Reflections on Food and Cooking
Updated: Nov 17, 2020
For me, fall has always been a time of transition and inspiration. Life slows, the light softens, the busy summer catering season ratchets down and rolls into the holidays. There's more time to breathe and reflect. I start thinking about what's working, what's not, and where I want to take my business next...
Three years ago this week, I visited Lebanon for the first time. I met a cousin I'd only known through Facebook, walked through the neighborhoods in Beirut where my great grandparents were from, and experienced from the source, the Lebanese warmth and hospitality that my cite (grandmother), aunts, and uncles were famous for. I was greeted with smiling faces and generosity everywhere I went, and not once did I have a bad meal - from the wood-fired bakeries where we had manoushi, ga'ak, and tiny, rocket fuel-strength coffees for breakfast - to the bustling, popular, touristed restaurants. I felt such a strong connection to Lebanon. The food, the people, the culture - from the moment I stepped foot in Beirut, it felt familiar to me.
Upon returning to Sonoma, I decided to shift Spread Catering from the non-descript "Wine Country Cooking" I'd been doing, to incorporating what I grew up with, the food that spoke to me and touched my soul. The food that reminded me of home, of warmth, of family gatherings around my grandmother's table. In a late-night burst of inspiration, I rebuilt my entire website and re-wrote all my catering menus to fit this new direction. My menus were elevated Lebanese with a pinch of Syrian, Persian, Moroccan and Turkish - all the things I loved to eat and cook. It's been a fun reinvention, and it's still evolving. Best of all, it reinvigorated my passion for, and love of, cooking.
One year ago this month, I was supposed to go back to Lebanon, to spend 4-weeks cooking all around the country. I had to postpone the trip due to the political uprising, and now it's been postponed indefinitely due to the pandemic, and Lebanon's ongoing political and financial turmoil. But, as luck would have it, I found myself volunteering on team Middle East at the CIA's World of Flavors conference at Copia instead. It turned out to be a wonderful opportunity to cook alongside some of my favorite chefs and cookbook authors. I made toum for Anissa Helou, THE authority on Lebanese and Arabic cooking. Her book, "Lebanese Cuisine" is a favorite in my family because Helou's cooking is closest to our family's style. Her most recent book, "Feast: Food of the Islamic World" is my absolute go-to for culinary inspiration. The spice section alone is worth its weight in gold. I had a moment of pride when Helou signed "Thanks for a great toum!" inside one of the 8 cookbooks I lugged to the event for her to autograph (shameless, I know). I also met another one of my lifelong culinary shero's, Najmieh Batmanglij, the author of the quintessential bible for all things Iranian, "Food of LIfe: Ancient Persian and Modern Iranian Cooking and Ceremonies". She was nurturing and warm, took me under her wing, and handed me spoonful after spoonful of whatever she had going on the stove, insisting that I try everything (and who I am to demure?). I felt like I made a friend and she even asked me to teach her how to make toum! There were so many more wonderful memories from that week. And, although I wasn't cooking in Lebanon, it certainly came in a close second!
This year, once again, has been all about transitions, pivoting, finding inspiration, and seeing what works. I've managed to turn my catering company into a bustling little take-away business - which I love, even more than I could've imagined. It's been challenging for sure. I've lost a lot of sleep and gone through the gamut of human emotions - as we all probably have in these crazy times. But what I love about our current business model is that it provides me so much more opportunity to be fresh and creative on a daily basis. I'm not so overwhelmed with our seasonal catering biz that I have to recycle my menus. With the new business, our menus change weekly (which, admittedly, is kind of insane), so I'm constantly seeking out new inspiration and collaborating with the other chefs I have in the kitchen.
It's always been an important part of my business to treat the people I work with well, and with respect, and to support our community by sourcing local ingredients, working with small vendors and purveyors, local farms and ranchers. All this seems even more important now that so many small farmers and businesses are feeling the pinch from the pandemic. It's important to keep our money circulating locally and to work with people that nurture and take care of our communities and the land around us. As I've created my menus, I've made a concerted effort to make food that will also nurture and take care of our bodies - using seasonal ingredients and including plenty of healthy options for vegans, vegetarians, and meat-eaters alike, as well as plenty of gluten-free options. Because let's be honest, sometimes eating healthy can feel like a chore, and if anyone has ever gone vegan or gluten-free, the restaurant options can be less than inspiring. But there's so much good food in the world, we don't need to settle for boring or bland!
As I put together this week's menu, I'm excited to channel some Persian inspiration with a vegan and a lamb version of Khoreshe Ghorme Sabzi - a slow cooked herb and bean stew with dried limes (brought back from Lebanon). It is one of my favorite Persian dishes. We'll use Rancho Gordo cranberry beans in our version, and Superior Farms lamb, out of Dixon, California (near Sacramento). I like that Superior Farms is an employee owned company with a focus on sustainability.
I'm also thinking za'atar marinated Rocky Free Range Chicken. Our chicken is from Petaluma and our za'atar is from an agricultural village in the mountains of Lebanon that grows the za'atar (Syrian oregano), sumac, and sesame that makes up the blend. Our stock right now is from 2020's spring harvest. And, since I like pulling inspiration from everywhere, we're getting some winter squash from Big Ranch Farm and making a winter squash soup with ras al hanout (a blend of warm spices - cinnamon, coriander, ginger, etc. often used in Moroccan cooking).
Now it's off to the kitchen to cook, and think about what's next...
It has certainly been a long year. Eat good food, take care of yourself and each other, and let's all look for what's going to keep the inspiration flowing!
CLICK HERE to check out our latest menu!