Friday, August 15, 2008

Remembering Abby

Abby Mandel Meyer 1932-2008

"Grieve not ... nor speak of me with tears ...
but laugh and talk of me ...
as though I were beside you.
I love you so ...
'twas heaven here with you"

Ilsa Pachal Richardson, Program at Service

Judging from the number of market bags that I own, I’d been going to Green City Market for several years before I met Abby Mandel Meyer in person. In 2005, my non-profit, Purple Asparagus, had agreed to organize the Market’s Saturday kids programming. We’d worked out most of the details of our involvement with her then-assistant, Jeanne Pinsof. Nevertheless, the final okay had to come from Abby herself. I’d been primed for my conversation with her by a board member of ours was also on the Market’s board so I knew that she had a reputation of being imperious. And while this personality was one that I’d become used to in my career in Big Law, as this was my first contact with someone of this stature in my new profession, I was nervous. I remember precisely where the conversation took place. It was late May and she was weaving in and out of the rows of Nichol’s vegetable plants. Trim and well-dressed with her notable Chanel sunglasses, we had our first of many conversations while walking through the Market. She was direct, but gracious, clear with her goals and appreciative of our efforts. Nothing like I had anticipated.

I’ve heard the complaint that Abby was “divisive”. Not surprising as she was a driven woman with big goals and a personality to match. She expected a great deal from those around her, but she demanded a lot from herself as well. And if you did a job well, she was quick to praise and her praise meant a lot because you knew it was honest and well-deserved. I always believed that this was the secret to working with Abby, which was difficult for some because it was a true test of your mettle. You could never phone it in with Abby – she always challenged you to do your best.

I’ll miss many things about Abby, her candor, her directness, even her characteristic shorthand in responding to emails. Only the week before she passed away, I had received an email response to a question I had asked: “lets talk mon.” Sadly, I know now why we never did. But most importantly, I will miss the opportunity of not getting to know her even better. She was a great woman who challenged and inspired and I personally am grateful to have known her.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Cheese, Glorious Cheese

I love cheese, all kinds of cheese - stinky cheese, hard cheese, soft cheeses, stringy cheese - I love cheese so much, I was probably a mouse in a former life. And I'm no cheese snob. While I don't have much positive to say about a plastic wrapped American cheese slice, I do have a certain nostalgia for spreadable cheeses in plastic tubs as they remind me of the processed-food heaven of cocktail hour on my parents' sailboat.

For our annual summer vacation, my parents charted a route from the south shore of Long Island around Montauk Point and up to Connecticut and Rhode Island. We took this cruise with several families from the yacht club and at the end of many a long days travel, we would all "raft" up - anchor one boat and tie the others to it. The anchored vessel would then be both the tether and the host of the cocktail "hour" that lasted several. Beers, blush wines, martinis and manhattans all served in double walled plastic cups decorated with nautical flags. But I remember the food, boat food, as my mother called it. Pringles potato chips (the can prevented crushing in those narrow shelves lining the narrow galley), Planter's cocktail nuts, Goldfish, and as a special treat cheeses, almost inevitably being one of the Wispread varieties - my favorite being the Port Wine cheddar with that unnatural hibiscus color.

So, yes, even though my tastes have improved, I'm a sucker for cheese in a tub. The best commercially made version that I've had is from Wisconsin cheese-maker, Brunkow, and it's the aged spreadable cheddar. I don't much like the ones with add-ins, like the horseradish, but man, the plain one. Suffice to say, I can't buy it often or I'd be 200 pounds.

But my favorite spreadable cheese is one that also elicits great nostalgia, just not among my people nor of the people of the person who introduced me to it. I first tried pimento cheese at the home of a former upper east side finishing school girl. She went to college at William & Mary, where she met her husband, Andrew Sugerman. In spite of her uptown provenance, Sarah had adopted the cooking of the upper south with alacrity. In their first large Chicago apartment, they hosted a party that highlighted the culinary specialties of the region - my favorite discovery being the mound of orange, slightly spicy, smooth spreadable cheese.

It was several years later when I bought Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock's wonderful cookbook, The Gift of Southern Cooking, that I made pimento cheese the first time. It was as good as I remembered and finer than any Wispread port wine cheddar. Here is my version of the recipe:

Pimento Cheese

1 small red pepper
10 ounces sharp cheddar cheese, grated
1/4 cup cream cheese softened
1/2 cup mayonnaise, either homemade or best quality commercial
1 pinch of cayenne
kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

METHODS: Roast the pepper by charring it over an open flame or by broiling it. When the skin is blackened, remove the pepper and put in a bowl. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and set aside until cool enough to handle. When cooled, remove the skin, stem and seeds. Roughly chop. In a food processor, add the cheese, cream cheese, mayonnaise, cayenne, and salt and pepper to taste. Process until smooth. Refrigerate for several hours or overnight to develop the flavors.

Friday, August 8, 2008

"Eat Food, Not Too Much, Mostly Plants"

In my sustainable cooking classes, I always advise people to follow this haiku-like admonition of Michael Pollan. While no one would ever confuse me with a vegetarian (my tag line is "I've never met a pork product that I didn't like."), I do try to incorporate some vegetarian dishes into my cooking repertoire, which is why I get so excited when I find a straight vegetarian dish that is satisfying and "meaty" in flavor.

From Deborah Madison's wonderful book, Vegetarian Suppers, comes Chickpea and Chard with Cilantro & Cumin. Here is the recipe with my personal adaptations.

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 large onion, diced
pinch or 2 saffron threads
2 garlic cloves
kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika
1 cup cilantro leaves
1/4 cup parsley leaves
3 basil leaves
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
2 teaspoons tomato paste or 1 plum tomato, finely diced
2 medium bunches Swiss chard
2 15 ounce cans chick peas with liquid
1 tablespoon white wine

METHODS: Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and saffron and saute until the onions are lightly browned, approximately 15 minutes. In the meantime, coarsely grind the parsley, cilantro, basil garlic, smoked paprika, cumin, salt and pepper to taste in a food processor or mortar and pestle. Wash the swiss chard, remove the stems and slice into 1 1/2 inch ribbons. Put them in a large pot with 2 cups of water and a pinch of salt and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover and simmer for 5 minutes. Remove the leaves from the water and drain. Finely chop the stems and add to the water. Cook for 10 minutes. Add the herb mixture and tomato paste or tomatoes to the onions, cook for 5 minutes. Add chickpeas with their liquid, the swiss chard leaves and white wine and simmer for 10 minutes. Add the stems and season with salt and pepper to taste. Serves 4.