Karen's Kitchen

Favorite Dishes and Cooking Styles

Oysters! She loved them fried or in an oyster stew I would make for her during the cold season.

Palak paneer - hand's down one of her favorites.

Spinach salads. She would always use red onion, olive oil and Asiago cheese grated in for a flavor that she and I loved.

Calamari - she loved calamari, and anywhere we went that had it on the menu would be judged by how well they made it. She didn't give high marks unless her calamari was served with tentacles. She also enjoyed - in risottos and paellas - octopus, baby squid, mussels, clams and other denziens of the deep.

Wings. When we would go out for a quick meal she would never deviate from ordering wings, and she always slipped a bottle of House of Tsang Bangkok Padang peanut sauce into her purse to use as a dip when her wings arrived at the table.

Indian cuisine, as mentioned, but also many Thai dishes (Sambal was a favorite, as was any kind of Thai curry), and Italian dishes I would cook for her - mainly spaghettini con aglio e olio, gnocchi, or carpaccio. My traditional spaghettini con aglio e olio recipe evolved over time to suit her love of alfredo-style sauces. More about that in the recipes.

Other dishes I enjoyed making for her - and she enjoyed eating - were milanesa, lentil soup, crab omelets, risotto (or paella), and shrimp scampi.

When she cooked - and especially large meals for company - her movements in the kitchen were almost as though they were choreographed. She moved about like a dervish, chopping, mashing, and managing. No matter how complex the meal, everything was timed to perfection. Everything was ready at an exact time. Everything was picture (and palate) perfect.

Karen was renown for her turkeys, which were uniform, golden brown on the outside and moist and cooked to perfection on the inside. Her lamb was always perfectly pink on the inside, and her steaks, roasts and other meat dishes were simply a work of culinary art.

Her potato salad and chicken soup were her trademark dishes. Especially the chicken soup. Suffice to say, anything she prepared or cooked, from the most elaborate meal, to a simple tuna sandwich or spinach salad, were delightful.

She was also a master baker. Every Christmas she would make piles of cookies to have on hand for guests, and nut cups for her children. While my tolerance for sugars is low, I could never resist and she had to hide them from me. Nothing was sweeter, except her.


Sadly, all of her recipes went with her. I tried observing her, but could never replicate what she did in the kitchen because her approach was based upon the knowledge passed down from her mother, intuition, and some ineffable sense of both timing and seasoning. The best I can offer are a few recipes of my dishes that brought her pleasure.

Oyster Stew

This is a simple recipe that everyone who grew up in Virginia or Maryland knows how to make. Ingredients:
  • 1 quart (or more) of oysters
  • 3 tablespoons of butter
  • 1 quart of half and half
  • Black pepper
  • Oyster crackers
Melt the butter on medium heat in a 3 quart pot, then add in the oysters and half and half. Do not allow the mixture to come to a boil!. Add in sufficient black pepper - at least 1 tablespoon - until the mixture is a light gray with yellow from the butter revealed as you stir. The oysters will turn a slightly whiter color as the mixture scalds, with the begnning of bubbles surfacing to the top. That is the indication that it's ready. Quickly serve with oyster crackers and enjoy a dish that always delighted Karen.

Palak Paneer

We enjoyed this dish at one of the best Indian restaurants there is (as attested to by many Indian friends and coworkers who ate there.) My version is one she most enjoyed, although a Punjabi would probably not think so. Ingredients:
  • Olive oil
  • 1 pint of plain, unflavored yogurt
  • 1 bunch fresh cilantro
  • 1 large red onion
  • 2 large bags of fresh spinach
  • 20+ cloves of garlic (or to taste)
  • Cubed tofu
  • Cumin
  • bokharat
  • Curry Powder
  • Dried red pepper
  • Sea salt
  • Black pepper
Finely chop the fresh cilantro (I sometimes used a little water, a garlic clove and a touch of bokharat and used a blender), the red onion, and the dried red pepper.
Keep the garlic cloves whole (otherwise the dish will have too strong of a garlic flavor).

In a pan brown the ingredients in olive oil. After the garlic has turned golden brown, add in a quarter cup of water and start adding spinach. As the spinach reduces add more until both bags have been reduced to a stewed spinach consistency.

Add in the cubed tofu, and allow to cook covered until the spinach is tender, then add the pint of yogurt.

Season starting with two heaping tablespoons of curry power, stirring until the mixture has a brownish hue. Sprinkle a small amount of cumin - less than a half teaspoon - and with your fingers sprinkle in a slight amount of bokharat. Let simmer, stirrring frequently. Season to taste with black pepper and sea salt, and serve over basmati rice.

Her Pleasures in Life

Karen loved good food and she loved cooking. In the beginning it was like a meeting of the fare of the Mid West and the exotic. Her dishes were traditional American; mine were influenced by both my American South and Italian-American upbringing, and my world travels throughout Asia and the Middle East. For some reason we each became fans of the other's cooking, and the meals we most enjoyed were almost vegetarian.

The staples in the pantry are the best indication of her palate: olive oil, garlic, black pepper, red onions, fresh spinach and Asiago cheese. Those were her favorite things.

Then there were the spices we always used: rosemary, curry powder, cumin, sea salt, cayenne pepper and red pepper, bokharat, and sazon completa - we never ran out of those. Fresh herbs that we would use in many dishes included basil, cilantro, and oregano.

She also loved various kinds of nuts, especially sunflower seeds, Brazil nuts, walnuts, almonds and pine nuts. She would eat them or enjoy them in various dishes and pestos I made for her. She loved pesto (and hummus) with Old London Original Melba Toast. In some ways her tastes were an enigma. She viewed hummus as a treat, but did not care for baba ghanouj; she loved Indian cuisine, but didn't care for Middle Eastern fare. She was a woman who knew what she liked.

Vegetables that were a staple included broccoli, rapine, sweet potatoes, and green beans - all of which she would steam to perfection and serve with olive oil butter.

Meats were usually lamb or chicken, and always fish of some type. When we had company, she was the cook, and her famous turkey, roast or steak would be on the menu, along with her amazing mashed potatoes, dressing (with turkey), and exquisitely steamed and seasoned green beans.

One of her guilty pleasures (always enjoyed with a glass of wine) was a baguette that she would dip in olive oil into which she had seasoned with Allesi dipping spices. Another of her pleasures - this one not so guilty - was a cup of Bigelow Vanilla Chai, which she frequently would make at night at mid break through a movie. Life was not all about wine, but it's undeniable that wine was a constant in her life. She enjoyed merlot, pinot noir and red zinfindel.

During those periods when she would quit drinking, her beverage of choice was a diet coke with plenty of sliced lemons. She also enjoyed coffee, and enjoyed it strong (probably because of my influence.) We used to make Turkish coffee on occasion, but she would sometimes enjoy it and sometimes would not care much for it. Her morning routine, though, always consisted of enjoying a cup of coffee and a glass of grapefruit juice.

Spaghettini Con Aglio e Olio

This started out as a simple, traditional Italian dish that evolved to match Karen's love for alfredo-style sauces. I'll give the original recipe first. Ingredients:
  • One box of Barilla brand spaghettini (or spaghetti or capellini per your personal choice)
  • Olive oil - a word about olive oil: extra virgin, also known as first cold press, and my preferences ran towards Spanish olive oils, which Karen agreed after I showed her the differences between and among olive oils from Italy, Greece and Spain.
  • 1 small can of anchovies (I used ones with capers)
  • 20+ cloves of garlic
  • Crushed red pepper
  • Sea salt
  • Black pepper
Dissolve the anchovies in a half cup of olive oil at medium high heat.

Add the garlic and brown until all of the cloves are uniform brown.

While browning the garlic, prepare the pasta per the instructions on the box for al dente. Lower the heat on the garlic if it browns before the pasta is cooked.

As soon as the pasta has cooked, immediately drain (and do not run cold water over it), place it back in the pot and mix in the oil and garlic. Season with the peppers and salt, and serve immediately. Lightly grated parmigiano reggiano or romano cheese can substitute for the sea salt. Asiago cheese also works well. If it is too dry, add olive oil (or butter) to taste.

The above is the traditional style - here is Karen's preferred style:

Additional Ingredients

  • 2 eggs
  • 2 tablespoons of butter (we used olive oil butter)
  • Grated cheese (we used fresh Asiago)
  • Oregano
Beat the eggs and add butter and grated cheese. Add in oregano. Mix throughly and set aside.

Following the original recipe, mix in the eggs into the pasta before adding the oil and garlic, making sure that all of the pasta has been coated. The egg will actually cook to the pasta as you mix it in.

Final step: add the oil and garlic mixture and thoroughly mix it in. As in the original recipe, add in butter or olive oil if the dish is too dry for your taste.