At five years of age, I walked into my kindergarten class and made my way directly to a corner of the room where a child-sized kitchen stood. The miniature stove, sink and refrigerator were made of hard wood and were scaled to a size befitting someone roughly three-feet tall. Shiny red knobs and handles popped out at me invitingly. I knew, as I let myself be led to a chair by the teacher, that I would be spending a lot of time in that kitchen.
A couple of years later, my mother drove her three children to a mall on Long Island, where she took us to a bookstore. There she told my older brother, Buzz, to keep an eye on us; she would be back in half an hour. I wandered the shelves of the children’s section, then at some point I looked up to see a shop across the way called Cracker Barrel Old Country Store. Next thing I knew, my feet were taking me there. There were baskets filled with packages of dried fruit and nuts, cubby holes with condiments such as mustard and fruit preserves, knotty-pine bins jammed full of hard salamis and dried sausages, and long, open refrigerated cases lined one whole wall. Here I stopped and gazed down in wonder at block after block of cheese. I strolled along slowly, letting my hand brush the cold rectangular bars while I read their names: aged cheddar, Havarti, Monterey jack, muenster. Suddenly, I felt a heavy hand on my shoulder. I turned to look into my brother’s eyes. My sister, Janet, stood behind him, hands on hips. “We’ve been looking for you for 20 minutes,” Buzz said through gritted teeth.” “Mommy says, ‘Come now!’” Janet added, unnecessarily.
Soon after that sojourn, at the age of seven, I cooked my first meal, which was breakfast in bed for my parents. It consisted of hot tap water poured over Chock Full o’Nuts coffee grounds; cold toast with jam for my mom; and cold, congealed scrambled eggs and cold toast with butter for my dad. I hadn’t yet learned the finer points of timing or brewing coffee.
In junior high school, my best friend, Katie, and I did some serious cooking in her parents’ garden apartment when they went out. We made the classic French stew, boeuf bourguignon; the hunter-style braised Italian dish, chicken cacciatore; Moroccan lamb tajine with dried fruit; and Indian feasts consisting of curries, rice pilaf, chutney and turmeric-tinted vegetables, served with the unleavened deep-fried puffed bread known as poori.
At the High School of Art and Design, my classmates and I continued experimenting and learning, concentrating on vegetarian dishes, such as stir-fried or grilled vegetables on wilted greens. At the State University at New Paltz I cooked for my dorm-mates on a hot-plate and in a toaster-oven, both of which I had to hide in my closet when not in use, as they were verboten. Stuffed mushrooms and pot brownies (well, it was the 1970s, after all) vied for first-place status.
I often wonder where my passion for food stemmed from. True, my parents were adventurous eaters and my dad, working in mid-town Manhattan, introduced us kids to many types of ethnic foods at the plethora of restaurants in the vicinity of his office. Or is the passion genetic, harking back to my maternal grandfather (who died years before I was born), an Eastern European Jew who introduced his family to such delicacies as lobster and icy cold raw clams and oysters on the half-shell? These were foods that any religious, Orthodox Jews, such as my paternal grandparents (who came from the same town as Grandpa Harry) would blanch at. But Harry was modern and a pleasure-seeker by all accounts.
Why do I take such interest in knowing what my neighbor had for dinner last night or what my cousin ate throughout a recent trip to Turkey? When I get together with friends in the city it is I who researches and offers a couple of interesting-sounding restaurants for them to choose from, and I like the job. Do we crave ramen at the Japanese spot on East Ninth Street or should we try a Mexican place that specializes in dishes from the Yucatan? Sometimes I have to force myself to turn away and take a break from searching menus. Maybe I’ll spend an hour or two with a book by a food writer, such as the one I picked up the other day, “Feast Here Awhile: Adventures in American Eating” by Jo Brans. The second chapter begins, “I think about food all the time. I’ve always been that way. As long ago as the fifties, Connie, my college roommate, once complained plaintively, ‘I like you, Jo, but I don’t like to eat with you. While you’re chewing one bite, you’re lining up the next two on your plate, and before you finish breakfast, you’re already planning lunch. The truth is, you’re obsessed.’”
So, what’s wrong with that?
20 cremini (baby bello) mushrooms, cleaned, stems discarded
1 large garlic clove
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh parsley
1/3 cup finely grated Parmigiano-Regianno or Pecorino Romano cheese (or a combination of the two)
1 ounce grated cheddar or Gruyere cheese
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon Madeira or sherry
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for oiling the gratin dish
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Choose 12 mushrooms of equal size and set aside. Break or roughly chop the rest of the mushrooms and place them in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse a few times until finely chopped, but not pasty, and scrap into a large bowl. Add the remaining ingredients and mix gently, but thoroughly. Lightly grease a gratin dish roughly 10-by-7 with some olive oil. With a teaspoon, scoop up some of the mixture in the bowl and fill the cavity of each the 12 mushrooms, mounding slightly. Set each one in the gratin dish as you finish filling it. Bake the mushrooms for 20 minutes, until the mushrooms have collapsed a bit and given off some juices. Serve in the gratin dish or move them to a decorative serving platter. Serve hot.