Chef, caterer, culinary champion |

Chef, caterer, culinary champion

A few weeks ago I received an e-mail from a woman who claimed we “had a lot in common,” so, of course, I had to meet her.

Ellen Yohai is indeed a woman of many talents. She is a graduate of the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco and owned a Bay Area catering company for 14 years. Two years ago, a serious illness started her thinking about what she really wanted from her life, and she made some big changes. Upon selling her catering kitchen and firm, she segued into the world of the “personal chef,” and in the ensuing years has worked for the Heinz family (of ketchup fame) and for author Sidney Sheldon.

Of Yohai, Sheldon said in a letter of recommendation, “I have employed personal chefs for over 30 years, and Ellen Yohai stands head and shoulders above the rest!”

Now, if you could actually SEE Yohai, you might think this amusing as she is a tiny slip of a thing barely 5 feet, 3 inches tall, but when you try her recipes, I guarantee you will agree with Sheldon. She lives half the year in this area on one and one-half acres with three feisty cats.

Aside from her culinary capabilities, she is what we might refer to as “gentleman gardener” – of the female variety, of course! I gratefully left her house with some homemade preserves, heirloom tomatoes, ancho chilis, bell peppers and two bottles of sauces she has developed.

She loves to bake, especially if it allows her to avoid for a time some other type of work which isn’t as much fun (the day I was there it was the avoidance of a gate needing paint!). When I asked what she does with all the baked goods – she obviously eats very little of them! – she replied they go to her many good neighbors and the people who help her with odd jobs around her house. I am thinking of applying for a job!

Her cooking philosophy is: use fresh whatever is ripe and in season, don’t overwhelm natural flavors with too many herbs and spices and avoid making what she calls “fussy” food, which uses sophisticated techniques to alter food from its natural state. So here is a taste of what Ellen does in the kitchen. The recipe comments are her own.

Chilled Cucumber Soup

This recipe and the tomato sorbet were originally from Bon Appetit magazine. I have simplified them so they are more to my taste.

2 cups cottage cheese

2 cups plain yogurt (full fat)

2 English cucumbers or two Armenian cucumbers, peeled, about 6 cups

6 tablespoons olive oil (not extra virgin)

1 teaspoon Asian chili sauce or other hot sauce

1/2 to 1 cup chicken broth

salt to taste

Puree all ingredients together in food processor until very smooth. Strain mixture pressing to strain all liquid from remaining solids. Discard solids. Add enough chicken broth to bring to desired consistency. Season soup to taste with salt and pepper and, if desired, more hot sauce. Serve chilled or at room temperature with a dollop of the tomato sorbet (recipe below) for color and flavor accent.

Garden Tomato Sorbet

Do not use supermarket tomatoes for this sorbet; it will not taste good. It’s best to use the sweetest heirloom tomatoes you can find, either in your garden or at a farmer’s market, such as “sun gold” or other yellow or orange tomatoes.

1 pound tomatoes, cut in chunks

1/4 cup cilantro

2 tablespoons olive oil (not extra virgin)

2 tablespoons tomato paste

1 garlic clove

3 tablespoons sugar dissolved in 3 tablespoons water


1/8 teaspoon Asian hot sauce or cayenne (optional)

Puree all ingredients in food processor and strain through a fine sieve. Season with salt and pepper. Chill. Pour into ice cream maker and process. Top each bowl of the chilled cucumber soup with 1 heaping tablespoon of this sorbet.

Garden Summer Squash Soup

My favorite summer squash, which I grow, is called “gold rush” and is a yellow summer squash. This soup can be made with any summer squash like zucchini or patty pan. Be warned! The red Thai curry paste is very hot, so if you do not like spicy, use less.

It can be made with curry powder (2 tablespoons) instead of the curry paste, and with 2 cups heavy cream or half and half instead of the coconut milk. I prefer the Thai flavoring. With the Thai flavoring it is great chilled in the summer for a first course, but can also be served hot. The other version (with the curry powder) is best served hot in the winter.

10 cups cut-up yellow or green summer squash

3 onions chopped (chives or scallions are good as well)

3 tablespoons olive oil

3 tablespoons butter

1 can coconut milk

1 tablespoon red Thai curry paste (available in Asian markets or Asian section of the supermarket or 2 tablespoons curry powder)

6 to 8 cups chicken stock


Sauté onions in butter and oil until soft. Add squash and saute. Add 2 cups chicken stock, coconut milk and curry paste and simmer until very soft. Puree with hand mixer in pot (or in a blender). Add more stock until it’s the consistency you like. Add salt. This soup can be served chilled or hot. Serve chilled with a dollop of crème fraiche or sour cream and chives. Or serve hot.

Flat Bread with Cucumber Raita Dip

This recipe came from Bon Appetit’s restaurant section where they use recipes from restaurants. The restaurant supplying this one was the Dragonfly Restaurant in Truckee. I have modified it – both the flatbread and the dip – to suit my taste.

Flat Bread

21/2 cups flour

1 tablespoon curry powder

21/2 teaspoons kosher salt

3/4 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon baking soda

1/3 cup chopped green onions or chives

1/3 cup chopped cilantro or basil or both

1/2 cup whole milk

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1/2 cup sour cream

11/2 tablespoons beaten egg

Canola oil

Whisk first five ingredients in medium bowl to blend. Stir in green onions and herbs. Microwave milk and butter until butter is melted. Whisk in sour cream and egg. Add mixture to dry ingredients and stir to blend. Knead dough on lightly floured surface until smooth. Wrap and refrigerate at least one hour. Divide dough into two equal pieces and roll into round balls. Roll into flat round on floured surface. Heat canola oil in a large sauté pan (at least 2 inches deep) to 375 F. Working in batches, fry flat breads until golden and puffed. They cook VERY quickly! Drain on paper towels. Serve with cucumber raita dip.

Cucumber Raita Dip

1 grated cucumber, peeled

3 cups whole milk yogurt

1/4 cup minced onion or thinly sliced chives or green onions

2 tablespoons chopped cilantro

1 tablespoon honey

1 teaspoon cumin

1/2 teaspoon salt

Black and cayenne peppers

Grate cucumber and squeeze out excess liquid. Mix all ingredients together and season with salt and both peppers. Can be refrigerated for several days, but tastes best served at room temperature.

Steamed Plum Pudding with Plum Brandy Sauce

This recipe is perfect for purple prune type plums, but then you don’t get juice for the sauce. If possible, get the plum juice from some pluots or Santa Rosa type plums. I always make this in the summer and have it in the freezer ready to go for Thanksgiving.

21/2 cups plums

1 cup brown sugar, firmly packed

1/2 cup butter, melted

2 eggs

1 cup flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 cup cognac

Cut plums in quarters if using prune plums or into one-half inch pieces if using regular Santa Rosa plums. If using the juicier plums, reserve the juice for sauce. In mixing bowl, beat brown sugar and butter. Add the eggs mixing well, and then blend in plums. In a separate bowl, sift together flour, salt, and soda and add to plum mixture, stirring gently.

Generously butter a 1 and one-half quart mold and its cover. (Steamed pudding molds come with a hole in the middle and a snap-on cover). Pour the pudding into the mold and cover. Fill a large pot with water to reach halfway up the side of the mold. Cover the pot and bring to a simmer over low heat. Steam for one hour. Remove the steamed mold from the pot and uncover.

Place in a 400 F oven for 5 minutes to dry to top slightly. Cool the pudding for a few minutes and unmold onto a warm serving plate. At this point you can cool the pudding and freeze it until the holidays. Then warm it in a slow oven wrapped in foil. Always serve warm. When ready to serve, warm the cognac in the microwave and ignite, and then pour over the pudding. Or serve it with the following plum brandy sauce.

Plum Brandy Sauce

1 cup plum juice*

1/3 cup sugar

Dash each of cinnamon and nutmeg

11/2 tablespoons cornstarch

1/4 cup brandy

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

1 tablespoon butter

In a small sauce pan, combine the plum juice, sugar, spices and cornstarch. Mix well and bring to a simmer over low heat stirring constantly until slightly thickened. Remove from heat and blend in brandy, lemon juice, and butter. Serve warm with the warm plum pudding.

*If you don’t have enough plum juice from cutting up the plums and draining them, then make some by cooking some extra plums with a little water and straining the juice to remove pits and skin.

The Best Toffee Almond Sandies

1 cup unsalted butter, softened

1 cup sugar

1 cup powdered sugar

1 cup canola oil

2 eggs

1 teaspoon almond extract

31/2 cups all-purpose flour

1 cup whole wheat flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon cream of tartar

1 teaspoon salt

2 cups chopped almonds with skins on

1 pkg. (10 oz.) English toffee bits*

Extra sugar for rolling

In mixing bowl, cream butter and sugars. Add oil, eggs, and extract: mix well. In separate bowl, combine flours, baking soda, cream of tartar and salt. Gradually add to creamed mixture. Stir in almonds and toffee bits. Shape in one-inch balls; roll in sugar. Place on greased (or use parchment paper and there’s no need to grease) cookie sheet and bake at 350 degrees for about 12-14 minutes or until lightly browned. Yield: Approx. 12 dozen

*found in most supermarket in the baking section

White Chocolate Lime Cheesecake with Gingersnap Crust


2 cups ground gingersnap cookies

3 tablespoons sugar

1/2 cup melted butter

Combine ground cookies and sugar in food processor. Add melted butter and process. Press mixture into bottom and up sides of a 10-inch springform pan.


6 tablespoons lime juice

1 envelope unflavored gelatin

2 and one-half cups whipping cream

10 oz. chopped white chocolate (must be good quality like Callebaut or Lindt)

3 – 8-oz. pkgs. cream cheese, room temperature

1 cup sugar

11/2 tablespoons finely grated lime peel

Place lime juice in a bowl. Sprinkle gelatin over to soften. Bring one-half cup cream to a simmer in a heavy sauce pan. Remove from heat. Add white chocolate and stir until melted and smooth. Stir in gelatin mixture. Cool slightly.

Using electric mixer, beat cream cheese, sugar and lime peel in large bowl to blend. Slowly mix white chocolate mixture into the cream cheese mixture. Using clean, dry beaters, beat remain cream to peaks. Gently fold in white chocolate mixture. Pour filling into prepared crust. Cover and refrigerate overnight.


Notes from Jo: Lee Anderson very kindly took the time to send some thoughts about the food page which I answered, and then I thought all of you might be interested in our e-mail discussion, as it will define for all of you what I am trying to do and the direction I want to follow with “The Page.”

This from Lee: I think it is important for you as food columnist to weed out the recipes containing high cholesterol foods such as the use of butter and margarine (any fat that gets hard when cold) and cheeses other than low fat cheese. I personally love cheese, and find it very difficult to live without it, but know I must reduce the amount.

I just received a health newsletter from my doctor about cholesterol and how to adjust a diet by cutting back on red meats and cheeses, and butter/margarine. Therefore, I suggest that you select recipes that are geared toward health. We Americans have to learn to eat less and eat more natural roughage and cut down on meats and fats. You can help a lot in your choice of recipes.

And here’s my reply: It’s true, Lee – we all need to be conscious of our health and what we can and cannot/should and should not be eating. I am new at this journalism business so let me try to explain to you what the thrust of my column will be.

I want to involve the community – both individuals, businesses and organizations that have something to offer something us “foodies.” In doing this, I am soliciting recipes from these people and groups and I am not going to limit people in what they give me, and, for the most part, I will take no liberties in changing their recipes.

I know some of my contributors will offer healthier recipes and others may give some that are higher in fats, carbohydrates and other ingredients which many must avoid.

Because I am not going to be modifying their recipes, my suggestion is that if an ingredient will not work for someone’s diet that they substitute one that will work or perhaps choose another recipe. We all have many choices when we pick a cheese as an ingredient or how much of a type of protein we feel is healthy to eat.

Thankfully all types of diets can be accommodated at our local markets today using good choices. I hope to have many different cooks with many different ideas about food involved with “The Page.”

I want to thank Lee for her comments. I also solicit MORE comments and critiques.

Next Week: Main Dish Salads

Sept. 22: Meet the Happy Cooker’s Luncheon Society


Jo Names can be reached by e-mail at or by phone at 272-6727.

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