Wednesday, January 2, 2013


Dinner in 1963
If asked, I will say that cooking is not something I learned growing up.   As a kid, cooking meant licking the cake batter off a wooden spoon.  Early in my married life,  I cried a lot, especially when the stew beef I was browning caught the pan on fire, and I had to toss the smoking pot and burnt food out the front door into a snowbank to cool off.    As a 20- something student wife, I didn't enjoy cooking but learned some of the basics along the way, like boiling water.  I'm embarrassed to tell you this, but a college friend of my ex-husband still kids me about coming to our tiny apartment and being served cold cereal and bottled beer.    A box of Kraft macaroni and cheese was a staple in my cupboard, but eventually I progressed to making a casserole called hamburger surprise  --  ground meat and elbow macaroni mixed with canned tomatoes, and layered with  sour cream, diced green onions,  and grated cheddar cheese.    Back then I thought it tasted pretty good and served it to company.  No one had high expectations in those days.

I had limited culinary exposure as a kid even though my Dad owned a restaurant in our small New Hampshire town.    He was better at giving directions to his cooks than donning a chef's toque himself.   I'm not sure why Greeks are known for running restaurants.  Maybe it's a cultural thing,  in the same way Koreans own dry cleaners, Sikhs drive Taxis and Vietnamese women do nails.   He didn't go to business school, but the restaurant business was in his blood.   Credit goes to Daddy for distinguishing different cuts of meat and knowing which ones were tender and could be broiled versus those that were tough and needed to be braised.  He made friends with all his suppliers and drank shots of whiskey with his favorites.       

This is a true story.  At the time of a severe potato shortage in the late 1940s,  my father was able to procure several bushels of Idaho potatoes the size of oranges to sell at his restaurant called the White Mountain Cafe.  Knowing that people always want what they can't have,  he came up with a clever idea.   On the  front window of his restaurant, an artist painted a picture of a steaming potato smothered in melting butter under which was written:    BAKED POTATO $1.99,  T-BONE STEAK FREE.    Somehow this bit of creativity was picked up by the Associated Press,  and for years after, my Dad proudly showed off the clippings he'd collected from newspapers  around the country.  

 At home my mother created a nuts and bolts menu that was hard to screw up -- spaghetti with tomato sauce,  broiled chicken,  and roast lamb for special occasions like Greek Easter.  We ate butter and sugar sandwiches on Wonder bread while other kids ate peanut butter and jelly on Pepperidge Farm.  My mother's idea of cooking a steak was to put it under the broiler and call my father because he could tell by poking the piece of meat with a fork that it was perfectly done, just the way we liked it -- medium rare.

When I moved to California in the mid 60s,  I joined the student wives' club at the university where my husband was getting a graduate degree.  There were many activities offered.  You could learn to play bridge,  find a tennis partner or go on day hikes in the coastal hills.     I chose to join the international cooking group because the wife of  a Peruvian student promised to teach me how to make the most delicious appetizer I'd ever tasted  --   pitted prunes filled with caramel made from sweetened condensed milk, wrapped in bacon and put under the broilder.  Many of the young wives represented  nationalities that were very exotic to a New England jejune like me -- India,  Spain, and China, just to name a few.  There were Jewish girls from New York who excelled at making matzoh ball soup and big-haired gals from Dallas who cooked Tex-Mex.   Before I left New Hampshire, my mother-in-law taught me how to make New England baked beans, so I had a traditional dish to contribute as well.

New England Baked Beans
I don't know when I morphed from being a food ignoramus to becoming a foodie, but most likely it began when I moved to California,  joined the international food group, and watched Julia Child on TV.   Over the next several years, I became more adventurous and open to tasting and cooking different kinds of exotic food.   A  student wife from New Delhi taught me to make a simple lamb curry, and together we made fruit chutney from fresh apricots that came from my neighbor's tree.  With instructions from a Spanish girl, we spent hours making traditional Paella using duck, chorizo sausage and shrimp mixed with rice that had been simmered in broth and infused with real saffron threads that someone's parents brought back from the Middle East.   I was  excited to meet a first-generation Greek girl like me who knew how to make baklava and explained about wrapping unused phyllo dough in wet linen cloths so the thin pastry sheets didn't dry out and become useless.  And when it finally became my turn to introduce a regional specialty to my international friends,  my fool-proof recipe for New England baked beans mixed with real Vermont maple syrup and layered with smoky salt pork was a big hit.  

Ravi Shankar and his sitar
After tasting authentic Indian food at ethnic restaurants on my first trip to London, I wanted to go beyond using the conventional pre-mixed curry powder and learn how to cook with the real-deal spices imported from India.   I knew a Bengali woman who was married to a Hungarian man I worked with, and  approached her about teaching me how to cook Indian food.  Once a week for more than a year I went to her kitchen and learned how to create Indian breads like herb nan and puffed puri.  With whole spices like cardamon, cumin, coriander, and fenugreek which we ground ourselves, we made basmati rice biryanis,  meat curries,  spicy vegetable dishes like chopped cabbage sauteed with black mustard seeds and cooked with shredded coconut, along with many other specialty dishes using clarified butter called ghee.  After feeling reasonably confident with these new cooking techniques, I invited six food-loving friends to our home for an authentic Indian meal.    The only missing component was traditional sitar music playing in the background, so  I called a local alternative radio station and asked if they would play Ravi Shankar from 6 to 8 p.m., while my guests drank Taj Mahal beer and dipped deep fried pakoras in a spicy mustard sauce.  I'm still amazed that the radio station went along with my idea which resulted in a very successful Indian dinner party.   

Moroccan ladies showing off their home-made bastilla

Still cooking together a year later, my Indian friend's Hungarian husband taught me how to bone a whole chicken, stuff the cavity with a filling made with Roquefort cheese and flame it with brandy at the table as a spectacular finale.     After a delicious dinner at Marrakech, a famous 1970s Moroccan restaurant in San Francisco,  we mastered a recipe for bastilla, a traditional dish painstakingly made with shredded layers of chicken, an egg mixture, and ground almonds, wrapped and baked in phyllo dough and sprinkled with powdered sugar.  

My fettucini in gorgonzola sauce was so delicious that my freshly- departed husband of twenty years had the nerve to ask me to share the recipe with the woman he left me for, but I knew better than to comply.   Without a man to cook for and in my despair, I resorted to eating canned soup and  grilled cheese sandwiches until I found a boyfriend who loved my boneless pork roast simmered with sliced apples and served in a calvados cream sauce.

Several years later my new husband (not to be confused with my current one) proclaimed himself a vegetarian grazer and  announced that the elaborate meals I enjoyed making were no longer on his diet.  This meant that after our breakup,  I could resurrect my beloved cookbooks and eat a real meal with real food (and with a real man) again. 

When I read Bruce's ad on and saw a relationship developing around our mutual love of good food and exotic travel,  I knew I had met the man of my dreams.   The first time he came to my house,  he brought imported pate from a gourmet shop and complimented me on my dishes.   This was the beginning of a life that dreams are made of.   

But here in  2012,  people don't seem to cook or entertain the way we used to, spending hours researching a menu and cooking for days.   Friends are more inclined to spontaneously invite you to a potluck dinner and ask you to bring something simple.  Meals are more informal and focus on eating healthy with fewer calories and no fussy desserts.  Organic vegetables from Farmers' Market sauteed in extra virgin olive oil to accompany wild fish or free-range chicken are what I typically serve.   Salads made with right-out-of-the ground red butter lettuce, California avocados, and just-picked heirloom tomatoes are my specialty.   Non-fat Greek-style yoghurt from Straus Family Creamery in Sonoma County replaces sour cream and two percent milk works just as well as half and half without the extra calories.    I prefer to spend more time outside  riding my bike than being stuck in my one-butt kitchen.   The diversity of where I live offers a plethora of high quality ethnic restaurants, and the delicious Indian food I used to make at home is now available at a  Zagat-rated restaurant we can walk to.   Just a few miles from our house is a main shopping street where there are a dozen or more outstanding Asian, Italian, and tapas-style eateries.   Regardless of where I am on the cooking spectrum,  I will always keep the two volumes of Julia Child's classic Mastering the Art of French Cooking in my cookbook collection, but have made a prominent place for Alice Waters Simple Cooking  on my kitchen shelf.   These days I've been known  to have cold cereal for supper,  but I add a handful of fresh berries and leave the beer in the refrigerator. 


  1. Hi Pam, once again I really enjoyed reading your blog. I too am a foodie. I still enjoy spending hours making a home cooked meal. Living in the Willamette Valley I am lucky to be able to grow and purchase fresh organic foods to cook with. Creating new recipes is one of my favorite hobbies.

    Thanks for taking the time to entertain us with your writing.


  2. So will you share the fettuccine recipe? Just kidding. This made me hungry it was so good.