Tuesday, September 24, 2019

SEASONAL INGREDIENT: Late-summer tomatoes


On late summer days, when the sun hung low in the sky an hour or so before tramonto, we'd drive home with the windows rolled down on our way back from the beach at Sperlonga. This whitewashed coastal town perched on a hill between Rome and Naples is not only a gorgeous spot for a day trip to dip into its crystalline waters and overflowing plates of pasta con le vongole. It's also nestled beside seemingly endless fields of tomatoes, which are grown next to where the water buffalo of northern Campania happen to graze. These water buffalo supply the milk for the world famous mozzarella di bufala. It's basically like driving past a living, breathing caprese salad!

So, when heading back to Rome after a day toasting ourselves in the hot Italian sun, we'd pick up the still-warm, freshly made mozzarella and some of those tomatoes grown in the nearby fields, with a mazzetto (bunch) of fresh basil -- che profumo! -- from a roadside stand selling just these few items. Our predetermined dinner on those nights was light and hit the spot, along with a very-chilled glass of crisp Falanghina. The sensory memory surrounding those Sperlonga trips that's strongest to this day for me? The smell of those tomato fields. It was the smell of sweet, ripe pomodori warmed by the sun just enough so that the scent would waft above the fields and greenhouses, and make its way into our open car windows. It was Pino Daniele or Jovanotti playing on the car radio. It was that time before dusk, when the waning sunlight signaled the promise of what the evening held in store for us in Rome. 

Pomodorini grown on my friend's terrace in Rome
My Turkish tomato salad

And in that Eternal City, on market trips to Campo de' Fiori (the closest major market to my apartment in the Jewish ghetto), I always relished my August and September visits to Claudio's stand, where he displayed a variety of tomatoes so extensive, it was hard to wrap your head around them all. You had pomodori al grappolo (vine-ripened tomatoes), San Marzano (plum tomatoes that are actually genuine San Marzano DOC, grown in the volcanic soil in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius). 
You had pomodori d'insalata (half-green salad tomatoes, which stayed firm when you sliced them) for salads, and pomodori da riso to be stuffed with rice and baked in the oven. There are at least a half a dozen other varieties I'm forgetting, before moving on to the varieties of pomodorini, or small tomatoes. These range from standard ciliegine (cherry tomatoes) and those specifically from Pachino, Sicily, to datterini (little date tomatoes, like very mini plum tomatoes -- a variety of which is dubbed a grape tomato in the U.S.). These small little gems were always my favorite, perfect crimson orbs seemingly ready to burst (and burst they do, in my burst cherry tomato pasta sauce!) -- so good, Claudio would let me pop a few in my mouth like candy. They were just as sweet. 

We've come a long way in the U.S. with the rise of the farmer's market, and the bevy of heirloom varietals of produce that abound now. There are green and black and red, yellow, and orange tomatoes, striped tomatoes, and everything in between these days, if you know where to shop, and at the right time. Hell, I come from the garden state where we're infinitely proud of our homegrown Jersey beefsteak tomatoes. And they have a place in our American culinary canon. I love a wedge salad with beefsteak tomatoes and red onion and some blue cheese to begin a steakhouse meal, for example. And I've been overwhelmed at the sight of overflowing market tables with gorgeous specimens of endless types of tomatoes, locally grown and tended, sharing display table space with fresh mozzarella (cow's milk, natch) and hydroponic basil with leaves the size of maple leafs. And while that's progress, it's still not perfection. 
Italy, I can state with certainty, has perfected the tomato. They took a New World fruit and made it into so much more, and they consistently grow the most delicious tomatoes I've ever tasted. Or smelled, for that matter. Now, when I return to Italy, I always make my way to a market, especially in September. They sell tomatoes at this time of year, especially Rome and south, where summer weather lingers well into October. And I breathe in the scent of the tomatoes baking beneath the sun and azure sky, and my heart breaks a little bit -- for the gorgeous smell, for all that this smell holds for me, and for the fact that I can't have this sensory-memory experience anywhere else in the world. 

Believe me, I've tried.

The beauty of a simple tomato and basil salad

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

RECIPE: Berenjena con Miel


It's no secret that I love eggplant, melanzana, aubergine, berenjena -- it's right there in the name of my company and blog, after all. And there are countless ways to enjoy the consumption of the glorious eggplant. What's most important is treating the berry (technically, that's what it is) with respect. Seriously! Some people laugh when I make such a sweeping statement about a nightshade -- and one which so many people claim to dislike. But that's only because they haven't had an eggplant prepared properly, which is to say with love and care and consideration. This is how I treat eggplant. And it's also how Spanish cooks treat it, particularly those in Andalucia who've been working with the eggplant since the time of Moorish rule in Southern Spain, when eggplants were introduced into the culinary lexicon and quickly became a favorite food of Iberian Jews.
This brings us to the centuries-old, incredibly delicious dish made famous in Southern Spain and now enjoyed all over the country, often served as a tapa, called berenjena con miel, or eggplant with honey. It is the perfect encapsulation of Iberian-Arab cooking with Sephardic roots. And it's the ideal savory-sweet snack one can enjoy, particularly smack in the middle of summer, when eggplant season is at its peak (though honestly, for me, it's always eggplant season!) The photo here is from an amazing dinner my husband and I shared at Bar Cañete in Barcelona last year. Each dish was better than the last, but this preparation really stood out for us both. The honey used was a deep amber local honey, and it was a really amazing experience in taste and texture, deceptively simple but layered and complex in flavor.


There are a few ways you can prepare this classic dish, varying the technique. First and foremost, the slices of eggplant need to be quite thin -- thinner than most people will be able to get with just a chef's knife -- so using a mandoline is your best bet (I've used a meat slicer in a pinch). Second, I usually salt the slices to draw out the bitterness and some of the water content of the eggplant. This also keeps it from absorbing too much oil in the frying, while seasoning the slices in advance as well. Just remember the slices must be dried before frying. I use top quality olive oil, even for frying, as do cooks in this part of the Mediterranean. Others will claim it's better to use a vegetable oil or a lighter oil with a higher smoking point, but since the ingredients are so few, the oil you use makes a big difference in the taste of the final product. So, great olive oil it is, for me. 

The final question in the preparation is to flour or not to flour. You can either coat the slices in a dusting of AP flour before they go in the hot oil, or just pat them dry and toss in the pan as is. I've done both. Coating with flour makes the chips slightly more substantial, and possibly less oily, though they often don't have the light crunch and texture of a "bare" eggplant chip. Ultimately it's a matter of personal taste. Experimenting here is part of the fun! Of course, there are pretty much as many types of honey as there are flowering plants out there, so you can get innovative with the kind of honey you drizzle on top. You can change the flavor and intensity with the seasons, too. A light wildflower honey might be nice in summer, while a richer chestnut or cranberry honey might be good come autumn or winter. The only requirement is that the consistency be "drizzle-able". So, get creative!


BERENJENA CON MIEL

*2 medium-sized eggplants
*1-2 cups good quality olive oil, or other oil of choice for frying
*1 cup AP flour (optional)
*Good quality honey of choice -- must be of consistency to drizzle
*Chopped parsley or chives, optional

- Slice the washed and dried eggplant very thinly using a mandoline. Salt lightly and layer between paper towels or clean dish towels. Let sit for 20-30 minutes.

- Heat the oil of choice in a cast iton skillet or deep frying pan. Pat dry the eggplant slices and either dredge them lightly through the flour, or just place them directly into the skillet once the oil reaches temperature (it will sizzle immediately when you put the sliced eggplant in the oil).

- Cook about a minute or two on each side and flip to cook the underside. The slices should be golden brown. Drain on a paper towel-lined plate or sheet pan. Continue in this way with the rest of the eggplant slices.

- Once all the slices are fried, taste for saltiness. If they need salt, sprinkle on the fried slices. Pile on a serving platter or bowl, and drizzle generously with the honey. Top with chopped chives or parsley, if using. Serve immediately.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

SEASONAL FOODS: BLUEBERRIES


Blueberries. The name carries with it such an association with summer, especially in certain parts of the country. I happened to have enjoyed a childhood living in a blueberrry-producing state (New Jersey) and vacationing for several wonderful summers in another (Maine). My childhood memories of the heat of the summer are colored blue: Augusts spent picking wild blueberries near the coast in Maine, stained tiny fingers nimbly plucking the small inky orbs from the low bushes. In Rockport and Camden and the surrounding areas of rocky coves and brambly pine forests, it seemed like everything was all about wild blueberries. We started the day with the sweet, miniature berries in and on our pancakes, they perfumed our locally-milled soaps at bath time, and they found their way into our lemonade, our ice cream, fudge, and cakes after dinners. Wild blueberries are still one of my favorite fruits in the world.

Back in New Jersey, sometimes dinners on particularly sweltering summer evenings were comprised of nothing more than a simple bowl of "berries 'n cream," as my father referred to it. This was what I now consider to be an inexpensive, cold meal, possibly with Eastern European roots, that requires no turning on the stove nor much of an ingredient list. As a kid, it just seemed heavenly -- it was something of an illicit meal, kind of like how breakfast-for-dinner always seems like you're flouting the rules. We'd put berries in a soup bowl -- often blueberries -- and top them with a couple of dollops of sour cream, and a sprinkling of sugar on top. We'd mix, and spoon the concoction straight into our mouths. It also got us back outside with a quick turnaround: the fireflies weren't going to catch themselves! 

Blueberries: the name is so simple. Self-explanatory. Basic. But the berry itself is anything but simple or basic. It's a tiny berry that packs a lot of flavor, nutritional value, and antioxidant content along with its deep pigmentation. These things are linked, by the way. It's the anthocyanin in the blueberries that gives the berries both their color and their health benefits. They're high in soluble fiber. This means they slow the uptake of glucose, making them a fruit helpful in maintaining healthy blood sugar, and also helps lower cholesterol. These little berries are antioxidant bombs, in the best way, helping to support heart and skin health, bone strength, and fight against cancer. And they're high in vitamins C and K as well as the mineral manganese.  

Blueberries: they are as American as a berry gets. They are a berry in the Vaccinium family which also includes cranberries, bilberries, huckleberries, and Madeira blueberries. We enjoy two main types of blueberries in this country, both of which are native: "lowbush" blueberries are the ones dubbed "wild", and the "highbush" blueberries are the cultivated, larger berries found in most farmer's markets and grocery stores nationwide. The highbush blueberries were introduced to Europe as recently as the 1930's. (Most of the blueberries you find overseas are a relative of our native berries, most likely huckleberries or whortleberries or bilberries). Commercially sold blueberries are species that are native to eastern and north-central North America. The bulk of U.S. blueberry (highbush) harvesting happens in Oregon (number one with 131 million pounds in 2018), followed by Washington, Georgia, Michigan, New Jersey, California, and North Carolina. Maine produces the bulk of wild blueberries -- the official fruit of Maine -- and British Columbia produces the bulk from Canada. Overseas, Mexico, Peru, Poland, Germany, France, and Spain have gotten in the blueberry game as well. Hammonton, New Jersey claims to be the "Blueberry Capital of the World" and the town hosts a popular festival every year to celebrate the berry. In fact, Hammonton boasts 80% of New Jersey's total blueberry production. And another fun fact: North America dominates the world stage in blueberry production (596,813 tonnes in 2017), with the U.S. contributing 40% of total worldwide production, and Canada with 27%.


Blueberries: they're as versatile a fruit as you can get. They're great out-of-hand, of course. But they're wonderful cooked down into sauces, purées, dressings, jams and jellies. They make a wonderful bbq sauce (I've made ribs with blueberries in the sauce, and my husband waxes poetic about a rib joint in Asheville NC that makes blueberry-chipotle ribs). I like to pickle blueberries every summer, as they're a great addition to cheese and salumi platters, salads, and even a fresh corn soup I make with basil oil and pickled blueberries. Sweetgreens makes a summer salad with arugula and kale, jerk chicken thighs, goat cheese, onion, sunflower seeds, and a spicy smoky blueberry dressing. I had it yesterday. It was pretty delicious. So blueberries are great on their own, and in savory preparations as well.


We already know how great blueberries are for breakfast, whether in a bowl or topping cereal or granola or yogurt, in a muffin or in pancakes (and the syrup!), in a coffee cake or in a pie. And now we're getting to desserts. Blueberries shine here too. Blueberry ice cream, pudding, mousse...blueberries in cakes and pies and anything containing lemon...candies and syrups and infusions and I could go on and on. The photo above is of a dessert of which I'm very proud. I made it for a client's dinner party out in the Hamptons, using wild Maine blueberries to make individual-sized blueberry galettes (free-form tarts) with cornmeal in the crust, homemade sweet corn ice cream, and basil gelée with a burnt marshmallow on a stick (an allusion to s'mores and childhood summers). I love the combination of blueberries, corn, and basil -- 3 distinct flavors, one fruit, one vegetable, one herb -- as they're all summer produce that loosely fit the mantra "what grows together goes together." And visually, I love their colors together too. Blueberry and corn is a classic combo, of course. 
Top Southern toque and owner of McCready's in Charleston, South Carolina, Sean Brock, offered up the dessert pictured here on his menu: a frozen polenta (cornmeal) pudding with a corn tuile in a blueberry emulsion. It was delicious, of course. And the combination actually harks back to the time of the original colonies, when Native Americans instructed the pilgrims how to grow corn and blueberries, two early native crops in America. Blueberries were even used as a natural stain for textiles and garments. (If you've ever dropped blueberries on your shirt or a tablecloth, you know how effective a coloring agent they can be).

Blueberries. However you eat them, from the simple handful to the most elaborate preparation by the top savory and pastry chefs in the world, they're a summer treat and an American classic. Enjoy them while they're at their peak. Just be careful if you're wearing summer white! 

 

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

BOURDAIN REFLECTION

"You have to be a romantic to cook well." -- Anthony Bourdain


I'd eaten countless times at Les Halles on Park Avenue South before I quit my career in fashion and luxury goods PR, and applied to culinary school. I had no idea who was behind the burners, or what went on in the life of those who inhabited the kitchen down below the vibrant dining room, where I periodically indulged in frisée a lardons, steak tartare, and cassoulet. The place was local-ish and it scratched an itch when I had a hankering for classic French bistro fare. 

It wasn't until years later, after I'd graduated from culinary school at Peter Kump's (now called the Institute of Culinary Education) and was already working the line at San Domenico NY, on Central Park South, that my parents gifted me Anthony Bourdain's breakthrough book, Kitchen Confidential. (The dedication is here, at right, with a final "Congrats on your cooking" -- the simplicity and earnestness of which I love).

I remember devouring the book very quickly. And though I had my doubts then, and still do, about the veracity of some of the anecdotes within those pages, I quickly decided that this guy was speaking on my behalf, and on behalf of those in my line of work. He spoke for those of us who loved cooking professionally and making people happy, but also those of us who reveled in the hours working when others were playing, playing when those others were sleeping, and sleeping when those others were in their office cubicles, restrained in suits and lucky to get a glimpse of the sunshine during their too-brief lunch hour. This was new to me, having gone from the necessarily image-obsessed offices of fashion and entertainment PR to the back of house, among the uniformed (a.k.a. dressed-down) ranks of the brigade-style upscale restaurant kitchen. This kitchen was a place quite often more brutal than a classic office environment: the pressure is intense, the competition among the cooks is fierce, the level of artistry high, while an atmosphere of militaristic menace and command-obsessed precision reign. So, that part Bourdain nailed. And he'd worked mostly at lobster shacks and mid-range restaurants slinging brunch, so his experience involved less artistry, more delinquency. The industry as a whole is indeed full of misfits and ne'er-do-wells (I had to throw that term in there) whose resumés did not look like mine when I entered through the kitchen doors. But their drive to make delicious food, with swagger, was intoxicating. And I was enthralled. I never looked back. And never did I long to sit in a cubicle over the hottest and messiest of kitchens.

Fast-forward to my years living and cooking in Rome. I almost never watched Italian television because, frankly, with a few rare exceptions, it's awful. It was the aughts, and my expat friends and I had developed an elaborate network of DVD swapping and TV show (illegal) downloading so that we could participate in the English language zeitgeist that required working knowledge of series like "The Sopranos" and "Sex and the City" and "Lost". Once I'd learned to master downloading onto my laptop and viewing the shows through my computer attached to my television, with surround sound coming through my speaker system...well, when I wasn't working or running around enjoying the food and nightlife of the Eternal City, I watched as many shows as I could fit into an evening at home with my Roman kitty cat. And having seen some of Bourdain's shows in the late '90s back in New York, I knew to download all of "A Cook's Tour" and "No Reservations" (as they aired) and again devoured Bourdain's work. I even downloaded the single season of the TV adaptation of "Kitchen Confidential" starring Bradley Cooper (!) as Bourdain's character in this chef-driven drama (a series on Fox isn't a terribly relevant adaptation of the book, but Cooper is always magnetic and some of it was actually pretty funny). I ADORED these shows. In his travel shows, Tony's snarky-but-open-minded commentary on locales both exotic (Vietnam, various African countries) and familiar (U.S. cities and most of Western Europe) struck a chord with me. He was hilarious. Insightful. Worldly. Sweet. Sardonic. He was from Jersey. He smoked on camera and got drunk and ate anything and everything. He was my kind of chef. 

Oh, how I wanted to take him around Rome and show him my second home, the city that I love. Oh, did I want to drink with Bourdain. But most of all, I was grateful for what he gave me (and so many others, as it turns out): a window onto the world, an invite into the global kitchen, a glimpse at cultures we may never experience for ourselves. It was the ultimate armchair traveler's experience, and more specifically, it catered to the food-obsessed -- chefs like myself chief among them. I loved all of Bourdain's shows but to me, despite his award-winning later work at CNN, I loved his "No Reservations" series most of all. He was still relatively curious without an overabundance of cynicism (though of course, that New Yorker cynicism is part of what makes him Bourdain). He represented the best of what travel does for humankind. And for each of us on a personal level. I felt he was there for me, especially when I was living 5,000 miles from home and felt detached, felt distant from my family, felt somehow traitorous living so far from my beloved NYC after 9/11. Bourdain made me feel like my wanderlust, my culinary curiosity, my love of exploring the world -- it wasn't a negative, it wasn't a liability, it wasn't even un-American. It was the greatest gift I possessed. It was to be nurtured, not extinguished.

I was, of course, traveling when the news broke that Bourdain had taken his own life while filming an episode of "Parts Unknown" in France (his first international travel destination as a kid, where his journey began, and probably no coincidence, where it ended). I was in the Florida Keys with my family, and my husband woke me up in the early morning with cries of "no, no no!" He had been reading the news on his phone while I slept, and he shook me awake and said, "hon, oh noooo, you'll never believe it!" The news hit me like a ton of bricks just a few weeks after Kate Spade had taken her own life. First it was an icon of fashion, my former industry, and now an icon of the food world, and of New York -- my current career and hometown -- had taken his life too. That he would leave his best friend chef Eric Ripert to find his body seems uncharacteristically cruel of him. I've always admired Ripert since the day he taught us lobster butchery and cooking in culinary school. My heart has gone out to Ripert in dealing with all of this, and losing his best friend in such a terrible manner. But the question still lingers: why? While we'll never actually know, my immediate thought was that it was a combination of romantic heartbreak, and his addictive personality and problems with substance abuse in the past. You can get over the former but you can rarely shake the latter, at least not completely. It seems like it's always the loveliest of souls who never stick around for the long haul. Back in Manhattan, the now-shuttered Les Halles (the last place of Bourdain's cooking employ) was covered with notes of remembrance, photos, love letters on post-it notes and an outpouring of sympathy and sadness, the sidewalk covered in flowers the length of the storefront. Tony was most certainly loved.

While there's a huge hole in my heart that Bourdain used to fill with his acerbic wit, his mellifluous and spot-on prose, and his gorgeously-filmed and insightful and funny television programs, at least we have all of that which he left us. It's down in writing, on film. And his interviews are a thing of beauty, whether podcast or radio show or television interviews. To read the things he's written and said is to mine pull quote gold. And so, below, I give you a few of my favorites. He was not "just a chef" -- a phrase I hate. We are all multi-hyphenates, as humans -- some of us much more than others, and Bourdain was one of those. He knew music and cinema and literature as well as any professor of any of those subjects. It makes his thoughts on culture and politics relevant. Personally, I will always look to someone who is well-traveled, who has really lived, to give his or her opinion on things over an "expert" quote-unquote, any day of the week. It breaks my heart to have to write this reflection in memorium, on what is Bourdain's birthday, and what Ripert and José Andres have dubbed "BOURDAIN DAY." We miss you, Tony. We always will.


"As you move through this life and this world, you change things slightly; you leave marks behind, however small. And in return, life--and travel--leaves marks on you. Most of the time, those marks--on your body or on your heart--are beautiful. Often, though, they hurt."
 

“If I am an advocate for anything, it is to move. As far as you can, as much as you can. Across the ocean, or simply across the river. Walk in someone else’s shoes or at least eat their food. It’s a plus for everybody.”

“Basic cooking skills are a virtue... the ability to feed yourself and a few others with proficiency should be taught to every young man and woman as a fundamental skill. [It’s] as vital to growing up as learning to wipe one’s own ass, cross the street by oneself, or be trusted with money.”


"I'm very type-A, and many things in my life are about control and domination, but eating should be a submissive experience, where you let down your guard and enjoy the ride."

“My hometown New York also has a big heart. It doesn’t like to see itself in that way, but we do come together when need be, often in moments of crisis.”

“Maybe that’s enlightenment enough: to know that there is no final resting place of the mind; no moment of smug clarity. Perhaps wisdom... is realizing how small I am, and unwise, and how far I have yet to go.”

And I've got to include his thoughts on Trump:

From Eater's post-election interview:

So, did you vote?
Yes. No fan of the Clintons am I, by a long shot. But I’m a New Yorker, Donald Trump is a New Yorker. And the New Yorkers I know, we’ve lived with this guy for 30 years. I’ve seen Donald Trump say things one day, and then I saw what he did the next. I’ve seen up close how he does business. Just like if you lived in a small town, you’d get to know the sheriff, the guy who runs the hardware store, the guy who runs the filling station — Trump comes from that era of guys you followed, guys you knew about every day: Trump, Giuliani, Al Sharpton, Curtis Sliwa. I’d see him at Studio 54, for fuck’s sake. I’m not saying I know the guy personally, not like I’d hug him, but I’m saying that as a New Yorker, we pretty much are neighbors. And my many years of living in his orbit have not left me with a favorable impression, let’s put it that way. There’s so many reasons to find the guy troubling. When Scott Baio’s the only guy you can find to show up at your convention, you’re in trouble...
...And Trump — the man eats his steak well done! I don’t think he’s a good person. I remember the Central Park Five, and what he said. I’ve seen how he’s treated employees. I saw what he did to Atlantic City. I saw what he did to the west side of this town. It’s fuckin’ ugly. He’s going to make the whole world look like the back of Rick James’ van."

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

HOLIDAYS: First Mother's Day, and Cake

To start, a disclaimer: I fully realize Mother's Day has come and gone. Of course, mothers deserve recognition a lot more than one day a year, so I'm happy to extend the celebration. (Really, mothers deserve to be celebrated every day, all year long, but I digress). Still, I'd fully intended to have this post written and up by Sunday May 12th. Alas, things come up and loved ones need tending to, and so, I'm getting this out as soon as was possible for me.

My beautiful Mom and a very young me!
But I didn't want to skip this post simply because of a date on a calendar. You see, this year, Mother's Day has new meaning for me. I've always appreciated the holiday as one that is important to celebrate, a time for all of us to show some appreciation to the first woman in each of our lives. I've written here on this blog about my mother, the specifics of our relationship, and what makes her unique and beautiful in my eyes. 

Here I am around age 3, imitating my Mom, trying to breast feed...my doll.
For so many, however, this holiday is fraught. Many people have lost their moms. Some have terrible or non-existent relationships with their mothers. Others still, like me for so many years, wonder if they will ever get to experience the holiday as an honoree, and not just an honorer. I've had to muddle through many a Mother's Day brunch or lunch, had to conjure a smile when all I wanted to do was pull my hair out or cry in a corner. One such Mother's Day happened for me a few years ago, when my husband and I had been trying to get pregnant for about a year, but hadn't told anyone as much. It was May and I was hopeful I was pregnant -- I would have been about five or six weeks along. The signs were there, and I was quietly exuberant/nervous through extreme nausea, exhaustion, and a fair bit of anxiety. And then, suddenly, I wasn't pregnant. Period. On Mother's Day. Exclamation point! I was visiting my family in Florida, and I remember feeling I needed to hide what I was experiencing. I laid face-down on a poolside lounge chair (the only place I could be alone), sobbing into my towel. I tried to explain to my partner via phone how this particular incident felt, the particularly bitter pill I was swallowing that Mother's Day. All this as my sister-in-law, a decade my junior, sat just yards away inside my parents' house, nursing her third baby, then just weeks old. Talk about muddling through.

Holding my newborn munchkin
So this year, Mother's Day is, for me, quite the contrast and a literal dream come true. Like most dreams worth their salt, my husband and I have put in a ton of effort to bring this one to fruition. It's taken a lot of hard work, patience, diligence, dedication, love, hope, help -- really, too many ingredients to list here. And as is so often the case for the most obscenely delicious outcomes, this recipe is different for every person who creates a child. But every child is a wonder, just as our little Noah is a wonder to me and to his father. We gaze at him with awe every day, and we can't believe he's ours. And that we get to be his. One of the benefits of all of this, something about which I pinch myself every day, is that I get to be his protector and provider, and I can give him all the affection and love in the world without having to moderate that emotion. Put another way, I can kiss him and talk to him and hold him and feed him and not feel like it's "too much" -- no one can ever say I'm going overboard, or look at me strangely like "that's not your actual child, lady. Back off!" I don't even get that luxury with my nephews, much as I adore them. My love needs to have boundaries for every other child. Not so for my own baby.

I am now a mother to a son. I put him to bed every night and wake him up each morning and my body produces food to feed him every day. (As a chef who's used to being "limited" to simply cooking existing food for people, this is a step beyond)! I watch him sleep and check his breathing, I bathe him and groom him and swaddle him and bounce him and calm him. I take his temperature, I change his diapers and make sure his delicious little bottom is clean and dry. And, I do a million other little things on the daily that I don't necessarily think about, that are instinctive, that are tiny acts of love and caring and can be described in no other way except natural -- impulses provided to us by nature. Of course in the English language, mother has become a verb, a gerund: mothering. 
This word often has a negative connotation, one of excessive oversight, an overbearing presence. But I think mothering is a great thing. It's something not only mothers can do, of course, but to me it connotes safety and caretaking, all of those little natural impulses I mentioned before. I may be at turns a loud, boisterous personality and a headstrong feminist; at other times I'm a pensive homebody. But when it comes to my child, I want to be as maternal as possible, I want to be all of those things I found so comforting in my mother. I want to be his safe place. I make an effort every day to make him feel that in me. I felt it with my mother since I can remember, and my Mom still offers me that sensation, even now that I'm in middle age. It's amazing the powerful place a mother holds in our hearts.

One of my strongest food memories as relates to my Mom is that of our family birthday cakes since my brothers and I celebrated our first birthdays, and on through our teenage years. They were always chocolate cakes with cream cheese icing. When we were young, they were decorated so they'd look like bunny rabbits or trucks or Raggedy Ann or some other elaborate creation. But the basic flavor pairing was always the same. My Mom also made it in cupcake form for our school birthday parties (remember when moms could just bake anything and bring them in for the whole class? Sigh). My classmates always loved it when my birthday rolled around!

As it turns out, one of the things I most craved in my third trimester was...chocolate cake with cream cheese icing. But I couldn't have it. I was diagnosed with gestational diabetes right after New Year's Day (Happy New Year!) and had to cool it on pretty much all things chocolate and carb-y (i.e. everything I began to crave at about the same time they became prohibited). This birthday cake is forever the sweet taste of home for me, though. Not only is it wildly yummy, but there is some kind of safety in this food. It is maternal, somehow. And so, since I couldn't have it during my pregnancy, I decided I wanted it in honor of Mother's Day -- to fulfill my craving, sure, but also as a sweet homage to my mother and all the birthday cakes she baked for us growing up. The cake itself is good old fashioned deep chocolate cake from a mix (we were Duncan Hines loyalists, but any deep chocolate mix will do). The icing is homemade. All it really takes is whipping together 16 oz. of Philadelphia cream cheese with 4 oz (one stick) of unsalted butter, both softened. You mix in 2 cups or so of powdered confectioner's sugar (to taste) and there you have it. I made the icing purple because I wanted to eat a cake with purple icing and pretty purple sprinkles. Blue or green works just as well for Father's Day, by the way. Any excuse for a cake is a good enough reason to make this one in particular.

Mother's Day selfie
So, was my first Mother's Day everything I had dreamed of? Yes and no. The weather was nasty, cool and rainy. And the day itself wasn't terribly different from any other day with a newborn: slugging along, trying to keep the baby from crying, trying to keep up with feedings, hoping to get a little sleep, and all the rest. We were still too exhausted to celebrate in any demonstrable way, and still paying off medical bills so soon after the baby's birth. But mostly, I had been too afraid to dream about what this day would mean for me, just in case it never actually came to pass. I didn't allow myself that indulgence. Which made the day all the more special when I realized about two weeks out that I was going to get to celebrate Mother's Day as a mother this year. It's still almost too much to wrap my head around. Perhaps by Mother's Day next year? Regardless, it was a day that I will remember forever because it was my first, hopefully my first of many, many more to come. Just snuggling with my little munchkin who made me a mamma is all I really need on Mother's Day. I am so thankful to him, and to my husband, for giving me this new title, and the hope of living up to all that it means. For those out there for whom this holiday continues to be difficult -- Father's Day too -- I hear you, I understand. It may not be much, but a little advice from a new mother? Try some cake. It really does make everything, from the worst of days to the best of days, better. 

Our love, Noah



Wednesday, May 8, 2019

QUICK BITE: Spring Side

Nothing says spring in the kitchen like bright green veggies of the season. This means something different for each person, depending on where one lives, since fresh spring vegetable medleys reflect the local terrain, growing season, and food culture.

For me, in New York City, I can see spring in the markets when veggies cover the stall tables in all shades of green, from the pale green of artichokes and spring onions to the kelly green of asparagus and ramps, to the darker forest greens of swiss chard and spring kale varieties. Mushrooms vary depending on the season, and morels are a classic spring funghi -- though many are imported from the Pacific Northwest, and they can be difficult to find here in the northeast... and expensive when you do find them. But they're sooo delicious! In reality, a good spring vegetable medley is comprised of whatever you love and whatever you can find locally, so don't let any set idea of what this medley should be get in the way of putting together a personalized, killer mix as an accompaniment to any main course, or AS the main course. (I love throwing a great veggie medley on top of a soft polenta made with generous lashings of whole milk and grated grana padano or pecorino romano cheese).

So, for tasty dinners this May and early June, try taking a cue from the farmer's market, and make a simple sauté of spring veggies: mostly green, with some mushrooms in there for good measure. The mix is a celebration of the verdant offerings from the garden, and the earthy flavors that spring from the shaded floors of forests and fields as the days grow longer. 

In the large photo at the top of this post, I sauteed some spring garlic in olive oil, and added asparagus, freshly cleaned and sliced artichoke hearts, zucchini, ramps, and shiitake mushrooms. All they need is a sprinkling of sea salt and they work with just about anything you can serve alongside them for lunch or dinner. Or, toss with fresh pasta, pile on top of polenta, or stir into a risotto. Most important is enjoying the veggies of the season at their peak. 


Eviva la primavera! Long live spring!






Friday, March 8, 2019

International Women's Day

"Everything you see I owe to spaghetti" -- Sophia Loren


"People who love to eat are always the best people" -- Julia Child





"I believe that all anyone really wants in this life is to sit in peace and eat a sandwich." -- Liz Lemon, 30 Rock













   
I am an unabashed feminist. The textbook definition of the word feminist, by the way, is no to be considered a "dirty word" by any stretch of the imagination. It simply means someone who believes females and males should have political, social, and economic equality. Period. Ovaries are not required to feel this way -- in fact, kudos to the men out there (like my husband) who are not threatened by the concept of feminism and can join in rallying for support of women everywhere. So, this year, after having been through the #metoo and #timesup movements, the ups and downs of the Women's March and the scandals of its leaders, the massive wave of women voted into government positions in the midterm elections, and a short film about menstrual shaming taking home an Oscar, I'd say women are in the spotlight in a way we haven't been for a long time. And, it's high time we salute women who make our lives more delicious. Since March is International Women's month, it's a great time to remember, here on this blog, the importance of women in today's world -- especially the world of food, drink, and hospitality. 

We women have chosen a culinary career because we have the capacity for nurturing, for giving, for feeding people, showing love through food and drink and making guests, clients, and customers feel cared for, appreciated, loved.  And of course, we make our friends and families feel the same thing. It usually stems from caring for those closest to us, actually, and grows from there. I started off as a young girl baking cookies and cakes for my family, and then my classmates, and I still get the "baker's high" when I make a birthday cake or a sweet treat for friends or family now. It's this showing of love through food that has propelled me as a culinary professional. It could be making the perfect osso buco with risotto milanese for a dinner party or in a restaurant kitchen that scratches that itch these days, but I feel it just as strongly now as I did back in 1980. Probably more strongly, actually, since it's now my career to feed people. 

The important thing here is that we all support women in the hospitality industry. Women supporting women is great, and it should always be a first step we can count on as a community of women, for women. But this support cannot be limited to women only. Every community needs to rally around its female contributors and creatives, especially in industries where it's historically been difficult for women to thrive (one could argue that's most industries, but I digress). Let's get behind those James Beard award-winning female chefs, and those who have taken home Michelin stars, and those female sommeliers at the top of their game, but also -- and maybe more importantly -- let's recognize, and support with coverage and with our dollars, those women who run small activities, corner cafes, coffee shops and boutique catering companies, those who teach cooking to our kids, those who fight for those living in food deserts and for kids to have nutritious school lunches...and everything in between. We must recognize the tremendous impact women are having in food and hospitality and call them out. Interact. Support. Recognize their contributions. This is the only way forward, and we can ALL benefit from women's hard work. We all deserve it! 

Happy Women's History Month, and have a wonderful International Women's Day (Festa delle Donne in Italian). Auguri!!!