We’ve made it to mid-July. Summer is officially full swing.
The kids are both gone, romping around the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina making memories with their sleepaway camp buddies. The husband is hard at work in Mexico, or China, or, who knows?
Which leaves me with the dog, who appears a bit confused and deflated with having me as his only option for companionship. He deals with his disappointment by upgrading his napping schedule.
I, who am programmed to carpool, to do endless rounds of laundry, to shout commands, to check homework, to check summer work (as if!), to pick up after messes, to complain about picking up after messes, to fry eggs and scramble some too (because one likes it this way and another that way and I am far too accommodating. I know, it will bite me in the butt later.)
I am stuck in a quiet, empty, neat house with a hebetudinous dog.
At first, I was quite useless, roaming from room to room, unsure of what to do with myself, with all this time. But by day two, I felt better. Much better. Found myself wondering when was the last time I could sit in my office and write, uninterrupted. Ever? And I have coached my children to be sensitive to my writing needs. There’s a big bold sign I made that reads: Working! Don’t bug me!!! My kids know they’d better be careful to go near me when that sign is up. But as trained as they are, I still have to feed them. At some point.
In mid-summer it appears my biggest responsibility as a caretaker is to make sure the dog has food and water- supply that rarely dwindles since he is busy snoozing.
With all this coveted open-ended time on my hands, you’d think I’d get right down to working on my book. After all, I’m this close to being done with the manuscript.
Instead, I’ve been going out of my way to find new digressions, because a writer, even one gloriously stripped of family-related distractions, will always find ways to procrastinate in his/her craft.
No one said editing a weighty manuscript was sexy work.
So, there’s the cheesy films I’ve put on my Apple TV Wish List that need watching.
And the neglected garden that suddenly begs tending.
Let’s not forget re-organizing closets, that’s a stellar time suck.
Of course, there’s always the kitchen. Visits there are not really distractions, but rather, a space to process whatever literary hump I’m stuck on. As I knead dough or mince garlic my mind quietly reworks the awkward phrase that has me stumped or seeks the adjective that eludes me when I’m in the office. Usually it works, by the way. And if it doesn’t, I still win: I get a tasty treat in the end.
Today’s diversion is a twist on key lime pie. Instead of using a traditional graham cracker crust, the crust is made out of saltine crackers. I learned about this pie while listening to All Things Considered on NPR.
Another benefit to my solitary status is that I get to listen to all the NPR I want.
The pie, called Atlantic Beach Pie, is a staple of the North Carolina coast. Because my kids happen to be in the same state being featured, I took it as a sign to step away from my keyboard and make the pie that instant.
Plus, I was having a heck of a time resolving Chapter 46 of my book.
This pie is perfect for writer’s block.
The first step requires crushing a whole bunch of saltine crackers, which, the recipe recommends you do with your hands.
Thoughts whirled as I crushed crackers and crumbs flew.
Maybe she learns to forgive him in the end?
Maybe she moves on?
Maybe she doesn’t, though. Not everything has a Hollywood ending.
Maybe I need to crush some more crackers.
Luckily the recipe is quick. There’s not enough time to rethink the plot.
When I was done, I had solved a few of the hiccups, I had just a few more to go. My mind was at ease and I trusted I’d soon have a fabulous, final manuscript, worthy of another round of this incredibly delicious salty, sweet, simply perfect summer pie.
(adapted from Bill Smith, Crook’s Corner, featured on NPR All Things Considered)
For the crust:
1 sleeve of saltine crackers
¾ cup softened unsalted butter
3 tablespoons sugar
For the filling:
1 can (14 ounces) sweetened condensed milk
4 egg yolks
½ cup freshly squeezed lime juice
Fresh whipped cream and coarse sea salt for garnish
For the topping:
½ cup heavy whipping cream
1 tablespoon sweetness (see below)
coarse sea salt
Preheat oven to 350°F.
Crush crackers to crumbs with your hands. Get in there and get down on it.
Add sugar, then knead in the butter until the whole thing sticks together.
Press into an 8-inch pie pan.
Pop into the freezer for 10 minutes.
Bake for 15 minutes, or until crust starts turning golden.
Meanwhile, whisk in egg yolks with the condensed milk. Add juice. Blend well.
Pour into shell (the shell can be warm) and bake for 15 minutes.
Make the topping:
Beat ½ cup of heavy whipping cream until it forms soft peaks. Oh, I know what you’re thinking:“Why can’t I just use that canned thing from the supermarket with the pretty picture and the cool spray doohicky?” Because this is so much better, trust me. So, buckle down and beat it, it’s two minutes of your life and you’ll be happy you did it.
Add a wee bit of confectioner’s sugar to the cream, if you’ve got it around, say, a tablespoon or so. If not, regular sugar will do. Or a drizzle of agave. Or maple. Oooh, maple!
Once that’s all stiff upper lip, spread it on top of your pie. It doesn’t have to look all perfect. Scratch that. It shouldn’t look all perfect. We’re going with messy here. Think rough draft. Sprinkle with coarse sea salt- if you’ve got funky sea salt, like that grey Turkish pyramid stuff, that works great and is a visual conversation starter: “Hey, what are those grey specks on the pie? Is that on purpose?” “Why yes, it’s Turkish pyramid sea salt.” Well, you get the picture. The conversation can go anywhere from there. If you want to converse. Maybe you just want to eat pie, because this pie is amazing. If that’s the case, perhaps pick a white sea salt, or, go with the grey and slice and serve quickly. No nonsense like. Your call.
I’m home with my homebody kid, which is very different from being home with my can’t-stay-in-this-house-for-one-more-second kid.
Homebody kid owns being home.
Takes it up to an art form, crowns it with its own capital letter.
I am a homebody in my own right, but this kid leaves me in the dust.
And it’s not like the kid rots in front of the television set or loses himself inside PS4’s latest Call of Duty, no.
It’s a very balanced, orchestrated series of events that take place when at Home. There’s down time watching quirky comedies (Napoleon Dynamite jokes never cease to be funny), some rough-housing with the dog, lots of outdoor play, a bit more computer, a smidgeon of time spent reviewing the teenage methodology of Hanging Out In The One’s Room, then outdoor play again, dog, perhaps pool, a movie with Mom on the big screen TV, until, somehow, before you know it, that day is through.
In between activities I manage to feed him a very healthy array of things: cheese, eggs, sliced cucumbers, frozen raspberries, grilled salmon, broccoli, and lots of smoothies with colorful straws. These are all his requests. (No, you cannot adopt him.) To junk it up a bit we throw in Oreo milkshakes with extra Oreos.
Leaving the house takes negotiation. I coerce him to go somewhere at least one time a day. Even for the most mundane activities. Yesterday we went to Target. I needed socks and a few other humdrum things. We spent the bulk of our visit fighting each other with oversized Turtle Ninja swords found on aisle 10, then hopped over to aisle 13 for a hula-hoop competition. Shockingly, I won! That was the most fun I’ve ever had buying socks.
I get asked often what we are doing all day long, what activity my son is enrolled in, what’s the schedule like. When I reply we are doing absolutely nothing there are uncomfortable pauses. People aren’t sure what to make out of nothing. Everybody’s kid is enrolled in something. Even my husband sounds a tad worried when he calls in to check on us from whatever worldly destination his work takes him to. “You don’t want to do something with him? Go somewhere?” He asks, concerned that my schedule-less reply must be a problem. Now would be the time to tell you that my can’t-stay-in-this-house-for-one-more-second kid is just like her daddy.
Soon my son will be off to sleep away camp to join his sister where he will be hit with a plethora of activities, a full and complete schedule that will have everyone else breathing a sigh of relief. He will leave Home eagerly, willingly: he loves his time at camp. But I will miss him and the permission he gives me to spend a few unencumbered weeks together, where we just let days drift into each other, stop and enjoy the back yard or the way a lizard is sunbathing on a leaf, or the joys of playing tug of war with an over-enthusiastic golden retriever.
When I was a little girl growing up in Venezuela, I was infected with the fútbol craze. I know most Americans don’t get too nutty around soccer once it graduates from shuffling fifth-graders to after school practice in minivans and turns into proper fútbol (although that is slowly changing) but when the World Cup comes around every four years, the rest of the world stops to watch. Not that Venezuelans have any claim on fútbol; their sport is baseball and they master it well. But in the summer of 1978 all eyes, at least a tiny set of Abbady eyes, were on that final World Cup match between the Netherlands and Argentina. I remember rooting aggressively for the Netherlands. I was seven, so, I’m not sure how such a strong loyalty had formed at such a young age.
I had no affiliation of any kind with the Netherlands.
If anything, I should have been cheering Argentina, whom I knew invented those succulent blood sausages I’d enjoy regularly at my family’s favorite steakhouse in Caracas.
Maybe one of my sisters was set on Argentina winning and so the Netherlands became my pick.
We had a small, sunny room off the side of our one-story house that was crowded by the bulky Zenith television and a worn buckskin leather couch where I’d sit, along with my mother and my two sisters, and jump and cheer and feel hope and despair and hope again as the sportscasters howled their timeless chant: “Gooooooooooooooooool!”
It’s intoxicating to remember your first bout with futbolmanía.
By the way, the Netherlands lost.
So I should remember that feeling, which, nobody likes.
But I don’t.
I remember feeling elated, joyful, entranced!
I remember shouting at that Zenith as if it were an irresponsible younger sibling crossing the road without holding my hand.
“No! Stop! Don’t do that! You’re not going to …wait!”
And then directing the players as if I were the coach on the sidelines.
“Pass it to him! Go! Go! Go! Run!”
At least I think that’s what I said. It’s hard to remember accurately when there’s a room of girls shouting.
Fútbol returned to my life this month with the 2014 World Cup Brazil and I’m still shouting at the television.
This year my son is watching with me.
Not because he is particularly a fan of the sport, but, because he gets front row seats to watching his mother unravel into a crazy, screaming, lunatic. He’s hoping I may throw something at the television. He’s also grateful for the World Cup because it means all Social Norms of Proper Behavior in the Martinez household are temporarily on pause.
This includes eating at the table.
The dinner table is way too far from the television and thus guilty of committing an egregious infraction worthy of its own red card. Plus, eating at the table feels too orderly and civilized and we’ll have none of that during matches of fútbol.
Meals have become quick and easy to transport- preferably one-stop dishes that work in bowls or are okay to eat with fingers. Nothing too distracting or requiring too much eye-hand coordination as the eyes must be on the television screen. Trout is out.
The next match’s meal will showcase Chili.
Perhaps in tribute to team USA, which is still a contender in the World Cup even after yesterday’s loss to Germany. Considering they were nowhere to be found when I became a hard core fútbol fan in ’78, I figure I’ve got a lot of cheering to catch up on for them. Chili also offers up the best of World Cup chow because it is a tasty, quick, and fire-hot dish I can make in between games and have ready to scoop up into bowls when that first whistle is blown.
It goes great with tortilla chips too.
Some crumble them into the bowl first, maybe add steaming white rice, then scoop on the chili and all the other fixings. Some use those little scoop chips and do Martha Stewart-Style Chili Bites, complete with toppings (this is great for the more restless, un-interested family member forced to watch the game.) Others (and I won’t name any names) occasionally toss them at the television and reprimand, like one would to an irresponsible, younger sibling: “No! No! Why did you do that?! No!”
Heat olive oil in large skillet or small soup pot, add onions and garlic and cook until tender, about 5 minutes.
Add meat and cook over medium-high head until brown.
Stir in tomato paste, cumin, oregano, chili powder, mustard and salt. Saute until fragrant, 3 minutes.
Add wine and canned tomatoes and simmer for 5 minutes.
Add remaining ingredients, correct seasoning, and simmer gently for 10 minutes.
To make Martha Stewart-Style Chili Bites: Pick your most bored family member to assemble- a scoop of chili, then some fixings (see below), then neatly arrange these on a plate to be thoughtlessly gobbled in seconds by the fútbol obsessed members of your clan.
Fixings may include: sour cream, shredded cheese, scallions, jalapeños, and avocado.
In thirteen days, four hours and ten minutes my daughter will head to summer camp, her final year as a camper.
She hasn’t stopped talking about camp since the moment she handed me her overstuffed duffle bags cramped with dirt, mud, mismatched socks and insurmountable memories from her experience last year.
My daughter suffers from Campitis.
She has from the first moment she separated, not from me, but from her camp, eight years ago.
Back then she was a little squirt entering the third grade.
She had learned about her sleepaway camp completely by accident. She and I were running errands and bumped into the mother of a little girl who had attended pre-school class with my daughter years before. Being that it was 91 degrees at 8:15 in the morning and insufferably humid, the topic of summer was hard to ignore, and so I casually asked this woman about her kids and what they were up to over the summer. Her eyes lit up as she dove into telling us they were spending a month at sleepaway camp canoeing and craft making in the Blue Ridge Mountains. She explained how magical this place was, how she had gone as a child, how her husband had as well, and now, their children were proud members of the same camp too. Apparently there were so many alumnae with the same generational track record that the camp had formed a special group for them.
I was pleasant and listened, but completely aloof to the experience, having not wanted to leave my mother’s side until I was old enough to drive.
My daughter, on the other hand, was enraptured.
The minute we parted ways she announced, “I want to go there too.”
I explained that this was an overnight thing. Several over nights. Far away. Not like a playdate with her best friend or a sleepover at her aunt’s house.
“I know,” she replied with unwaivering confidence.
“You won’t be able to call or speak to Mommy or Papi for a while,” I added, noting the fear rising in my voice, maybe hoping I’d scare her a bit too.
“I get it Mom, I want to go.” She rebuttled without even blinking.
“You wouldn’t be able to attend the same session as this lady’s daughter. You won’t know anybody,” I added sneakily, assuming this would be the coup d’état to keeping her home and safe with me. (Sometimes a mother’s will has no limits.)
But my daughter? My daughter who doesn’t think twice about new situations? Who charges through life with enthusiasm and zest and zeal, well, she’s way braver than I ever was and her mind was already made up.
“I don’t care, Mom. I wanna go,” she said resolutely.
If I had my mother’s skirt to cling on, I would have clung.
She left, giddy and excited, and I endured the summer with an increased dosage of Shiraz.
I also attempted to distract myself in the kitchen.
Old, forgotten recipes that had been waiting in the sidelines suddenly became critically important.
Breads that needed kneading. Cakes that required layering. Sauces that begged stirring, all were placed under my constant, vigilant care.
Every afternoon I’d take a break from whatever I was sizzling and run to the mailbox in hopes of a message, even if it would be a quick hello in my daughter’s crooked writing or a standard camp form with an oversized bubble circling the “I’m having fun!” sentence.
I got nothing.
And so the cooking grew more incessant.
I pulled out fancy herbs.
And went to work with the Microplane grater.
I visited musty Indian shops where locals eyed me suspiciously and came out with handfuls of clouded jars holding mysterious powders and curries of all shades and intensities.
I chopped a lot root vegetables with exotic names.
I thought of all those parents who had lied to me, all those parents who had told me I would have the time of my life! Would get to relax! Would finally have a break! Enjoy myself! Be free! And I added more red pepper flakes to my sauces.
I knew little about my daughter’s day-to-day activities except that she would, at some point, ride a horse, sleep in a tent, and sing songs.
I was fearful she wouldn’t fit in.
Cry herself to sleep every night.
Need me and not survive, like, quietly, I realized, I needed her.
But I kept those thoughts to myself.
Shed my tears under the premise of a strong onion or two or three.
Added more olive oil and pounded more scallopini.
The camp counselors called several times. They were bubbly, perky college kids who’d begin each call with “This is not an emergency, Danny is okay,” and I remember feeling stunned, distanced, removed; wondering, “Who is Danny? When did Daniela change her name?”
They called to let me know how great she was doing. They’re lying. How adjusted she was. She must need her mommy. How many friends she already had. That’s code for she’s totally alone. It was hard to hear them over the voice in my head.
I pulled out more curry and became fixated on Chardonnay.
Until finally, dehydrated and oozing garlic, the day came when I picked my daughter up from camp. I walked in the woods amongst the cabins searching for her. I was trying to be cool, forcing myself to practice a casual stride, when I spotted her sitting on a bench with five other girls under a leafy tree. She looked beautiful, even if her hair was matted and her shorts were full of mud. She didn’t see me at first, she was too busy socializing. The girls were all listening to her story. All laughing. All calling her Danny. And my daughter was thriving and happy, doing just fine without her mom.
It was a bittersweet moment for me.
On the one hand, I was so relieved and so proud. She hadn’t broken down without me, in fact, she’d flourished, she’d grown.
On the other hand, she hadn’t broken down without me, in fact, she’d flourished, she’d grown.
See the conundrum? And I didn’t even have my stovetop to work it out over.
“Daniela,” I called, hopeful.
She looked up and her face lit up instantly. “Mommy!” she shouted, melting my heart.
No amount of Chive Blini with Crème Fraiche, Quail Eggs, and Tarragon can match that feeling, I tell you.
We hugged and she quickly introduced me to her new best friends.
She was alive and jittery with excitement. She insisted on giving me a tour of the entire campgrounds, waving and greeting everyone along the way.
Everyone greeted and waved back: “Hey, Danny! What’s up, Danny? That your Mom, Danny?”
This was her turf and I was happy to share a tiny portion of it with her.
When it came time for us to go she hugged her besties and together they all cried. I turned away giving them some privacy while silently wishing I had brought them some food. Maybe that Chicken Curry. That’s always good to share amongst friends. I could picture them with bowls of the stuff, swinging their legs and laughing in between bites.
“See you next summer!” She decreed hopefully.
“Yes! Yes! Next summer!” They all replied in unison.
And so it was written in tears and hugs and the next summer, they all met.
And the next.
And the next.
And so on and so forth it has gone.
I’ve cooled it on the kitchen craziness when my daughter leaves for camp. My son joined her several years back and I’ve actually gotten used to the time alone. Maybe even relish it a teeny tiny bit. Plus, I don’t have to tinker with my sauces anymore, I can make my curry how I like it, extra hot.
Only thirteen days, four hours and six minutes left.
1 tablespoon sweet chutney (honey if you don’t have)
1 chicken, cut in eight pieces
2 teaspoons salt
½ cup water
¼ cup white wine
2 potatoes, peeled and quartered (I prefer Yukon Gold)
½ cup fresh green peas
handful of fresh cilantro
Heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Stir in cinnamon, onion, cardamom pods, turmeric and cumin and fry until golden. Add curry powder, tomatoes, ginger, garlic and curry leaves and leave to cook for about 5 minutes.
Add chicken and salt. Sauté until chicken is slightly golden, five minutes per side.
Stir in chutney, water, and wine.
Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Add potatoes and cook another 20 minutes.
Stir in peas and cook another 5 minutes.
Add fresh cilantro, adjust salt.
Alternatively: you can make this dish with chicken breasts, just reduce cooking time of chicken by half.
There’s no better way to celebrate the start of summer than with a fish soup.
Especially summer in South Florida, where we’re all macho about the high heat index and humidity level. Hot broth to match hot temperatures? We can handle it in the Sunshine State.
Be tough, now.
Be a purist.
This is not the time to skimp or cut corners.
This is the time to make Thomas Keller and Daniel Boulud proud and do the thing from scratch.
Anyhow, you’re not in a seafood-obsessed culinary culture, so, chances are you’d be hard-pressed to find seafood stock on aisle 7.
Roll up your sleeves and make it yourself.
You can do it if I did.
The lazy cook, remember?
I’m lucky though. Living in the South Florida suburbs does have its perks.
Even though my husband fantasizes about picking up and moving the family to a small town in the middle of the Rocky Mountains somewhere.
To him it sounds cheaper, romantic and grand.
Except I hate high altitude baking challenges, the cold, and when I can’t hear four languages being spoken by four different couples in one grocery aisle. That’s a South Florida perk, and having grown up as a Third Culture Kid, that feels like home.
Two minutes from my house, in said strip mall, I can find an Indian shop, an Italian supermarket and a Chinese market. For this dish, I head straight to the Chinese.
My daughter enjoys going with me, not only for exotic snacks of dried shrimp flakes, but to empathize with the panicked turtles and frogs waiting to be bought for stew. She realizes there are some hazards to accompanying me, like trying to avoid savvy crayfish that have escaped their Styrofoam jail cell and are attempting to casually crawl out the front door. Her pinkie toe almost became collateral damage for the last escapee but I shoved her into a box of Chinese bitter melon and she was safe. After that, I believe she stopped wearing sandals there.
I love it because of the fish.
Loads of it.
All sizes, all types.
I can’t tell you what they all are, I’d have to be an expert fishmonger or read Mandarin.
But I’ve never let anything become a barrier when food is involved and find that an over-enthusiastic smile and generous finger pointing serve me just fine.
I get several fish heads for my fish soup.
And lots of fish.
There are clams to be bought and mussels to scrub.
The fishmonger hacks away graciously, giving me several plastic bundles crammed with shells and fresh seafood treasures swimming in ocean and blood.
This is what gets me going, in case you’re wondering.
Back home I pull out my two biggest pots.
One is crowded with the heads, onions, leeks, carrots, celery and dried laurel leaves. If I have some forgotten white wine, I throw it in there too.
Plenty of water, of course, and time. The more, the tastier.
The house fills with the aroma of fish.
If you are pregnant, maybe you should go to the mall or something.
When your pot has simmered long enough, if you are a true purist, you will let it cool, sit overnight in the refrigerator, heat it up again the next day and run it through a sieve and proclaim the stock ready to use in your soup.
But I am not that pure a purist, no.
Plus I want this soup now!
So, I skip the overnight step and jump to the sieve.
Adding the rest of my fish, clams, mussels, oh and shrimp! How could I forget the shrimp?
I bought the ones with the head.
I have a theory that boiling shrimp brains makes for a tastier broth.
Studies will show I am correct.
So, if you find shrimp with heads, get them. If you live in the mountains in a small town, I guess use the frozen headless kind.
All this simmers and bubbles and I jump around giddy and joyous, perhaps clasping a chilled glass of Vinho Verde, Portugal’s trinity of cheap, delicious and summer and pull out a crusty loaf of bread, (which I would have skipped over to the Italian market and bought.) Add some tomatoes and tomato sauce to the stock. Maybe a bit more white wine.
It’s now time to add parsley.
Green makes food pop and gives it an extra peppery bite.
Call the pregnant one and tell her to come back from the mall.
The meal is almost ready.
Spoon it into bowls and add all the goodies floating within.
Some folks drizzle olive oil on top or squeeze half a lemon.
My husband kills those people.
He slurps it straight up.
For my own personal safety, I will not reveal my preference.
Seafood soup and summer promise fun and family and dizzying deliciousness.
18-24 Cherrystone clams (Amount depends on how many people you’ll have to fight off for them)
A pinch of very expensive saffron threads, the kind you buy in tiny, fancy clear jars and wonder when the heck you’ll ever use
1 ½ pounds of white fish (snapper, bass, cod, heck, I guess, if you must, tilapia will do. If you have a friendly Chinese fishmonger, he’ll misunderstand your sign language for “just filet it but give me the heads and bones” and just chop the fish in four crude chunks, which works even better)
1 pound raw shrimp (I go for heads on and intact, it makes for a tastier broth, just know you’ll heavily fondle your food and must be okay with it)
Melt butter in a soup pot. Add carrots, onions, celery and mushrooms and cook over low heat until soft, 15 minutes, stirring regularly.
Add all the other ingredients. Your fish heads should be submerged, so, if you need to add more water, go for it.
Bring to a boil and then reduce heat to a simmer.
Simmer for 30 minutes.
Let cool and strain. By let cool, you should really let cool, refrigerate, heat again the next day, let cool again and strain. But if you are always in a hurry, like me, just let it cool and strain and move on.
Makes 4 cups of stock
Heat oil in a large soup pot. Add leeks and onion and cook until tender, about ten minutes. Add tomato sauce, tomatoes, thyme, parsley, bay leaves wine, fish stock and salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to medium and simmer for 15 minutes.
In a little bowl, mush the butter with the flour. It’s fun. Make a sculpture if you are so inspired.
Whisk said sculpture into soup. See how it gets thick. This never gets old.
Add mussels and clams and fish.
Add pinch of saffron. (I really could have written this in the last line but the stuff is so darn expensive I thought it worthy of its own instruction.)
Simmer another 5 minutes.
Throw fish in there. Simmer until just cooked- another five.
See how fast?
Ladle into soup plates. Serve with crusty bread and a nice green salad. You’ll have the best intentions, you will, but you won’t get around to the green salad, although you’ll see how readily you get to the bread. It’s great for dunking.