Home Cook: Adventurous NY Gardener

New York-based Toulon O’Connor, nurse, and mother of two teenagers, loves to cook.ToulonCoverPic

Specifically, she loves the process of planning a meal or creating a menu (especially from her own mind). As evidenced by her nutritious and adventurous cooking, she says “I find there is no better way to express love for another than through cooking a meal for them.”

Her mother worked evenings, so Toulon took the basic skills her mom had taught her and learned to make dinner for herself. By her twenties, she could roast a prime rib, make a Caesar salad, and lots of potato and pasta dishes.

The first thing she recalls making are chimichangas with refried beans, cheese, and salsa. She also recalls making Fanny Farmer’s recipe for shortbread and something her mom called “Power Balls” which were a blend of peanut butter, evaporated milk, honey, and oats, all rolled in carob. “My mother has been a vegetarian since the 60’s…we ate some very creative things…..Kentucky-fried tofu being one, breaded then deep-fried tofu with an assortment of sauces….not such a nice memory,” recalls Toulon.

“I find there is no better way to express love for another than through cooking a meal for them.”

Being influenced by professional experience in restaurant kitchens, she became more experimental in her thirties. She learned a wide range of flavor profiles and became adept at improvising based on what was in her pantry and fridge.

Having kids adds to Toulon’s inspiration and experience in the kitchen. While her son doesn’t love to cook with her, her daughter is a natural cook and a vegetarian to boot. When she was little, Toulon would invite her to be her “prep cook” and taught her knife skills at about seven years old. “It is just me and my two kiddos, so often Lys and I cook together now…It is usually very intimate and opens up opportunities that a 14-year-old would not divulge…Sneaky parenting through cooking.” Toulon also gets a kick out of cooking for her kids’ friends who range from totally adventurous to requesting “Can you just not cook any of your weird things?”

Toulon loves cooking from her garden, and thus some of her favorites are fresh tomatoes, garlic, and onion. She loves savory ingredients and finds those ingredients delectable in a vast variety of savory dishes. Some frequent weeknight dishes include black bean or chicken enchiladas….maybe Tilapia Vera Cruz, “ I seem to always have these ingredients in my arsenal.” At the end of this profile, be sure to check out Toulon’s recipe for Tilapia Vera Cruz!

“Most people consider the “Sunday Dinner” the special one of the week…I work unconventional hours as a nurse, so Sunday could easily become Wednesday, but all in all I would have to say that this is the day we put our time, effort and creativity into…so I suppose it depends on the mood…it may fresh garlic pasta basil, tomatoes, EVOO, garlic and goat cheese; or a slow roasted pot roast and wide egg noodles (noodles and mushroom gravy for my daughter), or perhaps shrimp dumplings with fresh ginger and chives with a lime and fish sauce dip.”TOulonCherries

Between her busy work schedule, a varied diet among family members, her love of cooking and her daughter’s penchant for cooking, Toulon finds cooking an important way to connect with her kids and to those she hosts. She has tested recipes for my cookbooks, and often gives me insightful responses regarding flavor, texture and process as well as suggested alternates for making my dishes vegetarian. Her culinary prowess has made its way into my books in that way, as well as her contribution for a savory pie crust in my second book “One Dish Wonders”.

Enjoy these recipe selections from Toulon’s kitchen:


Cherry Preserves

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Ingredients

  • 8 cups fresh cherries (pitted and diced)
  • 3 tsp ground black pepper
  • 1/2 cup lemon juice
  • 1 cup Cabernet Sauvignon
  • 1 cups raw cane sugar
  • 1 TBL lemon zest

Instructions

  1. In a large-size, non-ionized pot combine pitted cherries and sugar.
  2. Cook over medium heat, crushing cherries to release juices for 5 minutes.
  3. Add in wine, lemon juice, and black pepper.
  4. Stirring constantly bring mixture to a boil for 30-40 minutes
  5. Ladle jam into hot jars leaving approximately 1/4 inch head space.
  6. Wipe rims, apply lids and rings (finger tight) and then process in a hot water bath for 15 minutes.
  7. Remove from heat and let jars sit in the canner for an additional 5 mins.
  8. Remove jars from canner and let cool on a folded towel for 12-24 hours.

“Here’s where I state my opinion on pectin. I think it is useless. Why have a funky gelatin consistency of something that can be amazing. Not the consistency you want after cooking for allotted time….cook longer…all fruit and veg have different water content.”

Shelf stable for up to one year.

Serve over a nice feta, goat, brie cheese with yummy soft bread…or reduce with butter and wine and serve over chicken or pork….enjoy!


Tilapia Vera Cruz

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The Sauce

  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 2 clove garlic, diced
  • 2 TBL EVOO
  • 2 c. Tomatoes rough chop
  • 2 TBL capers
  • ½ c  mixed olives (green, kalamata, whatever looks good on the olive bar 🙂
  • ⅛ tsp crushed red pepper
  • ⅛  tsp fresh rosemary
  • ¼ tsp fresh thyme
  • ⅛ tsp fresh oregano
  • 1 tsp fresh basil
  • ½ lemon

The Coating

  • 1 egg
  • ¼ c flour (plus a couple big pinches)
  • ½ tsp salt
  • ½ tsp garlic powder
  • ¼ tsp smoked Paprika
  • ⅛ tsp black pepper
  • 4 thin white fish filets (I used tilapia, but have made this with red snapper, cod, grouper, catfish)
  • Additional ¼ c. EVOO

Optional

Approx 1/2 – 1 cup of the following
  • Carrots
  • Marinated artichoke hearts
  • Zucchini
  • Eggplant
  • Bell peppers
  • Escarole
  • Spinach

Instructions

  1. Saute onion and garlic in 2 Tbl EVOO. Cook until soft. (approx 3-4 minutes on med-high).
  2. Add all other ingredients except lemon and saute on high for another 5 minutes.
  3. Take off heat, squeeze lemon in and set aside. (note: if using more veggies on the optional list, cooking time may need to be increased)
  4. Whisk egg in a flat container that will house full fish filet.  Set aside.
  5. Mix together flour, salt garlic powder, paprika, and black pepper in bowl or container that will also house a full fish filet.
  6. Coat fish in flour mixture, then dip in egg mixture, then once again in flour mixture. Set aside. Repeat until all fish is coated.
  7. Heat ¼ c. EVOO over Med-high until a small touch of egg dances readily on top of oil.
  8. Add fish filets leaving at least ½ inch between filets. Cook 3-5 minutes each side depending on thickness until golden brown.
  9. Transfer directly to plate and top with sauce.

One of the things I love about this go to dinner is the flexibility of it. It is a very forgiving recipe and lends well to whatever you may need to get rid of in the fridge. Sometimes I serve with pasta, grains, or wilted greens. Enjoy!


I’d like to thank Toulon for sharing her kitchen and cooking thoughts, along with these two delectable recipes!

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