Through bitter times and sweet, this transplanted Floridian finds recipe for happiness in culinary traditions
By Dalia Colón
Featured image above: Chef Judi Gallagher educated herself on the food and growing seasons of Florida when she moved to Sarasota from New England two decades ago. Today, she is a regular presence demonstrating recipes and offering cooking tips on Tampa Bay’s NBC affiliate.
Judi Gallagher was 6 when she got an Easy-Bake Oven for Hanukkah. But the toy appliance, with its rinky-dink light bulb and bland cake mix packets, was no match for the girl’s sophisticated palate.
See, Judi had already learned to cook and bake — really bake — under the tutelage of Pauline Kopper, her Eastern European Jewish grandmother. Her Nana.
Apple strudel. Blintzes. Sweet-and-sour stuffed cabbage. Nana made everything from scratch, even horseradish sauce.
Using cake mix as-is? Meshugana.
Young Judi topped her Easy-Bake chocolate pastries with strawberry jam and sold them at a lemonade stand in her hometown of Manchester, Connecticut. It would be the first in a lifetime of food businesses for the Sarasota chef, entrepreneur and TV personality.
After her Easy-Bake efforts, little Judi learned to make muffins from scratch, then sour cream coffee cake — which worked out well, because her mom, the late Riva Kopper, had little interest in cooking.
“I was born in 1960, so I was used to homemade everything. And all of a sudden, my mother discovered convenience food like Entenmann’s and stuff like that, and I refused to eat it,” says the graduate of Johnson & Wales in Rhode Island. “I could taste the chemicals.”
When Judi was in sixth grade and Riva started working outside the home, Judi took over making dinner. Her speciality? Spaghetti and meatballs.
But cooking and baking did more than just nourish Judi, her parents and two older siblings.
“The baking was also very cathartic and healing for me, because I came from a very dysfunctional father, who was extremely bipolar,” says Judi, who shares her story in the 2018 memoir-cookbook hybrid Reflections & Recipes of Chef Judi. “I was very anxious.”
She describes a “chaotic” childhood in which the happiest times occurred when her father was traveling for his sales job. Young Judi baked for neighbors, and the positive feedback she got became a lifeline.
Judi says baking has saved her many times over. It got her through a rough childhood, then a messy divorce.
“There was a time in her life when she literally sold cookies door-to-door with her 3-year-old boy,” says Judi’s longtime friend Ruth Lando of Sarasota. “I can just picture her. She’s so fierce.”
That fierceness, coupled with the dessert recipes Judi developed as a child, propelled her into lucrative contracts with companies like the Boston-based restaurant chain Legal Sea Foods.
“In Boston, the square footage is so expensive that most restaurants and gourmet stores didn’t bake their own, because there wasn’t enough room to have a little pastry room,” Judi says.
Her personal life also bounced back. While working in Cape Ann, Massachusetts, Judi met education consultant Paul Gallagher. They married in 1996. (During the courtship, Judi won over her now-stepson, Sean Gallagher, then a student at Harvard, with her steaks, stuffed chicken and carrot cake.)
In the late 1990s, lured by the warm weather, beaches and arts scene, Judi and Paul moved to Sarasota. It took some time to adjust her New England style of cooking accordingly.
“It was a learning curve when we first relocated,” says Judi, who writes about food for several local publications and runs Judi Gallagher and Associates, a public relations firm that specializes in helping other food businesses.
For a while, Judi relied on “a constant stream of food packages” from up North. But she soon got to know Florida’s chefs and growing seasons, learning when and where to get the best seafood, mangoes and strawberries. The proof is in her strawberry pie and watermelon gazpacho.
“Judi shops local and supports local farmers, so she always creates something with Florida soul,” says Gayle Guyardo, host of the health and lifestyle show BLOOM on Tampa Bay’s NBC affiliate, where Judi is a regular.
For more than two decades, Judi has been a fixture on TV on Florida’s Gulf Coast, demo’ing recipes while making easy banter with the hosts — her personality is as grand as her 6-foot- 2-inch frame.
“Chef Judi is so incredibly authentic. When she steps in front of the camera, it feels like she is talking to her best friend,” Guyardo says. “She is great at being able to carry on a genuine conversation, all while whipping up an amazing recipe.”
Feeding people feeds Judi. When her adult son, Eric Williams, endured a years-long battle with valley fever, cooking kept Judi grounded. Baking comforted Judi through the deaths of her mom, Riva, and big sister, Hilary. One of Judi’s most treasured possessions is a recipe card in Hilary’s handwriting. Of course, Judi doesn’t actually need the instructions; the recipe is hers, after all. But seeing apple crisp written in Hilary’s neat penmanship reminds Judi of the day her sister followed her around the kitchen to learn how to make the dessert.
Judi keeps matzo ball soup in her freezer, just in case a friend gets sick. She spent the COVID-19 pandemic delivering cookies and milk to neighbors and essential workers.
“Her love language is definitely food,” says her friend Ruth Lando. “She’s a real caretaker.”
That’s Judi, always baking for the neighbors, decades and hundreds of miles from her lemonade stand and cooking lessons with Nana. Judi still uses many of her childhood recipes, but with one major upgrade: no more Easy-Bake Oven.
While I can’t guarantee it will cure the common cold, it couldn’t hurt. I think matzo ball soup is wonderful to serve year round, whether you’re celebrating Passover or just need some comfort in your life.
- 3 cartons chicken stock
- 2 chicken breasts, bone-in, skin off
- 1½ onions, cut into large chunks
- 4 stalks celery, leaves on, cut into large pieces
- 4 carrots, peeled, cut into large pieces
- 2 tablespoons fresh dill, chopped
- 1 teaspoon dill seed
- Fresh ground pepper
- Kosher salt, if needed
- 1 packet matzo ball mix
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 2 eggs, beaten
- 4 quarts boiling water
Place the chicken stock, vegetables and seasoning in a soup pot. Add chicken breasts and bring to a boil, then simmer for 20-25 minutes. Remove chicken, cool slightly, and break chicken off the bone into small pieces. Return to pot. In a separate bowl, mix 2 beaten eggs with 2 tablespoons vegetable oil. Add matzo ball mix and stir well. Place in the refrigerator for 20 minutes. While that’s refrigerating, boil 4 quarts water. Take the matzo ball mix out of the refrigerator and roll into small balls. Drop into boiling water, lower heat to a low boil, cover and cook for 20 minutes. Remove the matzoh balls from the boiling water and add to the soup. Simmer soup for 30 minutes, adjust seasoning with salt and pepper and enjoy!
Mango Shrimp Curry with Saffron Rice
- 1 large baking potato, peeled and chopped into ½-inch pieces
- 1 tablespoon canola oil
- 2 tablespoons curry powder
- Pinch turmeric
- 1/2 cup thinly sliced onion
- 1 1/2 pounds large shrimp, shelled and deveined
- 1 green bell pepper, cored, seeded and cut into thin strips
- 2 mangos, cut into thin strips
- 1 cup light coconut milk
- 2 tablespoons fish sauce
- 1/2 teaspoon sriracha
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 1/3 cup chopped fresh basil
- 2 scallions, minced
Sprinkle potato pieces with 1 tablespoon water; microwave, covered, until fork-tender, 3 minutes. Heat oil, curry powder, and turmeric in a large skillet over medium heat. Add onion and cook until soft, 3 to 4 minutes.
Push onion to side of skillet. Add shrimp; cook 2 minutes per side.
Stir in potatoes and bell pepper; cook until pepper softens, 1 to 2 minutes. Add mango, coconut milk, fish sauce, sriracha and sugar. Simmer for 2 minutes. Remove from heat; add basil.
Serve over jasmine rice or lentils. Garnish with minced scallions
Roasted Fresh Strawberry Grouper with Ginger Soba Noodles and Pickled Baby Mushrooms
The name strawberry grouper comes from its pink color. Let the flavorful noodles with pickled mushrooms hold the complex tastes and simply pan sear the grouper with salt and fresh ground black pepper
- 1/4 cup rice wine vinegar
- 2 teaspoons sugar
- 2 teaspoons fresh ginger, peeled and grated
- 6 ounces enoki mushrooms, separated
- 2 carrots, peeled and cut into very thin matchsticks
- 1/2 red chilli, minced no seeds
- 5 fresh radishes washed well and sliced very thin
- 1/2 cup baby pea shoot greens
- 1 teaspoon peanut oil
- 1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds
- 2 ounces fresh snow peas, cut into very thin strips
- Soba noodles, prepared as directed
In a small saucepan mix together the rice vinegar, fresh ginger, and sea salt. Gently heat, dissolving sugar, remove from heat. Cool for 10 minutes and add the mushrooms. Set aside and cool, stirring occasionally. Blanch the carrots. In a large bowl, combine mushrooms and the marinade they are resting in with blanched carrots, soba noodles, radishes, pea shoot greens, toasted sesame seeds and snow peas. Toss gently.
Pan sear grouper with 1 tablespoon olive oil. Sear on both sides and place in a preheated oven for 4 minutes, if fillet is cut thick.
Place a serving of noodles in the center of a large rimmed plate. Top with grouper and serve.
Pauline Kopper’s Award-Winning Non Dairy Noodle Pudding
My Nana won a trip to the Catskills with this recipe. To this day it is a favorite on Sunday afternoons with a roast chicken.
- ½ pound egg noodles (medium width)
- 2 eggs
- ¼ cup granulated sugar
- 3 tablespoons fresh-squeezed orange juice
- 1 plus teaspoons pure vanilla extract
- 1 medium apple, peeled and shredded (I prefer Cortlands)
- 1 cup raisins
- ¼ cup melted Crisco shortening
- Ground cinnamon to your liking
Approximately 2-3 handfuls crushed cornflakes. (The crushed cornflakes are the binder so feel for consistency.
Boil noodles as directed. Drain and quickly rinse once. Place back in empty pot. In a separate bowl: Combine eggs with sugar and cinnamon and beat well. Add orange juice, grated apples and vanilla. Stir into cooked noodles. Pour 2 tablespoons of melted Crisco into noodle mixture and stir.
Add crushed cornflakes one handful at a time. (My hands are twice the size of Nana’s) Pour noodle pudding into a fry pan with the rest of the melted Crisco. Brown about 10 minutes on medium/ medium-high heat. Cover the pan with a large plate and flip over. Slide noodle pudding back into the pan to brown the other side. When done on both sides slide back onto the plate and cool 10 minutes before cutting into wedges. Serve warm.
Note: Do NOT ever add crushed pineapple like my mother tried once. No one messes with Nana’s recipes.
Dalia Colón, an Emmy Award-winning multimedia journalist, is a producer and co-host of WEDU Arts Plus on Tampa Bay’s PBS station and produces WUSF Public Media’s food podcast, The Zest. A native of Cleveland, Ohio, Colón was a staff reporter for Cleveland Magazine and The Tampa Bay Times. Her work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Los Angeles Times, on NPR, and Visit Florida. She lives in Riverview with her husband, two young children and cocker spaniel, Max.
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