It was May, 2004, during a glitzy dinner celebrating that year’s James Beard Awards at a mid-Manhattan hotel.
Gabriella Gershenson, at that time a fledgling food writer living in New York, was seated next to me. I discovered that I and this soft-spoken young woman with thick, wavy black hair and a winning smile were kindred souls.
Soon we were discussing our shared passion: little-known ethnic food finds tucked away on the culinary road less travelled. She told me about her specialty: “Food not served by a waiter.”
Two days later, we were strolling through New York’s Chinatown, Chelsea and the Lower East Side. Most of the spots we visited still exist: Donut Plant, Kossar’s Bialys, Russ & Daughters, Fried Dumpling, Vegetarian Dim Sum House among them. I wrote a column about that rewarding day in the Toronto Star where I was the food editor and columnist. (I resigned in 2007 and am now a freelance Food Sleuth specializing in podcasts and blog posts like this one.)
In addition to an appetite for intrepid food sleuthing, Gabriella and I have these things in common: Her Jewish family’s roots are in Riga, Latvia; she was born in the U.S. shortly after they emigrated in 1975. My refugee family on my mother’s side came to North America in 1939 but also suffered death and destruction during the Holocaust in Riga, Latvia. (See Gabriella’s 2011 article in Saveur about re-visiting her Latvian roots.)
Gabriella studied at McGill and spent time living in Montreal – she loves that city. My dad was born and raised in Montreal, my parents met at McGill and I was born in Montreal. I too have a fondness for that place.
Last but not least, we both share a quirky love of prunes – a much-maligned fruit.
Gabriella and I move in the same professional world and have kept loosely in touch and know many of our peers in food journalism. I reached out recently when I planned to spend a week in the Big Apple including a birthday lunch at the exquisite Le Bernardin. She agreed to come to our hotel the day after that to record a podcast. It was heartwarming to catch up.
Today, 14 years later, Gabriella sports longer hair, is married and has an impressive body of work.
Based in New York, she is a food writer and editor who has worked at Rachael Ray Every Day, Saveur and Time Out New York. Her work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Boston Globe and many other publications. She does radio (Heritage Radio, CBC), TV (Food Network) and moderates talks on food. You can find her on Twitter as @gabiwrites.
Here’s the memorable Prune Soufflé my mum used to make inspired by the chat with my kindred soul. It’s followed by the Epicurious recipe that Gabriella often makes for stuffed zucchini. Both are delicious. (Btw, Gabriella included David Leibovitz’s recipe for Cherry Gateau Basque in one of her articles. I made it and took the glorious result to my communal office – to rave reviews.)
This is adapted from my mother’s tattered and stained edition of the 1940s (maybe the first) edition of the Joy of Cooking from which she learned to cook. As a child, I used to ask for it on my birthday. The prune mixture makes a little more than you need – you can freeze the remainder or fold it into yogurt or vanilla ice cream.
1 lb/500g soft prunes
¼ cup granulated sugar
½ lemon, sliced
1 cinnamon stick
In shallow bowl, cover with prunes with hot water about 30 minutes to 1 hour. Transfer mixture to saucepan; add sugar, lemon and cinnamon stick. Bring to a boil; reduce the heat to low and simmer about 30 minutes or until prunes are soft and mixture is thickened. Discard lemon slices and cinnamon stick. Mash with potato masher or blend in food processor until small pieces of prune remain. Reserve a little more than 1 cup pureed prune mixture; cool. (Save the remaining prune mixture for another use – add to granola and yogurt for a breakfast dish or mix with a little brandy and fold into vanilla ice cream.)
5 egg whites, at room temperature
⅛ tsp salt
¼ tsp cream of tartar
Preheat oven to 275F.
Beat egg whites and salt in medium-large bowl until foamy. Add cream of tartar; beat until stiff peaks form. Fold in cooled prune mixture. Transfer mixture to 9-inch soufflé dish. Bake in oven about 1 hour or until firm. Serve hot, warm or cold with custard sauce, yogurt or vanilla ice cream.
Makes 4 to 6 servings.
Lebanese Stuffed Zucchini
I used a mixture of medium-to-large green and yellow zucchini for this delicious dish Gabriella makes often. It’s from Epicurious.
6 medium zucchini (6 to 8 oz each)
½ cup long-grain rice
2 tbsp olive oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
¾ lb/375 g ground beef or lamb (not lean)
1 tsp ground allspice
2 tsp salt
¾ tsp ground black pepper
2 cups canned diced tomatoes (including juice)
1 cup chicken stock
Juice of half a lemon
Hollow out each zucchini, working from both ends with a small melon-ball cutter or an apple corer, removing all seeds and leaving shells about ⅓ inch thick. Discard pulp and seeds.
Wash rice in several changes of cold water in a bowl until water runs almost clear, then drain in a sieve.
Heat oil in a deep 12-inch heavy skillet over moderately high heat until hot but not smoking. Add onion, stirring, and cook until golden, 6 to 8 minutes. Add garlic and cook, stirring, 1 minute, then remove skillet from heat.
Transfer ¼ cup onion mixture to medium bowl; cool slightly. Add rice, ground beef, allspice, 1½ teaspoons salt, and ½ teaspoon pepper; mix well with your hands. Stuff zucchini shells with mixture, being careful not to pack tightly (rice will expand during cooking).
Add tomatoes with juice, stock, remaining ½ teaspoon salt, and remaining ¼ teaspoon pepper to onion in skillet; bring to a simmer. Place stuffed zucchini in tomato mixture in skillet; simmer, covered, until rice is cooked through, 1 to 1¼ hours (cut 1 zucchini in half crosswise to check).
Transfer zucchini to a plate; bring sauce to a boil and simmer, stirring, until slightly thickened, about 5 minutes. Return zucchini to sauce. Squeeze lemon over dish before serving.
Makes about 6 servings.