Unlearning Vegetarianism: A Journey To Situational Omnivorousness

Eating is the catalyst and the conduit for so many cultural and social experiences that I hated missing out on as a vegetarian. I was born and raised that way- both of my parents became vegetarian years before I was born and my entire family remains committed vegetarians.  Over the past few years, I have departed from this value system, receiving responses from my sisters and parents ranging from bewilderment to concern.

When I was young, I would say, “When I grow up, I’m going to eat Big Macs and chicken wings!”  (I also, for the record, desperately craved squishy white bread and creamy peanut butter to replace the crumbly whole wheat home baked loaves and oily separated natural peanut butter I was served). Of course once I was autonomous, I was disgusted by the thought of any of it and could not imagine putting those processed dead substances in my body.

When I began actually trying real meat, at first I was frustrated with how little I could handle.  I could taste little bites but was still too weirded out by the texture of flesh in my mouth to eat much of it. Now I am grateful for this sensitivity. I am horrified by the thought of eating unclean, unhealthy animals who were brutalized. However, even ethically raised or harvested animals are still living beings whose lives are being taken and this always has been and will always be a heavy, complicated process – one that I will never engage in casually. So as I have been unlearning my vegetarianism, I have been learning as much as I can about the processes by which animals end up as food- different slaughtering and butchering techniques and traditions, the differences between grass fed and corn fed beef, the ways that unseasonably warm waters on the west coast affect the taste of the oysters, the impact of overfishing and the rising acidity of the ocean on sea species central to sushi production…if I was not eating from the ocean I guarantee I would not be as attuned to the crises playing out there. I feel more plugged into the planet now that I eat (some) meat and seafood.  I pay attention more. I feel the affects of what’s going on in our ecosystems and food production systems more than ever before. I also feel more connected to the people of the past in this place I live- Brooklyn, Long Island, the coast of the Atlantic- a place where the indigenous people, and then all of the colonizers and immigrants following them, ate from the ocean because it’s right here!  (If I were still living in Ohio, I would not be as passionate about learning how to eat from the sea responsibly because the responsible thing to do there would be to not eat from it). Feeling more plugged into the planet through consuming meat feels somewhat ironic for me because I know my mother, who is so disturbed by my digression, is vegetarian precisely because of how plugged into the planet she feels.

A proto-omnivorous moment I had years ago took place in the home of a Palestinian farmer family in a village near Jenin. I had been helping their cooperative sell their fair trade olive oil in the States and was being hosted by this family during my first visit since the collaboration began. It was Id and they had just slaughtered a lamb and grilled it, serving it in small dark juicy chunks accompanied by a mouth-watering array of sauces, dips, spice mixes, pickles, yogurt, bread, and veggies. I ate a small amount (I remember exactly 5 pieces but may have projected that number onto the memory in retrospect). It was a space within which my commitment to vegetarianism did not feel as important as gratefully participating in the intimate, generous experience of this family’s celebration. I had been concerned that my stomach would be upset given that it had never had such things in any substantial quantity. I was totally fine.

Years later, I had the privilege of visiting the tiny magical universe of Sutton Island in the Gulf of Maine. My friends kayaked out to the big rock near the dock in front of our house and harvested some mussels. After they cleaned them on the front porch, we made paella with them, throwing them into the large pot, covering it, and as they were coaxed open by the steam, we smelled their oceanic juices seep out and infuse the rice and vegetables.

I knew that if I were to ever try eating mussels that THIS was the moment- mussels harvested by my friends’ hands in a small and sustainable amount, in the cleanest water I had ever been in. And I asked myself if eating a plastic-wrapped processed soy product could in any way, spiritually or nutritionally, feel better than eating these sea creatures freshly plucked from a rock. The answer was no. Thus began my more deliberate mission to expand my food experience to include animals. These were both experiences in which the values and logic of what was right to eat came into focus as more layered and complex than any YES/NO position on meat could encompass.

I tease my mother by calling her a fundamentalist vegetarian because she believes that everyone should be vegetarian all the time. There are no other points to be considered other than avoiding taking unnecessary life as she sees it. And this is a serious question- is it necessary for us to kill and eat animals? (“Us” being urbanized people living in the year 2013). The answer might, on a certain level, be NO. Not technically. But it all comes down to the interconnectedness of all the systems involved in what we eat- it makes it so that it is very difficult, and possibly not ideal, to maintain a pure and singular set of dietary restrictions if one’s aim is to eat most ethically and healthily, for planet and self. One meal might offer the choice between processed soy product and sustainably farmed fish, in which case the fish might be the most ethical and clean way to eat in that situation. In another context, one might have to choose between factory farm chicken and a vegetable dish containing avocado flown half way around the world with fossil fuel guzzling engines. In that situation, the harm and health dichotomy get complicated.  This might be a pick your battles situation, and one in which there’s no guaranteed clear winning position because either way, you are implicated in a losing food production industry. With an industrialized food system relying on so much fossil fuel, plastic, chemicals, and so on, eating vegetarian is not automatically a less harmful choice. It can be- if whole, local, seasonal, sustainably grown and produced foods are the boundaries around one’s eating decisions. But just going for the non-animal option at a restaurant or the grocery store doesn’t guarantee righteousness unfortunately.

Adding a different dimension of decision-making factors, there are contexts in which one is being offered special dishes prepared lovingly by people who are sharing their knowledge, their heritage or their home.  For me, fully experiencing different cultures and communities requires responding to such welcomeness with openness, curiosity, and gratitude. It is the only way to learn. And show respect. There is no room for rigid restrictions that negate the wisdom of a cuisine being presented.  There are dishes that are so central to cultures, classics enjoyed on sometimes obsessive levels by entire countries and larger geographic areas, that I feel must at least be tried.  Otherwise a significant element of a place that I am in will be missed. And I HATE missing out. (This is admittedly the most questionable of my reasons for abandoning vegetarianism personally.)

So I have developed a situational omnivorousness that I do not claim to be righteous but is at least an attempt to live fully and cultivate a multifaceted relationship to food.  I am sure it will continue to evolve, especially as our planet keeps changing and I learn more.

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Storm Love

Waking up in Brooklyn today, still dark, windy, and rainy, we’re so grateful to not have been directly impacted by the power of the storm. However, we are so saddened by the damage done to our beloved city and all of our neighboring communities.

Last night we were looking at the mostly dark Manhattan skyline that normally twinkles in my bedroom window. We were thinking about our fellow traveler, Una, and her family, as they were going through the madness of the storm’s impact on their home just across the river–Stuyvesant Town in Alphabet City. It is one of the most confusing elements of the human experience–the way that one can be so close to and have such dramatically different experiences from others. (The different daily realities between neighborhoods in the same city, the different experiences people have walking down the same street in bodies that are read and responded to differently, the different levels of mobility and freedom people experience at borders and checkpoints and airports, etc.)

For those of us in this part of the Global North, we are accustomed to the damage and difference in experience being separated from us by many more miles and borders. With fires raging in the Rockaways, flooding shutting down lower Manhattan and the edges of Brooklyn, and Staten Island devastated, we are now experiencing the sadness and stress of the kinds of powerful storms we’ve watched hit other communities further away throughout the past several years.

So we were very cognizant of this existential dilemma as we hunkered down in Crown Heights, with wind pounding the building and lights flickering, but us safe and dry inside our cozy home. As we kept track of the storm’s path and the whereabouts of the people we love, we joined our fellow New Yorkers who were able, in gathering our peeps to cook, drink, and take care of each other. It was kind of an organic and surreal celebration of the goodness of life, home, and community borne of necessity. We created so much color and warmth within these walls, countering the scary night outside.

Blessed by a tribe of loved ones too big to fit in one Brooklyn apartment, we had two encampments a few blocks apart. Seeing as food is the most natural and immediate way we know how to connect with each other, we devised a playful process for merging–brunch in our two households became a creative culinary competition judged by the Honorable Judge Miriam of Big Ceci fame.

Each “team” prepared our menus, plated our food, and sent our write up and photographs to Miriam for judging. Here is what ensued:

The Bergen Brunch Boos

Maple bourbon pancakes with apricot peach preserves & maple yogurt
Rosemary purple potato hash
Hurricane harvest garden kale-cheddar-corn scramble

The Honorable Judge Miriam’s pronouncement:

Team Bergen Street brought a strong showing to the competition, with careful attention to form and technique in their preparation of maple bourbon pancakes, topped with apricot-peach preserves and maple yogurt; purple and red potato hash w/garlic and rosemary; hurricane harvest garden kale, corn, and cheddar scramble.  The plate demonstrated a sophisticated use of color and texture, and held a strong seasonal resonance.  In essence, this brunch created an idyllic autumn day that was a perfect foil to the apocalyptic demon storm raging outside.  This judge would recommend a slightly more acidic preserve to balance the sweetness of the maple-bourbon pancakes.  The tang of the yogurt helped a bit but a citrus or tart component might add more balance to the plate.  The hurricane harvest kale was an immediate crowd-pleaser, and elevated this traditional egg preparation to an innovative and delicious farm-to-fork level.

Presentation: 9.0 out of 10
Creativity: 9.2 out of 10
Balance: 8.6 out of 10
Concept: 9.8 out of 10

Overall score: 9.15 out of 10

Team Sandy Brunch Bonanza 

Spiced-apple pancakes with homemade apple butter
Veggie-sausage nutmeg greens
Zuke-tomato-basil-cheddar scramble
Sweet potato home fries

The Honorable Judge Miriam’s pronouncement:

Team Sandy Brunch Bonanza drew an immediate wow-factor with their precarious-crane-in-a-hurricane reminiscent stack of spiced apple pancakes with homemade apple butter.  Accented with sides including veggie-sausage nutmeg greens and a zucchini-basil-tomato scramble, and served with sweet potato home fries, this summer-to-fall harvest feast brought diners a compelling tale of two seasons, where the summery warm sea temperature flavors of zuke/basil/tomato collided with the winter storm system of apples, nutmeg, and sweet potatoes.  A thoughtful eye to color and palate made brunch stand out, and the brilliant marriage of sweet and savory flavor profiles made this a complex and inspired meal.  This plate’s greatest strength may have also swung as its deepest challenge; the heft of this hearty meal could intimidate the carb-sensitive or starchaphobe.  A lighter lifting aioli for the home fries, or a touch of parsley or fresh green salad might help this meal slide more confidently into the clean-plate club, but overall this july-september romance of a plate could convince even the firmest brunch cynic to fall in love again with the meal that knows no bounds – hurricane brunch.

Presentation: 9.6 out of 10
Creativity: 9.1 out of 10
Balance: 9.4 out of 10
Concept: 8.5 out of 10

Overall score:  9.15 out of 10

A Taste of Paradise

On Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year, my mother, like many other Jews, bakes her challah into coiled circles representing the cycle of life, the new year beginning, our next rotation around the sun…

After blessing the sweet cylindrical bread, Ima tears the loaf into pieces (avoiding the touch of a knife to the sacred loaves because these instruments also have the potential to harm). We eagerly reach for the best pieces – shiny golden on the outside and soft, fluffy dough on the inside – and passionately smear butter on our torn pieces of yeasty treasure. The required next step in this process is dripping the honey from our apple and honey ritual (another symbol of fertility, the round planet, the “head of the year”).  The final stage of this collective culinary experience is my father inevitably saying, year after year, “mmmmm…this is a taste of the garden of Eden.” The unofficial yet religiously practiced ritual is not complete without this statement.

And it is indeed the most heavenly combination filling your mouth – the creaminess of the butter, warm yeastiness of the fresh baked golden challah, and tart sweetness of the honey. You feel like you are glowing from the inside. If paradise can be imagined as a place of total harmony, simple goodness, and comfort, this is how it would taste.

I thought of this famous family idiom miles away from home while having possibly the most magical meal of my life at Al Paradiso, an elegant trattoria tucked into a cluster of old, partially crumbling stone buildings surrounded by cornfields in the Friulian countryside.

Federica, our host, had become famous in my household as the talented creator of Basil Liver Soup (a delightful translation slip-up that took place during an email exchange with my father as she generously shared the recipe for the simple, bright, silky soup my parents have now recreated and shared many times). My parents had waited and planned for ten years to bring us here, to share with us the magical culinary experience that had so deeply impacted them on their first voyage here.

Ima & Abba happily returned to their beloved trattoria,  Al Paradiso

We were seated on the terazza at a round table with white tablecloth and green velvet runner (velvet on the table felt like a generous dedication to beauty over concern for the risk of spillage). The centerpiece was a large glass vessel filled with water, and floating orange roses matching the orange stones delicately strewn around the table. Our view through the white curtains was bright blue and white hydrangea bushes and bright red geranium growing on a stone building with wooden shutters that must have been the restaurant’s wine cellar and storage. We sipped sparkling water out of delicate blown glass cups (no effort was spared in the details of this paradise) and were welcomed by Federica in a traditional medieval Friulian country dress perfectly coordinated with the colors of our table setting.  Since my parents met Federica years ago, she’s had two children, both of whom hovered around her while her mama and papa served our meal alongside her.

The context inspired Abba to play around with redefining fusion cooking – understanding it as a dining experience carefully cultivated to integrate and satisfy multiple senses and forms of enjoyment – the aesthetics of the table, the lighting, the sounds and smells, the texture and temperature of the foods, the relationship and interactions between those making and serving the food and those enjoying it, the libations and their origins and pairings, the history and energy of a place.

The amuse bouche was ravioli fritti ripieni con melanzane (fried ravioli stuffed with eggplant) with a wonderful red pepper sauce (something like romesco?). We then moved on to fiori du zucchine ripieni di ricotta (zucchini flowers stuffed with ricotta) served in a beautiful zucchine cream and crispy puff pastry with capriolo cheese perfumed with aromatic herbs.

The soup was prepared specifically for us in honor of our parents’ deep appreciation and excitement. It was, of course, the revered crema di basilico con sfoglia di polenta (meaning cream of basil soup with amazingly thin and crsipy polenta on the side). My parents were thrilled by the surprise addition of a tiny patate e carrote timbalo in the middle (a small, round-shaped mold of baked potato and carrot). Then we devoured the pacchetti pasta filled with marjoram and fonduta di montasio cheese and tomatoes. Seeing as this was a vegetarian meal sweetly prepared specifically for my family, the secondi in this epic banquet was gnocchi with patate and wild herbs topped with crumbled fried parmigiano. (Our carb-loving family was up for the traditional flow of an Italian meal involving pasta as a warm up for what in this meat free situation was yet another even bigger pasta!). Then there was also a poached egg (yeah!) atop al dente veggies (celery, carrots, kale) covered with potato creme.

With each course Federica spent time with us, telling us everything we wanted to know about every dish and its ingredients. She also carefully selected and presented a different wine with each course, the most ephemeral whites, an orange wine, dessert wines, all from the region.  Dessert was creme mille feuille with “coffee caviar”!

By this point I was happily floating in a dream-like state, induced by the quaint, fantastical surroundings, the sensuality of the food, Federica’s grace and wisdom, and, of course, the many bottles of bright, crisp, complex, smooth, and then ultimately sweet wines. (In Italy, local is a designation very precisely and carefully applied. Often I would ask if I could try a local wine and I would be pointed towards a wine with the apologetic disclaimer that it wasn’t local but it was made in the next town over and would that be okay?)

The only thing that tainted the blissful gift of this meal was Federica’s sadness, subtle and balanced by her graciousness, but still present. She was clearly feeling discouraged. When asked about where she sourced her eggs from, she complained about regulations that actually prevent her from obtaining fresh eggs from nearby farmers, providing a small and concrete example of the ways in which Italy’s food system is being industrialized and privileges large producers and agribusiness, while undermining small, local producers.  She expressed how difficult it is for her to run a restaurant, making the kind of food she believes in and the kind of environment she wants to create.

So as many Americans are (re)discovering food (kind of like how Columbus “discovered” America), and tend to romanticize Italian cuisine and its local and slow food tradition, our systems and corporations are undermining and poisoning it.

Sitting at Federica’s table was a joyous privilege. To borrow Tamasin Day-Lewis‘ description of a restaurant in England that had the same effect on her: “Everything was done properly with the finest ingredients from start to finish, without ever being too rich, too much, too pretentious…” It was one of the most elevated, gourmet meals I’ve ever had. Not a single detail of the evening was anything but perfect, and the experience was served to us with genuine glowing humility and grace. This Rosh Hashana, I will dedicate my first bite of buttered challah dripping with honey to Al Paradiso, a magical haven gifted to the world by a small family who knows how to serve food that gives you a taste of the Garden of Eden.

**Thankfully, my sister Shalva, the Diva of Details, took the pictures for this post and Ima diligently recorded every menu item, even making sure to ask Federica about the types of cheese in each dish. Otherwise, my compromised memory would not have been able to do this experience justice.  And speaking of my community-supported writing process, Naomi, my partner in crime, is responsible for this and most of my posts being readable and well-constructed.

CULTIVATE: Connecting Community through Meals and Media

Last Wednesday night on one of the hottest days thus far this summer, I took a steamy, crowded subway ride from work in SoHo to South Brooklyn for an evening presented and co-organized by The Big Ceci and SIGNIFIED featuring Just Food, the Brooklyn Food Coalition, and the 718 Collective. The event, held in the basement of the Church of Gethsemane on a tree lined street in Park Slope, was a dinner by the 718 Collective, followed by the premier of SIGNIFIED’s second season episode featuring the 718 collective, an interactive presentation with Just Food and the Brooklyn Food Coalition, and a community recipe exchange.

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As a recent resident of Brooklyn (I moved here just a little under two years ago from Boston via Mexico City), the idea of cultivating community in a city as varied and expansive as New York can sometimes seem like a daunting task. I have tried to foster relationships with people who share common interests, and have worked to become invested in certain elements of my local community. For example I joined a social-justice focused CSA and take an active role in working towards making the CSA accessible to lower-income families. And I am pleased to find that through my efforts I have been able to feel that I not only live in Brooklyn, but that I have found a space to give back and invest in my community.

The feeling of having a distinct community where I have laid down my roots has always been an important element in finding happiness in my daily life. Finding that community here in Brooklyn has been difficult, but ultimately very rewarding. While I do feel secure and rewarded by the space I have made for myself here, I am aware of the general demographic of those with whom I spend the majority of my time. While I actively try to be open to meeting new people and work to interact with those from different backgrounds, it can be easy to slip into a space of 20-something artists, writers, and activists who live in Brooklyn, ride their bikes, brew kombucha, volunteer for various causes, and care to know who grows their food. While my friends and neighbors are rich in creativity, experience, and understanding, rarely do I feel that I truly step into the shoes of those with very different lifestyles from my own. But cultivating a varied community just to feel that I have a diversified friend group can also be problematic. So how does one truly work to connect with a community different from their own, without it feeling strained or disconnected?

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During the CULTIVATE dinner I had a great conversation explaining quinoa and kale to the man sitting to my left who had never seen the foods before, and who, in turn, regaled me with tales of his fledging rap career. After a screening of SIGNIFIED’s episode, everyone at the event joined together for an exercise by the Brooklyn Food Coalition about the school food program.  The children of Brooklyn are a community that surrounds me, but with whom I rarely interact. While I live across the street from a public school, I rarely find myself in conversation with anyone under the age of 18 for longer than a few sentences.

The exercise entailed a woman from the BFC who would give out a word or fact that everyone in the room was then asked to free-associate and to write down the first word that came to mind. We then walked around showing off our answers and briefly talking to each other about the phrases that we were inspired to put down. Terms like “school food” brought out negative association words like “yuck,” “fatty,” “heavy,” and  “too expensive.” The fact “The NYC public school system buys the second largest amount of food in the United States, after the U.S. Military” brought out thoughts like “capitalism,”  “schools, prisons, military,” and “buying power.” It was unfortunate that many of the associations she threw out  with school food terms were negative and depressing. When the fact was read— “One parent working in the school food system has the opportunity to affect hundreds of children,” more positive words began cropping up — “possibility,” “opportunity,” and “stand up.” Because children are a community that, by and large, do not have the ability to stand up and advocate for themselves, it is up to those who are older to support, educate, and advocate. So while there can be negative associations related to advocating for communities that may seem disparate from our own, and while I do not yet have children of my own, it is up to us who have have a voice and an understanding of the injustices of our food system to take a stand for them.

While the community of children in Brooklyn may seem far away from my daily life, in reality, they are just down the block. They are a part of my community and as a fortunate child who benefited from healthy school lunches in Oregon, and from the tireless work of my mother, it is my job to help cultivate positive associations with the school food system for this new community of mine.

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See more photos from the event here:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/nora_chovanec/sets/72157630259177140/detail/

Manouche Impossible

“And so it had taken me all of sixty years to understand that water is the finest drink, and bread the most delicious food, and that art is worthless unless it plants a measure of splendor in people’s hearts.”

– from “Twigs” by Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali

I spent my birthday weekend this past March visiting the town Cosoleacaque in Veracruz, Mexico.  Friends of mine were living in a house there along with several musicians.  The town is known for being the birthplace of Son Jarocho music, a folkloric music played on mandolin-size guitars called Jaranas.  The players of the Jarana are called Jaraneros and my friends, along with their housemates, were all Jaraneros.

Within the first 12 hours of my arrival I had to redefine my idea of “bare necessities”.  There was no running water and I had to fill a bucket from the well outside the house, and that bucket had to suffice.  When I finished taking my birdbath I asked for a towel and I was handed a pretty, bright turquoise bandana. When I asked for coffee, that same bandana was pulled off the clothesline and used as a coffee filter.  Then it was washed again and used as (drum roll) a bandana!  So you get the idea what we are working with here.

On the second day we decided to go to the beach.  We were going to get up early the next day (my birthday) and drive to a remote beach, stopping at some majestic waterfalls that were on the way. Along the way we would pick up another Jaranero, one that makes his own guitars, and proceed to the falls.  My friend Ximena suggested that it would be delightful to have home-made manouche to eat at our stop at the waterfalls.  Manouche is a type of Lebanese pizza that I had mentioned in a previous post in The Big Ceci.  It is basically a pizza with the zaatar spice and whatever else you want to add to it.

Now this is tricky business as it is hard enough to get it together to make the manouche at home, let alone in an unequipped kitchen with so many unknowns.  I always tell people that I am a chemist and not a cook and that is particularly true when it comes to baked goods.  The oven in the house was not working so that meant that we would have to make the dough and fixings the night before and then stop at one of the Jaraneros’ houses on the way out.  So we set to working on the dough and one of the musicians asked me to teach him how to make the dough as he had aspirations to become a baker.  So I did a batch and taught him how to do one.  Since there were no measuring utensils, it was all a wild guess and I had no idea what the batches will look like when they rise (if they rise at all).  You usually have to let the dough rise for an hour and half but in this case we had to let them sit overnight.

The next morning I saw that the dough did rise properly (and optimally).  We set out to our first stop, to cook the manouche.  The kitchen there was tiny with barely any utensils. The oven was small and narrow, looking more like something belonging to a playhouse.  We quartered the batches of dough, letting them rise and then washed a bottle of wine and set about rolling out the dough into pizzas.  In the meantime, my friend Anna made desert for the picnic, lemon bars in a Pyrex dish.

Guitar maker that we picked up on the way to the waterfall.

We put the Pyrex dish on the bottom rack of the oven, and the first batch of pizzas on the top rack.  We checked 10 minutes later and saw that nothing was heating up much.  So our host turned up the oven full blast.  Ten minutes later there was a constant flow of white smoke seeping from the back of the oven.  Our host inspected it, waved her hand at the smoke and let things be, the room was well ventilated.  We finished baking our first batch batch of Manouche and put in the second.  A few minutes later the Pyrex dish that contained our dessert, turned out not to be “Pyrex” (thought labeled so) and it exploded.  The oven was opened; the lump of lemon bar and fractured glass was removed from the oven and set on the oven door to salvage some of the dessert from the wreckage.  The manouche was unharmed by the explosion and I continued to place batch after batch, some with zaatar and cheese and some with cheese.  After removing the manouche we added fresh mint and tomatoes and stacked the manouches on top of each other and wrapped them up in tin foil.

When we got to the waterfall there was no one else there.  There were three different falls pouring into a simmering lagoon.  We sat around on the rocks and the jaraneros pulled out their Jaranas and began to strum while we set about preparing the food.  When Anna reached into the bag to pull out the wrapped maouches she looked up and beamed at me.  “They’re still hot!”

Still life with Jarana Player and Manouche

The basic dough recipe that I used is one from Cooksillustrated.com which makes for good grilling pizza.  This is great for barbeques, especially when you have a vegetable garden and are able to pick fresh spearmint and tomatoes and plop them on the pizza.  Just make sure that you mix the tomatoes with salt and let them drain so you don’t get a soggy pizza.

Here is the dough recipe:

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 cup water (8 ounces), room temperature

2 cups bread flour (11 ounces), plus more for work surface

1 tablespoon whole wheat flour (optional)

2 teaspoons sugar

1 ¼ teaspoons table salt

1 teaspoon instant yeast

I forgot the onions!

My friend Sandra, organizer extraordinaire, once said to me that whenever she’s organizing a meeting she makes sure to put some food on the table for people to share. She said that food can play a powerful role in bringing people together (or something like that; it was a long time ago).

Whatever the exact words, her idea that the simple act of sharing food has a powerful impact stuck with me. For me, the best thing about cooking has always been the way sharing a meal helps people come together, have a good time, and feel the love.

I find cooking really relaxing and fun, one of the few ways I get to express some creativity (given that I’m the world’s worst singer and can’t draw at all). I love to come home on a Friday evening and cook a meal with my partner Judy and spend the evening with her. The meal doesn’t have to be fancy, just something that we prepare with care. We often make pasta with broccoli rabe or some other green cooked in a little olive oil with garlic and hot pepper. We open a bottle of wine and wind down from the week together.

And I do find it relaxing. Still, everyone in our family can recall at least a few moments when I go, “OH, NO!” – most likely when I’m trying to slide a pizza that I’ve spent a few hours preparing into the oven, and it sticks to the peel.

One such moment occurred on New Year’s Eve. We had some friends over for dinner as we usually do. A chance to catch up with each other and talk about the state of the world as we pass into a new year – in this case, the multitude of ways that the Obama administration hasn’t been much better than the Bush fiasco, and how heartened we are by Occupy Wall Street. Not all of us were that hopeful, but still…

I started cooking early and made a couple of pizzas (a la Jim Lahey) as appetizers, and two galettes from a recipe given to me by my daughter and great cook, Naomi. Everyone thought they were amazing. Very rich, though; I wouldn’t make them too often. I also made a Palestinian lentil and rice dish that’s always a favorite, and Judy made one of her great salads. We were halfway through the meal. I put out the rice; everybody liked it, but it didn’t feel like anything special. All of a sudden, Judy says, “John, you forgot to put the onions on the rice!”

The thing is, the onions are what make the dish special. It’s a very simple recipe. Lentils and rice, a little cumin. But you caramelize a couple of big onions and sprinkle them on top and, lo and behold, the dish is amazing.

I had spent about a half hour sautéing the onions that afternoon. When they were a beautiful brown color, I took them out of the pan and put them on a plate between layers of paper towels to remove some of the oil, and there they sat.  I totally forgot to add them in when I put out the rice. I was bummed out. But, of course, no one else cared. We were all having too nice a time to worry about that. We finished the meal and walked up to the park to watch the fireworks.

That's the galette in the foreground and the Palestinian Rice and Lentils (desperately needing onions) in the rear

Here’s the recipe, with only slight modifications, from World Vegetarian by Madhur Jaffrey…try it. I think you’ll like it. Just don’t forget the onions!

½ cup of lentils, picked over and washed
2 cups basmati rice, washed and drained
¼ cup of olive oil
2 large onions, thinly sliced
1 teaspoon of ground cumin
Freshly ground black pepper
2 teaspoons salt

Soak the lentils for 3-4 hours. Drain.

Soak the rice in cold water for 30 minutes. Then drain.

While the rice is soaking, caramelize the onions. This takes a while. Heat the oil in a large pan and add the onions. Cook them over medium high heat at first and gradually turn down the heat as they get soft. When they turn brown, remove them from the pan with a slotted spoon or spatula, and spread them out on a paper towel to absorb the oil.

Turn the heat back to medium and add the drained lentils and rice to the remaining oil. Add the cumin, black pepper and salt. Sauté, stirring gently, for several minutes, so the rice gets coated with the onion flavored oil. Add 3 ½ cups of water and bring to a boil. Cover tightly, turn the heat down low, and cook for about 25 minutes. There’s some variability to the cooking time and the amount of water you need because of the lentils, so I make sure to check the rice at about 20 minutes and add some water if I need to.

Turn the lentils out into a serving platter, fluff them up, and sprinkle with the caramelized onions.

A Passion for Peppers

In an age of faddish interest in spicy foods and hot sauces, some people focus more on who can eat the hottest food (i.e. The Macho Syndrome) rather than how hot sauce can influence the culinary experience by enhancing flavors and nuances. Stores are filled with packaged spicy products with clever names and flashy labels, but this is a spicy side dish that you cannot buy in a bottle.

But first, let me give you the back story…

Growing up with my mother’s (a.k.a Bubbie Wise) excellent Ashkenazic-American cooking, I knew a lot from garlic and onion, but nothing about hot peppers and spices.

However, once the door was opened, I not only entered the room but made myself at home.

Based on the rabbinic principle of “b’shem omro” (literally “in the name of the one who said it” or giving credit where credit is due), my old college friend, Arnie Lewin, not only turned me on to cooking in my senior year at Indiana University, but turned me on to spicy food. The first two dishes that he shared with me were couscous with spicy vegetable sauce and Italian sausage and an Indian curry dish.

In 1971, the year after our graduation, we took our backpacks and hopped on an Icelandic Airlines flight to Luxemburg (that being the only cheap airline at the time).  We worked our way down from Europe to West Africa, via the Canary Islands. In Senegal, Gambia, and Ghana, the food we ate was very simple (roasted root vegetables, fish, and rice) but was always accompanied by some type of spicy hot sauce. The most memorable one being a hot peanut sauce that was served with fish and rice.

On the freighter from Barcelona to the Canary Islands, we met Ali, a Gambian who was returning to his home in Bathurst, and we ultimately ended up staying with his family for 3 weeks. During the first meal we ate together on the freighter, he took out a package of dried cayenne peppers and explained that he never went anywhere without them.

Today, when going to lunch meetings or dinner at friends’ houses, I often bring with me a bottle of hot sauce or fresh hot peppers to slice up. I keep a number of bottles of hot sauce by my desk and grab one if I feel confident I can successfully achieve the art of spicing up my meal while avoiding offense to my host. Some folks, knowing this about me now, even generously provide an assortment of spicy condiments.

My relationship with hot peppers was dramatically upgraded when I began gardening and growing my own back in the early 1970s.  I grow at least half a dozen or more varieties every summer. Some I dry, some I pickle, some I marinate, and some I use to cook with.

A couple of years ago, I had such an abundance of hot peppers, I was trying to figure out some new things to do with them and ended up creating this dish.  For this particular recipe, you can use a range of different peppers (jalapeños, serranos, chiles, cayenne, Thai, etc) but NO habañeros, their flavor doesn’t work in this dish.

So here I am gathered with our family in Los Gatos, California, for our annual Thanksgiving celebration. It is a collectively prepared feast, and my contribution this year is my sautéed hot pepper dish.

In a skillet, heat up a generous amount of olive oil (at least 4 tablespoons).

When it’s hot, put in one large onion, diced.

Then add at least 8 cloves of garlic, thinly sliced.

Cook on a medium flame for ten minutes.

Add whole hot peppers with the stems sliced off (about 18, depending on their size).

Stir thoroughly and cover.

Cook for another 10 minutes.

Add kosher salt (don’t be shy with it) and pepper to taste and about a teaspoon of white vinegar or lemon juice.

Then add a couple tablespoons of white wine and coarsely cut up fresh cilantro and parsley, about 1 cup each loosely packed.

Stir and cover.

Let it cook on a low flame until the peppers are soft (the peppers will continue to soften on their own after taken off the fire so take them off when they’re soft but not mushy).

**Note: you should probably stick to the measurements of the vinegar/lemon juice and the wine. However, all of the other ingredients can be increased according to your taste.

You can eat this dish warm but it’s best at room temperature.

Store it in the fridge and remove it before serving so it warms up to room temperature and the oil liquefies.

It goes well in soup, on pizza, as a side with rice dishes… basically just about everything other than cold cereal in the morning.

A special thanks to Uncle Tom for his delicious and flavorful photography.