Some people are born artists. Some are born writers. Joan Seltzer is a born cook.
"I started cooking when I was 13. It was easy for me," said Seltzer. "I started with the usual kid stuff - grilled cheese, a little salad - but then I evolved to more sophisticated things like filet, salmon, fancy potatoes."
Many decades later, the Margate woman is still evolving, cooking sophisticated meals for family and friends and continuing to experiment in the kitchen.
The results of those experiments are included in what she says is one of the best cookbooks no one has ever seen - a tome called "Why Can't You Cook Like My Mom," that Seltzer wrote for her daughters-in-law but never got around to publishing. It contains many of the recipes she collected and created in decades of work in the kitchen.
"It's an awesome cookbook and I refer to it all the time, but did I publish it? No, I'm too lazy," she said.
That's hard to believe after having a conversation with Seltzer, who has run her own catering company, raised four children and now works as a sales associate at Prudential Fox & Roach real estate in Margate.
Seltzer has been in love with food since she was a child. She was born in northern Philadelphia, but her parents, Joe and Helen Weinfeld, moved the family to Margate a decade later.
Seltzer grew up around good food. She remembers her mom was a "really good cook" who served her family briskets, macaroni and cheese and other comfort foods.
"It wasn't my style, but it was delicious," Seltzer recalls. She also credits her mother with setting a good example for her when it came to things such as presenting a meal and making company feel welcome.
Seltzer cooked throughout her teen years, but it wasn't until she got married that she began to develop her own style in the kitchen.
"My first husband really liked to eat, and that motivated me," she said. She remembers once going to a restaurant and enjoying the beef Wellington.
"He was joking with me and said "I bet you can't make this.' I said 'I bet I can.' I went home and found a recipe in The Press. I followed it. I cooked it and it was amazing," Seltzer said. "That was the first thing that I made that really made me feel like I was a star."
She continued looking for recipes in the newspaper and in cookbooks. She got good at making the dishes popular at the time, such as filets and pate.
"Everything that I cooked I cooked well. The vegetables were always cooked to perfection, the salad was beautiful. That was when I learned that there was more to salad than iceberg lettuce. I would make my own Caesar salad dressing and croutons," Seltzer said.
Seltzer's cooking moved from a source of self-satisfaction to a source of income about 25 years ago, when she started operating the Genie Catering and Gourmet To Go company.
She and her partner initially operated the business out of her home, but moved to a storefront as the business grew.
That was good news for the neighbors, because even though the catering business was work, it was also fun, Seltzer remembers.
"We would cater on the weekends and would have parties on my back deck after the events. The neighbors would get angry and call the police, who would come and say 'Joan, shut it down.' People did sleep in my driveway back then," she said.
"When we opened the shop, it was really wonderful," Seltzer said. "We'd have this beautiful gourmet food and baked goods. We had a pastry chef. I was the chef and we had a full commercial kitchen."
Operating one of the first gourmet food-to-go businesses in the area, Seltzer got write ups in the New York Times and Philadelphia magazines during the decade she ran the shop.
While no longer in the food business, Seltzer still loves cooking. One of her most appreciative audiences is husband George Seltzer.
"He came to me eating canned peas and not even good lamb chops on a TV stand. I said 'George, I have to change that, and I sure did,' Seltzer said.
These days Seltzer's cooking style involves lots of light, healthy meals. She's famous for her paella and she also makes a lot of curries and Asian foods.
One of her favorite recipes is a Curried Mango Chicken dish she's developed and shared with her youngest son, Charles Seltzer, who is an internist practicing in Philadelphia and specializing in weight control.
"This has been one of his favorites and can be modified in many ways. I have also shared this over the years with friends and other family members," she said.
And Seltzer continues to play in the kitchen, finding new recipes in newspapers, magazines and cookbooks and adding her own special touches to them.
"It's not a question of experimentation. It's exploration in the food world. I'm still very active in it," she said. And while she's more than competent in the kitchen, there's one area where Seltzer does appreciate some help.
"The most important rule is never clean up after yourself," she said.
Contact Steven V. Cronin:
Curried Mango Chicken
•2 pounds boneless and skinless chicken breast strips, uniformly trimmed
•1/2 cup olive oil
•1 cup of flour
•1/2 cup butter, set aside
•1 bunch green onions (white and green parts) trimmed and chopped
•2 12-ounce frozen packages of mangos defrosted, drained and cubed (save mango juice)
•8-ounce jar of chutney
•3 tablespoons of curry powder (adjust to your taste buds)
•1 bunch fresh cilantro, trimmed and chopped
•1/2 cup of white wine, as needed
Dip chicken in flour and saute in olive oil. Remove from pan. Saute onions briefly and remove from pan. Saute 1/2 the mango until warmed through. Add 8 ounce jar of chutney to mango mixture in pan. Add chicken and green onions to pan. Sprinkle curry powder over mixture until totally combined with other ingredients. If needed add additional liquid.
Add 1/2 half of cilantro and saute briefly. Remove everything from pan and put on serving platter. Quickly saute remaining mango in pan. Remove from pan and garnish platter with mango. Sprinkle remaining cilantro over chicken. Serve over brown rice.