Tuesday, March 30, 2010

A Potato Side Dish for Easter

This year one of my clients has asked me to prepare her Easter dinner on Saturday and leave instructions for her so she can put the finishing touches on it after she returns from church on Sunday. I think this is a great idea—it is so hard to put a large family dinner on the table by midday if you have spent the morning in church (and probably attended an Easter Egg hunt afterwards).

Since I wanted to make sure the instructions that I will be leaving her for the reheating of the potato side dish are accurate, I made the dish this morning and reheated it for our dinner tonight. We really enjoyed it. I thought I would post it—I'm sure there are many people who would like to have a potato dish that can be made in its entirety ahead and simply reheated for dinner this Sunday.

The potato dish is simple. It's sort of an upscale version of twice baked potatoes—only it's baked in a shallow gratin instead of the scooped out skins. The baked potato flesh is mixed with wilted leeks (make sure to rinse the cut leeks in several changes of water to get rid of all the grit), cream, butter and sour cream. The dish is a little bit decadent, but I think that's OK for a holiday meal. The sour cream and butter could be reduced if you like—you are basically adding these things until you are pleased with the taste and the texture.

All kinds of other ingredients could also be included—goat cheese or blue cheese, cooked bacon, sautéed mushrooms, minced herbs, a little bit of Dijon mustard, etc. The gratin could be topped with buttered breadcrumbs, chopped nuts, grated cheese, or a combination of these things. But I really like the simplicity of the potatoes, leeks and cream. I love potatoes and leeks together. When I worked at The American Restaurant we had a potato gratin on the menu that was just sliced potatoes, leeks and cream—not even any cheese. It was really good.

I think Americans don't fully appreciate Leeks. They are incredibly flavorful. Not only do they play a wonderful supporting role in soups and vegetable medleys, they are an exquisite side vegetable all on their own—wilted with some butter and finished with cream. I remember the first time I really sat up and took notice of leeks was years ago when I made the Potato & Leek Soup from Richard Olney's Simple French Food. The soup is nothing more than sliced potatoes and leeks cooked in simmering salted water until tender. The soup is served with a slice of butter floating on the surface, melting into the soup. I'm not sure what made me try the recipe—there is almost nothing to it. But it was astonishingly good.

Today, since I was focused on testing a recipe (and replacing mulch in my garden), the rest of our evening meal was really simple: Pan-seared chicken with a quick pan sauce and roasted carrots. It was very satisfying—and it looked and tasted good enough to be Easter dinner.  Complicated is overrated.




Twice Baked Potato Gratin with Leeks

4 lbs. Russet Potatoes
6 to 10 T. unsalted butter, divided
4 leeks, white and pale green part only, halved, sliced crosswise 1/4-inch thick and well-rinsed
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 c. heavy cream
1 1/4 to 1 3/4 c. sour cream, room temperature

Bake the potatoes at 375° until tender—1 to 1 1/4 hour.

While the potatoes bake, melt 4 T. butter in a sauté pan. Add the leeks and garlic along with a pinch of salt. Toss to coat with the butter. Cook, covered, over low heat until the leeks are tender—15 minutes or so.

When the potatoes are cool enough to handle, cut them in half and scoop out the flesh. Place the potatoes in a large bowl and crush with a fork or potato masher. Add the leeks. Season with salt, pepper and a pinch of nutmeg. Warm the cream in the pan the leeks were in (if you like, add another 4 T. of butter to the pan and melt with the cream) and add to the potatoes. Stir to combine. Fold in the sour cream to taste and consistency. Taste and correct the seasoning. Transfer to a buttered 3-quart shallow gratin. Dot the surface with 1 to 2 T. of butter.

At this point, the potatoes may be baked immediately or covered and refrigerated overnight. If baking immediately, transfer to a 375° oven and bake until hot through and beginning to brown around the edges—about 30 minutes. If baking the next day, remove the casserole from the refrigerator, cover the pan with foil and place in a 375°. Bake for 30 min. Remove the foil and continue to bake until hot through, and beginning to brown around the edges—about 20 minutes more.  Serves 12.


Friday, March 26, 2010

My Introduction to the World of Blogging

For some time prior to starting my blog, I had several friends who were encouraging me to start one. Since I tend to be a bit of a luddite (I use my cell phone for calls only...and, exactly what is the purpose of twitter?!), I was pretty unaware of food blogs. Then Katrina, a lovely woman who regularly attends my classes in Lawrence, emailed me to tell me that she had mentioned me and my classes on her food blog. So I checked out her blog—a charming site called Baking and Boys.

I mentioned to Katrina that I had been told I should think about keeping a blog.  She was open and generous with her advice and encouragement (I imagine that many of you reading this post found my site because she plugged my new blog on hers).   She also suggested some sites that I might look at to find out what food blogging is all about.  So, I began to look around.  I have been so impressed with the community that I have found--a community of people who seem to be really cooking, experimenting and exchanging ideas about their experiences in the kitchen. More than that, they are sharing the experiences of their daily lives. Our grandmothers did all of this over the back fence or on the front porch. It is such a pleasure to discover that these activities have not disappeared—they have just morphed into something new. And I love anything that gets people back into their kitchens—actually cooking and feeding themselves, their families and their friends. There is much to like in this world.

I have obviously decided that I would take the plunge!  The food blogger world is an amazing place and I am pleased to now be a part of it. I thought I would devote this post to mentioning a few of the sites I have discovered as I have looked around along with some of the recipes I have tried.

Early on I discovered Cannelle et Vanille, a blog written by a Frenchwoman living in the U.S. Not only is she a French pastry chef, she is also photographer and food stylist. Her photographs are truly beautiful. Like me, she seems to like cake. There are so many recipes on her site that I would like to try, but I've only had time to try one so far—Raspberry, Pistachio and Buttermilk Cakes. I made these when my friend Christy was going to be coming over for coffee. They seemed like something that she would enjoy (she likes cake too). Since I hadn't learned how to use my digital camera yet (that technology thing again), and I wasn't really sure I would be blogging at that point, I don't have pictures of what I made. I should also be honest and say that I didn't end up making Raspberry & Pistachio cakes. I made Blueberry & Pecan Cakes. I still had some precious blueberries in my freezer that I picked during a trip with friends to Lake Michigan last September. Also, I had fortuitously discovered shortly before making the cakes that my friend didn't like pistachios. Anyone who bakes knows that slight alterations like these will not change the character of the cake part of a recipe—and these turned out to be really special little cakes. I made them in several different sized molds and they acted well in all of them. The cakes were tender, moist and flavorful—a real keeper. Christy (and her little boy) loved them!

Another blog I discovered (via Cannelle et Vanille) is Tartelette. It is also written by a Frenchwoman living in the U.S. She too is a pastry chef, photographer and food stylist. Her work is lovely. While perusing her blog one day I came across a sour cream coffeecake recipe: Chai Coffee Cake. I particularly like sour cream coffeecakes and the spices in this one appealed to me—also the quantity of streusel...lots of streusel. Doesn't everybody always want more streusel? The coffeecake turned out just as good as Helene said it would. The one I made is in my freezer, packaged in individual portions. I am still enjoying it for breakfast. It's almost gone.... I will definitely make more.

This past winter a friend sent me a link to Wild Yeast. As I have looked over this site, I am so impressed with the generosity of the author. She is sharing not only recipes, but technical information about the whole bread making process. Her information is clear and detailed, making bread baking much more accessible to anyone who comes across her blog and spends a little time there.

I am not a novice to bread baking—I even keep a starter (albeit, usually dormant)—but the intricacies of making breads that are wholly leavened with a starter have always struck me as something best left to people who specialize in bread. On her site I found a recipe dubbed "My New Favorite Sourdough". It looked fairly straight forward. I followed her recommendations for feeding my starter and I ultimately produced a nice loaf. It did not look as fabulous as hers (it was my first attempt, after all), but it was entirely edible—actually more than edible. It was very good. I was pleased enough with it that I took it with me to dinner at a friend's house. I will spend a lot of time on this site—there is a wealth of good information there.

Finally, one of the first blogs I came across was Eggbeater, by Shuna Fish Lydon. Shuna is an accomplished pastry chef (has worked for Thomas Keller) and cooking teacher. She is also a good writer. As someone who has worked in professional kitchens, I find that what she writes about professional kitchens rings true—I really enjoy reading her blog. Additionally, she, like the writer of Wild Yeast, devotes a lot of posts to explaining technical aspects of baking. This makes Blog Eggbeater a great resource.

It was not until this morning that I got around to making one of her recipes. I made a cake. (Have I mentioned that I like cake?) Cakes that incorporate fresh fruit are very close to my heart and Shuna's description of her Cornmeal & Fresh Fruit Cake--"... a cake...that's versatile, sturdy enough for raw fruit, and isn't too sweet"--tipped the scale in its favor. Also, I had seen the season's first rhubarb in the store last week and making this cake gave me a place to use it. I have been working all week for a catering friend and I took the cake in to work to share with everyone for breakfast. It was very well received.

Since I have figured out my camera well enough to point and shoot, I have a picture:


The thing I love the most about the community I have found in the virtual world of food blogging is the very real generosity I have found there. Whether food professionals, passionate amateurs or cooks just having fun in the kitchen, the writers are generous not only with their recipes but with their knowledge and experience. Food should be about generosity. As I look over this post, I notice that almost everything I made, I shared. Sharing food is one of the reasons that I cook.  I have found that blogging will give me another way of sharing food.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

First day of spring


The calendar tells us that Saturday was the first day of Spring.  Where I live, Old Man Winter didn't get the message.  It had really begun to feel like it might finally be spring in Kansas City until late Friday afternoon when the sky clouded over and the wind shifted.  It howled all night and this morning we woke up to snow:


I am so looking forward to the foods of Spring--asparagus, spring onions, peas, tender lettuces....  As each season wanes I am always eagerly anticipating what foods will be at the market next.  But even if today's weather had agreed with the calendar, it will still be a few weeks before I can have these foods that I am beginning to crave.  So, it was nice to have a day today when the weather gave me reason to really enjoy the foods of the season that we are leaving. 

As I looked out on the snow this morning, a bean soup seemed just the thing.  I think dried beans cook best when they soak overnight, but I wasn't hungry for bean soup last night.  I'm not crazy about the "quick soak" method--bring the beans to a boil, remove them from the heat and let them sit for an hour, drain them and proceed as if they had been soaked overnight.  The beans don't seem to cook very evenly when treated this way.  I suppose if you had very fresh dried beans that this method would work well.  

What I did instead was to pour boiling water over the beans in the morning (about 6 to 8 hours before I was planning on cooking them) and then just let them sit all day.  The water cools to room temperature in about an hour and that first hour gives them a nice head start.  They then have the rest of the day to become evenly hydrated.  I usually keep beans that are soaking overnight in the refrigerator, so after the beans have been in their warm bath for an hour or so I move them to the refrigerator.  I have used this method many times.  It's a handy trick to know.  I guess it's my quick soak method.

I made the beans into one of my favorite bean soups--probably (hopefully) the last time I'll fix it until next fall.  It also has Italian Sausage, Leeks, Potatoes and Swiss Chard.  It was the perfect dinner (along with some nice hot cornbread). 



White Bean Soup with Sausage & Swiss Chard

5 T. Olive Oil, plus more for garnish
4 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 ½ c. Great Northern Beans (about 10 oz.)—soaked over-night
2 t. minced Thyme or Rosemary
12 oz. Italian Sausage links—pork or chicken
2 medium onions (1 lb.), cut in a 1/3-inch dice
2 medium leeks, white and pale green only, cut in a 1/3-inch dice and rinsed thoroughly
2 medium Yukon or Idaho Potatoes (12 oz.)
4 c. Chicken stock
1 bunch Swiss Chard, stems removed, leaves cut into ½-inch wide ribbons and rinsed thoroughly to remove any grit (4 cups packed—about 6 oz. trimmed weight)
Parmesan Cheese


Heat 3 T. olive oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the garlic and cook until it begins to sizzle—do not let it brown. Drain the beans and add to the pot along with the Thyme or Rosemary. Stir to coat with oil. Add enough water to cover the beans by an inch or two. Bring to a simmer and cook until the beans are tender—about an hour and 15 minutes. Add salt to taste when the beans are half cooked. Beans may be cooked ahead. Bring to a simmer before finishing the soup.


About an hour before serving the soup, heat 2 T. olive oil in a large soup pot over medium heat. Add the sausage and cook until browned—about 5 minutes per side. Transfer to a 375 degree oven and continue to cook until the sausage is cooked through.  Remove from the oven and let cool, then cut the sausage into a 1/3-inch dice and reserve.


Meanwhile, reduce the heat under the soup pot to medium-low and add the onion and leek along with a generous pinch of salt. Sweat until very tender, stirring occasionally—about 15 to 20 minutes. While the onions cook, peel the potatoes and cut into a 1/3-inch dice. When the onions and leeks are tender, add the potatoes and enough chicken stock to cover the vegetables. Bring to a simmer and cook until the potatoes are tender—15 to 20 minutes. Add the beans, along with their liquid, the diced sausage and the Swiss chard. If the soup is too thick, add water or stock. Bring to a simmer and cook until the chard is very tender—about 10 to 20 minutes. Taste and correct the seasoning.


Ladle soup into shallow bowls and top with shaved Parmesan and a drizzle of olive oil. Makes 3 quarts soup to serve 6 to 8.

 
For dessert I took the opportunity afforded by winter's last gasp to make some gingerbread.  Gingerbread is one of my favorite winter treats and I have been wanting to make some since January.  I am always trying new recipes for gingerbread.  This one is from The Vineyard Kitchen by Maria Helm Sinskey--one of my favorite cookbooks.  It was very nice.



[Gingerbread Recipe Note:  I altered the recipe slightly.  I reduced the salt to 3/4 t. and I doubled the amount of cloves.  I also reduced the baking soda to 1/2 t. and the baking powder to 1 1/2 t.  I baked the cake in a 9-inch square pan.]


Friday, March 19, 2010

Learning to cook....continued

It has occurred to me that in writing my last post I neglected to talk about the very best way to learn how to cook.  It is of course to stand at the side of someone who has better skills than you do and to attentively watch them work.  If you have a friend who is a great cook--or who does one thing really well--see if you can join them in the kitchen sometime.  

I have a friend, Bonnie, who makes the most amazing Swedish Cardamom Bread.  I have her recipe.  Even though I bake all the time (have done it for a living in a pastry shop...I started my professional career as a pastry assistant), my cardamom bread never turned out as well as hers did.  I've casually watched her make it several times.  The last time I had the opportunity to watch her, I really paid attention.  I noticed things I hadn't noticed before--things I woudn't have noticed if I hadn't tried to make it myself.  This last time, she handed a couple of the balls of dough to me and had me form two of the loaves.  The second was better than the first.  Both were better than anything I had ever made on my own.  My problem had not been the recipe; Bonnie's recipes are well written with clear directions.  There is just really no substitute for standing next to an expert.

Professional cooks and chefs have always known this.  Cooks and chefs with many years of experience under their belts use vacation time to work in another chef's kitchen for a week or two so they can continue to learn more.  Young cooks who really want to hone their craft seek out apprenticeships (for little or no pay) in the best kitchens so that even if they are just washing lettuce or peeling shrimp all day they can watch those who really know their stuff in action. 

Whatever level of skill you would like to achieve--professional or accomplished home cook--look for someone who is doing what you want to do well.  Ask if you can come and watch.  If you get the opportunity to watch, ask questions. See if they will watch over your shoulder and coach you through it. Go home and try it. Come back and ask more questions and learn some more.

Learning to cook

One of the reasons that I started a blog was to have a place to talk about the basic techniques that one has to have in order to be a good cook. As a cooking teacher, I find that I cannot assume someone in my class knows how to cut an onion, or that they know what it means in practice to sweat, blanch or simmer. Since humans began to cook their food, the skills involved have been passed on to the next generation via someone standing at a mother's or grandmother's elbow. This wasn't optional...like watching food TV is an amusing pastime. It was vital. If you couldn't feed yourself, you would not survive.

For a generation or two now, knowing how to cook has not been necessary for survival. Prepared food can be purchased. Cooking as a skill has been relegated to hobby status. Not many people grow up learning how to cook as a matter of course. And while I don't have space here (or a platform large enough) to make the case that there is something terribly wrong with this, I will say that people who don't cook for themselves are not feeding themselves very well. Michael Pollan has discussed all of this (among other things) at length in his book In Defense of Food . But if you read his book and come to the conclusion that he is right and you want to start cooking in order to feed yourself well, how do you acquire the skills to start?

Well, you could watch Food TV. You might pick up something there. But if you are truly a novice, a lot of it will be beyond your skill level. Besides, I think watching Food TV lulls people into a sense that they know more than they really do. One of the most astonishing things that ever happened to me in a cooking class was in a fundamentals class. I was showing the class how to dice and slice an onion. I halved the onion and diced one half and sliced the other. I asked them if they would like to see it again. No one did. They had all seen this on Food TV and the aura that hung about the room was one of boredom—"I've seen this—show me something I don't know." I then said, "OK, there are cutting boards, knives and onions set up around the room. Go and dice and slice those onions." Few were able to do it very well—and they were so surprised by this. They had all seen it so many times, but most had not picked up a knife and done it themselves with any regularity, if at all.

And frankly, it would be difficult to pick up basic skills on Food TV because a lot of cooking shows have become about entertainment and not so much about teaching basic skills. Seek out shows that emphasize skills.

Seek out books that emphasize the basic skills. Look for books that have drawings or photographs of the processes of cooking—not just the finished dishes (that have probably been food-styled). A whole generation of American cooks picked up sound cooking skills from the descriptions and drawings in Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Today one of the things I love about many of the better food blogs is that bloggers are posting photographs of their recipes in progress. You can read the direction to "sweat an onion" and then look at the picture to see what this looks like in the pan. Someday I'll have pictures on my blog. But regardless of when I make that happen, I will sometimes devote entire posts to describing some of the basic techniques—in excruciating detail.

I will of course post recipes—after all, much of the teaching that I do is accomplished via recipes. But giving someone a recipe will not help them produce good food if they don't have the skills and understanding to execute the recipe. There is no magic in recipes—a recipe is just a description of how to manipulate ingredients using a toolbox of standard techniques. As you learn the techniques you will learn to recognize when a particular one is called for—even if the recipe doesn't do a good job of letting you know which one to use.

Finally, practice using your skills! Frequently people want to know how long it took me to acquire my knife skills. I really don't know the answer to that. When you first pick up a chef's knife it feels awkward in your hand and you wonder how you will ever move it quickly and smoothly and with precision. And then one day it feels like it is a part of your hand—because it has been there so often. Cook every day. Practice every day. How could this be a burden when you get to eat when you are done?!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Of Soda Bread and Cabbage and other things Irish in honor of St. Patrick's Day



Today is St. Patrick's Day and I love St. Patrick's Day.  But I think I love it for reasons other than most people.  When I was a kid my Mom made green frosted sugar cookies and pale green pistachio cupcakes (actually, she still makes these).  And since I would rather eat cake and cookies than just about anything else, that in and of itself would make the day something to look forward to. 

For a gardener, March 17th marks the beginning of the spring garden.  Peas and lettuces can be planted, as well as little pansy seedlings.  The cold rains of the end of winter have just begun to create a green and misty world, so that for about two seconds, a few weeks from now, even the Midwest will have the brilliant emerald green look of the emerald isle.  I can't wait.  And St. Patrick's day seems to be the harbinger of all of this.

And, of course, St. Patrick's day is a day to cook Irish food.  I can't recall that I have ever had corned beef and cabbage.  When I was in London for cooking school I remember that I asked about corned beef around St. Patrick's day, thinking that London would be a good place to taste it.  No one I knew really seemed to know what I was talking about.  It seems that it is more of an Irish-American dish...probably a substitute for the traditional boiled Bacon and Cabbage.

The one Irish food that I did eat in London was this wonderful brown soda bread that I purchased at Selfridges department store.  Selfridges has a fabulous food hall.  I am not sure what ever induced me to purchase my first loaf of "Brown Bread", as it was called, because it was fairly unappealing in appearance.  Rather doorstop-like, in fact.  But it made the best toast (slathered with lots of butter) imaginable.  I thought it was one of those things that I would only have a memory of when I returned from London.  But a couple of years later Gourmet  ran an article about Irish Soda Bread.  One of the recipes was for a brown soda bread that claimed to be "nearly identical to Field's brown bread"; a bread that, from the description in the article, sounded like my beloved brown bread.  It still makes the best toast imaginable...with lots of butter...  


Irish Brown Soda Bread (From Gourmet, March 1994)

1 1/4 c. unbleached all-purpose flour, plus additional for sprinkling
1 c. whole-wheat flour
1/2 c. old-fashioned rolled oats
1/4 c. toasted wheat germ
1 1/2 t. baking soda
1 t. salt
2 oz. cold unsalted butter, cut into bits
1 1/3 c. buttermilk or 1 c. plain yogurt plus 1/3 c. milk

In a large bowl whisk together flours, oats, wheat germ, baking soda and salt. Add butter and toss to coat with flour. With fingertips rub in the butter until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Add buttermilk or yogurt and stir until dough is moistened evenly.

On a floured surface knead the dough 7 or 8 times, sprinkling lightly with additional flour to prevent sticking (dough should remain soft), until the dough comes together in a ball.

On a baking sheet lightly sprinkled with flour, pat the ball of dough out into a 7-inch round. Sprinkle the dough with additional flour and with fingertips spread lightly over the round. With a sharp knife, cut a shallow (about 1/2-inch deep) X in the top of the loaf.

Bake the bread in the middle of a preheated 425° oven until golden brown—about 30 minutes. Cool the loaf on a rack for 2 hours before slicing.

This soda bread, along with another, was included in the class that I taught this year on Irish foods for St. Patrick's Day.  I also included Watercress Soup, Lamb Stew with Guinness, a Lemon Curd Tart and the very traditional Colcannon Potatoes.  The potatoes generated the most reaction, and this was fascinating to me.  People loved them--and were surprised by this.  Several people commented that they would never in a million years have thought they would be able to eat a dish that combined cooked cabbage and mashed potatoes.  This obviously has something to do with how people feel about cabbage, because well-made mashed potatoes are beloved by all.  And they are frequently mashed together with other things--whether by you on your plate as you are eating them, or by the chef or cook in the kitchen (think: other mashed root vegetables, pesto or herbs, sautéed mushrooms...). 

It has to be the cabbage.  And this is sad.  Because as I have said, and will continue to say over and over, fresh ingredients, prepared properly, with respect and care, are almost always good to eat.  I'm sure if you took old cabbage and boiled it to mush and then folded that into mashed potatoes, that it would turn out like everyone seems to expect.  But, if you take a fresh cabbage, cook it with a small amount of water and a generous amount of butter...with some green onions or leeks....and a proper amount of salt...and cook it until the cabbage is just tender...then you will have a vegetable that you would be willing to eat with or without the mashed potatoes.  And you would probably understand why this dish has been a mainstay of the Irish table for hundreds of years.

 
Colcannon

3 lbs. Russet potatoes, peeled and cut into uniform chunks (about 2-inch pieces)
1 oz. (2 T.) Unsalted Butter, at room temperature
1 head Savoy Cabbage (about 2 lbs.), quartered, cored & thinly sliced
1 bunch green onions—white and pale green parts only—minced
1 c. whole milk
4 oz. (1 stick) Unsalted Butter, at room temperature
Salt & Freshly Ground Pepper, to taste

Place potatoes in a saucepan; cover with cold water (by about an inch) and salt the water (generously—about a teaspoon per quart). Place over high heat and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer, and continue to cook until the potatoes are fork tender, but not falling apart.

While the potatoes are cooking, melt 2 T. of butter in a cup of water in a wide saucepan. Add the cabbage and the scallions and boil until the water has evaporated and the cabbage is tender—about 15 minutes (if the water has evaporated before the cabbage is tender, add more water or cover and reduce the heat).

Drain the potatoes thoroughly—do not let them get cold. While the potatoes are draining, place the milk in a small saucepan and heat just to the boil. Return the potatoes to the pot and mash with a potato masher. Stir in 6 or 7 tablespoons of the remaining butter along with the hot milk. Stir in the hot cabbage. Season to taste with salt & pepper. Mound the potatoes in a serving bowl. Make a small well in the center and place the remaining 1 to 2 Tablespoons of butter in the well. If desired, garnish with some sliced green onion tops. Serve immediately. Serves 6 to 8

Note: The potatoes can be prepared through the addition of the milk and butter an hour or 2 ahead—keep them hot in a bowl covered with plastic wrap placed over a pan of steaming water. Cook and add the cabbage just before serving.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Why I cook...

A long time ago, in what almost seems another lifetime, I worked in an office. I was working as an actuarial student—which means my days were occupied mostly with generic office work...spreadsheets, data entry, ... I no longer remember what else.... After hours I was supposed to be studying for a series of actuarial exams so I could progress further along the path of my career.

I became less and less interested in the work and the studying for a variety of reasons, but one thing that sticks in my memory is the feeling that I was not producing anything tangible with my days....

Having recently moved out on my own, I had begun to acquire the accoutrements of a home. My mother thought this should include cookware, dishes, cookbooks, etc. She purchased The Fanny Farmer Cookbook for me and I began to read it. Soon thereafter an offer arrived in the mail for a cheap subscription to Bon Appetit. I signed up. This was before the days of celebrity chefs and 24/7 food TV. But I was drawn in by the few shows that were on...Jacques Pepin, Natalie Dupree, Pierre Franey, and Madeleine Kamman.

I started to spend my days and evenings off baking instead of studying. There was something about the idea of food. Not only did my work result in something tangible, but it resulted in something that gave great pleasure to those for whom it was prepared (a cookie produces a much more satisfactory reaction from someone than a completed spreadsheet does). My understanding of the communal nature of food was completely unformed at that point, but it was probably my vague notion of this, combined with the desire to work with something real, that led me to pursue a career preparing food.

To this day, I relish the fact that at the end of the day, I have something concrete to show for my labor. And I always get to start over fresh the next day—the mistakes and disasters of the previous day have been consumed or thrown away and hopefully learned from. For me, a bad day cooking is better than the best day working in an office.

I have grown to love so many things about food and cooking. I love that there is always more to learn, that I can always continue to develop and hone my skills. I love the astonishing possibilities of food—you can conceivably cook everyday and never get bored. I love the raw ingredients—particularly vegetables and fruits. I love it that food, when prepared and presented with care, is beautiful. I love to eat. I love it that familial, cultural and ethnic traditions are so often intimately intertwined with food and cooking....that as people we connect and maintain connections with family and friends at the table.

Today, I cook in private homes to give people a chance to make those connections with family and friends at their home table rather than in restaurants. I teach so that people will have the tools to create those moments in their own homes, at their own tables, every day.