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.

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!

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.

Step with Both Feet Forward, Now Pivot!

The past year and a half has been interesting to say the least. At bit overwhelming at times to say the most! So here goes from the beginning the actual timeline of change: mom goes into hospital, new president joins my old company, mom passes away, new boss joins company, leave city after 20 some odd years, move back to childhood home, sell apartment in city. Then I decide I need more change so I leave my job of 29 years for the unknown. And that was only the first 6 months. Flashforward from there another 8 months. Change in life is inevitable, it’s how you embrace it and move forward that is the interesting part. You can chose to crawl under a rock, let it all overwhelm you or you can move forward and pivot – change direction and find a way out. I had only had one job in my career of working; I had never not worked as an adult. I was not in a position not to work, too young, not a trust fund baby, so I chose to find the way out — to strategically pivot and find a new path. After applying for similar positions to the one I had previously, I decided to pivot and set out on my own.

My high school friend, Allison Kluger lectures about Strategic Pivoting at the Graduate School of Business at Stanford. To quote her, “Pivoting is an intentional, methodical process for nimbly navigating career changes.” Check her out, from being a tv producer to being a professor, she too had pivoted her career. In fact Alex Rodriguez is a guest lecturer about career pivoting. Tyra Banks also teaches with Allison as a co-lecturer on Personal Branding, much of which involves pivoting your narrative, your interests, and message as you evolve in your career.  Being nimble and able to take your own personal assets and find a new way to use them is really what life is about. How do we adapt and find that path forward that’s the main question and task. Once you’ve defined what you have to offer and have evaluated your personal assets, then you need to figure out how to use them! Simple, not so simple, kind of like putting a puzzle together but once the pieces fall into place the answer becomes more clear.

Behind The Scenes Strategic Pivoting - YouTube
Allison Kluger’s Class

I looked inward, reached outward and came up with creating 2 opportunities for myself and the pivot began! Blogger and Sales & Marketing Consultant for the Wine & Spirits Industry were the 2 paths I chose. I knew that I had a lot of stories in me about food and wine. I grew up in the industry, went to culinary school, travelled around the world of wine from a young age, met many of the industry’s most iconic figures… all this led me to create my own blog called FKDecanted, My Life’s Journey in Food and Wine. I never thought I’d have the patience to write. I’m not inherently a patient person as those who know me can attest! But with change comes well, change and I’ve learned to be a bit more patient. Writing, I have found is not only cathartic, but is also enjoyable and comes fairly easily to me once I’ve developed the idea.

The second career path has been to create my own Sales & Marketing Consulting Firm for the Wine & Spirits Industry, called WineDistilled. I thought long and hard here; how do I use my experience and create something of my own that is of value to those in the industry. It wasn’t until after I had taken a trip to Argentina for fun that I had a revelation — I not only have the contacts but the valued experience in the Argentine wine world to become a consultant to wineries. But really it wasn’t until I spoke with a dear friend of mine who represents one of the iconic wine brands in Argentina that I realized this would be my new path. It was he that said to me, “take your own assets which are your passion, knowledge and contacts in the Argentine Wine Industry and set out on your own!” Thank you Ramiro, because once I got home I knew that this would be my path. So I pivoted, changed my way of looking for a career and set out to create my own company. Once I set my mind to this direction I did so with a vengeance and created WineDistilled LLC. I traveled, spoke to, met with and it all worked! Pretty soon once was all was in place I landed my first client.

I find it fascinating that so many of my friends, work friends and peers have also found themselves in the same position and all of us around the same age. In fact what strikes me is that so few of my friends have not had a major work life changes. Some have pivoted by choice, and others because they had to do so. Some have gone in totally different directions; and some have stayed closer to home. The common thread has been that once they decided upon a direction they were all in! They took a step forward and pivoted.

I look at what we are faced with today with Covid 19. Pivoting, being nimble, being able to adapt your business strategy, is more important than ever. I am watching my industry the wine & spirits as well as hospitality industry, do this and it’s fascinating to watch. How do such a huge industries with multiple facets change, pivot and find new ways to do business so quickly. Virtual tastings, virtual education, virtual sales calls, social distancing at point of purchase, ready to go cocktails, ready to go wine by the glass. Virtual ordering platforms, and e-commerce had just started to be implemented by our distributors prior to the pandemic, are even more important than ever, Direct to Consumer on-line sales, and so much more – our industry is Pivoting at a rapid pace. We are turning this ship around not slowly, but rapidly and at times into uncharted waters. There is a positive, can do energy and it will makes us even stronger once things have opened up completely. Our industry’s way of doing business will change and become different from what we have been used to all these years. The strong ones who are innovative and ready to not only embrace change but lead the change will come out of this stronger.

As has been my custom here’s a picture of one of my favorite culinary creations from during the lockdown. Cooking has been my joy while home and I’ve become very adept at using what’s in my pantry, freezer and refrigerator. I’ve turned pantry cooking and freezer cooking into mini homecook episodes of Chopped. I look in, assess what’s inside and then create! I had farm tomatoes, zucchini and eggplant, onions and a piece of arctic char and homemade pesto. So I whipped up a Provencal Tian and a pesto coated Arctic Char. Simple, good food that is easy to make and used what I had on hand!

I’m super excited about all the possibilities ahead of me. So many more things I’d like to do with career. So go ahead embrace the future. You have nothing to lose and potentially everything to gain!!! And with both feet, take a step forward and pivot!

I Say Doughnut, You Say Bombolini

Anyone who knows me well, knows I’m obsessed with doughnuts. I think they are the perfect food. A food group all unto themselves. Fried, baked, round, square, filled, frosted, powdered, I could go on and on! Ok I will. I would happily forego a designer dessert for the a crisp on the outside, soft on the inside, sweet, ooey gooey drip down the front of my chin and slight explosion of powdered sugar on my face jelly doughnut. Or give me a doughnut filled to the max with pastry cream and covered in chocolate ganache and I’m in heaven. I felt like one of Pavlova’s experiments when the red light would come on at the Crispy Kreme that was at the bus stop near my old apartment in the city. It was impossible for me not to stop in and get one of those hot off the conveyor belt glazed delights that would melt in my mouth. And try to stop at just 1, impossible just impossible.

My Favorite Doughnut stall at Borough Market in London

So why doughnuts? Why would I want to have a blog about doughnuts? I’ll get to that in a minute. I told this little story to a friend of mine last week and she thought it would make a cute story and encouraged me to put it into my next blog. The theme of my blog is about my life’s journey in food and wine and yes folks doughnuts are food! This past week the food and wine industry mourned the passing of one of truly great restaurateurs, Sirio Maccioni, owner of Le Cirque. In a league of its own, Le Cirque was the epitome at its time of elegant dining. I am lucky to have dined there on a few occasions from the original location to the last, and was even luckier to have made the casual friendship with some of its greatest chefs. Through my work in the wine industry, I had the fortune of meeting both Daniel Boulud and Jacques Torres when they were both at Le Cirque. Jacques Torres, the now famed chocolatier was Executive Pastry Chef and Daniel was Executive Chef — and what a team they made!

Jacques who for some reason always called me Martine, was as funny as he is talented. He was always cracking jokes and for all his celebrity in the food world, just as chefs were becoming celebrities, he always had the time to chat if I called. So one day, I was walking past the restaurant and decided to pop in to say hi and ask him if he would be open to working on a project with one of my Port wines. Chocolate and port are a marriage made in heaven so I wanted to see if he would create chocolates filled with port. I went into the kitchen of Le Cirque where he held court and chatted and joked around, after which as was usual, he would say, what would you like to take and bring home. And it was there that I saw the most perfect round, fried pieces of goodness, filled to almost exploding with cream. And since it was Le Cirque it wasn’t just a doughnut but a bombolini. My eyes dilated and I said, ok I’d love one bombolini please. He said Martine of course, here have one it’s yours. So I did, and ate it right there! Heaven is a warm out of the fryer bombolini filled with pastry cream and coated in sugar. What I didn’t know was that he had taken a whole handful and wrapped them in a napkin and quietly put them in my pocket. So after we chatted I left and started my walk home up Madison Avenue and now I’m sure you can imagine what happened next. I shoved my hand into my pocket, not knowing that I had cream filled bombolini inside and well what happened next was an explosion all over my pocket. Sadness is an exploding bombolini in a pocket that can’t be eaten, a long walk to follow and no napkin. Oh well, at least I had that one in the kitchen! Thank you Mr. Chocolate aka Jacques Torres for one of my most favorite doughnut memories and am writing this as I sip a cup of a homemade cappuccino laced with your wicked hot chocolate powder (and a little Jameson’s) but sadly no doughnut to accompany.

Harvest in the Time of Covid 19

Up until now, most of my blogs have been personal, about my life’s journey in food and wine. I’ve been writing about my experiences and hoping you’d find them enlightening and at times entertaining. What I’d like to write about now is more serious than many of my other posts, more timely and more business oriented. We are all living through a very strange and serious time in our lives and it’s affecting us all very differently. For the past 15 years I’ve been working with the Argentine wine world and today I’d like to enlighten you on how Covid 19 has had a direct effect on the harvest.

When most of us think of harvest time we think fall; however it is fall in South American and harvest is well underway, if not almost done in Argentina. Again I’ll mention that I was there only a month ago and harvest was just gearing up. The Mendoza Harvest Festival took place and all seemed normal. The tanks were getting ready, the pickers were starting to pick, the trucks were being loaded with grapes ready to go into the crusher and all seemed well just fine, on track, if not even a bit early. Most wineries luckily finished picking by the end of March, but it was not before the country went into lockdown on March 13 just like we did.

On April 3rd, my colleague, friend and amazing winemaker, Karim Mussi Saffie of Altocedro in La Consulta, Mendoza wrote about how challenging things were. And in his words, ” These last days have been very stressful for us at the winery, dealing with many open fronts at the same time, but moving the fastest possible, keeping calm and managing everything by priorities. We are all healthy, both at home and at the company.” He immediately upon hearing what was going to happen, activated a crisis management committee and decided to manage the situation using the following strategy: Take care of the team in order to keep the operation active and ready for — “the day after.” Most Argentine business owners are pretty well versed in mitigating financial crisis, as you probably know it’s a country that has them often.

Karim Mussi Saffi

So what did he have to do and how did he do it with government mandated self isolation? Since wine is considered food, it was allowed to continue operating. Permission was needed for everything . Everyone who needed to go back and forth from the winery to home needed a permit. Without a permit you could not work outside of the home. They closed their offices and tasting room, however, they were able to keep the bottling line open and fill pending orders. In Karim’s words, “All of the staff at KMW are working under safe conditions in order to reduce the risk of infection and guarantee the quality of our wines. The preventative measures not only comply with the official protocols, but also reduce the risk of infection and have since been adopted as our official practices going forward.” Social distancing was mandatory, 1.5 meters apart for everyone. All of the necessary supplies or what we now call PPE’s are continuously being delivered to protect all staff and everyone receives daily instruction on how to use them. Masks, gloves and protective glasses are mandatory. Everybody was given alcohol based sanitizing sprays to clean the equipment, surfaces, tools, plugs, valves, pumps — basically anything touched. Additional measures include staggering the shifts so that a minimum amount of people are working at any given time again to mitigate the risk of infection.

As of April 3rd, they had harvested about 90% of their grapes from La Consulta. It was a very warm growing season, one of the warmest March months in a long time. Sugar ripeness came early which helped speed up the phenolic ripeness. Harvest was therefore about 2 weeks earlier than normal, for all varietals, including Cabernet, and this is a very good thing all things considered. In fact it is shaping up to be a great vintage, and the quality is amazing; a memorable one in more ways than one. All of Altocedro’s fruit is hand-harvest and getting cash was not easy to pay the workers so that posed another great challenge. Banks were not open, and they don’t “deliver cash” but as I said, Karim found the way to make sure all his workers got paid every Friday.

Harvest time is always a challenge even under perfect conditions, but this year as with everyone and everything, this has been a monumentally challenging time. This harvest will prove to be memorable and , according to Karim, “a beautiful and important activity, one that generates jobs, strong-minded people who persevere, and cannot be stopped no matter what crisis is in front of them.” Karim and his team took the task at hand and did what they do best, as a team, and as a family, so that at the end of the day we can enjoy his amazing wines. I’d like to end with two quotes from Karim, “Imagination is half the disease, tranquility is half of the remedy, and patience is the beginning of the cure” and “Wine is sacred and necessary for a human’s happiness and progress.” From me and Karim and his entire team, we wish you all well, stay home, stay safe and if you can enjoy a glass of wine with each other.