Traci Anello

The Power in Food


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Cooking in Healthcare, the Double Edge Sword

Being a cook in a healthcare setting is a double edge sword for most chefs. So many of us have traded the upscale hotels and restaurants to experience a real vacation and occasional weekends off. Not to mention the benefits package which in itself feels like an amazing bonus.

There are so many benefits to cooking in a hospital setting. I think the most important is knowing that the food you are cooking actually plays a big part in the healing process. This happens in a couple of ways. The one thing a patient has to look forward to is their meal. In most cases, they get to choose what they want from an “a la carte” menu. They may not be able to choose their medication or their length of stay but they can have control over what they order (based on the diet assigned by their physician). Second, if we prepare their food correctly and with absolute care, the food can aid in the healing process. I’m talking about cooking their vegetables and legumes perfectly. We also make sure they have the best crisp lettuce and vegetables on their salad. These are things we CAN control. You have to want to though. You have to cook every meal like you’re making it for your family. If you wouldn’t eat it, neither should they. It’s all about the patient. We have to do our best to fulfill their requests and make the best meals every time. When it comes to the patient, there’s no room for error.

When I think about how we do meals now, it’s very much like a restaurant. The patient has a menu they get to order from. So they call down to the “Diet office” where trained individuals take their order. Hopefully the system is set up so that it understands the patient’s diet. Most systems are set up this way so that if a patient tries to order something they can’t have, the system will not allow the operator in the diet office to add that option. So the operator is like a waitress in a sense. They take the order and it’s sent to the cooks and room service staff through a ticket very much like a restaurant kitchen uses. The printer prints out every detail to make sure they’re are no mistakes. The cook creates the meal and sends it to an expeditor to check over the ticket and place it on the appropriate cart or truck for the hostess to deliver. The hostess brings the meals to the floors as a waitress would do to a restaurant table. They ask the patient to identify themselves by giving their name and date of birth. It’s essential to deliver the correct tray with so many different diets. Once identified, the hostess places the tray in front of the patient and lifts the lids off of the main plate. If we have all done our jobs correctly up to that point, the patients should be pleasantly surprised and look forward to their meal just like in the restaurant. It’s imperative that the hostess smile and ask the patient if there is anything else they can get them. Ofcourse that has to go through the diet office if they want anything additional but the point here is establish a positive relationship with the patient so they realize we do care about them. Like a restaurant, there’s a waitress, a cook, an expeditor and a hostess. It’s all the same concept. There’s no room for error. The meal must be cooked to perfection and followed through with the same service when delivered.

The other part of cooking in the hospital is for the staff. This is an honor in itself just like the patients. These people work hard. They have to be on their feet most of their shift and time is rarely on their side. When they come into the cafe, they want their meals quick and it’s the least we could do. It’s so important to give them the very best as quickly as possible. A great meal can sustain someone for the remainder of their shift. It can also help in the decision process. These people have to be on their toes and make split decisions at any moment. If we can provide a delicious meal, it can only make someone feel so much better. When you feel better, you make better decisions. If we don’t deliver, then these workers could feel sluggish and incomplete. At my hospital, we have the best fresh produce and local seafood to work with. The hospital provides us with the canvas and the best supplies so it’s not rocket science to create healthy delicious meals for the staff. Now, not every meal is the healthiest but it is fulfilling. We do offer fresh vegetables every meal that are steamed or roasted. I’m very happy to be able to provide homemade desserts. I’m a pastry chef by trade so that fills my soul to make homemade strawberry shortcake and my favorite linzor cookies. Every time it’s like packaging a little hug. I feel it’s an honor each and every time I cook for the staff. They give you their precious time by giving us the opportunity to serve them. The least we can do is give them the absolute best, every time. We do also provide the same meals for visitors. It’s just as important to make sure friends and families of patients have a great tasting meal. They’re providing the support to the patients and like the staff, they need to be able to make decisions at any time or just feel good about the care the patient is getting. A good meal will always aid in an important decision or impression of patient care.

Cooking in the cafe and for the cafe also gives us the opportunity to meet our co-workers. I love these people. I may not know them all by name but I do know what they like to eat. I love our interactions. It’s a nice way to show them how much we care and value what they do everyday. The kitchen is separate from the rest of the hospital so we don’t see what these people are involved with and the trauma they have to deal with. That’s why it’s an honor to have their time. I wish more people saw it this way. It’s truly team work. I’m talking about everyone from the doctors and surgeons to the nurses, admin staff and environmental services. From the maintenance crew to the security staff to our own nutritional co-workers. Every one plays an important role in patient care. The food should always reflect that.

Being a chef in a hospital setting has its benefits. Like I said, It’s a double edge sword. You also have to abide by Human Resources and their protocols which is something most restaurants don’t have. But you do get health insurance, some weekends off which is unheard of in restaurants and also vacation time. The perks definitely out weigh the lack of. Hospitals have incentive programs that are pretty lucrative. The work is year round employment as opposed to seasonal in a tourist community. Hospitals make sure you have all of your up to date shots and immunizations where most restaurants are a tetanus trap. Restaurants give you the opportunity to be very creative and make spectacular entrees. It’s such a give and take. I have to say hospitals offer security, job security. Overall, I prefer working in the hospital. I’m fortunate to be woking with a chef manager that’s an amazing cook. I’ve learned from him and we work great together. That’s a real win. That doesn’t always happen. Most times you have to deal with an ego that is not productive. Do the best you can with that. It’s not easy. I’ve been there and the stress alone with send you back to a seasonal restaurant. This time I’m very fortunate.

If you are a chef or a line cook and you have the opportunity to try a healthcare setting, you owe it to yourself. There’s a lot of give and take but the rewards are worth it. You deserve a weekend off and a paid vacation. I will admit, I do miss working at hotels on the beaches and doing the weekly lobster bakes and catering weddings. That’s a feat in itself. To balance the best of both worlds, find a way to still participate in the catering and special events. We all know someone so the best balance is to live in both worlds. There’s plenty of support out there.

I’m very happy where I am. I love cooking for the patients and the staff. I’ve learned to balance the double edge sword. You can too and I’m happy to help. Feel free to contact me with any questions, comments or critiques.


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Juggling Plantbased meals on non traditional shifts

Working a shift other than the “normal” 9 to 5 can create road blocks with meals. I work in healthcare and the days I pick up a replacement shift of 11am to 7:30pm can really throw a wrench in my meal planning. Thankfully, there are some pretty creative ways to work around that so you get the maximum nutrition on limited time.

Meal planning is your best friend. You decide a time or day of the week to do all of your prep and organization of your lunch and dinners. I pick a day off that I can dedicate 3 hours. That’s it. Three hours is all is takes. That’s less than 30 minutes an entree. I go through my trusted recipe books written by creators I know can cook. I decide what I want and make a shopping list. Here’s where a pantry of every day items comes in handy. I’ll get into that in a few minutes. I go shopping and come home and get to work.

Shopping can be inexpensive if you stick to whole foods like fresh broccoli, crisp red peppers and tender sweet carrots. The expense comes in purchasing the processed items which you don’t need. They’re good in a pinch but you’ll get way more bang for your buck with fresh produce, whole grains and legumes.

So back to the pantry. I always have canned beans, brown rice, farro, quinoa, couscous, diced tomatoes, lentils and pasta in my pantry. These are items that can stretch your dollar and create healthy meals. My herbs and spices are always abundant. I use granulated garlic and onion powder, black pepper, thyme, rosemary, cinnamon, ginger (both ground and fresh) and miso paste for salt. I also have Kombu and dulse (seaweed)flakes for a salt substitute. These are also great when you’re making chickpea “tuna” salad or cradles cakes. For flours I have oat, almond and sprouted spelt. I love the almond and oat for cookies and I make my own rolls with the spelt. A pantry is essential regardless of your lifestyle. There will be times you want to make something quick and having grains and spices on hand will make life a lot easier. Pasta can be made with sauce or toss in some of your prepped cut vegetables and make a cold salad. Lentils are great on a salad or a powerhouse in a soup. Couscous cooks in five minutes. Just sauté some vegetables and you have dinner in less than 15 minutes.

A typical day of meal preparation starts with my rolls. I mix sprouted spelt flour with silkened tofu, baking soda, sea salt or miso and my own “everything” bagel combination. That’s it. It makes the best rolls. While those are baking I prep my vegetables. I always roast sweet potatoes, cauliflower, asparagus, and purple potatoes. They’re a staple for my veggie scrambles in the morning and my brown rice bowls. I roast what ever other vegetables I’ve picked up. This is a great time to try a new vegetable either at the grocery store or from a farmers market. I then cut up fresh bell and yellow peppers, cucumbers, red onion, shredded carrots and red cabbage. Roasted red peppers are a nice addition. Those are put in containers placed in my refrigerator for me to create quick salads or another grain bowl. The whole idea is to just get these items prepped and roasted or cut up if using fresh. Once this is done, and it only takes an hour, then you can set your bowls or mason jars up for the week and start crating your meals. Now you have meals for every day you just grab and go. An example of what I make would be that I take a bowl and add a grain like brown rice or farro. I then add my colorful peppers, green onions, red cabbage, shredded carrot, chopped kale and maybe some broccoli. You just made a Buddha bowl. You can put your favorite dressing on the side or maybe mix some hummus on the side. Change it up and use different grains and make a variety of bowls. The goal here is when you work these odd shifts, your meals are ready to go. You don’t have to reach for a super sugar packed energy bar or a carby bagel to get you by. I get it. I’ve been there. Salsa and awful chips or a banana and peanut butter sandwich because you have no time. Enough of that. Pick a day and create these nutritious bowls.

Don’t forget to pack some snacks. I will roast a can of chickpeas in a try fry pan with some paprika and a little maple syrup (local, of course) and keep moving that pan around until you have crispy chickpeas. Those are also great on salads or your bowls you have prepped for you ready to go. You can cut up some carrots, cucumber or celery and have that with hummus. Fresh fruit is always recommended. Either make a fruit bowl for yourself or pack some berries, an apple or whatever your favorite fruit is.

It sounds like a lot of work but once you get used to it and it becomes a routine, you’ll be glad you made the investment of time. If you dedicate one time and one day a week, you’ll make your life a lot easier by incorporating healthy meals. This also make shopping less of a hassle because you’re using a list and doing it once a week. Now you have more “YOU” time.

Don’t stress about the shift. Make the shift work for you. Have these meals ready to go and share the information with your other second and third shift friends and before you know it, you will all be sharing tips and techniques on how you make this work for you. Plantbased is a wonderful lifestyle. The food is colorful, fresh, abundant and delicious. Share the knowledge and share a meal. The power in food is in your hands.


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Whoopie Pies, Love, Mom

All I can smell is the dark chocolate cakes coming out of the oven. It’s that really rich strong smell of what will soon be a whoopee pie. It’s the only memory I have of my mother and it’s a very faint one.

My mother passed away when I was 4 years old. I always heard about her baking and how much of a positive impact it had on people. Any time I asked about her, baking was always the first thing people would say. Mom made the best whoopie pies. She also made these incredible doll cakes with their large ball gown the size of a mixing bowl. Then she would put a doll into the center of the cake up to her waist where mom would seal with a beautiful buttercream waist band. She would pipe what seemed like a million stars to cover the gown. With three daughters, I can only imagine she made these cakes often.

It wasn’t until I owned my own bakery in Wells, Maine that I decided to make them for everyone. I spent a lifetime searching for her recipe. In the meantime, I just made the best whoopie pie I could think of. Mine were made with strong brewed coffee in the cake. Once they were cooled, I filled them with a sweetened buttercream. They never hung around very long in the bakery. It still wasn’t my mom’s recipe but it worked for the time. I sold somewhere in the neighborhood of four dozen a day during the week and up to eight dozen on the weekends. I’ve even made a wedding cake out of whoopie pies. Everyone that walked into the bakery would comment on the scent of dark chocolate cake coming from the ovens. It’s those comments that would bring me back to the only memory of mom. It kept it alive for me. If I could offer people a lifetime of great memories associated with the scent of chocolate cake just like I had experienced, it was a major win for me. That’s what food is all about.

I always make them by hand mixing them in a bowl. The real trick to the whoopie pie cake is getting the consistency right. If the batter is too loose, the cakes will spread. If the batter is too thick, the cake will be hard and not like a soft chocolate pillow. It takes experience but once you figure out the feel, you’ll never forget it. I prefer to hand mix most of my recipes just for that reason. It’s so important to have the feel. That’ll keep you from over mixing recipes which can cause problems. Generally over mixed batters can’t relax resulting in a tougher cake. Once mixed, I then line a baking sheet pan with parchment paper so my cakes won’t stick. I line them up like soldiers in a four by six pattern using a yellow handled ice cream scoop. This keeps them all the same size. I bake them and then pull them out of the oven to cool where they can be seen and smelled. While the cakes are cooling, I whip up a sweetened buttercream using real local butter softened so it whips up nice and fluffy. I sift powdered sugar into the butter and add real vanilla. I finish it with a pinch of salt and bring it all together in my KitchenAid mixer with the whip attachment. Once the cakes are cooled, I flip half of them over and use red handled ice cream scoop to add the filling. Pop the top on and you have a classic New England Whoopie pie. You can get creative with the fillings and add peanut butter or peppermint. You can even color the filling to match a school or college colors. There’s so much room to be creative with these. You can make mini ones and even make a birthday cake out of one.

When I was in my early 50’s, I finally asked my cousin Lori if she had her mother’s recipe. I figured if I’m never going to find my mom’s, I know her mom made really good ones and that’ll be a little closer to me. When I asked her she told me that it was the same recipe my mom used to use!! She said both of our moms used the same recipe! She sent me a picture of the original hand written recipe. I was so thrilled. I looked at the recipe and of course she used Crisco. How oringinal! I’m not a fan of Crisco and I don’t use it but the rest of her recipe was very similar to mine. Her filling used canned milk. I thought that was interesting. That certainly would have kept it sweet! I spent a lifetime searching for her recipe and I had access to it all along. This is definitely the time to say “Better late than never”.

I love to make these desserts for anyone. Every time I do I feel like a piece of my mom is still working through me. I feel the same love I imagined she put into each and every one. It’s a tradition I wanted to keep sharing. It’s her legacy to make great tasting baked goods from her heart. It’s all I have of her. Every time I make them and someone says thank you I just want to tell them to thank my mom.


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A favorite pie and a slice of cheesecake are all part of the power in food

This Thanksgiving plans were all set. I was going to New Jersey to have dinner with my sister Kim, her family and some dear friends. We talk about the menu months prior and everything started to line up. I love cooking in her kitchen. It’s beautiful. The set up is perfect and the balcony filled with fresh herbs is right outside the door. I always head out there with my coffee and a pair of scissors. There’s fresh thyme, chives, sage, basil, rosemary and mint. It’s how I picture Alice Waters everyday gathering her fresh herbs for her salad or for her roasted vegetables.

Well, sometimes plans change and it can happen very quickly. For us, it happened in the blink of an eye. I got a phone call four days before Thanksgiving that my dad had fallen and was in the hospital. He cracked 9 ribs and was in a lot of pain. Thankfully he was stabilized and was resting. On the way to the hospital, my step mother got in a car accident. The second phone call I got about her accident was hard to hear. Thankfully she was unhurt, as was the other driver but her car was totaled. Immediately it was clear that the game plan for Thanksgiving was about to change. After talking with my sister, it was decided that I would stay back and drive to Massachusetts instead for the holiday meal. It was a no brainer actually. My dad needed to stay rested once he got home. So I made the call to my step mother and told her I would be down on Thursday to cook the meal. I was more than happy to do this. It meant they didn’t have to leave the house and they were going to get one hell of a dinner. This is where a quick change of plans can be a good thing. You never know in a given day how things are going to change. If you go with it and adapt to the current situation, it can become less stressful for everyone. Love is a wonderful driving force and it can create some beautiful moments out of an unfortunate set of circumstances.

I came up with a menu and the very next day went to our local butcher and asked about an eight pound turkey breast. They were sold out which was to be expected so it was off to the supermarket in town which I always try to avoid because I prefer to support local businesses. Fate had a different path for me. I went into the store and couldn’t find what I needed. An associate from the meat department approached me and asked if I needed help. I was a bit surprised because customer service in a corporate setting is a thing of the past. But this man was very happy to help and I was very happy to let him. I told him I was looking for a turkey breast about 8 pounds.   He said he was almost certain they were about to put an order in for some that would arrive the following morning and he checked. Sure enough, I was in the right place at the right time. I was able to order one with the understanding that I needed to be at the store early to assure it would be there. The associate was looking every where for a pen while I was thanking him several times. I wanted this meal to be the best for my family and it meant everything had to line up two days prior to Thanksgiving. He played a big part in making this happen. Where there’s a will there’s a way. So I took my favorite pen out of my checkbook and handed it to him. He wrote down my information and went to hand the pen back when I told him to put it in his pocket and hang on to it. I don’t know who was more appreciative. Was it me for getting this order in or him for getting a nice pen? It was a wonderful quick moment that ended in us both wishing each other a nice holiday. These are the important little victories in life and this was just the beginning.

The next morning, I was supposed to be at a local bakery to help the owner make her yearly mega pie order. By now it’s a tradition to do this with her and her amazing staff every year. But first I had to pick up my turkey breast and sure enough, it was ready. I was thrilled. I brought it home and placed it in my refrigerator and then off to Kennebunk to make what would be 145 pies that days. I was thinking of dessert for our meal on my way to the bakery. I decided I would make my dad’s favorite pumpkin cheesecake and his wife’s favorite mincemeat pie. That would make them both very happy and given the circumstances we were in, it was the exact thing to do. I love food and I especially love he power in food. So while I was in the middle of this pie marathon, I was trying to figure out when am I going to have the time to pull these desserts off the day before the big meal. Out of the kindness of this bakery owners heart, she said for me to just make the pie while I was there. Thank you!! So I did which meant it was a real time saver for me and I also got to roll out a beautiful homemade pie crust. Out of the 145 pies I made that day (146 including this one), the mincemeat was my favorite. The meaning behind this pie was of pure love. When you know what someone’s favorite dessert is and you make it, there’s a lot more than ingredients going into that pie. Love in Love out. The cheesecake I put together that night. I thought of my grandmother, Marietta Straguzzi, and the love she used to put into my dad’s meals. Maybe I was channeling her love and techniques. I like to think so because I never measured the ingredients. It was a little of this and a little of that just like she used to do.

Thursday morning I packed up my car and headed to Massachusetts. It was a perfect trip down and I stopped and grabbed a couple of coffees from my dad  and Ginna’s favorite coffee shop. I got to the house and hauled all of the good things I brought down with me. I took the pies out of the bag and showed Ginna her mincemeat pie. She was really happy. When my dad saw his cheesecake he was willing to dine on that first and eat turkey later. He’s  funny guy my dad. He loves to eat and loves his desserts.  It was nice to see him getting around. He was very sore but he stayed in the kitchen and we talked while I prepared the meal. I knew once he started to smell everything cooking, it would stimulate the healing process. That’s what food does. When it smells good, it looks good. When it looks good, you associate it tasting great before you even stick your fork in it. The healing starts. You’re happy and excited in anticipation of a great meal shared with family. We had turkey breast, two types of stuffing (I’m plantbased so no animal products on mine), roasted squash and carrots (all produce was organic too), mashed potatoes, roasted head of cauliflower, green beans, gravy, fresh rolls and the cranberry sauce. My dad, his wife, my brother Tony and I all sat around the table and laughed and ate a lot of food. It was the best time. It was very special to me and them.

This was a meal that wasn’t planned and would not have taken place at this holiday if not for the unfortunate events that took place with my dad. This was a total reset moment for me. This meal was so special and meant so much to each of us. There were a lot of hugs and love in that room. How can that not be healing?? It’s an important lesson that when an event happens that’s devastating and hard to embrace, you have to go with what’s important for everyone. You have to create a new set of circumstances that will bring a good feeling for each person including yourself. We did it in less than a day. It was the right thing to do. It created some very good memories. It brought back some important traditions. These would have all been lost that day if my dad hadn’t fallen. I’m not saying they wouldn’t have had a nice day otherwise because they most certainly could have. What I’m saying is, this situation created an opportunity for four people to reconnect and enjoy a nice meal together. The conversation was fun. The food was good. Love was abundant. It was a beautiful day that came to a close with a favorite pie and a slice of cheesecake.

I’m very thankful for my family. I’m also very thankful for the power in food.


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Grandma Straguzzi’s Kitchen Influence

The Bronx, New York is the birthplace of my dad, Antonio Anello. He is the son of Sicilian immigrants Luigi Anello and Marietta Straguzzi. He’s the youngest of seven. My dad spent a lot of time with his mom and three sisters while the rest of his brothers were in the service. He said he learned how to make gnocchi and other pastas from his mom. He was home alone with her often and I’m sure the attention he got was nothing short of educating.

I first learned how to make pasta from my dad. He was a widower at thirty-seven with five of his own children. He was a pretty good cook I remember. I was seven when one night I decided to push the chair up to the stove and make him dinner that I wanted ready when he got home from work. I watched him do this a hundred times so after that many dress rehearsals, I was ready for showtime. I’m sure I was channeling Grandma Straguzzi the entire time. When my dad walked in the door that night, the look of surprise was exactly what I was going for. In all fairness it could have been because of the mess I made but I like to think he was happy dinner was on the table. I sat across from him with my chin resting in the middle of my folded arms and watched him eat every bite. I’m sure Grandma was right there with me. I knew at that very moment I wanted to do this for everyone. I wanted to make people happy with the food I created for them. So the journey began.

Dad ate some pretty weird stuff to me too at the time. He loved sardines. What Sicilian didn’t?? I thought they were gross only because we had a couple of beautiful fish tanks in our home and I couldn’t imagine marinating them in olive oil and mustard and slapping them on a piece of Wonder bread. When he first started eating these around me, I would run to the fish tanks and count the fish. Phew!! The head count was good! None the less, I asked dad if I could make his lunch every night for him to take the next day. Sometimes the sardines were in mustard dressing and sometimes just olive oil. Other days he would have mortadella and cheese. I loved making his lunch. I didn’t know it at the time but the love I put into every sandwich he would receive at lunch the next day.

I would try to imagine his mom in the kitchen with me. I was two when she passed away. How I wish I had a lifetime to cook with her. I’ve learned a lot from my aunts and uncles and of course from my dad. But I think of what else I would know. I love the stories of how she would sit in the window of her apartment on 187th Street in the Bronx and wait for the produce cart to come by. I would imagine some old worn out horse that just wanted to take a nap pulling an old wooden cart full of produce. She would yell down to the produce man and tell him what she wanted. How cool is that? I wish we could still do that today. Maybe you can in Sicily. I just wish this country still had the honesty and trust for such a simple request. Point at someone today in the street from your apartment and yell to them what you want and I guarantee you won’t be getting green beans and pears. It’s always nice to imagine what it was like though. Dad talks about going down to the chicken coop and picking out the chicken for dinner. As any boy would, dad loved watching the butcher prepare the poultry from start to finish. He loves telling that story especially since I don’t eat meat. He’s still a little boy at heart. One of his favorite things to make around Christmas is gnocchi. He showed me using the small holes side of a cheese grater. It works pretty well. I’ve since ordered a gnocchi board from Italy made out of olive wood in honor of my grandmother. Some other cool traditions I’ve carried on are bread at dinner and always bringing something homemade to a friends house when invited over. I also always have something to make if I have a surprised guest stop by. I’m plantbased now so I use the same techniques and just adjust the preparation to a plantbased one. It works every time. It’s all about hospitality. It’s love. Love in love out every time. It’s Grandma Straguzzi’s influence. It’s about family even when you aren’t related.

Spending time with My Aunt Rose and Uncle Larry was always a special time. Rose was the oldest daughter of Grandma’s. Boy could she cook. I remember going to down to Florida to visit her and my uncle with my dad. The feast they put on for us was amazing. Meatballs, braciola, pasta, salad, bread and wine. My uncle always loved to have a glass of wine with me.  He put my glass right next to his at the table. I’m sure my grandmother was right there with us. The very next day Uncle Larry decides to make some more meatballs. He was going to teach me the art to making the perfect meatball. Each one he carefully formed into the perfect sphere as if he was performing some intricate surgery procedure. He showed me from the ingredients to the final product what he himself had learned as a boy. Now as a chef I listened carefully. There has never been a moment when I’ve passed up a recipe and this was no different. I love being the student. I loved being his student. Off in the distance I could hear my aunt chiming in with a few of her own suggestions and it was then I knew the love I had felt all along from this family was pure. I adored them both and their children. I wish grandma Straguzzi was there to share that moment. In spirit she most definitely was.

So not a day goes by I don’t think of her. Not a moment in the kitchen is lost without thinking about how she would prepare something. I’m sure everyone loved her food. I’m pretty sure with her influence, I can treat people to the same love with mine.

That, my friends, is the power in food.

My grandparents Marietta Straguzzi and Luigi Anello


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The Day I Didn’t Hate Chocolate

You read that right. Today is the day I realized I didn’t hate chocolate. Hard words to read coming from a pastry chef who loves to work with it.

For years I have spent creating decadent cakes, traditional cookies, rich pies and a host of other desserts using chocolate from all over the world. It was my every day thing to do. What did people like? How could I recreate this dessert or that pastry using a variety of chocolates? It was my life. It consumed my every menu. I went to bed thinking of how I can make something completely off the cuff to waking up and finishing what I started thinking about before bedtime.

Years ago I was a pastry instructor for a college level program. Up to that point I had been entering the chocolate show held in Portland, Maine for myself as well as some restaurants I worked at. I was very successful at this event. My first award was a three layer ganache cake that I had made while on a movie location in Georgia in August. Do you want to really test your strength in baking?? Do it in 100* weather with 100% humidity.  I had to create something that would hold up to that southern heat and everything that came with it and at the same time have incredible rich flavor. This cake was it. It was the perfect first entry and I won Best Cake. That was pretty cool. I went to win the next year and a stretch of 5+ years after that and before long, I had 12 total awards to my credit. So back to the program. While I was teaching, I decided this event would be the perfect event for my students to experience competition. After getting the approval of the director of culinary arts, I broke the news to the students. They were thrilled. There were several categories we could choose from so we picked a few. I also told them their presentation would be judged as well. We decided to enter the “Best Alternative Dessert” category. This was any dessert out of the ordinary like vegan or gluten free. Someone actually tried to cook a sole dish with chocolate. It was an epic fail too. The place smelled like the Charles River in Boston in the corner they were cooking this dish.  There are just some things that chocolate doesn’t marry. In this case, it was fish. We decided to make a vase of fruit flowers dipped in dark chocolate. The students carved beautiful patterns on the pears. We chose exotic fruits like the start fruit that would resemble a flower. We dipped them half in chocolate and using skewers (also dipped), they creatively displayed them in the pear vase. The students won that category. It was such a satisfying victory for them and the program. For me it was a nice feeling to upgrade the program to an award winning one as well. We were the first culinary school to enter and I’m happy to say the following year, another culinary school participated. That was very good competition for the students. Not to mention all of the amazing local businesses that entered. Portland is a very competitive market in the pastry field so this was a very healthy challenge. The following years we made biscotti, a cholate raspberry torte and a few other desserts. The program did well. I was approached by a team member of the event and was asked if I’d like to be a judge the following year. I was honored actually and agreed. Then I thought about how I wasn’t a fan of chocolate. I’d have to taste each and every entry. I was having second thoughts. It was the sweetness I didn’t like. Anything very sweet like candy or rich desserts just wasn’t my thing to eat. I loved making them but thankfully I wasn’t  obsessed with chocolate. I don’t curl up and watch marathons on Netflix with a quart of chocolate ice cream or Oreos. Now a loaf of fresh crusty bread and (at the time) a nice hunk of cheese and there’s my comfort zone. I think that comes with being Italian. I always hoped there was a bread competition but it just never happened. I would have loved critiquing that.  Anyway, I did agree to judge the following year and sure enough, I got the candy category. Can’t get an sweeter than that. There were 10 entries, all different from each other. At each table was a local celebrity, a culinary expert and some other invited guests. I actually loved this part because I’m a teacher at heart. As everyone tasted the entry, they all had some very interesting opinions and questions. My real role was judging the technical field. You can love or hate a piece of candy but if it comes down to three really good tasting candies, only one can be the winner and  the technical merit plays the deciding factor. That was my expertise. The competition was really tight for the candy category. These businesses that really go for the right to be named the best are giving it their all. These contests are not cheap to enter. You have to have a minimum of something like 600 pieces per entry. You enter a couple of desserts and that’s a lot of sweat, money and chocolate not to mention the labor that goes into preparing for one of the shows. There’s a lot on the line so when it comes down to those three great tasting candies, you better have your mind on the job. After entering this show so many times, I knew what each entrant put into it or at least had a very good idea. I’m a firm believer you should only judge events you’ve entered previously. You have to understand the effort that goes into it. This was  great event and I enjoyed every year I participated whether a judge or entry.

Chocolate is a funny thing to work with. There’s really great chocolates from India as well as Belgium. There are awful chocolates that have very little actual chocolate in them. It’s a wide open field. Once you find what you like, generally that’s what you stick with. It really depends on taste, texture and the ability to work with it. The temperature of the product has to be right and the atmosphere has to support it as well. Recipes are very specific about how to melt chocolate and cool it down. There a whole world of techniques out there and wonderful pastry chefs that have shared their wealth of knowledge on it. If I had to pick an expert to recommend, it would be Jacques Torres. He’s an absolute wealth of everything chocolate. He’s an artist for sure. His pieces are show stoppers and his ability to teach is beautiful. If you’re interested in learning, look him up and I’m sure you’ll agree he is a true master. He’s pretty funny too. I love watching his videos.

So why is today the day I stopped hating chocolate?? Well, I was headed out to do some laundry. The place I go is right next to a health food store. So I put my laundry in the machine and walked over to get something to drink. There’s this beautiful chocolate on the market called HU. It was started by a brother and sister. I’m a big supporter of family started businesses. I love the packaging and the fact it’s organic and vegan. I bought some recently and sent it to my daughter to try. She’s my best critic when it comes to any food. She honest and to the point. She loves this brand. Today as I was cashing out my drink, I saw a bar that had almond butter and quinoa in it. Who thinks of that??? Almond butter and quinoa together?? Is this another case of “You put your almond butter in my quinoa?” or “You put your quinoa in my chocolate?” Or did two people really just think this one through and decide to be gutsy? Either way, it got my attention. I bought the bar. I felt great supporting HU Kitchen (out of NYC) and I was about to eat a chocolate bar for the hell of it. It’s got puffed quinoa in it so how can it be bad for you?? I took the first square and let me tell you this. When I put it in my mouth, it was the best piece of chocolate I’ve ever had. The combination of an excellent dark chocolate with almond butter and puffed quinoa snapped me out of years of deprivation of chocolate. Who are these people?? Who are these creative chocolatiers?? And why weren’t they ever entered in the chocolate show years ago when I had to judge that category?? This was such an epiphany. I realized at that very moment that I didn’t hate chocolate anymore.  Thank you to HU Kitchen for creating such a masterful bar of pure love. This, my friends, is the power in food.


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Holiday meal for one…Go all out!

So here we go again. It’s November first and that means time to think about the holiday meals. Spicy pumpkin dishes, savory sides, homemade crusty rolls and dessert are just the menu items you’ve waited all year for.

Here’s the thing. It’s just you. Is it worth it to do all of that cooking just for one person? Absolutely it is! There are so many reasons why too. Let’s start with the fact that you deserve this amazing meal. You’ve waited all year. You’ve worked hard. You’ve spent many nights eating a quick dish after you’ve gotten home late or if you’re a chef like me, you grab what you can when you can on the run. I’m pretty sure nurses live like this too. The advantage to creating your own dishes is that you get to make it exactly the way you like it. Do you like spicy food? Then turn up the heat! Are you living a plantbased lifestyle like me? Then off to the farmers market for all of your favorite vegetables and don’t forget the local honey. It’s all about you. Now here’s the thing, you can also make a plate for a friend you know is also alone. Maybe an elderly neighbor or the person working at the convenient store so every one else can enjoy the day with family. So what if you make a lot of food! You make individual meals and freeze them for the next month. Every day is a holiday when you pull one out of the freezer.

Just because you live alone doesn’t mean you have to pass up on the things you love, especially food. Think about your grandmother’s pie she made every year. Relive those memories. Bring her back to the table with you. Put every bit of love into what you make for yourself because food is powerful. Reach into the heart vault and remember how you felt when that piece of pie was served to you as a kid. Bring that feeling back for yourself. You earned it. You shopped, prepped, prepared and cleaned up after yourself. You finally used those good chef knives you bought. You sautéed, cooked, baked and served yourself. How did that feel?? Great, didn’t it?? Living alone does not mean being alone or feeling alone. It means making a meal and enjoying every bite. Cook that whole turkey. Make that spicy tofu with roasted vegetables and quinoa. Sauté that beautiful kale and mash those comforting potatoes. Today is your day.

Some people like to go out for a meal and that’s okay too. I know single friends that spend a couple of days at the food kitchen and what better way to feel the love than through the community.   There are so many ways to spend the holidays and enjoy every bit of it. Call your local church or food pantry and ask if they would like your company helping to prepare and serve the meal. I will guarantee you that if you do this and you start to talk to the people there, you will leave with a beautiful feel good story. Everyone has a story and nothing is better than sharing a meal with someone and listening to their story.

As you know by now if you’ve been reading my blogs, I have two cats that I refer to as ‘The Boys”. Every holiday includes them so there’s never really a time I dine alone. Ofcourse I make every meal a big deal by describing what they’re having and when dinner is ready. Include your fur babies or birds or whatever friends you have. Tell them how important they are to you especially if it’s just you and them. They want to hear it too. That unconditional love they give you every day, pay it back. They deserve it.

My point is, you’re not alone. You’re just cooking for one. That’s okay. Make it the best meal. Play some music. Buy that special bottle of wine. Call a loved one while you’re cooking. Enjoy the day. Every day can be a holiday meal when you live by yourself. The best part about making that wish before you pull the wishbone is you’re pretty much guaranteed it’s going to come true. How can it not? You have both sides. How cool is that?? That my friends is the power in food.

 


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The Holiday Prep List

Today is October 31st. For me, it’s the official start to holiday season. This is the time I come up with new holiday recipes and I also pull my best out of the archive. I know what my family likes and I do my best to meet their expectations every year. It’s not hard to do because it’s really what you put into what you’re doing aside from ingredients that makes these offerings special. It’s the thought first and foremost.

My family is pretty simple. My dad loves spicy pumpkin cheesecake with a graham cracker crust. He also loves any cookie with anisette. His parents were from Sicily so food is important to this guy. He’s 89 this year so I believe between his DNA and his ability to seek good food have done him more good than a walk around the block. So the  first item on the prep list is pumpkin. Got it. Next is my daughter, Ronni. She has just moved out West for a wonderful new job. I’m very happy for her and at the same time I miss her every day. We have spent every holiday baking or cooking together. This is the first year we will be doing it 2000 miles apart. Fear not, it will get done. This is the part where I say it’s not the ingredients that make the end results, it’s the love you put into them. This is the year I’ll be sending baked goods and ingredients to her home. Ronni and I are both plantbased so it’s pretty easy to create new gifts for her. I’ve managed to take her favorites and transform them into plantbased approved with the same great flavor. It doesn’t matter how many miles separate you and your loved ones. It’s the passion to create for them that will make it all feel like home. If you have family you want to bake for, just plan on doing it a little earlier than normal so you can allow for the shipping time. I always send my packages early because it’s that element of surprise that I love to give people. Expect it when you least expect it from me.

My sister Kim’s family loves cookies. We have a chocolate chip cookie recipe we have been sharing for years. So much that now her 11 years old daughter, Alice, is making them. That’s really the best part of the story for me. My niece is carrying on the tradition. Last year we began a new one of making homemade cinnamon buns. Alice is ready to start making desserts that are more advanced now. She loves baking and I love helping her. THAT’S what the holidays are about. My sister always invites new friends over. I love Thanksgiving at her house. She embraces the true meaning of being thankful. We always have a lot of good food, music and conversation. Her prep list is the grand turkey and an abundance of vegetable dishes that are colorful, nutritious and something new for everyone. This is a wonderful opportunity for me to introduce plantbased dishes. That’s our secret. No one knows.  Also on that list are fresh herbs (most from her outdoor garden), beautiful flowers from the farmers market and the perfect wine to compliment the entire meal.

As I’m writing this, the leaves are falling from the trees and the cats (Bear and Chaos) are convinced they’re going to catch them. They sit in the window crouched down and ready. Speaking of the boys, they have their own little prep list. Every year they get turkey and gravy on Thanksgiving and beef and liver on Christmas. The holidays are stimulating with all of the decorations. It takes a lot of energy to knock the bulbs off the Christmas tree so a good meal is essential for them. Insert eye rolling emoji here. I love these two and they are just as much of the celebrating as anyone.

As you begin to think of what you want to make this year, here are a few ideas that will make holiday baking much easier and fun. Every year I use the same shortbread dough to make a variety of different cookies and bars. It’s an easy 4 ingredient recipe: Organic flour, butter (I use vegan), confectionery sugar and salt. This recipe takes flavors and other ingredients like chocolate and nuts like it owns them. For cookies  I make chocolate and raspberry linzors, stained glass cookies, holiday shapes and almond hearts with the shortbreads. other cookies I do are Mexican wedding cakes, my dad’s favorite anisette cookies, our famous family chocolate chip and my very own plantbased compost cookie. For bars using the shortbread I make chocolate walnut bars, Southern bourbon pecan squares , Citrus lemon bars and Maine blueberry bars. My next blog will have some of these recipes and any others just request them and I’ll send them over your way with one condition: You share it with someone else and you find a child to make them with. That’s all. Let’s keep this cool holiday baking thing moving forward.

Whatever you decide to make whether it’s for family, your local police station, the school, your co-workers or even yourself, remember the first ingredient is love. You use that one and everything else will come out just fine. This is the power in food.

 


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The Power in Pet Food

Tonight was a typical night of a quick run to Whole Foods to pick up a few things and then home to feed that cats. It’s National Cat Day and they were in no mood to wait for their dinner.

Sometimes I think we get lost in the beauty of our pets meals. They wait all day in anticipation of that ceremonial pet on the head which leads to the crinkle of the treat bag always first and then dinner. It’s a routine they both know too well. I have two black and white cats. Chaos is 18 and Bear is 6, but a kitten 6. Chaos has been with us since the very beginning. He’s a beautiful American Short Hair with a full white belly and half of a mustache. When he was born he stopped breathing and his mom tossed him out of her little nest. My daughter picked him up and rubbed his tiny little chest until he belted out this kitten squeal that quickly got the attention of his mother. He was the obvious choice to keep from that litter. This cat has had a very strong will to live and I’m grateful every day for it. He’s been my best friend. He’s 18 this month but you’d never know it. He jumps, plays, eats, drinks and occasionally gets a good jab and clocks Bear up the side of his head. His energy level is up there. Bear is 6. I brought him home from the pet shelter when he was 1. He was super chill and when I went to pet him, he closed his eyes and put his paw on my hand. We connected! The very next day when I went to bring him home, he was the only cat sitting in the window just waiting. It was the most beautiful moment. He knew he was coming home. He’s an American Long Hair all black with a little white star on his chest and a big bushy tail. He’s majestic and gorgeous.  He enjoys cardboard boxes, laser pens and his cat treats. He’s slowly buying into the lap thing.  They both get whatever they love and sometimes an abundance of it.  My daughter says that I spoil them but if you’re a pet owner, who doesn’t?

When it comes to meal time, I’m reminded at 4am and then again when I walk in the door in the evening. For the longest time I only fed the boys organic dry and wet food. That is until Bear got crystals and I found out it was from the white fish in his food. He was put on a prescription dry food that is very expensive. Although very pricey, it did the trick and he’s had no problems since. If you break it down price per bowl per meal, he’s eating pretty high on the hog. If this was a pet restaurant, he’d have to make reservations 6 months in advance for a bowl.  Maybe Michelin should give out stars for cat food. He loves the taste of it and hasn’t shown any signs of boredom so it’s worth every penny. Canned food is a whole different story. The vet said he could have any wet food as long as there was no white fish. For months the boys ate Whole Paws but like every canned food I buy, they got bored with it. It’s an hour round trip drive to buy this food so I was open to other options. I brought home everything under the sun that had a high rating. No luck. It has to be pate. That’s the only condition. Every one I brought home was good one day and I was throwing it out the next. So back to the vet. He told me to just buy anything as long as they had the prescription dry food. So I went with the old stand by and bought what I think is the equivalent to crack for cats. It’s a cheap brand and they actually eat it. Chaos loves it and at 18, that’s important for him. I have to alternate the flavors every 4 days but they eat it. It’s really kills me to open that can twice a day but it’s their meal time and if they’re content, it’s a win. Some people make their own cat food and that’s impressive providing they know what they’re putting in there. I know quite a few people, especially dog owners, that make their own food. Now that’s love!

I think the one thing I needed to do was to apply the same philosophy I do to our food. Sometimes it’s not what you serve but how. I put a lot of love into what I give them. Their cat dish is a Rae Dunn bowl.  It’s a ceremonial occasion every day. They’re pumped it’s meal time and I’m thrilled they’re still eating this food. They’re healthy and happy. Some days we have to start with a treat to stimulate them which I’m sure my daughter would call shenanigans on that. She says I just keep spoiling them. Either way, it’s their meal and served with bottled spring water, they’re happy. Happy cats make me happy.

Pets show unconditional love. They teach us that too. The least we can do is treat their mealtime as exciting as our own. They look forward to it like we do. It’s healing for them just like it is us. If you’re happy when you eat it, good things happen. And just like us, usually with cats, it’s nap time almost immediately after. To them, that’s a good thing.

The next time you’re preparing the food for your best friend(s), remember how it feels. Be happy and excited for them. They love you for it so put as much love as you can into what’s going in that dish just like you would your own family. Believe me, what you’ll get in return from these beautiful creatures we will never be able to completely return in their lifetime.

That’s the power in pet food.


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Portland Farmers Market

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Fridays excite me. Why? Because it means one more day until the Portland Farmers Market at Deering Oaks Park in Portland, Maine. This is my favorite Maine market on Saturday morning. I want to note that this also runs on Wednesday’s at Monument Square.  Maine has many and I haven’t been to all of them yet. My goal is to visit each and every one of them. If you have a favorite, please list it. If you have a favorite farm, please add it in the comment section.

What I enjoy the most about this market is the farmers. They proudly display their hard work with arrangements fit for any magazine. The colors are vibrant. The produce is healthy, unblemished and anxiously waiting to be a part of your creativity. The flowers, the herbs and the canned goods are a rainbow of colors that stretch from one end of the market to the next. The freshly baked sourdough breads, the muffins bursting with their own carrots and zucchini and the honey are impossible to walk passed with trying.

My first stop is always the Good Shepherd for his sourdough bread. By Thursday I’m usually out. Thursday is a sad day. I wait all week for another fresh loaf.  He has many to choose from including his sourdough, carmelized onion, carrot and even chaga (a type of mushroom). The reason I visit his table first is because his daughter has her own little entrepreneurial set up selling her zucchini muffins. She’s pleasant and efficient. She always says thank you and keeps her table neat and in order. She looks to be about 8 years old and on her way to becoming a successful future farmer. This is what the market is all about to me.

My next stop is Two Farmers Farm. I first had their Siberian Kale back in the Spring and I have to tell you, it was the most tender kale I have ever eaten. It was so good I was eating it on my way home. If you’ve ever had other kales, they’re course generally and need to be massaged before putting in a salad. I love their assortment of greens and they’re customer service.

I was first introduced to Cornerstone farms at a fundraiser I did a couple of years ago. I donated two of my photos to help raise money for SNAP which allows EBT cardholders the opportunity to purchase produce at half price. I won a silent auction gift card from Cornerstone. They were very generous with their offer and it was easy to see when I met them. They’re wonderful people who enjoy talking and educating the public on their produce. They always take the time to explain the new wonderful vegetables they have. They turned me onto Kolrabi which to me tastes a lot like the stem of broccoli. I shred it and put it in cole slaw or a stir fry.  In the Spring, I purchase my seedlings from them. This year I enjoyed golden grape tomatoes and green peppers all summer.

Maine Cap n Stem has the most interesting mushrooms. They’re table is always photogenic. Their displays are very well done. These people know mushrooms. I first tried lions mane and king oysters corals from them. They have a mixed quart you can purchase and try many of the different varieties. Ask them about how to prepare them and you will be amazed at the things you never knew you could do with mushrooms.

Snell Family Farm has a display of flowers and bride would be sold on. Last week I purchased a vase of flowers that looked as though they were antique in color. They sat in a beautiful olive green vase. I couldn’t walk passed them. After I took a few pictures, I asked the woman proudly selling them to hold them for a picture. I handed them to my daughter and we both fell in love with them. I usually buy my flowers from Frinklepod Farms in Arundel but I just couldn’t pass these up.

South Paw from Freedom had the perfect poblanos. The dark green healthy amazing peppers were going to be perfect for my next dish. I also was drawn to their perfect carrots. I make a curried tofu salad and I only use carrots from the market in it. There’s something pretty special about taking a bunch of carrots with full green tops. It doesn’t get any fresher than this.

There are many famers there and my blog could go on forever. They’re all wonderful. I’ll leave the website for a full list of them so you can see for yourself. You will not be disappointed. There’s a lot of everything here. There’s arts and crafts in their own nook. There are musicians playing the perfect music and even a woman on stilts dressed like Alice from Alice and Wonderland. You’ll see happy dogs thrilled to be meeting new dogs. It’s kind of like their little meeting place. There are many many children learning the way to self sustainability. There are children with their own bags doing their own shopping. Nothing makes me happier than to see young ones trying something new, handing over their dollar for an apple half the size of their head or just piggy backing and taking it all in. There’s just so much going on. There are a lot of choices. It’s a celebration of food. It’s a classroom, a meeting place and a canvas for photography.

I follow a whole food plant based lifestyle. I’m certified in plantbased nutrition. I’m also a food photographer. The Portland Farmers Market offers me all of this. I can do my shopping, learn about new produce and take some of the most spectacular photos. It’s the whole package. If you’ve not made it to Deering Oaks yet, treat yourself. Talk to the farmers. Meet the people. Learn something new. Enjoy the community. Try a vegetable you’ve never seen before. Take it all in. You’ll fall in love with famers markets.

For a full list of farmers and to view their online store, visit:  http://www.portlandmainefarmersmarket.org and http://www.mofga.org

The Portland market is in Deering Oaks every Saturday and Monument Square every Wednesday until December. Their hours are 7am to 1pm. I’ll post about the winter market as we get closer.

 

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