A few years ago I was at the checkout counter at my local Mexican shop with a full basket that included dried corn husks and a big bag of Masa. The owner asked me, what I was making. I happily replied, Tamales He pointed to my bag omasa. “You see the picture on the bag, she is making tortillas,” he said. “Come with me.” He led me to the back of the store and picked up another bag of masa. “You see the picture here, she is making tamales.  

A lesson learned.  

The main difference I see between the two masas is the texture of the grind. Tamale masa is a courser grind. Masa Harina is a corn flour made from hominy that is treated with slacked lime (aka calcium oxide). Mixed with water, it becomes the dough for the first stage of tamales. 

I’ve been playing around with making tamales for years, with mixed results, although I’m getting more satisfied. Two things that have brought my tamales to where I want them to be are using a stand mixer and good old fashion lard. I’ve used vegetable shorting, but the lard is what really brings it all together. If you’re a vegetarian you’re going to want to stick with vegetable shorting and stock, but otherwise, a tamale needs lard 

I cream the lard and baking powder in my stand mixer. Once it’s mixed together, I put the mixer on high, adding the tamale dough and chicken stock a little at a time. I beat this until it is mixed and almost fluffy. We’re looking for a well-mixed, smooth texture.  

The great thing about tamales is that you can fill them with just about anything. I like using pulled pork or duck confit, but lately, I’ve been making a dessert tamale with organic mango jam and cream cheese. Everyone who tries these loves them. 

I’m not big on measuring things when cooking but here’s a basic tamale dough ingredents and what I’ve been using as my guide.  

2 1/2 cups of masa for tamales

1 1/2 cups of hot water

1 cup of cold lard

2 teaspoons of baking powder

2 tea spoons of salt

1 cup of chicken stock



As a personal chef, I’m lucky to get around, meet people and make a lot of friends. Not just clients and guests I meet at parties I cater – I also meet a lot of people in the food business including employees and owners of the places I shop. Everyone likes to talk food and cooking, and everyone wants to make suggestions, share recipes and food experiences. I love it. 

This is where my friend Lauren, who works at my local grocery store, comes in. One day while I was shopping recently, she asked me if I’ve ever triethreebe. I told her I have no idea what threebe is.  

It’s a wild growing spice that’s grown on a Greek Island.  She has a friend from the island and when the friend goes back to visit, her family who forage and dry it, always gives her some to bring back.  Lauren said you can only get it on the island. She likes it on Greek salad and potatoes and her sister makes a tea out of it. Of course I was intrigued, which is where friends come in – she said she would give me some to try.  

I received my gift happily a few weeks ago, and have been experimenting. It’s a little bit like oregano and thyme but has its own flavor, too. I love it and I’ve been using it on everything. 

I’ve searched for information on threebe and, although there is not a lot out there, I learned that it grows wild on the island Kalymnos, also known as the sponge divers island. It’s also called throumbi, the same name as a Greek rice dish, but I have not seen recipes for the dish using threebe as an ingredient.  

Threebe is almost impossible to buy. I’ve seen a couple of listing online, so you might want to try to order some if do not know anyone from Kalymnos. 

As I write this I’m sipping threebe tea and I’m thinking that this might make a great poaching broth for fish or chicken. New ingredients always get my culinary wheels a turning. I love using ingredients that can create new flavors for my dishes.  I’m going to try a little the next time I make moussaka 

I just heard that more threebe is on it’s way from Kalymnos.  Yes, I’m a lucky chef. 


Planning a Bar Mitzvah

I’m usually on the other end of things. People hire me to cook, arrange service and create a food experience for their parties. Since I started my personal chef business, my wife and I have not had much time to host our own parties, like we used to, except for the occasional spontaneous summer weekend – “Hey friends and neighbors, I’m free this weekend, I’m thinking of doing a casual backyard paella, smoking ribs or testing some new recipes, bring sangria!” I love my friends and they love my cooking.  Now we have a family milestone event to plan, our son’s bar mitzvah. Oy Gavalt!

Lenny, our son was ready. He’d done the lessons with the Rabbi and it was time for us to make that next move. There was so much to do. First, we decided on a baseball theme and next was to find an affordable space.  We decided on a Unitarian church in Dedham. Not the fanciest place but with a little creativity it had possibilities, it had a kitchen and a while back I catered another bar mitzvah there. I knew the room, what to expect and it was close to our neighborhood. We just wanted to have a nice service and a super fun party.

Oy Gavalt, one down and a long list ahead.  A DJ and crew that Lenny saw, liked and asked for their business card at another bar mitzvah were hired. The kid was looking ahead.

My job was to take care of the food side of the party. I had so many chefs and catering friends to choose from and they are all great but I had to hire my large party partner, Chef Laura MacDougall. We work great together and she calls her personal chef business, Home Plate Advantage, coincidence but that does fit perfectly with the baseball theme.  Laura rocks. The second chef hired was my personal chef friend Sean O’Brien. I’ve known Sean from my music days; I think I first met him at the Rat, the now defunked Boston punk rock club. Sean and I have similar cooking styles, philosophies about food, we both play guitar and you don’t meet many folks as nice as Sean. Now we had two passionate foodie fantastic chefs on board, fifty percent of my party planning stress was gone. If all else fails the food will be great.

We get by with a little help from our friends and we have so many talented friends. Our friend, neighbor, one of Lenny’s best friends mom, Lisa Li, was brought in for party planning and décor. Perfect choice, her dad is also baseball obsessed, she knows the game. Li has watched Lenny’s obsession since his Little League instructional days. In turn, Li brought in her graphic designer friend Joe. Almost immediately, they began designing the invitation and planning the décor. Li also ordered linens and wine glasses. Even found an artist baker who made an incredible baseball glove cake. Thanks _ often these things are on my list when catering.

It was all coming together. An email to Gigi Halsing, owner of Extra Hands for your Event to reserve two servers. I use Gigi’s people whenever I need servers or bartenders. Always, great professional people and I was overjoyed before the party started to see two familiar faces – great servers who I have worked with before. That’s when I really knew it was going to be smooth sailing in the food and service end.

Our travel writer and photographer friend Kim McKinnon offered to take photos. Another talented person was on board. Her photos have won awards. You can absolutely take photos. We love Kim.

Esther has a work friend who makes table centerpiece sculptures out of candy. Esther said they were cool, but I had no idea how cool until they arrived. They were crazy, whimsical, just the thing to add an offbeat surprise and perfect centerpieces for the kids’ tables. She even customized one for the baseball theme that was topped with a card of Lenny from his little league days. I really can’t say enough how much I loved them!

Our goal was to transform the space into something special and we did. A note when planning a themed party, it’s easy to go overboard on the theme. We decided on dropping a few ideas such as the baseball napkins and baseball tooth picks.  We – and Lenny – wanted to make sure it didn’t seem like a little kid’s party. Joe and Li went beyond the call of duty, for example, they repaired the torn draperies skirting the stage and painted the stage stairs in the service room. It was a busy and stressful but rewarding two days of cleaning, decorating and everything else that was involved including some food prep on my part. I could not stay completely away from the food.

I was told during the party that one of the adult guest said, “I’ve been to three bar mitzvahs this year and this is the best.” I’m sure that they saw a little bit of soul and personal touches from our friends and us that were put into this event.


Everyone had a great time. The kids loved the theme, dancing and food.


They say it takes a village to raise a child; it also takes a village to put together their bar mitzvah. 

Mom, Dad and the village are so proud of Lenny Vegas Esser. Now go strike them out and hit some home runs kid.

I took great care in planning the menu. We had to cater to many tastes, including kids, vegetarian, kosher and those who have no idea what kosher is. I planned something for everyone. Also many of Lenny's favorites.

Mazel Tov!


Enjoy the menu                                          


Tonight’s Starting Line Up:


Kiddish with challah and wine/grape juice toast

Passed Appetizers

Mini Matzo ball soups in espresso cups

Mini ramekins of mac and cheese

Buffalo tofu with blue cheese served on ceramic Chinese spoons

Edible cilantro lime flavored spoons with chicken satay




Beet cured gravlox with cream cheese and assorted rye breads


Baba Ganoush

Vegetable platter


Stuffed grape leaves

Fennel and orange salad

International cheese and cracker platter


Baseball Concession Buffet


Kosher New York deli hotdogs

Hamburger and Cheese burger sliders

Old fashion in the box cracker jacks

Ballpark  peanuts

Cotton Candy

Baseball Glove Cake


Mexican cane sugar coca cola in glass bottles

AJ Stephans pure cane sugar retro flavors glass bottled sodas, wild strawberry, root beer, sarsaparilla, raspberry lime ricky and the list goes on.....(locally made, small batch, in Fall River)

Adult Beverage

I have to mention my friend Marjorie from Solera, A Shrine to Wine, in our Boston neighborhood, Roslindale for suggesting wine and beer options. She knows her stuff and some of the wines she also paired with an in store tasting I did a few months back.

Baseball Beers

Brooklyn Pennant 55' Ale

Wachusett Green Monsta IPA (local)


Vallis Queyras  Grenache-Syrah

Domainne de Pouy White

Chateau Elysees Brut, California Champagne






Chi Chi Chia Seeds

      Chia seeds have gone mainstream, I just saw them at Costco.  I’ve also seen all kinds of food products containing chia seeds, from nutrition bars to fruit juice drinks.

Yes, these are the same seeds that are used on the sprouting novelty ceramic chia pets.

Years ago, I discovered chia seeds as a food source and was intrigued by the health claims of being high in omega-3 fatty acid, protein, calcium and fiber.  They also slow down digestion that helps regulate blood sugar and have more antioxidants than blueberries.  Those are some big claims. Like most, I have periods when I don’t take care of myself as well as I should. I’m a busy personal chef, not always practicing what I preach on nutrition, but I have noticed for myself, that when I eat chia seeds almost daily, I have more energy and feel healthy. As I have a busy work-hard/play-hard summer ahead, I’m getting back on the chia seed bandwagon.

Chia seeds are sometimes called the runner’s food.  I’ve read that the ancient native tribes of Mexico used them as a major food source and carried them on their long on-foot journeys.  They are still grown in Mexico as well as Bolivia, Argentina, Guatemala and Ecuador.

My favorite way to eat them is mixing them in a morning cup of yogurt. They’re also great sprinkled on vegetable and fruit salads, heck, I love them as a creamy crunchy snack by just dipping a banana in a pile of chia seeds. You can soak them in water, to creates a thick, gloopy drink, which is not really my favorite way to eat them.

The following recipe for chia seed pudding has been around for a while (I think I first saw it in Food and Wine magazine) and it’s really good. If you want try varying it, you can use cows milk and honey, vanilla extract, coconut or soy milk.

Chia Seed Pudding

Stir together. I put mine in a mason jar and shake. Refrigerate over night. This will keep for 2 or three days. but it’s so good I’ve never had mine last that long.

Almond milk, 2 ½  cups

Chia seeds, ½ cup

Agava, 3 tablespoons or to taste

Lemon zest, ½ teaspoon 




Paella, The National Dish of Spain

My friend Catherine, who is also a personal chef recently posted on her face book page, pictures of her participating in a Paella challenge cook off in San Antonio Texas. She has inspired me to share something I’ve been meaning to do for a while.

As I sit here in my office watching the snow slowly melt, I’m thinking, warmer weather is on its way and I can’t wait to get cooking back outside. I do a lot of BBQing and grilling in catering and for my friends and family. Last summer I also did a lot of paella parties and look forward to doing the same this warm weather season.

Near the end of last summer my friends and fellow baseball parents, Fatima and Jimmy, invited the team, coaches and family over for a party soon after our kids played a week of tournaments in Cooperstown N.Y. I offered to bring one of my large paella burners and a matching in size pan to add to the grilled and other foods. Some of these photos are from that event.


I love making paella; it’s a dish that really brings people together especially when I’m cooking it outdoors during a party. Everyone gathers around to watch and I enjoy telling the guest about paella and the step by step of what I’m doing. I’ve discovered the making of the paella often becomes part of the party entertainment.


For most parties I offer the basic paella that most are used to, saffron, chicken, shrimp, chorizo, little neck clams, mussels and squid but I’ve done all kinds of paellas even vegetarian versions. Last summer while attending the USPCA conference in Washington D.C., I went out with some chef friends including Catherine, to Jose Andrea’s restaurant Jaleo where we had a chef tasting menu including a squid ink paella. Awesome stuff ! In fact, a couple, who seemed to be amused to be sitting next to our table of eager to taste chefs, traveled a distance to just order the black paella.

Notice the pic of the rice cross, this is a traditional ode to Jesus. I also do the cross, I don’t fit religion into my menus, I cook for everyone and all kinds of events from Baptisims to bar Mitzvahs but I do the cross in honor of the tradition and I’ve also discovered that it helps me judge the amount of rice. I’m often too busy cooking to actually measure every ingredient.


I also use the traditional Spanish Bomba rice. The Bomba rice is grown slowly in mountain waters. It expands in width and regular rice expands in length. I saw a lot of bags labeled Bomba in restaurants while visiting Spain last year. I also had some fine paella.

Once the paella is done, it should have a caramelized crust on the bottom of the rice. This crust is called La soccarat.

I could talk about paella all day, there’s a lot to tell.

I’ll be teaching a paella class at the Sherbourn- Dover adult Ed soon.  



Is it warm enough yet for my next-door neighbor to bring over a pitcher of sangria for a neighborhood paella feast?  Photo below is Danny, a baseball dad. Everyone is happy when they're at a paella party.