I remember being enamored, at the age of 20, of the epic road trip…from the very top of Maine to the southernmost point of Key West. This is what I had in the crosshairs.
When you’re 20, you can find a carful of crazy friends eager to do the same. They were game, and so we decided to go. It was on!
Our adventure chariot It was one of those American land yachts, circa 1975, that seat five very comfortably. Six if need be. We took off from Central Maine, and wound our way down Atlantic Rt. 1, all the way to the Florida Keys, stopping to marvel at the warm weather in Georgia, then pressing on to Key Largo where a crash pad and a meal awaited.
Waking up to palm trees, Cuban coffee and warm Jasmine scented breezes possibly changed my life.
The warm, shallow aqua blue shoals, mangrove wilds and fish life charmed and amazed me. I was basically a suburban kid from New Jersey, newly established in Maine (the Appalachian Trail being the initial draw to Maine) and although I had tasted the Caribbean, this place was exotic. Sadly, when you’re young and footloose, there never seems to be any money to enjoy the finer things. Honestly, looking good in a bikini probably outweighed any drawbacks, we had the kind of fun that money can’t buy.
After a few days, onward we went to the promised land…Key West. Duval Street and its debauchery and tea parties, that’s where I learned to drink, a White Russian, a drink I could order with confidence. Kinda girly, but I am not even sure I was “of age” at that point, still much to learn.
But the shrimp, those perfect pink shrimp native to the Keys are what hooked me. Those and the Cafe Con Leche, making mornings right, the raucous bars, high rollers with cash to burn, the beautiful waters that washed it all away the following day. I decide to stay. Doug, Lorna and I were able to get an apartment, right on the edge of a huge open field bordering the Navy Base. We had a huge tree in that field that saw many gatherings. We were situated on the edge of the Cuban section. I made daily forays there for “bolos”, black eyed pea fritters, shaped into little balls. Those slightly greasy white bags held 20 minutes of bliss. I’ve never been able to replicate them, although I’ve tried. Unforgettable. Ditto the conch fritters and Key Lime pie.
Mind you, this was way before I became a chef. I guess I’ve always had a fascination with food and culture. This place was rich indeed.
I returned every winter for the longest time, enjoying the counterculture, the music, dancing and fantastic waters of the Florida Keys.
I agreed to meet some of the ol’ crowd 40 years after. The difference between 20 and 60 is, well, astounding. But we lodged, dined, drank and danced very well even after all those years!
Here’s a recipe for Cuban Style Bollos. I’m not sure if it was the initial novelty of “that first time” that made them so memorable, but DANG…I still think they’re delicious!
or black eyed pea fritters, makes 40 fritters
2 cups of black eyed peas
4 large garlic cloves
1/2 tsp hot sauce
1 tsp salt
Oil for frying
Soak the beans overnight, covered weight water.
Drain, reserve the water
Puree the beans until they are as fine as corn meal (food processor is fine).
Add, the seasonings and 1/2 cup of reserved liquid. Stir well.
Preheat oil to 350 degrees in a high edged pan.
Drop in teaspoon full for the bean mixture, a few at a time. Don’t crowd for best results.
Deep fry the bollos for 2 minutes, then drain when golden brown.
Eat right away, I dust mine with a finishing salt. Enjoy!
Many of us have had an unspeakably tragic year. The loss of friends or family, or a frightening brush with the Covid virus. Others of us have simply had to bear being homebound, or suffered domestic violence and still others suffered financial pain. Even the loss of a dream or career. It’s been a tough year, but not without it’s blessings.
To me, it’s been scary, because we’re just not sure if business will ever return to it’s former model, and cash flow is not what it was. This is inconvenient and uncomfortable because we have no choice but to take a hard look at ourselves and our addictions as well as to seek out new models, new solutions. Looking into the mirror isn’t easy.
Sitting at home in relative luxury, we rankle because we can’t dine out, go out for drinks, see our friends, go to the movies. I like to think of the world’s women, many who have the daily tasks of fetching water and firewood as well as childcare and the inevitable job of preparing food to nourish their families. We take for granted our potable water, fuel delivery, restaurant and grocery delivery and internet connections.
I realize that many of my problems, often born of excess, begin and end with me. It’s my job to turn around mental adversity and realize gratitude, choose happiness. My personal alchemy. Everyone has this super power. To stop daily, give thanks and to connect with the true source. This is where the recharge is born. Once we’re feeling our interconnectedness, perspective shifts. You can choose happiness, contentment, gratitude and have the energy to give back, whatever that means to you.
Granted, I don’t have a family to provide for, a dysfunctional home or kids learning at home, definitely stressors. One gift of this slowed down time, other than self-reflection, and the time to consider the future, has been the opportunity to help my community battle food insecurity, one meal at a time. It’s good to know that you’re not alone, even if you’re bearing the weight of any number of things.
Now is a time to take stock, say a prayer, help a neighbor …or ask for help, listen for guidance, take a breath, read a book, get outside, maybe learn something new…even about yourself and the world we live in.
Happy New Year and Bright Blessings for 2021…we’re ready for you!
Coming from Austrian Germanic roots, the Black Forest was always on my bucket list. When better to go that just before Christmas! At that time, one of my restaurant chefs who was German, still had family in Europe, so I went over to meet them near Berlin. From there Gudi and I travelled near and far…we saw every castle or “schloss” around, went to Heidelburg, as well as other towns with famous castles, and any number of charming mountain towns reminiscent of Hallmark Christmas cards with their well kept stores, jolly storekeepers, frosty firs and town squares…..and gourmet shops.
Can you say Wurst? The sausages were amazing and varied. Oh and the cheese…. stinky “hand cheese” for breakfast, Allgauer Berkkase, which is similar to the better known Emmentaler, Edelpilz, a bleu to remember, Hirtenkase, or Herder’s cheese, an aged Alpen cow’s milk cheese and the infamous Limburger. You’ve got to love a culture that enjoys cold cuts for breakfast with a good, smelly cheese! Chase that with schnitzel, chocolate and a beer and you have my diet while in Germany.
Back to that chocolate, we often received real European chocolates for Christmas along with other gifts from Austrian great Aunties. Gifts we couldn’t fathom at the age of seven…like Lederhosen and real artisan puppets, like Marionettes. How I wish we still had those beautiful Marionettes. We, as a family, had a formidable beer stein collection as well as Meersham pipes passed down from Grandpop Marad. And Grandmother that cooked sour cherry pies, Sauerbraten and pork with Sauerkraut, not to mention the best Christmas cookies around!
But I digress I wanted to get to the Schwarzwald, or Black Forest. I was after a cockoo clock as my souvenir of choice…something I couldn’t eat in a weak moment. Here’s an image of the one I picked out. It’s in my office now at Laura Cabot Catering. It will always remind my of the pristine mountain air, winding roads, and snow frosted forests, yes, deep and dark, that defined the Black Forest so beautifully.
And for those of you thinking about Holiday baking, consider these Pfeffernusse (the name means pepper nuts) Cookies one of my Grandmom Marad’s seasonal specialties. These cookies are so beloved in Germany there is a national Pfeffernusse Day! My recommendation is to buy your spices fresh for these cookies, it makes all the difference!
1/2 cup softened butter
3/4 cup brown sugar, I use light brown
1/4 cup molasses
2 1/4 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon soda, salt, black pepper, cinnamon and crushed anise seed
1/4 teaspoon fresh ground nutmeg, allspice and cardamom
A dash of ground cloves
1 1/2 cup powdered sugar
Cream butter, sugar and molasses in bowl or mixer until fluffy. Add the egg, beat to combine.
Slowly add the dry ingredients to the wet until combined.
Cover and chill this dough in the fridge for at least one hour
‘Preheat oven to350 degrees. Scoop out a small amount and roll it into a ball. Place on parchment and bake until firm.
Let cool before rolling in powdered sugar. Store in an airtight container.
This recipe doubles and keeps well, good for gift giving for a real European experience!
Since there’s nowhere to go and “nothing to do”, I decided to do some good at home. It’s a Safari inward…to our local food pantry.
I got to know the work of our local food pantry these last few months and was bowled over by not only the occult need for food in our community but the number of volunteers who’s mission it was to make things better for our neighbors. It’s a lot of work keeping those shelves filled with canned goods and we’re lucky to have some tireless folks who are committed to doing so. Fresh vegetables and frozen meats are also offered.
One thing I noticed immediately was although many boutique growers of organic vegetables were happy to contribute, the general population was unable to make good use of this surplus of vegetables. Families already pushed to the brink with homeschooling and remote learning, and additionally working one or two jobs and housekeeping, often didn’t have time to create home cooked meals or learn how to use something new.
That’s where Laura Cabot Catering came in. I said, “Bring us your beautiful vegetables, before they become weary. Let us cook them up for your family and make it as nutritious as possible!” So, that’s what we’re doing until the catered events are rolling again. Soups, stews, chowders, salads, fermented foods….My personal commitment is to true nutrition in these beleaguered times. A tummy full of good food really helps with learning and mental health.
Let me just give a shout out to Atlantic Sea Farms in Saco, ME. I’ve long been a fan of their fermented sea vegetable and cabbage products and was delighted to learn that they’re happy to partner with us through donations of both their products and blanched seaweed, which I love to chop up and pop into my soup pot. Seaweed really bumps up the nutritional component and rather disappears in the process, so it’s a no brainer way to make something really good to eat!
Thank you Altantic Sea Farms and Waldoboro Food pantry volunteers! #atlanticseafarms. #waldoborofoodpantry #lauracabotcatering
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!”