(acorn) squashing writer's block.

I was an English major. For me, this meant learning to navigate murky post-modern novels, while dissecting Shakespeare and writing decent papers. In my first semester, I heard two contradicting sentences uttered by my professors that altered my relationship with my pen.

Statement A: Philosophy Class. “The only thing I know is that I know nothing.” –Socrates

Statement B: Journalism Class. “Write what you know.”

Statement A rang very true for me. Usually, when you think you’ve figured it out, whatever it is, you find yourself back at square one, admitting that you, in fact, still need to figure it out and learn a little more. 

Statement B was downright scary. Write what I know, I thought. What do I want to devote myself to learning enough about, to know that I can write about it? I didn't know.

If I write what I know, and I know nothing, then I write nothing.

And that’s what happened, dear friends. For the next ten years, I put writing aside. Well, let me clarify. I wrote professionally about weddings and beauty products and other people. When it came to me, there was radio silence. The expansive white computer screen was intimidating beyond imagination. With every blink of the cursor, I was reminded that I was speechless.

But everyone has stories to tell.

Thankfully, I've learned that jumping head first into something is the best way to learn/cope/get out of your comfort zone. Dipping my toes in the water allows too much time to think about whether I'll sink or swim. So now, whether or not I feel inspired or chatty or creative, I write. It has to be total submersion or bust.

When a lack of inspiration strikes in the kitchen, this little all-in-one dish saves the day. 
The stalls at the farmer's market were looking a little sad this week, still offering the sloppy seconds of winter's produce: squash, root vegetables, onions. The stuffed acorn squash that ensued turned a bitterly cold day into a brighter one. The best part is that they can be assembled in advance with whatever vegetables you have on hand and baked off when you're ready to eat--comfort food at its best.

Roasted Acorn Squash with Parsnip Stuffing
Serves 4
2 acorn squash, halved with seeds and pulp removed
3 T. extra virgin olive oil
2 large parsnips, grated
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1 leek, white part only, thinly sliced
1 cup roasted broccoli florets
½ cup dried cranberries
½ cup toasted pecan pieces
Salt and pepper to taste
4 T. butter
¼ tsp. nutmeg
Pinch cinnamon
Minced chives to garnish
1/2 cup shredded fontina cheese (optional)

1.) Arrange squash halves cut side up on a sheet pan and drizzle with olive oil. Season with salt and pepper and roast at 350 degrees for 35 minutes, until cooked through.

2.) Heat a medium skillet and coat the bottom with olive oil. Add the leek and garlic and cook until softened, about 4 minutes. Add the broccoli and parsnips to the mixture and saute for 3 minutes--parsnips should be soft and golden, but not heavily browned. Stir in the pecans and cranberries. Season to taste.

3.) Make the sauce: Slowly brown the butter in a small skillet over low heat. The butter should take on a medium golden color and have a warm, nutty fragrance. (If it becomes black or starts to smoke it's gone too far.)
Once the butter is browned, add the nutmeg and cinnamon and a pinch of salt to season. Set aside.

4.) Fill each squash half with the vegetable mixture and drizzle one tablespoon of the brown butter sauce over each half. Broil on low for 2 minutes until the tops are golden. Cut each squash in half, sprinkle with chives and serve. Note: If you're a cheese lover, and who isn't, sprinkle the tops with shredded fontina and broil until a golden crust forms on the top.

Photos by Jamie Federico


Surprise Me

There's not much of a story here. Actually, the story is that sometimes taking a chance on the unknown can result in the most pleasant of surprises. And sometimes not.

Exhibit A: Husband and I (read: husband) kept revisiting the idea of bringing an animal into our apartment. Our options have been whittled down to two, maybe three, as there are no dogs allowed in our building: fish, hamster, cat. The hamster idea never stood a chance, and I wanted something more fluffy to cuddle up to than a fishbowl. So, cat, it was.

One visit to the local shelter later, and I arrive home with not one, but two kittens in tow. Did I mention that I'm not a cat person? However, these two lovelies were sitting in the window, half-scared and half-lethargic. The owner let me know that they had been rescued together, were scared of everything, and were each other's only comfort. Going once, going twice, SOLD to the softy who doesn't like cats.

Wilma's distrustful stare.

I keep convincing myself that this will work out by using phrases like "they're coming around" and "making strides". The truth is, it's been two weeks, and I still can't touch them without a frenzy breaking out.

A friend recently summed the situation up perfectly: "So let me get this straight: you paid for them, bought them toys and blankets, feed them, clean up their crap and you're getting nothing out of the relationship?"
Hmm, yes, that sounds about right. Time will tell whether this story turns into a pleasant surprise.

Exhibit B: What is pleasantly surprising is this dish I threw together earlier this week. It made sense when I was thinking about what I have at home versus what would actually be a satisfying dinner. I had tons of shittake mushrooms, avocados and some lemons. I was in the mood for scallops and what resulted was the perfect meal to pull me out of my kitty stupor. The contrast in textures from the crisp, sauteed mushrooms and the creamy avocado was enticing and the sauce was amazing. I'm not just saying that. It was I'm-embarrassed-to-be-using-a-scallop-to-consume-every-last-drop amazing. Here you go:

Scallops with Shittake Mushrooms, Avocado Puree, Lemon Cream Sauce
Serves 2

For the Avocado Puree:
1 avocado, diced
1/4 tsp. fresh serrano chile, minced
1 garlic clove, sliced
2 T. sour cream
1 lime, juiced
salt to taste

Combine all ingredients into a food processor and process until smooth. Cover and set aside.

For the Shittake Mushrooms:
1.5 cups Shittake Mushrooms, stems removed, sliced
2 T. vegetable oil
1 shallot, minced
2 tsp. fresh lemon juice
salt and pepper to taste

In a skillet over a medium flame, heat oil and and add the shallot, cooking until translucent, about 3 minutes. Raise the heat to medium-high and add the mushrooms, salt and pepper. Saute until well-browned and cooked through, about 5 minutes. Stir occasionally to cook evenly. Right before they are finished, squeeze the lemon juice over the top and cook for about 15 seconds. Remove from heat and set aside.

For the Scallops:
1 T. vegetable oil
6 Large Sea Scallops
1 lemon, juiced
1/4 cup creme fraiche
2 T. cilantro, chopped
salt and pepper

Season the scallops and pat dry. In the same pan used for the mushrooms, heat oil until hot, nearly smoking.
Add the scallops and sear on high heat until a crust forms, about 2 minutes. Turn to cook other side briefly, about 2 minutes. Remove from pan and set aside. Lower to medium flame and add lemon juice, stirring the juice with a wooden spoon to scrape up browned bits on the bottom of the pan. Add the creme fraiche and continue to stir until the sauce is homogenized and reduced to a thicker consistency. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Assemble: Create a bed of mushrooms on the bottom of each plate and place three scallops on each.
Top each one with a dollop of avocado puree and finish with sauce and cilantro.


Gremolata Fingers

My announcement that I had enrolled in culinary school was met with an equal mix of high-fives and incredulous stares.

"But why would you do that when you're a writer?" "Do you honestly want to work as a cook?" "That's so exciting, you can be a food writer!"

Because I wanted to get into the culinary world. I did, actually, want to work as a cook. Many intelligent women actually manage to pull this off brilliantly every day and they aren't derelicts. And yes, I sort of wound up a food writer. Unintentionally, but still.

I spent the summer before starting culinary school working for a mammoth catering company on Long Island. There were some things I witnessed that I was not proud of--cooking in mass production is never a pretty sight--but I also learned other important work habits that proved invaluable both in and out of the kitchen. Maintain a sense of urgency, work clean, know how to prioritize, be precise, do it right the first time.
By the end of the summer I had found my way around a knife, and that September, I confidently marched into The French Culinary Institute, thinking I had this in the bag.

The first day of class we worked on knife skills. Our chef-instructor showed us the different cuts we were to practice--the juilienne, the brunoise, the macedoine, and so on. I was proudly whizzing through each cut, putting into practice what I'd learned that summer. The chef has even commented on my success, and deep down I felt highly satisfied with myself.

You know that saying, "Pride comes before a fall"? There's a reason people say that; there's a reason why that actually gets passed down through generations. I soon found out why.

We were working on mincing and I had a pile of parsley on my board. I looked away for a second. One second--or the amount of time it took me to realize that I was missing a fingertip. I cut the top of my finger off. On the first day of school. Before our lunch break. What am I doing here?

After rushing to the bathroom, avoiding passing out, and dissuading my chef from sending me to the hospital, I realized that I instinctively threw the other part of my finger into the recycle bin. I couldn't even get sorting the garbage right.

If taken to the task of creating a litmus test for how badly I wanted this, cutting a finger off was the way to quickly figure it out. I returned to class, silently digesting a wedge of humble pie.

But today I didn't make pie. Today, in an effort to redeem haughty herb-mincing, I made gremolata. And my hands are still in tact.

Gremolata is a condiment made of fresh herbs, lemon and garlic. Although it can be made with a number of herbs like cilantro or mint, it is classically made with flat-leaf parsley. Gremolata is most often served with osso bucco (veal shanks), but also lends bright flavors to steak, seafood and vegetable dishes.


1/4 cup flat-leaf parsley, minced
1 garlic clove, minced
zest of one lemon
1 T. olive oil
pinch of salt to taste

Combine the ingredients and set aside until ready to serve.

Simple roasted lamb chops are a perfect springtime dish to showcase this humble, but, worthy condiment.


She needs an umbrella with her chocolate chips.

New York is not for the faint of heart. I have a theory that New Yorkers are unlike anyone else, if only because of the brutal and often unpredictable weather patterns we brace ourselves for every season.

March in New York proves this point in its entirety.

On Friday, it was a balmy 75 degrees, with the promise of warm spring around the corner. Today, freezing rain and gusty wind escorts us into the new week. If New Yorkers, at times, seem too tough and not quick enough to exchange toothy grins and hugs, this is why.

If you lived in sunny Miami, wouldn’t you be inclined to smile a little bigger and step a little lighter?

Luckily, there are certain things that make the gray days more palatable: Family, friends, chocolate-chip cookie bars—or a combination of all three, not always in that order. Fortunately for me, all of the above assembled in our apartment this weekend. As I think about us laughing, acting silly, and passing around a plate of these cookies, I find myself more capable of dealing with a gloomy Monday. At times you need a vacation, other times you need family and sometimes you simply need comfort food. Clouds are lifting.

This recipe is adapted from Food & Wine’s Chocolate-Chip-Pecan Cookie Bars. I prefer to replace the pecans with sliced, toasted almonds.

A bit of espresso mixed into the flour highlights the flavor of the chocolate;  replacing some of the sugar with quality maple syrup deepens the flavor, while cutting out some of the processed sugar.

Rainy days never tasted so good.

Chocolate-Chip-Almond Bars
(adapted from Food & Wine)
Makes about 16 bars

  1. 1 cup sliced almonds, toasted
  2. 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
  3. 2 tablespoons canola oil
  4. 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
  5. 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons maple syrup
  6. 1 large egg
  7. 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  8. 1 teaspoon ground espresso
  9. ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
  10. 1 1/2 cups whole wheat pastry flour
  11. 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  12. 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  13. 1 cup semisweet chocolate chips

  1. Preheat the oven to 350° and line the bottom of a 9-by-13-inch baking pan with parchment paper. Spread the almonds in a small skillet and toast over low heat until golden and fragrant, about 4 minutes.
  2. In the bowl of a standing electric mixer, beat the butter and oil with the granulated sugar and maple syrup until light and creamy. Beat in the egg and vanilla until smooth. In a small bowl, whisk the flour with the baking soda, espresso, cinnamon and salt; add the dry ingredients into the mixer at low speed. Fold in the chocolate chips and almonds until evenly incorporated.  
  3. Transfer the dough to the prepared baking pan and press into an even layer. Bake for about 20 minutes, until lightly browned and nearly set in the center. Let cool completely, then run a knife around the edges and invert the rectangle. Peel off the paper and invert onto a cutting board. Cut and serve.


You say granola like it's a bad thing.

Last weekend, my husband and I went out for brunch. There is a great little restaurant in our neighborhood, and while their dinner menu leaves something to be desired, their brunch is on. the. money.
Brian gets weak in the knees for their fried chicken (yes, for breakfast), and the truffle scrambled eggs are at once light in texture while filled with the dense, earthy flavor of the truffle.

It doesn't matter where I go for breakfast, my first instinct is to scope out the granola bowl. Whether served with yogurt, fruit or plain, it's the granola itself that gets me swooning. Many breakfast companions, past and present, not-so-subtly hint that this takes away from my credibility as a cook and food lover. I passionately disagree. When I find a good bowl of granola, the world is on my side. It should have a nice crunch. It shouldn't taste too sweet. I like to include dried fruit to bring something chewy to the table.

Pretzels, bits of candy, well-done oats: These are tell-tale signs that you should've ordered the omelet.

I have tested and re-tested so many versions of this granola, that I've actually converted a few nonbelievers. Will the fried chicken/eggs Benedict/blueberry pancakes still be ordered? Absolutely. But the granola prejudices now have every reason to cease and desist.

Hippie Granola
(Makes 3 cups) 

2 c. Rolled Oats
½ c. sliced almonds
½ c. pecans (or substitute your favorite nut)
¼ c. unsalted sunflower seeds
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
¼ tsp. ground nutmeg
Pinch of salt
¼ c. vegetable oil
¼ c. maple syrup
½. tsp. vanilla extract
½ c. unsweetened shaved coconut
½ c. dried cranberries

1.) Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

2.) Combine the first seven ingredients in a large skillet, and stir over medium-low heat until oats begin to toast and nuts become fragrant, stirring occasionally, about 4 minutes.

3.) Add the vegetable oil and stir to coat the mixture. Add maple syrup and vanilla extract, stirring to coat evenly.

4.) Transfer skillet to the oven and bake for 20 minutes. Remove pan from oven, stir the mixture for even cooking, and add the coconut. Return to oven to bake for an additional 20 minutes.

5.) Remove from oven, fold in dried cranberries and spread the granola evenly on a cookie sheet to cool down completely before serving.


Gourmet Wishes with Gratin Dreams

Gourmet magazine might have been my first introduction to the idea that cooking could be both fun and fantastical. Flipping through the pages of every issue, starting with its enticing cover and traveling to the well—that glorious, uninterrupted stretch of feature articles near the back of the issue—filled with zoomed-in produce and attractive people cooking in a lakehouse (or some variation on that theme), took me to another realm.

I had recently moved into my first studio apartment sans roommates. This relatively roomy pad seemed like a dream at the time. Yes, it was a basement apartment and once winter hit I would learn that there was no heat; an ever-present chilly draft seemed to float from the floor straight to my bones. But at the time spring was in the air, and I was feeling optimistic enough to not only read Gourmet as I ate dinner, but to actually cook my dinner from the Gourmet I was reading. Scandalous.

This Zucchini Rice Gratin was and still is one of my favorite things to make. Part of that is due to the fact that taking a bite of the cheesy, roasted vegetables takes me back to that summer of independence. With a fresh, green salad or a knob of crusty bread, this is a perfectly satisfying little dinner. I’ve also substituted other vegetables, like eggplant or butternut squash, for more of a rib-sticking variation. Perfect for the frigid, heatless winter that was headed my way.

Zucchini Rice Gratin
(courtesy of Gourmet, March 2008)

1/3 cup long-grain white rice
1 1/2 lb zucchini (about 3 medium), sliced crosswise 1/4 inch thick
6 1/2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1/2 lb plum tomatoes, sliced crosswise 1/4 inch thick
1 medium onion, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced
3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 teaspoon chopped thyme
1/2 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, divided

1.) Preheat oven to 450°F and cook rice according to package instructions.

2.) While rice cooks, toss zucchini with 1 tablespoon oil and 1/2 teaspoon salt in a shallow baking pan. Toss tomatoes with 1/2 tablespoon oil and 1/4 teaspoon salt in another baking pan.

3.) Roast zucchini in upper third of oven and tomatoes in lower third, turning vegetables once halfway through roasting, until tender and light golden, about 10 minutes for tomatoes; 20 minutes for zucchini. Leave oven on.

4.) Meanwhile, cook onion and garlic with 1/2 teaspoon salt in 2 tablespoons oil in a large heavy skillet, covered, over low heat, stirring occasionally, until very tender, 15 to 20 minutes.

5.) Stir together onion mixture, cooked rice, eggs, thyme, 1/4 cup cheese, 1 tablespoon oil, 1/4 teaspoon salt, and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Spread half of rice mixture in a shallow 2-quart baking dish, then top with half of zucchini. Spread remaining rice mixture over zucchini, then top with remaining zucchini. Top with tomatoes and drizzle with remaining 2 tablespoons oil, then sprinkle with remaining 1/4 cup cheese.

6.) Bake in upper third of oven until set and golden brown, about 20 minutes.


Pip and Dip

I was fortunate enough to land my first job the day I graduated from college. Immediately, I began working for a big, sparkly publishing company as an assistant to the editor. Green in every sense of the word, the first few months were filled with small victories and huge doubts, as I second-guessed my way through my to-do list.

I was desperately trying to fake it to make it.

Across the hall—the shiny, tiled hall, reverberating with the clackety-clack of designer heels—was another assistant in the same rocky boat as I. Neely, a friendly face with a Tennessean drawl and a can-do attitude, became a fast friend and partner-in-crime. Ever opportunists, we would try to grab lunch at the same time, try to simultaneously run errands for our bosses, dial the other’s extension during a crisis, and occasionally take a car service home, stopping to pick up late-night dinner along the way. During my third month there, our relationship status was official: We became roommates.

A recent graduate working as an assistant is code for “I’m barely breaking even". So when Neely proposed that I join her and her other roommate, Dori, as the third Musketeer for a crazy-low price, I jumped at the opportunity. Never mind that my room was a glorified closet, or that I slept on a cot for a year with no closet to house my wardrobe (strewn across the floor). This was bliss.

We three hit it off right away. As is expected in a 600-square foot apartment, we got to know each other quickly—our quirks and favorite TV shows and hobbies were understood almost immediately. My favorite pastime then, a luxury I refused to shirk because my money should be better spent, was getting a good manicure. Or pedicure. Or massage. I didn’t go out for expensive dinners—heck, Tasti D’Lite was my go-to for any meal on the run—and we didn’t party (too often). The nails must be polished. Neely took to lovingly chiding me when I would come home after my most recent spa excursion. “Excuuuse me, the little pampered pipsqueak has arrived!” she would say, laughing. At twenty-one, fresh out of school, with all of the opportunities in the world ready to be seized, I was a pipsqueak. And the name, which shortened to pippa, pippy, pip, never left.

Once in a while, Neely, Dori and I would cook dinner together. I remember one such night I was excited to try out a simple guacamole recipe I'd come across. This might be the easiest thing to make on the fly, a quick dish to throw together to happily feed a small party. Perhaps I was drawn to the recipe for reasons that went unnoticed.

Green as could be, bright with personality and a little too spicy, the guac and I were more alike than I realized.  

1-2-3 Guacamole
This is as easy as it sounds.

4 Haas Avocados, seeded and chopped
3 Roma Tomatoes, seeded and diced
1 garlic clove, minced
1/2 jalapeno, seeded and minced
1/3 cup cilantro, chopped
1 lime, juiced
salt and pepper to taste

1) Mix together until ingredients are evenly blended and guacamole takes on a creamy consistency.
2) Stir in lime juice, salt and pepper, to taste.

Note: If you're making this in advance, slice an extra lime and place slices over the guacamole to avoid oxidation. Cover and refrigerate.

Serves 4-6


It all starts here

Growing up, I knew absolutely nothing about cooking. That’s not to say that our house was void of delicious things to eat. Quite the opposite, actually. I had the gustatory pleasure of growing up in an Italian-American family, with matriarchs ‘throwing together’ a red sauce and slinging fresh zeppoles as easily as if they were placing an order for takeout. The effortlessness at the stove was inspirational. I remember when I began asking for the recipes for some of my favorite dishes. My mother never knew them. My grandmother would fire off vague instructions. At one point, the evasive responses prompted me to think that they were keeping the saliva-inducing secrets of their culture to themselves, as a sort of Sisterhood of the Traveling Ravioli.

My mother was and is the ultimate caregiver. She relished the role of wife and mom in a way that I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to. She never asked for help; never called me over to the pot to see what she was creating. She was in her zone. One time I sidled up to her as she was frying meatballs. “How much onion do you use?” I asked. “Not too much,” was her response. “How do you know when they’re finished?” I pushed. “It doesn’t take too long,” she countered. This was my ominous culinary training—a red flag if there ever was one.

Fast forward a decade only to find myself starting college and dating my first boyfriend (now husband), Brian, with only scrambled eggs and cookies on my recipe resume. The eggs were a necessity. That was my breakfast of choice at the time, and cracking an egg into a pan is a fast and cheap way for a freshman to eat. The cookie skills, however, were the spawn of a torrid love affair I have with carbs. Sweet carbs. The chocolate-covered, peanut butter-laced kind. These random dishes needed friends. I was dating someone who never said no to a plate of food, regardless of what was on it. I needed to feed that ravenous, passionate hunger of his and cooking seemed like the easiest way to impress.

One complicated internet search later, I came up with the perfect anniversary dinner.
I would make. From scratch. "Scratch" was a revolutionary and frightful idea back then.
This menu struck the balance between elegant and doable. As I type this, I cringe.
But, hindsight is always 20/20.

Anniversary Menu
Steamed Flounder with Carrots and Broccoli
White Rice
Heart-Shaped Chocolate Cake

I went to my family’s local fish market, a sleepy little place with plenty of fresh, Long Island catch, to pick up the flounder. Stop & Shop provided the rest, including the box of Betty Hines cake mix. At home, I started furiously prepping, waiting until the last minute to pull the fish from the back of the refrigerator—the icy, cold part that kept it…icy and cold. As the fish was baking, with the vegetables and lemon juice, in the Reynold’s aluminum foil (so simple, so delicious!), I attacked the layer cake, attempting to shape it into a heart, freehand. The clean curves of the heart—and my heart, literally on that plate—began to come undone, crumbling down onto the plate, with the still-warm cake shifting to one side. I quickly melted chocolate in the microwave to create a fix-all “ganache” frosting. I’m a genius, I thought.

As we sit down to eat, with the candles lit, I’m glowing at how brilliantly I’ve pulled this off. This is the meal when he realizes that he can’t live without me. This is the meal that goes through his stomach to his heart.

Brian digs in to his flounder and his fork stands straight up, at attention. The thin, delicate fillet, carefully preserved in the coldest part of the refrigerator, is completely raw in the center. I unravel. While Brian tries to console me, putting back into the oven, I dig into the cake hoping for solace. “This was supposed to be perfectttt,” I whine. He continues saying sweet things, like how delicious the undercooked rice is, and aims for some comic relief. “Don’t worry, little Emeril. Everything’s perfect.” And it was.