It’s a breadless week for Jews following the rules of Passover and for those addicted to carbs that can be tough going. Especially at lunch, when a tasty sandwich begs eating. I like matzo just as much as the next guy, but how many times can you slather it up with butter, pizza toppings and peanut butter? (Hopefully not at the same time.)
Look at this bread-free week as a time of renewal. You always said you wanted to eat more salad, now here’s your chance! Of course, lettuce can wilt in a heartbeat, especially if you are packing your lunch to go, and, I don’t know about you, but somehow, I feel hungrier when I’m done with a bowlful of Boston Bibb than before I started. I know it’s roughage, which is great for you and keeps the gut working and all that Dr. Oz stuff, but, the mind is a powerful thing and when I’m offering it some lettuce, a few tomatoes, and a cucumber slice or two, well, my food-obsessed mind tends to get a bit panicky.
If this happens to you, it’s a good time to reach for the grains.
Take lentils, for example.
Red lentils are a win win.
Not only are they tasty, but they are incredibly healthy too. In fact, Dr. Oz called them one of “The Best Anti-Aging Superfoods of 2011.” Okay, this was on his blog in 2011, but trust me on this, these grains and their benefits have been around forever and remain the same today: rich in protein and loaded in fiber, two properties that help make us feel fuller.
So, you don’t have to fight the urge for a thick piece of Challah or a crunchy baguette. You don’t have to sigh at the thought of another piece of lettuce, either. Plus, this power-packed, savory dish has a vinaigrette, so, whether you choose to eat it warm or cold (both viable options) you can still call it a salad, or better yet, a Supersalad!
Many years ago, when my children sported diapers and an unhealthy obsession with Nickelodeon cartoons, I decided to just make it work and bought “A Rugrats Passover” Seder Haggadah. It came with a VHS of that same episode, aired in 1995.
Don’t judge me.
The food wasn’t going to prepare itself, and, you mothers out there know we all climbed off our self-righteous I-will-not-plop-my-child-in-front-of-the-television soapbox the minute that annoying whining TV character [insert any one of them here] tuned in, shut your screaming toddler up and, even better, kept him or her still for more than two minutes.
If you’d don’t know, the Haggadah is the book read during Passover recounting the story of the Israelites escape from slavery in Egypt. Usually, it’s a fancy hardback number with gold embroidering that your great-grandpa brought over from Poland or something along those lines, and when read, prayed, and sang properly, will run you about 2 to 3 hours.
The HaggadahI bought was a 15-page paperback glorified cartoon with Tommy and the gang parting the Red Sea and living out all the other Passover adventures, baby style.
It was, at best, unconventional.
My husband and I added some of our own touches to really bring the story to life: plastic frogs were thrown at guests reliving the ten plagues, red paint was used to mark the front door so God would know to pass over our home, and a shredded shower curtain tacked over the entrance of our home was mandatory issue when parting the Red Sea. After all, why should Charlton Heston have all the fun?
I remember my own childhood Passover celebrations vividly, and, although endless rounds of Manischewitz wine was pretty darn awesome, being trapped in interminable prayers while smelling my mother’s incomparable matzo ball soup was not. I vowed to make Passover different for my kids.
And it was! It was fun! Loads of fun!
So much so that we did “A Rugrats Seder” the next year. And the next. And the next.
And slowly but surely, the kids grew and grew and grew while the Rugrats remained the same tiny toddlers and babies kvetching about Pharaoh and how lame slavery was.
Passover is here again this Monday night and, aside from a new face or two at our table, our guest list is comprised of the die-hard folks who began sharing this story with us and the Rugrats when the kids were small and we all knew what a VHS was. At this point, it almost makes no sense to celebrate Passover any other way.
We still throw plastic frogs at each other.
We still cover our front door in red finger paint.
We still march through the shredded shower curtain to part the Red Sea like Moses did.
And while the smell of my simmering matzo ball soup will never quite live up to the memory of my mother’s, it’s pretty close, so we do all this in 30 minutes flat.
My daughter is now fifteen, which, if you’ve been living with your head in the sand or have been spared having a teen in your home, is code for I know everything and you are an idiot.
(I’d keep my head buried deep if I were you.)
She has become quite active in her Jewish Youth Group and so religion is a subject bedazzled in her teenage expertise. By default, I am reminded on a daily basis of how I have to get my Jewishness on.
“Gosh, Mom, you’re totally lame. We haven’t lit the Shabbat candles in, like, forever.”
“Really, dude, community outreach is, like, KEY to Judaism. I think THIS FAMILY needs to work on that a bit- we should go to a soup kitchen or a homeless shelter or something to help out, like NOW!”
Don’t get me wrong. I love that she is like this, really, I do. She’s actually speaking to me, albeit in between fervent texting, Instagramming, and comparing selfies with her BFF, but still, beggars can’t be choosers, and so I’m not.
Plus, her connection with her Jewish roots is inspiring and would make both my grandfather, who played a critical role in founding the state of Israel, and my husband’s father, a converted Jew who sent his sons to study in Israel, extremely proud. It even makes me, the one who is totally lame, very, very appreciative and will most likely land me in a soup kitchen and lighting the candles on Friday night.
But I love that there are still some moments you don’t mess with, where family traditions, as zany and outgrown as they may be, trumps all.
When I mentioned perhaps retiring Rugrats for a more age-appropriate version of the Haggadah, that tough grown-up demeanor my daughter works so hard to carry dissolved instantly into the panicked four-year old child who couldn’t find her blanky hidden under the bed.
“What? You’re kidding, right?”
And, of course, I was.
After all, how could I pass on flinging frogs, parting shower curtains shreds and making a mess out of my front door with my kids while Angelica, the horrible Pharaoh, is fast on our heels? No matter how old they get, the same rules apply: make it work, have fun along the way, and always eat good food.
Like that scary R.L. Stine novel I once read to my son, the one he’d beg me to continue late into the night while he hid under the covers with his flashlight. The title, Stay Out Of The Basement, was catchy enough, but my son had chosen it because of the book’s cover: a close-up of an alien green plant-hand pulling open the basement door, vying to get out.
Stay Out Of The Basement was all about a father who was a scientist and started messing with houseplants in the family basement. DNA gets mixed. Floricultural madness ensues.
I won’t give away the ending but things germinate in crazy ways.
I thought of that book when I saw my latest basil plant.
Without warning it had gone nuts, sprouting so hyperactively that it deemed its own locked basement.
For years I’d been trying to nurture my basil plants to life.
In my house, cooking with basil is second nature, like breathing air.
But basil plants never stuck around long enough for me to simmer in my bolognese sauce or carefully layer in my caprese salad.
I tried every logistical option, hoping location was the problem for my plants who, to put it mildly, weren’t thriving. But it didn’t matter if I placed them on the far northeast corner of the garden (more sun in the a.m., less in the p.m.) or at the southwest tip by the lake (more sun in the p.m., less in the a.m.) or even if I plopped them smack in the center where I could gaze at them while I worked in the kitchen. Whatever the location, my basil plants, one by one, always shriveled up and died.
Friends and family offered their condolences. They know what such a loss means to me. And then they doled out advice. Lots and lots of advice:
You’re not talking to it enough!
Water it a bit in the morning!
Let it sit!
Move it indoors!
Take it out!
Caring for basil can become a full-time vocation if you’re not careful.
Which is where I was headed until I planned to go on a trip.
A fabulous trip that would lead me far away from my home and my latest floundering basil plant.
I was going to be gone for two weeks so I brought my current limp, leafless plant indoors and set it on the kitchen counter next to the note I left for Rosi, the lady who would be watching over the dog while I was gone. The note was short and simple:
Vet number: (954) 667-3300
Help yourself to whatever food you want.
If you remember, please water the plant.
I returned from my trip with an array of new adventures and was greeted by an excited, happy dog. The house was quiet and tidy, not yet hit by the tsunami of my children and their stuff. I looked around to make sure everything was in place, and it was, it all looked good, all looked great, until…
What was that?
My eyes stopped at the kitchen counter. There was an explosion of green.
Leaves that toppled over and grew wide, reaching and leaning towards the window.
Is that my…I thought to myself, remembering the anorexic basil plant I had left behind.
Backpacks, suitcases and family members were all hustling past me, happy to be home, while I stood there frozen in disbelief.
The plant was transformed, like the mad scientist father.
I quickly called Rosi and asked her what she had done to the plant, hoping she’d reveal a secret elixir I could use from now on, but she laughed casually and answered in her usual happy tone:
“Nothing, I just watered it, like you asked.”
I don’t want to think about it too much. Because I could go nuts analyzing what happened. It could become personal, if I’d allow. Like, “What gives Basil Plant,I fuss over you, rotate you, have even spilled my deepest, darkest secrets to you and you practically die on me while sweet, kind, Rosi waters you once or twice and you thrive?” I fear it would give me the worst possible answer: it’s not you, it’s me; an overused line I wouldn’t believe, couldn’t believe, seeing how the plant was obviously happier without me. Plus, it would be weird to break up with your basil plant. Even I know this.
Things could get ugly, or I could get really, really down.
I’m not gonna do that, no. I’m going to take the high road and do the gracious thing: thank Rosi and then make lots and lots of pesto! Maybe, I should also start planning another trip…
Man o man, is this easy!
I have a Vitamix, which means, I find excuses to blend everything and this pesto is perfectly quick, fresh, and versatile!
Put this on anything! Really…anything! Spaghetti, sandwiches, boiled potatoes, & grilled chicken are great places to start.
Pesto is usually made with pine nuts but that can get expensive! Try walnuts instead- it's just as tasty and kinder on the wallet!
2 cups packed fresh basil leaves
2 garlic cloves, minced
½ cup toasted chopped walnuts
½ cup Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, grated (use the real deal here, it makes a difference!)
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
½ teaspoon lemon zest
salt and pepper to taste
Place leaves in blender or food processor. Add cheese & nuts.
Turn blender on low, carefully remove lid and slowly start drizzling in olive oil. Slowly, ok? You’ll see the pesto start taking shape.
Once it is smooth you can put the lid back on and crank the blender up for ten seconds or so. I’m not sure it that actually does anything, but it feels good and gives the whole blending process closure.
Now, scoop it out into a bowl and add lemon zest and any salt and pepper.
If you want your pesto to retain that beautiful bright green color you can add a pinch of Vitamin C powder.
Pesto freezes really well! Just fill up an ice-cube tray and once frozen, pop those into a Ziploc bag! Each cube = 1 serving and will thaw quickly in the microwave.
What do you do when you travel 27 hours to get someplace?
You eat, of course…you eat!
There’s other prerequisite things one must do. There’s showering… that’s always good. There’s sleeping on a bed- something most of us take for granted until we become weary travelers emerging from two nights spent cramped on ever-narrowing airplane seats. And then there’s the food issue.
Food is my mandatory favorite thing to set straight after a long trip.
My family recently traveled to Johannesburg, South Africa from Miami, Florida.
That’s a long-ass haul that required hours of shoving whatever oversalted snacks you brought to sustain you.
The other option, of course, was eating grey rubbery puffs on plastic trays that the airline referred to as “eggs” or “chicken” or “beef,” depending on the hour. Can they legally do that?
Yes, landing on terra firma required setting the food situation straight.
I’m talking about a home-cooked, delectable, sit-at-the-table meal. Something that doesn’t entail counting the freckles on the bald head of the inconsiderate bum in front of you who has decided to recline his chair all the way onto your lap for the next nine and a half hours.
Let me get finicky and tell you that it helps if you cook said meal with one of your best friends, like I did. You know, a forever friend. The kind you exchanged Hello Kitty stickers with on the school playground in 1978. Now you exchange shoes, parenting advice, and recipes.
It also helps if said best friend has an industrially-equipped kitchen the size of your living room.
My friend has been tempting me to come visit her in Johannesburg since she moved there two years ago and I finally understand why.
It was not because I’d love it there (I did.)
Nor because Johannesburg’s lush landscape would remind me of where we grew up in Caracas, Venezuela. (It does.)
Or even because I must meet her smiley baby girl, whom I’d instantly adore (I do.)
It was because of her kitchen.
“Good God Alona when you see this kitchen you will never want to leave,” my friend promised.
I’d been hearing about all the comforts of life in South Africa, but the most loudly spoken comfort of all was this kitchen.
Forever friends know the straight route to my heart.
South Africa is magnificent.
Sofia, my friend’s 17-month old blonde cherub, is delightful.
But the kitchen, the kitchen is indeed glorious.
It boasts every possible professional appliance a chef could ever dream of.
I have to emphasize this, you see. As a person obsessed with food, I can’t help myself.
Industrial gas range, mammoth hood, open flame grill, food warmer, food steamer, and three ovens.
But wait! There’s more! Off to one corner is a wood-burning pizza oven.
Off to the other corner, just to balance things out, is a walk-in cooling unit. With two rooms! In between lie three endless counter tops of cool marble, perfect for kneading, shaping, stirring, chopping, or sifting anything.
My friend’s kitchen most certainly had me at hello.
I wanted to chain myself to this kitchen and never leave it.
But of course, I had the country of South Africa to visit.
The baby to play with.
The gossip to catch up on.
Luckily, my friend had my itinerary all set up, and first and foremost on her list was cooking a meal together in her kitchen.
That first night we chatted, sipped a crisp local chardonnay and chopped onions while our husbands sliced and simmered the meat. In my kitchen, one’s a crowd, but in this one, we all had our own zip code.
Appliances crooned and food sizzled.
Nuts were blended.
Thyme was picked from the extensive herb garden (off of the main garden boasting the pool, jungle gym, and tennis court.)
You can see why my friend insisted I come.
We sat down to our first dinner in South Africa: a Spanish dish of slow-cooked pork shoulder served in an almond cream sauce.
We caught up with each other’s lives and laughed and watched Sofia sleep on the baby monitor as intensely as if we were watching the championship game of March Madness. My husband was astounded at how thin those things have gotten since our own kids were babies. I squeezed his hand and smiled at him, for all the baby milestones we’ve long passed as parents of a high schooler and a middle schooler and then I raised my glass and toasted my friend for the unpredictable journey of parenthood that awaits her.
The kitchen watched and waited quietly nearby. Breakfast would be our next rendezvous.
There were many South African moments I enjoyed during my stay. Safari adventures where I was surrounded by a herd of wild elephants and hungrily scoped out by lions, beach excursions where I rolled down gigantic sand dunes and ducked surfer waves in the Indian Ocean. I relish them all. But the simple pleasure of preparing a meal with one of my closest friends in her gourmet kitchen as her baby daughter waddled around us and my own teenage girl took her one hundredth South African selfie nearby sits comfortably in my mind as a moment, now that I am back home, I replay over and over again.
Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a large flameproof casserole dish. Add the whole garlic and the slices of bread and fry over a medium-high heat for 2 minutes, turning once, until golden brown. Lift out and leave to drain and cool.
Cut the pork across into 1” slices and then into 2” chunks. You want them to be quite large.
Season the pieces of pork well, then dust in the flour. Add another 2 tablespoons of oil to the pan and, when hot, add the pieces of meat and fry briefly until lightly golden.
Remove to a plate and set to one side.
Add the remaining tablespoon of oil to the pan with the onion, chopped garlic, Spanish paprika, thyme and bay leaves and cook gently for about 10 minutes until the onions are soft and translucent.
Add the wine and stock and bring to the boil, rubbing the base of the pan to release any bits and pieces.
Return the pork to the pan, lower the heat, and season with some salt and pepper.
Cover and simmer gently for 1½ hours or until the meat is tender.
Spoon about ½ cup of the sauce into a blender, add the fried bread, garlic cloves, almonds and parsley leaves and blend to a smooth paste.
Add to meat and stir. Simmer for 5 minutes until blended.
My daughter and my husband are both Pisces. Which makes sense; they’re both dreamers, compassionate, and devoted.
When my daughter turned one I made her a little vanilla cake with buttercream frosting.
She dug into it with such gusto that I felt pride charge through every inch of my body, and ever since then, I’ve set myself up for a grand baking production at the end of February to mark each tandem birthday celebration with a phenomenal cake.
This wasn’t my daughter’s doing or my husband’s for that matter. This was all me.
My daughter, from ages 4-12 would have been happy as a clam with one of those neon-frosted generic sheet cakes from the local grocery store. They spray paint your favorite Disney character to a tee and what six-year old wouldn’t want that?
But as she entered her teenage years, she sorta caught on to Mom’s crazed obsession with the culinary arts. Got a bit more demanding. Slightly picky. After all with said parent, she could. Requests trickled in during middle school. But this year, her first high school year, she demanded we have A Meeting over the matter.
On the agenda were several birthday cake options. We went back and forth on a few classics and steadfast favorites: chocolate with fresh strawberry frosting, red velvet, and Oreo Cooking Crumb.
They all fared well during our talk, but it seemed something was missing.
Remember, my daughter is a Pisces. She’s devoted.
And it seems her taste buds are devoted to anything bacon.
So of course, the conversation swung to chocolate bacon cupcakes. They were her favorite. They seemed the indispensible choice for marking her fifteenth birthday. Bypassing all the tradionalists, they were elected the chosen dessert.
If you’re wondering what happened to my husband, where is his vote in the whole matter, let’s just say, he’s an easy-going guy with a healthy appetite who knows better than to get in the way of two gals and chocolate.
The morning before the big day I set up all the ingredients for the cupcakes, but when I went to preheat the oven, it was a smoky, greasy mess.
After a few minutes of futile scrubbing, I decided to take the plunge and self-clean the oven. This, for those who do not know, is when you voluntarily ask your oven to burn itself clean for three hours. The doors lock and the oven screams “HOT” as 1000°F temperature effectively destroys all the crud that has accumulated, in my case, from over ten years of hyperactive baking, roasting and broiling.
I’ve always been a bit skeptical of this feature.
High heat and locked doors is not a good thing in my book.
But I had no choice.
The smoke coming out of that thing was unbearable and I had to get these cupcakes done.
I took a chance and self-cleaned. Things clicked shut, fans went off, and the entire electric panel light up and hummed quietly, and, after three hours, as promised, the oven emerged sparkling clean.
I was so excited I texted my close foodie friends! Some even got a picture, as if I were announcing a newborn.
But when the evening came and it was time to bake, the oven failed.
Sure, the electric panel light up and hummed quietly, but no heat came.
I re-texted my foodie friends:
WTF? Oven dies NOW? Gotta get the bacon cupcakes going for tomorrow!
The wonderful thing about such mishaps, especially if they occur late at night, is that it justifies any sort of rash, shopping spree, specifically for cool appliances you’ve been wanting to get but have had no particularly good reason to get them.
This is how I ended up with my new toaster oven that could roast a small calf.
A quick ride to mall, an even speedier purchase, and the new toy was mine.
My daughter came along for that ride, joking about how her dad was going to kill me. But her dad just smiled when he saw me enter with a huge box.
“You wanted one forever,” was all he said with a sigh.
“Well, I can’t let the girl down, you know, she needs her birthday cupcakes,” I justified.
She did need her cupcakes and I got the toy to bake them for her.
I am Sagittarius: hopeful, philosophical and straightforward, but most of all, lucky to have two cool Pisceans in my court.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees F (190 degrees C). Place bacon in a large, deep skillet. Cook over medium-high heat until evenly brown. Drain, crumble and set aside.
In a large bowl, stir together the flour, 3/4 cup cocoa powder, sugar, baking soda, baking powder and salt. Make a well in the center and pour in the eggs, coffee, buttermilk and oil. Stir just until blended. Mix in 3/4 of the bacon, reserving the rest for garnish. Spoon the batter into the prepared cups, dividing evenly.
Bake in the preheated oven until the tops spring back when lightly pressed, 20 to 25 minutes. Cool in the pan set over a wire rack. When cool, arrange the cupcakes on a serving platter. Frost with your favorite chocolate frosting and sprinkle reserved bacon crumbles on top. Dust with additional cocoa powder.