Wednesday, July 28, 2010

THE EATING CONUNDRUM

When I began “Cooking with Jeanne,” the grand plan was to shed light on Mom’s humor and wisdom through food. I never expected to receive a similar gift in return.

Over the last few months, friends and family have contacted me to recount their own Jeanne anecdotes. Each time I hear a new story or a new insight into Mom’s personality, I feel like I’ve struck gold. With each email, my memory of her grows more vivid. Thank you everyone. Keep ‘em coming!

A note from our friend Marie Savatierre perfectly captured Mom’s love affair with food. Marie wrote: “She had a way of making whatever dish she made sound literally mouth-wateringly good, just by saying its name. Something about the way she relished food translated into how she pronounced the title and lingered over certain syllables.” Exactly, M!

Alas, there was a price to pay for such passion. Mom could grow a bit overzealous in her appreciation of food, resulting in a lifelong battle with weight. So annoying! Can you relate? As her offspring, I can relate all too well.

One afternoon, when I was home on break from college, Mom and I were tooling around Westchester searching for a fun activity that didn’t involve food. We landed at a nail salon, a trend still in its infancy at the time. Mom had always had short nails that broke easily. She explained this to the manicurist, who launched into a rapid description of the near-surgical procedure required for long, luxurious nails. To which Mom only replied: “Credit cards?” Fifty dollars later, Jeanne grinned shamelessly as she brandished ten bright-red acrylic tips. It became an expensive habit that she eventually kicked. Easier to lose 10 fake nails than 10 pounds, I tell you.

I am not harping on Mom’s weight to be cruel. It’s just that I cannot write an honest blog about her without touching on the D-I-E-T topic. Mom tried them all with varying success. Depressing, you might say. But here’s the thing: Mom may have battled her weight, but she actually knew a lot about health and nutrition. Years of dieting and a medical background taught her intellectually what worked (Weight Watchers and portion control), and what didn’t (diet pills, and binging on fat-free cookies). She just simply liked to eat a lot. As do I.

Mom was, in fact, an expert at cooking healthy food that tasted great. During one of her successful Weight Watchers periods, Mom and her friend cooked a low-cal Thanksgiving dinner. I heard it was amazing. (I was five at the time, which means I probably only ate mashed potatoes and green beans.) She also did a wonderful job of teaching her children to enjoy a wide variety of fresh foods. I continue to teach myself not to eat too much.

In that vein, I thought I would share some of the healthier recipes I came up with lately –ones that celebrate delicious food without breaking the calorie bank. Here are a couple good ones:


Soft Fish Tacos

A friend gave me this great, fast recipe for tilapia, a Godsend because I’ve always loved tilapia’s price tag, but hate how I prepare it. I added the cabbage after tasting the fish tacos at Mermaid CafĂ©, a dish I highly recommend. Cabbage adds a nice crunch.

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients:
• ½ teaspoon cumin
• ½ teaspoon salt
• 1 ¼ lb tilapia
• 1 tablespoon canola oil
• 4 cups spinach
• 1-2 cups finely shredded cabbage (Think cole slaw fine)
• ½ cup plain non-fat yogurt
• 2 teaspoons lime juice
• 1/8 teaspoon cayenne (I also add some smoked paprika)
• 4 burrito-size tortillas (I like Tumaro’s whole wheat. 1 point on Weight Watchers)

Directions:
1. Pre-heat oven to 300 degrees. Wrap tortillas in tin foil, and place in oven. Allow them to heat until just before serving.
2. Combine the cumin and salt and sprinkle over fish.
3. Heat the oil in a skillet over medium heat; add fish and cook 4 to 5 minutes per side, or until cooked through. Remove from pan.
4. Add the spinach to the pan with only water from washing clinging to its leaves. Cook, tossing constantly for 1 to 2 minutes, or until the spinach is uniformly wilted. Remove from pan.
5. Combine the yogurt, lime juice, and cayenne in a small bowl. Use half to toss with cabbage.
6. Slice fish into thin strips.
7. Remove tortillas from oven. Working one at a time, lay a tortilla flat on your work surface. Place cabbage mixture on one half, add one quarter of the spinach and tilapia, and top with remaining dressing. Close the taco by folding in half and press down lightly. Serve immediately.


Frozen Banana Whip

I stumbled upon this at a JCC Manhattan cooking class. Turns out whipped frozen bananas are creamy and smooth, and will fulfill your ice cream cravings like a dream. Also a great option for the lactose intolerant.

Yields: 2 servings

Ingredients:
• Two bananas, broken into 2 inch pieces and frozen for at least an hour.
• 1 tablespoon, maple syrup

Directions:
1. Put bananas and maple syrup in food processor.
2. Whip until smooth. (You may need to add a bit more liquid, either syrup or a drop of water)
3. Eat IMMEDIATELY. This stuff turns to mush after 30 minutes.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

SUMMER SIMPLY

As the summer days melt together, I’ve grown increasingly lax in my blogging duties. My indolence stems partly from the season. Why bother planning meals when I can be frolicking outside? But the other problem is that Mom’s recipe box has very little to offer in the way of summer meals.

At first, I kept shuffling through her notes certain I missed something. What I found were a handful of fruity dessert recipes from friends and family, but nothing to frame a meal around. Tasty as Graham Kerr’s Mango Whip sounds, it doesn’t do me much good on a random Tuesday night. Then I remembered Mom’s typical summer menu –hamburgers on the grill, corn on the cob, and salad. Summers were simple. No recipe required.

Instead of looking to the past for inspiration, I decided to share some of my favorite ad hoc summer meals. I’ll start with last night: I made broiled fish, a zucchini/tomato salad, and old-fashioned potato salad. No formal recipes came into play. However, the meal reflects my efforts to eat seasonally and –when I can make it to the Farmer’s Market—buy local produce. I know, I know! Cue the eye roll. No one wants to read another preachy article about "Why I am a better person for eating ecologically." But guess what? Summer –not to mention fall, winter, and spring— is more fun when you eat mostly what’s in season. Come mid-July, I get to visit the Farmer’s Market, spot a stalk of zucchini, and say: “Ooooh, it’s zucchini time!” Feels sort of like unpacking Christmas ornaments each December, an annual event to be anticipated and savored.

Also, one of the cool things about New York City is that Greenmarkets pop up all over. (For locations: http://www.cenyc.org/ourmarkets) Sometimes when I’m in the midst of a good aforementioned frolic, I’ll run across a Farmer’s Market. Like the one on 97th Street, between Amsterdam and Columbus Avenues on Fridays! Who knew? Sort of like a game.

Anyway, seasonal food is best when minimally prepared. Even better. As Jeanne would say: “It’s too %&#! to cook anyway.” She then might even grow impatient with me, and demand: “Enough preaching. Let’s eat!” Without further adieu, here’s what I made:

ZUCCHINI-TOMATO SALAD
• 1 zucchini, sliced thin
• 1 yellow squash, sliced thin
• 2 tomatoes, sliced into inch-wide strips (I used heirloom, which are rare, expensive, and awesome. But soon, good tomatoes will be plentiful.)
• Handful of fresh basil, coarsely chopped
• 1 Tbsp of olive oil
• 2 tsp of Balsamic vinegar (or enough for a 2-second drizzle)
• Salt and pepper

Heat oil in skillet
Sautee zucchini and squash until softens, add salt and pepper
Let cool, so warm not hot
Toss zucchini and squash with tomatoes and basil
Drizzle Balsamic vinegar over mixture
Serve as salad or on top of fish or chicken

OLD-FASHIONED POTATO SALAD
This is basic potato salad with one twist: Instead of sour cream, I used nonfat plain yogurt. Cuts down on the fat a bit, but maintains a creamy texture.

• 3/4 lb small potatoes
• 1 stalk celery, diced
• ½ red onion, diced
• ¼ cup mayonnaise
• ¼ cup nonfat plain yogurt
• 1 Tbsp Dijon mustard
• 1 Tbsp cider vinegar (rice vinegar is also nice)
• 1 tsp celery seed
• Salt and pepper

Boil potatoes until cooked through, but not too soft
Let cool, and then slice in halves (I often cook them in the morning, and then make the salad closer to dinner)
Combine mayo, yogurt, Dijon, and add cider vinegar while mixing. Add celery seed, salt, and pepper
Toss potatoes with celery and onion
Pour dressing over potatoes and toss well.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

My Life As a Cultural Chameleon

As you know, Mom was a xenophile. (How awesome that I actually got to use that word in the right context!?) She was not, however, particularly well traveled, nor was she a great student of foreign cultures. In fact, the closest Mom ever came to actually learning a new language was when she signed up for a Yiddish class to learn how to say “Oy Gevalt” properly. As soon as she found out it was an actual language, Mom dropped that class faster than a hot latke. (Ba-Dum-Bump!)

But when it came to eating like a native, Mom was a pro. As I mentioned before, she spent a good part of the 80s and 90s pretending to be Italian. This mainly involved dropping the last vowel from words for Italian food, such as “mozzarell” or "manicott.” There was also a time when Jeanne was a little bit Chinese too. She regularly attended Chinese cooking classes, and mastered the art of stir-frying in a wok.

At one point during the Chinese period, she and my Uncle Will prepared a breathtaking Chinese banquet for all of the cousins. At this time, Chinese restaurants in the United States were one step above Chop Suey and loaded with MSG. You can only imagine the reaction a dish like cold sesame noodles received from the family. Actually, the only one who really gawked was my Uncle Bill Knox, who insisted on stabbing his dumpling with a single chopstick and offered to take me to McDonald’s. But guess what? The man ate every last bite of food on his plate. Perhaps Mom and Will did more for US-Sino relations than they realized. (Uncle Will, if you still have any of those recipes, please send them my way!)

I am proud to say that I have inherited my mother’s passion for cultural chameleon-ism. I am half-Jewish and half-Catholic, so the role suits me well. When I married into a Jewish family, I became the best Jewish wife ever. And, since my brother married into an Indian family, I also fancy myself an Indian. You should see me rock out to the Hindi tunes.

Naturally, I was delighted when my friend Hagere, who hails from Ethiopia, offered to teach me how to make one of her wonderful dishes. Last fall, Hagere created a stir at a potluck dinner when she brought a steaming pot of chicken and hard-boiled eggs stewed in a brilliant red, spicy broth. She served it with Injera, the staple bread in Ethiopia. Injera has a spongy consistency, but is so flat and malleable that many people actually use it as a tablecloth upon which to serve the food. To put it eloquently, it’s awesome.

Unfortunately, the bread takes three days to make, so Hagere and I decided to focus on the chicken dish. On a hot afternoon, she came to my house bearing two gifts: a spice called berbere and a seasoning known as mekelsha. Berbere is a fresh-ground pan-roasted spice mix that typically contains equal parts allspice, cardamom, cloves, fenugreek, ginger, black pepper, and salt with a heavy dose of cayenne pepper. All you really need to know is that it’s super-duper spicy and gives Hagere’s chicken its rich color. Mekelesha tastes a lot like all-spice. Neither can be obtained in the U.S. However, you could use smoke Spanish paprika with a blend of the aforementioned spices and ground all-spice as substitutes.

After about an hour of watching Hagere expertly mince and stir, we produced this gorgeous stew pictured to the left. Can you believe it? That night, I even followed her instructions and cooked up some spinach with onions, garlic and ginger as a side dish. We used flat bread from Costco as a substitute for Injara. However, Hagere tells me you can order Injara fresh at www.zelaleminjera.com.

Watch out, Ethiopia. I am so going there to meet my new peeps.

Hagere’s Chicken Stew

Ingredients
1 chicken without skin, quartered
1 lemon, sliced
¼ cup olive oil
1 to 2 onions, finely chopped
2 Tbsp of fresh ginger, finely chopped
3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 can of tomato paste or 3 plum tomatoes, finely chopped
2 cups of water (add more as needed)
2 Tbsp of Spanish paprika (blended with mix of allspice, cardamom, cloves, fenugreek, ginger, black pepper, and salt to taste)
Salt and pepper
1 Tbsp of Ground All-Spice

Directions
• Soak chicken in cold water and lemon, and dry completely. Set aside
• Heat onion, ginger and garlic in large pot, until softened.
• Add olive oil, and continue to heat on medium flame until nearly very soft (perhaps 15 to 20 minutes)
• Add paprika with spice blend and stir; Add tomato or tomato paste and continue to blend. Add little bit of water to avoid burning.
• Continue to heat and stir until onion, ginger, and garlic are no longer recognizable (It should look as though you put it through a blender)
• Add chicken, and fry in sauce for roughly 15 minutes. Turn frequently, so sides brown evenly.
• Add salt and pepper.
• Once chicken is browned, add 1 cup of water. Let cook for 30 to 40 minutes until cooked through and tender.
• (Optional: Add hard-boiled eggs)
• Add all-spice and mix.
• Serve with rice, Injara, or flat bread.

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