For 40 years, Janice Okun had a front-row seat at the American food revolution, dishing up stories on everything from the new restaurant across town to delicious ideas from overseas.
Under Okun's watch as The Buffalo News' Food Editor, the American table broadened, and her coverage of everything food expanded with it. She spent four decades offering stories on local gastronomic trends and tools of the trade, and demonstrated how once-exotic ingredients were becoming everyday fare.
Now, Okun is offering readers more than 110 recipes in a memoir-cookbook called "Buffalo Cooks With Janice Okun." Since her semiretirement in March 2009 -- she still reviews restaurants weekly as a freelancer for The News -- Okun has collected her readers' favorite recipes for her book.
They include restaurant favorites like the pumpkin pie from John's Flaming Hearth and classics like the iconic Buffalo Chicken Wings. "Don't try to make it healthier," Okun writes, noting that some gentrifiers would have you bake, not fry, wings. "We are talking sacred writ here."
In a recent interview, Okun said, "The recipes I did select were like old friends, ones I knew readers had loved through the years." The recipes are "the real reason for the book," writes Okun.
But the side dishes aren't bad, either. Okun has seasoned "Buffalo Cooks" with snapshots from a food writer's life, a look at how the sausage gets made. Whether she's describing her reaction to a stir-fried cobra feast in China, or self-deprecating stories like dropping her notebook into a vat of Parmigiano-Reggiano curd in Parma, Okun gives readers a fresh perspective on her quest for deliciousness.
Many of the book's recipes come topped with Okun's stories about the people behind them. "At the risk of sounding dorky," Okun said, "the best thing about the job was the people I met and the things I learned from them."
There's Simone Beck, Julia Child's neighbor in Provence, who taught Okun French dishes including the Provencal Salad Dressing found in her book. Richard Kutas started making his own kielbasa in Las Vegas before returning to Buffalo and opening the Sausage Maker in Black Rock, and here's his fresh kielbasa recipe.
Her readers might have left her scratching her head at times, like the calls from people asking if they should eat something that was a relic in their refrigerator. Okun wasn't about to take chances. "If they're in doubt, they know instinctively they shouldn't be doing it," she said. "I'd just say, 'No, you don't want to eat that.' "
But it was also readers who taught her new things, about cooking and the world around her, Okun said. "There are things out there that you couldn't believe, and you get them when people call you."
Like the day a reader told her they skipped the complications of canning and simply froze their tomatoes. "Who'd ever heard of that?" Okun said. "I checked with the Extension service. It's fine. You just freeze them. Yeah, they come out mushy but so do canned tomatoes. You can't use them for a salad, but you can use them for anything else -- and they're good."
When Okun's restaurant reviews began in 1974, they appeared every other week. Okun had agreed with the editor that otherwise they'd run out of places to review. "And both of us were wrong," she writes.
After 36 years of reviews, Okun said, she doesn't think a bad review can close a restaurant by itself.
"But I also don't think you can make, in quotes, a restaurant, either," she said. "If it's fabulous, and you say the place is wonderful, they've got to be able to pick up the ball and carry it.
"If you say the place is wonderful, you've got people in the door. That's not hard to do. But if the restaurant is terrible, that's the end of them, boy," said Okun. "They have to be able to pick it up and run.
"If they don't, people give them one chance, and that's it. So it's a terrible responsibility, in a sense, to get a good review. Because you have to be consistent. People come right away and you have to be ready for them."
The critic said her job isn't like reviewing movies.
"Because a restaurant is someone's life," Okun said. "A film is going to move on. If that one doesn't do so well at this theater, what the heck, the next one will. I think you always have to have that consciousness, that this is somebody's life's blood -- and it is, it truly is."
It's not only money, Okun said. "It's work -- you invest so much emotionally in the damn thing. It's a very hard job.
"I don't know why anybody wants to run a restaurant," Okun said. "I'm glad they're there, though."
2 cups flour
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup butter or margarine
6 fresh peaches, peeled and halved
1 teaspoon cinnamon
2 egg yolks
1 cup sour cream
Combine flour, baking powder and 2 tablespoons of sugar. Cut in butter to make coarse crumbs. Press into the bottom and sides of a greased 8-inch square pan to make a loose crust.
Arrange peach halves over crumbs. Sprinkle with remaining sugar and the cinnamon.
Bake in a preheated 400-degree oven for 15 minutes.
Combine egg yolks and sour cream. Pour over peaches. Return to oven and bake for another 30 minutes. Serve hot or cold.
(Okun writes: "This recipe came from Nana, my husband's feisty grandmother. Oh boy! Could that woman cook!")
>Fresh Spaghetti Sauce
8 ounces hot Italian sausage links
8 medium tomatoes, peeled and cored
1 medium onion
2 teaspoons oregano
Salt and pepper
1 can (6-ounce) tomato paste
1 clove garlic
1 pound ground beef
1/2 cup fine bread crumbs
1/2 pound sliced mushrooms
Cut sausage into 1-inch pieces; brown slowly in small skillet.
Place tomatoes, onion, oregano and salt and pepper in food processor; run just long enough to chop the onion.
Place tomatoes in a large saucepan; add tomato paste and garlic clove and bring to a boil.
Turn heat down and allow sauce to simmer. Drain sausage and add it to the sauce.
Combine beef, bread crumbs, salt and pepper and form into balls. Add to sauce. (It is not necessary to brown the meatballs.)
Cover pan and cook for two hours over low heat.
Fifteen minutes before serving, add mushrooms and remove garlic.
Serve over pasta. Makes 4 to 6 servings.
"Buffalo Cooks With Janice Okun"
141 pages, spiral bound
Western New York Wares$14.95, at most local bookstores