Ruth Freeman's penchant for
cooking began at age 10 in Puerto Rico, selling her home-baked
brownies, Mom's recipe, for $1 a batch to residents in their
Subsequent boarding school years in the United States didn't allow her to indulge her cooking fancy. But as a student at Oberlin College in Ohio, Freeman expanded her culinary skills, cooking for herself and baking cookies for friends.
Later, the Rowayton resident cultivated her taste buds during years of travel as a corporate exec for Manhattan-based insurance brokerage company Marsh & McLennan. Pleasure trips with friends to Ireland, Italy, France and other ports of call included cooking classes and visits to cheese makers, fish smokers and olive oil producers.
The single career woman switched vocations last year to work at the Rowayton and Darien libraries as a circulation department staffer.
"I have a wide range of taste," says Freeman, who also lived in Jamaica while growing up. (Her family moved frequently because her father worked for Texaco.) Bold flavours and spices rate high on her list of culinary favourites that include pungent Indian curries and lusty Mediterranean dishes loaded with garlic.
"Lemons and garlic," she says, "are two things that I can't imagine being without. They can help almost anything become good food."
She credits the Caribbean influence for "the curry thing," and says she loves beans, particularly black beans -- key ingredients in soup and salad recipes.
"I never met a black bean I didn't like," she says.
Freeman is equally smitten with simple comfort foods like roast chicken, grilled fish and mac and cheese. Whether it's dinner parties for eight friends or day-after Christmas festivities for 30 relatives, her aim is to please palates.
"Ruth is one of the most prolific hostesses I know," says Margaret Steele, a friend and neighbour who nominated Freeman for this month's Cook du Jour, citing Freeman's orzo salad and veal stew among her favourites. "Anything she puts on her table -- rolls, chutney, pesto -- she has made herself. That to me is an amazing feat. I get my pesto at the farmers' market and the chutney comes out of a jar."
Not infrequently, Freeman cooks with long-time friend Susan Drake of Darien, whose daughter, Kenly, 19, is Freeman's goddaughter. Freeman and Kenly attended cooking classes together during trips to Santa Fe, N.M.; and Paris.
"Ruth has an amazing talent for instinctively knowing what flavors blend together well," says Drake. "There is always something wonderful wafting out of her kitchen."
The two are part of a group of nine women who each contribute a dish toward rotating pot luck dinners every five to six weeks. Says Freeman: "It's a lot of fun as you can spread your culinary wings ... and you only have to clean up every nine months."
Well-versed at staging dinner parties, Freeman says advance cooking is a must. The freezer, she says, is one's best friend. "Your guests are here to see you and not stand around your living room while you're in your kitchen panicking."
Preparing a last-minute flambe doesn't cut it for this cook, who doesn't need theatrics to "punch in a couple of big flavours." Even mundane chicken breasts can be redeemed by pesto and chutney, she says. "Your piece of protein, all of a sudden, is much more exciting."
And as pedestrian as macaroni and cheese can be, Freeman's version -- "I go through the cheese drawer and whatever's sitting around that needs to get used, gets used," she says -- is worthy of acclaim.
Says Steele: "My daughter, Mary, loves her mac and cheese. We being around the corner tend to benefit."
Freeman's no slouch when it comes to baking, either. Breads and fruit tarts are her specialties. Favourite recipes include rugalah and whole grain bread, the latter from cookbook author James Beard's "Beard on Bread" (Knopf, $15).
Freeman, an avid gardener, says she is attracted to the tactile nature of baking. "My hobbies tend to be things that involve getting something underneath my nails," she says. "I love the whole process, the kneading, turning a mess into a beautiful pile of dough."
This summer, Freeman baked a variety of rustic fruit tarts with plums, raspberries, blueberries and peaches.
"I love a good piece of chocolate cake, but I'm really hooked on those." Freeman looks forward to autumn, which brings apple picking and an apple version of the tart.
"Whether she is entertaining in her own home or a picnic grove, she entertains simply but beautifully," says Steele. "She has everything right down to the flowers on the table. Even at picnics."