June LeBell's Wonderful Food Story

June is one of my oldest friends. I've written about her before and mentioned that she was arguably the most recognizable voice on WQXR before her early retirement when she moved to Sarasota.This incredibly resaerched piece, however, is written by June on ethnic food for Sarasota Arts and Culture Magazine

INTRODUCTION

America is known as The Great Melting Pot. But that anthropological term has, in recent years, taken on a new meaning and now America is The Great CULINARY Melting Pot. Walk down any street from New York City to San Francisco and you’ll find all sorts of hyphenated restaurants: Portuguese-Greek, Japanese-Korean, Asian-American, Cuban-Chinese, and that all ‘round favorite that melts in every pot, Fusion. And, Sarasota has certainly picked up the trend. There’s another term for you: Trend. Whatever happened to good old fashioned Tradition? Poor Tevya from Fiddler on the Roof would have a hard time finding a traditional Kosher restaurant outside of Brooklyn or Russia. I remember a simply beautiful, romantic restaurant on Manhattan’s upper west side that had pink walls, ivy and flowers, candles (tapers, not votives) and menus that bragged about 100% Kosher food that sounded like something from Le Cirque. Of course, almost anything short of spare ribs and lobster could be prepared to meet the Kosher standards but, come on, admit it, it is unusual to find beautifully presented four and five course meals that stand up to both man’s and God’s gourmet ideals. With myriad cultures that have settled on our shores and made inroads into our bread basket, it is a wonder this culinary melting pot had not happened a hundred years earlier. But it certainly happened now. And, we are the gratified recipients of this mélange of tastes and culinary creations. For many of us, this food continually connects our cultures to our heritage. The question is, how did all these new recipes begin? In the following pages, we’ll look at the way Tradition has created Traditions; how the old has melted into the new, transforming sacred recipes - - yes, even French recipes - - into delectable dishes even our some what appalled mother would applaud.

FRENCH
    Perhaps the most traditional food the world has known is French. As Professor Higgens says in My Fair Lady, “The French don’t care what they say… as long as they pronounce it properly.” 
    Here in Sarasota, the truly French restaurants are getting fewer and farther between. Now all the rage is “continental.” But the real culinary basis for most of those establishments still comes from France. 
    Look back at French cooking through the middle of the 20th century. There was one way to prepare each dish and only one way. Change one single ingredient of Dione Lucas’ inspired recipe for Oie À L’Alsacienne (Roast Goose Stuffed with Sausage Meat, on Sauerkraut) and your goose is cooked! Even the French version of Italian Osso Buco has rules and regulations (“…cut [veal shins or knuckles] in four pieces…the meat should be very white, and the bone should contain marrow…”)
    There’s no room for short cuts like canned veal stock or frozen mushrooms. The raisins for a Veal Ragoût must be “soaked for exactly 30 minutes in ½ cup of dry white wine…” or the French cooking god will swoop into your kitchen, shout “Arrêt!!” and haul you off to a prison with an English chef!
    But then, along came Judith Jones, the American editor, who serendipitously found herself in France, developed a passion for cooking and eating, and discovered the likes of Julia Child, Lidia Bastianich and other ground-breaking cooks who may have thrown out the bath water but never the baby. 
    Jones’ best-selling autobiography, “The Tenth Muse, My Life in Food,” (Knopf) tells not just her story but also the story of the transmogrification of so-called traditional food, especially French.
    Even the legendary French chef, Jacques Pépin, tells us how regional French cooking as he knew it, growing up in the war years in a small village about 35 miles northeast of Lyon, has kept its original flavor while becoming infused with the ingredients of America’s heartland. 
    In his recent autobiography, “The Apprentice,” (Houghton Mifflin) he describes his strict training in Paris where he learned an entirely different style of cooking from the one with which he’d grown up. “Stock is the basic ingredient of most sauces,” he writes. “A slight variation in seasoning, viscosity, reduction, or cooking time could make the difference between an average and a superlative sauce.”
    Oh, yes, there was always room for some creativity but “There was a strict order to follow....  After we had boiled the beef and poultry bones long enough to be strained for stock - - twelve hours - - we would re-wet them, a technique called remouillage. We then simmered them again for another five to six hours. We strained the second liquid through the finest chinois (strainer), then reduced it to make a glace de viande.”
    Not exactly the kind of preparation you’d want to make in your own kitchen for a simple supper after a day on the beach.
    Julia Child changed much of this while keeping the basic tenets of great French food. She showed us that we, too, could prepare an elegant sautéed duck breast with Madeira and not go off, half-quacked. 
        Many “French” chefs followed, translating the bulkiest recipes into ones we could understand, make and hanker for, including Rose Levy Beranbaum, author of “The Cake Bible,” and several other explanatory cookbooks.  A recent visitor to Sarasota, Rose visited several local book stores to sign her many wonderful books. Among them, you’ll find “Rose’s Melting Pot,” (Morrow), which came out in 1993 and gave us a “Cooking Tour of America’s Ethnic Celebrations.”
    Numbered in her French traditional creations is one for “Chocolate Pots de Crème.” She even tells us how to pronounce it properly (poh duh krehm) lest we offend a passing Frenchman.
    This classic French dessert, she tells us, “is not nearly as well known as its fluffier cousin, chocolate mousse.” 
    Rose offered it to her friend, Marcel Desaulnier for his “delightful collection of chocolate recipes, ‘Death by Chocolate.’ He, in turn, perfected it by using a special technique that cooks the egg, making it safe to eat, and at the same time smoothens the texture, making it more luxurious.” 
    She gives the ingredients - - heavy cream, milk, bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, six large egg yolks, Kahlúa (optional) and candied violets, for decoration (also, optional) - - in both ounces and grams, a certain tip of the hat to old and new world. And her instructions include pointers for success:  “Cover the completed pots de crème with Saran brand plastic wrap, which is airtight, to prevent the absorption of any off taste from other food stored in the refrigerator.”
    Good old American common sense meets French tradition. 

GERMAN
    Interestingly, German cuisine - - the real, earthy, stomach and soul-filling stuff - - has made a come back. 
    “People are hungry for the comfort food we remember from our childhood. Fancy restaurants are nice but we get tired of them and, when we go home, we really appreciate good German food,” Marlene Randanne de Vazeille told us at a recent “fancy” dinner in Sarasota. 
    Marlene and her husband, Jacques, make pilgrimages to Germany fairly often from their home on the white sands of the Gulf of Mexico. 
    “Since we don’t have a place in Germany anymore,” she said, “we love going into a real, down home German restaurant for our favorite dishes. But I still make two of our favorites right here in Sarasota.”
    Those favorites start with a really traditional Sauerbraten. Marlene uses beef - - “in the Rheinland, they used to use horsemeat, you know, but now we use sliced beef,” she confides - - marinated in onions, red wine vinegar, ground cloves, salt and pepper.  Then she browns the beef, adds the marinade and simmers the whole thing for about two hours. At the end, she adds a syrup made of sugar beets and thickens the sauce with corn starch. 
    “And, in the Rheinland, they use raisins,” she adds. “We can eat it with dumplings or spaetzle but we sometimes do as the Dutch do and serve it with French fries.”  
    German comfort food also brings to Marlene’s mind her Koenigsberger Klops. (With a name like that, it has to be good!) Klops, she explains, are meat dumplings. And these klops are served in a sauce with lemon juice, German sour dill pickles and capers. But, just in case that doesn’t sound comforting enough, she tells us, “We also add an egg yolk, corn starch and heavy cream to thicken the sauce.” How can one have comfort without eggs and cream!
    Sarasota’s version of German comfort food comes from our large Amish population. Cream, eggs, noodles; pies heaped with meringue or whipped cream; casseroles. If you ever feel homesick and feel you must have something that is both belly and soul satisfying, just head to your local Amish restaurant. You’re sure to find both.

MEDITERRANEAN
    Great Italian food is much more than good pizza. And Sarasota’s own Marcella Hazan, the world renowned Italian cookbook author and teacher, has written enough cookbooks to sink an Italian armada into the delights of Italian cuisine.
    Of course, there are all kinds of Italian foods and regional dishes that may start with the same ingredients but then go off in very different directions. But, in every one of them there is one main ingredient: Enthusiasm.
    In her book, “Marcella’s Italian Kitchen,” (Knopf) her dedication reads, “For my star pupil: His enthusiasm at the table has fed mine in the kitchen; in the kitchen beside me, as my official tater, his judgment has never failed me; of his own cooking, the only thing I regret is that I am not around to have it more often: my son, Giuliano Hazan.”
    Another Judith Jones disciple, Marcella more or less hides out in Sarasota but the fact that she’s here adds another star to our culinary crest. And her cookbooks alone give us the impetus to learn what she calls, “The Italian Language of Cooking.” 
    “The cooking of Italy is part of that large group of cuisines usually described as ethnic,” she writes. “It is colloquial family cooking, spontaneous, pithy, spirited, direct.” 
    If ever there were words to inspire even the most timid cook, they have come from Marcella Hazan. But she does remind us that the origins of many Italian and also French dishes “were created in the courts of the Medicis in Florence, the Sforzas in Milan, the d’Estes in Ferrara…” and of the many other high ranking courts and palaces of Europe.
    “In Italy, they have long since been mingled with the earthier, plainspoken accents of regional kitchens and rephrased to suit everyday, popular usage.”
    John Grisham has taken the joy of Italian food to an entertaining height in his recent novel, “Playing for Pizza,” in which he turns a fairly uneducated, untalented football player from mid-America into an enthusiastic Italophile  with a  sophisticated culinary and operatic palette. Great food, cooked and served with gusto, can do that to a person. 
    But getting back to the regional cooking of Italy, the exquisite tastes of the country from Abruzzo-Molise to Sicily and Umbria can take us on a whirlwind world tour of spices, sauces and stews that are, each in their individual ways, unforgettable. So, the next time you step into a so-called “Italian” restaurant, ask about the background of the owner and the chef. Northern or southern? Mountains or seaside?  Then, if you can, order your favorites, have them packed well and spread a red and white checked cloth on Siesta beach and have an Italian picnic. The Gulf of Mexico is our Mediterranean Sea. 

    Think Mediterranean, and Aegean comes to mind. And so do the delights of Greek cuisine. In so many ways, Sarasota and this part of the west coast of Florida, are like the coast of Greece. (Tarpon Springs is just a car ride away and that community is filled with transplanted Greeks, from sponge fishermen to great cooks.)
    And, of course, there are many second and third generation Greeks dwelling, sans Trojan horse, in our area. One of them, Maria Zouves, lives just slightly to the north of Sarasota with her Metropolitan Opera baritone husband, Sherrill Milnes, their son and their poodle. 
    The Italian and Greek zest for life is a truly Mediterranean thing and the Greeks have infused their cuisine with it in a way that is, like the movie, “My Big, Fat Greek Wedding,” big, fat and filled with laughter and music.
    Maria and Sherrill founded and run a non-profit program called “V.O.I.C.Experience,” that helps serious classical singers to further their careers and music education. But you’d better believe that along with the intensive training in opera, musical theater and song, there’s food, glorious food. 
    And, since Sarasota is a true melting pot of cultures and cuisines, there are many excellent Greek restaurants right here in town. A short stroll down Main Street will give you an idea of just how many we have.
    From grape leaves, dried fruits, and a variety of nuts to rice, herbs and olive oils of every color, genus and texture, Greek food can make you feel like dancing. Or singing. 

    Like its neighbors, Spain has given us a musicality in its cooking that is imbued with heat and sunshine. Although Italy and Greece are also known for their olives and olive oils, it is Spain that has mile after mile after mile of olive groves. Spanish food almost always is blessed by the olive. But it also has incorporated the many cultures of its very varied population from conquistadors to moors and matadors. Just as the architecture is a heady mix of east and west, so is its cooking.
    Sarasota loves a good party. And one of the best party combinations I can think of is paella and sangria. Both of these have basic ingredients but the range of additions and variations to each of them is staggering. 
    A great paella starts with a really great Spanish extra virgin olive oil, lemons and lemon juice, garlic, coriander, saffron, capers, sea salt, pepper and peppers. From there, you can use what you have: chicken, lobster, shrimp, clams, Spanish sausage, peas, rice and whatever else tickles your mantilla. The trick, of course, is not to over cook any of the ingredients and to make sure that, somehow, the rice and the meats manage to meld into a deliciously delicate dish. 
    Sangria can be red or white, made with summer or winter fruit, sweet or dry. It’s up to you. The great flutist Jean-Pierre Rampal gave me a refreshingly light recipe for his Sangria Blanche (white sangria)  that I used in my cookbook, “Kitchen Classics from the Philharmonic”(Doubleday) and tested right here in Sarasota with my friends Bob and Janet Steele as we tootled around Sarasota Bay in a party boat. (Bob was the designated driver of the boat but Janet and I were free to imbibe…) It’s made with white wine, champagne and cointreau with a mélange of diced fruits like plums, apricots, oranges, cherries, strawberries and white grapes, with confectioners’ sugar. Light, refreshing and very summery. 
    Rose Levy Beranbaum has a recipe for a Raspberry Peach Sangria that she says is a great accompaniment to cold poached salmon. Her Sangria features unpeeled, pitted and diced peaches, raspberries, Grand Marnier, sugar and a good red Rioja - - chilled.  
    Come to think of it, Sangria may have been the Spanish Adam and Eve of what we now think of as fruit punch. And you can do almost anything with that. 

RUSSIAN
    The Russian Tea Room, in its original incarnations on Manhattan’s West 57th Street, “slightly to the left of Carnegie Hall” (as the ads read) was my very first sponsor on WQXR. I’d never had real Russian food until I went there and was treated like a czarina. 
    Russian restaurants, good ones, are hard to come by. Even in New York City there’s only a handful these days. But delve into many a Sarasotan’s background and you’re bound to find Russian blood and Russian culinary crafts. And, where there’s a Russian heir, there’s some sense of Russian food, over and beyond vodka. 
    Except for Kosher laws, Russia’s eating habits were probably more influenced by   religion - - specifically the Russian Orthodox Church - - than almost any other culture in the world. There were fasting days and feasting days but, from the wealthiest to the poorest, there was always a way to celebrate and, most of all, to entertain each other. 
    A fast, for example, might consist of plum soup with wine, potato cutlets with mushroom sauce and a compote made with whatever one could find that wasn’t on the “forbidden” list.  A feast, then, was even more joyous. 
    But, perhaps as much as the church influenced Russian culinary culture, so did Asia and, later, France. The East - - think the Caucasus and Central Asia - - gave the early Russians the secret to leavened bread - - probably after the Greeks got it from the Scythians and the Egyptians, who had professional bakers somewhere around 2000 B.C. 
    The Asians brought “koumiss,” (fermented mare’s milk) to Russia. And many of the spices treasured by the czars, including saffron and cinnamon, can be traced back to the Mongols and Tartars, who also taught Russians how to make sauerkraut, a specialty of Chinese who fermented cabbage. 
    Considerably later, France and French cuisine made inroads into Russia and it is said that more French chefs found employment during the reign of Catherine the Great  than  in any other time or place. 
    Of course, this cross pollination of cultures resulted in a refinement of earlier Russian dishes and the addition of technique - - how to chop, purée and mince with the skill of a true French chef. 
    The most festive of all Russian holidays is Easter and a typical menu might include Paskha (a sweetened cheese mixture) and Kulich (a very rich yeast bread with almonds and raisins); tortes; decorated eggs, lamb, boar’s head, ham, turkey, hare, veal, grouse, roast venison, elk, beef, suckling pig and a variety of breads, condiments, vodkas, wines and, just to clear the palette, a salad or two. 
    It may be the celebratory factor or it could be ancestry but bowl of steaming hot borscht, made from beef with vegetables; blintzes; potatoes of all kinds, and sour cream are pretty high on many an ex-pat-Sarasotan’s secret list of comfort foods. 

ASIAN

    One of the saddest parts of the 21st century’s trend toward a culinary amalgam has been the fusion of Asian cuisines. Asian influences on other cultures has been a welcome breath of creativity, infusing spices like curries and coriander into otherwise bland dishes.
    But Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Thai cuisines are so distinctive and delicious, it’s a shame to find them blended and melded into one blob. Yes, Koreans do eat sushi that’s very similar to Japanese. But there is an art to each cuisine that is so characteristic, it would be a shame to lose any of it.
    China is a huge country but, like Italy, France, Germany and even America, it has very specific regions, each with a cuisine of its own. From Cantonese noodle dishes to the heat of  Szchwan spices, every Chinese dish has layer upon layer of meaning. Beauty, display, taste, color, texture and consistency are just part of great Chinese cuisine. Each dish is like a painting by Seurat, with a dot of this and a dash of that combining to make a complete masterpiece that must be appreciated for scent, appearance and texture as well as taste. 
    A simple stroll along the Gulf of Mexico at dusk is like preparing and enjoying a whole snapper, glistening from the Gulf, poached to perfection, sprinkled with slivers of fresh ginger, garlic and scallions and drizzled with soy sauce, hot peanut oil and sesame oil. 
    Japanese cuisine is also beautiful in its presentation but, in a way, simpler and less complex than Chinese.  Fresh, clean ingredients - - often from the sea - - are molded into tiny, delicate shapes as much to be admired with the eye as with the tongue. Spices are often individual rather than an amalgam. And the west’s “nouvelle” cuisine has been greatly influenced by Japanese cooking techniques and ideas.
    When Americans present small dishes of hors d’oeuvres at a cocktail party - - fresh shrimp, small rolls or slices of meat, light sauces in which we dip veggies, we are basically emulating the Japanese style of serving. 
    There are many “rules” in Japanese and Chinese cuisine but most of those don’t apply in people’s homes. At home, a hot pot (a zesty broth in which one may dip meat, fish and vegetables, family style) is as familiar as a hot dish is in Minnesota. The hot pot may look more beautiful to western eyes because it seems exotic, but it would be interesting to know if a hot dish is exotic to someone from Japan.
    The popularity of Korean, Thai and Vietnamese food has risen over the past 25 years primarily because American service men and women have come home from those countries with interesting, new taste sensations to talk about. And, once you’re hooked on a new cuisine, it’s hard not to have a yen (forgive the pun) for it again. 
    Japanese restaurants, from sushi to noodle houses, abound in Sarasota. So do some excellent Thai, Vietnamese and Korean establishments. For some reason, it’s difficult to find excellent regional Chinese cuisine. We seem to have more of the fast-food, all-you-can-eat Chinese variety than the real thing. But the same was said 30 years ago of many of the things we now take for granted from bagels and croissants to sushi and zabaglione. 
    So, for now, Sarasotans must walk to their own woks for fine Chinese food. The ingredients are easy to come by. Bok choy, snow peas, Chinese cabbage, water chestnuts, cilantro and other Chinese herbs and vegetables are available at almost every supermarket in town. So are Chinese rice wines, peanut oil, sesame oil, hot pepper paste, a variety of soy sauces, tofu of all textures and fresh ginger.
    You probably stir fry at least one meal a week so you’ve already learned one important Chinese cooking technique. The others are even easier. They’re fun, quick and offer healthy, clean, beautiful meals. 
    Chinese cookbooks abound, offering everything from regional dishes to the philosophy behind each presentation. And woks and utensils from chop sticks to tea cups are easily found in department and specialty shops. 

BRITISH
    It used to be that British “cuisine” was an oxymoron. But, with the influx of so many nationalities and religions into the British Isles, English food has perhaps become the greatest example of a Melting Pot that there is. 
    To say English food consists of Yorkshire pudding, treacle, fish and chips, crumpets and tea, would seem as if you were stereotyping what the English ate a century ago. Like America’s major cities, London has become a showcase of fusion in cuisine. Streets are lined with great Asian, French, German and even American restaurants. Some of the best sushi I’ve ever had was in London.
    But there’s something cozy and comforting about a tea shop.  Having “afternoon tea,” high or low, is a mark of civilization. It’s so very different from the coffee breaks allotted to American office workers that when confronted with the English tea, one’s breath is nearly taken away. 
Business actually stops as the tea cart is wheeled into English offices. China cups, tea pots and silver spoons tinkle like crystal bells. Milk, closer to what we know as cream, whitens the tea. And the tea comes in leaves, loose in the “hotted” pot and caught in silver strainers. It’s terribly civilized and it does brace one to face the rest of the day.
Sarasota has several quaint tea shops and they’re not hard to find. Hot tea in the Sarasota winter is warming and tasty. In the summer, the shop is shade from the sun, with fragrant teas and muffins. It’s a fine place to meet a friend or relax for an hour with hot tea and a good book. It’s just enough to get us back on our feet and ready for frozen margaritas on the beach. 
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Food, glorious, glamorous, food is our humanity. More than getting fuel into our systems, it’s our way of making friends, conversing, relaxing and getting to know, understand and accept cultures different from our own. 
It’s artistic, beautiful and enriching. It teaches us about nature - - ours and God’s. It nourishes us inside and out. We can’t live without it. And we certainly wouldn’t want to.