As far back as I can remember food was filled with many meanings and it served multiple roles in my life. My mom used to tell the story of her being a young bride and trying out her hand at cooking for the first time, the trials and many errors that put my father in mortal danger quite a few times. Eventually she learned and became a wonderful cook but she promised herself that her daughter will be spared the agony and will be taught to cook early and well. My father had his first chance to try cooking when my mother had pneumonia and was in the hospital for three weeks. He picked out a cookbook and studied some recipes and proceeded to cook for us beef tongue in a savory tomato sauce spiked with black olives. A culinary triumph which was greatly appreciated by us little gourmands.
Both my grandmothers were wonderful cooks. My grandmother on my father’s side was an orphan who married a handsome, wealthy blue blooded man who offered her a story book life of happiness and comfort, true love and two children. The war and its tragic ending took all of that away from her with the exception of her youngest son. My grandfather disappeared in combat, my grandmother never had a notification just a message from someone who said he saw the name on a death list somewhere on the eastern front. Her oldest son, who was 17 at the time, died of appendicitis. Once in power the communists gave her two choices, one where she gave all she owned to the “State” and in return my father would have a future, or, another where they would take it away and he would not. She gave it away and in return was assigned a job as a cook in a factory. She did her job with dignity, pride and never complained. She was an amazing woman. I am still blown away by her strength, by how against all her losses and wrecked life she never became bitter. I never saw her angry. She was one of the most beautiful women I ever knew, flawless porcelain skin, dark, rich chestnut hair, always carefully dressed even though her wardrobe was scarce. She didn’t need props or accessories; she was just gorgeous, shapely, trim, petite in most ways except in spirit. And her cooking was pure heaven. She would turn a single chicken leg into a feast, a simple potato into a crisp brown armor surrounding a cloud of creamy interior after she sautéed it in the goose fat she saved from a holiday dinner. She never threw out food, treated it with care and love and that love transferred generously to the happy recipient. I remember arriving at her house in the afternoon after school and how she would fix me a simple slice of crusty bread with butter and home made strawberry jam, or slathered it in her home made liver pâté and tiny cornichons she canned herself. She would make it out of a single chicken liver, but the scent of sweet butter and caramelized onions that filled her tiny kitchen is still a memory that comes back with vengeance and brings back the kind of happiness only children can feel.
My maternal grandmother would come over to visit and we would always play this little game: she would ask me what I wanted her to cook knowing very well that the answer would be tomato soup and crepes. She would also make a huge sheet of home made pasta the size of a table. Some of it was sliced paper thin and dried on a sparkling white cotton table cloth to be used in our Sunday consommé. The rest was filled with cheese, or plum butter gently cooked and then rolled in buttered toasted breadcrumbs.
Food meant rituals. The afternoon coffee after my parents came home from work when the aroma of espresso filled the kitchen. They would serve it in tiny espresso cups, with sugar cubes and a plate of sweets, home made delicate cookies. For a few minutes they would allow themselves to sit down and rest before taking on the rest of a working day. With every fruit coming in season we would wait for it to be at peak and made jams, preserves: strawberry, gooseberry, red and black currant, peach, apricot, plum, quince…. We made our own tomato juice. We would spend hours wrapping apples (Jonathans, golden delicious) in newspapers to store them in our cellar for the winter. I remember the sense of incredible wealth that came with getting a side of veal, or lamb, or, closer to Christmas a pig, which would be transformed into special meals to fit every cut of meat. With the early spring my father would forage for nettles and make the best nettle soup, same with wild sorrel, but sorrel could also mean a great sauce for lamb. And he was, still is, a master connoisseur of mushrooms. On Sunday afternoons we would take hours’ long walks through the forests surrounding the city and come home with a wonderful array of wild mushrooms, each type to be assigned specific recipes. My favorite was a large spicy white mushroom which was filled with crispy bits of smoky home cured bacon and a salty and equally spicy cheese called brinza, and then baked in the oven until golden. Or maybe sunny yellow chanterelles turned into a Hungarian paprikash spooned over creamy polenta, topped with cool sour cream.
Sunday dinners were always a feast, a five course meal served with a certain decorum, food was always colorful, beautifully plated, garnished with parsley, dill. After the hospital incident my father became a permanent partner in the kitchen, a fantastic sous-chef. I think he would pass any culinary school test for his knife skills, when he chopped an onion it would end up in the tiniest, most even cubes you could imagine, his brunoise would be something Eric Ripert would envy. Baking for the holidays would start two, three weeks before with delicate layers of pastry to be later assembled around cream, caramel, chocolate, and fruit fillings to make lavish, elaborate deserts. The finest crystal and china would come out and the table was extended to allow for a large gathering. Then came toasts with tiny shot glasses of plum brandy or vodka, laughter, the table full of appetizers painstakingly decorated and arranged on platters and then course after course of delicious food. The shortages of later years, the rations we were reduced to, made things harder but nobody gave up, we continued to gather around the dining table to celebrate, to mourn, to tell and hear stories, political jokes, and all along created memories filled with the taste, aroma of wonderful food.
My mother had her wish, she taught me to cook early and I learned to love helping around the kitchen. Later, in my teens I would take over during our vacations and cook for the family in the afternoons after I finished my practice. My curiosity and love for cooking never stopped, my skills grew with practice and I still benefit from the years of standing in my parents’ kitchen on a stool learning the basics. I feel lucky because Romania sits at the crossroads of many ethnic, national, regional culinary traditions: the Ottoman Empire, which ruled over the three regions of Romania many times over long periods and left a wealth of influences of Middle Eastern cooking. To the West stood the Austrian empire, they also made forays into the conquest of Transylvania, (or by other standards the Romanians made forays into taking Transylvania away from the Hapsburgs, later Hungary). From the South came the influences of the Mediterranean and from the East those of Russia. Each left a subtle trail of spices, herbs, aromas which we assimilated and the result was rich, wonderful. But only after coming to America was I given a chance to learn and experience the greatest melting pot of all cooking traditions. I was like a kid in a candy store. So I greedily learned from my Southern friends, my Philippine physician, my Chinese students’ mothers and grandmothers, Indian neighbors, from all our travels.
Lately I discovered that cooking is a unique counterpoint to playing piano, to being an artist. While learning a concerto, a recital program, preparing for a recording, you are isolated into a very quiet and lonely bubble, there are no cheerleaders, no feedback, you get up and practice day after day for months at the time, for years even, and then, one day you are thrown in front of hundreds of people, maybe thousands, or someone says “take one”, and you must be perfect, you must deliver with precision and heart. You go from 0 to 200 in a matter of seconds, from the quiet anonymity of your studio to center stage. We don’t need the rush of a roller coaster ride because we have built that into our careers, it is called a “concert”. Yet with food, in a few hours, sometimes minutes, you can see the beginning and the end of a task, enjoy the fruits of your work and share them. So for me cooking is a joyful, welcome change of pace, something that brings in a different version of the kind of satisfaction that art gives at the cost of mindless focus, sacrifice, blood sweat and tears.
Food is part of peoples’ soul, of their heritage, culture, identity, and by sharing it we communicate; we become one, a richer and happier community. We gather around the table, around beautiful food to tell and listen to stories, to celebrate, mourn, and more than anything, to show our love and friendship to each other in the most basic way we know how.
TOFU, FOOD'S ULTIMATE CHAMELEON
It starts up like a white canvas, just as bland but also just as full of the hope to be transformed into greatness. Weather silken, soft, firm, extra firm, these milky white blocks of soy easily draw horrified shivers from some gourmands. They anticipate (quite naturally) that the 70's health food “revolution” with its clumsy (while well meant) promise of better health traded for deliciousness, rears its tasteless head again.
I remember one of my first visits to London in the early 90's when my British agent Audrey Ellison, the eccentric impresario who was moonlighting as food writer/bio-chemist/chef took us to the finest vegetarian restaurant in town. The display was impressive, the colors beautiful everything seemed inviting until you tried the food. And then came the heart ache, actually heart burn. The food was awful, a jumble of unfocused combinations of everything and anything thrown together with the energy of a Jackson Pollock painting, yet lacking magic. Today London’s finest has all the magic you dare to expect. I didn’t have the pleasure to try Ottolenghi, but when I saw their debut cookbook in our Library I fell in love instantly. When I exhausted all my options to extend my borrowing time, read every single recipe and tried many, I promptly ordered my own copy. You are immediately drawn into it wanting to touch the sensual, soft, cushy cover, the photographs are lavish, they promise orgasmic pleasure and the recipes deliver that pleasure. I felt doubly pleased to read a rave review of the restaurant in the New York Times Magazine a few weeks later, a rare honor for a London restaurant, let along a vegetarian one.
So, food lovers fear tofu no more, it is the perfect blank canvas, the perfect chameleon which, when challenged by your imagination, will deliver endless incarnations of beauty and taste, will easily take the place of some coveted objects of our food desires.
Try Alton Brown’s guilt free Caesar salad dressing made with silken tofu, a staple in our house. It was a template for a myriad of versions like my toasted cumin dressing for Chopped Mexican Salad. Keep the garlic cloves and mustard but skip the parmesan, add lots of lime juice and a good amount of freshly toasted cumin. Or skip the lime juice and cumin, add apple cider vinegar and a little honey to lighten up a tangy coleslaw.
Slice up extra firm tofu, dry it on paper towels, sauté it to a golden crispness and then go to town thinking an infinite number of sauces, marinades. Try fragrant Indian spices melted in yogurt to make a Tandori sauce, any number of Chinese stir fry sauces: orange ginger, garlicky oyster, sweet hoi sin, maybe a spicy Thai peanut, or American barbeque, any one of these can give the patient innocent sautéed tofu a fiery bubbly bath and turn it into a star…. .
Or, treat the same firm tofu as a scalloped chicken or veal, season well and bread with your favorite mix: seasoned flour, eggs or buttermilk then maybe panko crumbs and parmesan, lightly sauté or bake till crisp and think more sauces: marinara, mushroom, lemon-caper-wine, fragrant pesto, Sky is the limit. Embrace the lovely textures of tofu and add all the flavor you can dream up and you won’t be disappointed.
BLACK BEAN, FOOD'S BLACK ONYX JEWEL
They shine, luscious creamy jewels, scattered over a salad or gently immersed in a thick soup. The taste is subtle, sweet, deep inside you can detect a hint of the mysterious scent of the bay leaves and sprigs of thyme I scattered in the water I soaked and cooked them in. They go in the pot with the sound of cheerful pebbles and during the night they swell to double their petite size. In the morning when stirred their sound is muted but is still retaining a little percussiveness, but after a couple of hours of gentle simmering they become contentedly silent, happy to have absorbed their share of pure water and painted the rest jet black. The black beans are ready for a little sea salt to complete the last 5 minutes of their journey to the table.
And now you have a wide range of choices. Maybe summer will inspire you to make a mango salsa to spice up almost anything sizzling on your grill, or to make a light appetizer surrounded by crispy tortilla chips. All you need is good knife skills to chop a red onion, a jalapeno, some cilantro and a mango, a sprinkle of lime juice (the zest if you dare to seduce a bit more) and you end up with a rainbow of color and flavor with infinite possibilities.
Or maybe you will gently mash a cup and spread over whole wheat tortilla, flavor with green onions, a few shreds of sharp cheese heated in a skillet to produce the heavenly crispy outside and deeply satisfying melted creamy inside of a quesadilla.
Or, to warm up a cold winter evening in front of a blazing fire in the fireplace you sauté onions, garlic, and marry them with the cooked beans, scoop over a mound of steamed brown rice and garnish with quick pickled red onions (finely chopped onion soaked in red wine vinegar, you could add a teaspoon of oil, a little salt, pepper to tame the sharpness of the onion), a dollop of sour cream, even some extra sharp cheddar, a scattering of cilantro leaves.
You can easily make a vegetarian chili by adding chopped carrots, zucchini, colorful peppers, corn, cumin, oregano to your sautee and cook until soft and the veggies have imparted their flavors to each other.
Black foods, whether infused by the incredible coloring power of squid ink, or the shiny peel of eggplant, tiny puy lentils, spiky nutty wild rice, or the jewels of the legume family: black beans hold a magical, dark attraction on us with a twinge of fear hidden in their depth. Black beans will always be a complete feast for our eyes as well as our taste buds, nourishing, healthy, seductive.
WE HAD A MOROCCAN FEAST THE OTHER NIGHT
Our trip to Marrakesh last fall was such an inspiration. I bought two wonderful cookbooks in the summer and read them so that by the time we were there I would know as much as possible about the food and cooking techniques of Moroccan cuisine.
A couple of weeks ago we had our friends Dana and Eric over for dinner and this was our main course. The recipe came from Hassan M'Souli's wonderful cookbook Moroccan Modern: cornish hens bathed in a honey poppy seed and apricot glaze, scented with saffron over a saffron risotto cake. Dana took the photo with her phone, thank you Dana.
Our dessert was a coconut and cardamom panna cotta drizzled with rose petal syrup.
© 2013 by Gabriela Imreh. All rights reserved.