Sunday, November 22, 2015

Pot of gold

My Father's Mother (Nonna Lina) is a short, sturdy woman, with kind eyes and worker's hands. She's 81 years old, but still digs up 80 kilos of potatoes at the begining of every summer from the small plot of farmland behind the apartment where my father spent most of his childhood. With my grandfather working long hours in the coal mine, my father spent a lot of time helping Nonna Lina tend to the chickns, pigs and goats they owned. And this is the reason autumnal meals spark within my father a serious cultural dilemma. For my father, squash wasn't something you picked up at whole foods, something third generation organic, fed with distilled spring water and harvested from the richest local soils. Squash was food for the pigs, and even though they were poor, they were not so poor they had to eat like animals. This cultural dilemma held no great significance in my life for a good part of my childhood, we didn't eat squash in my house, and I had carved enough pumpkins to be turned off by the gumpy innards of all manner of gourds.

However, this all turned around when I first tried butternut squash soup. A bright, golden bowl of warmth, it was sweet and garlicy, slightly salty and had the most delicate hint of ginger and nutmeg It was the kind of soup that made you want to curl up in bed with your favorite book and daydream for a little while about jumping into big piles of orange and yellow leaves. Needless to say, I had to have more, I had to re-create this soup and fill my house with the comforting scent of fall. And the first time I made it, I was not disappointed by the soup at all, only by my father.

After re-creating this ethereal soup, my father refused to eat it, claiming moral conflict. He was not a pig, he would not eat pig's food. Knowing my father and his taste buds well, I knew all he needed was one bite to change his thoughts on "zucchi" forever. He's the kind of man that's stubborn as a bull on the outside, but inside he's all cotton candy and butterscotch. All I had to do was crack him a little. My mother and I knew the perfect way to get him to break down. At the thanksgiving table, we would serve it as the first course (my father even tried sushi once when it was the only thing being served at the table).

That Thanksgiving, so many years ago, my father at two full bowls of butternut squash soup. He fell in love with the food of the pigs, and even admitted that his pigs must have had it pretty good. And since then, butternut squash soup has been on our Thanksgiving table, and I've worked pretty hard each year to perfect the recipe.

Other than a plain broth, this soup is probably the most simple in technique that I've ever made. No tempering cream or egg yokes for thickness, no beans or meat, just roasted squash and garlic and a few spices. But, it does take time and care, and because of how time consuming it can be, I usually try to make a huge batch of it, and freeze about half.

I've added a few more layers to my latest permutation of the soup, which included:
2 large and 1 small butternut squash
2 yams
1 1/2 head of garlic
1 diced apple
Olive oil (as needed)
2 cups (+ as needed) apple juice
2 cups (+ as needed) water
Nutmeg, Cinnamon, and Ginger (to taste)
Salt & Pepper (to taste)
I started by preheating the oven to 400 degrees, then halved the yams and squash and scooped out the squash seeds.

Then I cut the tips of the garlic heads and placed them all on baking sheets. I drizzled olive oil and sprinkled salt and pepper over the vegitables, and rubbed them a bit to make sure they were coated.

I roasted until they were golden and smelled sweet. Then I let them cool before I scooped all their roasted, tasty goodness into a pot -- you just want the flesh, not the skins.

I added about 2 cups of water and 2 cups of apple juice (it really depends on how starchy, dense and sweet the squash and sweet potatoes are, you can alter the water to juice ratio and amount accordingly) and 1 diced apple (I used a gala, usually a sweeter apple is better than a tart one). I let it boil until everything breaks down and softens up, adding more water or apple juice as needed. The final step is taking the emersion blender to it, and blending it until everything is smooth, and again adding water and juice as needed, it should be thinner than a mash or puree, but it should still be like a very thick creamy soup. Here is where I separate and freeze any portion I'm not going to eat right away. Then, the final step is adding spices, squash and yams can vary on how sweet they are, so I always add a little salt, pepper, ginger, nutmeg and cinnamon at a time and taste. Usually squash will take more nutmeg and pepper than salt and cinnamon, because it needs a little spice to counter the sweetness.

So like I said, its a long process, but not a difficult one! Just make sure you have good, fresh ingredients, because the vegetables are really what give most of the flavor. Also, this recipe feeds a LOT of people, but my family tends to eat it all up pretty quickly.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

One woman show

Growing up in my household, we were prepared to feed a party of 50 at any sunday night dinner, leftovers were packaged and sent to neighbors and friends, and of course there were still remnants left for lunch the next day (and the next day, and the next day). In our family, food is love, and we are a household of lovers. From before I was old enough to peek over the counters, I was sitting in the kitchen watching feasts being prepare, helping to stuff red peppers that stood in lines filling the whole countertop or stir a mixing bowl that would turn into 3 apple cakes.  I can almost still feel the moments where I was taught how to cook by instinct.

Unfortunately for me, these instincts include understanding how to cook for a table of 25.  This has posed problematic for my adult self.  I can't cook for one.  Since I've moved out of my family home into a space of my own, my attempts at learning the skill of cooking for myself has been more difficult than I could have imagined.   Its now been over a year and a half, and my instincts are still off, shopping for groceries is an exercise in restraint and uncertainty. I am buying more than I can cook, cooking more than I can eat, and stocking my freezer like the apocalypse is imminent. But what is a girl to do? My fears have even caused me to sustain for 2 weeks on a dinner of vegetable broth with wilted Kale, healthy and easy portion out and store.  But one cannot live on Kale alone.  So, I've started to do some reading, and internet searching to educate myself on portion appropriate cooking.  (Which is what I've decided to call it in lieu of "cooking for one" which always has seems to have this hidden sad connotation.)  I'm hopeful that I can get my change my instincts, however, let me know if you're free on Sunday, I'll probably have enough food to share.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Just Add Coffee

I love coffee. I love coffee more than I should. I love coffee more than the average person. (I inherited this from my mother, who has an even more intense relationship with coffee than I do.)  I started realizing I had a problem recently, when a group of friends were looking for coffee shops in different neighborhoods in the city, I had several suggestions for every neighborhood they threw at me, local chains, independent shops, coffee shops with food, shops with pastries, shops with just coffee, shops with seating, ones that were just a hole in the wall.  And at the end of the conversation they were sort of dumbfounded, all I could do was laugh and say, I drink a lot of coffee.

Part of this I attribute to commuting into the city for years, I would need to find a spot to sit and read or write and wait for friends, class, happy hour, dinner.  And in my early 20's I much preferred to be a single girl waiting alone in a cafe than a single girl waiting alone in a bar. As such, I became well acquainted with coffee shops, my cafe au lait the price of admission to sit and wait for good things to come.

But I won't blame my relationship with coffee on waiting for friends to arrive, I wake up in the morning, put water to boil, then go brush my teeth.  Coffee is a priority, and so much more than just my routine.  There are some mornings where my body is so craving the bitter-sweet warmth of a cup of joe, that I can actually feel the change after the first sip. Especially if its good coffee, which in my late 20's I have become a snob about.  Its an unhealthy, addictive relationship, which, as I sit here and sip on my sweet and nutty Long Island Coffee Roasters Ethiopian Sidamo blend, I don't think I'll ever want to quit.

Sunday, November 13, 2011


I marvel at cheese. Curdled milk, lovingly seperated from the whey, drained and aged. A process so simple you can do it in your own kitchen in just a few hours, and so complex people have dedicated their lives to its perfection. Cheese is a happy process, I have never met an unhappy cheese maker. They know what their cows, goats and sheep have been nibbling on, they know what their cheeses sound like when you tap on their rinds. They're happy to tell you which day of the year you should open up each batch of cheese and the perfect vintage for the glass beside it.

My father used to make fresh mozzarella every day in his butcher shop. I'll never forget the milky-sweet scent that filled the back room of the shop each morning at sunrise. I can still see him, steel paddle in hand, separating the curds from the whey, making delicate strips of warm, soft cheese. I would peek over the counter to watch his coarse, worker's hands as they delicately braided the strips into a long cheese. In those early hours in the shop, I could feel his joy and passion for the process, and would watch as he distributed a little bit of that happiness customer by customer.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Gobble, gobble, gobble.

Thanksgiving seems like a perfect time to breathe new life into my long-neglected blog. It is the holiday devoted to the art of feasting. A time for foods that serve little purpose beyond bringing maximum comfort with every forkful. Being Eastern European, the thanksgivings of my childhood included platters of proscuito, milky hand-made cheeses, homemade pastas with venison gravy alongside the turkey and cranberry. But as I've grown older, I've shifted my family's meal to incorporate more "thangiving-y" sides, and Thanksgiving has become my holiday. The one holiday where I can stretch my spatula and take over the kitchen.

I started my Thanksgiving traditions when I was about 13 with homemade cranberry sauce. It was a recipe I saw on Good Eats which called for three simple ingredients: Cranberries, Orange Marmalade, and Sugar. It was wonderful cooking the cranberries as they popped and released their gooey tart insides. The end result was chunky, tangy and sweet, a cranberry sauce far from the can shaped gelatin blob of my childhood. A few years later, I discovered the autumnal wonder of roasted butternut squash soup. Its like fall in a bowl, layering flavors of roasted squash, roasted garlic, sauteed apples and onions, and hints of nutmeg and cinnamon. It was from the soup, that Thanksgiving became mine.

I hope to chronicle this year's thanksgiving feast to share with you.

Today's Thanksgiving prep tasks include:
Roasting butternut squash, sweet potatoes, apples and a head of garlic for my Roasted butternut squash soup.
Baking cornbread for my sausage and cornbread stuffing with apples, figs and raisins.
Making two (at the request of my brother) apple crisp pies.
Trying my hand at low-fat baked apple donuts (a recipe from the Amy's Bread cookbook).
Making the Cranberry Sauce.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Turned away at the inn

Trying to find a dinner spot on a Friday night in the Lower East Side of Manhattan takes some navigation and persistence (often followed by desperation.) Our Friday night old faithful was spoiled by a new obnoxious northwest implant/hipster waiter and an unapologetic hostess, and so I spent the better half of Friday morning researching a new drinking hole that had just the right balance of a decent beer and liquor selection, outdoor space, good citysearch reviews and just a dash of seediness. We settled on Stanton Public-- they show movies on the brick wall in their teeny outdoor patio, play good music, have a free condom dispenser by their graffittied bathroom, and provide you with baskets of fresh popcorn as you knock back a few fancy-named beers. And the LES presents a perfect area for the kind of culinary wanderlust that settles in after a few happy hour beers.

We first tried our luck at Pulino's, a new high-end pizza place that's a-buzz in reviews, but the line to find out how long of a wait to be seated was too long of a wait for our grumbling bellies. Then we decided to try our luck at Lupa, one of Mario Batali's restaurants, with the sweetest hostesses who tried their best to accommodate us, but had could only give us a table if we promised to be out in an hour. We then trotted around the corner to Arturo's, another pizza place, the wait there was 30-40 minutes, we put our name in and decided to try our luck at one more spot. Dos Caminos SoHo, and again 45-50 minutes for their pricey margaritas and yummy guacamole. Turned away, and so we turned back to Arturo's where a good 15 minutes had probably passed since we gave them our names. We returned to find the small, angry hostess had already skipped us, but had not yet crossed us off the list. We decided to patiently wait our turn with a Peroni at the bar listening to the live Jazz band. We were shortly seated right at the door to the kitchen and next to the band. I was in love with the band, and the scent of tomato sauce and fresh baked crust floating from the kitchen. Soon our hungry tummies had ordered spaghetti with meatballs and a large fiesta pizza, and we were merry, and giddy and full.

We had shown our resilience through the long lines, grumpy hostesses, rumbling stomachs, and a broken flip flop. And we were well rewarded but good food and a lot of laughs.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

OJ, soda, purple stuff....

My fridge has never been stocked like the average American refrigerator. It was filled with things that would make little blond girls turn up their perfect pointed noses. We were always stocked in liverwurst (my pre-k sandwich of choice, really there's nothing better than creamy calves liver pate smothered on a crispy Portuguese roll -- I was a smart five year old.) Even if I were to have a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, smuckers was not something you would come by in my house. Instead we had a full supply of foreign jams Sipak (rose hip jelly), Lekvar (a very this plum jam, and Mjesena ("mixed fruit") which contained apples, plums and sour cherries. These jellies were thick, gritty and a little sour, they were the kind of jelly smuckers would be after it got beat up by some wild strawberries.

We also had jars and jars of all things pickled and preserved, red pepper, onions, tomatoes, pickles, eggplant. The insides of the jars goopy with solidified olive oil, like a science experiment gone terribly awry. There were times when I longed for the fridge in the Sunny d commercials: OJ, soda, purple stuff.... But it was because of this exposure that I wasn't afraid to try new things. I was primed never to be a culinary coward, and to start my day with a little fresh peanut butter and Mjesana on toast each morning.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

A moveable feast

This past sunday my good friend Kristin and I made our first full french meal from Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child. The book is truly a plethora of culinary knowledge and has each dish explained down to the minute detail (except for some minorly confusing verbiage in the souffle recipe...which when it comes to making souffle, its probably not so minor) but all in all our bellies were well rewarded for our efforts.

We started our feast with cream of watercress soup, which had a lightness to it, but filled every ounce of the body with a creamy warmth. The trick it seems is whipping cream with egg yokes and then wisking it into the hot soup to acheive maximum thickness without feeling greasy or heavy.

Next was our heart attack in a fluted tart pan. The Quiche Lorraine. To add insult to injury we decided to add some swiss cheese to our quiche, which already contained bacon, cream and eggs and dots of butter on the top (and this is before we factor in the crust.) But the filling was light and airy and the top formed a thin almost creme brulee-like crust.

For our main course, we indulged in potatoes au gratin, coq au vin, and roasted asparagus. Potatoes au gratin may be the only dish that really makes me nervous across the board. Any time I've ever had them at a dinner they've been undercooked and inedible, but Julia, ever the brilliant culinary problem solve had this one down. You arrange your first lay of potatoes then cheese, salt pepper, butter (of course), then your second layer, then more cheese salt, pepper, butter, then you pour boiling milk into the terrine, place it on a hot stove and wait until the whole dish is simmering before you put it into the oven. Voila'! Perfectly tender potatoes au gratin, no slices of nearly raw potatoes mucking up your cheesy goodness.

Next was our main event, our coq au vin, which is basically rooster (or in our case chicken) stewed in wine. The coq au vin was more than I could have even imagined, the meat was tender and the sauce rich, earthy and complex. We used nearly a bottle of my father's home-made wine to drown our little chicken in along with a splash of bourbon and butter (there's always butter). It filled the kitchen with an almost sweet aroma, the kind of scent that welcomes you home and eases you in your chair after a hard day. It was a peasant dish, french style, sacrificing nothing for taste with the simplest of ingredients, some ingenuity, and little extra effort.

And when all this was consumed and we were happy with wine, we decided to take on one more task. The chocolate souffle. Not only is the souffle one of the more difficult French masterpieces to tackle, chocolate only makes things more difficult structurally for the souffle. In the process of combining the egg whites and the chocolate was where Kristin and had to overcome our first hurdle. Doubts and disappointment started to set in as we sadly poured our lumpy brown goop into the souffle pan. But 45 minutes later, like a miracle a perfect little souffle puffed up in our oven.

And after filling our bellies to the brim and releasing several well earned contented sighs, we decided on our next venture. Duck and cheese souffle.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010


My father has the hands of a butcher. Strong and broad, his palm calloused from the grip of the knife, the rest of the skin softened from animal fat. Hands that are strategic and adept, like a surgeon with a sword, disassembling the pieces of meat that would fill the bellies of his customers. His hands sliced and broke bones, but also carefully and lovingly wrapped up each steak in brown butcher paper and placed it in the hands of each of his customers. He understood butchery as an art form, his carvings being sold off piece by piece bringing celebration and happiness to the table. When I think of my father's hands, strong and gentle, eager to do, to create as well as to cradle and comfort, it is clear to me how alike we are. I understand where that restlessness comes from that lingers inside of me, to do more, to be more passionate, to create more, to give more. My father's vast palms are abundantly giving and overflowing and I only hope to have half the pride for what I create that he does.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Words to the (counter clock)wise.

The first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem. I twirl my spaghetti the wrong way. Whenever my fork digs in to that heaping pile of pasta and tomato sauce, I can feel my mother's wandering eye gazing down at my counter clockwise twirling utensil. "Why don't you use a spoon," she suggests.

A spoon? A spoon just means one more obstacle between my lips and the linguine. I have no time for spoons, nor do I have time to relearn how to twirl in a clockwise fashion. At the very least, a spoon just means one more dish to wash, and there is no need.

My mother is the kind of person who always knows the "right" way of doing things. Perhaps it's because her father was a head chef, and thusly had to have a rigorous attitude towards the kitchen. She insisted on the proper way to cut an onion, mince garlic, slice tomatoes, stir a pot of polenta, and twirl spaghetti. I, on the other hand, had no such hang ups. I'm the type of person who takes an intuitive approach to the kitchen. I like feeling, tasting, smelling, experimenting. Not everything I try is a success, but I feel that sometimes if you draw outside of the lines a little, you might find a completely different picture.