Sometimes, learning a new language can bring some unexpected benefits.
That was the case with Dee Kassis, who honed her kitchen skills as she tuned in to television cooking shows to help improve her English.
"I turned on Julie Child and other shows and slowly, but surely, my repertoire started getting bigger and bigger," the 60-year-old Absecon woman said.
These days, Kassis' English is flawless and her cooking is so good she now entertains as part of her duties as chair of the AtlantiCare Foundation. When she has people over, Kassis draws on recipes from her native Lebanon - tasty dishes that feed lots of people but are also in keeping with the foundation's focus on encouraging healthy eating.
These are dishes Kassis learned from her mother-in-law, grandmother and sister-in-law she made with her own twist.
Kassis was born in Lebanon and grew up in Beirut. She said her childhood generated many fond memories.
"There were six kids in my family - lots of love, lots of food and lots of families around us," Kassis recalled. "Every uncle and aunt that I had, they also had six kids. Every time we gathered, there was a lot of family around."
Food played a large part in these gatherings - "Every holiday was centered around food," Kassis recalls.
Kassis remembers her mother was a great cook, a stay-at-home mom who fed her large family, raised them with love and kept house - all while maintaining a perfect hairdo and wearing high heels.
But the young girl did not learn much in the family kitchen. It took time to feed such a large family, not leaving much time for instruction in cooking and recipes.
"I had the desire to learn, but she would always chase me out of the kitchen, she thought I was too slow," Kassis recalls, laughing.
It was Kassis' grandmother who gave the young girl her first introduction to cooking.
"When I went to visit my grandmother in the mountains, she was the one who had a big influence on me and my love of food," Kassis said. She recalls her grandmother was not only beautiful - svelte, petite, very loving and patient - but was also a woman who loved to cook.
Her grandparents lived in a small village dominated by two feuding families - "Just like in 'Romeo and Juliet.' They all intermarried, but they hated one another."
Kassis grandparents lived in a compound made up of their house and the homes of Kassis' uncles. There was a vineyard, chickens and fig trees in back, and her grandparents also had a kitchen garden where they grew fruits and vegetables.
"She spent her day in the kitchen, every day. She was a natural - she would have won any kind of cooking competition," Kassis recalls fondly. The grandmother was also creative, whipping up dishes with whatever she had on hand.
"She was a great inventor. She would go out to her garden and come in and make a feast out of nothing," her granddaughter said.
Kassis watched and learned. She admits she was unprepared to emulate her grandmother and mother's skills in the kitchen when she married her husband, Kamal, at age 22. He was a physician doing his residency in New Jersey, so she moved to the state to be with him, leaving behind her warm memories and the possibility of quickly honing her ability to prepare great meals.
"My poor husband lived on Minute Rice and Rice-A-Roni and that beef stew stuff in the can," Kassis said.
With her love of cooking, and a need to feed her husband, it was no surprise Kassis became a fan of television cooking shows.
Those TV chefs helped make her a better cook, as did recipes she gathered from her family and her new mother-in-law.
In 37 years of marriage, the couple have raised two daughters and settled in Absecon. Kassis' recipe repertoire now includes Lebanese dishes as well as light American-influenced meals.
"Normally we try to keep it light, we use the barbecue outside and will grill chicken or fish. We eat lots of vegetables. We always have a very large salad, every single day, even for the two of us, then simple grilled meat, but then I also make a Lebanese dish to go with that," she said.
Kassis has a large home and enjoys entertaining, so when she became chair of the AtlantiCare Foundation - which raises funds to support AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center - it was a natural impulse to open her house for events. It was also natural she draw on her roots when preparing the menu.
A recent event for 34 people had her serving hummus, baba ghannoush, which is a grilled eggplant salad with peppers and tomatoes and grenadine, and about a dozen cold appetizers. She also made hot appetizers, shish kebab with filet mignon, and Armenian wedding rice, which is rice cooked with meat, onions, cinnamon and allspice.
"It's a beautiful dish. When they have a wedding, this is a dish that serves a lot of people and is very popular," she said.
The menu items were not only delicious, they were also "in keeping with the notion of eating healthy and using healthy foods," Kassis said.
"I like to put my personal touch on everything I do. This event was different, people came and they learned about the culture and the food I served and they also learned about what the hospital is doing," Kassis said.
The meal combined Kassis' pride in her Lebanese heritage with her pride in what the hospital is doing.
"I was a registered nurse and I worked at Atlantic City Medical Center. I've seen it grow and flourish, so to me, it is personal," she said.
Her term as foundation chair ends in February, just enough time for Kassis to maybe fit in one more dinner event - she hopes.
"If not, the person who is taking over, maybe I can help them do something like this," she said.
Contact Steven V. Cronin:
9-inch pie ingredients:
•1/2 package of shredded filo dough (also called kataife) cut or pulled into small pieces
•1/2 cup clarified sweet butter
Drizzle melted butter over kataife, rub together until shredded filo is moist. Bake in 450-degree oven, on the lowest rack, for about 15 minutes or until golden brown. Keep at room temperature. Add 1/2 cup simple syrup (see recipe) to filo, mix well and place in center of a buttered, flat serving dish and form into a 9-inch pie with raised edge.
•1/4 cup unsalted whole pistachios
•1/4 cup slivered almonds
•1/4 cup pine nuts
Toast nuts in 350-degree oven for about 5 to 7 minutes. Set aside.
•2 cups Ashata (found in Middle Eastern specialty stores) or 1 pint Ricotta cheese mixed with 1 tablespoon orange blossom water or make the following filling:
•1 1/2 cups whole milk
•3 slices of white bread, cubed and crust removed
•1 tablespoon corn starch
Bring milk to gentle boil, add bread and corn starch. Keep stirring until bread dissolves and mixture thickens. Let cool.
Place filling over kataife, sprinkle toasted nuts, garnish with a sprig of mint.
Note: Orange blossom water can be found in speciality and health food markets.
•1 cup sugar
•1/2 cup water
•1 teaspoon orange blossom water
Put sugar and water in a small pot, add a few drops of lemon juice to prevent crystallization. Cook over a low heat while stirring until the sugar dissolves and the mixture comes to a boil. Lower heat and continue cooking for another minute. Cool slightly and add 1 teaspoon of orange blossom water.
This will give you 1 cup of simple syrup. Use half of it for the kenafe and serve the other half on the side.