How I Cook
Food centers me. After a long day of work, I go home and cook dinner. Creating food for my family and friends grounds me. It reminds me of the days spent around the dinner table when I was young. Dinner time was sacred. We had to set the table, had to participate in conversation, had to share our day and our table was always open to friends, boyfriends of the moment, any topic of conversation was never off limits. There was always laughter, always love and always something really delicious.
Being a busy working mom, keeping quick ingredients for a healthy meal on hand is a must. I always have lean meat marinating in the fridge and ready to throw on the grill. I’ll usually roast some veggies and herbs fresh from the garden to make a complete, light and easy summer dinner. In the winter, the family is on the go less, so I like to take more time with my food. I love long, slow braised meats and slow simmering hearty soups. Salad is always a staple simply dressed with unfiltered olive oil, fresh lemon and garlic.
While I have my dinner staples, I’m always on the hunt for new ideas, whether for myself or at work. Even though I have been making food professionally for almost 35 years, I still have a lot to learn. I always have stacks of industry and trade periodicals on my desk, and I have subscriptions to over 10 food magazines for inspiration. I read cook books like novels and love to learn what inspires chefs to create their style. Despite my busy schedule I try to make at least ten new recipes a month.
Experimenting with new recipes allows me the opportunity to explore different flavor combinations and unfamiliar techniques. Sometimes results are delicious, sometimes they aren’t. I have learned that my recipe “failures” are just as important as the successes. Every recipe I use serves as a template to make something better and more personal. When a recipe doesn’t work out, I use it as a list of what not to do. I do this with my own personal cooking as well as recipes at work.
Trying new recipes from magazines is a lot of fun, but I also like creating something completely new on my own. I often look to my Lebanese heritage for inspiration, and I like to draw on experiences traveling with my family. We try to go abroad as often as possible, and structure our vacation around experiencing the local culture through its food. I’ve learned tricks and flavor combinations I wouldn’t have imagined before. Most recently we visited Tuscany, where I learned the chemistry of gelato and how to make authentic Italian pizza dough from scratch in a spectacular outdoor kitchen overlooking Florence. I’m so lucky to be able to share these experiences with my family, and I try to incorporate those feelings into every meal I make. Gratitude is my favorite ingredient.
I was blessed to grow up in a household that put family and nutrition first, and as an adult I bring those values to my own family. My mother and grandparents grew everything they ate, and my father had an uncanny ability to create a masterpiece from a fridge cleanout. Now I’m able to see the echoes of my upbringing in my own children. My daughter is a wonderful baker of scones and cookies, and my youngest son makes a perfect steak au poivre. My son in college cooks for his housemates and sends me pictures with food costs!
Sharing my love of spectacular food anchors me to my family and my past. I never take for granted the blessings bestowed upon me by my parents and grandparents. I started Najla’s Specialty Foods so I could share those feelings with the world.