My Neighbor Mina Is Really Cooking!

Although I’ve had my share of unequivocally unlovable neighbors, now that Mina Stone is my neighbor, it’s easy to follow the well known Biblical commandment. Mina is charming. Caring. Classy. Smart. Attractive. Engaging. And, Mina is a superb chef who is working on her second cookbook. Incredible aromas often waft through the air when I’m sitting on my back deck, which is feet away from her kitchen.  

                           Mina in her kitchen

As a mother of a daughter who is Mina’s age – 38 years old – I’m intrigued by how young women today are leading their lives. I admire the way Mina is leading hers. Besides her passion for cooking, she is devoted to her handsome and talented partner, Alex, an artist; to their adorable 3 ½-year-old-son Apollo, and to her sharp 13-year-old stepdaughter Sophia. 

Born in Cleveland, OH, to a Greek mother and an American father, Mina’s family moved to Greece when she was two years old, then to Boston a few years later, where she grew up. At 18, Mina became a fashion student at the renowned Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, which is less than one mile from where she and I live.

“When I graduated I realized my personality would get lost if I worked for someone because I’d get wrapped up trying to please him or her and I wouldn’t stand out,” Mina told me. “I had all these interesting, artistic friends and I could see the differences between their personalities and mine. They threw caution to the wind and had their own voices. I knew I could find my own voice alone, but if I had a boss I’d surely work harder trying to get his voice out than my own,” she explained.

Her self-awareness at only 22 years old inspired Mina to launch her own fashion line, a small collection of dresses inspired by five vintage pieces that she loved. “You could wear them during the day and dress them up for the evening. It’s nice when you can put on something in the morning that’s so awesome you’re happy to wear it at night. You don’t have to go home from work to change,” Mina said.

Besides getting a sizable order from a fashion retailer, Mina’s patternmaker willingly waited for her payment until the retailer paid her. “I was lucky,” she added. 

THIS IS WHERE COOKING ENTERS THE PICTURE

As orders increased, Mina needed more money to keep her business going. Dating a private chef at the time, she loved  watching him cook. “I didn’t know rich people hired chefs to come to their houses to cook their meals, and I thought it would be a perfect part time job to bring in income while I ran my fashion business,” Mina explained.  So what if she never cooked professionally. Mina was in her twenties and thought she could do (almost) anything!

Mina serving tomato salad with avocados, red onion and cilantro, braised beef with lime, smoky chickpeas and rice

With the help of her boyfriend, she landed a job cooking two to three times a week for a young family on the upper East Side of Manhattan. “I was forced to learn to cook and I learned a lot,” Mina said. “The family would ask me to prepare dishes like goulash – which I’d never make of my own accord – and I’d look up the recipe.” She loved cooking. “I was like a kid playing dress up or house, but I played chef for my friends,” she laughed. Strictly following recipes at first, Mina started altering them as she became more confident. 

Mina also began cooking for fun shopping parties that her retail fashion clients threw for customers. “This was before internet shopping and right before Project Runway. Stores were supporting young indy designers and it was a really exciting time for us in New York,” she explained. 

When the director of a cool art gallery at one of the shopping parties asked Mina to cook a casual dinner for 40 at the gallery, that marked her official entree into the world of professional chefs. Singer-songwriter Debbie Harry was one of the guests at the dinner who ate Mina’s chicken bouillabaisse with saffron and aioli on the side, accompanied by green rice with herbs. “I was starstruck,” remembers Mina, who still cooks for the gallery.

When dinners for 40 turned into dinners for 100 and then 200, Mina gave up her fashion business. The choice to switch careers entirely was seamless. “I was curling up in bed with cookbooks. My heart has switched paths. Besides, cooking was a simpler business model than fashion,” Mina said. She also started to cook for Urs Fischer, an artist, who had his own book imprint, so in 2010 the two of them began working on a cookbook together.

THE COOKBOOK AND THE CAFE 

Anchovies and lemon with whipped feta at Mina’s Cafe

Cooking for Artists, a 2015 journal documenting the recipes Mina created for non-stop gallery events, has done well and is sold in every major museum. Drawing on Greek, Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cultures – and adding her own spin as a New Yorker –  Mina calls her dishes “simple and accessible, featuring ingredients you can get from your corner store.” She uses olive oil, lemon juice and salt in most everything she cooks. “People love that I use five ingredients at most in every dish. They say, ‘Hey, I can make that cabbage salad, for example. It’s easy.’ They really use my cookbook,” Mina added.

The title of her cookbook represents Mina’s tribute to the creative communities with which she’s been involved since her days as a student at Pratt Institute. “Artists have always supported my creativity and desire to find my own voice. They don’t control what I cook, but let me shine and let me have fun. I never would have continued cooking if it was for a family on the Upper East Side,” Mina noted. 

A few months before the pandemic hit, Mina and partner Alex opened Mina’s, a cafe in MoMA PS 1, a contemporary art museum in Long Island CIty, New York. It served  “really simple and delicious food you could have with a glass of wine,” including Greek Mezethakia (appetizers) such as Greek sausage with leeks and orange, white anchovies with thyme and lemon, whipped feta and Muhammara, a Syrian red pepper and walnut dip.  

AND THEN, THE QUARANTINE 

Quanatining has given Mina a chance to be together with Alex and their son Apollo. She and Alex have been cooking together since they met in 2008. “He’s a good cook, a natural cook,” Mina said. Being at home has also given her time to work on her second cookbook, which will be a continuing journal of her cooking life. Documenting the opening of Mina’s and bits and pieces of events she and Alex produced at PS 1,” the cookbook will be published in spring 2021. 

Pasta with fresh tomatoes and Greek salad

If you’ve never much been into cooking, Mina recommends preparing something “that has meaning, such as a recipe from your mother, grandmother or another family recipe you can pass on to your kids or grandkids,” she said. “That’s huge because it’s an oral history being passed down. If you want to eat it, you can learn how to make it.”

Mina loves to make good food and have people eat and enjoy it. “I like to tap into what I think someone would want to eat. It’s like a weird psychic thing,” she explained. Unlike the slow-moving fashion business, cooking “feels very fast.” she added. “Chop. Chop. Chop. You cook it. People eat it. Then you start over again. I find it freeing.” 

THE SCRUMPTIOUS RECIPE: REVITHIA (Chickpea Stew with Rosemary, Lemon, and Olive Oil)

“This is my favorite stew, recipe courtesy of my Yiayia (grandmother). The day she told me she thought my chickpea stew was ‘nostimo’ (tasty), I felt I had really accomplished something in life. 

“The chickpeas cook until they are meltingly soft, and then they are drowned in olive oil and lots of lemon juice. After you have had this you don’t ever want to eat anything else. It is a perfect example of Greek food at its best, transforming only a few ingredients into a luxurious meal. 

Serves 8–10

THE INGREDIENTS 

1 16-ounce bag of dried (not canned) chickpeas 

1 tablespoon baking soda

2 yellow onions, peeled and left whole

2 bay leaves

2 sprigs of fresh rosemary

4 tablespoons all-purpose flour 

1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil

salt and freshly ground black pepper

THE STEPS 

1. Soak the dried chickpeas in plenty of water overnight, or at least 6 hours. 

2. When you are ready to make the stew, drain the chickpeas in a colander and rinse them well. Leaving them in the colander, dust the chickpeas with the baking soda (which serves as a tenderizer) and then toss to incorporate, using your hands. 

Chickpea stew, beets and a simple green salad

3. Let the chickpeas sit for 30 minutes and then rinse very well, 3 or 4 times, in order to remove all the baking soda.

4. Place the chickpeas in a large, heavy pot filled with enough water to cover them by an inch. Add the whole onions, the bay leaves, and a generous pinch of salt.

5. Bring the stew to a boil, and then reduce the heat to low and cover.

6. After about 20 minutes, the chickpeas will start to give off a white froth. Skim this 2 or 3 times, and then don’t worry about it. 

7. After you’ve skimmed the stew a few times add 2 sprigs of fresh rosemary and simmer until the chickpeas are very tender, about another 40 minutes. Remove the onions and the rosemary sprigs. 

8. To thicken the stew, place 4 tablespoons of flour in a mixing bowl and whisk them with 1/3 cup olive oil. Slowly drizzle in 2 cups of broth from the stew, whisking to remove any lumps.

9. Bring the stew to a low simmer. Add the flour mixture back to the pot, stirring well for about 3 minutes until the stew is thick and velvety.

10. Taste for seasoning and add more salt (you will most likely need to add another generous pinch or two) and freshly ground black pepper.

11. Ladle into bowls and drizzle with olive oil and fresh lemon juice. This dish is best served on the day you make it.

Variation: During the last 10 minutes of cooking, add 2 cups of cleaned and coarsely chopped chard or kale.

You can also purchase Mina’s book, Mina Stone: Cooking for Artists, here.

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