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I’ve loved butternut squash since I first encountered it as a kid growing up in southern New England. My father, skilled at farming, tried the then new vegetable in our family garden, where I used to tag along and “help.” Butternut seed had just become available about 1950 (please don’t do the math), and butternut quickly replaced the traditional Hubbard as the favorite winter squash. Butternut is now grown throughout the world because of its excellent eating and storing qualities.

As its name indicates, the squash is both buttery and nutty in flavor. These features are most pronounced when the fruits are fully mature, with the skin thick and uniformly tan and the stem hard and dry. The flesh is then rich orange and sweet. Its luscious intensity is further enhanced by baking.

Not exactly a “heritage” or “heirloom” variety, butternut (Cucurbita moschata) was actually developed by an amateur farmer, Charles A. Leggett, in Stow, Mass., in the mid-1940s, reportedly by crossing old fashioned gooseneck squash and pumpkin varieties. The name “Waltham,” which became associated with butternut, is the location of the University of Massachusetts Agricultural Experiment Station where Mr. Leggett brought his new vegetable. A researcher there worked with the squash and standardized it.

Where I grew up, we ate most winter squash boiled, mashed, and slathered with butter, or occasionally baked with brown sugar or maple syrup, butter, and spices. My mother was a skilled cook but who, with four kids, didn’t spend time on complex dishes (“if it takes more than one bowl or one pot it’s too fussy”). By contrast, I’ve made soups with butternut, as well as curries, gratins, ravioli filling, other pasta, and rice dishes, and even a roasted butternut salad.

Here is an evocative favorite for the fall season, roasted butternut soup. It is not too difficult and shows the squash off to advantage.

The recipe serves six, but extra soup stores well and seems even better after a day or two. While typically served hot, butternut soup can also be eaten cold like its non-relative, gazpacho.

Roasted Butternut Squash Soup

Ingredients:

  • 1 large or 2 medium butternut squash (about 2 pounds), ideally ripe and hard
  • 1 small onion, finely diced
  • A 6-inch piece of celery, finely diced
  • 6 tablespoons butter
  • 5 cups chicken broth (low salt) or vegetable broth
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt plus more to taste
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon oregano
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • A small pinch of ground cloves
  • (3 tablespoons cashew butter or ground cashews, optional)
  • Minced parsley or tiny sprouts (leafy parts) for garnish

Directions:

Set oven for 350 degrees.

Cut butternut in half lengthwise and scoop out the seeds. Place squash, cut side up, on a baking sheet and roast it until tender when pierced with a toothpick. Let cool.

Meanwhile prepare the onion and celery and fry them gently in the butter using the pot in which you will make the soup. Stir frequently and fry until the vegetables are tender but not browned. Remove from the heat.

When the baked butternut is cooled somewhat, scoop all the flesh out from the skin. Place it, along with the fried onion-celery mixture and its butter in a food processor or blender (this may need to be in two batches), adding a little of the chicken or vegetable broth. Puree the mixture. Transfer it back into the pot. Add the remainder of the broth, the salt and spices (and cashew butter if used). Simmer for 4-5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Taste for salt, and add a little, if needed, to taste. The soup can be served now or refrigerated and served hot – or cold – later. Garnish with a little finely minced parsley or tiny leaves from baby sprouts.

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While summer may bring heat and humidity, it also brings wonderful fresh vegetables. The Athens Farmers Market (Saturday mornings at Bishop Park, Wednesday evenings at Creature Comforts) bursts then with beautiful, local, organic seasonal produce.

The sunny southeastern French region of Provence, once a Roman “provincia” and later a “province” under the French monarchy, has some of the country’s most delightful summer vegetables, and cooking. It also, of course, boasts glamorous Riviera beaches, yachts, vanishingly clad sunbathers, and a glitzy film festival.

One Provençal dish, culinary that is, stands out like bright sunshine. Ratatouille [ra-ta-TOO-ee] virtually screams “summer.” Profoundly Mediterranean, ratatouille is as deliciously complex as it is boldly colorful. The dish dates back to at least the 18th century in Nice. Its name, from Old Provençal, means a stirred-up chunky stew.

Fresh vegetables are essential for this summer medley. Eggplant, zucchini, tomatoes, peppers, onions and garlic seem invariably present, as are capers, olive oil and fresh herbs. The dish is totally vegetarian. Served hot, it is part of a dinner’s main course. At room temperature, it stands out in a summertime buffet.

Eggplant, a key component, harbors bitter juices and requires special treatment. The trick is soaking the cut-up eggplant in salted water before cooking to extract the bitterness. Ratatouille should be simmered only until the various vegetables are just done but still maintain texture. The recipe indicates cooking times and sequence of adding ingredients to the pan, but times will vary depending on the ripeness of the vegetables.

Wines go with Ratatouille quite naturally. The most Provençal summer pairing would be a cold, dry rosé, such as a Côtes de Provence, Côtes du Rhône or Costières de Nîmes. However, a mildly chilled light-bodied red such as a Beaujolais, or a well-chilled white like a Sauvignon Blanc, would also serve well.

Crusty French or Italian bread – baguette or ciabatta would be great – should accompany this dish to help mop up the luscious juices.


Tim Dondero is the Executive Chef at Donderos’ Kitchen, a family-owned and operated restaurant on North Milledge Ave. in Athens. He retired several years ago from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, where he was a medical epidemiologist. An enthusiastic life-long cook, he particularly enjoys preparing classic and international dishes, and has taught and written about food for many years. Many of Tim’s recipes, with brief background notes, can be found on his current blog Tim’s Special Recipes.


Ratatouille (Provençal Vegetable Medley)

  • 1 small-medium sized eggplant
  • 4 small zucchini
  • 1 medium red bell pepper
  • 1 medium onion
  • 1 large stalk celery
  • 2 medium-large tomatoes
  • 1 medium-large clove of garlic
  • 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus more for serving
  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon oregano
  • 1/4 teaspoon paprika
  • 1/8 teaspoon thyme
  • 1-inch sprig fresh rosemary leaves
  • Sea salt to taste
  • 2 tablespoons capers, drained
  • Juice of 1/2 lemon
  • 1/2 teaspoon sugar
  • 1 tablespoon fresh chopped parsley, plus more for garnish

Wash eggplant and slice off stem. Cut eggplant, including the skin, into 1-inch chunks. Soak 20-30 minutes in well-salted water to remove bitterness.

Cut zucchini crosswise into 1/2-inch slices. Core bell pepper and cut flesh into 1-inch squares. Chop onions coarsely. Cut celery into 1/2-inch lengths on a slight diagonal. Quarter tomatoes, push out seeds with your finger, and cut the flesh into 1/2-inch pieces. Mince garlic.

In a large frying pan or pot, heat olive oil and gently fry onion, stirring frequently, until translucent. Add garlic and celery. Fry gently, with frequent stirring, for 2 minutes. Drain eggplant pieces well and add them plus zucchini to pan. Stir and fry 2-3 minutes, adding a little water to keep from sticking.

Add bell pepper plus black pepper, oregano, paprika, thyme, rosemary, a half teaspoon salt and several tablespoons of water. Cover and simmer, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are becoming tender (15-20 min). Add tomatoes and a little more salt. When vegetables are firm-tender, stir in capers. Taste and if necessary add a little more salt. Remove from heat and stir in lemon juice, sugar and parsley.

Serve hot now or at room temperature later. When serving, top with a little olive oil and chopped parsley.

The recipe serves six generously.


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With spring here and fresh local vegetables bountiful at farmers’ markets, a classic pasta dish celebrates the season.

“Primavera” (“spring” in Italian), or correctly “alla primavera,” indicates that early vegetables dress the pasta, like asparagus, carrots, turnips, radishes, broccoli, spinach or peas. Heavier summer vegetable flavors –- tomato, pepper, eggplant, green beans — are avoided. “Spring,” however, does not necessarily mean “lite.” Pasta Primavera can be substantial.

The sauce is quick to cook, though it involves some prep. Almost any mixture of spring or early summer vegetables will work. Firmer ones, cut evenly, start the cooking. Then less firm ones are added. Finally, young spinach and tender peas, if used, are added, along with cream, seasonings, and cheese.

“Farfalle” pasta seems most appropriate. Literally “butterflies” in Italian (boringly, “bow-ties” in English), farfalle maintains the garden theme, and exudes the warm humor of Italian food names.

Which cheese to use is an individual choice. In northern Italy, Parmesan, a cows’ milk cheese, is more likely. In southern Italy, it would be Pecorino Romano, tangier and made from sheep’s milk. Having grown up around Sicilians, I prefer Romano. Since the cheese is important to the dish, it is best grated fresh from a chunk.

In Italy, small portions of pasta form a starter course for a dinner. In the American manner, a large serving of pasta is the main course.

Accompany Pasta Primavera with crusty bread, olive oil to dip it in, and a simple green salad. Because of the cheese, I would choose a light to medium-bodied, fairly dry red wine, like a Chianti, or Pinot Noir. The recipe serves six.

Pasta Primavera

  • 12 ounces “short” pasta, like bow-ties (“farfalle”) or penne
  • Choose 4 of the following vegetables, 1-1/2 cups each except for spinach: 1/2-inch-diced young carrots, turnips (peeled); quartered radishes; asparagus in 1-inch lengths; 1/2-inch flowerets of broccoli; young (or frozen) peas; 4 cups washed, coarsely cut young spinach
  • 1 small young onion, finely chopped
  • 1 clove garlic, finely minced
  • 1/4 cup coarsely chopped parsley
  • 1/2 teaspoon of any mixture of fresh herbs, finely minced
  • 1 cup coarsely grated Romano or Parmesan cheese plus extra for serving
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons salt, split
  • 1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1/8 teaspoon black pepper
  • Large pinch cayenne
  • 6 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1-1/4 cups half-and-half cream

Boil a gallon of water for pasta in large pot. Add 2 teaspoons salt. Let simmer, covered, until needed.

Prepare vegetables, onion, garlic, parsley, fresh herbs, and cheese. Mix 1 teaspoon salt plus the nutmeg. black pepper and cayenne in a cup.

Heat olive oil in large pan and briefly fry onion plus carrot, if used, plus 1/2 teaspoon salt for 2 minutes, stirring very frequently. Add turnip and/or radish, if used, and stir and fry for another minute. Add 4 tablespoons water, cover, and steam, stirring occasionally, until vegetables become tender (test by piercing with a toothpick). Add broccoli and/or asparagus, if used, plus another tablespoon or two of water. Cook one minute, covered, stirring occasionally.

Add half-and-half plus the salt and spice mixture. Bring to a boil. Add peas or spinach, if used, and return just to a boil, stirring. Remove from heat and stir in cheese and parsley. Keep warm and covered.

As vegetables cook, bring the salted pasta water back to full boil. Add pasta and stir immediately so pasta does not stick together. Cook, stirring frequently, until tender to the bite. Drain in colander and transfer, hot, to large serving bowl.

Add sauce plus cheese. Toss together. Taste and add salt if needed.

Serve with additional cheese. Serves six.

See this and other Tim Dondero recipes at Tim’s Special Recipes.

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Created in the early 19th century and named for Count Pavel Alexandrovich Stroganov, the last male scion of a rich and aristocratic Russian family for whom the creator, a French chef, worked, this dish became an international haute cuisine classic. The Franco-Russian treat combines the seared steak and Dijon mustard of French cuisine with the sour cream of Russia. And although the name of the Stroganov family’s chef is now lost, naming the creation for his patron was probably a wise career move. 

The alternate spelling “Stroganoff” (the original name is spelled in the Cyrillic, not Roman, alphabet) is used internationally for the dish. Some recipes use mushrooms and ketchup, others do not. But beef, onions, Dijon mustard and sour cream are essential. The other essential is that the strips of beef are fried quickly, part at a time, so they brown lightly, rather than stew. I use beef “flatiron” steak, but fancier cuts of tender lean beef can be used, up to and including tenderloin. 

The traditional accompaniment for the dish is “French” fried strips of potato. But rice and noodle dishes also go well. The recipe serves six. 

Get the recipe at Tim’s blog, Tim’s Special Recipes.

The Beef Stroganoff photographed on this page was made by Tim Dondero’s grandson August.

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Over the centuries, chefs have given their creations fanciful names to invoke the exotic, or occasionally the humorous, and to entice the jaded palate. A catchy title suggests the chef’s special knowledge, or at least a knowing wit. Several plausible ingredients worked into the dish enhance the alleged authenticity. Classics include Chinese Beggar’s Chicken, incased in wet clay that bakes to a brick-like shell, Spaghetti alla Putanesca (prostitute-style pasta), Shepherd’s Pie, Wine Merchant’s Sauce, and of course Strozza Preti, a charmingly twisted Italian pasta meaning “priest stranglers.” 

Hunters and hunting have often been invoked in cooking when game or the arrival of colder weather gave the excuse, sort of Woods-to-Table cuisine. Hunting and its mystique are as ancient as humankind, first using spears and slings, then bows and arrows, then crossbows, and finally shotguns and rifles. And hunting does at least generally produce food. Yet, since at least Roman times, hunting has also been a sport, and sometimes battlefield skills practice, of the nobility, the landed gentry and the idle rich. Oscar Wilde branded one such non-sustenance exercise, British fox hunting, as “the unspeakable in pursuit of the inedible.” 

Typically, foods attributed to hunting are rustic and hearty-flavored and contain meat. French cuisine includes hunter style (“chasseur”) beef, chicken, quail, sauce, and even crêpes. Italy has numerous “alla cacciatora” dishes.  Bavaria has “Landjäger (country hunter), a heavily smoked, dry sausage. Poland boasts Bigos, a hunter’s stew. Even the wonderful plum pudding that my New England Irish mother made every Christmas was called “Hunter’s Pudding” in the original Fannie Farmer Cookbook.

“Jägermeister” (master of the hunt) is the German herbal liqueur once fashionable here among young urbanites more likely to have driven their all-terrain vehicles to the bar than to the woods. That iconic Jägermeister label evokes St. Hubert, patron saint of hunters, a 7th century Frankish nobleman who, legend says, had a religious conversion when he beheld the Cross of Christ gleaming between the antlers of a stag he was about to shoot.

French “Poulet sauté Chasseur,” chicken cooked hunter’s style, is hearty and delightful in cold weather. The original rabbit or wild fowl for this type of dish was likely to have actually been hunted in the wild. The stew inevitably includes mushrooms, which the hunter, carrying his kill, would thoughtfully have gathered from the forest floor, plus tarragon and other fresh herbs that he picked along the path home. It’s unclear where our hunter found his cooking wine or tomato. But, hey, it’s French. Don’t push it.

Despite its fanciful name and dubious story, this classical French dish is delicious. Serve it with scalloped or au gratin potatoes or with buttered noodles. Add crusty bread, a simple green salad and a light-bodied red or hearty rosé wine. 

The recipe serves six. Bon appétit, bonne chasse!


Poulet Chasseur — French “Hunter-Style” Chicken 


4 pounds chicken thighs with skin and bones (or 2 pounds boneless, skinless thigh)
2 tablespoons flour (or 1-1/2 teaspoons cornstarch, if avoiding gluten)

Salt and pepper for seasoning the chicken

1 large carrot
1 large stick celery
1 medium onion
3/4 pound mushrooms
2 medium-large cloves garlic
3 tablespoons rendered chicken fat or olive oil
1/2 cup red wine
1 cup chicken broth, low salt 

1/2 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste

1/8 teaspoon black pepper

1 large bay leaf
3-inch piece of fresh rosemary or 1/2 teaspoon dried
2 tablespoon tomato paste (freeze the rest)

1 tablespoon finely chopped tarragon or parsley for finishing

For whole thighs, remove skin and excess fat. (Render the fat and skin if desired for cooking grease.) Cut thighs in half, through the bone, with a cleaver or heavy knife. If using boneless skinless thighs, cut them in half. Generously salt and pepper chicken pieces on both sides, then dust them with flour or cornstarch. Set aside.  


Dice peeled carrot, celery, onion, and mushrooms into 1/4-inch dice. (Alternatively, coarsely chop, separately, in a food processor.) Crush, peel, and mince garlic. 


In a large Dutch oven or casserole, heat the rendered chicken fat or olive oil to medium high. Saute part of the chicken at a time on both sides until golden and remove to a bowl. 

Then add a little more oil to the pan if necessary, and saute carrot, celery, onion, mushrooms and garlic, scraping bottom of pan frequently. When vegetables are softened and just beginning to brown, stir in the wine and cook it down slightly. Then add chicken broth and bring to a boil. Add 1/2 teaspoon of salt, the pepper, bay leaf, rosemary and tomato paste and fry 1/2 minute, stirring. 

Add previously cooked chicken and any juices. Stir to moisten, then simmer covered, stirring and scraping the bottom of the pan occasionally, until chicken is tender, 15 to 20 minutes. Add a little water if sauce becomes too dry. Taste sauce and add salt as needed.

Serve now, or cool, refrigerate, and reheat later. Check salt, and stir in most of the tarragon or parsley before serving. Dust the remainder on top. 

Tim Dondero is Executive Chef at Donderos’ Kitchen, and has a recipe blog at timdonderosrecipes.blogspot.com. He retired as an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control

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The region of Genoa, on the northwestern coast of Italy, is home to that great basil, garlic, cheese and pine nut sauce, “pesto,” called “pesto alla genovese” in Italian.

Genoa was also home to the navigator Christopher Columbus, who sailed for the Spanish Crown. We don’t know his food preferences. Less auspiciously, Genoa is also the ancestral home of the Donderos, including my great-grandfather, Joseph Francis Dondero, who sailed from there to America in the mid-19th century. His pesto recipe – if he had one – was not handed down through the family.

The name “pesto” comes from the Latin for “pounded” or “crushed,” since the ingredients were originally pounded together in a marble mortar and pestle. The word “pestle” has the same linguistic origin.

Despite variations, including a delicious Sicilian red “pesto rosso,” made from dried tomatoes and almonds, and an arugula pesto, basil-based pesto remains the classic. A milder but still authentic version, which I prefer, replaces 1/4 of that herb with fresh parsley. There is also a relative of pesto, “pistou,” in Provence, on the French Mediterranean coast near to Genoa. French pistou does not use pine nuts and may or may not contain cheese.

Ideally the basil for pesto should be young and of the large-leaved “Genovese” variety. In early June basil is at its peak in Georgia. As pine nuts (“pignoli”) are expensive, walnuts are sometimes substituted. (I also get a reaction to at least some pine nuts, which I used to love, with my taste being distorted to bitter for a week or two afterwards.) The cheese for pesto is traditionally either Pecorino Romano, Pecorino Sardo, or Parmesan.

Though better when freshly made, pesto can be refrigerated for up to a week. An added layer of olive oil over the surface slows the color from browning. If freezing pesto for later use, omit the cheese and add it just before serving.

A traditional pasta for pesto is “trenette,” long flat noodles often made with eggs. Fettuccini is an available substitute. In the region of Genoa, potato and green beans are sometimes cooked in with the pasta. Pesto is also served with potato gnocchi, which are little fork-scored dumplings, and sometimes with that charmingly named pasta, “strozza preti” — priest stranglers.

Traditionally, just before use, pesto is diluted with a little boiling water from the cooking pasta. The pasta is drained then tossed with the pesto in large serving bowl and topped with additional grated cheese.

The recipe makes enough dressed pasta for six people.

Pesto with Pasta

1-1/2 cups fresh basil leaves, lightly packed
1/2 cup parsley leaves, flat “Italian” type preferred, lightly packed
3 tablespoons pine nuts, or walnuts (lightly toasted – see below)
2 cloves garlic
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
5/8 cup grated Romano or Parmesan cheese, or a mixture, plus extra for garnish
Salt for boiling the pasta
2 medium potatoes, peeled and cut in 1/2-inch chunks
1/4 pound green beans (optional), cut in 1-inch lengths
1 pound fresh pasta, if available, or 12 ounces dry

Put basil, parsley, pine nuts or walnuts (toast walnuts about 3 minutes on a plate in the microwave), garlic, oil, and salt in a blender or food processor. Pulse it a number of times, scraping down the container with a spatula. Do not purée the herbs, but chop them until they are tiny specks. Remove the mixture to a bowl. Stir in the cheese.

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add 2 tablespoons salt. If using fresh pasta, which cooks more quickly, add potatoes and green beans if used, and bring water back to a boil. Add the fresh pasta and stir immediately so it does not stick together. If using dry pasta, add it, the potatoes and green beans, if used, together to the boiling water and stir immediately so pasta doesn’t stick together. Either way, let boil, stirring frequently. While pasta is cooking, remove 1/2 cup of the pasta-boiling water and stir it into the pesto.

When pasta is tender to the bite, drain it in a colander, shaking briefly, and transfer it to a large serving bowl. Toss pasta with the diluted pesto. Sprinkle with a little more cheese.

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Hailing Caesar

Named for Caesar and by Caesar at a place run by Caesar, the assertive Caesar Salad, composed of romaine lettuce and herbed croutons tossed with a rich anchovy aioli and sprinkled with shredded Parmesan, is a particular favorite in my family. But this classic is hardly from Ancient Rome. It was developed in the mid-1920s in … (wait for it) … Mexico.

Julius Caesar, the conquering Roman general who fought the Gallic Wars, subdued the Celtic Gauls, invaded Britain, and built a bridge over the Rhine River, subsequently returned to Rome and overthrew the Republic. He established what became the Roman Empire, with himself as “Dictator.” The title “Caesar” was assumed for centuries by the emperors who succeeded Caesar. By extension the name indicated the leadership of the Empire itself. (The Synoptic Gospels attribute to Jesus the skillfully pragmatic injunction, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s.”)

Long after the fall of Rome, the term “Caesar,” its spelling suitably transcribed, continued as a title of imperial leaders, from the “Kaisers” of Prussia to the “Tsars” of Russia. “Caesar” also became a popular, if aspirational, boy’s name, especially in Italy and Spain. And therein lies the connection between Julius Caesar and the conquering, classical salad that bears his name..

Chef and restaurateur Caesar Cardini, an Italian immigrant to Southern California, who clearly liked his name, created the hearty salad at his restaurant, Hotel Caesar in Tijuana, Mexico, and named the dish after himself. A few minutes’ drive across the Mexican border from San Diego, Caesar’s place in Tijuana was particularly popular with Californians in the 1920s, since there they could dodge the rigors of Prohibition. Caesar Salad became established first in Southern California, then in the country as a whole.

The salad has been through some modifications, and the dressing is generally no longer made fresh by hand aside the customer’s table. But the dressing’s common features still include mashed anchovy, garlic, olive oil, lemon juice, Dijon mustard and egg yolk. The salad ingredients are romaine lettuce, shavings of Parmigiano cheese, and toasted croutons.

Here is my version of Caesar Salad, with a simplified dressing that uses the egg already incorporated in mayonnaise rather than raw, or coddled, egg yolk.

The recipe serves six to eight, but extra dressing keeps for a few days refrigerated (and can also be used as a dip). Make the dressing before making the salad.

Dressing:

  • 1 cup “real” mayonnaise (such as Duke’s or Hellmann’s)
  • 2 teaspoons anchovy paste (use an extra teaspoon if desired, but reduce the salt in the recipe)
  • 1 medium-large clove garlic, put through a press or extremely finely minced
  • 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt (1/8 teaspoon if using the third teaspoon of anchovy paste)
  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

Place all ingredients except olive oil in a medium-sized bowl. Whisk everything together. While continuing to whisk, slowly drizzle in the olive oil until all is incorporated. Taste (the garlic will seem peppery for a few minutes) and add salt and/or lemon juice if needed.

Salad:

  • 2 medium heads romaine lettuce
  • 1/8 pound of solid Parmigiano/Parmesan cheese
  • 1 cup seasoned croutons

Cut lettuce into roughly 1-1/2 inch squares, rinse them in a colander then shake to drain. Transfer to a large salad bowl. Using a vegetable peeler, shave thin strips of cheese into the bowl.

Shortly before serving, toss lettuce and cheese shavings with sufficient dressing to moisten them well. Sprinkle with croutons and mix very briefly. Restaurants sometimes offer a few fresh grinds of black pepper as a topping.


Tim Dondero is the Executive Chef at Donderos’ Kitchen, a family-owned and operated restaurant on North Milledge Avenue in Athens. He retired several years ago from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, where he was a Medical Epidemiologist. An enthusiastic life-long cook, he particularly enjoys preparing classic and international dishes, and has taught and written about food for many years. Now living in Athens amongst his family, he occasionally writes for Boom Magazine. Many of Tim’s recipes, with brief background notes, can be found on his current blob Tim’s Special Recipes and in his previous, heavily international blog Jintanmanis.

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During the bizarre period since mid-March, with external activities crimped, I cooked a lot, gardened before the mosquitoes intervened, masked, distanced from most people, and traveled rarely. I’ll tell you about the cooking.

Before I retired as a medical epidemiologist at the CDC in Atlanta, I would have been engaged in the current public health emergency. Now, from a distance I’ve followed news, but mostly, I cooked.

Historically, self-isolation from epidemics has been creative for some. Michel de Montaigne, French Renaissance philosopher, diplomat and writer, reportedly created some of the “Essays” for which he became famous while sheltering away from the bubonic plague that decimated his city of Bordeaux, killing a third of its population. Shakespeare is thought to have written his fiercely gloomy “King Lear” while escaping from the plague of London. His theatre closed, it’s thought he may have completed “Macbeth” and “Anthony and Cleopatra” then as well. I, on the other hand, cooked.

Tim DonderoAt Donderos’ Kitchen, our family-owned Athens restaurant, I had typically busied myself with specialty cooking and Thursday “curry nights,” developed recipes, occasionally taught, filled in where needed, and shopped weekly in Atlanta for exotic ingredients. My son-in-law Andrew and daughter Anna managed it, and our cooks and bakers prepared the food. I enjoyed the more leisurely role of executive chef.

Overnight, in the third week in March, we had to pivot from dine-in. Suddenly it was carry-out and window service. The usual predominance of the “Line,” of customers ordering breakfast and lunch items, disappeared. So did our busy catering, as university and public events evaporated.

Customers came by—cautiously at first—to the window or, if masked, into the empty restaurant to buy our frozen soups, prepared dinner items and desserts, and maybe get a fresh coffee or baked good. At Andrew’s direction, we launched a daily fixed-menu, fixed-price dinner that could be ordered and paid for over the phone, with home delivery in the late afternoon. It grew quickly.

Cooking those delivery dinners, creating the ever-changing menu, and ordering ingredients became my daily tasks, along with making specialty items for the freezer. Our line cooks and some serving staff, unfortunately, had to be furloughed. Several of our already lean staff had to self-quarantine for a time following possible exposures elsewhere.

In mid-March, as most restaurant, bar and catering business crashed, the food wholesalers lost much of their business. Large stockpiles of perishables became unsellable. At Donderos’ we prepped and cooked up everything we could and froze it, hoping for a future turnaround. We distributed excess food to staff, family and neighbors. Our collegial cooking community offered each other their excess consumables. We were given milk and fresh orange juice from a friend’s suddenly closed coffee shop. That started our milkshake business – which is continuing.

Donderos spicesDespite reduced service, we still needed ingredients. Our principal distributor, having lost 80% of its business, had spotty supplies – too much of some things, none of others, and lots of food near expiration. With supply chains disrupted nationwide, people hoarded. Scarcities increased in the meat-processing industry and agricultural sector. My challenge was to find available produce of reasonable quality that we could work into our growing delivery and frozen dinner offerings and figure workarounds for suddenly unavailable ingredients. For safety, as I’m 79, I stopped my weekly shopping trips to Atlanta, and we tried to minimize Andrew’s trips. We stockpiled critical ingredients that risked running out.

My cooking changed for a while. I improvised dishes using available ingredients, like cabbage, pork butt, frozen ground turkey. I depended more on canned and frozen ingredients. Chicken became expensive and beef virtually unaffordable. Vegetable supplies and quality were unpredictable, as were fresh herbs. And as ginger root and my supplies of Asian seasonings ran low, I had to learn the merits, and demerits, of unfamiliar brands and substitutes. But cooking in large quantity on constantly changing menus taught me beneficial tricks as well as things to avoid.

Discerning customer preferences for delivered meals took a while. Contrary to our expectations, comfort foods like stews, meatloaf, and mac and cheese weren’t selling; Italian and pasta items sold poorly. Maybe people sheltering in place were already cooking these or got them elsewhere. But Indian, Thai and Eastern Mediterranean became our most popular dinners and freezer items. Repeatedly making curries of all kinds, which sold best, strengthened my skill with spicing. Complex Indian dishes require eight to twelve or more individual spices.

Happily, indoor dining is returning somewhat. Food shortages are largely past. Distributors again carry most products, and at pre-Covid prices. Shopping at wholesale clubs and supermarkets is less scary, now that masks are required. Our restaurant’s Line is more active with diners taking their food to outdoor picnic tables or to the screened porch.

During this period, I continued to cook at home as well. Before Covid we held weekly dinner night at our house for our three families plus several extended family members. In mid-March it all stopped. Family dinners became virtual. I still cooked but set out food on the porch in returnable containers for pick up. For several months I increased that to twice a week since our family members included two emergency room nurses and a labor and delivery nurse. Being at increased risk of Covid and then of passing it to family, they kept their distance. But with the stresses they faced and their critical importance in those early days, I felt it important to support them where I could, by providing interesting food. Finally, in mid-summer we got the grandkids once again for Tuesday night dinner and games, and provided carry-home food and time alone for their parents.

When the shutdown hit, I shopped much less, depending on younger family members, plus I bought ingredients through the restaurant. Home cooking was generally only for my wife and me. We ate many leftovers and played card games after dinner.

This has been an amazing year. I’ve worked more and cooked more than at any other time. I have explored many more dishes, and cooked in more volume than I was used to. I have learned substitutions. I think we have provided tasty house-made food to people who could not go out for dining or even shopping. We also have gained loyal and appreciative customers. For some restaurants, including ours, this challenging time means surviving if not prospering. We look forward to coming out of the disaster and disruption strong once again.

Crowd-pleasing Thai Red Curry with Chicken (Gaeng Ped Gai) is surprisingly easy to make

Donderos thai curry soupThis was the dish I taught at my first international cooking class in Atlanta many years ago, for “Evening at Emory.” The curry paste can be homemade (but it’s tedious and requires hard-to-find ingredients), or it can be purchased in cans at Asian food shops. Cooks in Thailand nowadays typically buy their curry pastes fresh from favorite market vendors rather than make them from scratch.

If you can get the ingredients (at Asian grocery stores, such as Fooks Foods in Athens, GA), making this curry is actually very easy, especially compared to Indian curries. Thai curries generally please American diners, as long as the pepper heat is considerably reduced from what is usual in Thailand.

The recipe will serve eight or more, but leftovers are treasured. Serve with unsalted rice, preferably jasmine rice.

2 1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breast

1/2 (4-ounce) can (or more) Thai red curry paste (freeze the rest for later use, wrapped in plastic)

1 tablespoon oil or chicken fat

1 can (14-ounce) unsweetened coconut milk (Thai)—shake well before opening

1 can of water or unseasoned chicken broth

1 (20-ounce, 10-11 ounces drained weight) can shredded bamboo shoots, drained

1 tablespoon Asian fish sauce, (available at Asian groceries), or 1 teaspoon salt1 tablespoon sugar

1 hot red chili pepper for garnish

8-10 sprigs fresh cilantro leaves for garnish

Trim chicken of tough or excess fatty portions. Place breasts flat on cutting board and slice cross-wise 1/8-inch thick, using a sharp knife.

Add a little oil (1-2 teaspoons) or chicken fat to a pot, and over low heat fry the curry paste, stirring very frequently, until fragrant and the oil separates out a little (1-1/2 to 2 minutes). Add half of the coconut milk and stir it in well. When combined and bubbling add remaining coconut milk and let the sauce return to a bubble. Increase heat and add the water or chicken broth. Add the drained bamboo shoots. Simmer for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Add about a tablespoon of fish sauce (or 1 teaspoon salt) plus a third of the chicken. Stir and as soon as color of the meat changes, add another third of the meat and stir. Similarly add the last third of the meat and stir until the color changes. Simmer about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Taste, and then add fish sauce or salt until just salty enough. Add sugar. Simmer 2 more minutes (do not overcook or the chicken will become dry). Remove from heat.

Taste the sauce and add a little fish sauce, salt or sugar as needed, making the sauce slightly salty (the chicken will continue to absorb some salt). The sauce should also have a slight sweetness. Let the curry sit at least 20 minutes (better overnight, in refrigerator).

Before serving, reheat gently (microwave or top of stove) with occasional stirring, just until it reaches a boil. Remove from heat. Serve the curry in an attractive shallow bowl garnished with thinly sliced red chili pepper plus picked-off cilantro leaves. Accompany with unsalted Jasmine rice (see my blog post on rice) and a stir-fried vegetable dish.


Check out Tim’s new recipe blog at timdonderosrecipes.blogspot.com. He has dozens of recipes with stories about the dishes and photographs.

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Despite its ominous name, meaning “bleeding” in Spanish, the Iberian wine punch “Sangría” is a cheery, even gentle, drink in warm weather. The congenially sanguine concoction typically features red wine, fruit and ice and is sometimes spiked with brandy or vodka.

Although the drink’s history is unclear, sangria appears to go back centuries as a simple mixture of wine with fruit in Spain and Portugal. Much earlier, combining wine with water and sometimes adding lemon or other fruit was a custom in Roman times. And Spain – then Hispania – was one of the Roman Empire’s major wine-producing regions. But wine was discouraged during the multi-century Moorish period in Medieval Spain, so there would not have been continuity with whatever Roman wine customs might previously have prevailed.

In any event, by the 20th century sangria was well established in Spain. The drink was so routine there
that one of Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar’s characters blandly adds Prozac into the blender
as she churns her mid-day sangria in the critically acclaimed 1988 black comedy-drama, “Women on the
Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.” Still, sangria was relatively unknown in the US until its introduction in
1964 at the Spanish Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair. Then for a few decades its American
popularity soared.

Strawberries, now ripening, make a luscious seasonal sangria. Citrus juice adds balance, and when that juice includes grapefruit it adds a subtle, complex bitterness as well. I enjoy herbal overtones in sangria. Mint, flourishing now, does well, as does fresh rosemary, a perennial in Athens.

The traditional sangria wine in Spain is red and made from the Tempranillo grape, most classically from the Rioja region. However, to complement the delicate flavor of strawberries I would use a combination of red and white wines. American bars, by the way, tend to use whatever’s left in already-open bottles to make their “Sangria Special.”

Young, inexpensive — but drinkable – wines, I think, are the way to go, like uncomplicated wines from Spain, Chile, or Australia. A fine wine’s subtleties are masked by the added fruit, herbs and sweetening. Save the good stuff for drinking on its own. Or, better yet, send it to me.

The recipe makes about 12 (6-ounce) servings, good for a party. A small punch bowl or a large glass pitcher presents sangria well.

Strawberry Sangria

1 (750 ml) bottle fruity red wine, such as Tempranillo or Merlot, chilled
1 (750 ml) bottle white wine, such as Sauvignon Blanc or (unoaked) Chardonnay, chilled
1/4 cup brandy or vodka, optional
2 tablespoons frozen grapefruit juice concentrate
3 tablespoons honey
6 (5-inch) sprigs fresh mint, rinsed, or 2 (3-inch) sprigs rosemary, rinsed – or both
1 small navel orange, organic preferred
1 pound strawberries, organic preferred
3 cups ice cubes
Fresh mint leaves for garnish

In a bowl combine the wines, distilled alcohol if used, grapefruit juice concentrate and honey. Stir to dissolve. Add fresh herbs. Scrub orange but do not peel. Slice crosswise 1/4-inch thick. Reserve 4 middle slices. Add the rest to wine mixture. Rinse and hull strawberries. Slice lengthwise 1/4-inch thick. Reserve a third of them and add remainder to wine mixture.

Allow the sangria to mellow for at least half an hour, refrigerated, stirring from time to time. Taste, and add a little more honey or grapefruit juice if needed for balance. Shortly before serving, strain the mixture into a small punch bowl or a large pitcher. Add the ice cubes and reserved fruit, cutting the orange slices in half.

Serve in wine glasses or small tumblers, putting several pieces of strawberry in each glass. Garnish the glass with a fresh mint leaf.

Salud!

Want to learn more about Tim Dondero before he became a restaurateur you can watch this documentary from Global Health Chronicles.