Read an Excerpt
MY ORGANIC ROOTS
I was a fortunate kid. My family's riches weren't measured in dollars but in the love that we felt and, in many ways, in the healthy foods that we ate. For the most part, our food was free of artificial flavors, preservatives, chemicals, and pesticides. My family wasn't on a deliberate organic crusade. We simply respected the old traditional ways of growing, gathering, and preparing foods in the healthiest and cleanest ways possible.
This philosophy of respecting and revering food goes back generations in my familyon both sides. I was blessed to have Jewish and Italian grandparents who loved to garden and cook. As a little girl growing up in a rural town near Pittsburgh, I remember helping my parents and grandparents tend their small backyard gardens. They taught me about living heirloomstreasured seeds brought from the Old Country that they respectfully planted in American soil. They raised their own chickens, and my uncle Jack owned a slaughterhouse where naturally grazed cattle were processed and aged properly.
Cooking and the dinner table were always at the heart of our household. Being Jewish and Italian meant endless conversations about both food and life itself. Because of this rich ethnic mix, our months were filled with celebrations. These featured bounties of food, tables loaded with delicious dishes, and homes filled with laughing, loving family and friends. Bottles of cooking wine and olive oil were always present. Plates were always piled with greens, both fresh and steamed. Garlic was ascommon a condiment as salt and pepper. Onions seemed to find their way into nearly every dish.
My grandmother Edna was a remarkable cook. She taught me how to make ravioli and other dishes from scratch. She got the meat from Uncle Jack, roasted it, and cooked it for what seemed like an eternity. While the meat slowly simmered, she went to work making homemade pasta. My two brothers would be outside playing, while I would happily be by my nana's side in the kitchen learning how to make ravioli, polenta, and platters full of slow-cooked meats and vegetables. This was my idea of playtime well-spent. I can almost smell the inviting aromas of those memories. To this day, cooking and eating good foods are at the heart and soul of my existence.
I still chuckle recalling all those times when Papa, my Italian grandfather, cajoled me into accompanying him on his "special missions" to pluck wild dandelions and onions from yards all over the neighborhood. We would rush home, rinse the leaves, season them with a little olive oil, salt, and pepper, and enjoy our green treat.
My parents, Eddie and June, continued this organic-food tradition. My mom was the family nurturer, always there with soft, gentle hugs. Back then and still today, she trusts in me and encourages me to pursue my dreams and never sacrifice my integrity as an owner of an organic restaurant. My dad is an enthusiastic lover of the Earth. Now 83, he gardened with passion, passing along the joy of watching something grow and then paying homage to it when it reached the table.
I also remember those early Saturday mornings, hearing the sounds of a truck pulling into our driveway with yet another load of organic material for our garden. Dad inspired me with his love for growing plants. He relied on natural remedies to solve pest problems without the need for pesticides and was rewarded with the neighborhood's juiciest and biggest tomatoes. His garden stretched everywhere in the yard, including between the shrubbery, where he planted melons and cucumbers.
The Ageless Value of Food
Natural food remedies were a part of my family's medicine chest. Garlic and onions were used in food dishes as well as in herbal medicines to fight off colds and fevers. I was taught that eating the right foods keeps you healthy It's just that simple. I believe in that. In general, most of us don't take vitamins. We don't see the need. We get all our nutrients from a well-balanced diet including lots of organic foods that we eat every day.
I see the living proof in following this philosophy every time I look at my parents. My mom is going strong at 80. My dad is a vibrant 83-year-old still selling organic produce for Stone Free Farm at the local farmers' market. To this day, he tucks a fresh green sprig behind his ear for good luck. My parents still cook from scratch, creatively making use of the bounty that my dad gathers at the market. I equate their long lives and young attitudes with the wholesome food that they have always eatenthat, and their lasting love for each other.
The Organic Family Tradition Continues
Decades have passed since my childhood. Now, I am a mother of two sons, and I'm a new grandmother. Just like my grandparents and parents, I too am passing on the family tradition of supporting organic gardening and cooking.
It hasn't been easy convincing my sons at times. My older son, Joshua, still jokes about what it was like to have a mom who was a hippie. At school, no one would trade lunches with him. Joshua complained that compared with the processed foods of his peers, his lunches tasted like dry tanned food on sandpaper bread. He grew up during the time before the supply of good-tasting organic meats and products was readily available.
At school barbecues, he was the only student stepping up to the grill with tofu and veggie hot dogs. He grew up thinking that crackers were cookiesuntil he got to school and learned the truth. Later, as most teens tend to do, he rebelled and turned into a junk-food junkie. He nicknamed me Granola Head and Earth Hugger.
Now, as a new father, Joshua and his wife, Yuko, understand why I insisted on feeding him organic foods. It was done out of love and concern for his health. Determined to keep his son, Zachary, healthy, Joshua is careful about the baby foods he provides.
Jonah, my younger son, embraced the organic philosophy more easily. His only major act of rebellion centered on organic milk. He hated the taste. I bought organic milk that was pasteurized but not homogenized. It came in glass bottles, so you could see the cream at the top. To me, there were two benefits: The glass bottle was returnable, and the milk was delicious and real. That didn't matter to Jonah. He would sneak to the neighbor's house and trade our milk for their milk that came out of plastic gallon jugs. The neighbors loved it. I didn't know what to do. Now, however, he enjoys homogenized organic milk.
I occasionally let him "junk out" on processed foods, while trying to gently enlighten him about the benefits of fresh foods. Now a young adult, Jonah prefers to eat organic foods and makes very wise food choices.
My kitchen is known among Jonah's high school buddies as the place for the best-tasting after-school snacks. The refrigerator is often filled with homemade pastas, soups, and healthy munchies. No artificial ingredients or chemicals are in any of the foods that I prepare. It is real food cooked by a real person, and there is usually plenty of it.
They look out the back door and are no longer surprised to see my chickens clucking about in the middle of suburban Palo Alto, California. I want my sons and their friends to taste healthy, real eggs from chickens that are fed organic food. I want them to see how excited I get when I cut up freshly picked organic string beans, tomatoes, celery, and onions from my funky little garden and prepare a dish. It is important to me that they see me put on my "farmer girl" boots, dig in the dirt, and feed the chickens.
I share these stories as a parent to let you know how important it is to practice what you believe. And trust that in time, your children will see the love and commitment behind your decision to eat organic foods whenever given the choice.
At the same time, I accept that my children and I are a part of the real world. We need to do our best to live honorably and respectfully on the planet. My goal as a parent has always been to just make them conscious of what they eat.
During a speaking engagement, I told the audience that when I die, I want my children and their children to have clear visions of my refrigerator full of home-cooked foods made from organic ingredients. Even in the midst of their busy and hectic lives, I want them to maintain that vision of me standing at the prep table cooking with love for them.
A Lifelong Love of Cooking
By now, it's easy to see how I see myself: I am a cook. A very happy one. Always have been and always will be a cook. Feeding others makes me happy. So does being treated to a special meal prepared by a loved one. Naturally, I prefer the ingredients to be organic, but I take more joy in knowing that someone has taken the time to cook for me. The spirit in which a dish is prepared is often as nurturing as the food itself.
I grew up during the 1950s, a decade characterized by the emergence of convenient, processed foods. Even my family was seduced at times by the allure of fast foods and convenient processed foods. A lunchtime sandwich often consisted of a freshly picked organic tomato and a handful of lettuce from my dad's garden slathered with Miracle Whip on two slices of Wonder Bread.
This explains my realistic view of organics. I am conscious of and careful about what I eat. There are times when there is nothing better than a corned beef and chopped liver sandwich at a Jewish deli. Still, my pantry is predominantly organic and free of artificial ingredients and chemicals. My restaurant features about 95 percent organic ingredients on the menu. I walk the walk, but I am not ashamed to occasionally wander off the path.
Giving Back to the Community
I give credit to my parents for my business success. Each of them contributed in different ways.
During my childhood, Dad reigned as King Eddie, owner of King Edward's Supermarket. He ran his store with respect and integrity for his customers and employees. He would wow customers with his array of organic meats and produce. His bakers never used prepared mixes, making fruit pies, whole grain breads, and even doughnuts from scratch. My dad delighted in creating custard from real milk and churning gallons of strawberry and peach ice cream made with real fruit, usually organic, grown on local farms. By age 12, I was working side by side with him and loving every minute.
My dad taught me what it meant to be a part of the community. He often organized benefits to help those in need. For me, even during lean times in the restaurant when my staff would urge me to cut back on costs, I tried to maintain my level of charity and civic work. There were times when things got tough, and it was my mother who supported my bottom line: the use of organic products over making lots of money.
At the age of 27, with my first husband and a buddy of his, I opened my first organic restaurant. At that time, there were no organic restaurants, so buying enough organic foods was challenging. Still, I was determined to serve food that was healthy for people and the environment. After a long search, I finally found a local produce company that delivered organic foods. It was called the 3:30 A.M. Produce Company, and it was run by two wonderful, dynamic, high-spirited women. We would also hit the farmers' market every Saturday to buy produce.
I was told over and over again that using organic ingredients in a restaurant was not realistic from a cost perspective. Granted, I may not have made as much profit as others, but after 25 years in the restaurant business, I feel incredibly successful. One of the keys to the success of using organic foods is to run a seasonal menu. Seasonal fresh foods tend to be less expensive, and the flavors are deep and genuine.
Every day, I feel profoundly grateful to everyone who has been patient and supportive of my effortsmy family, my staff, my customers. As you can see, food was and remains the heart of my soul. As a daughter, a mother, a grandmother, and a business owner, I maintain my unwavering commitment to using organic foods as often as possible. To me, restaurants as well as home kitchens should be places where food is simply as pure as it can be, and always served with love.
This is a great way to use up leftover mashed potatoes. If they are made with butter or lots of milk, omit the cheese and add a little more flour to bind them. Always test a small one first for consistency.
SUGAR SNAP PEA
AND POTATO CAKES
10 sugar snap peas,
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, thinly sliced
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 cups cooked mashed
1 cup (4 ounces) shredded
3 tablespoons unbleached
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground
4 cups mesclun or spring
1 large carrot, peeled into
Bring a small saucepan of water to a boil over high heat. Add the snap peas and blanch in the boiling water for 3 minutes, or until tender-crisp. Drain and cool slightly. Cut into thin slivers.
Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and cook for 4 minutes, or until soft. Add the garlic and cook for 2 minutes. Place in a large bowl and cool slightly.
Add the snap peas, potatoes, cheese, flour, salt, and pepper to the bowl. Stir until well-blended. Shape into 8 round cakes.
Heat 1 1/2 tablespoons of the remaining oil in the same skillet over medium heat. Add 4 cakes and cook for 8 minutes, turning once, or until browned and heated through. Remove the cakes to a plate and keep warm. Repeat with the remaining cakes.
Evenly divide the mesclun and carrot curls among 4 plates and top with the cakes.
Makes 4 servings
Per serving: 385 calories, 12 g protein, 31 g carbohydrates, 24 g fat, 32 mg cholesterol, 2 g fiber, 801 mg sodium
My oldest son, Joshua, loves this lasagna. When we feel like splurging, we mound lots of fresh crabmeat on top, creating a dish that he begs for when he wants me to cook him something special.
WHITE VEGETABLE LASAGNA
12 ounces lasagna noodles
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cups firmly packed very
finely sliced red or green
2 shallots, minced
2 tablespoons unbleached
4 cups milk
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated
1/2 cup (2 ounces) grated
16 ounces ricotta cheese
8 ounces mozzarella cheese,
cut into small chunks
1/2 cup (2 ounces) grated aged
1 large egg, beaten
2 tablespoons chopped
3 tablespoons chopped
fresh Italian parsley
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground
Preheat the oven to 375°F. Lightly coat a 13" x 9" baking dish with oil.
Cook the lasagna according to package directions. Drain and rinse under cold water. Drain completely.
Meanwhile, heat the oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the chard and shallots and cook for 4 minutes, or until soft. Using a slotted spoon, remove to a large bowl. Whisk the flour into the liquid and cook, stirring frequently, for 3 minutes. Gradually whisk in the milk and cook, stirring often, for 15 minutes, or until the sauce reaches a simmer and thickens. Stir in the chard, shallots, nutmeg, and Parmesan. Simmer for 1 minute.
In a medium bowl, combine the ricotta, mozzarella, provolone, egg, oregano, parsley, salt, and pepper.
Spread one-quarter of the chard sauce on the bottom of the prepared baking dish. Layer one-third of the lasagna on the sauce. Spread one-third of the ricotta mixture on top of the lasagna. Spread another one-quarter of the sauce over the cheese mixture. Repeat with the remaining lasagna, ricotta, and sauce.
Bake for 45 minutes, or until golden brown on top and heated through. Let stand for 10 minutes before serving.
Makes 12 servings
Per serving: 307 calories, 17 g protein, 20 g carbohydrates, 18 g fat, 71 mg cholesterol, 1 g fiber, 386 mg sodium
This may sound like an upscale restaurant dish, but it is actually very easy to prepare and would make an impressive meal for a dinner party. To have more time with your guests, make the potatoes and sauce ahead of time and then reheat before serving.
WITH SMASHED POTATOES
AND LEEK SAUCE
4 filet mignon steaks
(about 5 ounces each)
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons coarsely
ground black pepper
1 pound new potatoes
1/4-1/2 cup buttermilk
3 tablespoons chopped
3 tablespoons butter
2 large leeks, whites only,
1/2 cup hearty red wine (such
as zinfandel or Cabernet)
1 tablespoon capers
1 tablespoon chopped fresh
2 tablespoons chopped
Preheat the grill or broiler. Lightly oil the grill rack or broiler pan.
Rub the steaks with the salt, then press the pepper into both sides of the steaks. Refrigerate until ready to cook.
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the potatoes and cook for 15 minutes, or until tender. Drain and place in a large bowl. Mash the potatoes with a potato masher or fork, adding the buttermilk until moist. Add the chives, cover, and keep warm.
Meanwhile, in a medium saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter and cook the leeks for 6 minutes, or until very soft. Add the wine, capers, and tarragon. Simmer for 3 minutes, or until well-blended and heated through. Keep warm.
Grill or broil the steaks for 15 minutes, turning once, until a thermometer inserted in the center registers 145°F for medium-rare.
To serve, evenly divide the potatoes and steaks among 4 plates. Top with the sauce. Sprinkle with the parsley.
Makes 4 servings
Per serving: 660 calories, 30 g protein, 34 g carbohydrates, 43 g fat, 126 mg cholesterol, 4 g fiber, 580 mg sodium