Over the past two months, I’ve had the privilege to judge some of the greatest culinary families in the country on ABC’s Family Food Fight. Week after week, we’ve watched them make delicious recipes they have perfected over generations. From the Lee Family’s Sweet and Sour Prawns to the Livanos Family’s Pasta Con Le Sarde, getting to taste homemade cuisines from different cultures was one of my favorite parts of judging.
The only way these families were able to navigate through all of the challenges we threw at them was by working together. Teamwork is critical in the kitchen! The contestants also learned the importance of organization and mise en place, which means having all your kitchen tools and ingredients in place and ready to use. When you have several dishes to make in under an hour, pressure and heat make the perfect recipe for a food fight. As things get tense, it's important to remember all the amazing benefits of cooking with people you love.
One of the reasons why I love cooking with my boys is because I get to show them how to collaborate, take the lead, and listen. One of my favorite moments of the show is when we see the take-charge Mama Lee take a step back and follow her daughters’ instructions when making a recipe she was unfamiliar with. The kitchen is not only a place to experiment and bond, but also to learn.
The person I learned most from in the kitchen was my mother, Virginia Lee Cora. She taught me how to be confident in the kitchen and make tasty greek dishes like Pastitsio. Most of all, she taught me how to care for people. My mother was a nurse for nearly 50 years. Her ability to care for her family, her patients and just about anyone she met was her superpower. That trait extended into the kitchen. She taught me that cooking is not just a task to mark off before dinner. Feeding people food you’ve poured your soul into is an act of love.
I just want you to remember that when the flames are high and the pressure is on, the families on Family Food Fight are ultimately fighting with love. Like my mama taught me to do, they are pouring their hearts and souls into this competition. With all of the craziness happening in the world today, I hope our show has sprinkled a lot of food, fun and love into your homes!
I’m sharing a recipe below for Pastitsio, a Greek baked macaroni dish.
1 pound Ground Beef
1 Onion, chopped
1 Clove Garlic, chopped
1/2 cup Red Wine
3/4 cup Tomato Puree
1 cup Canned Crushed Tomatoes
1/2 cup Water
Salt and freshly ground Black Pepper to taste
1 tsp Ground Cinnamon
1/8 tsp Nutmeg, ground, plus more, for seasoning
1 1/2 pound Uncut Macaroni
2 tbsp Butter, plus 1/2 pound
3 Eggs, separated
2 1/2 cups Kefalotyri or Kasseri, grated
2 quarts Milk
1/2 pound Flour
Brown beef in a pan. Add onions and garlic and cook until soft. Deglaze with the red wine and reduce to 2 tablespoons. In a small bowl, mix together tomato puree and crushed tomatoes to make a sauce. Add to the onions and garlic, then add the water. Season with cinnamon and nutmeg. Add salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste. Simmer for 10 minutes.
Cook macaroni in salted water: drain. Return to pan. Add butter, egg whites and 1/2 cup of cheese, mix well. Heat up milk on medium high until it comes to a simmer.
In a separate pan, melt the butter. Whisk in the flour until well blended. Whisk in warm milk. Bring mixture to a simmer and cook until fairly thick. Season with salt and nutmeg, to taste. Temper in the egg yolks. Add 1 cup of cheese.
In a buttered 13 by 9-inch baking dish, layer macaroni mixture and meat sauce, cover with white sauce and sprinkle with remaining grated cheese on top. Bake in a preheated 350 degree oven for 45 minutes. Remove from the oven to rack and let stand for 15 minutes. Cut into squares.
I love watching movies. On rainy days when I don’t feel like making the trek to the theatre, we pop a movie on our TV and recreate the theatre experience in our own home. Popcorn, a popcorn maker and a few cozy blankets will do wonders to transform your night in to an official movie night. If you have a popcorn bucket, like the striped one below, it’ll be just like you’re at an AMC.