When one thinks of Philly, you may think of a Philly cheesesteak, Bookbinder’s Restaurant or a waterfront meal on a ship docked off Old Philadelphia within walking distance to the Liberty Bell.
Having had a wonderful Jewish grandmother of Ukrainian descent, I, on the other hand, remember Horn and Hardarts, especially their very futuristic “Automat”, and the great dairy restaurants and delis we frequented near her home on Girard Avenue and enjoyed blintzes, borscht, whitefish, bagels, lox and more!
My Grandmother had a kitchen that ran like a finely tuned machine, and in the midst of her industriousness, there were always a couple of ice cold, green pony bottles of 7 up and a silver dollar apiece when we came to visit. And a home cooked meal for her Harold, my father, and the three kiddos. I remember her churning out great earthen jars of pickled green tomatoes and dill cucumber pickles, jams and preservers, duck dinners, a nod to my brother Glenn, immense pots of homemade soup and brisket like no other. Her cakes with seafoam icing were ethereal, as was her honey cake. There was a small garden outback, set into tires in this urban landscape. The kitchen was the heart of the house, possibly because the neighborhood was too dangerous for us to play outside in.
She taught me how to shop for and cook her knishes, blintzes and her famous beet borscht, which was a meal in itself topped with an immodest dollop of rich sour cream. Grandma, who stood her soap up on end to save it from melting, always said, “you can’t skimp on food”. I have taken that well to heart. As a family we’ve always eaten well…and we feed people. It’s just what we do,
Here is her borscht, as best I can recall it. If Ukrainian cuisine has a signature dish, this may be this slightly sweet and sour soup. The earthiness of the beet is counterpointed by the freshness of dill. And September is a wonderful time to find beets of all varieties in the famers markets:
RED BEET BORSCHT
A meaty beef shank, olive oil to sear
2 quarts rich beef broth
1 large onion, peeled and chopped
4 large beets, peeled, chopped
1 large potato, peeled and chopped
4 big carrots, peeled and chopped fine
2 cups finely sliced cabbage
3 tb vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste.
1 cup dill, chopped finely, save out until the end of cooking
1 cup sour cream, you may mix it in or use it as an optional garnish
Choose a large, heavy bottomed pot.
Sear the beef shank in the olive oil, turning one. Add the onions and half the stock, cover and cook.
Remove the meat and add the vegetables, seasonings and remaining stock. Cover and cook until tender, correct seasonings.
I sometimes use an immersion blender to puree half the soup, so it still has texture and add back in the shredded beef, dill and sour cream per bowl as garnishes.
My fava bean moment came to me within view of the Pyramids.
Our little hotel was committed to offering up a hearty breakfast, befitting the American tourist who had a day spent in the Sahara, claustrophobic tomb touring and camel riding ahead… in searing heat. The breakfast buffet featured all the typical Middle Eastern breakfast trappings I’d come to expect on my travels in the Middle East: Chewy pita bread, the best dates and citrus ever,astonishing olives, hard boiled eggs, crisp, young cucumbers and juicy chopped tomato.
But wait, what is in this rich, bubbling cauldron? Beans of some sort…but for breakfast? I gave it a go, ladeling a big spoonful of creamy, cumin scented goodness onto my plate and scooping it up with the freshly baked pita bread.
WOW…and wow again, this was hearty and delicious with just enough heat to wake you up properly and a perfect compliment to the other offerings on my plate, cucs, olives, tomato. Then there was a sauce, super zippy and probably as simple as superior olive oil, lemon juice and lots of fresh garlic. “My way to breakfast!”, I thought, dreamily taking another bite and wondering how the heck you get on top of a camel. As it turned out, my camel’s name was Samba and she was most agreeable!
Back home, I realized that I could get and grow fava beans in Maine, most of the organic growers, including Johnny’s and Fedco have multiple varieties. Fava’s have a duel purpose. Not only are they delicious, but famers us them to improve soils as a cover crop, fixing nitrogen and also breaking up heavy soils with their deep tap root.Such as my brand of Maine marine clay soil.
Fava beans are equally popular in Italian cooking, but here’s my recipe that most closely resembles my Egyptian experience:
FOUL MADAMMAS (serves six)
2 -15 oz cans of fava beans or you may cook your own
1/2 cup water
1 tsp toasted cumin seed
2 chopped jalapeños
Juice of one large lemon and a bit of the zest
1 cup chopped, stemmed parsley
1 diced tomato
To serve traditionally:
Warm pita bread
Chopped green onion
Sliced cucumber and red tomato
Good black olive, extra virgin olive oil, and kalamata olives
Combine the first set of ingredients in a heavy skillet and warm slowly, mashing a few of the beans for a creamy texture.
Combine the lemon juice, garlic, parsley and extra virgin olive oil, seasoning with salt and pepper, and more hot peppers if you like a kick. Top the beans with this sauce.
Place in a bowl and offer the cucumbers, diced tomato, olives and olive oil to eat with the pita bread and fava beans.
There were so many high points to traveling in Peru…Machu Picchu and it’s many wonders, the neighborhoods and museums of Lima, the gorgeous beaches and interesting customs.
Another fond memory is of sitting in a bar in Peru. A Pisco Sour in one hand, crunchy corn nuts in the other…the bar snack of choice…while awaiting the house Seviche. In Peru, scallops are the norm for Seviche, however using shrimp, calamari or any mild, white fish fits in nicely especially when expertly seasoned and “cooked” in a spicy lime juice mixture. After a couple of Pisco Sours, it was hard to recall anything! They tell me I had fun.
Seviche, Peruvian Style, with bay scallops, serves 6 to 8
1 lb bay scallops, quartered…or in Maine our sea scallops are perfect too!
1 cup rough chopped cherry tomato
1 red Serrano Chile, chopped finely
1 cup red onion, finely chopped
1 cup chopped cilantro
1 cup fresh orange juice
Salt to taste
2/3 cup fresh lime juice and a bit of lime zest
Combine all in a ceramic bowl, cover and plan to let it marinate for one day.
To serve, serve in small glasses, topped with more chopped cilantro, a wedge of lime and a side of tortilla chips
A little about Pisco….while the Pisco Sour is the national cocktail, or a mixed drink, real Pisco connoisseurs would never dream of mixing good Pisco with anything. Pisco comes in few variations including a floral variety or a more herbal flavor. While technically a brandy, it was developed to replace Spanish brandy in the 16th century and boasts an alcohol content of up to 100 proof. Nowadays it’s produced almost exclusively in Peru and Chile.
My first trip abroad, at the tender age of 19 was to the magical island of Jamaica. The year was 1976, the times were heady.
Jamaica was a visual feast in every way. I recall my first night there, a full moon glimpse of the coast…trusting my native guide who excitedly led the way through a dense tropical forest with a narrow path breaking out onto the beach. The vision of moonlit, swaying palms and pristine seven mile beach, heaped with mounds of conch shells, water shimmering with moonbeams…this was my home for some months. I settled into the rhythm of the surf in a sleepy seaside town called Negril.
Going native meant getting my hair done up in braids with coral beads, taking too much sun, gathering herbs, reveling in tropical flowers, learning to snorkel and to use a spear gun. Also much time was spent over a camp cook stove with Dice, my Rasta buddy and Ital cooking mentor.
What exactly is Ital cuisine? I-tal, as it’s sometimes spelled is a derivitive of the word VITAL, it’s typical for the emphasis to be on the ‘I’ in much of Rasta lexicon. It’s not the traditional cooking of Jamaica, but the Rasta version who’s chief features are that it’s Vegetarian, no salt or sugar cooking, largely Vegan and juice forward. It’s aim is to conserve and elevate the energy of the ingredients. Ital food can be highly spiced, with influences drawn from many cultures, such as Spain, China, Africa, India and the Middle East. Allspice features largely in Ital cooking (think Jerk seasoning), as do Scotch Bonnet peppers and coconut….and the ubiquitous callalloo, which is a green, an amaranth, eaten almost everyday, as are rice and peas, sometimes called “coat of arms.”
Rastafarians are also fond of medicinal herb and root concoctions as tonics, use curtain weeds as a smokeable sacrament and never touch their hair with scissors. My impression was that many locals viewed the Rastas the way folks at home viewed the hippies in the early 60’s and 70’s.
But I loved their affinity for nature, the wholesome cooking, their commitment to their religious beliefs and their “live and let live” lifestyle. While on the island, I learned a lot about keeping the essential energy in foods by conscious cooking methods.That’s still a valuable tool, maybe now more than ever!
Here is my favorite Ital soup recipe, courtesy of Chef Dice:
Pumpkin Soup (Serves six)
2 tb coconut oil
1 cup, minced white onion
3 cloves garlic, crushed
1/2 cup celery and leaves, chopped
1/4 cup Chopped parsley, I hot pepper (scotch bonnet if you like it hot)
1 large sprig fresh thyme, a grating of nutmeg, and dash allspice, salt and pepper to taste
4 cups chunked Calabaza squash or Buttercup squash
2 cups each, diced white potato and carrot
1 qt vegetable stock and full fat coconut milk to consistency
Choose a large heavy bottomed pot and heat oil, sauté onion and garlic.
Add carrot, pumpkin potato and celery and seasonings, stock and some coconut milk.
Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer until veggies are cooked through. Remove hot pepper and thyme.
Puree half of the soup, correct seasonings and add more coconut milk to consistency.
Garnish with slivers of green onion and put on some Reggae!
Thoughts on Cooking During COVID Times / The Power of the Pantry
Hello and a big “hug from home” during this pandemic of 2020. Staying home saves lives. Cooking from home follows…
It’s been a remarkable, confrontational, sad and often difficult time for individuals and families, students and those of us in the hospitality industry. Everyone, really. It’s been like one continuous therapy session….and since when has that been comfortable? That said, it seems far from over.
What do we do to sustain and comfort ourselves and our families? We bake. We cook. We share our food and ideas. Now that going out for groceries has become something we need to “gird our loins” for, more often than not, I turn to my own well stocked pantry for guidance.
Just some of the meals I’ve been cooking!
This entire need to pivot, as they say, was and is a process of bumping up against some pretty established habits, like running to the store for every little thing I thought I needed. The art of using what’s available and the feeling of gratitude for having what we need: like it’s all enough, though maybe not perfect. Put into perspective, it’s back to gratitude and simpler times.
Perhaps happiness during this new normal has something to do with our own internal changes, the willingness to choose contentment and satisfaction, happiness, multiple times a day,. The impulse to feel gratitude and extend helpfulness to those less fortunate.
Yes, some of this internal change is a daily challenge, intertwined with schedules, meals, commitments and our own habits. The question is will you rise to the challenges or be one of the ticked off, defensive ones that may well be missing an opportunity to be a better person…and maybe even a more inventive cook.
Here’s what’s in my pantry:
Several high quality oils
An array of vinegars
Soy sauce, sake, wasabi, toasted sesame, Mirin, miso, lemongrass and ginger/tumeric roots
Several types of olives
Anchovies and sardines
Artichoke hearts, dried fancy mushrooms
Many types of pasta
Good tomato sauce, whole and chopped tomato
Tuna fish, canned clams and juice
Mushroom soup (I’ll admit it)
Red and green salsa ,pesto
All kinds of dried beans, canned beans
Every herb and spice known to man
Peppercorn melange, several sorts of salt
Rices:black, red, brown, risotto (arborio) Jasmine
Farro, kasha, bulgur, rolled oats, quinoa
Sugars: brown, white, dots, stevia
Nuts; walnuts, hazelnut, pecans
Quality vanilla, chocolate chips, flours, wheat and corn, semolina
All you need to supplement a well stocked pantry is a CSA from one of your local farms, or better yet grow a garden….and several trips to get curb side pick up from your fave restaurant! Your farmers and restauranteurs deserve our support at this most difficult time.
Long a local hang of area chefs, Beth’s Farm Market is distinguished by it’s sparkling fresh produce, grown, and picked or foraged right on their farm. The most delicate of baby radishes, the greenest young garlic, earthy parsnips, fiddleheads by the pound, a rosy heritage rhubarb named Valentine and thick, heady asparagus all grace the shelves in the merry month of May. Did I mention dandelion greens, my personal favorite? Beth’s is an institution where you may see dyed-in-the-wool elderly Mainers shopping alongside of hipsters, foodies and chefs.
Fiddleheads, (shown left) these spring darlings, available in May, are supplemented by over wintered carrots, beets and potatoes and their compliment of pies, donuts and other freshly baked goods, making it a one stop shopping experience. You can also procure the stinkiest “store cheese”, Cheddar, of course, and pots of fresh kitchen herbs. Or perennials, of the dependable sort, for your flower border.
A bit later in the season expect Beth’s sweet corn, a local favorite, said to be the sweetest around! Several varieties of oysters and live lobster are also in the house, on vats of crushed ice.
One interesting aside is that Beth’s employs many Jamaican workers in high season. There are very talented Jamaican pastry chefs in the kitchen, consistently turning out the favorites like their fresh strawberry shortcake.
One of the farm foremen, John, has had a hand in growing and popularizing the most remarkable green, an amaranth, called callaloo, available in mid-season and a staple vegetable in Jamaica. Deeply nourishing, it’s a breeze to cook, the entire plant being edible. You simply wash it and shake it dry, then chop the entire thing, leaves, stems and all. It’s all very tender and toothsome. I blanch the chopped callaloo in boiling, salted water and drain it in a colander when it turns bright green. Season it with good salt and olive oil. You’ll be surprised how much you can eat and how good it makes you feel.
Beth’s brings together a few different worlds…Mainers, restauranteurs and Jamaican farmers. “So…for those about to cook, we salute you!”
Last winter I was fortunate to be invited to the home of very good friends in the Los Angeles area. Being the consumate hosts that they were, we were on the go 24-7…and believe me there’s a lot to see. We covered ground from their beautiful hillside home in Long Beach to the expansive beaches of Ventura and the Mid-Century Modern neighborhoods nearby. We saw every museum and road side attraction from LA to Palm Springs ( date shake anyone?), ate primo Ethiopian food, sampled street tacos and crushed the food trucks ( Hey, there’s Cousin’s Maine Lobster Truck selling lobster rolls!)
But the sight that really piqued my interest was a street vendor selling cleaned nopales, or prickly pear cactus paddles. He was masterful in his cleaning technique as you’ll see in the video. You do not want to run into a stray cactus needle, trust me. It was easy as pie to follow his instructions for a grilled nopale and we ate them the same day. The nopales are distinctively tart, soft yet crunchy and make a perfect foil for fatty meats. Think about pairing with BBQ pork tacos, like a relish or vegetable side dish. I’ll bet they’d also make a good salsa verde.
Here’s the method:
Bring home your cactus paddles cleaned (ideally).
Mix up some avocado oil with good salt, fresh pepper and baste both sides of each paddle.
Get your grill medium hot and place paddles on the fire. Do not move them until they’re nicely and deeply scored, or marked, then flip them and score them again.
Grill until soft. Pull the nopales off the fire and let them rest a moment before slicing them . Finish with a good salt like Maldon and serve with almost any meat.
I was excited to visit our countries oldest city recently and I wasn’t disappointed. Not by the friendly people or the town itself, with it’s stunning Spanish influenced buildings.
The food, amply represented by many quality dining establishments, is something to crow about! From traditional, with their ubiquitous Minorcan chowder (reminiscent of a Manhattan style with a tomato-y broth), to freshly caught fish and shrimp, there really is something for everyone.
But wait, that is the difference in this food? There’s something really flavorful with a slow, sweet burn that you can’t ignore present in many dishes found here. I learned that it’s the Datil pepper, a integral part of the Minorcan influence.
Always an active port, St. Augustine represents a culinary melting pot, with African, Creole and Spanish influences…and the Pirate trade helped too to create a lively ,unique cuisine that belongs to it alone.
If ever there was a city on the radar for exceptional dining, Chicago is it right now. It’s home to some of the most innovative and award winning restaurants around (think Alinea, NoMi Kitchen, Next, The Girl and the Goat…) as well as a wealth of traditional eats, such as pizza and hot dogs.
My birthday week featured dining galore in this fun city with expert steerage from long time friends Diane and Will. We chowed down on the quintessential loaded Chicago dog, shared a great deep dish pizza and shopped a uber liquor warehouse, returning home with a cache of interesting finds. Beyond that, yes, way beyond, were the cutting edge and rather retro cocktails at numerous hot spots after an evening at Steppenwolf Theatre.
I must note a fantastical evening spent at restaurant Elizabeth, on my official birthday. A hand full of very game diners, filled the place, seated family style at three tables. A full dining room seats 24 or so guests with an option of three menus, all with a foraging theme. Owner Iliana Regan, a self taught chef,calls her cuisine “New Gatherer” and offers three menus, the Owl, the Deer and the Diamond. Diane and I choose the middle option, the Deer menu. We strapped in for a four hour, fifteen course crazy ride. The meal was so unusual, so regional and locally sourced ( for instance,one course was named for the coordinates where the food was foraged) that my description will not do it justice. I recommend learning more about this unique dining experience from their site. www.elizabeth-restaurant.com
One of the things that I most like about a the slow season in Maine is the opportunity to stretch out a little and consider learning something new. So, with a bit of time on my hands this winter I spoke with Allison Lakin of Lakin’s Gorges Cheese. She’s the creator of cheeses that I know and learned to love at many of the finer dining establishments around the area. Working presently out of a leased space in the State of Maine Cheese building on Route 1 in Rockport, she turns out lovely fresh basket molded ricotta as well as some aged beauties such as Opus 42, Morgan, Medallion, a smaller aged cheese with a bloomy rind, and my personal favorite, Prix De Diane.
Explaining that I had little experience cheese making, I asked whether she’d like an occasional helper. She said yes and what fun it was! I have made plenty of tofu in times past, and turns out that it’s not so different. Especially from Ricotta cheese making, only I never used molding baskets “back in the day.”
Cleanliness is of the utmost importance in this process. You want to cultivate certain cultures, but not others. There are shoe dips, hand washing and hairnets involved. No fuzzy sweaters allowed either I learned.
It all begins with organic Jersey milk from Tide Mill Farm in Edmunds. Jersey milk is noted for its high butterfat content. For ricotta cheese this high quality milk is warmed in a special jacketed piece of equipment then vinegar is added to create the curds and whey. Lots of whey is a by product of cheese and forethought must be given to it’s disposal. When the curds form, it’s like magic. Warm, sweet, steamy milky magic. It reminded me of Junket rennet custard, which those of us “of a certain age” got fed as children. Initially the curds are silky, then tighten up to very cohesive curds, which mold quickly to the basket, then are turned out after draining.
The aged cheeses are a little more mysterious. The curds have a different quality and are ladled carefully, by hand into their distinctive draining molds.The largest wheels, the 6 pound Opus 42 and the half pound Morgan , both mold ripened cheeses, age for up to three months. The smaller softer bloomy rind cheeses require 4-6 weeks.
All these aged cheeses rest comfortably in their temperature controlled vaults doing what beautiful handmade cheeses do….ripen to perfection under the watchful eye of Ms. Lakin, a master cheese maker.