Cultural Identities through Cookery continued…

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Like it never left…inspiration knocked on my door this morning. Continue the story of your culinary life, it said. So after a few months away, I pick up at the moment when I met my husband, when two cultures collided in food and love. I was oh so young, naive and vulnerable, an immigrant barely familiar with my new country, searching for identity in a land too vast to provide comfort. My first tries at assimilation turned disastrous and I was hungry for acceptance. It would come from outside this land, from someone who felt just as strange and unwelcomed.
He was here temporarily on a student visa with every intention of returning to his native country upon graduation. We met at an Italian restaurant where we both worked and forty years later as they say, the rest is history.
There’s a lot to write about when it comes to our heated and tumultuous years together but here I’m going to focus on the most pleasant of memories, those involving food.
As all immigrants will attest, the very first thing we look for when in a foreign country is a food we can identify with, one that reminds us of home, Mom and that special feeling of comfort that comes with memories left behind. Sure we marvel at all the new and interesting selections at the supermarket, but we gravitate towards the sections that import those familiar items that we yearn for.
In those early days of the 1970’s, Dallas was an isolated outpost where imported food was as rare as the foreigners searching for it. I’m not talking about ready to eat meals, no we were willing to prepare fact similes of our memories in our kitchens, what we were missing were the ingredients, the spices, the perfect vegetables, fruits, lentils and mostly the exact recipes. We would create feasts from the combined trials of tastes which would satisfy our palates and provide a smidgen of satisfaction.
I already had a repertoire of Transylvanian recipes for which I had my mother to consult and which went through a transformation over the few years that I had already resided in Dallas. With my new romantic affair came a whole world of exotic aromas of far away lands, of steaming platters of saffron rice, of stews made with delectable herbs and spices, of salads sprinkled with freshly chopped mint and hot tea sipped slowly with crystalized sugar pebbles. I was not only in love with the bearer of such treats but with everything he represented. A journey had begun and with it, a life of indescribable appreciation for food, it’s history and cultural connection.
My first experiment went terribly wrong. I found a Persian cookbook and decided to try a recipe which seemed easy enough as all the ingredients were available: lamb and carrot stew served with steamed rice. Just like in every other country, regional cooking differs widely and my husband was from the southern part where this dish was not popular. It was tasty enough but not familiar to either one of us.
Luckily a wonderful cook arrived in the shape of a sister in law who happily shared the tricks of the trade. From her I learned the delicate touch needed to prepare the perfect rice, the restraint when adding spices and the balance between hot and cold foods, an ancient observance westerners would benefit from.
Thus began my journey into one of the world’s oldest and most delectable cuisines. Slowly simmered meats were joined by eggplant and yellow split peas resulting in dishes which paired with rice made for satisfying meals I couldn’t get enough of. In addition, the hot coals of our grill provided the heat for best kabobs ever.

Not unlike other Americanized foods, my collection of recipes experienced the transformation necessary given availability of ingredients, dietary changes and time. Long simmering and labor intensive dishes gave way to easier to prepare versions which became standards. I reduced fat content, used lighter meats or eliminated them completely. Today, those old recipes have become completely vegan and not less satisfying for the transformation.

Perfectly Easy Rice
Fry 2 cups of rice for a few minutes, I like short grain brown, mixed with 1/2 cup of lentils, in 3-4 tbsp. of grape seed oil. Season with salt and pepper and 1 tsp of turmeric. Add 4 cups of water mixed with vegetable broth and 3-4 tsp of dry dill weed. Simmer on medium for about 20 minutes till liquid is absorbed and rice is just under cooked. Cover with a lid wrapped in paper towels, and steam on low for about 20 more minutes.

Stewed Eggplant with Mushrooms
In a large pot, fry one chopped onion in a couple of spoons of oil till golden. Season with salt, pepper and 1 tbsp curry powder. Add a couple of cups of cubed eggplants and continue browning and stirring for 10 minutes. Add a can of crushed tomatoes and cook on low for 15 minutes. Add 2 cups of chopped mushrooms, re-season and cook 5 more minutes.

Cultural Identities Through Cookery continued…

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Is there such a thing as American Food? Yes, it’s the mingling of all the traditions contributed by every cook who entered this country and made it his or her own. People from all corners of the world came adding their special touch to the previously adopted dishes.
New York would become the original incubator of American dishes. Italians may have brought us Pizza but New York perfected it. German and Dutch immigrants introduced Hot Dogs and Hamburgers, now a national pastime. We think of Chinese food as part of our American kitchen forgetting its origins and frequent the strangest yet perfect of all combinations, its marriage to the Jewish Deli.
The newest group introducing us to their cuisine are the Vietnamese. In Dallas there’s a Pho shop in every shopping center.
Refugees from nations under conflict who find their way to the US usually get into the food business for survival. Not finding familiar dishes when they arrive, their entrepreneurial spirit leads them to what comes naturally. Those who are able to introduce us to their specialties and manage to ‘Americanize’ their dishes mostly survive.

Restaurant chains which not only have more buying power but are publicly traded, have steadily pushed Mom and Pop stores out of business by undercutting pricing and compromising on quality. Higher rents, over regulation and labor costs have also contributed to their demise.
While Mom and Pop stores are the incubators of ideas, the chains have become the great equalizers where uniformity and quality control are traded in for charm and uniqueness. While dependability has enabled chain restaurants to thrive, by diluting the differences among cuisines they are instrumental in establishing the ‘American Kitchen.’

My contribution has varied over the years. At first nostalgia fed my desire to Americanize Transylvanian cooking with ingredients only available at that time. Then when I met TJ I taught myself how to cook his favorites, mostly from family members and thus added a combination of Arabic and Persian food to my repertoire. As time passed and we started eating a healthier, I tweaked all my recipes and slowly eliminated animal products. My cooking is American Cooking even as it hardly resembles what is typically considerd as such

Chopped veggie salad

Chop the following and combine in a large bowl:

1 medium red onion; 1 red, 1 green and 1 yellow bell pepper; 1 tomato; 1 cup of arugula; and 1 cup of kale. Drizzle with 1 tsp. of Agave nectar, 1 Tbsp. of rice vinegar, 1 Tbsp. of Sesame Oil, salt and pepper to taste, and toss. Sprinkle with 1 Tbsp. of sesame seeds.

Smashed Cauliflower

Cut up a large head of cauliflower and brown it in 1 Tbsp. of oil. Cover and simmer till very tender. Season with salt and pepper and mash well with a fork.

For a fast and yummy dessert, remove the pits from several large dates. Swirl honey or agave nectar with 2-3 Tbsp. of Tahini and dip dates in the mixture.

First Edition of American Cookery

First Edition of American Cookery (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Cultural Identities through Cookery continued…

English: Dobos cake at Gerbeaud Confectionery ...

English: Dobos cake at Gerbeaud Confectionery Budapest, Hungary (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Food is nourishment. Food is love. Food is war. Food is indispensable. Food is harmful. Food is power. Food is hunger. Food is human. Food is animal. Food is global. Food is scarce. Food is abundant. Food is food.

My daily routine (most days):
Wake up at 4:45 an and feed the dog.
Fill 2 bowl with fruit.
Wake husband.
Go to the gym.
Return for breakfast: eat prepared fruit plus oatmeal or amaranth or quinoa and beans or sweet potato or bread and avocado or leftovers from dinner. Coffee and hot tea, lots of water.
Husband off to work.
Household chores then shower, reading and writing for a couple of hours.
Plan for lunch, alone or with friends and a walk, couple of hours.
Afternoon nap, 30 min max.
Catch up on calls and mail.
Prepare dinner.
Feed dog.
Eat dinner, conversation, TV, sleep.
Repeat!
My life revolves around food. Writing about, preparing, feeding, eating, talking, fearing, reading, watching, denying, enjoying, accepting, loving, living.
Which came first, an obsession that lead to a preoccupation or a preoccupation that led to an obsession? It probably doesn’t matter since both outcomes are the same. My life revolves around food.
Since my earliest memories in childhood involve food, I have to make the familial connection to two people in my life who introduced me early on to this earth’s bounty: my father George and my grandma Dora, both no longer with us. My cultural identity can be traced through the food that they were instrumental in introducing me to.

I came into my father’s life both as an instrument of hope and renewal. Born not long after his shattered life was beginning to rebuild, after tremendous losses and inexplicable horrors, after experiences no human should endure, after the Holocaust that altered his mind and his body. One of a handful who survived, my father returned from concentration camp to his home town, a walking cadaver. His stomach was destroyed by starvation and he tolerated only light mostly boiled foods in small quantities. I didn’t realize till later that he was living out his desires for delicacies he could never digest through me. He delighted in the newest market selections as he closely watched my reaction and encouraged experimentation. I was thus exposed early on to goose liver slowly roasted then spread on fresh bread like butter, or goose cracklings made with just a hint of Hungarian Paprika and a pinch of salt. There were platters of Duck and Chicken roasts and bowls of red cabbage and fried potatoes, some available in season or preserved for long winters. And lots of cakes, breads and pastries…ours was after all part of the Austro-Hungarian way of cooking. In the fall, I enjoyed freshly pureed chestnuts swirled with sugar and cocoa, or hazelnut cookies spread with fresh raspberry jam, or walnut and raisin bread for breakfast washed down with hot cocoa. Occasionally, I accompanied my father to the local coffee shop where I ordered either a slice of the famous Hungarian Dobos Torte or a Napoleon with hot chocolate and freshly whipped cream of course.

At Grandma Dora’s where I spent summers as a child, the mood was different and food preparation involved a lot of work. I remember helping the cook pick fresh carrots or potatoes from the large garden along with parsley and tomatoes or other ripe selections. She also coralled the fattest chicken in the yard and reached under the hens for a supply of eggs. Water had to be hauled from a well and milk was delivered at the crack of dawn as flour was kneaded into loaves and placed above the stove to proof. Large pots simmered on the stove and I would hide out in the walnut tree from where I observed my brother and cousins performing their little battles of Cowboys and Indians always ending in someone running to Grandma tears.

Simple, Fast and Vegan…

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I love all vegetables but my favorite by far are members of the cabbage family. Green cabbage, always a reliable standby along with its cousins, purple, napa, bock choi and the popular cauliflower, broccoli and rapine. Lately kale has enjoyed a surge touted as a miracle green. All cruciferous vegetables are low in calories, high in fiber and rich in flavor. They are edible raw so cooking is fast and easy.

Green Cabbage and Kale Medley

Sauté a chopped onion in 1 tbsp. of oil till lightly golden. Add a chopped head of cabbage along with 4 cups of chopped kale. Stir and season with salt, pepper, tbsp cinnamon, tsp cumin and tsp coriander. Cook uncovered for 10 minutes stirring often. Add 1 cup of golden raisins, 1/2 cup of slivered almonds and stir. Taste for seasoning. Serve over cooked rice or noodles.

Mashed Cauliflower

Fry cauliflower in oil with a couple of carrots till golden. Season with salt and pepper and a smashed garlic clove. Add 2 tbsp water, cover and cook on medium/low for 10 minutes. Check for tenderness and mash with fork.
(Try the new green, purple and orange cauliflower).

New Potatoes with Sugar Peas and Mushrooms

Fry a chopped onion in oil till golden. Add 8-10 small new potatoes. Season with salt and pepper, sweet paprika and fry for 5-6 minutes. Add a pound of sugar peas and a smashed garlic clove. Cover and cook for 5 minutes. Add 1 cup of chopped mushrooms, 2-3 tbsp chopped parsley, stir and cook 5 more minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning.

Stone Fruit and Berry Medley

In a large bowl assemble peak of ripeness sliced peaches, nectarines, apricots, plums or any stone fruit and add 2 cups of berries. Drizzle with Agave Nectar and toss gently. Sprinkle with slivered almonds and chopped mint. Serve over oatmeal or amaranth for breakfast or just as a light dessert.

Cultural Identities through Cookery continued…

Baked Alaska

Baked Alaska (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Memories are strange. Although they don’t really have a physical presence, they exist as if you can feel, touch and hear them, as if they preside in a parallel universe to hold our hands, using us as vessels to connect past and future. This connection is never stronger for me than when I’m preparing a dish that has been lovingly passed down through hands that toiled to create and nourish, both body and soul. No words are necessary as food is an international language. Many times the ingredients may not be familiar but we always identify with the love that went into their preparation. Sharing food evokes trust and promotes peace. Many conflicts have been resolved over a common spread of offerings, both at personal and national levels. I believe in food diplomacy.
You only have to visit the nearest ethnic enclave in your neighborhood to see how immigrant communities congregate around restaurants and grocery stores that connect them to their past through food. I do this at least a couple of times a week. I like to visit the Southeast Asian centers popping up in areas of Dallas that have been abandoned by mainstream retailers. Hardworking immigrants not unlike those that have been coming to our shores for generations, are eagerly introducing us to the the food of their lands sometimes with more love than substance. This was the case last weekend when I ate at a ‘North and South Indian Restaurant’ proudly advertising Vegetarian and Vegan selection. The host went out of his way to explain every dish and to point out its ingredients. Although I’ve tasted better, his enthusiasm convinced me that this place will only improve with time and as large Indian families occupied most tables, I was made to feel as welcome as in someones’s house.
I read the other day that Mark Bittman, chef and New York Times contributor paid a visit to a well known Armenian outpost in Glendale where he joined the owner in the kitchen to learn some ‘tricks’ of the trade. Armenian refugees fleeing political and economic unrest headed to California in huge numbers and found themselves welcome in Glendale. A walk around its business district reveals retail store signage in several languages and the aroma of simmering pots of specialties enticing you to enter. Since for many years Armenians lived in Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Russia and other foreign lands, the food is an exquisite blend of the best those countries have to offer, from kabobs to rice dishes to desserts.

Glendale may be home to Armenians but Santa Anna boasts the largest Vietnamese population on this side of the Pacific and Texas is a close second. Hidden from the main restaurant scene, small Mom and Pop stores have been quietly introducing Dallas to Pho, Bah

Sarmale

Sarmale (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

n Mi and Specialty Noodle Bowls.  A couple of years ago they went ‘public’ and now there are Vietnamese restaurant in several locations. They have won Dallas over with hot and spicy chicken broth poured over noodles, accompanied by fresh sprouts, jalapeños, limes, and cilantro.

When we first moved to Dallas, the immigrant population was almost nonexistent but a poor lost soul from Transylvania opened a small restaurant serving the much acclaimed ‘Continental’ cuisine of the day: Chateau Briand, Chicken Kiev, Veal Scaloppine, and Baked Alaska with the occasional Vienner Schnitzel. If asked, he would prepare a dish familiar to his compatriots such as Stuffed Cabbage (

Glendale, California, 1910.

Glendale, California, 1910. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sarmale) or Goulash. He also baked the best bread available in those days and sold it to other restaurants. It would be the ticket to his survival as when the restaurant closed, he made his living baking. Customers are a fickle bunch. Few old establishments survive unless they follow current food trends. But what’s old is new again and the Continental Style of classic restaurant offerings is making a comeback.

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More Vegan selections…

My favorite cooking pastime is to take old family recipes, both mine and TJ’s and transform them into Vegan ones. As I’ve shared before, I don’t like ‘fake’ meats or seafood which are nothing but highly processed plant proteins made to look like the original.
In many recipes, simply leaving out the animal proteins or substituting ingredients such as mushrooms, beans and legumes is sufficient. Stuffed vegetables are common all throughout Eastern Europe and the Middle East. This recipe is a little labor intensive but worth the effort.

Stuffed Summer Bounty

Line a large pot with grape or lettuce leaves and set aside. Prepare peppers, squashes, onions, tomatoes, kohlrabi, potatoes or any combination of veggies for stuffing by carving into vessels. Sauté a chopped onion in a tbsp of oil. Cut up the removed veggie pieces and add to the onions. Cook for 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper and add 2 cups cooked rice or cooked quinoa, 1/2 cup of cooked lentils and 1/4 cup of golden raisins. Add 2 tbsp of chopped dill and the zest of a lemon. Mix well. Stuff each vegetable with the rice mixture and arrange them in prepared pot. Mix 1 cup of water with 1 cup of tomato sauce and the juice if a lemon and pour over stuffed veggies. Cover and steam on low for 30-45 min. With the tip of a long knife, check if veggies are cooked but firm. Do not disturb arrangement till ready to serve then gently lift each vessel onto a platter and drizzle with sauce. Add more dill if desired.

Versatile Quinoa

Cooked quinoa is a great protein addition to any veggie dish. It has a nutty yet neutral flavor and it is lighter than rice. It comes in many varieties with little difference in taste.

Tabuli with Quinoa

Finely chop a red onion, 2-3 ripe tomatoes and a small cucumber, a cup of parsley and a 1/2 cup of mint and place in a bowl. Season with salt and pepper, the juice of one lemon and 1/4 cup of olive oil. Add 2 cups of cooked quinoa and stir well. Taste and re-season. Serve on a bed of shredded lettuce or stuffed inside tomatoes for a nicer presentation.

Asian Style Zucchini with Pasta

Cook one pound of asian glass noodles, drain and set aside. Using a veggie peeler, cut 3-4 zucchinis into ribbons resembling the pasta. In a large pot, sauté one chopped onion till golden, add 2 crushed garlic cloves, one tsp of grated ginger and the zucchini ribbons. Cook for 5 minutes and season with salt, pepper and chopped cilantro. Toss with pasta and drizzle with toasted sesame oil. Sprinkle with toasted sesame seeds and serve.

Mushroom Medley

Saute one chopped onion, one chopped green pepper and one chopped red pepper till golden. Clean and chop 2-3 pounds of mushrooms, such as Cremini, Oyster or White button and add to pot. Stir in 2-3 chopped tomatoes and cook for 5-6 minutes. Season with salt, pepper and sweet paprika. Sprinkle with freshly chopped parsley and serve over brown rice, pasta, quinoa or potatoes.

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Who are You to Judge Me?

JUDGEMENT DAY

JUDGEMENT DAY (Photo credit: Million Fishes)

English: Judging team at an aerobatic competit...

English: Judging team at an aerobatic competition, comprising (left to right) recorder, grading judge, assistant judge. Photo taken at 2008 Tequila Cup Aerobatic Competition, Marana, Arizona. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Have we all become judges of our fellow man’s actions or has it always been this way? Is today’s instant, in our face world of communication, anything we express or sometimes just think about travels around at lightening speed. I was thinking about this as I was talking to my husband this morning about the grading systems. As he was describing how his compensation depends on surveys sent to his customers, I remembered how a few years back when I returned to school to complete my MA in the Humanities, I continually stressed about grades. Why? For the same reason he does in a way. Maintaining a high grade point average meant  scholarship money or in other words a monetary reward for performance. I even had a very animated discussion with one of my professors who consistently gave me high grades then at the end when it mattered, he gave me a B. When I questioned him he told me that he believes a B is ‘excellent’ and he only gives A’s to a very few. He also hinted that he was following certain ‘rules’ and had to ‘spread’ the grades around not to look suspicious. All my complaining and argument about how the grade matters to me because it lowers my overall average and thus it endangers me financially, left him cold. When I checked into going to the department dean to complain, the process was so cumbersome and so weighted in the professor’s favor that I did not pursue it.

So what’s going on here? In TJ’s case, the bar is continuously raised with the claim that outstanding customer service is a corporate goal. But the lack of  fairness becomes an excuse not to reward. By being judged on items beyond his control, he’s playing on an uneven field. The fact that the freeway is under construction and will be for another 3-4 years and makes his place of work difficult to get to puts people in a bad mood. Also he shouldn’t be held responsible for the appearance of the showroom or the behavior of other employees, all beyond his control. These impediments to proper compensation are simply excuses not to pay. I’m sure that my professor did not make the connection between his B and my fear of not getting scholarship money, but by following a script which told him how many of each grades he should award, he was complicit in a larger scheme.

Grading or judging starts very early in life. We are measured, weighed and examined, then put into categories which determine everything from how much we should be fed to how tall we should grow. If we don’t fit neatly into the boxes that were arbitrarily drawn by unknown interests, than we get more labels. Our level of intelligence is tested and retested then graded and if acceptable we get to travel the ‘right’ path to success. This system is so ingrained in our psychies that we follow like sheep never stopping to question, only striving to fit in. And those who try to question are considered trouble makers and admonished in short order. Is it any wonder that cheating is rampant even by those who are put in charge to educate. When ‘success’ is dependent on unrealistic judgement, rebellion is not far behind especially when one’s livelihood is at steak.

Fitting into a group or tribe based on judgement by consensus helped us survive and evolve into today’s societies of nations. However, as evidenced by todays worldwide conflicts, our inclination to judge has reached a dangerous level. At the root of all disagreement is a propensity to categorize, to blame, to revenge, and ultimately to possess: the haves against the have nots.

So how can we ease up on being judgmental, on grading everything and everyone? By starting small. We may not be able to stop wars but we can change the grading system. We may not be able to get Republicans and Democrats to love each other, but we can entice businesses to be less greedy by boycotting their products. We may not be able to do away with the boxes we’re all supposed to fit in, but we can support the outliers who want to walk the path of unconformity and who, given the freedom to do so, will save humanity’s future.

English: Here comes the judge. Bulls being jud...

English: Here comes the judge. Bulls being judged. The judge is a Texas rancher. Unlike the usual practice, he commented on his judgement and gave an appraisal of each animal. National Hereford Show – Tenbury 2006. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)