Culinary musings during a pandemic

Baking for your soul
  • Like many, one might guess a bad hurricane season or a higher rate of seasonal flu to be the reason when out-of-season tourists started flocking into Florida, but never had a pandemic been anticipated.
  • I am a chef, restaurant critic and consultant, but first and foremost, I am a lover of the craft of culinary arts. Thus, in a seeming instant, jobs, passions, and camaraderie were lost.

  • I had just made a major career move. After 24 years as the TV Chef Judi, I decided to expand to larger stations, as well as develop corporate and lifestyle neighborhood cooking classes. I even went ahead and hired a culinary assistant, who provides the normality and comfort of being joined by someone like minded throughout the day.
  • Restaurant colleagues quickly become close confidantes, as the shared 16-hour days and the off-days gatherings foster bonds. We often cook for each other, sharing small batch bourbons and gins, while taking bets on who has the funniest guest complaint or what is the current trend for menus. For sure, a constant support system, a sense community, was all but eradicated once the pandemic announced its presence. We awoke one day, and it was all gone.
  • As a former restaurant owner, my happiest times were during family meal. Before a shift, one of the restaurant staff would take to the stove and make an entire meal for all employees, as the daily specials were reviewed amidst good conversation. And so, my concerns grow: without family meal, where do our dishwashers and bussers get nutrition during the day? Like many people in the business, our bussers and dishwashers (the hardest and most thankless job) use family meal as their main, and sometimes only, meal of the day. By and large, restaurant staff work two jobs with long hours, so the communal nature of family meal is hard to overemphasize. However, the restaurant industry, an enormous community, was shut down, turned off, evicted, left scrambling for identity.

  • Yes, I wonder and I worry: where do we gather, how do we share food and what will happen to these small independent restaurants? While I am grateful that some large corporate companies returned the allotted, unnecessary PPP money, many others did, and have, not.
  • We are afraid that our favorite little Vietnamese hole in the wall is down to 20 % volume, as so many restaurants are trying to just hang in there. Such pain to give up and shutter up what was once – someone’s family livelihood. We are told to purchase gift cards, which honestly is a great idea and some communities like ours have started a curbside pickup Facebook page with thousands of posts…as well as other ways to reestablish community and commerce.
  • We are emerging from our homes, like bears out of hibernation, slowly fixated on closed movie theaters and countless small businesses and restaurant signs saying ‘Closed for Covid-19’. It feels like a punch in the gut: a ghost town in places once so neighborly and vibrant.
  • It took me 2-3 good weeks to get off the couch. I was paranoid. My son, recently surviving an 8 year battle with an airborne disease, my husband, recovering from cancer treatment, and, now, so many of my dearest friends, well, most unemployed. I watched way too much news, feeding into an already constant anxiety. It took a while but I finally realized what to do: best to gravitate to one’s passion and actions that feed the soul and soothe the mind. Time to bake: time to cook!
  • Scurrying to the grocery store, with mask and gloves, so fearful of floating germs, I bought enough grocery items to guarantee a successful commitment to the kitchen.
  • The new ritual (I must say, a most healing one):upon rising: turn on the coffee pot and preheat the oven, before shower and breakfast. I do what I do best – bake oatmeal raisin cookies, and orange pound cakes (page 40) and my newest skill, delve into the craft of pie making. Then I journeyed to neighbors’, known and unknown, and delivered the homemade sustenance of oatmeal raisin cookies or fresh fruit pies. We must keep hope alive!
  • It was instant joy all around, enough to start baking hundreds of cookies and pairing up with a local dairy farm to provide milk and cookies to our four major hospitals, countless nursing homes, fire stations, police stations and special friends that needed a cookie and chocolate milk just to get through the day. And then, money started coming in with notes to buy Irish butter with that gift, or bags of Quaker Oats arrived at my door from an admirer.
  • If the World Food Bank and Chef Andreas can feed hundreds of thousands in pandemics, earthquakes, and floods, well this little cul de sac can do their part too.
  • As various forms of restaurants begin to open, we too have to rethink our dining practices. I worry about dining inside and prefer curbside or outside and only if the staff, kitchen included, is wearing masks. I tip 30-40%, hoping that may bring a family’s next meal.
  • In the kitchen, I return to basics, preparing roasts (right before meat prices went through the roof), baked ziti and chicken soup, pot pies, blueberry pies and apple pies. I even had more of a special time by choosing my favorite cookbooks and outlining at least 2 recipes from each book….recasting each, and recreating wonderful memories.

  • We honestly do not know when this will end (short of a vaccine) and we don’t know how our towns and neighborhoods will look like once this is settled. again. The country needs calm and support, and equality for all. I only wish I had had a cookie or a taste of something equally special to I could slip away to existential pondering of just what is happening in this pandemic work.

  • We can all make a difference. WEAR your masks, wash your hands, and use hand sanitizer. If you are of any means, pick up someone’s, check pay it forward. Bring the cashier at your favorite butcher shop a banana layer cake and a smile. If you are in need, reach out and share it. Dealing with all the current stress can also be positive and invigorating, science proves that kindness and human connection strengthens the heart. It feels good to do good!
  • Here’s a sample of what I have been preparing, almost endlessly. It sure feels good to share; I also wish I could share my Covid 9 lb gain with others too.)

 

Orange Pound Cake:

Baking for your soul

Chef Judi

½ lb. (2 two sticks) unsalted Irish butter at room temperature
2 1/2 cups granulated sugar, divided
4 extra-large eggs at room temperature
1/3 cup orange zest, about 6 oranges
3 cups all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
½ tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. Kosher salt
¾ cup freshly squeezed orange juice, divided
¾ cup buttermilk at room temperature
1 tsp. pure vanilla extract

To glaze one loaf (recipe makes two so you can freeze one and glaze when unthawed or double the recipe for the glaze for two.

1 cup confectioner’s sugar, sifted               1 ½ Tablespoons freshly squeezed orange juice

Directions:

Heat oven to 350 degrees F

Grease and flour two 8 1/3 X 4 ½ x 2 1/1-inch loaf pans

Line the bottoms only with parchment paper.

Cream the butter and 2 cups of the sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment for about 5 minutes, or until light and fluffy.

With the mixer on medium speed, beat in the eggs, one at a time and the orange zest.

In a large bowl sift the flour, baking powder and baking soda and salt.

In another bowl, combine ¼ cup orange juice, buttermilk, and vanilla

Alternately add the flour mixture and buttermilk mixture, beginning and ending with dry ingredients.

Divide evenly into two pans, smooth the tops and bake 45 minutes to an hour until cake tester comes out clean.

While the orange cake bakes, cook the remailing ½ cup granulated sugar with remaining ½ cup orange juice in a small saucepan over low heat until the sugar dissolves.

Cool cake on cooling rack for 10 minutes before flipping over. Spoon glaze over cakes, I suggest parchment paper underneath the cooling rack- the glaze does drip off the cake.

Spoon the orange syrup over the CAKES AND ALLOW TO COOL COMPLETELY.

TO Glaze, combine confectioner’s sugar and orange juice in a bowl, mixing with wire whisk until smooth. Pour over cooled cake and allow the glaze to dry. Wrap well, refrigerate or bring to someone that might just need that treat.

 

The Perfect Pie Crust  Pie Crust

Caramel Joy

Ingredients

2 cups flour
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 stick cold butter
6 tablespoons shortening
1/4 cup cold water
1 beaten egg (divided)
1 teaspoon vinegar

Directions

Mix flour, sugar, salt, butter, and shortening with a pastry blender till mixture is crumbly. Add water and 2 tablespoons of the beaten egg and vinegar.  Stir until mixture comes together and no loose crumbs are left(fold it over on itself 2-3 times if necessary). Form into a disc and wrap in plastic wrap. Refrigerate for a minimum of 1 hour. (I keep four discs in the freezer so I can bake at any time without waiting to chill and unchill, etc.

When ready to use, roll out onto a floured surface and place into pie plate. Brush edges with remaining beaten egg.

This recipe will make 1 deep dish pie with enough dough leftover to make decorative pieces or 2 shallow pies.

 

Vietnamese Meatballs

Chef Judi

This recipe can easily provide two meals. Asian noodle bowl first night and simmering soup with Asian meatballs the second night.

I make this recipe when we can’t get to Pho Cali, our favorite. Nice picnic for social distancing, as each can have their own bowl and chopsticks.

1 package organic ground chicken
1 (5 ounce) can water chestnuts, drained
5 cloves garlic
2 inches fresh ginger, peeled
6 -8 green onions, peeled
2 teaspoons sesame oil
2 tablespoons gluten free tamari soy sauce
1 egg
2 cups chicken stock or mushroom stock

Gluten free breadcrumbs as needed
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 teaspoon lemongrass paste
1 bunch scallions minced
1 cup spinach Ingredients
1 cup chopped Napa cabbage
1 cup bok choy
1 cup purple cauliflower cut into small florets
1 red pepper, cleaned and julienne
Thai basil or cilantro, minced

Asian noodles (I prefer Chinese noodles for this dish but rice noodles are just fine if you are gluten free)-cook as directed and toss with sesame oil

DIRECTIONS

Mince green onions.
Add lemon grass and ginger paste
Add water chestnuts to food processor. And blend
Add ginger and lemongrass paste and scallion and blend
Add sesame oil, soy sauce, and egg to water chestnut paste.
Add gluten free unseasoned breadcrumbs as needed
Add chicken.

Combine all ingredients until well blended.

Heat large skillet, add enough vegetable oil to cover the bottom of the pan (to help prevent sticking).

Using hands, or a small scoop, form a ball of meat about the size of a golf ball, place in the hot skillet.

The meat mixture is very wet and loose, it will not hold it’s shape well, so keep the balls small or they will flatten as they cook.

Sauté meatballs about 2 minutes or until browned on bottom, turn gently to an uncooked side, and continue cooking.

Keep turning the meatballs as they cook, so that all sides are browned evenly.

Cut a meatball open to test for doneness by verifying that it is cooked through to the center.

Remove cooked meatballs and keep warm place noodles in a bowl and toss with mango coconut dressing

Toss in julienne snow peas, red peppers and spinach

Layer with Chinese cabbages

Top with meatballs and drizzle with more dressing.

Garnish with chopped cashew nuts and cilantro or thai basil

 

 

A graduate of Johnson & Wales, Judi has managed restaurants and owned restaurants in the northeast and was the founder of a successful dessert company. Today, she is a sought-after restaurant consultant, TV cook on the ABC affiliate in her hometown, and culinary editor of a city magazine. Her personal passions are culinary travel to exotic places and holiday cooking in her home for huge gatherings of friends and relatives. Her guilty pleasure? Bruce Springsteen concerts. “I follow him around the country and have for years,” she admits. “But, in every city where Bruce sings, I do check out new restaurants and talk to up and coming chefs. I want all the food news I can get.”

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