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Moussaka, croissants and oysters comprise chef Kathy Gunst's memorable food moments of 2021

Kathy Gunst recalls a memorable time in July 2021 when she stayed with a dear friend who lives on a saltwater creek in Wellfleet. They headed out onto the mudflats and within 30 minutes, the pair had dug up more than 40 oysters. (Getty Images)
Kathy Gunst recalls a memorable time in July 2021 when she stayed with a dear friend who lives on a saltwater creek in Wellfleet. They headed out onto the mudflats and within 30 minutes, the pair had dug up more than 40 oysters. (Getty Images)

Another year of unknowns, mask-wearing, vaccines, boosters, fear and hope. Despite all of that, 2021 produced some great food memories. Like nearly everything else this year, these were not the “normal” ones discovered in restaurants or through travel.

My most potent food memories of 2021 center on family and friends, discovering new ingredients and giving back during these difficult times.

Family: After 15 months without seeing either of my daughters, we had a reunion. It was exactly two weeks after receiving our second vaccination. We masked up, got on a plane and flew to the West Coast where both of our daughters live. It was a truly sweet family gathering, with all of us feeling a deep sense of appreciation that we could be together again.

There were great meals in LA at my oldest daughter’s home. Her boyfriend made a chicken adobo that I won’t soon forget. On Mother’s Day, my youngest daughter baked moussaka, the famed Middle Eastern eggplant casserole. It was hearty and comforting, full of spice and big flavors. But, most of all, it felt like love. I share that recipe below.

Friends: In July I taught a food writing class on Cape Cod and stayed with a dear friend who lives on a saltwater creek in Wellfleet. Early one morning at dead low tide, we pulled on tall rubber boots, grabbed her shellfish shovels and baskets (as well as her shellfish license) and headed out onto the mudflats. Within 30 minutes we had dug up more than 40 oysters. The sky was slightly overcast, low-lying clouds made the Cape light even more dramatic than usual, and salt air filled our lungs.

We headed back to her house, and an hour later slurped down juicy, briny raw oysters with a squirt of fresh lemon and a hit of sharp horseradish. That night we made a version of Oysters Rockefeller, baking the oysters with a touch of sauteed spinach. The recipe can be found here. Foraging for shellfish was a definite highlight of the year.

The power of Zoom: One of my oldest, closest friends lives in northern California. It had been over a year and half since we had seen each other, and we were missing each other terribly. I had an idea. I’d been wanting to make croissants for years but never felt like I had the time. My friend is a very good baker, meticulous about following instructions. I proposed that we bake croissants together on Zoom, since we were both spending virtually all of our time at home. Her attention to detail and my cooking background seemed like a combination for success.

I found the recipe in Melissa Weller’s 2020 book, “A Good Bake:

The Art and Science of Making Perfect Pastries, Cakes, Cookies, Pies and Bread at Home.” It was four pages long and appeared to take three days to make. We spent several hours each day laughing and rolling large quantities of butter into flour. After three days we both took our croissants out of the oven at the exact same moment and marveled over their golden brown, buttery, flaky beauty. Technology brought us together, and we had croissants that were almost as good as the ones found at our favorite bakery.

Food discoveries: It was a cold, windy December afternoon and it felt like darkness was descending way too quickly. We craved Indian food but didn’t have the energy to cook. Then I remembered I had a jar of Cherie Scott’s Mumbai to Maine Makhani sauce in the pantry.

Scott grew up in Mumbai and now lives in Boothbay Harbor where she makes a line of hand-crafted Indian simmer sauces. Makhani, a spicy North Indian sauce – made from tomato puree, onions, ghee, cream, ginger, cilantro, cumin, peppercorns, cayenne and other spices – can be paired with chicken, seafood, tofu or vegetables. Makhani is the Punjabi word for “butter.”

It takes Scott 8 hours to simmer the sauce but took us less than 30 minutes to sear some chicken thighs, pour the sauce on top and let it simmer. We boiled up a pot of basmati rice and felt the peppery sauce clear out our sinuses. Was dinner better than take-out? Yes. Scott also makes a Goan Coconut Sauce (Caldine) and Saag, a Punjabi Spinach sauce.

Another discovery that added new flavors to my home cooking were the spices, sauces and condiments made by New York Shuk, a company that bottles a variety of Middle Eastern foods. Their Preserved Lemon Paste can be added to salads, dressing, sauces and roasts. I rubbed a bit on a whole chicken, roasted it at high temperature and was amazed at the burst of lemon flavor. Their Matbucha with Olives and Mint is another powerhouse condiment made from Jersey tomatoes, olives, lemon paste, garlic, mint and turmeric. It pairs well with eggs (think Shakshuka), chicken and meat.

Giving back: It was late March 2020 and as I was scrolling through Facebook I noticed a post from a young woman who grew up in our town. She was cooking for families whose difficult circumstances had been made worse by the pandemic. It was one of those moments where you just know what your next move is going to be. I reached out to her, learned more about the organization she was involved with, and immediately signed up to cook.

Many of the families in need were mothers and children living in battered women’s shelters, others were families experiencing homelessness and food insecurity. I posted on Facebook to see if others were interested and, within a week or two, there were over a dozen people in neighboring towns who wanted to cook and help out. Each week we put together homemade meals and drove them to a pick-up point where they were distributed to families in southern Maine.

I was cooking at home a lot. But cooking for these families who might otherwise not have much of anything to eat filled the early days of the pandemic with deep meaning. It was gratifying to know that my mac and cheese, vegetable burritos, chicken parmesan, roasted vegetable soup, apple pie, chocolate chip cookies and more would land on the plates of those who really needed them.

I tell you this not to toot my own horn but to say that giving to others doesn’t have to be complicated. I urge you to reach out to someone who could use some help. It can be as simple as simmering a pot of soup for a neighbor going through hard times, or reaching out to a local shelter or food pantry to see what they might need. The rewards far exceed the effort.


Emma’s Moussaka

My youngest daughter made this rich, comforting moussaka – a blend of sauteed ground lamb with cinnamon, allspice and nutmeg layered with thin slices of potatoes and eggplant and then blanketed in a rich, cheesy bechamel sauce.

This is ideal winter food, like a hug when you need it most. You can assemble the moussaka hours ahead of time and bake it an hour before serving. A green salad will be all you need to accompany it. Maybe a glass of red wine. To the New Year!

Serves 4 to 6.

Ingredients

The lamb:

  • 1 ½ tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 pound ground lamb
  • 1 tablespoon ground allspice
  • 1 tablespoon tomato paste
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • 1 tablespoon fresh chopped rosemary, or 1 1/2 teaspoons dried and crumbled, optional
  • Dash ground cinnamon and nutmeg
  • Salt and pepper


The eggplant and potatoes:

  • 2 medium-sized globe eggplants, or 1 large, thinly sliced
  • 2 pounds Yukon gold potatoes, thinly sliced
  • About 2 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
  • Salt and pepper


The bechamel:

  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • ⅓ cup flour
  • 4 cups milk
  • Salt and pepper
  • ½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 2 cups grated cheese, like a mild cheddar


Instructions

  1. Prepare the lamb: in a large skillet heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add the lamb, allspice, tomato paste, honey, cinnamon, nutmeg and a generous amount of salt and pepper. Saute, stirring, until the lamb is brown, about 10 minutes. Remove from the heat. Drain off some, but not all, of the excess fat.
  2. Place lamb in the bottom of a large gratin dish, baking dish or pyrex.
  3. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
  4. Place the eggplant and potato slices on separate cookie sheets or baking dishes and brush with the oil, and a generous amount of salt and pepper. Bake for 40 or 45 minutes, until just beginning to turn golden brown and tender. Remove from the oven.
  5. Make the bechamel: In a medium-large saucepan heat the butter over medium heat until sizzling. Whisk in the flour and cook until the mixture begins to darken slightly and smell nutty. Slowly whisk in the milk and cook over low heat until smooth and thickened, about 8 minutes. Whisk in 1 cup of the cheese, salt, pepper and nutmeg and cook until thickened, whisking constantly.
  6. To assemble the moussaka: Place the potatoes on top of the lamb in the casserole in a single layer. Top with the eggplant. Top with the bechamel sauce and sprinkle on the remaining cup of cheese. Cover tightly with foil. The moussaka can be made several hours ahead of time. Refrigerate until ready to bake.
  7. To bake: Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Bake on the middle shelf for about 45 minutes, or until the cheese sauce is bubbling. Place the casserole under the broil to brown the topping for about 5 to 10 minutes. Let it sit for about 5 to 10 minutes before cutting out pieces.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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