May 20, 2019

From the Borscht Belt to Carrot Hummus

You may find it odd that a person who lives in East Africa and spends so many of her waking hours in a hot kitchen can’t stand the heat of a New York City summer.

But just because I no longer live in New York doesn’t mean I’ll ever give up the right to complain about the dog days of the soul-wilting, humidity-heavy tourist season. I firmly believe it is a hard-earned privilege for life once you have lived in the city for more than a few summers to do so.

Instead, finding myself in the throes of a genuine heat wave in Manhattan, rather than a crowded, Hamptons beach getaway, I did what midcentury American Jewry did for decades — I escaped to the Catskills, otherwise known as the heart of the Borscht Belt, named after the dietary staple of the throngs of Eastern European Jews who used to vacation there.

A mere two-hour drive from the city, the oppressive heat gripping concrete sidewalks gives way to the cool, shaded, green Xanadu that is Sullivan County. I arrived on a Friday night, just in time to watch movie stars and local residents pack themselves into the Callicoon Wine Merchant’s new tapas bar. The area, now known for its rural pursuits such as its annual tractor pull, contains only a few relics of the resorts that, in their heyday, launched the careers of many of the great Jewish stand-up comedians. (It also was where Baby was taught all the right moves by Patrick Swayze in “Dirty Dancing.” )

It’s rather surprising to be drinking Spanish Rioja and eating what is arguably the most innovative food to hit the Borscht Belt since Mel Brooks was a headliner here. You would have a hard time convincing a Manhattanite that a small town like Callicoon, in agriculturally minded Sullivan County, would be home to such a feat, but that’s because you don’t know the bar’s proprietor, chef Robin Mailley. 

In the early 2000s, I was living in the city and working at The New York Times. One of my best friends and co-workers began dating a chef originally from Rhode Island, who owned a highly acclaimed restaurant in Midtown’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood. Market Café was a cross between a diner and a cafe — retro and cool, hip and innovative, and the food was utterly fresh and original. Mailley was tough — a typical, temperamental, perfectionist chef, battle-tested in the hot, 4-by-4, pressurized, nuclear stress zones of New York restaurant kitchens. He lived next door to the restaurant and on weekends, after his and my friend’s relationship got more serious, I followed him around like a puppy just to get to do something — anything — so he would let me hang out with him and watch him cook. 

One day, out of the blue, perhaps sensing I was obsessed with his cooking style, Mailley said to me: “How about this Sunday afternoon, you come to Market Café and take over the kitchen? I’ll give you the keys and you can come cook all day. Then in the evening, invite your friends and we’ll have a party with your food — drinks on me.”

I was so flabbergasted I almost declined the offer. As a home cook, I was worried I’d do something typical of me — like explode a pressure cooker or burn down the block.

After a fitful night’s sleep, I got to the restaurant at 6:30 a.m. on Sunday after shopping for all the ingredients the night before. I still remember what I cooked in minute detail: an Israeli meal with sophisticated family recipes and an endless prep list.

That affirmation of my skill and the passion I felt in the Market Café kitchen never left me from that Sunday forward.

Twelve hours later, our friends arrived at the restaurant to 15 different dishes I had prepared, yet, for me the whole day had passed as though it was a moment. It was exhausting and satisfying and completely transformative. I can still connect with that younger me, that non-chef me, that me who had no confidence in Mailley’s kitchen and no clue how to turn on the salamander or light his grill.

After I served the food, I noticed Mailley watching me out of the corner of his eye. Eventually, I asked him what he was thinking. “You, my friend, are a chef. I don’t know what you have been doing in an office all these years, but you are a chef — you just don’t know it yet.”

That affirmation of my skill and the passion I felt in the Market Café kitchen never left me from that Sunday forward. 

Almost 20 years later, I’m now the boss of my own kitchen, have chefs who work under my supervision, and two restaurants under my belt. While I’ve been cooking for diplomats for five years at the American Embassy in Uganda, Mailley married my friend, sold Market Café and moved to upstate New York to raise a daughter they adopted from China. 

Once there, he opened a boutique wine-and-cheese shop, having fallen in love with wine during his restaurant days. “Here is where I wanted to be,” Mailley told me. “The only caveat: They just didn’t have the wines I wanted to buy up here.” So he sought out independent wine growers and producers and filled his shop with a large selection of organic and biodynamic wines.

Recently, Mailley decided to end his cooking hiatus and get back to being where all chefs love to be: in their own restaurant kitchen. The Callicoon Wine Merchant expanded its offering, moved into new digs, and opened an expanded shop, bar and restaurant. 

One small plate after another came out of Mailley’s kitchen, each one created with the best of the week’s organic produce from the market. Smoked duck with fennel and cranberries, pot roast with pickled vegetables and horseradish cream, and my favorite, this luxe carrot hummus with olive oil and roasted Japanese turnips. 

You can’t go wrong making this vegan recipe as a starter to a light meal or serving it as a side dish at a meat-heavy barbecue. I would however, be remiss if I didn’t warn you that if you ever decide to visit Mailley’s wine and tapas bar, and meet him in person, you may find yourself becoming enamored by the idea of blowing up your life to go in search of your own dreams.

And you won’t regret it for a second.


Roasted Turnips
1 pound Japanese turnips (or regular turnips or radishes), washed well and cut in half or quartered; trim the roots’ tips and tails but do not remove
3 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste

5 medium carrots, peeled and cut in half
3 cloves garlic
2 tablespoons tahini paste
1/2 cup olive oil (not extra virgin)
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon Calabrian pepper (or ground black pepper)
1/4 of a preserved lemon or 2 tablespoons
lemon juice
2 tablespoons flat leaf parsley chopped
(for garnish)

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

Toss turnips or radishes in olive oil, season with salt and pepper and roast for 40 minutes. Gently turn the vegetables halfway through cooking to brown them evenly on all sides. Set aside when done.

Meanwhile, poach carrots in a small amount of water. When fork tender, drain and put into a blender with remaining ingredients (except for parsley).

Blend until smooth. Let cool until just warm. Divide the hummus on 4 plates and spread evenly. Pile on roasted turnips and garnish with chopped parsley.

Serves 4 as a starter.

Yamit Behar Wood, an Israeli-American food and travel writer, is the executive
chef at the U.S. Embassy in Kampala, Uganda, and founder of the New York Kitchen Catering Co.