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.

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.

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!

How It All Began

“You have a master’s in design and you work for a grocers?” my mother shrieked in disbelief. Deprived of a college education, she lived vicariously through her children. I was neither the doctor, the engineer nor the lawyer she would have liked to see and I found myself responsible for her shame and humiliation. “anyway, either way (designer/artist or grocer) you’ll die poor”! she said. Thanks Ma, for the vote of confidence !

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“To Market To Market”:  18″ x 14″, acrylic on canvas. © Fadia Jawdat, painted when I first began working in the grocery store.

I worked in design studios for years, until late-night production and demanding clients conflicted with child rearing. As a graphic designer, no salary was hefty enough to pay a caregiver or baby-sitter.  After three to four years at home, two babies and a zillion diaper changes later, I had to get out. A job at a small local grocery store allowed me a flexible schedule. I came home for snack, homework (that came a little later), dinner, bath and bedtime stories. I sometimes worked weekends while my husband (also a graphic designer) took over parental duties. The joy of watching my girls change and grow was more rewarding than the career path I chose initially. Furthermore, I purchased all my groceries at a discount and I was often offered delicious samples to take home for my family.

Learning the retail business was new and different—I am all about new and different. I quickly became part of the grocery crowd. Product sourcing, trade-show ordering, purchasing and merchandising fascinated me. It came naturally: armed with a trained eye and a discerning palate, I developed a knack for predicting consumer and market trends. I read everything on the subject of food. I witnessed, firsthand, the growing industry of gourmet and natural products. My love for food was slowly becoming an obsession and materializing into the making of a career. It was also then that I started writing a newsletter for the store (the grandparent to this blog?), complete with stories, recipes and illustrations. (BTW this was pre-internet and SM days).

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Illustrations by Barry Moyer, Design by Rakan Jawdat and written by yours truly: Summer, Fall and Holiday issues, of a grocery store newsletter, many years ago.

After the small gourmet grocers, I joined the ranks of Whole Foods Market. I worked for the very first WFM store in the mid-Atlantic region. At the time, it opened under the name of Bread & Circus, the name of a North-East chain that WFM had purchased. WFM was highly suspect. Rumors ran wild: The company was a cult, the store was built on an ancient sight of a native American burial ground. The store seemed jinxed in its first few years. It would be in poor taste to go into detail. But I will say that store leadership brought in Feng Shui specialists who smudged every corner, hung crystals and mirrors from every ceiling, turning the store into a shrine, adding insult to injury by fueling those budding suspicions and turning them into a solidly notorious reputation.

My rebellious soul enjoyed being part of this “cultish” company that believed in being humane to animals and kind to the environment.  A progressive form of management allowed each team member to be involved in the decision making process on their teams and to bend over backwards for each and every customer. This was not the union-led grocery business that this region was accustomed to. Any team member could be rewarded monthly for customer service excellence. We could be nominated “rising stars” if we lived up to expectations. After all, team member happiness was part of the company’s core values. I was starry eyed and converted. That was a long time ago. A very long time ago.

The love affair eventually got old. The company grew too fast too soon. Profits took precedent, core values were taking a hit while team members scurried around trying to work harder and harder. We hung in there, diligently trying to keep it real and keep smiling. The growing pains forced WFM to lay off 1500 employees in one fell swoop last October. I was one of them.

Although I still have to work, I’ve chosen to stay away from retail. I want my week-ends back. I want to be home for Thanksgiving and Christmas. There will be stories to tell eventually. But like with PTSD, memory is selective and I prefer not to dig up the most painful. I’m just grateful to have survived the trenches: Fifteen years of missing family-time during the Holidays, while keeping customers from falling apart and trying to stay cool and level-headed among the chaos, the insanity and the hysteria of holiday shopping.

What can I say, Ma? I simply got sucked into it: jumped on that treadmill and didn’t get off until they kicked me off. But I can breath now and I will figure out something and keep on going. That’s what I do. I’ve grown a little cynical and a tad blasé. But I can mine my memory-bank for anecdotes and stories to tell, some delightful and some disturbing. I may be penniless but I have amassed a wealth of knowledge, resources and inspiration. I will also cherish the many amazing encounters, relationships and friendships that I have developed with some of the most unique and wonderful people, customers and colleagues alike.

Another story for another day.

 

Nizar

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Nizar Jawdat “at home”,  posing with lemon tree in front of Villa Manni’s main entrance.

Every afternoon, in Orte, sipping on a home-brewed glass of dried lime tea* (Noomi Basra), Nizar would begin his plans for dinner. He had “troops” to feed: four sons, a wife and numerous friends and guests who were either staying at Villa Manni or dropping by.

Scratching his beard first and his bald head second, he stares at the inside of the refrigerator. He then shuffles towards the pantry. He scans the shelves humming to the tunes of Mozart blasting in the next room: “Andiam! Andiam! Mio bene…**”. He admires the jarred tomatoes that the family had processed just a week before my arrival. “We had red splatterings all over the walls, outdoors, indoors! We harvested so many tomatoes! We turned this kitchen into a factory”, he laughs wholeheartedly.

His pantry is well stocked with tubs of dried beans, sacs of rice and onions, hanging braids of garlic, boxes of Pasta, jars of ghee, pickles and Indian chutney. Returning to the kitchen singing and swaying to the music, he grabs knives and cutting board and begins. Completely zoomed in on his actions, serenading his ingredients, he works away. Chopping, slicing, sautéing, toasting and roasting. Utensils and pans pile up around him. Olive oil, onion and garlic permeate the house with their heavenly aroma. Nothing is ever simple with Nizar. The frenetic activity continues for an hour or two and then suddenly, without warning, he announces: “Let’s have a drink!”  Leaving the mess behind, he sips on his scotch. Moving to the living room, he expects at least a few individuals to come out of the woodwork to join him in enjoying the moment. He lights a Gitanes for effect, and switches the music to Barbara or Piaf. Waving his cigarette around, he reminisces of a world gone by, another era. “Non! Rien de rien, Non! Je ne regrette rien”… He has done his part. Setting the table, making a salad and all other important details of bringing the meal and guests to table are now in the hands of his wife Ellen and any other volunteers willing to lend a hand.

I met Nizar and his family in the summer of 1973. Villa Manni was the family home at the time and his sons converged from university or boarding school to spend the summers. They understood and accepted that they were here to work, helping with the endless project of renovating the old farm house that was purchased many years before, after the family’s flight from Iraq. Ironically (or intentionally) the morning call to action was the blasting sounds of Creedance Clearwater Revival’s Fortunate Son.

I had been invited by fortunate son #3, Rakan, who was a classmate of mine at the American University of Beirut. It was the beginning of a new romance between us and I was feeling slightly nervous about meeting his folks but relieved that no fuss was made over my presence. I was expected to fit right in while everyone went on about their business.

Villa Manni Panorama

Villa Manni is a dream of a place: A massive old stone structure with a terra cotta tile roof nestled into a sunny hillside, fifty minutes North of Rome. The majestic fireplace in the living room competes with the three French windows that open onto a spectacular view of the Tiber valley and its surrounding fields. But the real hearth of the house is the kitchen. It is crude yet charming. Slabs of travertine serve as counter-tops. Pots and pans hang from the ceiling and from metal rods attached to the walls. On one side of the room, two narrow windows frame a huge weeping willow. On the other side, a sunny sill, lined with potted herbs looks out onto a terrace and the green wooded hills beyond where the wild boars roam. A round wooden table in the corner is set with a variety of breakfast choices of cereal, fruit, home-made marmalade, honey, cheese and bread, to welcome guests  emerging at different times of the morning from the three levels of the house. The sun slowly fills the room. A flurry of activity builds to a crescendo and suddenly dissipates.

Cars and bikes zip out onto the pebbled driveway, their humming engines and rumbling motors disappear down the hill towards various destinations: markets, Etruscan or Roman ruins in neighboring towns. The sun rises higher in the sky. The house is still. Now silence reigns for a few hours shattered occasionally by the bark of a dog in the distance or the whistle of a train arriving at the station less than a mile away.

That summer I learned at least a dozen different ways of serving Pasta. I learned to make Pesto, I tasted authentic prosciutto and fresh mozzarella di Buffola for the first time. I ate Riso Nero and the best hand-made Gelato. But I also tasted a few succulent Iraqi and turkish dishes that I would later adopt into my own repertoire. I drank Italian wine, discovered Aperol, Chinotto, zucchini blossoms and dried lime tea.

Nizar prefers to be alone in the kitchen, uninterrupted and undisturbed. He does not share his secrets. He gathers inspiration from Italian, French, Indian, Turkish or Iraqi recipes. If you ask, his answers are politely vague and shrouded in mystery. He has an extensive library of cookbooks yet he engages in bold experimentation. He allows his creative genius to take over, leaving the world’s famous chefs behind, while he concocts the sublime, the magical and the original dishes. An artist in the kitchen he pushes the envelope like he does with his life and lifestyle while relishing every moment.

The only way to learn from him would be to watch him. But the frenetic activity and the unbelievable mess he creates around him is a deterrent even for the most patient of fans. Besides, “Out of the kitchen!” are the words he often hurls at anyone peaking their head in the doorway. Nizar’s greatest gift to my culinary education was that recipes were not necessarily followed. A cook can deviate from the norm interpreting methods, substituting ingredients, using gut and palate as guide and drawing inspiration from the world’s cuisines and flavors. While my mother and grandmothers, had set the stage and established the foundation, Nizar encouraged me down a path of enlightened exploration.

If only I could tell him that now.

Nizar lies silently in bed in Washington, D.C. He no longer recognizes his sons and family. His eyes are shut tight. I hope he dreams of his Orte kitchen, of cooking and singing to Mozart, Piaf, Umm Kulthum and Nathem Al-Ghazali, an Iraqi singer he yearned to listen to during his last lucid years.


*Dried Lime Tea.
from The Splendid Table

IMG_0302
Photo©2016 Fadia Jawdat

Ingredients
2 dried limes (loomi Omani)
4 cups water
1/4 cup sugar, or to taste

Instructions
1. Break the limes into several pieces (you can use a mortar and pestle or put them in a sandwich bag and smack with a hammer.) Combine the water and lime pieces in a small saucepan, bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce heat to medium-low and simmer for 4 minutes.
2. Remove from heat and strain through cheesecloth or a coffee filter. Discard the solids. Add the sugar to the tea and stir until dissolved. Drink hot or cool to room temperature and then refrigerate.

Total time:
6 minutes
Yield:
4 cups


**Andiam, andiam, mio bene,
a ristorar le pene
D’un innocente amor.
from the aria “La ci darem la mano“/Don Giovanni by Mozart

Translation: Come, come, my darling,
to restore our pleasure
of an innocent love.