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.

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!

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

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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.

 

Green Tomato Chutney

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Green Tomatoes. Photo ©2016 Fadia Jawdat

When I was growing up I never recall my father ever setting foot in the kitchen except to fix appliances and sharpen knives. Once a year he was called upon to dress, cook and carve the Christmas turkey. He was an expert and performed his duties with flawless precision and grace.

My parents moved to Cyprus just about the time my daughters were born. Until my father passed away, I would take my girls to Limassol for a month each summer. My husband would join us for part of the time. For four wonderful weeks out of the year I had the luxury of parents doting over my little ones, giving me a hand, watching over them, feeding and entertaining them. It made up for the the hard work of raising two kids in the city, in almost complete isolation. It was a huge and welcome change for us all: My girls tagged along on errands with my dad, helped him in the garden or played on the beach and splashed around in the Mediterranean. Our favorite excursions by far were to the mountain villages and orchards for fruit and vegetable gathering. When we came home, my mother and I would sort through the bags and baskets taking on assignments of pickling, sauce-making and tart-baking, leaving some produce to incorporate into our week’s meals.

One day while picking through a friend’s vegetable garden, my daughters exclaimed:
“Look mama! GREEN tomatoes!”
“They’re not ready yet,” my dad warned.
Recipes of fried green tomatoes and green tomato chutney flashed through my mind. Having never lived in the U.S., my dad couldn’t have known that green tomatoes were desirable, edible and made to be delicious. Pleadingly I asked if we could pick them anyway. I promised he would not regret it.

 

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Chutney faxes 1992: originals and faxes of tear sheet recipes. Photo ©2016 Fadia Jawdat

In my D.C. kitchen I had a stash of recipes: piles of pages ripped out from magazines, ink scribbles on napkins, faded photocopies from newspaper articles. All I needed to do now was to call my husband and ask him to look for that green tomato chutney recipe. This was 1992, pre-internet, you understand.
“It’s a tear sheet from la Maison de Marie Claire, a large magazine format”,  I explained.
“A black background and white drop-out type and color photos of jars filled with pickles. And while you’re at it, there is another recipe of apricot chutney that Lisa (my friend and inspiration) had once sent me from Jaffrey’s book*… could you please?”
I knew it was no easy task to ask of anyone. My files were a mess. But having lived with me for eighteen years, my husband understood the urgency of any situation related to food. An hour later, the fax came through with everything he could find on green tomatoes and chutney— stamped and sealed with his love and devotion.

I had spent many Decembers making pineapple chutney that I distributed to friends as Christmas gifts. I even designed and hand-colored my own labels. That day in early July, I poured over the recipes which included a helpful article by Joanne Halataei for The Washington Post,  “The Chutney Brigade”. Within a half hour I wrote down a formula that intrigued my father enough to make him venture into the kitchen. He carefully observed, asked a few questions and before I knew it, he had joined in the preparations. The production of home-made green tomato chutney that ensued was a turning point in our lives. He was no longer the macho, untouchable super hero commanding fear and respect and I was no longer the sweet frivolous female child. We were no longer father and daughter but partners in potion-making. I could finally teach him something that he took interest in adopting. There also, was a recipe that was complex enough to conceal nutmeg and ginger, two of his most abhorred spices. We chopped, we mixed, we stirred and we bonded.

For the few remaining years of his life, my father did spend time in the kitchen when he needed breaks from his computer. He toasted and roasted peanuts for snack or sesame seeds for his own special Zaatar mix, he also had my pesto recipe down to a T . Once or twice he called to say: “guess what I made today?” Amazingly, he had tried his hand at chutney making all on his own.

Years later I met the creator of the award winning Virginia Chutney Clare Turner and tasted her product. I loved the chutneys and bought them often. But it did not stop me from making my own. Whenever I have a surplus of fruit, I chop up some onions and garlic, grate some ginger, add some spices and go to town. Once you’ve understood the concept you can concoct your own varieties.

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Hand-drawn chutney labels for home-made chutney. ©1992 Fadia Jawdat

Green Tomato Chutney

The basic combination for any chutney is one part vegetable to three parts fruit. And for every two cups of fruit and vegetable combination, you need a quarter of a cup each of the sweet and sour elements. Brown sugar is usually the sugar of choice, but according to Halataei, “Brown sugar sounds earthy and chutney-like, but the clean taste of white sugar is often better at letting other foods shine through. With tomatoes, though, a combination of the two would be hard to beat.”
The recipe below is adapted from “La Maison de Marie Claire” but has been modified and converted to American weights and measures.
Yield 36 oz chutney or approximately 4 – 8 oz jars.

1 lb. green tomatoes, coarsely chopped
1 lb. cooking apples, coarsely chopped
1/2 lb. onions, chopped fine
1/2 lb. shallots, chopped fine
1/2 lb. raisins
3 cloves garlic, chopped fine
1 1/2 cups vinegar
3/4 cups brown sugar
3/4 cups white sugar
3” piece of fresh ginger coarsely chopped
1/4 tsp. each nutmeg, cinnamon, allspice and cloves
1 tsp. each salt and black pepper

Place all ingredients in a pot, bring to a boil and let simmer over medium heat for an hour to 90-minutes, stirring frequently. Do not let the chutney stick to the bottom of the pot. Lower heat if necessary. The chutney will thicken and keep in mind that it will thicken more as it cools.
When completely cool, pour into sterilized jars. Seal and refrigerate.
Serve to sooth hot curries, to accompany a soufflé or brighten up a plain omelet. Use as a spread over Brie or in a cold cut or grilled cheese sandwich.


*Madhur Jaffrey, World of the East: Vegetarian Cooking

To Be Continued…

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Every family has their kitchen story. Here’s another one of mine.

-“So what will you be cooking this evening?” My mother would ask while visiting on a Sunday afternoon, a regular occurrence since she moved to DC and while she still had mobility, vim and vigor.
-“I don’t know? will you stay for dinner?”
-“It depends…” (I suppose she was waiting to see what I’d be making).

Swinging the refrigerator door open, I scan the shelves and the produce drawer, always looking to use forgotten produce, catching it before it wilts. “Hmmm. I still don’t know!”
I pull out some stuff, walk over to my pantry closet, grab another thing or two. Bringing out a pot, a pan, a cutting board, a knife, I begin chopping an onion and mincing some garlic…

My mom hovers around me inquisitively.
-“Fadia, what are you doing? Is this from a recipe or are you making it up?” She sounds irritated and incredulous. It is a variation on a dish she and I know well, but the slightest deviation renders it alien and unrecognizable to her. She brings the fork to her mouth tentatively, tastes, shakes her head and says: “Ya’ni, hayda ikhtira’ik?” (You mean to tell me, this is your invention?). That sentence never ceases to make us giggle. To this day, my husband repeats those very words when an unfamiliar dish appears in front of him. I honestly can’t tell whether she approves of it or not. The good news though, is that she stays for dinner.

If my mother recognized a dish I had prepared, it gave her full permission to pile on the criticism. I have to admit that I maliciously enjoyed teasing her by showing off my wayward colors and flavors. My mother never witnessed my rebellious teen years. I worked hard to present an obedient daughter facade. But as an adult, my relationship with my mom, my rejection of all forms of female submissiveness and the complicated family dynamics were to be reflected in my cooking digressions that I flaunted before her.

My mother was a stickler for order and tradition. I now understand that perhaps she held on to her traditional cuisine as a link to her past and her identity. My mother’s family had fled from their homeland never to return. I know she mourned that loss for the duration of her life.

My mom moved homes many times, but no matter the country or the culture, she carried around her culinary repertoire. To give her credit, she might have picked up a few new recipes over the years, but from what I recall, my siblings and I (who had, in turn, left home during the Lebanese civil war) came to expect the exact same dishes every time we came home. That, in itself, provided us with much needed comfort and reassurance. Her cooking was consistently very good, her baking consistently excellent. It was what we remembered, what we missed, and what we longed for. Through her food, she made us feel loved, safe and satisfied.

Consistency was my mother’s forte. Obviously it is not mine. I may be proud of my sense of adventure in the kitchen, my erratic meals and eclectic dishes, but when my daughters ask me how I made something I draw a blank!  And that, I imagine is somewhat disappointing to them. “Write it down!” they plead.

My daughter thanked me recently for this blog that has morphed into a recording of my family’s kitchen history, but must I write down the recipes of all my “inventions” (to use my mother’s word)? Must I hand down recipes to my offspring? Sometimes I think they don’t need that. They have taken flight and have chosen their own dietary inclinations and found their own way in the kitchen. They too are explorers and adventurers. I have taught them the joys of cooking and given them a sense of good nutrition.

Perhaps as a role model, I could provide my daughters with a little grounding reality before we all spin out of control with our experimentation and exuberance. If we need to veer from tradition, recording our findings, writing down ingredients and methods might be a reasonable task towards extending a loving family’s story and its evolving relationship with food.

I would love to hear some of your stories! Please share. I invite you to contribute to this blog.

 

 

Spring: Ris & the Ramp

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Red veined Sorrel, ramps, watermelon radishes, beets and white Hakurei turnips. Photo ©2016 Fadia Jawdat

Since living in Washington I have grown accustomed to making a big deal over spring. Spring is a THING! It’s a happening.

My heart skips a beat at the sight of the first robin or the first peeping crocuses. Soon the trees will burst with gigantic magnolia blooms and a little later the glorious cherry blossoms will summon the photo-snapping tourists. The stretches of daffodils color the drive along the parkways, and the tulips adorn front yards with splashes of pinks, whites, purples and yellows.

But it seems the wait is a slightly longer for spring at the farmers’ markets. I drive myself sick with anticipation. I look for the appearance of ramps that indicate the beginning of Spring produce. I hadn’t heard of ramps until a few years ago when a celebrated Washington chef, Ris Lacoste brought them to my attention.

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Ramps. Photo ©2016 Fadia Jawdat

Ris is a dedicated mentor, contributor and educator. I am genuinely fond of her. I admire her sincerity, humility, her wit and her brilliance. She is not only one of DC’s top chefs, but her generosity of spirit allows to sit on many a board, consult and advise many restaurants and organizations, teach and mentor young aspiring chefs. Over the years, Ris and I would run into each other at the store and at every community event in the city where we never missed a chance to chat. She was in the restaurant business and I worked in the food retail business. We had loads to talk about and share.
So when Ris mentioned ramps one day, I took note. I went searching and researching for this illusive plant that turns out is a small wild leek, native to the Appalachian mountain region in eastern North America—now how would I ever have known that?—It is foraged in the woods. Ramps  have a short seasonal appearance that grace the market stands in April. Communities in Southern Appalachia celebrate ramps with annual festivals and restaurant chefs, plan whole menus around them.

But there is also a controversy around the ramp. Chefs may have glorified it but botanists have scorned its over-harvesting. It takes five to seven years for ramps to produce seed, and a year at least, for the seeds to germinate. Quebec, Canada, has banned its sale since 1995 and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park has banned its harvesting since 2002. For further detail this NYTimes article tells it all.

Boycott or buy?
I usually get carried away with my shopping at the market, often coming home with enough stuff for a family of eight. Maybe it’s an exaggeration. But seriously, the amount of produce that could go bad while waiting for me to find time to process is overwhelming. I therefore commit to a specified budget. A $5 small bouquet of ramps that dwindles down to a mouthful when cooked, may not be the most economical way for a poor foodie to be spending her money. Maybe I will buy one small bunch as a ceremonial act of confirmation— to mark the beginning of the season and to bring in the Spring.

That said, there are so many other lovely temptations that won’t burn a hole in my pocket. Ramps are gorgeous but so is everything else at this time of year. I cannot resist the red-veined baby sorell, the zucchini blossoms, and the baby new potatoes, the spring onions and baby beets, not to forget the white Hakurei turnips and rainbow radishes as well.

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For dinner I will make a salad with roasted beets, sliced turnips and baby sorrel, and a Spring Minestrone Soup that was inspired by Heidi Swanson’s recipe in her cookbook Super Natural Cooking.

Here’s her recipe: I have substituted quinoa for the brown rice and I have added lemon juice for a touch of brightness. I find quinoa earthy and delicate in flavor, overall more nutritious, and it takes less time to cook. If you are looking for a heartier bowl of soup, brown rice is more filling and comforting. You can use a frozen, cooked, store-bought version of both. I always keep a bag of each in my freezer for the occasional need. (Or you can use your own cooked, frozen quinoa or rice. They freeze easily. Place your left-over cooked rice or qinoa in a zip-lock bag, pat to release air, and seal).

Version 2

Spring Minestrone (with 0r without Ramps)

2 Tbsp Olive Oil
2 shallots or Spring onions, thinly sliced
1 clove garlic, minced(Bunch of ramps if available)
(Bunch of ramps if available, washed and chopped)
3/4 cup Quinoa (cooked)
6 cups vegetable stock
1 cup sugar snap peas or snow peas trimmed and cut in half
8 spears asparagus trimmed diagonally into 1 “ pieces
1/2 cup green petite peas (frozen or fresh if you have them)
Lemon juice, Salt and Pepper to taste

Heat olive oil, sauté the shallots and garlic, (and chopped ramps) until soft. Add the stock and bring to a boil. add the the vegetables and cook until desired tenderness. I like them crisp and bright green, that will only take a few minutes. Stir in the cooked quinoa. Add lemon juice, S & P to taste.

As for my bouquet of ramps, I photographed it, washed and minced it, sautéed it with fresh thyme and added it to my sautéed chicken livers, finishing it off with a splash of sherry.

Happy Spring!

Years ago, I fell in love with Heidi Swanson’s blog: http://www.101cookbooks.com/ after I had come across her book in 2007. You may not come back to my blog ever again after you’ve seen hers. But I need to give credit where credit is due and after all, my blog will always reference the books, cooks and people who have inspired me over the years.

All photos ©2016 Fadia Jawdat

Mona’s Gift

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Rendering of the book as I remember it. Photo ©2016 Fadia Jawdat

The very first cookbook that inspired and encouraged me was a Christmas gift from my aunt Mona. Title: “La Cuisine Est Pour Les Enfants”; translated: “Cooking is for Children”. It was a large format book, maybe 12” x 16” with a hard glossy cover and spiral bound. Large colorful illustrations adorned every page, and the recipes were “hand-written” in a large chalk-like black script. I might have been twelve or thirteen, and thought to myself “I am not a child!”, this looks too easy! I flipped through it and put it aside. The illustrations looked intentionally like a child’s drawings but were luscious and inviting. I was more interested in the technique and the medium than in what they represented.

One day, I cannot recall when exactly, after a hormonal bout of depression and desperation—the usual teen, over-the-top feelings of rebellion and alienation— I was searching for something to occupy and distract me. I picked up the book and read it cover to cover and emerged challenged to try every recipe for my family’s Sunday meal.

Most Sundays, my mother and paternal grandma took a break from cooking and we went out to eat when my father was in town, or, if he was not, we ate left-overs. By then, my maternal grandparents had passed away and we were no longer gathering at their home with my mother’s siblings and their families for huge Sunday luncheons. With my new proposition, my family would have to forgo the Sunday outing, accept and enjoy my cooking, and contribute to cleaning up after it was all over.

Much to my surprise my mom agreed and perhaps encouraged me. Of course she helped as well, but I wanted to remember the experience as a culinary feat that I achieved single-handedly. To this day, I brag about cooking since I was fourteen. It is true. For several Sundays, in the heat of a Beirut summer, I took control of that kitchen and prepared the most outlandish dishes from that cookbook. “Outlandish” because they were not the dishes that my mom or grandma prepared, “outlandish” because they required special shopping for ingredients that were not necessarily available in our pantry or refrigerator, and “outlandish”  because they had little to do with our Mediterranean seasonal diet. I took the whole business seriously and beamed with pride when my parents hummed with approval, or expressed their polite satisfaction with forced glee.

I remember a Quiche Lorraine—goodness how boring— but at least it didn’t break the bank like the Filet En Croute! My favorite was the Carbonade Flamande, a beef and prune stew that seemed really exciting because it required cooking the whole thing in beer, or the Coq au Vin that require red wine! Super adventurous and daring for a fourteen year old. I wonder now how that met my mother’s approval and how eating a hot beef or chicken stew could be appreciated in the dead of summer. But my family didn’t seem to blink. I never heard a complaint. On the contrary, they met my dishes with welcoming enthusiasm, pretending perhaps, as if it was the most delicious food they had tried—not that French cuisine was unfamiliar to us, but it hadn’t really made it into our pots and pans. It was my own initiation into the kitchen and that would not have been the same had I begun with my mother’s dishes. I would like to think that Auguste Escoffier and Julia Child, neither of whom I had even heard of then, would have been proud of me!

You may have gathered already that the cookbook was definitely not meant for children. Perhaps for adolescents, but NOT, in any way, for children. It left me exhausted, but cured from my depression. Luckily for everyone, I probably never delved into the dessert section (I don’t recall ever making the Clafoutis or the Choux a la creme! Can you imagine! The entrees were complex enough as it were, and enough of an exercise in tolerance and perseverance for cook and subjects alike. Luckily we survived the few weeks of experimentation and the result was proof enough for me that I was loved and worthy of the family cooks.

That book was where my life in the kitchen began and I have my aunt to thank for it. That gift was only the beginning of her influence. She would continue to inspire me with her unconventional, independent style. She was not a conformist. She was emancipated in her life and in her cooking. She often impressed us with fondue dinner parties and a few international dishes that were unheard of at the time within the family circle. Her Moroccan chicken with prunes and almonds was a recipe my mother and I would adopt and make for years to come. She opened my eyes to different cuisines. Her sense of adventure and accomplishment both in her career and in her kitchen inspire me to this day.