Talented cook has gone underground
Jeane Nikolai finds trips to the grocery store difficult. She believes in fresh food, and seeing carts packed with processed items horrifies her.
“I know so many people who use a boil-in-bag rice,” said the 50-year-old. “You don’t have to live like that. Proper rice doesn’t take that much longer to cook.”
Determined to bring enlightenment, she started Bermuda Underground Kitchen on Facebook last May.
The page offers basic cooking techniques and tips on deals helpful to home cooks.
“I know so many people who don’t have basic cooking skills,” she said. “I called the site ‘underground’ because I wanted to keep it sort of quiet, at first.
“I didn’t want to out myself too early. I also didn’t want people to feel embarrassed about looking for help.
“It was like ‘Shh, come over here and I’ll show you how to do it’. I encourage my friends who are non-cooks to come hang out in my kitchen.”
Lemon chicken was one of the recipes she recently posted. Easy chicken stock, curried chicken salad and rice are among the others.
“Talking to some of my friends and colleagues, I realised some of them hate cooking,” she said. “They didn’t have positive experiences in the kitchen with their moms.”
She knows what that’s like.
Her mother was a terrible cook with a repertoire of five dishes; every vegetable served in their Queens, New York home came from a can.
“If the can hissed, you knew the vegetables were fresh,” joked Mrs Nikolai. “My mother cooked like we were Greek gods; there were burnt offerings every night.”
She started cooking at 16, “in self-defence”.
Her instruction came from friends, and the cookbooks she collected.
“I realised early on that if you can read, you can cook,” she said. “Now with the internet, it makes it so much simpler to find recipes.”
Mrs Nikolai cooks in her spare time. Her days are spent in government, where she heads the Department of Energy.
“I wanted a more creative outlet, and cooking is practical,” she said. “I often spend Sunday afternoons cooking.
“It helps me nail the meals for the rest of the week. Cooking is fun and relaxing, but I don’t know if I would enjoy it as much if that is what I did for a living. If I ever did do it for a living, it would be taking novices and showing them they could live better, healthier and cheaper if they just cooked. But, I really love my day job.”
She would, however, like to start offering evening cooking classes.
“I will probably do it in the fall, when things settle down a bit at work,” she said. “I’m looking for a good venue. I would like to do some good basic cooking, and also teach people how to use basic cooking gadgets.
“We all hear about the bread machine that never gets used — mine never gets a rest.”
She moved to the island to marry a Bermudian in 1993. Divorced after 14 years, she married Craig Nikolai.
“Our son, Gunnar, was born on our first anniversary,” she said. “I was 42.”
She was determined her son would have positive memories of the family kitchen.
“We made all of his baby food,” she said. “We started early on giving him a variety of foods and making sure it was fresh. From age two-and-a-half, he ate what we ate. He’s seven now and has quite a broad palette for a little kid.”
Despite her years of cooking experience, she still has disasters.
“I cracked a stainless steel pot the other day after I left it on the stove and forgot about it,” she said.
“The other day I made what was supposed to be tangerine beef. I didn’t have any citrus fruit. I did have dried orange peels. I dumped a bunch of that in there.
“The dish was awful. We were picking the orange peel out of our teeth. It got to the point where my husband and I rinsed off the beef and choked it down. We didn’t want to waste it, but it was terrible.”
Look for Bermuda Underground Kitchen on Facebook.
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