only definition of family. As an only child with little family in the immediate area, my extended family has become my network of friends and my mom’s friends. I’m very thankful for my family with whom I have reconnected after my mother’s death, but for many years we were not close. My group of friends has become my family and by extension so have their parents. They are my source of strength, comfort and love and for this I am thankful. So before we sit around our Thanksgiving tables and each say for what we are thankful, I wanted to share this with you all now.

I am thankful for the treasure trove of recipes my mom left, most, lovingly hand-written on index cards. I am thankful for all the amazing Thanksgiving meals she made for me and dad. Mom was a really great cook and she eventually handed off her cooking duties to me as it became tougher for her to make a complete meal. After dad’s passing it was just me and mom, and often we’d have our friends come over and she and I would cook together. Eventually I’d take over all the duties. She’d do some of the prep work and I’d do the cooking. One thing I never let her give up was her cranberry sauce. Here’s her recipe and it really was simple and perfect. The sweet and acidic nature of the sauce was the perfect foil for the rich foods of Thanksgiving. She never deviated from this recipe and honestly there’s no reason to do so. Here’s her original index card with the recipe — you can’t go wrong! And by the way it’s also great over ice cream!

I remember being a bit terrified the first time I made a turkey. I think every one is — so much pressure. But as I always joked, if it was awful there were always the sides and take out was just a phone call away. So I bought my turkey, a nice 10 pounder, not easy to find a small turkey! I don’t like the mess of liquid brining and really who has a pot or a bag big enough let alone room in the fridge! Dry brining with lots of salt works great, just make sure you season inside and out and keep the turkey uncovered in the fridge overnight so that it dries — this will ensure a perfectly crisp bird! Overcooking is what makes the turkey dry, so if you cook it properly it should be juicy; and in case it’s still dry, moisten with a bit of stock after you slice it. Here’s a picture of my first turkey, lots of butter mixed and if you want to go a step further add sage and lemon peel, under the skin. This ensures moisture and taste seep into the meat and nice drippings result for making gravy at the end. I always add the neck and gibblets to stock to enrich the stock that will be used for making the gravy so don’t throw out those parts, they are flavorful and useful! I won’t be making the turkey this year but that doesn’t mean that I don’t serve as Turkey 911 for some. First time we went to a friend’s house her mom made an enormous stuffed turkey, it started out well but somewhere down the line, her mom decided the turkey was done, took it out way too early then had a panic attack when she realized she took it out 2 hours too early or rather hadn’t put it in 2 hours early enough. Now everyone knows I am a die-hard Cowboy fan — no judgement please, and while I’m watching the game I can hear her screaming my name. So we un-stuffed the turkey, and put the bird back in at a higher temp and cooked both until they were done (that’s what most chefs will tell you when you ask how them how long to cook something.) I could tell just by feeling the bird and seeing the color of the juices that it was seriously underdone — which also meant that the stuffing would be dangerous so all needed to be cooked separately until done. Honestly I never mind the phone calls! I’m thankful that I have the cooking background so that I can answer those calls!

So this year though I am not cooking the bird, I will be making a lot of the sides to bring over to my friends aka my family. I love the mix of sides and everyone has a favorite. I’m thankful for the bounty of yummy foods that we’ve all contributed to the table. This year I will make roasted butternut squash and onions and walnuts, finished with a drizzle of high-quality balsamic vinegar. I also love to make brussel sprouts mixed with onions, pancetta and chestnuts, finished with a touch of cream and a sprinkle of parmegiano. First render out the pancetta until it’s crisp then add shredded brussel sprouts and saute them with the onions in a mix of butter and olive oil until they are soft and slightly caramelized, add the chopped cooked chestnuts. Add a touch of cream to your liking and season with salt and lots of pepper. Sprinkle with a handful of parmegiano then put in the oven at 400F until it’s bubbly and the cheese is golden — maybe 15 minutes.

I’m also going to make a sausage, chestnut dressing. Mom always used Pepperidge Farm stuffing mix and never deviated! It really is the best, just add your own seasonings. In a pan saute onions,and celery in butter until soft, add some chopped pecans, then add the sausage (about a pound without the casing for a bag of stuffing) saute until brown. I also add some additional poultry seasoning about a teaspoon and salt and pepper to taste. Add all this to a bag of stuffing and put this into a buttered casserole dish. Moisten with 2 cups of boiling stock and bake in the oven at 350 F for about 30-40 minutes.

Here’s my Wine 911 for the meal. I traditionally like to serve domestic wines but not always. What’s needed, and is most important, is a wine that has good acidity because the meal can be rich and you need something that can cut through that richness. Bubbly is a great option, a dry, slightly floral rose sparkler like a dry Cava or Prosecco or a domestic Sparkling Wine. I think a dry still Rose not sweet, made in the Provence style, has the pretty floral notes and good acidity that will pair well. Other good options include aromatic white wines with crisp acidity, floral and citrus notes such as a Pinot Gris and there are some terrific ones from Oregon if you want to stay domestic or Alsace if you want an import. I also like either a Vinho Verde or Gruner Veltliner if you want an import. Red options should not be too ripe and intense as they can overpower the meal, and you want a wine to complement not over power. Here too a red should have acidity — balanced acidity is what a good food wine should have. Pinot Noir especially from Oregon has brilliant ruby fruit notes and great acidity. Syrah and Grenache are other good choices. They have dark fruit notes lots of spice like cinnamon and lol say it with me — good acidity. Malbec too is a great option it is a grape that is truly food friendly — loads of red-fruit notes and great balanced acidity it works well with a cornucopia of foods and tastes. There are so many great wine choices, just remember the best wine is the wine you like! Wine for me, like food, is what I love to share with friends. I am thankful that my parents gave me this love of food and wine. They loved to share it with their friends and I in-turn love to share it with my friends. Happy Thanksgiving everyone, be thankful for what you have on your plate, your glass and in your life!

Wine, Food, Friends

After I left Frederick Wildman, I reached out to friends for guidance, insights and jobs. Some friends were friends of my dad’s, most were those I made along the way in my career. I called a friend of mine, who as am I, is a child of a parent who was in the industry (his dad is one of the most celebrated pioneers of our industry). He and I had a long talk. At the end of our conversation, he asked me if I thought of looking outside of the industry and I said in turn, “would you?” We both laughed and said an emphatic no.

I can think of no other industry where not only does our job center around wine and food, but so does our lives. In fact I can think of no other industry where it is so easy to make friends from all over the world. My mom used to remark, each time I went somewhere for vacation, that she was amazed that I usually said I had a friend there.

I am constantly reminded of how welcoming and friendly the wine and food world is. I just returned from an eye-opening trip to Brazil where I was hosted by Wines of Brazil to visit the wine scene. My invitation came via my good friend Waleska (a Brazilian living in Curacao and Venezuela). I met Waleska when we both worked with Trapiche in our respective countries. In fact I met many people through my working with Trapiche and am friends with many still today — folks from Venezuela, Spain, England, Ireland and of course Argentina. What a collection!

On this trip I was surrounded by other wine professionals from all around the world, and again we all bonded and became instant friends. At the end of the trip each of these new friends from Poland, Brazil, Russia, Ireland, England and Belgium invited me to come visit and I of course extended the same invitation to come to NY. We all bonded over our meals, enjoyed the wines and above all enjoyed meeting each other through the commonality of wine and food. I still laugh at the thoughts of the last evening when the wine flowed — of course we brought back bottles from the fair to share for later. As we are sharing and comparing and laughing, we were being served food that the Russians had brought with them. Yes, some how they packed a smoked chicken in their bags along with chocolate bars, and we feasted on them at our last evening together. Sharing culture, laughs, wine and friendship that’s how we spent our last night in Brazil.

My longest standing wine industry friendship is with Elena, whom I met when we were both teenagers. Our dads, both in the industry, worked together and also became friends. I can vividly remember spending time with Elena and her family in Rome and I still make sure that each time I’m in Rome I visit Campo dei fiori for my pizza bianco at Forno. During the summer, when all Romans flee the city, we went to their ancient house by the sea, where I can still taste the ripe tomatoes we’d have each morning for breakfast with fresh mozzarella. Elena, a fantastic artist who creates amazing installations, and I are still friends and I see her every time I am in Rome.

I would almost never approach a stranger in a restaurant or bar scene in my “civilian life”, but in the wine world I have no problem doing this. First night on the trip to Brazil at the welcome dinner, Waleska and I reached out to the table next to us and immediately we became friends. This crew — the English speaking group, took the party back to the hotel and continued bonding at the bar over what else, more wine — except for me, I had to have my palate cleanser which was a scotch.

Food and wine bring people and cultures together. In this industry we all have a unique bond in that we not only promote this concept to the consumer, but also benefit from it on personal levels. Nothing is more gratifying than sharing a great meal, served with great wines and conversation with friends. The wine world is a special industry for sure. We form lasting friendships based on our love of wine, food and life. Today I can count the countries in which I have “wine” friends, let’s see, Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Curacao, Venezuela, Spain, Amsterdam, Switzerland, Belgium, Russia, Poland, Ireland, England, Scotland, Israel, Italy, France, (probably missing a few) and of course the USA. Wine and food are the bonding elements; we live it, we promote it, we share it and friendships evolve from it.