Arts & Culture

At the table with Cara Marie Duskin

New executive chef at Lola’s Cantina dishes on her vegetarianism, family ties to cuisine

By
Contributing Writer
Friday, October 3, 2014

For eight years, Cara Marie Duskin — new executive chef of Lola’s Cantina on South Water Street — has been a vegetarian. Since the beginning of her tenure at the restaurant, she has worked to revamp its menu, incorporating recipes within a range of dietary descriptions, from vegan to gluten-free in addition to traditional meat-based Mexican fare. She said she hopes that a half-vegetarian, half-omnivorous table can leave the new Lola’s “feeling satisfied and like they’ve had a healthy meal without having to compromise taste.” In this first installment of a new column, “At the table,” The Herald sat down with Duskin to discuss her food philosophy and her history growing up in the kitchen. 

 

Herald: What’s your earliest memory in the kitchen?

Cara Marie Duskin: Food was huge in my family. I remember growing up with my (grandmother) making all kinds of food from scratch, and since I was tall enough to reach the counter, I would help out. It was such a natural part of my childhood. I always felt at home in the kitchen.

I also remember my dad used to make steak all the time, and he would always burn it. I think that might have something to do with my being vegetarian now.

 

Herald: What was your go-to college food or meal?

Duskin: I worked at a pizza place in college, so for me, it’s leftover pizza, hot and cold. In college, I lived off pizza, veggies and hummus. Dorm cooking is hard and those mini fridges are tiny — nothing will fit in there. I didn’t spend so much time in the dorm, so for me it was all leftovers.

 

Herald: What’s your favorite thing to cook and why?

Duskin: Pasta all day. I love to throw a little pasta in the pot with some garlic, oil and fresh veggies. I can get home at 11 p.m. and just put that together and it completely satisfies me. I must eat pasta about four or five times a week.

Sometimes when I want to test new things out at the restaurant, I’ll raid my fridge, bring some stuff in from the farmer’s market and get feedback on it from the staff.

 

Herald: What’s your spirit food?

Duskin: Garlic, definitely garlic. You can put garlic on anything, and it will instantly make it better. It’s so versatile and has so many different dimensions and applications. If you opened up my veins, I would probably bleed garlic.

 

Herald: What makes Providence a good food city?

Duskin: In Naples, Florida, where I’m from and where I worked before, the focus of the food there is on hospitality. So it’s a lot about getting the fanciest imported ingredients. I’ve lived in Providence for six years now, and it’s the complete opposite. People here buy from farmer’s markets and grow fresh herbs. It was here that I really got exposure to the local, farm-to-table mindset. There’s so much care that goes into that, and people are so proud of being able to source their ingredients, and so proud of Rhode Island, and it’s my favorite thing about food here.

I have never been so excited to go out and eat. For me, with food, it’s not about how much things cost but the amount of care put into each ingredient. And that’s one thing we do here—I make the queso fresco from scratch and put it into as many dishes that it can work with. Ingredients really make the food.

 

Herald: How would you describe your food philosophy?

Duskin: I’m a great multi-tasker, and I think part of that comes from being a mom — I have a five year old son. In the kitchen, you have to start one task, go on to the next and go back to whatever’s on the burner. I’m most comfortable with that kind of organized chaos.

My philosophy is to care about every dish, every ingredient individually. With that care and that attention to cooking and seasoning everything just right on its own, when that comes together, that’s when the magic happens. And at the end of the day, if the ingredient is not cared for the way it should be, it won’t be as good.

 

Herald: How does food fit into a larger conversation about culture?

Duskin: I think food really has such a strong potential to bring people together. That’s what got me into cooking. I really couldn’t see myself doing anything else, and I will probably do this job until the day I can’t.

 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

 

About the recipe:

I came up with this recipe when I remembered my grandma’s quiche. She used to make this great, big quiche sometimes, and so much went into it. But my dad had this take on it where he would make coffee mug quiches. He would just put a couple of eggs and some vegetables into a coffee mug, mix it together, microwave it, and it would be delicious.

I wanted to come up with something  that would be a real meal. So when you have a few friends over to your room, or a study group, you can put this together and throw it in the microwave. It’s also pretty substantial, which is not the case for a lot of dorm food. And if you have leftovers, you can just recook them in the microwave and they’re still pretty good.

 

Mexican Chicken Tortilla Pie

2 cups canned shredded chicken breast (available in the canned foods aisle)

1 cup sour cream

½ cup of red onions, diced

½ cup of diced jalapeno peppers (available in canned foods aisle)

1 tbsp fresh chopped cilantro

1 small orange bell pepper, sliced

2 cups shredded Monterey Jack cheese, divided into two one-cup increments

1 tbsp ground cumin

Salt and pepper, to taste

2 burrito-sized flour tortillas

 

Directions

You’ll need a nine-inch pie pan to make this — preferably not aluminum disposable. We don’t want to burn down the dorms.

In a large mixing bowl, combine chicken, one cup of the cheese, sour cream, cilantro, cumin, bell pepper, jalapeno pepper, salt and pepper. Mix until well combined.

Cut one of the tortillas into one inch pieces, bite-sized. Combine with chicken mixture.

Place other tortilla in the bottom of the pie pan to serve as the pie crust. Spoon chicken mixture into crust evenly.

Cover with plastic wrap and poke a few holes in the top. Place in microwave and cook about five to six minutes.

Carefully take pan out of microwave, uncover and sprinkle the top with the rest of the cheese. Place back in the microwave and cook about a minute and a half until the cheese is melted. Remove and allow to set about 1 minute before serving. You’ll be able to serve about five of your friends and yourself with this.

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