There’s nothing to make you realize you stink at sukkahs quite like dining in the sukkah of people who have been doing it for years. Imagine the cringe I felt in my heart as I approached the home of our friends, Dan and Valeri Remark, who, you will recall, also put on one prodigious Passover this past printemps. But please don’t think for one minute that we weren’t made to feel extremely welcome or that we didn’t enjoy ourselves.
Still, I have to laugh at myself and the thoughts running through my mind as I walked toward the Remarks’ home. Things like…oh, they have tiki torches lit…how charming…is that wisteria growing over the sukkah frame…please don’t tell me they trained wisteria to grow over the frame…of course they have wisteria growing over the frame—Dan and Valeri are awesome…oh, it’s branches of butterfly bush…yeah, that’s not any less gorgeous.
And don’t get me started on Valeri’s table. In a word: Wow. Each place setting had a different yet perfectly coordinated bowl and plate, there was an eclectic mixture of wine glasses, and candelabras from Don Drumm Studio & Gallery graced the table. For just a touch of whimsy, chili pepper and shotgun shell lights were strung beneath the branches adding to the glow from the candles.
We dined on Dan’s homemade chicken soup. Other guests brought cucumber salad and challah bread . My contribution was a cheeseball and assorted crackers. I’ve provided my recipe below. Dessert was extra special because we celebrated the fourth birthday of Dan and Valeri’s grandson, Roman, with a chocolate cake with whipped icing.
My thoughts regarding our soggy sukkah back home (it’s been a very rainy Sukkot this year) were allayed by stories Dan and Valeri shared with us on their first attempts toward keeping the moedim (appointed times). We may be eating off a card table and a too-small teak table from a patio set, but our hearts and our motives are in the right place. As I said before, there is always room for growth with Adonai.
Pineapple Cheese Ball
1 – 8 oz. bar of cream cheese, softened
1 T sweet onion, finely diced
½ c. crushed pineapple, thoroughly drained
1 t sea salt
2 T green pepper, finely diced
1 c whole pecans
Place the pecans on a baking sheet and toast at 400° F for exactly five minutes. Pecans toast quickly, so set an accurate timer. Set aside to cool for later used. Drain the crushed pineapple in a fine mesh sieve or colander with small holes and press out the excess liquid with the back of a large spoon. Place the softened cream cheese, onion, green pepper, drained pineapple, and salt in a mixing bowl and combine thoroughly. Use a spatula to form into a ball. Coarsely chop the pecans and spread them in a neat pile on a cutting board. Roll the cheese ball in the nuts, gently patting them in when necessary, until the entire cheese ball is covered. A spatula helps with this process. Serve with assorted crackers.
I’ve mentioned before that I have a tendency to feed the characters in my stories. In fact my novel, The Secrets of Dr. John Welles, is replete with the mention of food prompting the sharing of recipes. So when I began The Artist’s Corner, it made sense to feature someone who enjoys the art of cooking as much as I do. I don’t believe Priscilla has ever cooked for a fictional person, but if she did, they would enjoy her talent as much as the real people for whom she cooks.
Hello and welcome to the Artist’s Corner. Tell me a little bit about yourself.
Well, I’ve been married for fifty-one years, and I have two children and two grandchildren. I have enjoyed being a homemaker for the better part of my marriage. I was heavily involved in raising my family and my children’s schooling, but I also worked in the banking and legal industry as well as a volunteer at the fire department.
How/when did your love of cooking develop?
I learned to cook under my mother’s instruction, but growing up in West Virginia didn’t expose me to a variety of foods. My basic cooking skills didn’t develop until my high school home economics class in Ohio. My final project was to collect recipes, and I gathered some good ones, but they were basic.
I honed my skills through my relationship with my oldest brother’s wife. Inta is Latvian, and she introduced me to other foods and methods of preparation. I fell in love with cooking and realized I could do this, too.
Do you consider the food you prepare art?
All of it. From the first steps of preparation to the finished meal is the creation process resulting in edible art. That’s why I take pictures of it and put it on Facebook! At first I thought just the fancy stuff and my baking was art, but I realized it all is. The quality of the food contributes to the finished product. Homemade food is art with love infused. In fact, something as simple as fried green tomatoes when made with good ingredients and love are impressive.
And don’t forget that the table setting is part of it. Presentation plays an important role. You eat first with your eyes, then your sense of smell, and finally with your mouth. Sure, it’s the same food when you hastily prepare it and eat right out of the pans, but beautiful dishes, large platters, place mats, candlelight, napkins, silver, and crystal: all this enhances the food. You make it worthy of being presented in a magazine.
Do you put yourself into your cooking?
Absolutely. How I season, what I choose to cook for a particular meal, how I approach the preparation process: this is me infusing myself into the food. I love to cook what I enjoy eating for other people. It’s a small expression of my personality that I can share with others. And you really can’t go wrong when you’re cooking something you like to eat; it’s like giving a present of yourself to someone.
My accent is on good, solid food. Not necessarily fancy, but I’m not afraid to try something new. Thai food has been of interest to me lately. But if asked to prepare something that I’m not particularly fond of or have never made, I’ll still make every effort to please whoever I’m feeding.
I don’t consider myself a chef by any means, but I consider myself a cook, and a good one. I have training in life experience with cooking. My education comes from searching through cookbooks, vintage recipes, online, and word of mouth which usually provides the best recipes. And I can never leave a recipe alone; I always tweak it! Sometimes my recipes are never the same twice, but they’re always good.
What other cooking experience have you had?
On a whim, I took a cake decorating class with women from a craft club I attended years ago when my children were young. A bunch of us went. I fell in love with the art of cake decorating and started making my kids’ cakes, cakes for neighbors, cakes for family functions. I realized I could channel my talent into a small business. With a lot of practice, I worked my way up to wedding cakes and was quite successful.
Did your non-cooking work experience lead to the pursuit of cooking?
Not exactly, but cooking for my family fed my interest. I’ve never even been a waitress, but I’ve been involved with hosting tea parties (in my home, at church, and in other people’s homes), guests breakfasts for Pastor Appreciation, luncheons honoring staff or administrators at schools, catered wedding receptions, wedding showers, baby showers, conference luncheons for two hundred people at churches, a week’s worth of meals for an equestrian group with special dietary requests, and company Christmas parties. In each instance, I worked with my client(s) to create a full menu that would be visually pleasing and delicious, and then I prepared the food.
What or who is your inspiration for cooking?
Julia Child, Ina Garten, and Martha Stewart—they cause me to rise up to their standard of cooking. I love watching them and reading their cookbooks. Factor in Graham Kerr and Justin Wilson.
What do you enjoy cooking?
It would be a lot quicker to say what I don’t enjoy. My favorite things to cook are my childhood comfort foods which are brown beans and cornbread, meatloaf and mashed potatoes. Simple desserts like Crazy Cake and fudge. Really, it’s hard to say any one thing since I like to make big meals and serve people. I love to make pasta, beef roasts, chicken in many forms, roasted vegetables. I love baking pies, breads, cookies, and cakes in that order.
Do you still cook for others as a business?
No, now it’s all for pure pleasure. Well, actually, I’d take small jobs for close friends or family. I’ve done everything I want to do business-wise with cooking. I could turn all my handwritten recipes into a cookbook. I could see a market for it based on people’s positive reaction to The Pioneer Woman and Paula Deen. People like well-prepared, basic food that tastes good and isn’t difficult. Food you already have in your cupboards.
Have you ever competed in a cooking contest or bake off? If so, how did you do?
I baked for competition once. When I was a young mother, I made candy apple pie for a local grocery store’s competition. I took second place and received a ribbon! I love watching the competitions on television and thinking, I could beat Bobby Flay, but cooking shouldn’t be under pressure or about throwing food around. I’m not going to cook octopus, but if Bobby and I competed at potato soup or chili, I know I could take him down in a heartbeat.
How have you shared your cooking skills?
Lately, I’ve been teaching a young girl how to cook because she’s homeschooled. Her mother asked me if I’d teach her to bake cupcakes and cookies because she’d tasted my stuff. We slowly progressed into pies (double crust and with meringue), and she’s made palmiers, pudding, and angel food cake. Next she’s going to make cheesecake. We keep progressing with more and more difficult techniques.
What’s your opinion on the removal of Home Economics from school, specifically cooking?
It’s sad because young people don’t know how to cook. They come home from work and buy something frozen or already prepared. And I’m not talking about just girls. Boys need to know how to cook, too. My one grandson is prime example that boys can learn how to cook. It doesn’t have to be fancy, but they need to learn how to feed themselves. Breakfast and dinner are essentials because that’s usually when they’re home. Lunch is often eaten out, so they need to learn how to choose wisely.
How is what you cook for yourself different from what you cook for other people?
If I’m making a grilled cheese for myself, I’m going to grab a couple slices of bread from the fridge, use American cheese, and the fanciest thing I’d include would be a slice of tomato. But if I’m making grilled cheese for someone else, I’m going to use seven-grain or homemade sourdough bread, gruyere, fontina, or a combination of exceptional melting cheeses, spread one side with Dijon mustard, and put a slice of roasted red pepper on that baby. Still grilled cheese, but see the difference!
No doubt you’d work presentation into this simple fare?
Absolutely! And it’s not just dressing up ill-prepared or tasteless food. Make no mistake; it all starts with delicious food, quality ingredients. Even how you refer to it is important. Simple things like cutting the crust off toast or sprinkling chopped green onions over an omelet and serving it on pretty dishes can go a long way to turning the eggs and toast you always have for breakfast into something special.
What’s your favorite meal to cook?
Passover. I love cooking for Passover. When I’m cooking the Passover meal, the whole experience becomes holy. Of course the Seder is beautiful; it’s for Adonai. It can be quite long, so people are getting hungry. You’d better serve them your best, and I do. What I hope they know is that I’ve given my best to them because of my love for Adonai.
What’s your dream meal?
To have lunch with Martha Stewart, but I prepare the food. There’d be a salad involved, probably a soup and sandwich combination. The time of year, whether spring or fall, would influence the menu. And I’d make homemade pie, probably lemon meringue because my crust is excellent.
What’s your biggest complaint with cooking?
The cost of good ingredients can be prohibitive. One meal could be outrageous. I’ll buy organic when it’s feasible. My concern isn’t just for myself, it’s for everyone. We live in a country that wastes too much food. The GMOs bother me, too. Whole foods and organics should be available at reasonable prices to everyone.
So do you have a recipe to share with us?
You know I do!
6 – 8 Redskin or Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and diced
3 – 4 ribs of celery, sliced
Medium sweet onion, chopped
4 eggs, beaten
1 ½ c flour
½ t salt
Stick of butter
4 – 6 cups chicken broth, homemade or canned (enough to cover, depends on the size of your potatoes)
Salt and pepper to taste
1 quart half-n-half
Place the potatoes, celery, and onions in a large pot and cover with the broth. Bring to a boil, reduce to simmer, and cover while you’re making the dumplings.
Combined the eggs, flour, and salt in a mixing bowl and stir thoroughly to make a thick batter for dumplings. Take a large spoonful of dumpling mixture and cut off pieces with a butter knife, dropping them into the hot soup. Add a stick of butter. Cover and let the dumplings cook for 5 – 8 minutes.
Turn the heat off and add the half-and-half until there is plenty of liquid around the ingredients and the soup looks creamy. Taste to see if you need more salt, then season further with salt and pepper.
My family likes to top the soup with small chunks of Havarti, let it soften ever so slightly, and then eat it!
Monday evening marked the beginning of Passover. My family had the good fortune of observing the day with our dear friends, Dan and Valeri Remark. The Remarks opened their lovely home to seventeen guests. We had a wonderful time and enjoyed delicious food prepared by Dan, a chef, as well as matzo ball soup, roasted vegetables, and assorted cheeses provided by other guests. I made the charoset and received many compliments.
The Seder hosted by the Remarks was relaxed and welcoming. Guests had the opportunity to ask questions if they didn’t understand or comment with insight. Roman, Dan and Valeri’s grandson, did an excellent job asking the four required questions and opening the door for Elijah. Our son, Joshua, and the Remarks son-in-law, Quentin, engaged in a challenge to see who could eat the most horseradish. Quentin consumed three slices the size of a quarter, and Joshua managed to down four. Joshua was fine for the first few moments until the pungency of the root vegetable reached his nose. Luckily, Joshua is a good sport who joined in the laughter as his face reddened and he gulped grape juice to cool the burn.
One elegant touch I’ll be sure to borrow from Valeri if I ever host my own Passover Seder is to offer my guests warmed, damp washcloths scented with orange essential oil for the custom of washing one’s hands. Another is the use of a broken piece of pottery to collect the drops of wine while reciting the ten plagues three times each.
Giving up foods with yeast/leavening for eight days may seem like a huge sacrifice. Yeast/leavening appears in places one wouldn’t expect such as canned broth and soup, prepared meatballs, and salad dressing. It requires a little reworking of the menu when you can’t grab the items you’re used to. Yet what we receive in return is so much more and makes up for the minor inconvenience of denying ourselves yeast/leavening for eight days. The fellowship of the Seder alone is worth it, not to mention the freely flowing wine, love, and laughter we enjoyed at the Remarks. Then there is the opportunity to reflect on Passover and what it means for us today.
3 Granny Smith apples, peeled and finely diced
3 Gala apples, peeled and finely diced
2 c toasted walnuts, coarsely diced
½ c kosher sweet wine
½ c honey
¼ c dark brown sugar
1 t cinnamon
Three hearty dashes of allspice
Toss the diced apples with the toasted walnuts. Combine the wine, honey, brown sugar, cinnamon, and allspice. Whisk thoroughly and pour over the apple/walnut mixture. Stir several times to coat before covering. Allow to marinate in the refrigerator for at least an hour. Stir again before serving. Serve chilled at the Seder with pieces of matzo.