La Cucina Stagionale

Blog for A Posto Personal Chef Services LLC in Newport, Oregon

Archive for the tag “food”

For the Love of Food

I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t in love with food; good food.  I grew up in a house where my mother cooked from scratch, so I was exposed to whole foods at an early age.  My knowledge and experience grew exponentially when I moved to San Francisco in the early 80’s to go to college.  There I was exposed to a whole world (literally) of food options: Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Laotian, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Russian, Polish, Italian, French, Ethiopian, Persian, Indian and that was just in my neighborhood! I quickly discovered flavor combinations I had never had or even thought were possible.  Salty fish sauce, spicy Thai basil, chiles that were so hot they made me cry, earthy cumin and coriander seed, tangy sumac and tamarind, and bitter greens such as dandelion and arugula made me realize that I could spend the rest of my life cooking different flavor combinations and never cook them all—what a wonderful challenge!

In those years since I lived in and moved away from San Francisco, I have been introduced to Turkish, Jewish, Ukrainian, Hungarian, Afghanistan, Lebanese, Moroccan, Mongolian, Tibetan and a myriad of other cuisines.  I have also learned that Italian food, my heritage cuisine, is not quite what my family or the rest America thinks it is.  My paternal grandfather emigrated from a small town east of Naples called Benevento.  It’s known for an anise liqueur called Strega which means witch in Italian.  Anyway, my grandfather came to America with recipes that he enjoyed in his hometown.  However, many ingredients were not available in his new home in northeast Pennsylvania, so he had to improvise.  The recipes that he gave to my mother who moved, shortly after she and my father were married, to San Bernardino, California were recreated with the ingredients my mother had available to her in her new home, which were not necessarily the same as what my grandfather used.  So to make a long story short, the Italian food I grew up with is vastly different from what my grandfather ate in his homeland, what he ate in Pennsylvania and what I ate during my travels throughout Italy.  It wasn’t necessarily better, it was just different.

I had the opportunity to study the food history of Italy while I was in culinary school.  We had a professor, Stefano Bentley, who taught us for an hour or two, once or twice per week, about the various regions—not even a tip of the iceberg of knowledge.  I found that class to be fascinating, so many factors influence a dish, besides season and availability of ingredients, such as religious beliefs, superstitions, taboos, traditions, changes in social class, etc.  I learned that there really is no such thing as standardized Italian food in Italy.  Here, yes, because we treat food as a product for profit instead of what it really is: nourishment for our minds, bodies and souls.  A famous chef perfectly stated what American restaurants are really about: ‘you take some food, fix it up, and then sell it for a profit.’  No server here in America would take away the cheese from you if you were trying to put it on a seafood dish, where they will do that in Italy because you don’t eat cheese with fish—period—end of subject.  There are some chefs here that are taking their food a bit more seriously and not allowing substitutions or a bazillion choices which we Americans love so much.

If I, as a chef, decide that white balsamic vinaigrette will perfectly compliment the fresh picked greens and ripe peach salad I am going to serve you in July, you can bet I will say no to ranch dressing on the side. I want the food I serve to my clients to taste like I meant it to taste.  Now that doesn’t mean that I am a food Nazi; I am more than happy to work with my clients to create food that fits their taste preferences and any dietary requirements they have whether I like it or not, but there are limits to everything. I once made a vegan tiramisu for a client for her birthday because she’s a vegan and wanted tiramisu for dessert.  Yes, it was terrible and no it really wasn’t tiramisu, but she was happy and that made me happy, but I most certainly would have said no to ranch dressing.  I would say no to ranch dressing for just about anything except maybe hot wings and celery sticks; it is pretty good with those two items.  Smile

So, back to my grandfather’s recipes which became my mother’s and then mine.  I decided that I really didn’t like her version of tomato sauce, so I made my own to suit my taste preferences.  I didn’t like her version of lasagne, so have made several variations of my own for the same reason.  I love the meatball, braciole and sausage recipes, so they are as is even today; I don’t mess with them.  Where it makes sense, I do my best to stay as true to the tradition and authenticity of all recipes be they Italian or any other culture, because that is how you learn about that culture—through its food.  Changing my mother’s recipes didn’t change the authenticity, because they were never authentic to begin with.

The same famous chef also stated that while there is no standardized Italian food, there is an standardized Italian expectation that the dish must be made with the best food that is available to you at the time you are making it, and I don’t think that expectation is solely Italian either.  It means if you can’t afford or don’t like ricotta cheese, find a different good quality cheese that you can afford and like to make your lasagne. Make your own tomato sauce and don’t buy one in a jar, because that stuff is what’s expensive.  Good tomato sauce can be inexpensively, quickly and easily made with a can of tomatoes crushed in your hands, some onion, garlic, fresh or dried herbs, salt and pepper.  It will not contain anything you can’t pronounce and will taste better than anything out of a jar.  Put some pride in what you are making as that is what you are ingesting into your body.  Food should never be considered a product or just something to take away the huger pangs; it is life!

Food touches all of our emotions, hopes, desires, dreams and nightmares.  It brings happy and unhappy memories; the smell reminds us of places we’ve been to and want to revisit.  It reminds us of parents, relatives, friends, favorite servers, favorite chefs, restaurants, bars, diners, drive-in’s and dives (just checking to see if you are still with me here).  Food that we love and hate makes us who we are.  I had a friend once who refused to eat capers because a jar of them fell on her head once when she was a child—OK.  I don’t like certain textures, like tapioca, and you can’t pay me enough to ever eat it—just don’t ask me to explain to you why I don’t like it.  I’m sure everyone has their likes and dislikes of various foods and when you really stop to think about it, unless you are eating something really heinous like fermented whale blubber (sorry, but that has to be heinous), the reason you probably don’t like it is more emotional than anything else.

My grandfather came to this country in 1917 with no money and only the clothes on his back. When he died, he had a wife, a house, six children and a vegetable garden.  He fed his family as well as he could every day.  Despite the fact that my father grew up poor, he loved good food and could recognize it easily. He clearly passed that love along to me, and I do my best to pass it to every person I cook for and now to you.  So go now and make something homemade from your pantry, garden if you are lucky enough to have one, or local coop.  Do it today or tomorrow and do it for the love of food.  Buon Appetito!

How food feeds our souls

We all know that we have to eat a certain amount of food each day in order to keep our bodies functioning and alive.  Most of us are lucky enough to have many choices available to us: some good and others not so good.  But food (under the right circumstances) does more than just sustain our bodies; it also sustains our souls.

Bruce & I have lost a couple of friends over the past 6 months, and we’ve been lucky enough to have the opportunity to support our friends life celebrations with food.  We prepared  and served appetizers and finger foods for one celebration earlier this month, and while the focus of the gathering was on the memory of the departed friend, the food (and drink) helped to lift everyone’s spirits and make it more joyful.  Another opportunity we had was to provide several prepared meals for arriving relatives so the host did not have to worry about feeding them during their visit.  It was a relief to open the refrigerator and pull out a lasagne, a meatloaf, or Mac’n’Cheese and pop it in the oven.  We can all remember times when we were younger, how friends and neighbors would show up at another friends home with a pie or casserole when someone was sick, injured, or had passed away to show their love and support.

Whenever people gather anywhere there is sure to be food in some form or fashion served.  The custom goes back many many years and it most likely originated out of necessity.  If one of the members of the tribe or clan was unable to gather food, the tribe or clan pulled together to help feed that member.  In some cultures, it is customary to slaughter a prized animal to celebrate the gathering with the honored guest being offered the choicest selection.  Our connection with food is much deeper than we realize.  How many times have we gathered with friends or family members with food being present—even if it was just beer and peanuts or chips—and enjoyed ourselves?  I can remember when I was younger, going to visit my aunt and cousins (my father’s sister); it didn’t matter if I had just eaten a four-course meal and was stuffed, I had to sit down and eat something at her house.  Feeding you a bowl of pasta with sauce or a piece of chocolate cake was how she showed you that she cared about you, and you were supposed to reciprocate by eating whatever was set in front of you——and liking it.  Winking smile

You can certainly go to a fast-food or chain restaurant and eat a meal with perfunctory service and satisfy your body’s request for nourishment, but if you stop to think about it, did that meal satisfy your soul?  The marketing and advertising of these corporations try to sell you on the good feelings their foods will give when you eat them.  Ask yourself these questions: does the food look that way when you buy it and do you feel that good when you eat it?  In contrast, compare that dining experience with a holiday or celebratory gathering where food was prepared by friends or family and enjoyed at the table together.  It might have taken a few days to prepare that special dish or dessert and love was certainly put into every step of the way.  You felt happy and satisfied along with the feeling of fullness and everyone had a smile on their face because they felt that love.

I have found, through my new career, that food affects people in profound ways.  I always felt I knew that instinctively, but now I have proof:  I have seen people’s eyes well up with tears as they thank me for the meal I just served them to celebrate their parent’s anniversary,  to honor a deceased partner, to celebrate a life-long friendship, or for my family’s meatball recipe I just gave them.  I am moved and deeply gratified to participate in these events and to share my knowledge (and recipes).  This is the meaning and purpose I was looking for and I am grateful I found it.

Food brings us fond memories of Grandma’s apple pie, Aunt Betty’s beef stew, our neighbor’s meatloaf, and thousands of others.  Some of us are stingy with our recipes, because we feel that we need to be in control of those good feeling or that we won’t be needed if someone else can make it instead.  The reality is that no matter how many people recreate the recipe, none of them will taste exactly like the one you make.  The reason is the love and the care that is put into each step; it is something that can be tasted!  Besides, isn’t it better to share something of yourself by giving that recipe freely?  You are honored every time someone makes that dish.  And, the beauty is over time, that other person will make that recipe their own thus propagating the love and caring you gave them with that first forkful.

It inspires me to see so many recipe sharing websites on the internet.  You can download a recipe on virtually anything these days…..making cookbooks a little obsolete.  I will never give up my cookbooks (I have many) because they have been and continue to be the foundation of my cooking skills.  I had them when I was a home cook, and I will keep them as a professional chef.  I have created many of my own recipes from the inspiration found between those pages.

I invite everyone to become more mindful of feeding the soul through the food you eat along with the environment and company you eat it with.  Our fast-paced, convenience-driven society has removed the soul from our meals.  The act of preparing a simple meal and sitting down at a table with the ones we love with no television, cell phones, IPads, Gameboys, or any other distractions, and enjoying the food together is powerful.  It will make you and everyone else feel good which is how food feeds your soul.   Oh, and be sure to share that special recipe the next time someone asks for it……Smile  A Presto!

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