chilling and ice grilling

We said hello to 2013 at our off-the grid getaway in New York’s Schoharie Valley. We arrived to over a foot of newly fallen snow and a clear starry night illuminated by the full moon. Ice crystals sparkled like diamonds in the moonlit blue snow. The silhouette of tall pines and naked hardwood trees were black against the blue ice.



It was warming and invigorating to shovel the heavy snow into a lacework of paths that allowed us to access the firewood pile for heat and the hand pump well for water. Since I’d left the charcoal grill out from last summer, I decided to use it to cook our New Year’s Eve dinner. I made a little path all around it, pushed the snow off the picnic table with my shovel and got ready to grill.



Marinated and Grilled Filet Mignon

4 pieces of filet mignon
¼ cup of olive oil
¼ cup of red wine
1 tsp smoked Spanish paprika – I like the Chiquilin brand.
1 tsp Dominican or Mexican dried oregano (or fresh oregano or thyme is great too)
salt & black pepper

Whisk all ingredients together and marinate the meat for at least 2 hours. Grill it to your desired doneness.

I also made grilled garlicky zucchini that reminded us of summer.

Garlicky grilled summer squash

Slice the squash length-wise as thinly as possible. Add finely chopped garlic, salt & black pepper and enough olive oil that the pieces of squash are coated all around. Let them sit while you fire up the grill to absorb the seasoning. Grill them until they are soft and have grill marks.

Franklinton Vly, Schoharie County, New York

Franklinton Vly, Schoharie County, New York


One week and one day after Hurricane Sandy, I opened the door to my neighborhood health food store. The smell of tea, herbal things and good salt hits my nose like a balmy punch. As I look over the newly delivered vegetables, a small elfin woman next to me looks up with her eyes bright and exclaims “Isn’t it exciting? FOOD!”

My pantry was pretty bare after the storm. I was not affected compared to the suffering endured by fellow New Yorkers. But a few days of darkness and silence in Manhattan has an effect nonetheless. One of them was the necessity of throwing out everything that was left in the fridge and freezer that had not been consumed. The now fermented unfrozen berries for smoothies that could not be made during the blackout and the packages of overlooked baby peas. We had foraged deep into the freezer and the pantry since food was scarce in our part of town. I used the rapidly defrosting bags of mushy and watery pearl onions from Trader Joes as seasoning. Now, when I see a pearl onion, from the pickled pearl onions for martinis in my bar cupboard to the fresh pearl onions at the Greenmarket, I feel a little bit of revulsion.

The cleaning fervor hit me the minute the lights, heat and hot water came back. First, the fridge and freezer got attacked. I moved on to the cupboard and threw out a slew of dried up and flavorless crap. The only survivors from the purge were the condiment jars whose contents had spoiled. These got soaked to remove the labels. Holiday entertaining would require a well-stocked pantry. My little notebook in hand, I made myself a list.

Then I rode my bike over to Kalustyans Spices and Sweets. I’d never been there before despite it being a famous place in New York visited by tourists and natives alike. When you walk in, the first grouping of provisions you see are for cocktails and my first thought was “Holy shit, they have dirty martini brine”.  I had never seen that outside of an olive farmer’s stand at the Santa Monica farmer’s market. They have everything from everywhere. It was hard to keep to my shopping list.

I’m now all set for the start of holiday cooking. My freezer and fridge are pristine, having been scrubbed with detergent and baking soda. Ancient bottles of green goddess dressing and cocktail sauce have been jettisoned and I will not set eyes on a pearl onion for a long time.

Here is my list for a well-stocked spice cabinet for holiday cooking:

– Cinammon sticks & ground
– Vanilla bean – slice down the middle and put in a dark glass bottle filled with vodka. cure for a month for vanilla extract. Keep adding vodka to replenish
– Peppermint extract
– Cream of Tartar
– Baking Soda & Powder (without aluminum)
– Ground clove
– Nutmeg
– Allspice
– Cumin
– Coriander
– Thyme
– Tarragon
– Cilantro
– Savory
– Sage
– Basil
– Oregano (Mexican or Dominican)
– Curry
– Black Peppercorns
– Crushed Red Pepper
– Cayenne Pepper
– Ancho Chile Powder
– Dirty Martini brine

garden alley party menu

The homestead is adjacent to one of the most beautiful community gardens in Loisaida. We recently marked a celebration with a little party in the alleyway that abuts the garden. We call it the alley, but it is really a long courtyard that is below the surface of the garden. There is a wind tunnel there, so even on the most blistering New York summer day, breezes will stir. We have garden furniture there and a communal grill.

It was a late supper party so most of the food was prepared beforehand and we just grilled burgers. When I was a kid, all my friends raved about the burgers my mother made. It was because they were seasoned. They were Cuban hamburgers.

Garden alley party menu:

Crostini with tomato & basil
Chipotle deviled eggs – this is my recipe from a previous post

Cuban Hamburgers recipe
2lbs ground beef
1 med onion super finely chopped
4 cloves garlic finely chopped
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp oregano – I use dried oregano from the Dominican Republic, but that is hard to find. Rancho Gordo has comparable oregano. Or use fresh.
Salt and pepper to taste

Mix all ingredients and shape into patties. Do not pack tightly into patties or they will grill up dry. Grill or broil. Serves six.

Beet Salad with Feta Cheese and capers
French Potato Salad
Califlower Gratin

Chocolate Pound Cake – your family and friends will love this cake and beg you to make it again. The recipe is from chef Douglas Rodriguez’s book Latin Flavors on the Grill. One of my favorite cookbooks.

oona makes mangú

Mangú is mashed plantains. Green plantains are starchy like a potato, so the dish is like mashed potatoes except that it goes particularly well with eggs and is very filling. For that reason, many people really like it for breakfast. It is a great side dish for brunch.

Plantains are an important food staple in tropical regions of the world because the trees fruit all year long and they are very high in potassium and other vitamins and minerals. They are versatile and can be eaten green, or ripe. They can be an appetizer, main dish, side dish or dessert. They can be mashed, fried, baked, grilled or added to other foods in many creative and delicious ways. My ex-mother-in-law taught me how to make it. Mangú is what they call mashed plantains in the Dominican Republic. In Cuba, they call it Fufú and in Puerto Rico it is known as Mofongo. There are many ways to make it, all of them, delicious. Sometimes pork is added. My mother-in-law’s version is vegetarian, made with lots of sauteed garlic, red and green peppers and onions.

I’d just seen the first ramps (wild leeks) at the Union Square Greenmarket. Truly a sign of spring, ramps feel like the first fresh leafy food to appear in the northeast that does not come from a greenhouse. I bought two bunches.

Oona decided to use the ramps for the mangú because onions are not her friend. Since she doesn’t like peppers either, the mangú was just plantains, ramps and lots of garlic. The flavor of the ramps is delicate so that the plantains were the star.

Here is Oona’s recipe for Mangú with Ramps

4 green plantains, peeled and cut into chunks about 3 inches long
1 lime or lemon
lots of garlic
1 bunch of ramps (about 2 cups chopped)
good olive oil to taste
salt and pepper to taste

Boil the plantains until they can easily be pierced by a fork (just like a potato) in salted water with a lime or lemon cut in half.

Chop the ramps (cut off the roots) and use both the green leaves and white bulb and mince your garlic. Sauté the garlic (don’t let it brown) and lightly sauté the ramps till the greens are wilted but still bright.

Drain the cooked plantain chunks and save some of the water. Mash the plantains, adding some of the plantain water to moisten. Add as much olive oil as you like. Add the sauteed ramps and garlic. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve hot. If you have leftovers, reheat by steaming or microwaving with a bit of water to soften the plantain mash.

Serves six

cut the plantains into 3 inch chunks for boiling

chop the ramps and mince the garlic

a healthy spring brunch: turkey sausage, eggs and mangu

a tale of two (okay, three) martinis

On a lazy grey Sunday afternoon at the cocktail hour, I invite my friend Raquel to test drive my new Nick and Nora cocktail glasses. Martinis are Raquel’s favorite cocktail. She was skeptical about the glasses at first (before they were filled). Then she seemed to warm up to them. We decided to concoct a variety of martinis. I like vermouth. Raquel does not. She does that wash of vermouth over the glass thing and that is it. We did not follow James Bond’s tenet and we stirred ours instead of using the cocktail shaker. I heard that stirring makes it colder and does not cloud the drink. We cracked the ice that we used for stirring because supposedly the jagged edges will create more surface of cold ice to chill the drink to the maximum. We chilled our Nick and Nora glasses with ice and seltzer because Raquel says the seltzer makes it colder.

I had some things on hand for martini enhancement. Adam’s Ranch Dirty Martini Mix that I picked up at the Santa Monica Farmer’s Market. It is very high quality olive brine. I also have Arthur Marc’s Queen Olives stuffed with bleu cheese made in beautiful Schoharie County, New York. I buy these at the hardware store in the charming town of Middleburgh. These olives are delicious, fat and overstuffed with very good bleu cheese.

To start, Raquel chose a vodka martini with a wash of vermouth and jalapeño stuffed olives. Raquel would not touch the bleu cheese olives because as a kid she milked goats. She hates billy goats and anything reminiscent of their smell. She liked the kick the jalapeño olives gave her martini. I like vermouth, so mine was 2 ounces gin and 1-ounce vermouth with 1-teaspoon dirty martini mix (olive brine). The three ounces fit perfectly in the Nick and Nora glasses. I had the pungent bleu cheese stuffed olives in mine.

martinis with olives and the draco malfoy martinis with pickle juice

Next, we try a drink concocted by my favorite cocktail blogger Nancy Mitchell of The Backyard Bartender. She did a very creative series of Harry Potter inspired cocktails. We decided to make the Draco Malfoy, a martini made with pickle juice. Nancy says it is just like Draco “smooth, sleek and just a little bit nasty”. We used pickle juice from The Pickle Guys on the Lower Eastside. They will sell you a couple of scoopfuls of prime pickle juice straight out of the barrel for two bucks.

The Draco Malfoy Martini from the Backyard Bartender

2oz Gin (or Vodka if you prefer)
½ oz. dry vermouth
½ oz. pickle juice

Stir or (shake) all ingredients with ice. Strain into a chilled (Nick and Nora) cocktail glass. Divine.

the quest for the nick and nora cocktail glass

I started really disliking the triangular cocktail glass (best known as a martini glass) ever since I went to the Pegu Club in Soho and had a perfect martini in a Nick and Nora cocktail glass. The martini glass is impratical, your drink sloshes with the slightest movement. People crane their heads and hover as they approach the cocktail. They pucker their lips over the glass in a hopeless attempt to avoid the spill – it’s not an attractive look. These glasses are big, so what is supposed to be a super chilled cocktail loses its iciness too quickly. People sip it much too fast so as to savor the cold before its gone. At the Pegu Club they serve your martini in a Nick and Nora glass, which is shaped like a dainty cup with a stem. They put some of your martini in it and some of it is left inside a small carafe which is placed before you inside of a bowl of crushed ice. Elegante.

Nick and Nora Charles were the protagonists of a film series based on the novel The Thin Man starring William Powell and Myrna Loy. A sophisticated married couple, they had a lot of cocktails while being wittty and solving murders. They used the perfect martini glasses. They are known as the Nick and Nora cocktail glass.

While I was looking for the Nick and Nora glasses, I discovered that a lot of people were on the same quest. There is a whole thread about it at Chowhound. Blogger Wordsmithing Pantagruel reported going to the Pegu Club and grilling a bartender for the source. I followed a lead to a wine store on the Upper Westside, but was told they only had three left. Then success, thanks to Wordsmithing Pantagruel. Tabletop Style has them in their Minners Classic Cocktail Collection for a little over six bucks each. They arrived quickly and are now waiting to be filled.

yuca con mojo criollo

The best part of our Christmas Eve dinner is the yuca con mojo criollo. Yuca, (pronouced YooKah) also known as cassava was consumed in Latin America long before the arrival of the conquistadors. It was brought to Africa through the slave trade in the 17th century. It is an important food security crop for millions of people because it grows in poor soil and can withstand drought.

You can find yuca in grocery stores that have Latin American foods. It is a long tuber with a dark woody skin that is coated with a clear wax to preserve freshness. The bark-like skin is thick and it has to be sliced off, almost like whittling a piece of wood. Once peeled and cut into pieces about five inches long, boil the yuca in salted water. Do not cut into smaller pieces as small chunks will turn into mush. This vegetable is very bland and the mojo criollo sauce that is poured over it is for garlic lovers only.

I've been hoarding this garlic from Heather Ridge Farm for my winter cooking

Seville oranges are the second ingredient. They are harder to find and so you can make a similar juice by mixing 1/4 cup of fresh squeezed sweet orange juice and 1/8 cup of combined lime and lemon juice.

naranja agria

Here is the recipe:

yuca – about three 10 inch long tubers peeled and boiled till soft
8 very fat, very good quality garlic cloves
1 tsp salt
1 medium onion sliced super thin
1/2 cup Seville orange juice or the substitute concoction mentioned above
1/2 cup good quality olive oil

Smash the garlic with the salt in a mortar and pestle (or food processor) until it forms a thick paste. Put the garlic, onion and orange juice in a bowl and let it sit for an hour. Heat the olive oil until it is very hot and then add the garlic and juice mixture for just a couple of minutes (do not let the garlic brown and be careful because it will splatter). Pour over the drained yuca, toss and serve.

yuca con mojo criollo

A perfect compliment to roast pork with black beans, the yuca is biting and tangy with the sour orange and heady with garlic. It is even better the next day with leftovers, and then the day after that topped with a fried egg for breakfast.

tree trimming party

My daughter calls me an ornament hoarder. I’m always on the lookout for the old ones at yard sales. Sometimes I find them at the bottom of big boxes and I know that they’ve come from someone’s attic – someone who has died – someone whose children and grandchildren saw these shiny treasures as junk. I rescue them to hang on a lighted tree again. They have good energy. I like them when they are so old that they start to become translucent and the light penetrates their milky luster. The old glitter looks like tarnished silver. I have handmade ornaments that when they are unwrapped and hung on the tree each year bring an endearment of thought. The wool roving ornaments made at a school holiday fair. The pressed cinnamon reindeer from preschool. The delicate orbs of blown glass from middle school science class filled with colored water. Ornaments brought by our friends through the years are remembered and hung on the tree with love.


In the beginning, we had friends over and just ordered pizza from Two Boots while we worked on the tree. Some years later I got the idea that I should make it fancier from watching a show on the Food Network about holiday hors d’oeuvre and for a couple of years I woke at dawn and stressed myself out in the kitchen until one of my daughters said “Mom, we liked it better when we just had pizza from Two Boots”. This year I did order pizzas from Two Boots and we made three different kinds of deviled eggs –  easy and delicious. I tinkered with recipes from I served the adults Dark and Stormy cocktails – a good wintery drink.

Chipotle Deviled Eggs

7 eggs (makes 14 halves0
1 chipotle pepper from a can (with adobe sauce) seeded and chopped fine
salt and black pepper to taste
Mayo – good quality or homemade

Hard boil the eggs and cut in half. Scoop out the yolk into a mixing bowl. Smash up the yolk, add the chopped chipotle and salt and pepper. Add enough mayo for a consistency like dry frosting. Stuff lightly into the halved whites.

Tarragon and Capers Deviled Eggs

7 eggs (makes 14 halves)
1 tsp fresh tarragon chopped fine
1Tbs shallot or green onion chopped very fine
1 Tbs capers
Salt and pepper to taste

Same as above, but add the chopped tarragon, capers and mayo. Stuff lightly into the egg whites and add one caper on top for a garnish.

Regular Deviled Eggs

10 eggs (makes 20 halves)
½ tsp dry mustard
½ tsp cayenne pepper or smoked paprika
Salt and pepper to taste

Same as above, add the mustard, pepper or paprika, mayo and salt and pepper. Stuff lightly into whites and sprinkle with paprika on top.

Dark and Stormy cocktails

Splash of Goslings Dark Rum in a tumbler over ice
Fill with Reeds Ginger Beer or other good quality ginger beer
Squeezed lime




chocolate sauce

I make chocolate fudge sauce every year for my kid’s teachers. This is an easy recipe and very delicious. I now make industrial quantities of the stuff because the teachers from the grade before, beg my kids for the sauce and so some of teachers have been grandfathered in. I’m now cutting them off after 2 years. Term limits for chocolate sauce. This recipe is originally from Martha Stewart’s Living magazine and yields 2 cups of sauce. I did the math and have increased it to fill fourteen half pint mason jars for the teachers and three pint jars for home and special friends. A total of 17 half pint jars.

chop good quality chocolate in chunks

chop good quality chocolate in chunks

For two cups of chocolate sauce:
1 cup heavy cream
2 Tbs light corn syrup
12 oz semisweet chocolate chopped
2 tsp vanilla

In a saucepan over medium heat bring the cream and corn syrup to a boil. Remove from heat (or lower) and whisk in the chocolate chunks until melted. Stir in the vanilla. Pour into jars and cool completely before covering or refrigerating (otherwise the sauce will become granulated). To reheat, microwave it a little or put the jar in a bowl of hot water.

a thing of beauty

a thing of beauty

The proportions for a massive quantity detailed above for gift giving:

6 cups heavy cream
12 Tbs light corn syrup
72 oz semisweet chocolate
12 tsp vanilla

Ileana's chocolate factory

Ileana’s chocolate factory

We spoon the chocolate sauce over vanilla ice cream – divine. We love it on my mother’s bread pudding and drizzled on pie. It’s good to have on hand for the holidays to make any dessert special. Heat some up and pull out a box of shortbread cookies to dip in the sauce – and voila, you have a beautiful dessert.

Some years we make fancy labels and wrap ribbons around the jars. Some years we just cap the jar. This is one of those years.

olga’s cuban black beans

This is my mother’s black bean recipe. She let me tinker with it a little when I grew up and we would cook Christmas Eve dinner together. She used to use Goya beans and one day I brought organic beans and after that she never wanted to see another Goya bean again. She used to put in a splash of wine for the acidity and one day I asked if we could try balsamic vinegar and she liked it much better. Beans do not photograph well, so there are photos of the cook instead.

Always use organic beans. Not only do they taste better, they also cook up faster. Since beans take hours to cook, I always cook 2lbs at one time and freeze half in smaller containers to defrost later for easy weekday meals. These beans are very healthy as they are vegetarian and have almost no fat (only a bit of olive oil which is good for you).

Olga and her dog Belinda

Olga before she knew how to cook black beans

1st step – make sofrito, which is a tomatoey base used in Latin American cooking that is inherited from Spain. There are different versions of sofrito by country. What I outline here is the Cuban version. I cook up a batch and then freeze in small containers holding about 3 or 4 tablespoons each or wrap in plastic and put the little bundles in a freezer bag to pull out one by one as needed for future bean cooking. It is truly a base for many dishes. You can add the sofrito to chicken, meat, fish, or starchy veggies such as potatoes or eggplant, or as a topping to polenta to add flavor.

Splash of olive oil in a sauté pan
1 med to large yellow onion
1 med green pepper
1 med red pepper
2 to 5 crushed garlic cloves
1 large can crushed tomatoes – try to get the ones from Italy
Fresh or very good quality dried oregano (I use the Dominican oregano found in Latin American groceries)
Salt and black pepper

Sauté the garlic, onions, peppers until soft. Add the crushed tomato and spice. Stir and cook till tomato thickens and is no longer soupy. It should be very fragrant and turn from a red color to an orangey red color. Cool then freeze in 3 – 4 tbs portions.

2 lbs organic black (turtle) beans
Balsamic vinegar (2 tbs)
Sugar (2 tbs)
Olive oil to taste
Salt and pepper
3 tbs sofrito

Soak the beans overnight if you want to save cooking time but organic beans cook up pretty fast. Cover the beans with 2 inches of water (do not add salt till they are fully cooked). Boil the beans medium heat till soft – about 2 hours. Stir periodically to make sure they don’t stick to the bottom of the pot. Add more water if needed.

When the beans are fully cooked add the sofrito, sugar, balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper. You can add a little splash of red wine for flavor too and if you wish, a bit more olive oil. Simmer for at least 2 hours stirring every once in a while to make sure they don’t stick. When the broth is thickened and no longer soupy and thin, they are done. You can speed up the thickening by spooning out about a half cup of beans and mashing them with a fork and putting them back in. Adjust salt and pepper seasoning.