- What do you remember about family meals and your mother’s cooking style when you were growing up? When I was growing up food was important as were family meals. We ALWAYS had dinner as a family and I remember thinking it was strange that there were families who did not eat together. Most nights my mother made a meal with an animal protein (usually meat or chicken, fish once a week). Her fancy cooking was reserved for the weekend—we would have elaborate Shabbat dinners with a lot of company. My mother often planned for leftovers—which made sense since she went back to work when I was in first grade. A typical Friday night dinner was a capon and perhaps some other kind of meat. We always had multiple desserts, too.
My mother’s background was Hungarian, so she mixed traditional foods with new foods. I think if you look at our menus from then, you’d see all the food fads of the 60s and 70s, like curried chicken. The recipe (which is in the cookbook my mother wrote By Special Request) wouldn’t pass muster by today’s standards but we thought of it as Indian: it contained curry powder, coconut flakes and green apple, along with coffee rich. I loved it even though I was considered a picky eater.
Another interesting thing about the way we ate is that my mother made organ meats; lung or liver for example were routinely on our weekday menus. I never thought it was strange until a guest once turned green when told we were about to eat lung.
- How is your cooking style different from your mother’s? If you take away the food fads, I am not unlike my mother as a cook. My mother was probably a fancier cook than I am (even though I sometimes Iike to make a showstopper). I don’t usually make multiple meats at a meal—for my mother it was standard to provide lots of choice for company. My mother likes new recipes and cookbooks but I probably experiment even more—or perhaps am more of a product of my time. For example, she was an early fan of Julia Child. I can remember that once in the 70s she made fettuccine alfredo and we thought that was very exotic. She also made jello molds and other 1960s foods. I lived in Israel for many years which had a strong influence on my cooking, and I make less meat than my mother.
- How did you learn to cook? I learned to bake from my mother. At first, I would help out and she would carefully teach me technique—for example, how to gently fold something into beaten egg whites. Eventually I was allowed to bake on my own. As a young teen, I was allowed to bake doctored-up cake mixes—for example, Sabra chocolate pound cake—which was a chocolate cake mix, with pudding mix, Sabra liqueur, orange juice and hazel nuts. Then I branched out into other desserts, such as two-tone brownies.
I wasn’t much of a cook, but in high school I lived with a family while I went to school in Riverdale, NY. One day I asked if I could help and the mother told me to put orange juice concentrate and onion soup mix on the chicken and that’s how I started cooking. I had an electric fry pan in college and would make stir-fries. I always considered myself a foodie and would try to find recipes for spices that I liked.
- Do you entertain, and in what circumstances? My husband and I like to entertain a lot. Mostly we invite friends to weekend meals—often a Shabbat meal or Jewish holidays. We often share the holidays with friends, but I prefer to do all the cooking rather than have pot luck since I feel it is my creative outlet and I love thinking about the whole meal. We do have quiet meals at home but more often we go to friends or friends come to us.
- What is the biggest party or meal you have hosted to date? Last year we moved and had a housewarming party for around 75 people. Since we had a lot going on with the move, I didn’t cook—but instead ordered platters of Middle Eastern salads and we had dips and a keg of beer. I got the idea of the keg from a fundraiser I was involved with. It was a fun thing to do, even though I am not a beer drinker. I love hosting Thanksgiving dinner and have had 25 people. I don’t find it hard as long as no one gets in my way in the kitchen. Our tradition is that my husband and daughter go out on Thanksgiving Day while I work alone. I make 2 smallish turkeys (easier than one large one) with chestnut stuffing, brussel sprouts, sweet potatoes, and cranberry sauce. I bake in advance, including cocoa pecan pie. It’s a project, but not much more work than a meal for 12. Our biggest constraint is space.
Professionally, I am a fundraiser, so I have experience planning events. The largest event I’ve done was for 800+ people—but of course, I worked with caterers on that!
- Can you share a typical daily menu? Weekly menu? We are breakfast eaters in my family. It’s often scrambled eggs although I am now trying to cut down cholesterol so I’m eating more cereals. Lunch is not at home—and my husband packs our daughter’s school lunches. Since I work, our weekday dinners are often things I can make quickly. We have some regulars (for example pasta or turkey burgers) but I like to keep it interesting for me. Usually I serve boneless chicken or fish, rice, and a salad or a vegetable. We all happen to love canned peas so we do rely on them as our green vegetable when all else fails. One new favorite is this simple yet delicious salmon filet—I just spray some Pam, grate some ginger on top, put on lemon-pepper mix, cover with aluminum foil and bake until just ready. It’s easy and healthy. I also make some dishes with whole grains, like a bulghur chickpea pilaf I got from a Madhur Jaffrey cookbook—I like to serve it with yoghurt with walnut. Another new favorite is a Madhur Jaffrey recipe of ground turkey and peas. We often eat out once or twice a week.
- How has your cooking style evolved over the years? I married in my mid-30s and before that time was a good cook, but didn’t produce regular meals. The meals I did make were planned productions. I also used to be more of a baker—so I would think of the dessert and cook the rest of the meal to lead up to the dessert. I got married and then pregnant soon after—and while pregnant learned how to cook healthful meals quickly and to have a pantry of staples on hand. Before marriage, if I had company, I had to shop for every last thing. I now look at what I have in the house and figure out what I can make with it. I also love reading cookbooks and blogs/newspaper food articles. I follow some trends and try new things a lot. I’ve gone from a baker who did some fancy cooking to someone who regularly produces healthful meals that my family enjoys.
- What cookbooks, TV shows or websites have inspired you? My favorite cookbook is Joan Nathan’s The Foods of Israel Today. The recipes are great and the pictures are beautiful. My latest summer treat is the lamb kebabs. I also love Nigella Lawson (on TV and her book Feast). The Silver Palate Cookbooks were my first favorites and most recently I bought Ten by Sheila Lukins, one of the Silver Palate authors. I use a lot of NY Times recipes and go to Epicurious when I’m looking for ideas.
- What posts on CM have you enjoyed? Do you have suggestions for future posts? I loved reading about your mother’s notion of an efficient kitchen and thinking about food in a practical way. At first I thought that this is so different from the way I was brought up, until I realized that my mother used many of the same tricks (even though we threw away more food).
As a child, I remember visiting my Hungarian grandmother who lived in a small Texas town where my grandfather was the rabbi. When she served us 7-layer cake from the freezer, she sliced just enough and returned it to the freezer. My mother told me that grandma grew up on a farm in Hungary and valued the hard work that went into producing food so she was never wasteful. Another post I loved was about whether or not you should apologize about food. One of my mother’s rules was “never apologize,” just serve it as if that’s what you intended. And often that has worked out. I baked an apricot almond tart this week, a new recipe. I started to tell my guests that now that I know the recipe, I would make the following changes and they all shushed me! Since you have such a focus on efficiency, it would be interesting to have a post about using leftovers to make different meals.
- What is the most unusual dish you’ve ever made? I like to try new things so I make a lot of “unusual” stuff. The first thing that springs to mind is Maklubeh, a Palestinian recipe of turned over rice casserole with cauliflower and lamb (Yes, Joan Nathan does have a recipe for it. I first encountered it at the old Eucalyptus restaurant in Jerusalem).
- What is the oldest item in your kitchen? The newest? The oldest item in my kitchen is either a manual juicer (the kind that drops down) that I inherited from a friend who passed away or the Tappan gas stove that came with the house. I actually love the way the stove cooks even though it is old. I know it will have to be replaced sooner rather than later, and it will be fun to buy something new. The newest item is a board to pound chicken breasts on. I’d like a new microwave, as our old one was too big for the kitchen. I’ve managed without, but I do miss it—especially because I like to drink hot milk some nights!
- What would you like to change about your cooking style in the coming year? In the past year, I began to work as a consultant instead of working full time. With more time at home, I throw out less food. I’ve been planning better—and I’d like to do even more of this.
- Please share a favorite recipe and cooking tips. I’m sharing two recipes—a weekday “rushed” chicken recipe and a weekend special.
Chicken based on Uncle Jeno’s
My mother says her uncle learned this recipe as a cook in the Free Czech Army. I’ve updated it to make a quick family meal. I don’t have exact measurements.
- Boneless skinless chicken thighs
- 1 chopped onion
- Vegetable oil
- 1 small package of frozen peas
- Salt, pepper, garlic and dried rosemary to taste
Sauté onion in very thin layer of oil. Add chicken and brown on both sides. Dust with flour. Cover and cook for 10 minutes—chicken will release juices. Add peas and simmer for another 20 minutes then add spices. Serve with rice.
This recipe is from Joan Nathan’s The Foods of Israel Today—I usually make it without the pita—but sometimes it’s fun to splurge! [CM: Pita can be made at home fairly easily.] I found a link that reprints the recipe as it appears in the book: Chicken with Sumac, Onions and Pine Nuts.
- ½ cup extra virgin olive oil
- 5 large onions, coarsely chopped (about 10 cups)
- Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
- 4 chicken breast halves
- 4 chicken legs with thighs
- 4 tablespoons ground sumac
- 1 teaspoon ground allspice
- ½ teaspoon ground cloves
- 8 small pita breads, 4 large pita breads cut in half, or 1 Oceanus oversized pita
- Preheat the oven to 450°F.
- Heat ¼ cup of the oil in a large skillet over a low flame. Add the onions and sauté for 20 minutes, or until golden, stirring occasionally. After 5 minutes, sprinkle on salt to taste.
- Season the chicken pieces with salt and pepper, rubbing well into the skin.
- Transfer the onions to a 9-by-12-inch baking dish and place the chicken on top. Bake, uncovered, for 5 minutes. Reduce the heat to 375°F and bake for 15 minutes more.
- Drizzle a tablespoon or so of the remaining olive oil into a frying pan. Heat the oil, then add the pine nuts. Fry over very low heat, stirring occasionally, until the pine nuts are lightly browned.
- Mix the sumac, allspice, cloves, and pine nuts in a small bowl.
- Remove the chicken from the oven and sprinkle on the sumac-pine nut mixture. Drizzle the remaining olive oil over the top and return the dish to the oven. Continue baking for 20 to 25 minutes more or until the chicken is cooked. Remove the chicken from the oven.
- Preheat the broiler. Transfer each chicken piece to a round of pita bread, or place all the chicken pieces on the oversized pita. Sprinkle the onions, with a small amount of the cooking liquid from the chicken, on top and around the chicken. Place on the middle shelf of the oven and broil for 5 minutes (don’t let it burn).
© 2001 Joan Nathan