May 26, 2016

Dear friends,

Tony is getting into the swing of this retirement thing. Last week he decided on his own to do the grocery shopping. He went to the store without a list and brought back a 3-pound package of hot dogs and some boneless chicken breasts. Period.

“You can make some chicken!” he said as if the idea was novel, although we eat chicken all the time. Hot dogs are another story. I don’t think I’ve cooked any in the 10 years we’ve been together and I’m not about to start now. What was he thinking?

The next morning I padded downstairs to find Tony frying six hot dogs and two pieces of bread in a wide skillet. That was his breakfast, or would have been had I not convinced him to stop at two hot dogs for his cholesterol’s sake.

I had no trouble using up the chicken. The weather was mild and the grill beckoned. I wanted to make chicken kabobs but with more flavor than plain meat grilled on skewers. I didn’t have plain yogurt for an Indian-type marinade, but I did have canned coconut milk. I used an Indian technique of pureeing onions and garlic with a bunch of dried spices and added that and lime juice to the coconut milk. A couple of hours was long enough for the flavors to permeate the meat.

The kabobs are flavorful on their own but if you want to get fancy, you could serve them with a mango salsa or cucumber raita. We like them just the way they are.

I like Tony’s hot dogs just the way they are, too: In the package, in the freezer.

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GRILLED CHICKEN CURRY KABOBS
•    2 1/2 lbs. boneless, skinless chicken breasts
•    1 tsp. ground cumin
•    1 tsp. ground coriander
•    1 tsp. salt
•    1/2 tsp. cayenne pepper
•    1/2 cup rough-chopped sweet onions
•    2 cloves garlic
•    Juice of 1 lime
•    1/2 cup canned coconut milk
•    6 long wooden skewers, soaked in hot water

Trim chicken of fat and cut into long, 1/2-inch to 1-inch-wide strips. In a blender combine spices, onions, garlic and lime juice. Puree, stopping and clearing sides with a rubber spatula several times. Add coconut milk and process until smooth. Combine chicken and spice mixture in a gallon zipper-lock plastic bag and gently squeeze to coat chicken evenly. Refrigerate and marinate for two hours.

Prepare a medium-hot charcoal or gas fire. Thread chicken onto the skewers accordion-style. Grill for about 6 minutes or until cooked through, turning skewers to brown all sides. Makes 6 servings.

HELP U COOK

The difference between squeezing two tablespoons or one-fourth cup of juice from a lime is 15 to 30 seconds in the microwave. Put the whole lime on the turntable and nuke on high until the rind is soft and warm. Age also affects the quantity of juice (citrus fruit dries out as it ages), but you can’t do anything about that. You CAN put the lime in the microwave, though. I never juice a lemon or lime without it.

THE MAILBAG

From Fran F.:
After leaving a Sunday gospel concert at the Civic Theater, we went to Everest Restaurant in Cuyahoga Falls, the Nepali/Indian restaurant you mentioned several weeks ago. They did not have a Sunday buffet and the sign in the window advertised a lunch buffet from 11 to 2 p.m. weekdays and Saturday. The lunch buffet is $8.99 and the weekend Saturday buffet is $9.99.

We arrived at Everest at 4:45 p.m. and the sign on the door said they would be back at 5 p.m.   We sat in the parking lot until 5:05 and then pulled away.   By the time we got out of the parking lot and passed in front of the restaurant the “open” sign came on. We turned around and went back.

We ordered Butter Chicken and Curry Chicken as entrees and had a Mango drink.  The food was tasty but the entrees only included the meat and a shared bowl of rice.  Our bill was $31 without tip.  I felt it was a bit overpriced for the amount of food we got.
Dear Fran: Thanks for sharing your experience. Sounds like the buffet I had is a much better deal.

From John O.:
Where can I get good liver and onions in the Akron area?

Dear John: I’m a liver and onions fan but I haven’t eaten it in a while and can’t remember where I had it. Can anyone help?

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May 18, 2016

Dear friends,

Tony is home! With a serious case of jet lag! I know it’s serious because he is too tired to eat. A bowl of spaghetti sits untouched in the refrigerator.

“My favorite,” he moaned sleepily when I placed it in front of him Sunday at about 6 p.m. That would be 7 a.m. Japan time. He conked out before the first forkful.

Tony arrived bearing gifts. The aunts sent me really cool T-shirts, purses and handcrafts. His cousins and high school buddies sent food, and his dear mother sent me all of her jewelry. I wish I could be with her. But I’m here, still cooking for just myself until Tony snaps out of it.

Mostly I’ve been making simple things like scrambled eggs and sandwiches. That changed when I found fresh, sweet cherries for $1.99 a pound. They were part of a sale celebrating the grand re-opening of the remodeled Acme No. 1 in West Akron. The store is modern and inviting, and it was packed with bargains last weekend.

Two dollars a pound is probably as low as these seasonal treasures are likely to go. I’ve seen cherries elsewhere, though, at $3 to $4 a pound -– unusual for this time of year. Cherries usually aren’t that inexpensive until supplies peak around the Fourth of July.

Most of our cherries come from Michigan and Washington State in late June and early July. The early cherries are coming from California, which must have a bumper crop this year.

I know just what to do with them. I like the idea of tossing pitted cherries into a salad with smoked turkey and salty feta cheese, or pureeing some and freezing in alternating layers with vanilla yogurt in ice pop molds. I will probably get around to those projects when I recover from my dried-cherry experiment.

Because I was able to afford a few pounds of cherries, I thought I would dry some. I like the idea of controlling the moisture level, producing half-dried cherries (like my half-dried tomatoes) to freeze and add bursts of flavor to my breakfast yogurt next winter. They’d be great in muffins, too.

I found two ways of drying cherries: In the microwave and in the oven. I tried both, but first I had to pit the dang things. Do not believe Internet advice to punch out the pits with a chopstick. The cherry is placed atop the neck of an empty wine bottle and the chopstick is plunged into its fleshy midsection, pushing the pit through the fruit and into the wine bottle below. Surrrre. I tried this with several empty narrow-necked bottles, including a wine bottle, and punched my medium sized cherries without exception into the bottles, pits and all. I punched gently, I stabbed wickedly; the result was the same.

The second Internet-touted method, which I’ve used before, is to insert a paper clip into the cherry and drag out the pit. I must have lost either patience or dexterity (maybe both) as I aged because I HATED fishing around with that paper clip. By the time I captured the pit, my hands were a sticky pink and the cherry was a pulpy mess. I did not attempt cherry number two.

I finally resorted to a paring knife, slicing each cherry in half and digging out the pit with the knife tip. I could pit 18 cherries in 5 minutes, enough to fill a 11-by-17-inch baking sheet. Not bad, but I recommend you go buy a cherry pitter.

In an 1100-watt microwave, the cherry halves dried in 17 minutes on the defrost setting. The cherries were pitted and placed directly on the clean glass turntable, cut sides up, about 1 inch apart. If you go this route, start checking after 10 minutes, keeping in mind that the fruit dries more as it sits.

In an oven set to 200 degrees, the cherry halves dried to my taste in 1 1/2 hours. They were concentrated and wrinkled but still slightly juicy. If you want fully dried fruit leather-type cherries, increase the time to 2 to 2 1/2 hours. The halves were placed cut sides down 1 1/2 inches apart on a foil-lined baking sheet. Tip: When you take the cherries from the oven, slide them, still on the foil, onto a counter and loosen them with the side of a fork. Then cool and eat or freeze.

My conclusion is that that microwave is a bad way to dry cherries. It’s easy to turn them into burnt little disks, even using the defrost setting. A couple of my thinner cherries became cherry chips.

Also, unless you remove the cherry halves from the glass turntable immediately, you’ll have to saw them off with a serrated knife. Then you must soak the turntable a long time and probably scrape it with a spatula to remove the dried cherry residue.

The oven-drying method was a lark in comparison. But why bother at all? Because half- or almost-dried cherries taste amazing compared to the over-sweetened commercial kind.

My half-dried cherries should taste especially good in a batch of coconut drop biscuits. The recipe is from James Villas’ excellent little cookbook, “Biscuit Bliss.” Villas writes that he likes to serve the “rather dainty” biscuits with coffee after an elaborate dinner.

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COCONUT-CHERRY DROP BISCUITS
3/4 cup frozen unsweetened flaked coconut
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tbsp. sugar
2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
2 tbsp. chilled vegetable shortening
1 cup whole milk
1 egg, beaten
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1/4 cup dried or 1/2 cup half-dried sweet cherries

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Spread the frozen coconut on a large baking sheet and toast, stirring often, until golden, about 30 minutes. Transfer to a bowl and cool.

Increase oven temperature to 425 degrees. Grease the same baking sheet and set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the coconut, flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. Cut in the shortening with a pastry blender until the mixture is crumbly. In a small bowl, whisk together the milk, egg and vanilla. Add to the dry ingredients along with the cherries. Stir just until the dough is very soft and still slightly wet.

Drop the dough by scant tablespoons onto the prepared baking sheet about 1 inch apart. Bake at 425 degrees in the upper third of the oven until golden, about 12 minutes. Serve hot or at room temperature. Makes about 20 biscuits.

From “Biscuit Bliss” by James Villas.

HELP U COOK

It’s hard to remember which foods freeze poorly so here, in one place, is a list:

Sour cream becomes thin and watery.

Mayonnaise separates.

Cream cheese develops a watery texture.

Cooked egg whites become rubbery.

Icings made with egg whites become foamy.

Custard pie fillings become watery or lumpy.

Raw egg yolks thicken.

Heavy cream won’t whip but may be used in cooking.
Cooked grains and pastas soften.

Fruits and vegetables with a high water content become limp.

Many seasonings change in flavor, to wit: Onions, garlic, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and pepper intensify in flavor; salt, thyme, rosemary, dill, sage and basil pale in flavor.

THE MAILBAG
From Isabel T.:
I think it was last year that you had a recipe for an asparagus tart with slices of lemon. I made it once and can’t find the recipe.

Dear Isabel: That was my take on an asparagus and lemon version of tarte tatin. Asparagus spears and sautéed lemon slices are arranged in a skillet over a butter mixture, covered with puff pastry and baked. When done, the tart is inverted onto a serving plate to show off the asparagus and lemon. Wedges of the warm tart are a lovely spring side dish. Thanks for reminding me of this recipe.

UPSIDE-DOWN ASPARAGUS-LEMON TART
1 sheet of frozen puff pastry
1 firm lemon, sliced thin
14 to 16 spears asparagus, cut 4-inches long (tip end only)
1 tbsp. oil
2 tbsp. butter
1 tsp. sugar

Thaw pastry according to package directions. Slice lemon and cut and wash asparagus. Place an 8-inch oven-safe skillet over medium heat. When hot, add oil and butter. After butter melts, sprinkle sugar evenly in skillet. Arrange as many lemon slices as will fit in skillet in a single layer. Cook, turning once, until the edges begin to turn golden. Remove from skillet with tongs.

Remove skillet from heat. Arrange asparagus spears in a spoke pattern in the skillet, with the tips the center. Place lemon slices in a pattern on top of the asparagus.

Unbend puff pastry sheet and roll briefly with a floured rolling pin to remove creases. Use a 9- or 10-inch round cake pan as a guide to cut pastry in a circle. Place pastry circle over asparagus and lemon slices in pan, tucking edges down along the insides.

Bake at 375 degrees for about 25 minutes, until pastry is cooked through and starts to turn golden. Remove from oven and immediately invert onto a plate. Sprinkle with coarse sea salt. Serve warm or at room temperature.
From Annie:
Hey Jane, I got my peas and onions in early but it is taking longer to get more garden tilled up for the potatoes and fava beans.  I grew most of my own tomato and pepper plants this year and they are ready when Mother Nature is ready to let me put them in.

Every year I plan to go to Crown Point to the heirloom plant sale.  I haven’t been able to get there yet and am planning to go come heck or high water this year.  Do you have the specifics yet?

Dear Annie: I hear you. As I write this (Monday), my basil and eggplant seedlings are covered with plastic cottage cheese containers to ward off the frost. I was hoping to enjoy corn before the Fourth this year when I saw farmers planting in April, but now I doubt it.

Crown Point Ecology Center’s organic plant sale at its farm in Bath began last weekend but has expanded from two days to many more this year. The details are at http://crownpt.org/annual-organic-plant-sale/.
From Lin in France:

You want to know about new-to-me plants? Well, last year I grew a “pigment de oiseau” in a pot on my terrace. These are the tiny peppers you typically find in the spicy oil you drizzle on pizza. Then I strung them on a length of yarn and dried them in the kitchen. This spring I went to a plant fair and talked with a fellow who grows hundreds of different varieties of peppers and asked him what he would recommend and he sold me two: Kashmiri and Varigata. They will also have to tough it out in the pot and with limited sun on my terrace…we’ll see how they work out.

Dear Lin: You have a whole slew of European heirlooms to try. What fun!

From Isabelle Gordon:
In my recent move I lost your buckwheat cakes recipe, one that Tony liked that I think came from a restaurant.  It was like the recipe that I grew up with.  I’m not sure how my request works but I would love to be able to find the recipe.  Thanks in advance.

Dear Isabelle: Unfortunately, I don’t have a searchable database yet. That recipe was from way back when Tony and I met, I think. That would make it 2006. Does anyone have this recipe?

May 11, 2016

Dear friends,

After a nice Mother’s Day brunch, all I needed to make the day complete was a call from my step-son. The call came in early evening. Nico has not missed a Mother’s Day since he moved to Colorado three years ago. Hearing his voice almost makes me forget that hair-pulling senior year when he rebelled against Tony, me, school and the universe.

Nico has changed. He is once again the charming, smart, funny kid who asked deep questions and laughed with me at goofy TV shows. He’s that kid but more mature and thoughtful. I wish I could have shared brunch with him. He was always an enthusiastic and adventurous eater.

But then, so is my dog, who shared the riff on huevos-rancheros-meets-eggs-Benedict I made Sunday. Oscar isn’t as good a conversationalist as Nico but he likes my cooking just as much.

We’re both kind of smitten with the crispy corn cakes I made as the base of my Benedict. I wanted something more substantial than corn pancakes but less leaden than traditional hoecakes, which are basically water and corn meal stirred together and fried.

My hoecakes are cross between the two. I lightened the batter with a smidgen of self-rising flour and added oil for tenderness. The result: They’re sturdier than pancakes but more tender than hoecakes, with the latter’s pure corn flavor.

I topped the cakes with frizzled ham and green onions charred in a dry skillet. I poached the egg for 4 minutes in almost-simmering water in a covered skillet. If I were more ambitious and had calories to burn, I would have topped the stack with a ribbon of jalapeno hollandaise sauce. Instead I used smoky chipotle salsa, which was almost as good.

Too bad Tony didn’t get to taste this. Maybe I’ll make it on Father’s Day, when he will be safely back home.

POACHED EGGS, HAM AND CHARRED SCALLIONS OVER HOECAKES

For the hoecakes:
1/2 cup yellow corn meal
1/2 cup hot water
2 tbsp. self-rising flour
1 tbsp. Canola oil
1/4 tsp. salt

Combine corn meal and hot water in a bowl and let stand for 10 minutes. Stir in remaining ingredients and let stand a few minutes longer.

Pour about one-sixteenth inch oil into a hot nonstick or cast iron skillet. Adjust the heat to medium. When the oil is hot, Spoon in one-fourth of the batter, spreading to form a thin disk about 4 inches in diameter. Cook until edges are brown and crisp. Flip and cook until reverse side is golden. Keep warm in a 200-degree oven.

Everything else:
8 thin green onions, trimmed
6 oz. shaved ham
4 eggs
Salsa (optional)

Heat a large cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat. Place onions in dry skillet and cook until dark brown in places on both sides. Remove from pan with tongs and set aside. In same skillet, warm hand until the edges frizzle.

While ham warms, break eggs into a nonstick skillet of barely simmering water. Cover and cook, barely simmering, until whites are set but yolks are still runny, about 4 minutes.

While eggs cook, place a hoecake on each of 4 luncheon-sized plates. Top each with 1 1/2 ounces of the ham and 2 green onions. Carefully remove each egg from the water with a slotted spoon and slide onto the onions. Serve with salsa if desired. Makes 4 servings.

HELP U COOK

While making a pot of soup last weekend I was reminded of all the restaurant utensils and cookware Tony brought to our marriage. I can’t imagine how I cooked without them.

I actually used to use either a wooden spoon or a serving spoon to stir soup, spaghetti sauce and chili. Using giant, long-handled restaurant spoons makes much more sense. I now have foot-long regular, slotted and strainer spoons hanging beside the stove.

If you are still cooking with amateur equipment, visit a restaurant supply store and pick up some inexpensive utensils. While you’re there, grab a pizza peel and one really giant (5-gallon) pot for making stock. A meat saw can come in handy, too. Last week I used mine to hack through a wood dowel, but that’s another story.

THE MAILBAG
From Linda:
Regarding your pork belly article, my favorite meal as a child was roast pork. If my mom asked me on my birthday what I wanted that was my answer…but they seem to have “leaned” all the flavor out of U.S. pork, so what a delight it was to discover good old fat pork here in France! I had a 24-hour roasted pork meal at a restaurant last autumn and was instantly transported back to my childhood. It was pork belly rolled and roasted low and slow, then only a couple of slices on the plate was enough to put me into orbit!

Dear Linda: Some good old-fashioned pork is produced here in Ohio, but you have to search for it and it’s expensive — $4 to $5 a pound if you buy in bulk. Those who are interested should Google “Ohio heritage pork.” We envy you, Linda.

From Sandy T.:
You haven’t mentioned your garden this spring. Have you given up or if not, what new things are you planting this year?

Dear Sandy: Gardening without Tony to plow or Rototill is tough. I’m waiting for him to return from Japan to do most of my spring planting. Meanwhile, I shoveled enough soil to plant a row of sugar snap peas out back and French breakfast radishes and lettuces in the trough on the deck. I’m also trying to grow eggplant in containers this year, after disease and root-gnawing critters wiped out the eggplants in my garden last summer.

My perennial herbs are flourishing and I planted basil last weekend. I’ve harvested a few stalks of asparagus, but my old patch has all but stopped producing. I spent time weeding the new row I planted last year (but can’t harvest until 2018), along with new rows of blueberry and blackberry bushes. So I guess I am gardening, but in a low-energy kind of way.

My new item this year, to be planted when Tony returns, is Japanese sweet potatoes. I had to send away for the plants. I’d love to hear about new plants (new to you) that you and others are trying this season or that you’ve had success with in the past.

May 5, 2016

Dear friends,

I could say the universe conspired against my pork-belly cookout Monday, but I don’t think the universe gives a damn what I do with pork belly. I am so weary of people blaming everything on the universe or, worse yet, fate (“everything happens for a reason”). Take a humble pill, people! Take some responsibility!

Ok, that’s out of my system. Anyway, I had planned to grill-smoke the handsome hunk of pork belly I got at Sherman Provision in Norton but we had no charcoal lighter fluid and the fire-starting wand was nowhere to be found because Tony had put it somewhere and he is still in Japan and the day was overcast and I miss him terribly and oh, to heck with it. I came inside and tossed the meat in the oven.

I say “meat” loosely because pork belly is mostly fat. It is bacon before it’s cured and sliced. It is seriously delicious, and just what I needed on a dreary day.

The pork belly trend is still roaring in upscale restaurants, where it graces salads, grits, sandwiches, tacos and more. The texture can be crisp or soft and pillow-y depending on how it is prepared. Most chefs begin by brining the pork belly so I did, too. I sliced off the rind (which toughens during cooking) and rubbed both fatty and meat sides with salt and sugar, and marinated it overnight in a plastic zip-lock bag with equal parts bourbon and water.

After giving up on the grill, I looked to chef David Chang for advice on roasting. I used his technique from “The Momofuku Cookbook” of roasting in a pan just large enough to snugly hold it. My 2-pound hunk of pork belly fit in a large loaf pan with no room to spare. After an hour at high temperature and an hour at low temperature, it was done. Chang wraps and chills the cooked pork belly to ensure neat slices, but I had no problem slicing the warm meat with a serrated knife.

I had planned to dice the pork, crisp it in a skillet and nestle it in tacos with cilantro and a squeeze of lime, but I didn’t. It had started to rain and I didn’t feel festive. I photographed the pork and ate a couple of slices standing at the counter. The rest is in the freezer waiting for Tony’s return. Pork belly is an indulgent meal to share.

PORK BELLY WITH BOURBON AND BROWN SUGAR

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  • 1 piece (about 2 lbs.) pork belly
  • 2 tbsp. salt
  • 2 tbsp. packed brown sugar
  • 1 cup bourbon
  • 1 cup water

Use your sharpest knife to slice the rind from the pork belly, leaving as much fat as possible on the meat. . This can be achieved by angling the edge of the blade toward the rind while slicing. Discard rind or save for pork cracklings.

Rub the salt and sugar over both sides of the pork belly. Place in a gallon plastic zip-lock bag with the bourbon and water and seal. Refrigerate overnight.
Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Remove meat from bag and discard brine. Place pork belly fat side up in a pan just large enough to hold it snugly (a large loaf pan works well). Roast uncovered at 450 degrees for 1 hour or until fat has browned, basting after 30 minutes.

Reduce temperature to 250 degrees and roast 1 to 1 1/4 hours longer. The pork should be tender but not falling apart. Cool for 30 minutes before cutting into 1/2-inch-thick slices with a serrated knife. Serve at room temperature, or gently warmed in a skillet, or crisped in some of the rendered pork drippings.

Some serving suggestions:

• Scatter a few slices over a salad as an appetizer.

• Tuck several pieces in a bun and top with a vinegar-based coleslaw.

• Serve over cheesy polenta or grits.

• Cube and fry with potatoes for an upscale hash.

• Swap it for bacon in a BLT.

HELP U COOK

The next time you grill steaks, season them with a ridiculous amount of salt and pepper and remove them from the grill way too soon. These two tricks should give you the best steaks you’ve ever cooked.
Most of us under-season meat before cooking. We sprinkle on some salt and pepper, as we would season food at the table. But to really bring out the flavor of meat, you should rub almost a teaspoon of coarse salt into each side of a steak, and follow that up with lots of pepper. Then grill. It won’t taste too salty.

Also, plan ahead to allow your steaks to rest about 10 minutes before serving. Not only will they be juicier, as the moisture is evenly dispersed through the meat, but they will finish cooking off the fire. Yes, the meat will continue to turn from bloody to pink or from pink to medium-well while resting off the heat. So if you like medium-rare, remove the steaks from the heat when they’re still fairly rare.

TIDBIT

While shopping at a Nepali market in the North Hill area of Akron, I saw a flyer for the 2-month-old Everest restaurant, located where Raj Mahal used to be on State Road in Cuyahoga Falls. Then I saw a mention by Katie Byard in last week’s Beacon Journal. I had to go.

The restaurant has Nepalese and Indian food, and both are represented on the daily buffets. I stopped by last Sunday and loved the bone-in curried chicken, butter chicken, pakora (turmeric batter-fried vegetables) and the thick, soft flatbread.

The restaurant is at 2033 State Road, phone 234-706-6630. It is open for lunch and dinner daily except Tuesdays. The Sunday buffet is $9. I was told I could see the daily menu on the restaurant’s website, but it hasn’t been posted yet. The website is https://everestrestaurant.net.

THE MAILBAG

From Jim S.:
My grandmother and mother each made the hot bacon dressing the same way you wrote it up.  We kids always called it dandelion dressing, but out of dandelion season we ate it on spinach too. It’s also great on wilted lettuce–pour over torn iceberg lettuce and sweet onions.  (I write this and I’m back on my Aunt Ferne’s porch for summer Sunday family dinner.)  As your mother said, “Yum!
 
Dear Jim: I hope these old recipes don’t die out. They invoke a lot of family history. My grandmother poured the hot dressing over curly endive in the winter.

From Kathy C.:
I was just reading this week’s newsletter and had to smile at the dandelion discussion. When I was a kid, my Sicilian grandmother would stop the car (or have my father stop if we were all together going somewhere) if we were driving by a big open field so she could pick the greens.  She loved them.  I didn’t learn to appreciate them until much, much later.

Dear Kathy: What a great memory. My family didn’t forage for anything except blackberries, which may be why I’m so crazy about foraging now. In the 1980s and 1990s I used to see elderly women picking wild grape leaves along Riverview Road in Akron in the fall, and I’d long to be invited into their kitchens to watch them cook.