The Real Meaning of Comfort Food

When life around you tumbles into chaos, some might argue that cooking is not always the wisest course of action.  My response to them would probably be something approximating, “Well, you’ve got to eat, don’t you?” 
That was pretty much the case this weekend.  On Friday, I made a quick dash to the store to pick up a few remaining items necessary to prepare a sultry Moroccan ragu of pork, onion, carrots, butternut squash, chickpeas, enriched with layers of aromatics and sweet spices― all simmered into a state of lush complexity.   

Back at home, it was pretty clear that I had a problem with my kitchen sink.  When the faucet was on, water flowed from under the sink onto the floor.   Once I determined the water was no longer gushing, I placed a pan under the sink, mopped up my mess, and debated my next step. Living out in the country is wonderful, but there are a few drawbacks.  Such as: calling the plumber late on a Friday.   Additional scheduling time plus higher house call fees always give me pause.      


I sent up an SOS to my neighbor, Gerald, our resident handyman.   As long as I didn’t run water, we agreed that there was no great emergency; he would stop by in the morning with his wrench and we would assess the situation then.    

So much for any big cooking plans; they were squelched for the night.  Still in damage control mode, I decided to keep a lid on making any more of a mess than necessary and opted for a simple veggie burger dinner from the freezer.

In the morning, before Gerald arrived, I warmed a loaf of whole wheat soda bread from the freezer,  set out a charming bowl of muscadine jelly, a ramekin of butter, napkins, plates, coffee cups and juice glasses.   Just looking at it made me happy! Yes, food is very therapeutic.     
Meanwhile, since my urge to cook was percolating up again, it seemed like the ideal opportunity to begin simmering a pot of chicken stock.   From the freezer, I pulled out a recently frozen roasted chicken, dropped it in a pot of water, and got it simmering on the stove.  What better to time to prep the basic ragu vegetables than while adding the trimmings to the pot?  In went a rib of celery, a pinch of thyme, and a bay leaf, too.   There!  The vegetables were all prepped, tucked back in the fridge, and ready when needed.  Simmering on the back of the stove, the stock smelled divine.  All was well.   
It also looked like it I could quickly conjure up the Moroccan pork marinade.  In a blink I had a heavenly blend of ground coriander, cumin, ginger, turmeric, paprika, and pepper, all bound with a hint of lemon juice and a dash of olive oil.   Mmmm, what a mood elevator!
 At the market earlier, I had elected to decrease the usual 1-1/2 lbs. boneless pork for a ¾ pound slice of tenderized pork plus a package of sliced cremini mushrooms.  Such a small amount, I might as well cut the pork into cubes add it to the marinade, and store it in a zip lock bag.  Then, I gave it all a good massage and popped it in the fridge.    No muss, no fuss; another step done.  

Gerald arrived to a spotless kitchen; we put our heads together, and got to assessing the situation.   Yes, it looked like a clogged drain alright, but peering under the sink he spotted other issues that looked questionable― albeit easily remedied.   Waving his arms wildly, he put forth possible scenarios.   More tools required, more mop up, the day dragged on; the kitchen was slowly unraveling.  By late afternoon, the situation had worsened and Gerald was flummoxed.  When the faucet was on, the sink leaked more than ever and water now gushed from an errant hose onto the kitchen floor.   I thanked Gerald for all his help (sigh) as he dashed out the door shaking his head.  He had football games ahead and a big screen waiting for him at home.   

It looked like I had no choice but to call in the plumber; but not today.   I surmised I was safe as long as I didn’t run water in the sink.  I had Moroccan ragu in my future and tomorrow was another day.

Notes about the recipe:  this is a very adaptable concept.  As mentioned, I substituted cremini mushrooms for part of the pork.  Preserved lemons are on my hit list, but for now, I used the lemon as indicated, plus I included the lemon remains to the ragu as it simmered. I also added 2 to 3 cups of chopped chard from the garden with the return of the pork.  Since my ragu had plenty of liquid when done, I thickened it with 2 tablespoons instant tapioca pearls.  It proved to be outstanding thickener. I served it over a simple couscous seasoned lightly with fresh ginger and a bay leaf.  Bliss in a bowl.

Moroccan-Flavored Ragu with Pork and Winter Squash

Adapted from Eating Well

  • 2 lemons
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
  • 2 teaspoons paprika, preferably Hungarian
  • 1 teaspoon ground turmeric
  • 1 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground, plus 1 pinch, divided
  • 1 1/2 pounds boneless pork chops, (1 inch thick), trimmed of fat, cut into 1-inch cubes
  • 14 ounces chicken broth
  • 1 cup butternut squash, peeled and diced (1/2-inch dice)
  • 1 cup carrots, sliced (1/2 inch thick)
  • 1 cup canned chickpeas, rinsed
  • 1/2 cup onion, chopped
  • 1/2 cup canned diced tomatoes
  • 2 tablespoons preserved lemon, chopped rinsed, (see Note; optional)
  • 1 tablespoon tomato paste
  • 2 teaspoons minced garlic
  • 1/4 teaspoon hot sauce, such as Tabasco
  • 1 Pinch ground cinnamon
  • 1 Pinch ground allspice
  1. Zest and juice the lemon(s) to get 1 tablespoon zest and 2 tablespoons juice; reserve the zest. Combine the juice, 1/2 teaspoon oil, paprika, turmeric, coriander, cumin, pepper and 1/4 teaspoon ginger in a medium bowl. Add pork; stir to coat. Marinate in the refrigerator for 30 minutes or up to 4 hours.
  2. Heat the remaining 2 teaspoons oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add the pork and cook, stirring, until no longer pink on the outside and beginning to brown, 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer the pork to a plate.
  3. To the pan, add broth, squash, carrots, chickpeas, onion, tomatoes, preserved lemon (if using), tomato paste, garlic, hot sauce, cinnamon, allspice, the reserved lemon zest and the remaining pinch of ginger to the pan. Bring to a boil, stirring occasionally; reduce heat to a simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are tender, 20 to 30 minutes.
  4. Stir in the pork, return to a simmer and cook, stirring, until the pork is just cooked through, 2 to 5 minutes more. Serve over couscous, bulgur or rice, and garnish with a blend of 1/4 cup chopped cilantro, 2 tablespoons chopped scallions and 1 tablespoon chopped mint.

Summer Time Pizza

I love summer pizza when sun ripe herbs and vegetables are at their peak.  Here is a sublime version we recently devoured that is crowned with a glorious tomato-basil salad.

Basil, oh Basil!

 As I pulled the pizza from the oven, the heady aroma of garlic, basil, and cheese was almost too much to bear. Fortunately there is little down time since the last minute topping of the flavorful lemony-dressed arugula salad is ready and waiting.   

We were so into enjoying the pizza that we did not even spare the time to snap a photo of this beauty. Trust me, it is both beautiful and delicious.

The fact is, this yummy pizza is all about the pesto, and amazingly, it seems I have previously failed to provide a recipe for it. 

So, if pesto making is on your horizon,  now is the time to find a good supply of fresh basil, pull out the blender or food processor, and give this one a whirl. The pine nuts are not essential, but they greatly enhance the pesto and provide the mysterious smoky ingredient that binds the texture and flavors of the olive oil, basil, garlic and Parmesan cheese.  Enjoy!

Summer Pizza topped with Tomato-Basil Salad

·         1 Pizza Crust, prebaked
·         1/3 cup fresh pesto (see below)
·         2 roasted red peppers, skinned and seeded, cut into strips
·         ½ large sweet onion, such as Walla Walla, peeled and cut into strips
·         1 cup grated melting cheese such as mozzarella or Muenster, divided
·         2 oz. dry Coppa or prosciutto ham, cut into strips
·         1/3 cup Parmesan cheese grated
·         1 ½  cups sliced baby tomatoes
·         18 or more arugula or romaine leaves cut into thin strips (about 3 cups)
·         1/3 cup fresh basil, julienned
·         juice of ½ lemon (about 2 Tbsps.)
·         1 clove garlic, crushed
·         ½ tsp. Dijon mustard
·         ¼ tsp. salt and pepper, each
·         2 tbsp. grated Parmesan cheese, divided
·         1/3 cup olive oil
For the Pizza:
1.       Spread the crust with a thin film of of pesto.
2.       Cover the pesto with a  layer of onions, then the red pepper.  Sprinkle the vegetables with half of the mozzarella or Muenster.
3.       Top the cheese with a layer of Coppa strips, then the remaining cheese, and finally the Parmesan.
4.       Bake in 425 degree oven for 8-10 minutes or until cheese begins to bubble and brown.
Allow to cool slightly before cutting.
For the Salad and Dressing:
1.       For dressing, in a small jar combine the lemon juice through 1 Tbsp. Parmesan.  Add the olive oil and shake until thick.  The dressing can be made ahead. 
2.       Shortly before serving, place tomatoes, lettuce and basil in a bowl.
To assemble pizza, toss the salad with the dressing until well coated.
Spread the pizza with tomato-arugula salad or drape individual pizza slices with a spoonful of the salad. Sprinkle with remaining 1 Tbsp. Parmesan cheese and serve. Serves 2, or more, maybe.

Pinoli Pesto  

·         2 heaping cups basil leaves, stems removed; washed and dried
·         2-3 cloves garlic, sliced
·         ½  tsp. salt
·         ¼  tsp. black pepper or red pepper flakes
·         1/3  cup pine nuts, toasted
·         1/3 cup Parmesan cheese, freshly grated
·         2/3 cup olive oil
Place all except olive oil in container of blender.  Slowly add the olive oil and blend until all leaves are incorporated and pesto is thick, with a slight grainy consistency.  Yield:  1 cup.  Store in refrigerator. 

A Complete Life

When it comes to life’s pleasures―and food is surely one of them, my life is far richer when there is an herb garden planted nearby.  I’ve learned it doesn’t have to be much, but there is something hugely fulfilling about kneeling amongst fresh herbs and gathering a supply to complement my cooking.  
The smell of the earth combined with the scent of freshly cut herbs restores me.   I love the perfume left behind on my skin from the oils of their bruised leaves.  On my kitchen sink, a small vase of herbs further inspires me; it brightens the space and continues to welcome all who enter. 
When I’ve lived in cold climates sage and rosemary were enough to sustain me.  In tropical locales, basil and perhaps cilantro were often my regulars.  Now, in a moderate region, I’m very fortunate to have a well rounded supply of oregano, chives, rosemary, summer and winter savory, English and lemon thyme, and purple and yellow sage.  A few of the tougher ones survive winter’s rain and snow, while fragile chives and some of the thyme, hunker in and return again when it warms up.   
Recently the thyme, savory, and oregano began going to seed.  It was time to do a quick thinning and cut them back before they became too leggy and awkward.  While I was at it, I cut everyone back and brought the residual crop inside to dry.  I laid it all out on sheet pans for a couple of days to begin the processthen moved it all to a large bowl and lightly covered it to further dry. 
This herb blend has become a real staple in my kitchen.  It may vary slightly depending on amounts and varieties used, but it is always surprisingly similar.  The winter savory, sage, and rosemary give it deep aromatic complexity while the thyme, summer savory, and oregano balance and brighten it.  Amazingly, all these unique elements seem to come together and create a distinct flavor and scent. 
I’ve always been a big herb salt fan and it didn’t take me long to figure out it was time to make my own.  Since then, herb salt has become a regular and recognizable part of my cooking.   I have resorted to regularly creating a similar blend with kosher salt.  I jazz it up a bit for gifts and special occasions by including unique grades of sea salt such as pink Himalayan or a fleur de sel.    

This herb salt blend has become my standard for sprinkling on eggs, pizza and in mixed salad dressings.  When roasting, it is my go-to seasoning for chicken and fish.  

I wish you could smell my latest batch of herbal salt.   There’s a slight whiff of pine trees and desert trails, lush floral notes, and lilting wafts of citrus. It is crazy that a jar of herbs and salt could anchor me to the land and resonate of the hills and valleys that surround me. 

Yes, it’s true, though; my herb salt blend actually does provide an identifiable sense of place. 

Lavender Lustfest

This past weekend was the annual Oregon Lavender Festival and Tour. Admittedly, I have been under the spell of lavender since my first trip to the Mediterranean when I first experienced the dazzling fields of lavender and the heady passion it evokes.
It’s a bit of paradaox – this zeal that lavender generates – because lavender is most known as a calming restorative. I have no idea how a cat feels when it’s under the influence of catnip, but I suspect it must be something similar to the affect that lavender has on me. One whiff of that fabulous ethereal scent – my senses sharpen and I’m lightheaded all at the same time. Bam! Right between the eyes, I am blissfully transported. So, why wouldn’t I want more of that?
Judging from the farms and cottage industries that are springing up all over the state, lavender is becoming big business in Oregon. There are about 25 sites – each catering to their particular locale and clientele. Who knew? Some are nursery based selling as many as 100 different varieties; then there are lavender u-picks, production tours, gift shops, workshops – even wedding and event venues for up to 500.

As in France, lavender and wine seem to make good neighborly partners in Oregon. Many of our lavender growers have discovered the financial benefits of this association and market themselves as such. Of course, artists are attracted to this environment, too; so by way of this mutual interest and support, there is a fascinating collective developing.

In my own yard, I have 3 different types, including a rogue yellow variety. With my last bumper crop I dried a good supply and have had fun experimenting with it. I made a truly memorable lavender hazelnut shortbread; and it turns out that lavender and chocolate create quite a symbiotic combination, so of course, lavender brownies are essential for my chocolate loving friends.

I’ve tinkered with lavender syrup – and keep a bottle stashed in the fridge to drizzle over desserts and flavor drinks. I discovered lavender and mint are lively partners and perfect in a summer cooler with a muddle of mint, a shot of lavender syrup, and a spritz of lemon scented sparkling water.
Lavender-Mint Spritzer
2 sprigs fresh mint
1-2 Tbsp. lavender syrup, or to taste ( follows)
Lemon Scented Sparkling Water
Wedge lemon or lime
In a tall glass, place on sprig mint in bottom which has been pressed between fingers. Add syrup and muddle with mint to release the mint flavor. Fill the glass with ice, add a wedge of lemon and squeeze over the ice. Pour lemon scented sparkling water to fill the glass and give a stir with spoon. Garnish with 2nd mint sprig. Serves 1 ~~
Lavender Syrup
Inspired by Herbal Palate by Oster and Gilbertie
1 cup lavender leaves or flowers
3 cups water
1 cup sugar
Infuse boiling water with herbs. Steep 30 minutes and strain. Return infusion to pan; add sugar and boil 10 minutes. Cool and store in refrigerator.

Lavender Highlights

The lovely tall arched blossom wands of my lavender plants have been winking and waving at me lately with their most seductive “come hither” look. It’s their last hurrah of the season and they want to be memorialized, not left high and dry.

In that spirit, I went online and visited a few of my fellow food writers and bloggers to see what they were doing with lavender. Over at, an Italian Lavender Honey Spice Cake caught my attention; I’ve always been a sucker for French honey spice cake. Another promising idea for Lavender Syrup, came from

Lavender honey is luscious, but not this time around I mused; so why not create lavender syrup and drizzle it over the cake after it is baked? Thus, evolved Prune and Fennel Tea Bread Laced with Lavender Syrup, a dense loaf scattered with dried plums and toasted hazelnuts. It’s a far cry from the Lavender Honey Spice Cake, but it was my starting point, and I appreciate the impetus. However, it is similar to the honey cake in that it improves with age. If you can bear it, wrap the loaf tightly and let it rest in the fridge a day or two to allow the flavors to meld; it’s well worth the wait. Try it in the afternoon with a cup of Earl Grey Tea.

I have some thoughts on Lavender Syrup. Lavender is known for its therapeutic and medicinal qualities, and can become seriously intense when overdone. This particular syrup is well balanced and intoxicatingly mild. It’s so enjoyable, that I have concocted a refreshing cooler which takes advantage of my current supply of Lavender Syrup: in a glass, muddle 1-2 Tbsp. Lavender Syrup and a sprig of mint, add ice and top it off with Sparkling Water with Lemon Essence.

Prune and Fennel Tea Bread Laced with Lavender Syrup
1/2 cup prunes (dried plums), about 10 large, seeded & lightly chop
1/4 cup hazelnuts, chopped, toasted
1 tablespoon fennel seeds, toasted
1 1/2 cups flour, optional: substitute 1/2 cup wheat flour
1/2 cup cornmeal
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon allspice
2 large eggs
2/3 cup sugar
2 tablespoons butter, melted, cooled
2 tablespoons olive oil or vegetable oil
1/2 cup yogurt, or sour milk
1 teaspoon vanilla or almond extract
1/2 cup Lavender Syrup (see below)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray 9×5″ loaf pan.

Combine prunes, nuts and fennel and set aside. Combine dry ingredients thru allspice and set aside.

In a mixing bowl, lightly beat eggs, then whisk in sugar until light. Whisk in melted butter, then the oil. Stir in 1/3 of the dry ingredients, then 1/2 of the combined yogurt and vanilla. Stir in another 1/3 of the dry, then the remaining milk and vanilla. Add the final dry ingredients and the fruit and nut mixture. Spread into loaf pan and bake 50-60 minutes until golden and pick inserted comes out clean.

Let the loaf stand briefly, then poke the loaf with a skewer. Slowly drizzle the syrup over the loaf. Let stand 10-15 minutes to allow syrup to soak in and remove the cake from pan. Cool on rack.

Wrapped well, this cake improves with age; if possible, allow the flavors to blend at a least a day or two.

Lavender Syrup
Inspired by
2 cups water
1 cup sugar
2-3 tablespoons lavender leaves or flowers
dash vanilla extract

Bring water and sugar to a boil, stir to dissolve, and simmer to thicken slightly, about 30 minutes.

Add lavender to syrup, remove from heat and let stand about 15 minutes; reheat to just below boiling point again and let stand about 15 minutes, repeat one more time, remove from heat and stir in vanilla; allow to steep until cool. Strain into bottle. Add a clean long stem of lavender for decoration if desired. Store in fridge. Let stand a couple of days before using.

Note: Culinary lavender may also be found at

Lavender State of Mind

Ever since my stint on the French Riviera a few years back I have been smitten by lavender. The Mediterranean heat and soil create the perfect growing conditions for its cultivation, and I vividly recall romantic fields of lavender artfully brushed about the countryside. The markets were redolent with its fresh green scent, too. I’m still transported by anything even remotely related to lavender, from sachets and dried arrangements to colorful Provencal fabrics.

On my return home I tried growing lavender, but sadly South Florida was not the South of France. To my elation I discovered it grows very well here in Oregon and have wasted very little time in planting two varieties: a yellow and a blue-purple. I’m told lavender can be slow to bloom in its first year, so I’ve been happy to fuss over them like a doting parent, just happy they are there: growing chubby and sending up a few colorful blooms.

One day this summer on a visit to my local farm stand, I spotted huge bouquets of lavender; apparently a bumper crop shared by a local grower. I was beside myself with excitement: the idea of having such a huge amount at my disposal! I gathered up the biggest bunch possible and buried my nose in the center of this blissful purple haze! Heavenly! My own catnip!

Now, really. I needed more information; why was I so undone by lavender?
I learned that it has a long association with love and is considered an aphrodisiac. It has great healing qualities and is used in antiseptics. And how about some of the folklore claims: back in the Dark Ages it was considered an embalming aid for corpses; and mystics still recommend it for clearing rooms of evil spirits.
Well, there you have it, Nature’s insurance policy. With lavender nearby, all my bases are surely covered!

Today lavender is as popular as ever and is practically a household word; it’s ultra-clean scent is in laundry detergents, household cleansers and body products. If that’s not enough, it is used to induce sleep, ease stress and relieve depression. It is also used as a tea, to make compresses for dressing wounds and to apply to the forehead to relieve congestion on sinuses, headaches, hangovers, tiredness, tension and exhaustion. Personally, I can vouch for its calming and uplifting qualities!
Suffice to say, it’s been quite the relaxed lavender summer; with all my puttering I managed to whip through my entire supply except for one small dried bouquet. This past week with the change of seasons approaching, it was cooler and time to bake. Again, I had lavender on my mind.
Here is my favorite biscotti recipe which includes cornmeal and usually fennel seeds for flavoring. I’ve substituted lavender instead – its delicate perfume provides an exquisite complement. This cookie is especially delicious with Earl Grey tea for dipping.

Lavender Hazelnut Biscotti

3/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup butter, melted
1 tablespoon orange juice
1 teaspoon vanilla
3 eggs
1 3/4 cups flour
1 cup yellow cornmeal
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 tablespoon lavender buds, heaping
1 cup hazelnuts, coarse chop

In a mixing bowl, mix sugar, butter, orange juice and vanilla, beat in the eggs.

Separately combine dry items and stir into sugar mixture. Stir in lavender and nuts. Cover and chill until firm, 2 to 3 hours.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees line a cookie sheet with parchment or silpat. Shape dough on sheets into long flat loaves, about 1 1/2″ wide. Place them 2″ apart, they will spread. Bake until light brown, about 20 minutes. Remove from oven and lower heat to 350 degrees.

Let cool to touch, and with serrated knife, slice into 1/2″ to 3/4″ thick diagonal slices. Place cut sides down on pans. Bake again, til lightly toasted, 15-18 minutes. Transfer rack to cool. Store airtight up to 3 weeks. Makes about 3 dozen. ~~

Aroma Therapy

Odors and scents catch my attention immediately, frequently without any particular awareness on my part. Clearly, the years of professional cooking and multi-tasking in the kitchen have enhanced and refined my sense of smell. The ‘whiff test’, an essential component in my own culinary tool box, can be the crucial step in averting potential disaster or simply keeping me on track. If food is on the edge of burning, that horrid acrid smell is a toe-curling alarm. In baking with chocolate for example, each degree of doneness has its own fabulous set of aromas. And there’s nothing is better than the perfume of a perfectly ripe peach.

In my new home I am completely captivated by all the deliriously heady fragrances emanating from my hillside and garden. I love deeply inhaling the pungent woodsy odor of our tall elegant cedar trees, each new rose offers its own personal sweetness, and I’m enthralled by the incredible vitality and freshness of lavender. A snip here and snip there, into the kitchen they come and soon the sublime scents of nature waft throughout the house.

As my picked bounties fade all too fast I begin pondering ways to savor them longer, to preserve them. I carefully lay snippets of flowers and herbs about to dry and it’s not long before I have petals and bouquets everywhere. I really need to get this under control.

Voila! Good Fortune arrives via Goodwill in the form of a food dehydrator, sans owners manual.

On line research, input from friends, repeated trial and error, slowly I develop a rhythm of harvesting and drying my lovelies. Obvious here, potpourri is the next magical step in this mysterious escapade. Back to Goodwill, one large storage jar later and I’m in business, all these mystical components merge into a fledgling concoction with personality and character. She is named appropriately after her motherland, Vida Lea Potpourri.
I harvest glorious lavender and decide it is most definitely one of the key elements in my potpourri. I watch the rose bushes like a predator, waiting for the perfect time to capture their essence. In a heart beat lavish bouquets evaporate into small piles of dried petals. I spot tiny cedar cones sprinkled about the yard and gather them up, but hold them in abeyance, hoping for larger prototypes as time goes by. I pluck tendrils of sage which flourishes here, this provocative, musky element is an excellent addition. More dimension is still needed and I invite a few extraneous renegades – mandarin orange peel from Australia and cinnamon bark from my local Market of Choice (!).

Another learning curve, I’m gleaning old collectible cook books and discover that back in the day, essential oils and orris root were used in potpourris to boost and stabilize their scent. I consult my friend Kathleen from my local Farmers Market, who also owns Pioneer Natural Soap Company and specializes in botanical products for the home. Together we create a unique oil blend especially for Vida Lea Potpourri.

I add our oil blend and once a day give the potpourri a good shake to distribute the fragrance. The curing procedure will go on for several weeks before it is completely set. I smile at this remarkable abstract of nature in a jar – a richly scented myriad of colorful shapes and textures. Pure ambrosia.

But wait! There’s an added benefit: by adding our signature oil blend to distilled water, I have instant Vida Lea Aroma Spray! My own personal cloud of lavender, cedar, rose, citrus and cinnamon for linens, beds and clothes!

In theory, it would have been faster and easier to simply dash out and grab a bag or a bottle at the store. Then again, it is all about the process.