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!

Author: slicesofquinceblog

Hello, Thank you for visiting my blog. My name is Fadia. Fadia, like “Nadia” but with an F as in “Food”. Food is a passion of mine, bordering on an obsession. It has kept me sane (and well-nourished) during a long and crazy career in the food business. I live in Washington, D.C. with my husband, where our two daughters were born and raised and where, they learned to spend hours in the kitchen watching, experimenting, learning, cooking and baking. Food has been the thread and fabric of my relationships with people who, like me, have researched its nourishing and healing powers and have shared their knowledge in underserved or “over-served” communities, or who simply are thrilled with the joys of cooking. I grew up in Beirut, Lebanon, in a household and a family of cooks, or should I say, in a country of fiercely competitive cooks (I will probably write about Middle-eastern cooking as adapted to the U.S. kitchen). I moved to New York in my twenties and there I began my life-long exploration of world cuisines while still perfecting the art of cooking elaborate and healthy dishes in a jiffy and on a budget. We never succumbed to frozen dinners— O.K. maybe, a frozen pizza on the occasional Friday night. This is America after all! I cook just about everyday. I have had many teachers and many mentors, and I have taught and mentored many. I am still discovering and learning. It’s a never-ending joyful process. I also cook for distraction and have cooked professionally as instructor and demonstrator. I am setting up a burgeoning business as a freelance recipe tester and developer and a food writer and photographer. (Bring on the requests! I am available for hire). In this blog I plan to share photos, recipes and stories. Most of all I would like to honor all my kitchen heroes who have and continue to inspire me. I would like it to develop into a forum of exchange between friends, a resource for tips, information and ideas. Finally, I must mention that I do not do this without a twang of shame. I‘ll mention it and move on, hoping that perhaps later, I could dedicate more time and writing to it. The dark side of food, is the lack of it, bringing on malnutrition, disease and hunger to billions around the globe and right here in our own backyards. Our culture has also contributed to devastating food disorders that are very hard to ignore. As much as food brings us joy, the lack of it brings devastation. I never forget that. I would like to think that while we relish our beautiful dishes and our gorgeous photos of elegantly plated food, we can take a moment to read a HUNGER blog or two and help the people and organizations that dedicate their lives to this universal cause. Each of us food fanatics can. Please start now, start thoughtfully . I know I shall. With gratitude. F.

2 thoughts on “Tireless Food Explorer”

  1. So glad to see you are still blogging. I thought I had signed up to to get your newest posts but only happened on this hunger-inducing one when you commented on mine. I will subscribe again.

    Hope you are well, Nancy Wolf
    WittyWorriedandWolf

    Like

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