Pragmatic Cooking

My daughters' gouache paintings from nursery days: learning their fruit and vegetables at an early age. 

Cooking was a creative outlet when I was raising children and feeding a family. I payed attention to my kids’ diet, encouraged them to start cooking at an early age while teaching them to make healthy choices. We became a family of healthy food fanatics with gourmet inclinations.

I miss family dinners at the table when we gathered to talk about our days and simply enjoy each other’s stories, jokes and nonsense—not that it was always fun: there were laughs and there were tears, like any family.
Now that it is me and hubby alone, I find myself cooking less often, shopping once a week and sticking to basics. I still feel the obligation to assemble something nutritious every evening. I am over-saturated with food blogs and images of stylized dishes and staged ingredients. I tire of cookbooks and food networks. But having a variety of good ingredients and fresh produce is still a must in my books.
Other than the mandatory nightly fresh green salad, my secret is to shop and process once a week. Get it over with in one go—and this applies when cooking for one, two or four. Of course I supplement with frozen veggies, canned beans, a precooked chicken breast from a deli I trust, and fish has to be cooked and consumed within a day, unless it is smoked.

Step #1: Adopt a routine of shopping once a week for the basics. Go to a Farmers’ Market every other week at least, to find inspiration and stimulate your appetite with seasonal produce. Then spend a day in the kitchen “processing”. It is best to process the day you shop or the day after, at the very latest.
What is processing you say? That is step #2.
Processing means cleaning, washing, chopping, sautéeing, blanching— everything you can possibly do to make the nightly prep a breeze. Large bunches of greens are reduced in size, stored in containers and refrigerated, onions and other veggies are chopped, sautéed or roasted, chicken breasts are poached or baked.
In a life that has to be grounded in practicality, creative cooking and experimentation go out the window. You distill everything to a matter of survival on a sensible budget and with limited time, resulting in a refrigerator filled with delicious vegetables to nibble on all week. It does not have to be boring!
There will always be a time in one’s life to experiment, learn and explore. Everything takes practice…trial and error too. Save exotic meals for dinner parties with friends or special occasions with family.
When you’re “processing” once a week, you save time, gas and electricity and you have tubs of cooked ingredients to last you the week and beyond. Nothing goes to waste. You can toss your roasted veggies into salads or cooked quinoa, add them to a frozen pie crust with whisked eggs and cream to make a quiche, or stir them into a coconut-milk curry and serve over rice. If nothing else, simply serve them alongside baked fish or a burger (meat or veggie).

 

Roasting Vegetables En Masse

Pre-heat the oven to 350°F.
Broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, beets and sweet potatoes can all go in the oven at the same time.

Beets: Wrap each in foil.
Sweet potatoes: Poke each with a fork several times.Roast them whole or slice them into circles and toss them in a marinade.

Cube the tofu
Broccoli: Cut stems from the crowns and separate crowns into small florets. Same with Cauliflower.

Toss vegetables in a marinade and lay them out on baking sheets lined with parchment or foil.

Marinade #1: for every 3 cups of chopped veggies
1 Tablespoon oil  and 1 Tablespoon Lemon Juice
1 teaspoon Curry powder
1 teaspoon Cumin
1/2 teaspoon Garlic powder
1/4 teaspoon Salt

Marinade #2: For a block of Tofu (cubed) or 3 cups of Broccoli Florets
2 Tabelspoons Soy Sauce
1 Tablespoon Oil
1 Tablespoon Lime juice
1 Tablespoon Honey and 1 Tablespoon Ginger

Make three or four  times the marinade if you plan to roast a lot of vegetables at once, place the chopped veggies in a bowl—keep vegetables separate for roasting, some might cook faster than others—drizzle the marinade a little at a time and toss until coated.
Use your judgement by adding a little more oil or more marinade. Make up your own! If you are a purist, skip the marinade and drizzle your vegetable with oil, salt and pepper and toss.

As for cooking time, whole sweet potatoes can take as long as 45 minutes. The rest will only take 15 to 30 minutes. Check after 15 minutes, toss things around and continue for a few more minutes. Check your produce with a fork or sharp knife to determine their doneness.

Cool, store in containers and refrigerate.

Honoring Diversity

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It has been eighteen months since I left my job with Whole Foods Market. I don’t miss the place. But I do miss the people.

What I loved most about WFM* was its grass-roots approach to marketing. Each store had a local feel, catering to the immediate community it served. As everyone knows, WFM encouraged sampling. Part of my job was to plan and create sampling events revolving around holidays and seasons. The most popular event at “my” store by far was the celebration of world cuisines. It was as popular with team members as it was with customers.

Celebrating our team members’ diversity was important. Keeping us happy was one of the company’s core values (WFM is not unionized). It was a tremendous amount of work, but believe it or not, not a huge monetary investment. In return we had happy team members, who came together, taking pride in their own cuisines and cheering each other on. They were on the clock, they were to use ingredients from the store and although it was work, it was out of the daily routine. Instead of being robots cranking the gears of a money making machine, they were human, talented, and creative individuals sharing their own food with a community of world citizens they worked with and customers they served.

My job was to coordinate, plan and promote, armed with a spreadsheet that included names and countries of origin, the list of dishes to be prepared, the number of tables needed. The recipes had to be written, the ingredients had to be shopped and paid for by the marketing budget which I controlled. Signage, posters and name badges needed to be designed, printed and distributed.

The exchange that went on between us was invaluable. We learned so much from one another. Sharing our traditions, our family history and status, our life’s journeys. I don’t believe we ever felt happier and more connected. Due to its popularity, the event had to be divided into two shifts with six to seven stations each, while our Saturday business had to go on as usual. My team had to roll out the stations, set up tables with signage, flowers and flags, serving utensils and sample cups and then clean up and reorganize half-way through the day for the next shift.

Over the years we sampled Fantu’s Ethiopian Dorowat, Paul’s Scotch Broth and Elizabeth’s  “Queen’s Soup” from the Netherlands. Miss Molly made Stew Peas from Jamaica, Brian made spicy Stewed Chicken from Trinidad and Elaine served a Pineapple Ginger-ade for cooling relief. Moses sampled Chapati from Tanzania, Yacine made Fataya (fish or meat pies) from Senegal and Gerard couldn’t have taken more pride in serving  his Lazy Boy Casserole or the best North Carolina BBQ pulled Pork you’d ever tasted.

From El Salvador we had Freddy, Edith, Jose and Wilmer make, stuffed Chayote Squash, fried Plantains and Yucca and Pastelitos de Pina. From Poland, Tom served Bigos. Isabelle, from Burkina-Faso, fried Black Eyed Pea Puffs in front of customers, while dressed to the nines in her beautiful blue kaftan and turban. Fatim and Solange served Peanut Butter Soup from the Ivory Coast and Miss Francis spooned out her richest American Bread Pudding to rival Donovan’s Sweet Potato Pudding from Jamaica. Stella made a fabulous Romanian salad, Kay, a celebration rice from India. From the Middle-East we alternated representation between Egypt, Lebanon and Palestine. But the one country that always took the prize was Morocco. Year after year, Khalid went all out with a Tagine of a whole fish, a Couscous with lamb and vegetables and a variety of salads. He alone would require two tables to accommodate his sweeping spread.

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Each year’s event was met with enthusiasm and growing excitement. Preparations became easier and entries more competitive. We celebrated good food, healthy food and world cuisines. But most of all we relished our diversity and our ability to have fun together, to work together and appreciate one another. Our workplace was a microcosm of what makes this country so great. It breaks my heart to witness the political change today that is unfolding before our eyes.

I am grateful for the meaningful exchange between fellow team members that touched our lives for a short while. We shared our fears and joys, our stories of hardship and success, and bonded by sharing our own healing home-cooked food.


On a side note WFM has changed as well: as competition grew, the company changed its marketing strategy, cut labor and steered its marketing dollars in a different direction. And with that, our jobs and events were the babies thrown out with the bathwater.


*WFM opened in DC in 1996 as Bread & Circus and a couple of years later the company bought up Fresh Fields and adopted the name for all the Mid-Atlantic stores. It was not until 2003 that WFM unified all the natural food chains it had acquired under the Whole Foods Market brand.

RANT and REMEDY

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Photo © Fadia Jawdat 2017

I lost my appetite on November 8, 2016. I lost my focus as well. My heart was broken. Frequently, my eyes welled up with tears. Kitchen life reflected my despair and translated into a total disinterest in food writing and meal preparation, even the produce at the Farmers’ Market lost its appeal.

Luckily there was a welcome distraction: a family visit starting in mid-December and ending January 1st. A family visit that was to become the perfect escape from reality, setting aside, for a while, all anxieties and fears of things to come. Two weeks of house guests indulging in excess: Celebrating family, togetherness, tolerance, cooperation and love.

I cannot remember what we cooked: providing variety was a must to accommodate the different diets: There were omnivore teens with large appetites, one vegan, vegetarians, meat eaters and mindfull eaters, gourmets and gourmands.  But I do remember numbers and quantities: feeding ten daily and up to eighteen occasionally. There were slabs of fresh and smoked salmon, heaps of pasta, pots of rice and beans, loads of vegetables and fruit, platters of cheese, stacks of pancakes and bagels, and our very own family Christmas tradition of endless supplies of Mulukhia, baklawa, chocolate and wine.

Family and friends contributed, sharing in the purchase of ingredients, the prepping, cooking, setting up and cleaning up. Generosity and kindness were a daily exchange. Laughter, hugs and tears were the modus operandi.

Then came January.

My family’s departure left me empty and forlorn. The blinders had to come off eventually. I woke up from my food coma. Awareness replaced oblivion and reality crept back into our lives. Like a beached whale, I vowed to stay away from cookies, chocolate and cheese and to march and protest instead. I had enough leftovers to last me for weeks. Stepping into the kitchen or standing at a stove or a sink made me uneasy.

January was to be frugal. The nightmare we awaited had arrived and had turned into reality. No safety net can protect us. No chocolate or wine can shield us. Images of the future made my stomach turn.

January was frugal, lean and austere. February might very well be the same as well. I search for comfort. Starches have to be avoided, sugar and fat too. I am lucky I still have the freedom of choice.

Soups are what bring me solace during the winter months. They’re a meal in a bowl with all the nutrition and the healing one needs. I like to make a big enough batch to divide and freeze or to last me a few days. I love lentils soups of all sorts and colors, potato leek (without the cream), curried carrot and parsnip soup, but most of all I love the puree of black bean I have made for years. It is silky in texture, deep and layered in flavor and a tablespoon of Sherry drizzled over each bowl will hit the spot!  Use a garnish or two to brighten this warm and soothing bowl of soup: a slice of lemon, a pinch of chopped cilantro or parsley and some grated carrot.

Read the recipe and use it as your guide, but remember you’re the boss. You taste and you adjust spices or add more broth or water to loosen things up. You can make it a day or two ahead. And by the way, if you have a leftover batch of thick soup, mix in some sour cream or tahini and serve it as a black bean dip or “hummus” with tortilla or pita chips!

Black Bean Soup
Serves 8

Ingredients:
2 Tablespoons Vegetable Oil
1 large Onion, chopped
5 medium size Carrots, chopped
3-4 Celery stalks, chopped
3 tablespoons Oregano
3 teaspoons Cumin
1 teaspoon Salt
1 teaspoon Black Pepper (a dash of Cayenne if desired)
4 cans Black Beans
5 cups Vegetable Broth
8 cloves Garlic
1/4  to 1/2 cup Lemon Juice
Sherry and garnish (lemon slices, sour cream chopped parsley or cilantro, grated carrot)

Method:
Chop onions, garlic, carrots and celery. You can use a food processor for speed and ease.
In a large pot, heat oil and saute onions, garlic, carrots and celery. Add oregano and cumin.
Add broth slowly stirring and bringing to a boil. simmer covered for 10 minutes. Add all the beans, salt to taste and simmer for 15-20  minutes. Adjust seasoning.
Let cool a little then blend with an immersion blender. (food processor can be used in batches). Add lemon juice to taste, and loosen with additional broth to desired consistency.
Drizzle a tablespoon of Sherry in each bowl.
Garnish with a slice of lemon or a dollop of sour cream, chopped parsley or cilantro and grated carrots for color.
Serve with Tortilla chips if desired.

Christmas Revisited

My mom Loo-oved Christmas! Going all out, she began her Christmas baking in November. First came the dark fruit cake that soaked in brandied cotton cloth for a month. Later, all the different varieties of cookies and Christmas Stollen* would follow in December. When my mother moved to DC, she gave it all up.

I am not a baker but I tried to keep up some traditions especially when the kids were young. Year after year, the gestures, the decorations, the cooking and the baking would gradually get distilled and simplified. The only tradition that was somehow created here under my own roof, was the cookie decorating sessions. I would make the ginger bread cookie dough, roll, cut, bake and store. Then, once everyone was gathered, I’d make the royal icing, color it with natural food dyes and let everyone go to work.

My home is the meeting place for mother, siblings, family and sometimes in-laws. But Christmas happens late in our household: a direct result of a retail job that exhausted me year after year and totally sucked the joy out the holidays. I drag my feet and lack enthusiasm. Our family preparations for Christmas are just more work. We find ourselves, the last people in a darkened lot, scurrying around for the “perfect” tree, while attendants turn off lights and pack up for the year.

Christmas Eve menu is (vaguely) discussed to accommodate the vegans and the meat eaters, the traditionalist, the liberals and the rebels.  Shopping happens last minute. It involves multiple family members, young and old, tagging along for the experience of frenetic holiday shopping and to haggle over who should foot the bill.

Cookie decorating takes place hours before dinner, while putting up the tree. It’s a mad rush to make it all happen. We gather some friends and neighbors to add to the mix. Our dinner is thrown together haphazardly and chaotically—Martha Stewart would die! My mother would be somewhat disapproving— calling us “crazy”.

But we manage and we PARTY! The evening itself is an improvisational act: a mishmash of a Hawaiian luau with leis, African music, Christmas crackers, paper hats and crowns, pork tenderloin and tuna steaks. Don’t ask. A hodgepodge of people, food and drink, music and conversation. It couldn’t be more eclectic and off the wall if we tried!

My mother passed away two Christmases ago. We spent that Xmas week sadly at the hospital by her side or huddled together at home around the dining table quietly staring at a thousand-piece puzzle, trying to make conversation. Downing the drinks, we waited for a better prognosis, but the inevitable came as a shock, despite of our high hopes for a miracle.

Xmas 2015 was avoided: my husband, our two daughters and I spent five days in Tulum for a change of scene, only to come back with a bad case of food poisoning.

This year, we give Christmas another try. We begin a new cycle, by reopening the circle of life.  With my parents gone I have a mission to accomplish: our family spirit of togetherness and generosity, the care and the love we inherited must live on… and so must the baking. It began two weeks ago. It helps that I no longer have my retail job.

I considered attempting my mother’s delicious fruitcake, but it didn’t take long to nix that thought. Sorry mom! I made tiny stars and gingerbread men, some “undecorated”—for the children to do their thing. I also made Pfeffernusse, German spice cookies, inspired by my aunt Mona’s that would arrive every year by post, until, she too, could not bake any longer. I made my own candied lemon peel. I couldn’t bear to use any store-bought lemon peel with sulphur dioxide and other added junk. And although the recipe recommends freshly ground spices, there was no chance in a million that I would grind cinnamon bark and whole cloves—I do not have an electric spice grinder. I draw the line at black pepper and perhaps cardamom. For nutmeg, I use a micro plane but that is it. The rest of my spices come already ground in a jar.

I am contemplating making Chewy Molasses Cookies which I tried at a holiday party last week. The recipe is from Bon Appetit. Maybe, I should wait for my sister and my baking-loving daughter to arrive. Perhaps they will enjoy the experience of bonding over cookie-making. I think my job is almost done, the baking I have accomplished so far is probably sufficient. Delegating is a good thing. It channels guilt, teaches others responsibility and definitely relieves me from stress.

No matter how hard I try to make things right, I expect the inevitable emotional effervescence of my family to bubble over with its dysfunctions, its insecurities and anxieties, like it has at times in the past. But many of our elders are gone and we will miss them always. This year is the beginning of a new dynamic. I brace myself not knowing what to expect. Come what may…. Bring it on.

One thing’s for certain, I made some cookies and next year I will get better at it. The best is yet to come. I will keep you posted.

I highly recommend the Chewy Molasses cookies. If it’s not too late, try them both. The ingredients are almost the same which makes for a more economical use of ingredients. Here are the links:

The recipe for the Pfeffernusse is from an old Saveur
Bon Appetit’s Chewy Molasses Cookies
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*Stollen: German Christmas bread.

 

Michelle Obama

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After November 8th, I dropped off the face the earth—at least I wanted to.
My silence and paralysis reflected my grief. In the face of the electoral tsunami and national disaster I could not go on about my business. Who cared about my personal memories of childhood foods, moms and grandmas in the kitchen, when the future of the healthy food movement seemed grim if not frightfully dubious?

Yet there I was, like a mourner at a wake, searching for any comforting memory—some beautiful moment in the past eight years that had brought us excitement and hope.
Yes! There! There was a book in my library that illustrated the simple and lovely story of an inspirational figure who supported the healing of an ailing nation of children with little or no access to healthy foods, whether at school or at home. It is the story of First Lady, Michelle Obama, who played a leading role in the strategy against a national health epidemic.

Sadly, the story begins with Americans dining on junk, processed foods and sugary sodas for decades. Although there were warnings and noises made by several individuals who began to make changes in their own lives and in their local communities, Mrs. Obama’s very first project to establish a kitchen garden at the White House validated the concerns over the health crisis. With that simple project, gathering the White House staff and the National Park services, she created a garden that would become a symbol and a model for the nation. She put a stamp of approval on all the work done before her and fueled the creation of new nationwide health initiatives, programs and partnerships* in the private, public or non-profit sectors: they would develop strategies to fight childhood obesity and disease and ensure food accessibility to more people. Between her own “Let’s Move!” campaign and the administration’s Healthy Food Financing Initiative* we were on our way to finding solutions and channeling resources for the country’s children and their families who were at risk.

The White House Garden (a summary of the story in the book**)

During World War II, while most canned foods were being shipped to the troops and civilians in Europe, many Americans began planting their own vegetable gardens, known as “Victory Gardens” which produced 40% of America’s food. At the time, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt managed to pull off a small symbolic Victory Garden at the White House. But by the 1950’s gardens were abandoned and supermarket and processed foods dominated the American diet.

Over the years, Presidents and First Ladies, took some interest in the White House garden: John Adams tried, but his idea for a kitchen garden never saw fruition after he lost reelection. Then Thomas Jefferson, an avid gardener, experimented with potted plants inside the White House but focused his hobby mostly on the grounds of Monticello. The first rectangular Rose Garden was planted by First Lady Ellen Wilson but later changed and improved under President John F. Kennedy. Franklin Roosevelt asked F. L. Olmsted Jr. to design a plan for the grounds. The South Lawn was thus created. And although a few herbs and tomatoes were grown for the Carters, the Clintons and President George Bush, no one had actually grown food at the White House.

With Michelle Obama’s vision of hope and gentle determination, the White House garden would become a learning resource for schools and organizations, a catalyst to start thoughtful initiatives. Mrs. Obama and students from Washington’s Bancroft Elementary School broke ground on March 20, 2009, two months after the first Obama inauguration. Their first planting was a few days later in April. The garden provided fresh produce for the first family and became an inspiration for people across the nation to start growing gardens of their own, in schools, backyards and in open urban lots.
Two of the thirty-four beds in the garden are dedicated to Thomas Jefferson, the plantings of which were grown from the seeds collected from the gardens of Monticello and given to the First Lady by its head gardener.

The White House also has beehives and harvests about 225 pounds of honey per year. The honey is used in the White House kitchen, donated to Miriam’s Kitchen (a soup kitchen for the homeless in DC), and gifted to visiting dignitaries and heads of state. How sweet is that!

In her book, Mrs. Obama says:
“Our garden also helped us begin a national conversation about the food we eat and the impact it has on our children’s health. Ultimately, the White House Kitchen Garden is an expression of my hopes for them: Just as each seed we plant has the potential to become something extraordinary, so does every child.”**

Will the White House kitchen garden survive under the new administration? I think it should be declared a national monument to be maintained and cherished. It is a small plot of land with a huge and important message and we have Mrs. Obama to thank for that.


* The Healthy Food Financing Initiative, launched by The Obama Administration is a partnership between the U.S. Departments of Treasury, Agriculture and Health and Human Services formed to provide financing for developing and equipping grocery stores, small retailers, corner stores and farmers markets selling healthy food in under-served areas.

**Obama, M. (2012). American Grown: The story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America. New York: Crown Publishers.

The Great Pumpkin

Once October rolls around, out come the pumpkins, filling the bins and crates of every market. Why does the pumpkin have a whole mystique that captivates and enchants? It inevitably has to adorn doorsteps, stoops and porches in every neighborhood.

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All photos© 2016 Fadia Jawdat

The month is almost over, but I am driven to share my own fascination with the iconic pumpkins. I understand the association with Halloween and jack-o’-lanterns to ward off spirits and ghosts. I am neither superstitious (well maybe a little) nor a stickler for tradition but I am still completely smitten and bewitched by their annual arrival, like aliens out of nowhere.

The orange glow of their hard and smooth skin—that is more like a tortoise shell or crustacean carapace with ridges that meet at the base of a scrunched up coarse and sometimes gnarly stem—contrasts ever so vigorously with the grays of the side-walk cement and the washed-out hues of brick and paint of city buildings and townhouses.

The first time I laid eyes on a pumpkin was in an illustrated children’s book, probably the Cinderella story. That is perhaps where the magical entrancement began. I don’t remember ever seeing a real pumpkin until I came to the U.S., although I am sure it grew in Lebanon, but I do not recall any of my family ever eating or cooking with pumpkin.

I have taken my children to pumpkin patches to pick their own. I have carved pumpkins at Halloween events year after year, or turned them in to vessels to hold floral centerpieces for Halloween and Thanksgiving table settings (thank you Martha Stewart). I have taken hundreds of photographs of pumpkins. It’s as though by taking photos, I might break the spell or unveil the secret behind my obsession.

The path to demystification is to get to know your subject. Wikepedia tells me that the U.S. produces 680,000 tons of pumpkins each year and that 95% of the crop intended for processing is grown in Illinois. I’d be blown away by the sheer size of those pumpkin fields and my small iPhone camera will certainly have a hard time wrapping it’s frame around that picture!
I also discovered (see Colonial Williamsburg Journal (CW Journal : Autumn 09 : Some Pumpkins!) that the colonials did not celebrate Halloween. The holiday was brought over to the U.S. by the Irish immigrants in the 19th century along with the jack-0’-lanterns that were originally carved turnips. The article also mentioned that the pumpkin had been, for thousands of years, a nourishing staple both for North and South America’s indigenous people. Pumpkin along with corn and beans was cultivated as part of the three sisters crop (a symbiotic relationship that improved yield). By the mid 1600s the settlers in the colonies were growing their own and incorporating them in their meals.

The plant itself is described as a delicate, thirsty and voracious feeder. It  produces both female and male flowers and depends heavily on pollination by bees. The pumpkin that is cultivated for decoration (not cooking) is just one variety of pumpkin also known as winter squash. They come in all shapes and colors and much is discussed about the difference in flavor and sweetness. Food52 has a post showing all the varieties (in case you have the time and the interest).

It’s not the visual aspect of the fruit alone that thrills me, it’s also the arrival of all things pumpkin in bakeries and stores: pumpkin pie, bread, scones and pumpkin cheesecake. But I draw the line at pumpkin flavored latte in coffee shops! There is pumpkin eggnog and ale… both not for me either.

Yes, I have made curried pumpkin soup and pumpkin scones in my day, I also use some varieties of squash in soups and stews— but I never made a pumpkin pie. Since all confections are ready-made, easily available, delicious and for the most part cheap(-ish?), why bother with the mess. I turn to canned pumpkin puree for some needs or the conveniently peeled and cut winter squash at the markets. But I am encouraged to do try working it from scratch someday when I have time for the ritual. Maybe that will exorcise my enchantment for good.

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Pumpkin kibbeh in the making, with filling (above) and completed and baked (below). All photos© 2016 Fadia Jawdat

Soon after moving to D.C. I discovered that pumpkin kibbeh is a regional Lebanese dish that is found ready-made in Middle-Eastern take-out delis in the suburbs. The small pumpkin kibbeh balls stuffed with spinach, onions and nuts are delicious but too time-consuming to make myself. I recommend The Gourmet Basket in McLean, VA (no, they are not sponsoring this post). Call first to ensure they have enough on hand. They sell out quickly.

One snowy Sunday last February, I tried making the kibbeh “pie” using canned pumpkin puree. It was a lot of work but I had a pair of helping hands: a vegan daughter who was invested in the process in order to reap the benefits. I used the recipe from the Classic Lebanese Cuisine cookbook by Kamal Al-Faqih, but there are others on line including Emeril Lagasse (can you believe it?!) and a multitude of videos ranging from the good, the bad and the funny, showing method and process for making either the balls or the “pie”.

Finally no pumpkin story can go without mention of a longtime (baby-boomer) favorite, the comic strip Peanuts by Charles M. Schulz and the Great Pumpkin, a mythical figure in whom only Linus van Pelt seems to believe. Every Halloween Linus awaits in a pumpkin patch but the Great Pumpkin never appears. Unlike Linus, I know that pumpkins, luckily, will appear every year in October. Wake up Linus, the Great Pumpkin is all around you, focus on what is real. The Great Pumpkin is here in all its magic and all its glory.

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Tireless Food Explorer

Lisa Gershenson. Photo © 2016 Eric Futran

When I met Lisa she had just bagged her career as a therapist and was cooking for small parties and events. I was supplementing my designer income by moon-lighting with a small group of interesting people including my friend Nadra. We tended bar, passed hors-d’oeuvre and served dinner at bar mitzvahs in Westchester, wedding receptions on Park Avenue and UN parties on the Upper East Side. We were hired by several caterers, Lisa was among them. Petite in stature, short, salt and pepper hair, twinkly green eyes, a beaming smile and large dangling earings—which she stroked almost as a nervous tick—she spoke in a husky voice, giving the team clear articulate instruction.

Our professional relationship quickly turned into friendship. Polite conversations were replaced by passionate exchanges over cuisines and markets. Eventually, I was to be invited into her “sanctuary”.  It was there, in her New York apartment on West 73rd and Riverside, that a privileged few had the pleasure to participate in the development of her culinary repertoire. She fretted about upcoming jobs and needed to submit her entire menu for critique before presenting it to clients. We were at least a half dozen women, but diverse enough to represent a reliable cross-section of New York’s demographic profile deeming us the perfect participants and tasters for her “test kitchen”. It was all in good fun: nowhere near a scientific market study, but a forum of friends who were the lucky recipients of Lisa’s huge talent and generosity.

The dining area was separated from a miniscule kitchen by an opening in the wall. The dining table, normally turned into a production area for lack of counter-space, was transformed for the occasion into an elegant setting complete with flowers and candles. We were in one of the world’s greatest culinary capitals sipping our sake or wine, overlooking New Jersey’s glistening skyline and savoring sips of soups, appetizer bites and samplings of entrees. Lisa served one dish at a time in small exquisite bowls. She never missed a beat, never forgot a thoughtful garnish and always announced and explained what was being served. She joined us for a few minutes at  a time, her eyes scanning our faces, intensely deciphering reactions and expressions. We purred over velvety concoctions, hummed to the melodies of tropical salsas and died and went to heaven over her chocolate and ginger confections. That was the time when “fusion” cuisine had begun to surface and that in itself was exhilarating enough. But with Lisa being our master guide, our guru and host, we felt snobbishly enlightened and initiated. Drenched in praise and compliments, our chef checked off another dish from the testing list.

Although I was sad to see her leave New York, Lisa’s culinary career took off after moving to Chicago. She took on one project after another while going back to culinary school and constantly traveling and exploring the world’s markets and eateries in search of knowledge and inspiration.

She and her husband established one of Chicago’s finest catering companies J & L Inc. She later became director of the Community Kitchen program at the Greater Chicago Food Depository. After that she wore many hats in various positions helping out non-profits and consulting for businesses, culinary start-ups and food entrepreneurs. She has been featured in the Chicago Tribune, The Wall Street Journal and Jim Lehrer News Hour on PBS. Her recent  Cook’s Gazette, an online journal which she started a year and a half ago, is the culmination of her life’s achievements and experiences. The content of her articles reflects her generosity of spirit, her curiosity about world markets and cuisines, her openness, her affinity and empathy with cooks from all walks of life bringing their stories, methods and ingredients into the limelight.

She has inspired and mentored many. We have kept in touch and visited each other a few times over the years. We call each other to check in but I often call her in a panic: “what should I do???!! I have twenty people for dinner and a huge whole grouper that will not fit in my oven!”
-“First”, she says, “you pour yourself a glass of wine, take a deep breath, and then you have two choices….”  —On a side note I no longer invite twenty people for dinner and have never again roasted a whole grouper in my oven, not that it wasn’t a success… it’s just that I have chosen to turn my kitchen into a stress-free zone ever since that experience.

Lisa has a gift of making you feel at ease no matter the situation. The wealth of her knowledge appeases all anxiety instantly. She is also tirelessly enthusiastic, always ready to jump in and help. And what do you think we do when we get together? After chatting over a cup of the “elixir of life” (Lisa’s name for the arabic/turkish coffee with cardamom I introduced her to when we first met), we shop the markets, we (she) cook(s) and we (I) eat! On her last visit to DC she made a delicious dinner that we shared with neighbors and friends. On the menu was an eggplant dish which I share below.

“Eggplant is my signature” she says proudly. There are many other eggplant recipes on her website that you might explore and enjoy.

Lisa’s Delicious Way of Making Eggplant 

Ingredients:
1.5 lbs eggplant
1 lb. onion
1 lb. tomato
Half a head of garlic
1 tsp thyme
1 tsp oregano
1/2 cup chopped parsley
Olive oil for tossing* onions and eggplant. You have to eyeball quantities.

Method:
Slice onions thin, toss with olive oil and saute until rich brown.  Do not hurry this step.  Add garlic when onions are almost ready cook 5 minutes or so more, add skinned chopped tomatoes, 1 cup water, herbs, salt and pepper and simmer for 15 minutes covered.

Toss eggplant with olive oil, begin to brown in saute pan and then add water, cover and cook until just soft all the way through.

Combine tomato mixture and eggplant mixture and bake in 350 F oven for around 45 minutes when tomato starts to caramelize.  Good hot, room temp, especially good the next day!