Culinary hostess in awe of earth’s bounty

Published 3:23 pm Tuesday, August 8, 2023

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Taking a step forward is usually a good thing. Sometimes, a step backward is even better – especially when it takes you back home.

My long-time friend, MJ Zaremba, has come full circle. After living 19 years in Omaha, Neb., MJ recently moved back to Winston-Salem, a city that’s always felt like home to her. Now settled in her new house – MJ has picked up right where she left off – hosting the stand-out soirees she’s known for. Hospitality is her gift – and one is blessed to take a coveted seat at her table. MJ’s friend list is as extensive as her culinary versatility.

Born with the French name, Marie Jeanne, pronounced “mahree jhan,” MJ lived a few doors down the street from where I once lived. Dinners served in her beautiful home were memorable and made for exquisite evenings. Her curated menus, creative tablescapes, and ultimate “hostess with the mostest” personality made for a night to remember.

Sometimes we’re not aware of the ways we influence others. But back in the early-80s, it was MJ who exposed me to a new culinary world. Taken from a page out of the Silver Palette cookbook – to this day, I vividly recall her serving Chicken Marbella, a scrumptious chicken thigh and prune recipe. I’d never tasted anything so delicious. She also expanded my horizons with her 40-year collection of Bon Appetite magazine publications – I went home and subscribed the next day.  In addition to the magazines, MJ has over 300 cookbooks and still collecting. She often gifts cookbooks to like-minded friends – recently giving me a Canadian cookbook chock full of delicious recipes with a spread of gorgeous, gastronomic photos.

Every good cook has a special feeling related to culinary art. For MJ, cooking is a “sacred” activity. She stands in awe of the bounties that the earth offers.  “When I cut a red cabbage, I am mesmerized by the colors, lines, freshness, and taste.” She also finds the sacred in the preparation. Combining ingredients to create a dish both nurturing and delicious, sharing with friends around her table, and laughing and crying together – she feels is “magical.”

MJ was born in Wales to European parents and was exposed to diverse cultures and cuisines. She began cooking and entertaining as a college student and has continued ever since. At one point, her love for cooking led her to own a bakery and delicatessen in Montreal Canada, and later, a healthy, fast-food restaurant in Omaha. In the years leading up to retirement, MJ owned and ran a kitchen consignment shop where she could share her skills and knowledge with lovely customers.

While MJ’s father, who was Polish, often invited his cronies over and cooked for them – he wasn’t her influencer. Her true mentor authored MJ’s first cookbook – a vintage, French Canadian book called The New and Complete Encyclopedia of Cooking. The deluxe edition was written by Madae Benoit – a famous gourmet chef equivalent to Julia Childs. Being a poor student, MJ had to buy the cookbook in 12 installments – it took an entire year to purchase them.

To MJ, the concept of “eating well” means eating foods prepared with fresh, natural ingredients. She always keeps seasonal fresh fruits, vegetables, and herbs in her fridge along with condiments, pickles, and fresh dairy products, saying, “Cheese is a wonderful component to keep on hand.” MJ values small farmers who keep heirloom veggies and fruits alive.

When asked about a favorite last meal, MJ concluded one might be simple food like “crusty French bread slathered with premium mayo and topped with juicy tomato slices with salt and cracked pepper – oh, and with a glass of white wine.”

My question, “Beer, wine, or cocktails?” elicited a hearty laugh, which suggested no contest.  Without hesitation – wine. “Wine pairs better with food and can enhance food in ways that cocktails and beer can’t.”

MJ’s food ritual is one I learned from Chef Don McMillan in cooking class – a French word known as mise-en-place – the gathering of ingredients and laying them out before cooking. Then, like playing the piano, MJ reads the recipe and creates her version of the piece – I’ve included a few of her recipes.

Not only is MJ my friend – she’s my culinary instigator, inspirator, influencer, role model, and mentor. With a penchant for the culinary arts, old friends gather at her place, paying homage to an old truth, “Birds of a feather stick together.” Many friendships are bound by a shared love for cooking. And when we gather – there’s lots of chatter – mainly about foods, recipes, and our future plans as well as memories of days past.

Our friendships in life can be impactful – be a true friend who loves, supports, and comforts. In the Bible, Peter said, “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms.” 1 Peter 4:8-10 (NIV)

COUSCOUS SALAD

1 ½ cups couscous

½ cup raisins

1 tsp turmeric

2 cups boiling water

2 cups or15 oz. rinsed, drained chickpeas

2 halved, seeded, diced medium tomatoes

3 thinly sliced scallions

2/3 cup toasted sliced almonds

Orange-Garlic-Basil Dressing

1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil

1/3 cup fresh lemon juice

1 grated orange rind

2 Tbsp. minced, fresh basil

2 minced cloves garlic

½ tsp. salt

Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Green leaf lettuce

In a bowl, combine couscous, raisins, and turmeric. Pour boiling water over the mixture and stir well. Cover bowl and allow to stand 5 minutes. Fluff with fork, cover, and allow to stand additional 10 minutes. Stir in chickpeas, tomatoes, scallions, and toasted almonds. In another bowl, combine olive oil, lemon juice, orange rind, basil, garlic, salt, and pepper and blend well. Pour oil mixture over couscous mixture and toss. Cover and chill for at least 30 minutes or up to 24 hours before serving. Serve mounded on leafy lettuce. Salad can be made 2 days ahead.

BLACK BEAN SALAD

15 oz. rinsed, drained black beans

15 oz. drained, yellow corn

4 chopped scallions

1 chopped large carrot

½ chopped red pepper

½ chopped stalk of celery

1 tsp. cumin

1 tsp. salt

¼ tsp. freshly ground black pepper

Dressing

1/3 cup canola oil

1/3 cup fresh lemon juice

3 Tbsp. chopped parsley

For the salad, in a bowl, combine the black beans and corn. Add chopped scallions, carrot, red pepper, and celery that have been cut into small cubes. Sprinkle in the cumin, salt, and pepper. Gently fold all ingredients together until mixed well. For the dressing, in a jar, combine canola oil, lemon juice, and parsley. Shake well until thoroughly mixed. Pour dressing over bean mixture and gently mix well. Chill. Serve at room temperature. Salad can be made 2 days ahead.

RUSSIAN POTATO SALAD

4 cubed Idaho potatoes with skin

1 cubed Granny Smith apple

½ cubed English cucumber

3 4-inch cubed Kosher dill pickles

15 oz. drained yellow corn

4 chopped green onions

½ cup chopped fresh dill

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Premium mayonnaise

Sour cream

Wrap potatoes with skins in foil. Bake in a 370-degree oven until cooked but not too tender. Allow to cool completely. In a bowl, cube potatoes, apple. cucumber, and dill pickles into ½-inch cubes. Gently mix until combined. Add drained corn, green onions, dill, salt, and pepper, to taste. Gently fold in equal amounts of mayonnaise and sour cream, just enough to coat the salad per preference. Refrigerate. Salad can be made 2 days ahead.

BELL PEPPER SLAW

2 thinly sliced red bell peppers

2 thinly sliced yellow or green bell peppers

Dressing

3 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice

1 ½ Tbsp. minced fresh mint

2 tsp. sugar

¾ tsp. cumin

1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil

In a bowl, thinly slice all peppers lengthwise and set aside. For the dressing, in a bowl, whisk together lemon juice, mint, sugar, cumin, and oil until emulsified. Gently toss peppers with dressing, and chill for 1 hour before serving.  Salad can be made 2 days ahead.

OLD-TIMEY DATE BARS

1 ½ cups all-purpose flour

1 ½ cups old-fashioned regular oats

2/3 cup packed brown sugar

½ tsp. baking soda

¼ tsp. salt

¾ cup softened salted butter

Filling:

2 cups chopped pitted dates (½ lb.)

¼ cup sugar

2 tsp. fresh lemon juice

¾ cups boiling water

For the filling, in a saucepan, cook dates, sugar, lemon juice, and water over medium heat while stirring for 15 minutes or until dates are soft. Set aside and allow to cool. For the crust, in a bowl, combine flour, oats, sugar, baking soda, and salt. Blend in butter until mixture forms a crumble texture. Evenly pat ½ of the mixture into bottom of a square 9-inch pan. Evenly spread filling over top. Sprinkle with remaining flour crumble mixture and pat down very lightly. Bake in a preheated 350-degree oven for 30 minutes or until nicely browned. Allow to cool and cut into squares. Can be frozen easily.