Spring Stew

On a blustery spring morning, army reserves trained on frost-laden grounds – evidence of a lingering winter. Nearby, college students lugged boxes of color for the spring festival, Holi, while two Orthodox Jewish boys raced up the hill for Saturday service clutching their black hats tightly, and javelin throwers, bundled in sweatshirts, trained before their competition. In the same neighborhood, carts serving Korean noodles, vegetarian lunch, Thai basil chicken, lamb kebabs, and kielbasa hot dogs had begun preparations for the lunchtime crowd.

For a moment, this corner of the world was in harmony, even as people and their differences brushed by one another as they went about their business. Was this a melting pot, a salad bowl, a symphony, or a mosaic of cultures? Maybe because I was cold, I thought that this moment was represented well by a stew analogy. A good stew starts with hearty ingredients that form the base: meat, fish, or plenty of vegetables; next, add wine, water, or stock, and let the dish simmer slowly; finally, season with herbs and spices for the perfect balance. The stew encompasses all the distinct flavors from the disparate ingredients to become a satisfying one-pot dish!

It must have been happenstance, as I returned home to a message from my Mauritian friend in Britain with a recipe for octopus stew. The recipe was perfectly light for a spring meal, but the stew was a warming dish to combat the chills.

There wasn’t any octopus available when I went to buy them, so I looked for similar flavors and textures (squid, cuttlefish, and octopus are in the same family with arms and bodies called mantles) amidst the seafood on display. I added mussels (my favorite seafood and besides, they have a bite to them) to complement the flavor and texture of squid. My modified version of the stew used 24 small mussels and 1lb squid.

Mauritian Octopus Stew

Serves 4

Octopus – 1 large, chopped into ½-inch pieces

Vegetable oil – 1 tablespoon

Shallot – 1, chopped

Garlic cloves – 2, sliced

Ginger – 2–inch piece, sliced

Red chilies – 3

Sprigs of thyme or curry leaves

Tomatoes – 8 large or 1 can

Coriander/cilantro – 1 bunch, chopped

Spring onions/Green onions – 3, chopped

Salt and pepper

  • Heat the oil in a pot.
  • Add the shallots and stir for a minute until it browns
  • Add the ginger, garlic, and chilies. Stir for a few seconds.
  • Add the herbs and tomatoes. Stir until the tomatoes are soft.
  • Add the octopus. Cover and cook until soft (about an hour). (I added the squid to the pot, along with ½ cup of the liquid from the steamer. I steamed the mussels separately. Squid cooks in about four minutes before it becomes rubbery and chewy.)
  • Season with salt and pepper.
  • Sprinkle the spring onions on top.

My friend suggested pairing the octopus stew with sautéed spinach.

To make this, fry 1 small chopped onion, 2 cloves of garlic, a 1-inch piece of chopped ginger, and three red chilies in about 1 tsp. of oil. Add a bag of spinach. Spinach cooks very quickly, releasing a lot of moisture; cook it uncovered at high heat for about two minutes or until the leaves wilt. Season with salt and pepper.

I was in the process of emptying out my fridge, so I used a bag of spinach, two boxes of mushrooms, garlic, ginger, and dried red chilies. It made for a substantial vegetarian side dish.


Stand-by Recipes

N.’s uncle pointed out that N. isn’t featured in the blog anymore!  It was a reminder to include recipes that are perfect for N. – quick unfussy meals that don’t require a stove (microwave works just fine) or exotic ingredients. If food is to be savored every day, whether it is a humble egg salad or a multi-step meat and vegetable stew, it is good to have a collection of stand-by recipes.

I use the stand-by recipes for any number of reasons: I am tired and don’t want to cook, I have to use up the eggs to make space in my fridge, I have an avocado that has ripened before I made my fancy salad, or I spot a previously frozen salmon filet on sale! Stand-by recipes have no measurements or rules; they simply exist to feed you well. My recent favorite is from my newest, oldest friend who shares her freshly made Gravlax with friends and even transports the frozen cured salmon across the country to her sons.


For a cleaned 1lb salmon filet, you will need about 3 tbsp. salt, 3 tbsp. sugar, fresh pepper, and lots of fresh dill.

  • Combine the salt, pepper and sugar, and while my friend moistens it with vodka to create a paste, you can use water.
  • Smear the fleshy side of salmon with the paste. Cover the entire salmon with dill.
  • Wrap it tightly in saran wrap. Place the salmon in a non-corrosive dish, like a Pyrex glass dish. Place weights (or soup cans) on top of the salmon.
  • Keep the salmon in the fridge for 2-3 days, turning it as often as you remember. Drain any liquid that has accumulated.
  • Remove the salmon from saran wrap and rinse off the dill and paste. It is ready to be eaten.
  • Slice it at an angle as thinly as possible.
  • Serve with toasted bagels or crackers.

Egg Salad

For about 3-4 eggs, you will need about 3 tbsp. of mayonnaise, ¼ tsp. dry yellow mustard powder, celery salt, and salt and pepper to taste.

  • Cook the eggs for 9 minutes in boiling water.
  • Remove shells and mash the eggs in a bowl.
  • Add mayonnaise, pepper, salt, mustard powder, and celery salt (or chopped celery) to the eggs. Mix gently.
  • Serve the egg on an open-faced sandwich or serve as a salad with chopped tomatoes and mixed greens.

Tuna Salad

For a 5-oz. can of tuna, you will need about 2 tbsp. mayonnaise, ¼ tsp. hot sauce, and salt and pepper to taste.

  • Drain the excess oil from a can of tuna.
  • Mix the tuna with 1-2 scallions (or shallots), mayonnaise, Tabasco (any hot sauce), salt, and pepper.
  • Add chopped tomatoes, and serve as a sandwich or with greens for a quick salad.

Avocado Salsa/Guacamole

For 1 avocado, you will need 1 chopped tomato, 1 chopped green chili (seeded, if preferred), and 1 tbsp. chopped red onion, fresh cilantro, and juice from ½ lemon.

  • Cut the avocado in half. Discard the pit and peel. Chop into bite-size pieces.
  • Add tomato, chili, red onion, cilantro, and lemon juice.
  • Add just enough salt to get the perfect tangy balance of salt-lemon flavor in the salsa.

Note: Overripe avocados do not make a good salsa — instead smoosh the cut side of the avocado on a slice of bread as they do in California delis. Pile on grilled or store-bought peppers and your favorite vegetables for an easy veggie sandwich.

Memories of Flavors

My grandmother, a wonderful cook, discouraged my mother to enter the kitchen, just as my mother did to me, and I to A. and N., so that each of us could study, have a career, and not be tied to the kitchen. Yet, we all found our way into the kitchen to experiment with cooking and develop our own flavors.

Today, as I remember my grandmother on the anniversary of her death, I remember her fish curry; the aromatic, creamy coconut sauce stirs up memories of lingering over discussions of the merits of river versus deep-sea fish. I have tweaked the recipe to use fish available locally. I made my fish curry with branzini, but the recipe works with any firm white fish (such as cod) or shrimp.

In the spirit of memories, I also remembered my friend’s Italian mother, whose recipe for meatballs I followed last week. As earthy smells of basil and tomatoes wafted in her NYC kitchen, the apartment echoed with her family’s conversations about the dinner we had just shared. A. has tweaked the all-beef meatball recipe and made her own with a combination of ground beef, veal, and pork.

We develop tastes to suit our tongues and noses, as well as through the memories that they evoke. In my experience, a dish you make repeatedly is the one that uses the simplest ingredients to capture memorable flavors. Have fun creating new memories!

Fish in Coconut Sauce

Fish (cod, branzini) or Shrimp – 1lb, washed

Onions – 1, peeled and chopped

Ginger – 2-inch, peeled and sliced

Garlic cloves, – 4, peeled and sliced

Tomatoes – 2 quartered

Serrano chilies/jalapeno – 3, chopped

Oil – 4 tbsp

Coriander powder – 1 tsp

Turmeric powder – ¼ tsp

Salt and pepper – 1 tsp

Coconut milk – ½ can

  • Heat the oil in a large pan or skillet.
  • Add the onions to the hot oil. Stir-fry until it browns.
  • Add the ginger, garlic, and chilies. Stir-fry until the garlic turns light brown.
  • Add the spice powders and stir-fry for a minute.
  • Add the tomatoes and once it softens, lower the heat.
  • Add the coconut milk plus a ½ can of water and
  • Lay the fish or shrimp on top of this creamy mixture.
  • Cook for about four minutes for the shrimp, and about 8 minutes for the fish.Image


Valentine’s Day is stressful for those who are in a relationship (the expectation of perfect romantic gestures – the card, the dinner, the flowers), as well as for those who are not in one (being subjected to the giddiness to all of the above!). But, the most important relationship that one has, lest we forget, is the one we have with ourselves.  Treat yourself kindly and cook yourself the best meal on Friday. Here is wishing you a Happy Valentine’s Day.

Scallops are decadent and easy to cook – a treat for yourself or one to impress your friends. Fresh scallops are in season right through to March. Flash-frozen scallops are just as good and are available year round – and they may be cheaper than the fresh alternative.

Scallops are sustainable seafood rich in Vitamin B12, magnesium and potassium, and are one way to get recommended Omega-3s. I usually sear scallops in olive oil, but if you are treating yourself at home, use a combination of butter and olive oil. Note that searing is a technique which simply means cooking at high temperature so that a crust forms on the surface of the food.

Serve scallops with a green salad, topped with dried cranberries, walnuts, goat cheese and beets. Alternatively, serve with steamed or sautéed vegetables.

Seared Scallops

4-5 per plate

  • Rinse the scallops in a colander. Fresh scallops may have some sand stuck to them.
  • Season with salt and pepper; adjust the salt if using salted butter.
  • Heat the pan until it becomes hot. Add just enough olive oil/butter mixture to lightly coat the pan.
  • Once the oil starts smoking, place a single layer of scallops into the hot oil. Leave them to cook for two minutes.
  • Turn the scallops over and sear for another two minutes.
  • Remove immediately and plate.


Ask the Chef: How to Clean and Devein Shrimp

This year, we incorporated the Italian Christmas Eve meal tradition of using seven fish into our holiday plans (upon A’s suggestion and some timely New York Times recipes). One of the dishes was roast shrimp with aioli (see the NYT recipe here) Preparing this feast meant that A. and N. had to look closely at the fish and shellfish that we were planning to use, and it turns out that they had the most questions about the shrimp.

It is almost always cheaper to buy whole shrimp (look for shrimp with firm flesh) and clean it yourself. I devein the shrimp before cooking. My mother would also do the white vein on the underside, but I have noticed that most cooks do not bother with this step.

How to clean shrimp:

  • Hold the shrimp with its head between your dominant thumb and two fingers, and yank firmly away from your body. Its shell should come off cleanly.
  • Next, position the tail between the dominant fingers and pull away from your body with a firm tug.
  • Remove the legs and all the other shells


  • Turn the body so that the curved side faces you
  • Use a small, sharp knife and run it a quarter inch below the flesh
  • Carefully remove the black/brown string-like vein that runs the length of the skin
  • Rinse the shrimp.