Key Takeaways:

Nicki learned to cook as a young girl watching her mother make traditional Chinese dishes and other types of food, too. Tradition is very important to her. She enjoys teaching her own children and grandchildren to cook, making their favorite dishes, and sharing meals with the whole family around the dinner table.

Homemaker, restauranteur, caterer, and cooking teacher - Nicki has done it all. She learned to cook as a young girl watching her mother make traditional Chinese dishes and other types of food, too.  Tradition is very important to her. She enjoys teaching her own children and grandchildren to cook, making their favorite dishes, and sharing meals with the whole family around the dinner table. 

Tell us a little about yourself and your background.

I worked as a state auditor and trainer for 25 years and was also a homemaker for 52 years.  I have two married children, five grandchildren, and one great-grandson.  My late husband and I also owned several restaurants for a time. My passion for cooking came when I was fairly young, watching my mom cook traditional Chinese dishes. 

For Chinese cooking, you need to have everything pre-prepared. Cooking Chinese cuisine is hot and fast. If you only have one wok, you can only do one dish at a time. So, my mom taught me how to be prepared and have everything ready. She let me help in the kitchen by chopping vegetables, and eventually, I was ready to cook some dishes for dinner. When I was about six, I got a Betty Crocker baking set.  That was it for me. I was hooked from then on. I baked pies, cakes, and cookies all the time. 

After I went to college, got married, and had children, I continued to cook and bake.  I taught Chinese cooking classes in our home to supplement our young married income.  As our children got a little older, I let them help me in the kitchen, just as my mom did when I was a child.  

After becoming empty nesters, my husband loved our Sunday family dinners with our children and grandchildren. It became a family tradition. My oldest grandson, who is a great cook and who lives in another state, now hosts his own Sunday family dinners.  I'm very proud of this wonderful tradition that has been passed down. My son and daughter are both wonderful cooks, as are all my grandchildren. One of my granddaughters loves to make homemade pasta, and the others help me bake pies and cookies for the holidays when they come home from college. We all love to cook and bake - we love to eat!  Who doesn’t?

I'm into a lot of different flavors.  For me, it's important to know exactly what ingredients taste like, to know if they go together.  I cook to taste - the key is knowing what things taste like, and even if you don’t, experiment…that’s what I do all the time.  I love savory and sweet together because they balance out a dish.

Tell us about your time as a restauranteur.

When my husband was laid off, we decided to try something new.  So, after deciding where to begin our new adventure, we moved to Bend, Oregon, and with my love of cooking, we opened a footlong hotdog and falafel stand.  Because there wasn’t any premixed falafel mix to be found, I made my own falafels by hand and ordered the best pita bread from the Bay Area. We went on to open four additional soup and sandwich shops and we ordered the sourdough French bread from Boudin’s in San Francisco, CA.  We eventually opened a dinner house, our initial goal when we moved to Bend.  I was the lunch cook, and at night I was the sous chef and second in command to some wonderful chefs we brought in.  After five years, with the lack of tourism during the recession, we went back to California, and luckily, we were both able to find new jobs.

My love of cooking and baking continued, and people asked me to make them special  desserts and even wedding cakes. I booked catering jobs on the weekends and even catered a shindig for my daughter's sorority.

Who is a cook or chef you find inspirational?

I found the Food Network and discovered Ina Garten. I loved her story and have bought every one of her cookbooks.

The recipe I submitted to the GetSetUp cookbook project is a modified version of one of her recipes.

Tell us a little about the dish you submitted.

It's oven-roasted sausages with grapes. I picked it because the whole family loves it, and it’s so easy to make.  First, I tried it on my husband. He was always my guinea pig!  (You should never cook something new for guests until you’ve done a test run...) He loved it!  I put the sausages in a roasting pan, throw in some grapes, roast them and add balsamic vinegar after roasting, and viola’...savory and sweet together!

I recently started a new way of eating healthy with my son. We drink green drinks, and we try not to eat carbs or sugar. We discovered Beyond Beef burgers, which is a plant-based food product, and it is delicious. Then we tried the plant-based sausages. And that’s what I used to substitute real pork sausages with for my recipe. I also substituted olive oil for butter, and I add the grapes to the pan halfway through cooking, so they don't get too wilted.

Who is your cooking inspiration, and why?

My Mom and her natural ability to cook is my inspiration. I learned a lot from her, it was effortless, and she made it easy for us to learn.

As far as celebrity chefs, the first TV food star I saw was British cook Graham Kerr. He was known as “The Galloping Gourmet.”  Then, later on PBS, I learned a lot about French cooking from Julia Child.  My most recent favorites are Ina Garten, Martha Stewart, Tyler Florence, and David Chang, for my go-to Asian cuisine.

What are some ingredients you can't do without and why?

Olive oil, garlic, and red pepper flakes. I also use soy sauce in dishes that aren't Chinese. There are so many seasonings for Chinese cooking. For me, there's more umami.  And I frequently use David Chang’s brand of spices when cooking Chinese and  other dishes, too.   I use a lot of red onion.  If the dish doesn’t taste quite right, for example, I might add thyme, dill, basil, or honey, depending on what I’m making.  I cook to taste, and I don't measure, I eyeball it because that's how I learned from my mother.  About the only time I measure certain ingredients is when I bake.

Do you have any favorite dishes or any favorite food memories from childhood? 

I can remember we didn't have a lot of money, and mom would cook many dishes with eggs. There was one I absolutely loved. She would scramble eggs, add sesame oil, green onions, and add two cans of drained minced clams. Then she put it in a shallow bowl and steamed it in a bamboo steamer. To top it off, she’d drizzle a little oyster sauce over the top and serve it over rice. It was the best Chinese comfort food!

I made it for my husband when we were a young married couple. And later, I made it for my children, except I substituted the clams with ham added grated zucchini, oh and grated cheese, of course!

What are some of your favorite memories as an adult?

When my grandson was five, he wanted to bake a birthday cake for his dad, my son.  He wanted to bake a chocolate cake with blue icing in a square shape. We did everything he asked, and he was so proud of himself.  My son was so surprised and absolutely loved it. It's things like that you cherish and remember. 

Once when my husband was in the hospital and I was working, my daughter volunteered to cook corned beef for dinner, a family favorite. I left instructions for her, and she did everything to a ‘tee’, except I forgot to tell her to take the corned beef out of the bag.  When I got home and told her about the bag, we never laughed so hard. She was definitely ahead of her time back in the eighties because that is now a French way of poaching food in a vacuum-sealed bag: Sous-vide.

What advice do you have from someone who is just learning to cook?

Begin with something you love to eat because if you love something, you will put special effort into it, unconsciously. 

Follow the recipe and taste it as you go. Then, when you've mastered the recipe, you can branch out and experiment with flavors.

Is there a type of food that intrigues you and that you'd like to learn to prepare?

Indian food because my grandson's girlfriend is from the Republic of India and she's teaching him to cook it now. The next time they come over I will ask her to teach me, too.  I'm also inspired by Bollywood movies - the big spread and sweets a lot of vegetarian dishes. 

What's the importance of sharing a meal?

So many people, especially my age, live alone; but when you have had that family unity of togetherness, sharing food, you build memories - laughing around the table, sharing stories, and being positive. My late husband was sick for quite a while, but he always participated in the family meals. It was important for us to show the kids and grandkids that this was real-life. You're going to have challenges in life, and you must cope with them as normally as possible.  It was also extremely important to have the memories we had from years before with kids and grandkids teaching them how to cook and bake.

Join Nicki when she co-hosts with Deb on Plant-Based Cookbook: Recipe Spotlight. She’ll demonstrate how to prepare oven-roasted, plant-based sausages and grapes.

May 17, 2022
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