take the long way home

June 4th, 2017

There’s no place like home, even if it is Kansas, but only when you know where your home actually is. What determines ‘home’? Is it the place you were born or the place of your childhood? Is it your college town or the city you work in? Is it wherever you are or simply the place you miss most? Is it where we leave our hearts? If the latter is true, I’m spread rather thinly across five continents, and yet the heart beats on.

When I left Russia in 2001, I headed back to New England, where I’d spent my first eighteen years. I still don’t know what inspired that odd return ‘home’, because the important people were dead and friends of long ago scattered to various and unknown corners of the region. I drove by the house of some friends of my parents. Their name was still on the mailbox. I drove past the house three times, slowly, and never knocked on the door.

Now I’m in yet another former ‘home’, Virginia. Numerous people have said, “Welcome home!” and I’m puzzled briefly because I’m not sure that it is my home. Nevertheless, I’m quite happy to be here and immediately set about doing the thing I’d always done when residing here once before: entertaining. Today’s familiar guests enjoyed an appetizer spread with two clear stand-outs, Country Ham Pâté freckled with fresh mint and Candied Jalapeños spiked with lime zest. Lip-smacking, home style.

Country Ham Pâté and Candied Jalapeños

Country Ham Pâté and Candied Jalapeños

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tidings of joy

December 18th, 2016

When I was a junior in college, Mother decided to compile a book of recipes featuring family favorites. It took her nearly a year, typing it out on a typewriter at the kitchen table. She heartily welcomed suggestions from her devoted eaters, and when it was finished, she xeroxed four copies and assembled them into loose leaf notebooks. There are only four copies, one for each of her children.

I have a cookbook collection of more than 500 books, but the only one I ever reference is the one Mother wrote. Sometimes I’m in the mood for a taste of the past and nothing delivers that as divinely as something Mother once made. My copy, unfortunately, is rarely in the same location as I am and I have to contact a sibling for an occasional memory jog.

My Christmas in Russia in 2000 was a memorable one. I prepared a four course feast for my landlady and her family, featuring Mother’s Seafood Gumbo. Of course I didn’t have the family recipe book with me, and spent a small fortune telephoning my younger brother’s wife in Virginia to get the recipe. The required seafood wasn’t available, so I used smoked duck, and my dear guests seemed to enjoy this foreign taste from Cajun Country.

This Christmas, I decided to make a treat for the folks I work with, and choose a ginger cookie from Mother’s Recipe Book, which of course is not with me here in Illinois. My sister came to the rescue with the recipe and two days of baking yielded 120 perfect little cookies; bagged, tagged and beribboned.

Thank-you, Mom!

Stratford Hall Ginger Cookies

Stratford Hall Ginger Cookies

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chicago throwdown

April 24th, 2016

Relocating to the Chicago area on New Year’s Eve was neither welcome nor fun, but the job that was its impetus had potential. There are no oceans, no mountains, and no mature trees. It’s a flat parking lot with gale force winds that keep debris airborne. The food markets, however, are outstanding and easily surpass anything in California, New York, North Carolina, and Europe.

The folks I work with are talented, collaborative and hospitable. Another rarity! Thus, I couldn’t remain grumpy for long with superior food and people in the midst. There’s a large population of gourmands at work and many meetings either begin or end with some reference to recipes. My cohort, Marcelo, and I were chatting about Italian smoked meats one morning in the office galley and within no time we’d agreed to do a cooking throwdown.

Marcelo chose Chicken Enchiladas Suizas as the competitive dish, something I’d neither eaten nor cooked. Fine by me! There were dozens of details to iron out and it was decided that our software teams would be the eaters and the judges. The Enchilada entree was rounded out with Guacamole, Salsa, Tortilla Chips, Ensalada Verde with Cilantro Lime Vinaigrette, Puerto Rican Rice and Beans, and Mexican Wedding Cookies, all of which needed to be transported to work, baked off and/or assembled prior to serving 18 hungry guests.

Debbie and Charles helped to set and decorate the long table. The Enchiladas came straight from the cafeteria oven, piping hot, and got their final garnishes. The guests arrived promptly and were served with remarkable speed. Silence prevailed as people began eating and it seemed to be an appreciative silence. All of the plates were clean 20 minutes later, which suggest proper table manners or tasty-tasty food or both! The ballots were tallied, and Marcelo was the winner by a wide margin. A loss for me that I couldn’t have enjoyed more!

Chicken Enchiladas Suizas

Chicken Enchiladas Suizas

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the other turkey

November 27th, 2015

I stumbled upon a patch of mint in the side yard last week and the prospect of creating a Thanksgiving meal suddenly changed from dreary to dreamy. I’m amongst a tiny minority of people who don’t like turkey and an even tinier minority of people who don’t like potatoes, so a Thanksgiving meal is especially challenging, although I’ve certainly performed that chore of love dozens of times.

The mint-inspired possibilities started to percolate and a Meze platter was beginning to take shape with a decidedly Turkish flare. Some Acılı Ezme Salatası, a warm and spicy Patlicanli Pilav, a nutty Amolesilli Lobio, and a cooling dollop of Cacik seemed just the ticket for a tasty Turkey dinner.

I discovered Turkish cuisine while living in Vienna, Austria and it has always remained flavorfully memorable. Austria can also thank Turkey for its now famous Viennese Coffee House Culture.  During the second Turkish siege in 1683, which was thwarted, several sacks of strange beans were found and presumed to be camel feed. It was coffee!

As with the traditional dinner that features a large bird, this meal took three days to prepare, largely because so many varieties of beans needed to be soaked and then cooked. The house smelled of a magical combination of herbs, ginger, garlic, aromatic spices, and citrus and the finished plate a colorful painter’s palette of palate-pleasing textures.

Thanksgiving Treats

Thanksgiving Treats

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reluctant jersey girl

September 6th, 2015

The only bucket list I have that includes New Jersey is the “Avoid at all Costs” list and New Jersey is number one. I’d driven through it too many times. I never stopped. The “Garden State” has always held more aversion than interest for me, and yet, it has been my home for the last five months and certain to continue to be for the next six or more.  I admit it, I was dead wrong. New Jersey is an extremely pleasant place to live, if one can afford to forgive its cost factor.

My initial residence was a sprawling farmhouse in the north mountains. The commute to work turned out to be four hours a day and clearly not sustainable. When not stopped in traffic, the ride was a death-defying high-speed car chase. I’d arrive at work needing a nap or a straight jacket. After seven weeks, I relocated to Morristown and a ten-minute commute. An existence reduced in grandeur but one that returned me my sanity.

Folks in New Jersey take their food very seriously and that puts me in good company. Going to the supermarket, I have two favorites, is the high point of each week. The seafood, meat, and produce sections are fastidiously stocked with the freshest best of everything. In-house bakeries provide really delicious cakes and breads. Unlike the highways, drivers of shopping carts are always courteous. “Please, after you”, is the rule of engagement, and check-out clerks are equally friendly and speedy at their task.

Unique restaurants are everywhere and their many decades’ longevity a testament to the consistent quality provided to its guests.  I enjoy Arthur’s Tavern for lunch on Saturdays. Their 24 ounce Delmonico is a work of art and the leftovers feed me for several days. Rod’s Steakhouse is my Thursday evening treat. They always greet me with a polite, “Hello, Ms. Stetson,” and the piano player plays my favorites without prompting. The Committed Pig serves the best burger on the planet, Millie’s the best meatballs, and Urban Fire cranks out a nine-minute Napolitano Pizza that makes you believe you’re in Italy.

All things considered, I can’t find anything to complain about, which makes New Jersey a unique location among the many countries and cities I’ve lived in over the last few decades. A good food environment neutralizes the aggravations suffered by crazy drivers and a cost of living that tops the chart. Just goes to show that assumptions are foolish and expectations very much subject to change.

urban fire

Pizza Margarita at Urban Fire

grandma and grandpa stetson

August 17th, 2015

Thinking back, my Grandpa Stetson smelled like an antique, and I mean that in the kindest of ways. He always wore a tweed wool blazer when joining us for Sunday lunch or a holiday dinner and the blazer was undoubtedly stored in a cedar closet in his ancient home in Greenfield, Massachusetts. He was very fond of that strange old-folks candy consisting of sugary pastel peppermints shaped in round disks. He also smoked a pipe. That faint bit of mint and tobacco added to his aura when I greeted his visits with a bird-like kiss to his faintly whiskered and perfumed cheek.

His wife, my Grandmother, died when I was seven, but I remember her just as vividly, albeit without any kind of smell, other than, perhaps, her most outstanding preparation of Scalloped Potatoes flecked with tiny bits of onion and ham. Grandpa and Grandma played Scrabble a great deal and it’s probably just as well that they never came to know how much money I’ve made at the game.

Grandpa Stetson was fluent in the ancient languages, Latin and Greek, and often shared the comparative rhythms in common with those languages when translating classic epics with titles too big for us children to wrap our tongues around. He insisted on perfect English from his three offspring, and his youngest child, my father, kept up that tradition with his unwitting four.

There’s a suitcase amongst all my possessions still residing in California that is chock full of hand-written recipe cards from Grandma Stetson, Great Aunts Gertrude and Lillie, and a score of other Stetson women kindred. It pops in my mind now and then, and now with greater frequency, and I want to hold those cards embossed with fountain-pen script, imparting great practice and procedure for cooks of all ages, once it’s all translated.

Scalloped Potatoes and Ham with Asiago Cheese

Scalloped Potatoes and Ham

 

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happy marriage

August 9th, 2015

Some people are meant to be together, just as some foods shine brighter in combination with something else. Both instances represent my favorite equation: 1+1=3. George Burns and Gracie Allen, beans and cornbread, Victoria and Albert, green eggs and ham, Marie and Pierre Curie, fish and chips, Scarlett and Rhett, and my favorite marriage of all time, chocolate and peanut butter.

Anyone who doesn’t remember the iconic Reese’s commercials featuring a man walking down the street eating a chocolate bar who collides with a man eating peanut butter from a jar is too young to be reading this blog. More to the point, anyone who walks down the street eating peanut butter from a jar probably needs something more than a random run in with a chocolate bar, and yet, this is how happy marriages seem to happen.

It’s all a bit of whimsical magic, I think, and with that in mind I set about conceiving a dark chocolate something with a peanut butter whatever. Some sixth sense had me purchase a quart of buttermilk at the store today, even though biscuits and cornbread aren’t crayoned on the calendar. I also bought a tin of Hershey’s Special Dark Cocoa and a pound of unsalted butter.

Clearly, someone had a cake in the back of her mind and when this morning dawned with a pleasant chill in the air and 5:30 a.m. not nearly as bright as it had been three weeks ago, she set about a-measuring and a-mixing and a-baking and again a-mixing and periodically, awaiting, and then a-cooling and finally a-frosting a batch of little Black Velvet Cakes with Freakishly Good Peanut Butter Frosting, a-sprinkled, willy-nilly, with Valrhona Chocolate shavings.

Black Velvet Cake with Freakishly Good Peanut Butter Frosting

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exclamation points

July 26th, 2015

Creating a new recipe often starts with a memory of something once consumed in a restaurant, or seen on a cooking show, or described in a book, or simply photographed in an old Gourmet magazine. My memory for food is freakishly detailed and vast. If that same capacity extended to all other facets of life, I’d be remarkable, but it doesn’t and I’m not!

In Moby Dick, Melville goes into such rapture over Clam Chowder that it lasts for an entire chapter. Rapture worthy or not, I’ve never been a fan of Clam Chowder, but the memory of that passage can easily inspire an Alder-Smoked Salmon Chowder, Lobster Chowder or just a simple Corn ‘n Tater Chowder!

I was age six or seven when Julia Child’s show, The French Chef, featured a French Apple Tart. While constructing a blanket-shrouded fort in the TV room, construction had to pause whilst I became mesmerized by Julia’s episode and those twenty minutes became an inspiration over the next decades.  I only recently found the actual recipe and was pleased to discover that my recall was not far off!

Riffs on notable preparations in restaurants are, perhaps, the backbone of my recipe repertoire, and among my favorites are Pizza Buns from Brazil, Joe’s Special from California, Peanut Soup from Virginia, Kalbi from Korea, Huevos Rancheros from Belize, meat-filled Pelmeni from Russia, Garlic-Soy Bib Salad from China, and, I should never have uncorked this genii in a bottle. The list is endless!

A gastropub in New Hampshire is the inspiration for today’s appetizer. The chef deep fries Brussels Sprouts and dresses them with frizzled prosciutto, shaved Parmesan, toasted walnuts and a brief dribble of olive oil. My spin is shallow-fried in a cast iron skillet, keeping the Brussels crisp-tender and caramelized, with crumbled bacon, Asiago, the walnuts and olive oil and a bright squirt of lemon!

One big happy calorie, gratefully inspired!

Gastropub Brussels Sprouts

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piece of toast

February 22nd, 2015

Some things are just so simple good, assuming one can use an adjective to modify an adjective, that a simply expressed single word can sum up the experience, to wit, “wow”.

Sunday lunch snack, after a challenging week of ice and snow, consisted of a simple tartine (piece of toast), topped with cream cheese, hot-smoked salmon, freshly pickled red onion, fried capers, and a drizzle of olive oil.

A picture is worth a thousand words, so I shan’t say anything more.

Smoked Salmon Tartine with Pickled Red Onion and Fried Capers

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alternate routes

February 8th, 2015

I spent the afternoon plotting an overland journey around the world in eighty days, based on Jules Verne’s adventure novel from 1873. The biggest challenge is getting from Cairo to Bombay by way of Suez without stepping foot or toe into Saudi Arabia and that’s when my plotting hit the wall. An escorted trip to northern India might be more practical, but not nearly so thrilling.

In the meantime, I can eat the way Verne’s character, Phileas Fogg, might have done, on and off slow trains and slower freighters and the place to begin is with an unleavened flatbread called Paratha, whose pedigree dates from Vedic Sanskrit.  Housewives and boat cooks of South Asia make this fresh every morning.

To accompany the Paratha, a ground nut and pepper paste from Syria and perhaps a new version of Hummus with the addition of roasted garlic and Feta cheese wouldn’t go amiss. Some crunchy baked chick peas, fresh crudité, and a generous drizzle of olive oil adorn the plate and I am in for an adventure.

Paratha, Hummus, and Muhammara

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