garden statue with flowers

Welcome to Celinabean

A two-part tale

Part 1
(jump to Part 2: cast of characters)

Where there is food there's a story. If you want to know a neighborhood, go to its markets. If you want to know a family, go to dinner. If you want to know how two people feel about each other, watch them in a kitchen together.

Celinabean is a lot of things. It's about an unsung city and its food. The people who cook and the people behind the shop counters who will teach you their secret recipes. And, of course, the people who eat. It's about foraging for fresh curry leaves, glistening porgies, and the best $6 all-you-can-eat lunch buffet. And it's about cooking for a multicultural, multigenerational family. But, most of all, it is a place for our stories.

I am, in my heart, a storyteller and a story listener. Stories are paths through the dark, the way we reach out and find each other. So gather round and pull up a chair.

I will start with my own story.

In my 20s, I loved nothing more than meeting new people. Strange towns and distant countries held the same thrill. And if I had only a few hours to immerse myself in a city, I would visit the supermarkets, the big ones with bright lights and piped-in music and the little shops with rickety glass doors, narrow aisles, and unexpected finds lurking in back coolers. Four colors of tomatoes tell a different story than a small stack of half-wilted iceberg. Take in the warm whiff of cinnamon sticks and cardamom seeds and you're in one place; if your nose tightens with the sharp hit of hanging pig carcasses, you're in another. And because most people shop for food, and how they shop reflects everything from the way they were raised to what they do for a living, you could do worse than spend an hour watching people choose their dinner.

This did not make me a great travel companion. After high school, I spent a year criss-crossing the country in a red Honda Civic named Trigger. I didn't own a credit card and barely had enough cash for a can of refried beans, but I still found myself arguing to whoever was riding along that we really needed to check out the local Winn Dixie or Safeway, or talk to the guy selling plums and fresh corn by the side of the road.

Stories -- it always came back to stories. Italy. Asia. Greece. The housewife in Hokkaido, Japan, who'd never had her own birthday cake. The opera singer in Italy who taught me to wait for the smell of olive oil to rise off the pan. The Southern woman on the worn front porch whose eyes got a faraway look when she described catching catfish with her mother. What she remembered was the smell of her mother's snuff box and the motion of her hands as she skinned the fish. My obsession grew.

Somewhere along the way, I started traveling alone so I didn't have to argue about spending four hours poking around the food stalls in Paris or an afternoon in Georgia talking to an old woman about the different schools of peach cobbler.


My 30s feel different. I'd much rather discover something new about an old friend than do the get-to-know-you routine with a stranger. The same goes for geography. I roam the streets of Albany, NY, and its surrounding cities, towns, and farm stands the way I used to roam the country. It's how I'm teaching myself to put down roots after 30 some years of wandering. To feel at home, for me, is to know where to buy thin-sliced marbled beef for sukiyaki and to be greeted with a friendly nod of recognition by the lady who sells it. I'd rather stumble across Albany's best place to find a 2 a.m. breakfast or get to know the local apple farmer than be the outsider looking in on an unfamiliar scene.

And when I'm done foraging, I return home to cook for an ever-shifting clan of people who know that they only thing they have to do if they want dinner is show up at 6.



Part 2
(jump back to Part 1)

Come meet the cast of characters who gather around my table.

The girls
Bean and Rae are my 4-year-old twins. They eat with enthusiasm, and often fall out of their chairs. Bean loves everything I love -- fish, leafy greens, rice and, of course, beans. She would take every meal sitting in my lap, picking from my bowl if she could. Rae has an order to the universe, and those who mess with it do so at their peril. This includes her plate. She also loves to cook and lives for ripe, red tomatoes. When she likes something, she'll say, "Wow, this is really tasty." Tasty is a great word in the mouth of a 4 year old. I would cook just about anything for someone like her.

The boy
T is my 7-year-old son. He will eat just about anything, except tomatoes, as long as he can eat with his fingers. (I struggle with this because when no one is looking I also prefer to eat everything with my fingers.) Maybe the solution is to move the whole family in with our in-laws in Senegal, where we can sit on the floor and eat with our hands.

The man
My husband grew up eating meat and potatoes and drinking milk from his mother's goats. When we met, I was a chopstick-wielding vegetarian who didn't like dairy. We've both adapted. He started eating salads as if he were raised by Alice Waters. I learned how to make gravy, which in the how-to-keep-a-farm-boy-happy book is almost as important as... well, let's just say it's important. We found our common ground in spicy curries, 27 different kinds of braised chicken, and anything with cilantro in it.

The grandma
Baba is my 94-year-old grandmother, who lives with us. She won't touch beans and cilantro but will try just about anything else. She's the only one in the house who gets to order a separate meal, although she rarely does. I've seen her dig into plates of curried squash and bowls of Pad Thai with pleasure, but for her, paradise is a perfect piece of roast chicken and a matzo ball that floats in the mouth for a moment before it melts across the tongue. I make these just so I can sit and watch her eat them, a slow-motion fork rising to a smile.

The cook
That would be me, most of the time. I'm possessive of my kitchen and my husband treads with care. And I'm messy. There was a time when my husband tried to sell me on one-pot meals, but I still managed to cover every inch of counter space. (You can put a lot of things in one pot!) I gave up on shopping lists a long time ago. I forage and buy what speaks to me, as long as what is speaking will feed a family of six without busting our food budget. Then I take whatever it is home and try and figure out how to cook it.

The extras
There are several women who have a regular place at my table, either in body or spirit.

My mother drops by often for dinner (when she's not jetting off to China or Burning Man or some other place where she can be her fabulous 60-something self.) She will eat just about anything, but at any given moment there's often something she's not eating. Mom can cook, but after years of cassoulets and multi-scented shrimp curries, often she would just as soon throw together a tuna-fish sandwich.

My mother-in-law has a farm in Dutchess County and raises her own baby-beef calf every year. She feeds the calf on goat's milk and makes a pot roast that would intimidate even the most confident of daughters-in-law. She taught me that when you have meat this good, let it speak for itself.

My sister-in-law lives in California but graces my table on summer visits. When I visit her, I am a spectator. And who would want to mess with her; she is one of the finest cooks I know. She is from Senegal, and in the drawer of her fridge is a jar of habanero paste, which she and my brother put on just about everything, including spaghetti. She's the person who taught me to pour, rather than sprinkle, black pepper.

Gaby is my half-Chinese, half-Irish ex-stepmother. She floats into town every now and again on a business trip. If we're lucky, she'll make her lamb stew -- or anything else for that matter. She is one of the few women I completely surrender my kitchen to; her food is perfect in a way that makes me nervous, and I start flubbing up the seasoning when ever I cook in front of her.

My cooking buddy, Safa. We cook and eat together often and send meals between our houses. She is from Sudan and forever changed the way I think about cinnamon and bay leaves. I introduced her to cilantro and coconut milk. I love her falafel and she recently discovered matzo brei.


AllOverAlbany.com

Comments

I sit next door to Tania here at B+S, and she just told me about your new website. It really is wonderful! (I loved your Kripalu article, too, BTW.)

Celina this site is great. You amaze me with your writing. It makes me smile as i read and that to me is a treat. Your writing touches me and makes me feel connected like im right there visualizing the whole story. This is going to be a great site and Im not one for many words but I truely love it. Great Job and thanks for being so creative and introducing me to the real world of food. I love your cooking and trying the foods you cook so well. When i first started caring for baba my favorite thing was lunch time cuz i got to see what you'd made for dinner and i got to taste the delicious cooking. Youve alone have opened my eyes to so many new foods and i thank you . GOOD LUCK and i know with your skill youll go far with this awesome site. Mary

You are truely touched and have a gift. Thank you for introducing me to the "real" world of food.

Celina,

What a way to get back in touch. My mouth is watering. I continue to be awed by you and have a feeling I will for the rest of my life. It's like you continually bring to life things that might have been a passing idea or subconscious desire in my own mind with every project you undertake. Hurray for your intiative and constant flow of creativity. When I think of Celina and food and the meals we shared on Springtown Road, I remember how you once said that it seems like every cook has one ingredient that appears in almost everything they cook - and for me that seemed to be tofu and for you it was artichokes. Well, I've come a long way since then. I still am a tofu gourmet & gourmand, but these days I experiment more with a variety of other veggie sources of protein - esp. beans, legumes and grains (to a lesser extent - but expanding my grains repertoire is something on my long-term to-do list). Recently discovered at Whole Foods a new source of protein called mycoprotein - a kind of fungi which I used in a veggie shepherd's pie where I had previously used a ground beefish sort of soy product. It was okay but not fantastic - but nice for a different taste. I've always really enjoyed cooking and eating, but having kids really changes a lot about you including the inner cook: While I always appreciated variety in my diet, I seldom achieved it to a satisfying degree. Now it's more of a commitment.

Where are you at in your relationship with artichokes? Still a mainstay?

Anyway, this is THE most engaging site and writing about food and cooking that I've ever read. I really enjoyed reading about aspects of your relationship with food that are different from my own -- such as your passion for shopping and markets and the way you cook so spontaneously based on what you end up with. Very representative though of the spirit of the Celina I know and love.

Love to you, Bill and the kids.

Cait

Cait,

It has been a long time, but I still remember all the things you can do with tofu. And a few you really shouldn't ...(I know I can still be a tofu purist sometimes, an over reaction to my hippy roots, I guess.)

I laughed so hard when I read your comment because artichokes are on sale this week (for Albany folks, they are on sale at Price Chopper, $1 a piece) and my kids and I have been going crazy. There were two left over cold ones in the fridge yesterday and we fought over them down to the last leaf.

I still try to find a way to work them in to just about anything, but budget is often a constraint. My brother lives in Moss Landing, California. Out his front door are fields of strawberries and artichokes.

Ahhhhh.

The multicultural aspect of your intro promises many surprises and may be the most "American" aspect of your intriguing blog: the sense of an endless horizon of cuisine. And to see that horizon display itself locally--yes!

Congratulations on an excellent site. I've always enjoyed your writing. Now I can enjoy it in a different setting. I hope my "Dowd On Drinks" site will offer you a good acconpamiment to your food.

hey celina. i'm happy to see the site is up and running. it looks great! i'm really looking forward to getting to know you through food.

Hi,

Just wanted to say that I really like your site. I stumbled upon it from almostfoodies.com and you have done a great job with it. My friend and I just started www.green-lemonade.com which focuses on living healthy and "green" this week we are both doing the eat local challenge and are posting about it on the site. Check it out and let let us know any comments or tips you may have!

Liz

Celina,

The site is delicious.

Salud.

--Dan

Girl,

You've got skills. I love the correlation you make between foods, family and emotions and I can understand where you're coming from. I have had the pleasure of experiencing your culinary skills and look forward to invading your kitchen (with you right by my side of course). I love the site and I love you too.

Wanda

Celina,

I heard you on Body & Soul talking about your weight struggles, and how you were advised to eat a bigger breakfast. You spoke of eating scrambled eggs and rice with soy sauce for breakfast. What is your recipe for this interesting breakfast?

Hey! LOVE THE NEW SITE!!! Can't wait for you to write about my goodies *laughs* Keep up the good work.

AnnMarie,

Kripalu's nutritionist advised me to eat a hearty whole-grain and protein breakfast. I had been trying to eat smaller portions at breakfast (one small piece of toast and an egg), but it always seemed to back fire by dinner. He said I needed to eat more of my calories earlier in the day. Also, I am one of those people who always got hungry around10 a.m, and I'd spend the whole rest of the morning thinking about food and trying to talk myself out of eating the entire contents of my office's vending machine before noon.

He gave me several sample breakfasts, but the one that worked best for me was rice and eggs. I lived in Japan for a while and I cook a lot of Asian food, so that is my taste. Also we always tend to have a Tupperware of rice in the fridge.

So the breakfast is simple and takes about 5 minutes to prepare. One bowl of left over brown rice (short grain if possible) or quinoa warmed up in the microwave. Sprinkle the rice with a small amount of ground walnuts, ground pumpkins seeds, roasted sesame seeds, or gomazio (ground seeds mixed with salt and/or seaweed).

Poach two eggs so the insides are velvety but still loose. Put them on top of the rice. Sprinkle with a little soy sauce if you like.

Enjoy. When I have this for breakfast, I don't think about food again until lunchtime. And even then, I only get moderately hungry, and I make good choices because my blood sugar isn't going crazy and trying to convince me that chocolate is my best friend.

I am traveling this week, but when I get back I can do a real post about it and put up pictures if you like.

C

There are those who eat to live, and the rest of us who LIVE TO EAT. Thank God we're the latter. What a lovely site for us.

C your site is on the money!!! down here in SC I am getting more than my share of soul food however, Angel's is a nice spot. I have some receipes' for cooking on a budget with a house full of hungry mouths who want it yesterday. They are quick, easy and fun and take no more than 45 minutes from prep to table. Love ya girlfriend and keep up the good work!!!

Hi-
Was so nice to meet you when you stopped in my shop (Peaberrys Catering and Cafe)
Would enjoy any comments on what you had and enjoy the blog!!!!
Best,
Linda

Hi-
Was so nice to meet you when you stopped in my shop (Peaberrys Catering and Cafe)
Would enjoy any comments on what you had and enjoy the blog!!!!
Best,
Linda

I just wanted to tell you how much I love your writing.
As a journalist myself, it's very inspiring!

FINALLY!!! Told you I'd log on but it took way too long; sorry 'bout that. Now that I am on I'm really enjoying the site! I will pass it on to so many I know. I get it even more now that I see the actual product. Great job!

Loved the St. Pete story especially (of course). Please know that my home is open when ever you are in town. Just give me some notice.

Heather

Love your website.
Prepared Mrs. Ottaways chicken tonight and everyone (my wife and the new state trooper son now living back home) LOVED it ! Served it with homemade macaroni salad and it became summer inside, despite the hugh snow piles outside our house in Saratoga Springs. Maybe the convection oven changed things but the chicken was done after one hour at 300 and 25 minutes at 275. It looked just like the picture and was delicious. Thank you. I wish you lived next door.

Hi Celina This is very good ilove your writing and ilove you, _

Hello!
I just discovered your website yesterday. I live in Corvallis, Oregon and will be moving to Albany this summer (my husband is starting his PhD at SUNY Albany). I'm originally from New England, but have lived on the West Coast for 5 years now. It has been so hard for me to accept that I have to leave Oregon (the landscape, the people, and the local cuisine are tough to part with). To make the transition easier, I have been poking around online to learn about the Albany area, and your website has gotten me all excited about my soon-to-be new home. I am an artist, outdoor enthusiast, and food & wine lover - I try to combine all three in my daily life. Next weekend when I visit Albany, I will check out Cardona's, Cafe 217, and several other places you have written about. You're a fantastic writer, and I appreciate the good photos and variety of topics! Thanks so much!
Ciao,
Meg

Hi. This is really interesting post. Thank You! I have just subscribed to Your rss!

Best regards

I just read your article in the Nov. issue of Body + Soul. I have never - in my 55 years - read such a succint explanation of what I feel. Thank you. I'd love to delve more into your research and am waiting with open hands for any suggestions you might share.

Also - if you are ever in the Tarrytown area, my son is the chef at the (soon-to-open) Sweetgrass Grill.

Many thanks for what you do.

-jenny king
Highlands NC

Dear Celina-

Just discovered your beautiful blog through your wonderfully written article in Body+Soul : Conscious Eating : Food+Hunger- thank you!

-shanti *Tracey aka: T-Mere

Thank you and welcome.

I happened in when I searched for things about the old Tobin Packing building in Albany and found you liked the Apothicary Rose Shed (sp?) spices my friend Rich sells. Then I got roped in reading the blogs. You are a great story teller, and I'll be reading more soon. Your talk about the table has peaked my mind too. PURFECT !

I am auditing Dan Higgins' journalism class at SUNY and he told us about you. So, I found your latest article in BODY & SOUL which led me to this site. I love it! I came to food late in life. I was raised by an Irish mother who managed to feed us without flavoring the food. I didn't even KNOW cooking could be creative and the things I made could be delicious until I was in my fifties. I have also been to the conscious eating workshop at Kripalu and will take the 5 day cooking/nutrition course this June. I think you will be filling in for Dan in April....so hope to meet you then.

I look forward to meeting you. Welcome to celinabean. Hope you stick around and join the conversation.

Celina,

I absolutely love your website; I came across your contact information through Body & Soul Magazine! I live and work in Manhattan and I can relate to your story of your 20's searching through food stores and markets because that is exactly what I do! I spend my free time searching new markets and food stores and I love it....
Keep up the great work---You're definately bookmarked on my computer!

Check out my new blog, The Healthy Apple at: http://thehealthyapple.wordpress.com/

Best,

The Healthy Apple at http://thehealthyapple.wordpress.com/

Hi, Celina,
I would like to have you possibly write some reviews of food at the Sheep and Wool Fest in Rhinebeck. Let me know if you are available the 17th or 18th.
Thanks,
Jeff

Whew! I just found your site and have enjoyed perusing it. We landed in Albany last year from NYC and are still finding our bearings. I will continue to check in an be inspired! Thanks!

Juliet,

Welcome! Hope you stick around.

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