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cuisine

Cooking Stories

Oh Devil!

The deviled egg, in my opinion, is another one of those bastard dishes that gets a bad rap. The poor guy used to be so attractive, sexy, even. Often he was exotic and ladies just couldn’t live without him. And now, he’s the pot-bellied, balding uncle who drives an old, rusty Corvette, listening to Bobby Darin a little too loud, mostly due to his hearing. Sadly, he is completely unaware that he’s just not cool anymore, yet there is a strange draw that is unexplained. Maybe he really is still cool and we just don’t know it?

Okay, I was about to say that I actually like deviled eggs, but after reading the paragraph above, I’m kind of grossed out by the idea that an old fat uncle is delicious. Ew!

Anyway, back to the egg.

Vintage 1950s Deviled Egg recipe[3]

Have you ever walked through a thrift store, an antique mall, a yard sale? The number of dishes specifically designed for deviled eggs suggests that this was one hell of a popular item.

In fact, so much so, that I recently heard an amazing tale of a church bazaar in the early 1960’s that illustrates the power of the deviled egg. The bazaar was to be well attended, so the church ladies agreed to pull double duty and make double of their dish of choice to bring.

On the day of the bazaar, all of the ladies arrived and rushed down to the basement to set out their dishes. The first couple ladies laughed when each of them uncovered plates of deviled eggs. “Oh my,” one said, “Well, you can’t ever have too many deviled eggs.” Then came a coffee cake, another coffee cake, then three more. The deviled egg ladies whispered to each other how silly it was that there were now five coffee cakes. Who needed five coffee cakes at one church bazaar? Good thing they had made deviled eggs!

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A few minutes later, the rest of the ladies came filing in with their dishes. “What have you brought, dear?” Deviled eggs!

“And how about you honey? Those are awfully large dishes!” Deviled eggs!

Soon enough, the food tables were filled end to end with plates of deviled eggs (and five coffee cakes). Quickly enough, the ladies began defending their eggs: “Well, mine are made with Spam;” “Mine are made with horseradish and dijon mustard;” “Ladies, clearly mine are different, they are made with crab.”

And so, the professing of one’s unique and clearly more exotic and delicious recipes continued until the reverend’s wife came by to referee and asked the ladies to quiet down. She claimed that there was a simple fix to this: they would announce that today the church bazaar would include a deviled egg contest. And in the future, they would constitute a sign-up sheet for baking/cooking for all church functions. Good idea, ladies!

And, well, to this day, the church has an end of summer bazaar and hosts a food contest. But deviled eggs are no longer the main focus. It seems that the damn egg held on until the mid 1990’s, which is a pretty long stretch. The “church ladies” of the deviled egg days had all retired from their cooking posts and it seems that the young folks today just don’t understand a good deviled egg. And I should mention here that these gals referred to the deviled eggs as stuffed eggs, as they didn’t feel it made sense to devour a food named after the devil while in church.

People Celebrating the Holidays in New Jersey (12)

So, I began to think about my own fascination with the deviled egg. I will eat them when I see them laid out at parties, knowing full well that this is a 50/50 gamble. There have been a few eggs that have put me off the deviled egg game for years, the ones usually containing Miracle Whip. (No, no, we won’t get into that battle right now; I will save that for another time)

A few times, there have been sweet deviled eggs. Nope, can’t do it. Then there have been the deviled eggs that were so spicy, I couldn’t taste anything for the entire night. And a few times I have gotten some fun surprises in the eggs, like cranberries or nuts. WHAT???!!!!

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But, I still walk right over to the damned things and shove one in my mouth. I don’t even smell them first. It’s like they have some strange power over me: “Just eat me! Don’t smell me, don’t inspect me, don’t worry about your food allergies. No, I can’t harm you. I’m a good egg!”

Bologna, I say! Oh, and I have gotten that too, once, inside an egg. Yuck!

The deviled egg has been around for a long time, actually. It first shows up in written text in the 1700’s and is not, obviously, an American born food. Nor is deviling specifically linked to eggs. It refers to a spiced or zesty food. Think of deviled ham. And yep, got that inside a deviled egg once, too!

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A deviled egg, for those who may not know, is a hard-boiled egg, sliced in half. The yolk is removed and put into a bowl, then various things will be added to “devil” it, usually mayonnaise, mustard, and paprika. But some also add sliced olives, ham, and horseradish. The combination is mixed and mushed well, and then either spooned or piped into the half hard-boiled egg-white. These are the basic deviled eggs, but everyone has their own version or family recipe.

The deviled egg, though, saw its absolute heyday in the 1950’s and 1960’s. It was the rock star of hors d’oeuvres! People just could’t get enough of them. Card games, picnics, BBQ’s, appetizers, potlucks, buffets, these guys were everywhere.

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My paternal grandparents had a small cabin on Lake Ontario when I was a child. They would stay for a month, and the entire family would come on the last weekend of our time there for a last hoorah. There were a lot of people, so many that the entire lawn was lined with tents.

On beach days, we would take the boat across the inlet to the beaches, and it took several trips to ferry everyone there. We would stay all day, which meant that my grandparents had already taken several trips to the beach before any of us were really awake to bring beach chairs, folding tables, the grill, and the food.

When we arrived, there would be a huge tent set up and my grandmother would be working away. Whatever you wanted, she had it! You wanted chips? OK, there were the choices. You wanted ice cream? OK, there were the choices. Hot dogs, hamburgers, salad, chicken, cake, pie, whatever you asked for, by God she had it. And always, there were the eggs, a huge plate of deviled eggs. I would sit and stare at them while she was getting whatever treat I had requested, and I would think to myself: “Who wants that weird egg at a beach?” I just couldn’t wrap my head around it. I loved eggs, but this was a weird egg. And sure enough, not even halfway through the afternoon, the plates would be empty or have just one egg left.

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I once asked her who ate the deviled eggs. She looked at me in surprise. “Everyone!” she said. “No one has a picnic without deviled eggs; it’s unheard of,” she told me.

And that was that. I had to accept my fate that the eggs would always be there, everyone ate them, it’s not a picnic without them, so that all equals I was the weird one. Well, dammit, I wasn’t ready to accept that just yet, so one summer, I ate a freaking egg. There was a lot of praying and sniffing before my first bite, but I ate it. And you know what, it wasn’t so bad. Maybe it was actually even good. Yep, I was hooked. The devil had me, and I would forever be weakened by the powers of the deviled egg.

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So, next time you are at a party or a picnic, grab that egg, enjoy and relish it. There is no point in fighting the deviled egg! Just go with it.

xox – Sailor


Cooking Stories

Let’s Talk Tuna

What comes to mind when you hear the word “tuna?” Personally, I think it probably depends on your age. If you are in your 20’s, you may think of sushi right away, perhaps a nice piece of Nigiri. If you are in your 30’s and 40’s, chances are you think of tuna salad, either as part of a sandwich or on a bed of lettuce. Most likely, if you are in your 40’s and above, you think of tuna noodle casserole. Oh yes, I said those dirty, dirty words, the sorry bastard of all baked multi ingredient dishes: TUNA CASSEROLE!

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My grandmother once said there were only two ways to eat tuna: Tuna salad for lunch or Bridge, and tuna noodle casserole for dinner. And, of course, both types were made from canned tuna. I can hear my grandfather interrupting my thoughts, saying: “No, no, no, tuna steak, you grill up a beautiful piece of tuna steak.” Well, he was a fancy pants — a sports fisherman and world traveler. He actually spent a lot of time in Japan for business, so he preferred a lightly seared tuna steak. At the time, this treatment of tuna was a rarity in America. Tuna, like my grandmother said, belonged in a salad or in a casserole, and canned was just fine. She played a lifetime of bridge; she should know.

The sorry bastard tuna noodle casserole gained its notoriety in the 1950’s, thanks to our BFF, Betty Crocker.

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Casseroles in general became a very popular household dish in the 1950’s for a number of reasons. Mainly, the ingredients were cheap and easy to find at the store: a can of tuna, a can of vegetables, a can of soup, and a package of egg noodles. In a quick thirty five minutes, dinner for the entire family was ready. Tuna casserole could also be frozen or refrigerated, then reheated to be eaten as a leftover the next day. Tuna casserole was a very popular dish to take to pot lucks.

While every tuna casserole is different, historically, it is made with egg noodles, chopped onion, shredded cheddar cheese, frozen green peas, canned, drained tuna, condensed cream of mushroom soup, sliced mushrooms, and crushed potato chips. The cooked noodles, onion, cheese, peas, tuna, soup, and mushrooms are mixed in a baking dish with the potato chips and extra cheese sprinkled on top, and then cooked.

While researching the history of tuna noodle casserole, I came across a fantastic article from the LA Times titled “Poor Tuna Casserole Has a Rich History.” In part, it says: “No single dish has done so much to degrade the image of the casserole as the seemingly ubiquitous combination of canned tuna, canned mushroom soup, and smashed potato chips. It’s gotten so that the mere phrase ‘tuna casserole’ has become a kind of punch line.”

Casserole-type dishes show up in cookbooks from the late 1800’s, but it wasn’t until 1949 that marked the beginning of the “Baroque era,” as the Times refers to it, thanks to Good Housekeeping and that bitch, Betty Crocker.

The 1950’s also marked the beginning of ethnic foods entering mainstream America. GI’s returning from tours in Europe and the Pacific had developed new tastes, and food companies were quick to supply the ingredients. “Americanized” versions of sukiyaki, egg foo young, chow mein, enchiladas, pizza, lasagna, and barbecued meats with Polynesian sauces regularly appeared in 1950’s cookbooks.  Believe it or not, the popular casseroles of the 1950’s were considered exotic!

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It had been a long time since I made a casserole. I had to dust off my vintage Corelle ware and really ponder the ingredients in basic tuna casserole and tuna salad. How could I update these dishes and still keep them quick and easy?

In my house, we try really hard to keep to a low sodium and sugar-free diet. We also try to stay away from processed foods whenever we are able.

Originally, I crafted a recipe to turn the tuna casserole into a super chic modern dish, and then came back to this piece and decided to stay true to the recipe. I replaced frozen and canned with fresh ingredients, and instead of potato chips, I grilled pita bread and made bread crumbs. I used sodium-free mushroom soup.

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For the original Betty Crocker Recipe, see below

The flavors do work. It was delicious and took me back to memories of my mother’s attempts at tuna noodle casserole, one of her better trials indeed.

So, I am going to save this bastard from the fires and bring it back to the dining table. Be thoughtful about your ingredients and let’s give some love to good ol’ Tuna Noodle Casserole. Hooray!

xo – Sailor

Original Tuna Noodle Casserole from the 1950’s
1 can (10 1/2 ounces) Condensed Cream of Mushroom Soup 
1/2 cup milk 
¼ cup pimento, chopped
1 cup frozen green peas 
1 small onion, chopped
1 can of sliced mushrooms with water

2 cans (about 5 ounces each ) tuna in water, drained 

4 ounces (about 2 cups) medium egg noodles, cooked and drained 

1/3 cup of crushed potato chips 

1 tablespoon butter, melted 

Heat oven to 425°F.
Combine all ingredients, using only 1/2 the cheese.
Pour into buttered 1-1/2 quart baking dish.
Sprinkle with remaining cheese and crushed potato chips.
Bake 20 minutes.
Enjoy!


Vintage Collecting

For The Love of Corningware

Recently I was browsing through my favorite antique hot spot, and as I scanned the aisles looking for a few specific pieces, my eyes stopped on a Corningware dish that had the exact same pattern as one my mother had when I was a child.

Now I have no interest in 1970’s or 80’s nostalgia. Perhaps that will change when I am in my 60’s or 70’s and the timespan between now and then somehow makes those decades more appealing to me. However, I doubt it. I’ve never really been attracted to the aesthetics from back then.

And yet, I grabbed that Corningware dish with “Garden Harvest” print and it now lives in my kitchen cabinet amongst the much earlier 1950’s and 60’s dishes. I guess he is the newbie of the bunch. I imagined the other dishes saying “What are YOU doing here?” and “Tsk. You and your earth tones and veggie print.”

He definitely stands out; that’s for sure. But for some reason I have decided that I like him. I think that’s the first time I have picked up a piece of something from the 1970’s as a collector. I will admit, though, as much as I love him, that he is not my favorite Corningware child.

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I have a weakness for Corningware, as well as Pyrex and Correlle, which fall into the Corningware house. I have a mix of all three. Those of us who are collectors (the nice term for Corning-obsessed people) know which patterns are the most coveted and usually have our favorite color palate, typically associated with what era we prefer. You see, there are entire websites about Pyrex, Corelle, and Corningware, some with heated debates on message boards about the rarest and most worthy.
Obviously, I lean to the 1950’s and early 60’s in the patterns I adore.

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Pyroceram, a white glass-ceramic material that makes up these beauties, was discovered by accident, which just makes them all the more endearing. You almost want to take them, hold them in your arms, and say: “You were a happy accident and we love you.”

My favorite dish patterns are without a doubt the following: Blue & Gold Starburst (still looking), Blue Balloons (saving up for), and pretty much any pink pattern or color. I have collected several pink and am still looking to beef up my collection. As a matter of fact, any of these dishes can be found in the Retrocentric kitchen! So look closely at kitchen images on the website and see if you can pick out any of these dishes. I have included, two, can you spot the Corningware? (Click the photos to enlarge)

Retrocentric Kitchen

Now, it’s not a matter of finding these; it’s a matter of affording them. One cooking dish could go for $80-$100 dollars! If you are lucky, you can find them for around $30. And sometimes you are just lucky and find them in yard sales or thrift stores for a few dollars. One of my friends recently came upon such a discovery.

What exactly fuels the obsession with these creatures? Well, for me I think it’s a combination of them being almost indestructible and flawlessly pretty at the same time. And what could be better to house your delicious casserole dish right from range to table?

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I mean, sure, once you have filled your pretty dish with the 4,500 ingredients it takes to make your casserole, and along with the dish itself, it feels like you are carrying a small elephant. And yes, it’s not as snappy handy-dandy as Tupperware when saving your leftovers, but hey, tinfoil is still a marvel!

There is something about the milky white 500 pound dish with its impressive, dainty designs that just makes your food taste better. So, next time you happen to spot one of these dishes at an affordable price, grab it! Cook in it once and I promise you will adore it; and if you don’t, well, I will gladly take it off your hands.

xox
Sailor


Cooking Stories

For The Love Of Food, Happy Birthday

Well, today is my birthday. I was born on my father’s birthday, something he seemed to think he made happen. I always found that funny.

Sadly, last year he passed away from a massive stroke, so this is the first birthday that I will spend without exchanging wishes to each other. That’s not entirely true, actually. Our relationship was challenging, and the birthday before he passed, I didn’t take his call. I have his voicemail saved, but still have not been able to bring myself to listen to it. Perhaps I will tonight.

Guilt can be a monster and regrets can threaten to drown you. These two things I don’t care to focus on or drown in. We all do the very best that we can in life, and the fact is that every human is flawed and imperfect. The beauty is in the imperfections.

After he passed, I posted a lot of stories on Facebook about him, which was a very cathartic process and helped me tremendously. I told a few stories about his involvement in some of my early failures in cooking, or maybe I should say “experiments.” He was a trained chef, a very talented artist, an immensely creative person, so he could be a tough critic.

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One story I haven’t told is the first time that I really cooked for him as an adult.
I was living in Brussels at the time and he was coming to Europe for his job. I hadn’t seen him in several years, so I was really nervous. He knew that I was interested in food, but I don’t think he knew just how much I loved cooking and how successful at it I had become.
So, I chose to showcase my favorite dishes and also make some Greek dishes that I knew he loved and missed from my mother’s side.

I made us a traditional Greek salad with fresh mint and my secret lemon vinaigrette. I also served Avgolemono soup, a favorite of mine that I learned from my great grandmother. The courses went on and he cleaned his plate completely with each dish. But I wasn’t congratulating myself for a success just yet. He still was a very harsh critic and I knew he would eat anything I put on the plate and tell me it was wonderful; that’s just who he was.
It wasn’t until I brought out the seared Ahi Tuna that I saw it in his face. I knew he loved Tuna Tartar, so I hoped he would really enjoy the seared tuna I had been perfecting, along with a new passion fruit Ponzu sauce I had been experimenting with.

After a few bites, I asked him what he thought. He said: “Wow!” which was a big compliment from him. He said he was really impressed with my knife skills, cutting the tuna how I did, and that my sear was impressive. It might have been the first time in my life that I felt we had a real connection. I started to chatter on and on about how I chose the fish and learned to cut it, etc. etc., and he just laughed. He said: “Well, you’re my daughter. Of course you’re a great chef!”

That was the type of conversation with my father that I had waited my whole life for. I had to wait until I was thirty, but that’s okay. I have that memory. I sat across the table from my father as he told me how proud he was of me. I think that night is like a slow release capsule of healing that I will carry with me for the rest of my life.

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The challenges in our relationship did not end after that night, but I have a few more experiences that I cherish. Once again, food was our connector – I was able to tell him who I was and who I had become through food. I showed him my experiences, my strengths, and my weaknesses through food, and he was able to let me know that he saw all of it and understood. I am grateful for the good moments we had together and even more grateful to forgive the not-so-great moments.
 
So, Happy Birthday to me, and Happy Birthday to my Dad, wherever his soul may be.

Now let’s eat!
Xox
Sailor


Cooking Stories

The Joys Of Jell-O!

Jellobook

Oh, the joys of Jell-O!

I am currently working on a four part blog series about what Americans were eating in the Atomic Age and why they ate what they ate. Consider this the prequel, or inspiration, to this series.

I’ve always been very interested in this topic. As a child of the 1970’s, there were still remnants of this culture in my childhood.

The research has been absolutely fascinating and I am finding it hard to stick to the main theme; there are so many subtopics in this discussion. Did the Atomic Age really liberate women from the kitchen? Did the modern conveniences of the time become an opiate for American women to soften the blow of being told to get back into the kitchen after working men’s jobs out of the the home during wartime? The economic effects created the modern consumer, created the teenager, and created American greed worse than this country had seen before, some would say.

Another question I want to explore is if the Atomic Age ended the ingenuity of the “Greatest Generation.” One of the things that I love about that generation is the ingenuity, and I think it is the main reason why I’m drawn to the 1930’s/40’s era. Of course that ingenuity was born from hardship and necessity; but still, I think today’s generation doesn’t deal with such hardship in the same way. The 1950’s were so much about convenience and letting the machines and appliances do the work, that’s when I feel Americans lost much of their spirit for ingenuity.

In doing all of this research, I have combed the antique and thrift stores in search of paperback cookbooks that consumer companies were offering to American housewives. Companies like Procter & Gamble produced these cookbooks for a multitude of their products from the “Home Economics Department” at P&G.

In 1951, Winifred S. Carter, a notable American celebrity Chef and cookbook author, was in charge of these cookbooks for P&G. Women like Winifred were hired by companies to advertise to and guide American housewives on how to use these new food products and appliances.

General Foods had its own Kitchen Cookbooks, each based on the use of a certain food product. I have one of these books that is focused on the many uses of Jell-O. The index tells you that Jell-O can be used not just for desserts, but for salads, as well. Printed in 1962, this book tells American Housewives that not only is Jell-O a trusted product for over 60 years, but it is also gives them thanks for many of the imaginative recipes found there. This book has 86 pages of recipes, all devoted to Jell-O. That is a lot of congealed food. My, oh, my!

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Jell-O is described in this book as being wholesome and exciting. Wholesome? Really? Hmm.
Jell-O going mainstream is attributed to modern refrigeration in the 1950’s, its powdered form, and Home Economics classes. Jell-O was also popular in the 1930’s and 40’s; it was considered en vogue to serve congealed salads.

But it wasn’t until the 1950’s that really saw the Jell-O boom, and that’s when the company responded with such savory and vegetablicious flavors such as celery, Italian, mixed vegetable, and tomato. Super delicious! I’m kidding.

One of my favorite recipes in this book is the Tuna Salad mold. Now, I remember eating a lot of Jell-O as a kid. At my grandparents house, there were always little glass dessert cups neatly placed in rows on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator: one with Jell-O, one with chocolate pudding, and one with Jell-O with grapes inside. But tuna? Oh my gosh, no! I would have run screaming from the kitchen. I think by the mid 1970’s, thank goodness, Jell-O had been relegated to just desserts.

Here is the recipe from 1962, sure to wow your guests and family!
(Describe as: “Tuna At Its Best,” a well-seasoned salad that stays fresh until served)

1 package of Jell-O Salad Gelatin – Celery flavor
1/4 tsp salt
1 cup boiling water
1/2 cup cold water
1 tbs lemon juice
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1 tsp grated onion
1 cup chopped cucumber
1 can tuna
1/4 cup sliced, stuffed olives
1/4 cup diced celery

The reader is instructed to prepare all ingredients and throw into a mold, then chill until firm. Oh, and be sure to plop your tuna amazingness on a crisp bed of greens. I highly doubt many young Americans today would find this an appetizing dish. And there are more amazing options in this book, such as: Salmon Mousse, Chicken Mousse, and a Soufflé salad, all with Jell-O! Yuck!

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Another gem recipe is Jell-O BBQ cubes to go on top of a shrimp salad. Oh yes, you can congeal any sauce or condiment! And that got me thinking; we are not actually that different today. With the rise of Molecular Gastronomy, it seems that we still have a fascination with our food being encased in some sort of edible package.

So are we really eating that differently than the Baby Boomers? I would say yes, in part, we are, or at least we are striving to get back to eating whole, fresh and local foods. Less preservatives, less manufactured. But… I do think we are still striving for the same thing: convenience, newness, and the next best thing.

What will future generations be saying about what we eat today? I don’t know, and frankly I don’t care. I’m not here to judge or poke fun; really, I’m not. Well, maybe I am about the poking fun part. The point is that I am interested in how and why food got to our table, and I think the Atomic Age is a particularly fascinating period in American History and in the history of what we eat.

So back to my Jell-O, my Crisco, Pimento Loaves, and Spam!

xox
Sailor


Cooking Stories

How I Learned To Cook

Since I am starting at the beginning, or well, near the beginning, I’ll tell you a little bit about how I learned to cook.

I always assumed most people had a really nice mom who wore an apron and on Sundays, that really nice mom would say to her daughter: “Sweetie, let’s bake and cook together.” Said daughter would learn how to properly crack an egg, separate the egg white, learn about folding verses mixing, you get the drift.

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Now I did learn specific things from my great grandmother in reference to making certain Greek dishes, but she was more of the type of grandmother who didn’t want me to work. She wanted to do it and I don’t think she understood that I was actually interested. She was so humble about her mad skills, she really thought it was nothing.

So in my mother’s house, there was not a whole lot of teaching or passing down of technique. Most of my learning came from getting up at the crack of dawn while everyone was sleeping and making strange food concoctions while watching a whole lot of cooking shows on PBS. For you youngens, PBS in the 70’s and 80’s was our Food Network.

My favorite TV cook was Jeff Smith of the Frugal Gourmet. I would get so excited every time his show was on. A few times I tried to convey my excitement to my friends. Big mistake! My cool status took a nose dive. What 10 year old in the 80’s watched some old guy cooking on TV? Umm, me!

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And that is how it all began. I actually owe a lot to Jeff Smith, now that I think about it. The first thing I ever attempted to cook that I learned from watching him was Baked Elephant Garlic. Sounds so simple, but to a 10 year old, hell no!

First of all, what the hell is elephant garlic? As an adult, there aren’t many possibilities of what it could be, but as a kid, there were so many.  So I asked my mom when she woke up and she told me it was just really large bulbs of garlic. “Okay,” I thought, “that makes sense.” And later that day, she actually bought some for me.

So the next morning while everyone was sleeping, I started my foray into this dish with the recipe committed to memory:

Remove the husk from the garlic bulb, brush with olive oil, bake for 20 minutes at 375 degrees, remove from oven, open shell and spread on a nice crustini. (Wait, what is a crustini? Sounds like crust, must be bread, okay I’ll make toast.)  Sprinkle with a little salt and bon appetite!

It was a success! I loved it, and so did my mom. Hey, I cooked something fancy! Woo hoo!

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Not all of my early attempts were as successful, though. There was the time that I tried a microwave quiche from a cookbook I found on a kitchen shelf. It professed that you could make anything in the microwave and it would be amazing. They lied, or I sucked at it. The result was a runny omelet-like odd substance. I tasted it, then threw away the evidence.

A family favorite story is the time I tried to substitute spaghetti sauce with a can of Manwich when I was living with my dad. He was an actual chef, as a matter of fact, and even co-wrote a cookbook called How To Garnish.

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It was my turn to cook dinner. I was a teenager, had better things to do and the cupboards weren’t very well stocked. I saw a box of spaghetti. Bingo, I thought I’d whip up a nice salad and we’d be good to go. I threw the spaghetti in the water, opened the cupboard to grab the sauce, and oh crap. No sauce, NO SAUCE!  “Okay,” I thought. “Think! Think! What else could I use? Manwhich? Hmm, I’ve never had it, but it looks close enough. How bad could it be?”

So I put it all together, tasted a tiny bite, and it was totally gross. Crap crap crap. More parmesan, more salt, some oregano made it better, right? Not really. I chose butter and cheese for my spaghetti. No way was I eating that Manwich stuff.

I put the meal on the table. My brother had already witnessed my madness and decided on butter and cheese as well. Our dad sat down, looked at the dish, smelled it, tasted it and… ate the entire thing! After he was finished, he got up and said: “By the way, what the hell was that?” Haha he knew it was gross but didn’t want to hurt my feelings. Poor guy.

But experimenting brings amazing results more often than not, and it’s really how I learned to cook: bake and infuse. Just pick your balls up off the floor and try it! You can always throw it away if it sucks.

xox

Sailor


Cooking Stories

The Greek In Me

I was born into a Greek family. You’ve seen that movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding, right? Yes, it’s true, except that was the Hollywood version. It’s even worse, or more amazing. Sometimes, I am not sure which, it’s either good crazy or just plain crazy, being in a Greek American family.

For years I have been hosting Pinup Workshops at the Retro Pinup Studio that I founded many years ago. These workshops center on why women are drawn to the retro era, specifically the WWII era.

Somehow the discussion would always come around to my family, specifically the most prominent women in my childhood: my mother and maternal grandmother. If any of the gals in the Workshop knew me, they would always ask me to tell stories about them. Laughs would ensue, and I would think: “Am I making this shit up?” No, I am not! And then I would laugh even harder at myself.

So, being Greek for me means that life centers around food. From the moment I wake up in the morning I am planning…OK, obsessing over… my meals for the day. If I am having people over, any type of gathering, there must be food. Even if someone stops by (Who the hell just stops by? I don’t know but it could happen), I must offer them food. I have officially turned into my great grandmother!

Just imagine a table that somehow seats about 25 people in a small brownstone in  Astoria Queens, NY. The volume is at about 10, the table can barely fit the plates you are supposed to pile the food on, there will be yelling, arguing, laughing, crying, eating, drinking, yelling, arguing, laughing, and then possibly dancing, all at the table. This is a typical Greek get together.

familymeal1Many of you from other Mediterranean countries may be saying: “Pssha, that’s totally normal for us too, you don’t have the market cornered on that.” And I would say: “Oh yes we do! We have more crying, more laughing, more dancing and… the food is different.” There is something very special about Greek cuisine, especially the cuisine I grew up with.

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Greek cuisine has held onto its roots ferociously. You can find elements of African, European, Mediterranean, and Middle Eastern spices and dishes. As a matter of fact, my maternal grandmother was from a part of Greece that is now Turkey.  She used to make a dish that is almost exactly like Istamboli, a staple dish for Persians.

Not only did we hold onto our roots in our cuisine, but we seem to have held onto the practice of freshness. We don’t just use fresh ingredients, but fresh flavors, as well. We are not ones for making heavy dishes; we leave that to the French and Italians. Our flavors burst with sunshine, the salty Mediterranean sea, fresh greens dotted around the coastline, and mouth-watering coastal creatures. You can literally taste the beauty of Greece in our dishes.

And most importantly, we don’t take ourselves too seriously, especially in the kitchen. Yes, we are descendants of gods and goddesses, of course, but we can’t help that. I learned at a young age never to take oneself seriously when cooking. “Smile when you cook” is what my great grandmother used to say. And I have potent memories of my great grandfather in the kitchen around holidays tying up the chicken for what we called “Orange Chicken & Rice,” nothing to do with the fruit, just the color.

I paint a beautiful picture, don’t I? You must be thinking: “Wow, your grandmother and mom must have been amazing cooks, as well.” You would be wrong, my friends. Very, very wrong.

My grandmother never really learned to cook until I was in my late teens, early twenties. My mother, oh man, nope, just nope. As a matter of fact, there is a classic story of a night at the dinner table. It was my mother, my little sister who was about 4, and me. Our mother put a pot of egg noodles on the table along with the Country Crock and said: “Let’s eat!” My sister stared at the table, put her hands on her hips, and said in her little Elmer Fud voice: “This is dinner?” We peed our pants we laughed so hard. It’s pretty bad when the 4 year-old expresses her discontent at the lack of selections on the table.

So after that, I started to take over. My mother had a few dishes she was really good at, but you could only eat those so much and you had to be in the mood. But what she did love to do was eat! She was a “professional” eater. And she had a nose! We called it “The Nose,” and I would find out as a young adult that I inherited this nose, and it’s a curse, believe me. She would smell everything before she put it in her mouth, and if it smelled and tasted bad, someone had to confirm that she was correct. It had to be a joint effort of grossness.

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She still has an amazing pallet, and I would like to think that I inherited that, as well. So that is the origin of my obsession and passion for food and cooking. My mom loved that I was interested, curious, and capable of cooking at a very young age, and I think her nose helped me hone my craft.

You will hear many more stories about these women in my life and family dinners from my childhood.

xox

Sailor