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Cooking Together: A Real Love Story for Valentine’s Day

IN THE February 6 ISSUE

FROM THE 2021 Articles,
andFood Fun,
andMargaret Mendel,
andTerrific Tales
SECTIONS

by Margaret Mendel

In Cooking Together Margaret shares a true love story with us just in time for Valentine’s Day, along with some great recipes.

Time has an interesting way of blending the present with a bit of lingering tastes from the past. Some days when I look back and remember falling in love with my husband, it doesn’t feel like it was all that long ago. But over four decades later my feelings for him are still strong, and though it would be hard to have realized back then, my love for him has only grown stronger.

An early romantic memory, though it was not Valentine’s Day, was our first dinner together at my place. I made a spaghetti sauce and probably unknowingly over cooked the pasta because I was a beginner cook and didn’t know about al dente. And the man I was falling in love with brought a bouquet of red roses and a bottle of Chianti. That was the beginning, the beginning of a life filled with a boatload of memories and many interesting and wonderful foods to taste.

Over the years many experiences, the good and the bad, have brought us closer. And food became an anchor to our reminiscences. A conversation about our trip to France might begin with one of us remembering our first taste of a fresh, crisp Parisian baguette filled with butter and a soft cheese we ate while sitting in a park looking up at the Eiffel Tower.

My husband and I both learned to be better cooks standing side-by-side at the kitchen stove. Learning new recipes, we each contributed to our growing repertoire. One such recipe, Pesto, Steve brought to our recipe collection. We first tasted this luscious concoction years ago on a hot summer day when we lived in San Francisco. It was hard to believe that such a delicious sauce could be made from only four ingredients: nuts, fresh basil, garlic, and olive oil. Steve was the first to experiment with the recipe. He did a bang up job, too, with every sauce turning out perfectly. Then one day, I decided to have a go at it. Still in my limited understanding of some cooking rules, I decided to up the portion of garlic. I thought if a little garlic was good, imagine what a bit more could do to the sauce. However, considering it was raw garlic, this I quickly learned was not such a wise decision. The results turned into a horrific burning sauce that could not be tamed no matter how many nuts or how much olive oil we added. From that point I left well enough alone and the Pesto sauce became Steve’s go-to recipe.

We’ve never had a big kitchen to cook in. But we’ve made whatever space we had work for us. Being close and at each other’s elbows never seemed to be a problem. Scooting around each other frequently resulted in a quick kiss on the cheek. As time went on individual skills surfaced. I was good at making a roux and lump-free gravy. Steve was a great onion slicer, never shedding a tear. I had a knack for picking out herbs and spices that enhanced flavors. But Steve became the major taster. Once a sauce was brought together, I would scoop out a small spoonful and he would be the first in line to see if dinner was ready to serve. “What do you think?” I ask and wait for his response. More salt, or, maybe a little longer simmering? We frequently joked that all sauces we made were brought to finality by his taste buds. That was fine with me. If Steve said it was good, then it had to be good.

pieProbably the big surprise in our relationship with cooking was my ability to bake. It kind of surprised me, too. Though my mother was a fantastic baker, I never thought I paid much attention to what she was doing. Evidently I had learned something about baking without actually being taught. Cookies, brownies, cakes, everything I baked turned out perfect. Though, the best of the best was yet to come about when, pleasantly to my family’s surprise, I learned to bake pies. Pie baking was something I did almost solo. Mixing the pie dough and the crumb topping became a simple and quick process, while Steve peeled the apples or gathered the fruit, and waited, as the delicious aroma of a fresh baked pie filled the air.

Then at one point, things changed. My husband could not stand for long periods at the kitchen counter slicing onions. Preparing complex sauces at the stove became too physically taxing for him. His legs weakened. He had to sit frequently. Cooking implements slipped from his hands and crashed to the floor. Only after tons of doctor visits and tests were we able to get a diagnosis, Parkinson’s.

The progression of the disease has changed our lives, yet it in some ways it changed nothing. We still must eat, and we certainly continue to enjoy doing that. Now I do most of the cooking. But unflappable Steve took up another interesting pastime, searching the internet for recipes. He has a folder in his laptop filled with all the yummy and easy to prepare foods he wants to taste.

Not to long ago he took up perfecting a roast chicken. He’s concocted a personal spice mix that he smears across the raw bird. Setting the chicken aside, he slides a large cast iron fry pan into the oven and sets the temperature to 500 degrees. Once the oven reaches the desired heat and the fry pan is good and hot, he opens the oven and carefully places the seasoned chicken into the hot fry pan. There is a delicious sizzling sound, the oven door is closed and a half hour later the oven is turned off and the foul is left to sit in the cooling oven. After a half hour the chicken is removed from the oven and the main course is ready to eat. It is uncomplicated, easy, and delectable.

wineMost of our meals are simple fare these days. Well, that is unless Steve has a high level of reserved energy and he’s determined to try out a newly found recipe. He surprised me the other evening by making Chicken Marbella, a dish infused with prunes, green olives, capers, mushrooms, and red wine. I’d never had it before and the ingredients sounded a little iffy to me. But, wow, it was delicious with the sweetness of the prunes and the salty tang of the olives and capers making a perfect blend while the mushrooms brought in a touch of earthy tones. This recipe is definitely a real keeper.

It’s February and that means Valentine’s Day is around the corner. The sentiment of the day is meaningful to us, though we don’t dance around in the kitchen while making a festive meal the way we used to. Though we usually try to make something special for that day. Often times that means either something that we really, really enjoy eating or we try something out of the ordinary. This year we’ve decided to keep it simple, a steak and spinach salad. And for a starch Steve has found an interesting way of preparing sweet potatoes. It’s a street food from China. The sweet potatoes are frozen and then while they are still frozen they are placed in a very hot oven (450 degrees) and cooked for an hour or more. The result is supposed to be a very creamy center. Well, I’m game. There will be no sauce for Steve to taste. There will not be long hours spent standing at the stove. But we will share a new taste experience together. What more could we ask for and it just might become one of our go-to recipes.

Pesto
3 packed cups fresh basil leaves
4 plump garlic cloves
1 cup coarsely grated Parmesan cheese
4 Tbl unsalted butter, softened
1/4 tsp fresh pepper
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup pine nuts
2/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Combine basil, garlic, Parmesan cheese, butter, pepper and salt in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse about 25 times or until the mixture is finely chopped. Add the pine nuts and pulse for approximately 10 times. While the motor is running slowly drizzle the olive oil into the mixture. Scrape down the sides and pulse several more times until the sauce is thick and creamy.

Pesto can be eaten immediately or because it freezes nicely, this sauce can be prepared a head of time and stored in the freezer. Filling an ice cube tray with the sauce until the mixture is hardened, the cubes can be placed in a container and then added to red sauces, soups, beans, or just about any savory dish to give an extra bit of flavor.

Chicken Marbella
1 Tbl. extra-virgin olive oil
6 bone-in skin-on chicken thighs
(about 2-1/2 pounds)
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to your taste
5 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1/2 cup pitted prunes
1/2 cup pitted Spanish green olives
1/4 cup drained capers, plus 1 Tbl caper brine
3 fresh dried bay leaves
2 Tbl fresh oregano, chopped or 1 Tbl dried oregano
2 Tbl dark brown sugar
1 cup dry white wine
1/4 cup red wine vinegar

Heat olive oil in a skillet, add the chicken thighs skin side down, cover and cook about 10 to 15 minutes until a deep golden brown. (Covering the chicken will speed up the cooing time and help prevent the oil from splattering.) Turn the chicken, cover again and cook until the second side is also golden brown, about 5 minutes. Remove lid, add garlic and cook for another minute or two.

Add the prunes, olives, capers and the brine, bay leaves and oregano between the chicken pieces. Sprinkle the brown sugar, salt, pepper over the chicken. Mix together the wine and vinegar and pour over the top and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, cover and simmer another 15 to 20 minutes until the chicken is cooked through.

Transfer chicken to a serving platter and return the pan to high heat. Cook sauce, stirring occasionally for about another 5 minutes, until the sauce reduces and becomes slightly thickened. Spoon sauce over chicken and serve.

Margaret Mendel , an award-winning author, has published two novels, Fish Kicker and Pushing Water and a short story collection, Patches. Many of her short stories have appeared in literary journals, anthologies and e-zines. She has also written numerous food columns, newspaper articles and travel pieces. Margaret was born in California and now lives in NYC. She is an avid traveler and photograph who not only drags her laptop with her wherever she goes but takes her Nikon as well. To learn more about Margaret go to her website.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Pamela Brennan February 6, 2021 at 11:03am

Nice to see your writing again. Of course it was very informative, as your writings always are. Thanks for your recipes.

Reply

2 Toddi Jones February 6, 2021 at 12:00pm

Loved the realness of their love..so genuine and delicate.
Few people can experience love, devotion and work in a small kitchen at the same time. Yes, the prunes are rather suspicious in the Marbella recipe.

Reply

3 Eric Parker
Twitter: @Eric
February 6, 2021 at 1:14pm

Marge, this is a truly delightful food/love story. It makes me want to take Valentine’s Day a little more seriously and try some new recipes. Best, Eric
ps: can’t wait till we can see you guys.

Reply

4 SharonJohnson February 6, 2021 at 5:37pm

Another entertaining story! Always enjoy your writing and the addition of recipes!

Reply

5 Terry February 7, 2021 at 4:43am

Food is love! Hope the potatoes turn out well.

Reply

6 Sherry Brown February 7, 2021 at 4:48am

Thank you for sharing your love story! There is no doubt you share a wonderful love for each!!!!Happy Valentines Day!

Reply

7 Michelle Schmitt February 7, 2021 at 1:04pm

Marge, what a sweet love story. It’s very endearing to see how your love of each other has grown and changed and is becoming even stronger with the passing of time. It’s very nice to see a Valentine’s story that doesn’t take place on Valentine’s day. Just love developing over a lifetime. Enjoy your lovers dinner.
I’m going to try the sweet potato trick and see whst happens, I wonder if it would work on other kinds of potatoes, might have to try it and see, I have always loved pesto and use it in various ways. Have you ever spread it on the outside of a grilled cheese sandwich insread of butter? It’s pretty yummy. I have looked at Chicken Marbella and the prunes kind of turned me off as well, kind of like (gasp) large raisins which are definitely not my favorite. I wonder if dried apricots would work. Might have to try it as it sounds like the sweet element is important.
I wish we lived closer together so we could make pies together, what fun thst would be. And tarts. And cakes.

Reply

8 Maria Ruiz
Twitter: @profile
February 7, 2021 at 6:43pm

Margaret, not only did you cause my taste buds to tingle with anticipation, you brought many of my memories to awaken. Thank you so much for the lovely story and I can only hope your husband is doing as well as you both want.

Reply

9 jeri fink February 8, 2021 at 8:09am

I love this story – it brings joy into today’s tough world. What a delight to share you and Steve’s lifelong love! It put a smile on my face -and a driving need to try those sweet potatoes!

Reply

10 Mary February 8, 2021 at 1:25pm

Lovely article. Wonderful recipes.

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