Today is National S’mores Day, so, even though she is away at camp, I’ve got celebrating with my daughter on my mind.
If there is such a thing as a S’mores Addict, she’s definitely one. I, on the other hand…not so much.
She is unsettled by this difference of opinion. I tell her it must be a cultural thing, that this quintessential American treat must not tickle my fancy because I grew up in Venezuela, where the closest thing to melted marshmallows was the leche condensada I’d have drizzled on the coconut raspados, or snow cones, for an extra 25 cents. Hershey’s never made it into my mother’s pantry – that pantry was bursting with local Venezuelan chocolate favorites with names that sung: Samba, Suzy, Cri-Cri, Ping-Pong!
It’s a tough sell. Ever since my daughter, a native South Floridian, has been old enough to chew, she’s been consuming anything S’mores-related and trying her darnest to win me over to the S’mores crowd.
Obviously, there is a constant supply of Hershey’s chocolate, graham crackers, and marshmallows in our pantry at all times.
And then, whatever S’mores-esque products The Marketing Gods come out with, we must buy:
S’mores Pop tarts.
S’mores ice cream.
S’mores Rice Krispies Treats
Even S’mores Goldfish!
My daughter promises me, with each new product purchased, that I will like S’mores this time around. I taste, hear Marketing Gods’ evil laughter and, well, tell her to go ahead and enjoy it, and leave it at that.
But my daughter is persistent, hopeful and never one to give up on whatever it is she sets her mind to. I do love her for that. So, when we found ourselves trying out a local restaurant, The Red Cow and I saw her face light up as she read the menu, I knew something was up.
“Mom, they have a S’mores brownie,” she announced. “You gotta, we’ve gotta…”
I knew the drill.
We’d get it.
I must try.
I will love S’mores this time around.
“Okay,” I told her, and the pact was done.
After devouring our Smoking Gun sandwiches the waitress placed the coveted dessert in front of my daughter, whose eyes looked like they were about to fall out.
Something strange happened.
Did I tell you that part?
The part where I heard music.
Not the country music crooning in the background (that stuff always makes 12-hour smoked brisket and cowboy potatoes taste better, you should know.)
It was more like church-choir music.
For a second.
As she placed the plate down.
The plate, which, OMG…glowed.
Not in a creepy, chemically way, no! In a golden-spiritual-live-in-the-present-Buddhist kind of way.
This all happened in seconds, see. While my daughter’s eyes popped out. I heard music. I saw a glow.
Then I rubbed my own eyes.
Because I was a jaded anti-s’mores Venezuelan, remember?
So something must be wrong with my eyes.
This dessert looked…
“Mom, this is beautiful,” my daughter stated.
Yes! Beautiful! Took the words right out of my mouth!
What can I tell you?
I want to tell you the truth: as cheesy as it sounds when I’ll type it out.
I want to tell you what happened, exactly as it did.
I want to tell you that I saw the light. I saw the S’mores light!
There was this enormous cloud of perfectly melted marshmallow hugging chocolate and some sort of graham cracker crust underneath and perched beside it an utterly unpretentious scoop of vanilla bean ice cream and good God I wanted to snatch that plate away from my child, my flesh and blood, and devour it all myself.
But I didn’t.
I still have an ounce of composure and an itty-bit of restraint.
I pride myself in believing I am a pretty-decently-okay parent.
So, I grabbed the sides of the wobbly table and said, as calmly as I could:
“No darling, go ahead.”
“What?” My daughter asked, confused. “Oh? You want some, Mom?” She offered, watching me closely, witnessing change.
“Oh, sweetie, thanks, but, you, uh, you can, um, just…”
There’s a very important part of this story I’ve left out.
It’s about my daughter.
I told you she’s sixteen.
I told you she’s a S’mores Addict.
I haven’t told you how incredibly giving and perceptive she is.
You see, at that moment, while an imaginary S’mores choir sang and our tiny table for two lit up with delicious joy, my daughter, the S’mores Addict, pushed the untouched plate under my chin.
“Here Mom, go for it. I’m sure you’re gonna love it this time.”
I’m not sure if it was that soft, sweet blanket of surrendered marshmallow or the rich chocolate brownie dancing with buttery graham crust underneath. It all tasted magnificent in the company of my girl, smiling and savoring the moment with me, without even taking her first bite.
“Con todo,” rolled off my tongue automatically whenever I approached those beloved metallic carts parked precariously on congested street corners in my hometown of Caracas.
It didn’t matter that it was steaming hot outside, that a distressing amount of flies were on a holding pattern awaiting tasty scraps or that I was standing in a puddle of questionable grey water at the time. All senses were zeroed in on the incomparable meal I was about to have.
The man in the white cap would give me a slight nod, an acknowledgment that I had requested my order “with everything,” and begin creating the best hot dog known to mankind in seven seconds flat.
He’d pluck the link out of murky waters and plop it onto a steamed bun, and then, the expert assembling began.
Diced onion. More diced onion.
A hefty grating of fresh white cheese.
And a huge mountain of shoestring potato chips to top it all off.
If he was a jovial guy, and they all were, he’d drizzle some more pink sauce on top. Because in Venezuela, you can never have too much salsa rosada.
The expertise used sprinkling, drizzling, squeezing, grating, and piling all items with such bravado and fanfare could have easily served as inspiration for Tom Cruise’s character, Brian Flanagan, in Cocktail. Not only were you being given the best hot dog in the world, but you were being given the best hot dog in the world with a show.
It was heaven in a bun. The type of experience you just had to close your eyes for, because your other senses would simply be short-circuited if they dared function at the same time.
I’d block out the horns and the people and, yes, even the flies, and I’d take a big bite filled with crunch and soft and heat and smoky meat and it was the most delightful, delicious six seconds of my life. And then I’d do it again and again and again until I’d be left with crumbs on my lips, a dirty napkin and a small mound of fallen potato sticks on the ground.
I’ll give you the recipe, but, unless you’re on a street corner in Sabana Grande or Las Mercedes, hearing the crazy car horns and the shouts of “epa mi pana!” or “como esta la vaina?” it’s really not the same.
1 hot dog, 1 bun
diced white onion
spicy sauce (use your favorite kind)
Salsa Rosada (Pink Sauce: a mixture of mayo, ketchup and a dab of spicy sauce)
Queso blanco, rayado (in Gringospeak this translates to any of those hard, white Latin cheeses they sell in most supermarkets. Take a chunk and grate it, plop that on top.)
This sauce sits (oh so quietly) in the back of my refrigerator. The very back. Behind leftover pasta, to the left of my son’s favorite veal piccata, way below my daughter’s indispensible slab of duck liver pate and several levels away from the imported French butter.
It sits in the forgotten guts of the refrigerator. The third class to everyone else’s first.
And still, it reigns.
It does so much more than reign, really.
Yes! From the very back and bottom of the refrigerator! Can you believe this?
Because all day long I am thinking of it.
When I should be parenting.
Or paying bills.
It’s got me.
I am thinking of its velvety texture.
I am thinking of its rich, oh so rich, taste.
I am thinking of that luscious dance of sweet and salty.
How perfect a tango it is!
I am reprimanding myself for ever buying a butterscotch sauce before.
I am certainly not parenting.
Or paying bills.
See how this sauce has got me?
There’s big talk about how computers will take over and rule the day. It made the cover of The Atlantic. I heard them discussing it on NPR. We’ve created these sophisticated machines to think for us and before we know it, we’ll pretty much be screwed.
But who’s to say that can’t happen with butterscotch sauce?
Because one batch of this stuff will bring you to your knees.
Shut your logic off.
Have you thinking of nothing else.
And you’ll cave, like I have.
Regardless of how deep in your fridge you hide the stuff, or how busy your day is.
It will inevitably get to you, I promise.
You will find yourself with spoon in hand and sticky lips and not a clue how it happened.
You’ve been warned.
(Now run off and make it.)
Because the folks at The Atlantic and NPR forgot to mention one thing:
There are only a few things worth giving a wee bit of yourself up for:
The perfect croissant.
And this mind-controlling sea salt butterscotch sauce.
Note: I have the momentous blog, Smitten Kitchen to thank for this recipe. If you don’t know this blog, good golly, get over there now! Well, first make this wickedly simple and bewitching sauce.
You want to believe in your child/children…no matter what.
You want to be their advocate.
The one that is always on their side.
I try to do this for my daughter and my son.
So when the latest member arrived, the baby mango tree I acquired back in 2008 and nothing happened, well, I kinda started to wonder.
I reminded myself that some children are late bloomers. I, in fact, was one of them. Recalling less-than-fuzzy junior high school locker room angst, I told myself to chill out and be patient. My baby tree would produce mangoes when good and ready.
That first summer passed. There was no fruit to be had.
Still, I cheered on.
I decided to name the thing and hoped that would spur it to grow a bunch of well-adapted, comfortable-in-their-skin, much-loved, succulent fruit.
The name had to be just right.
Naming my children felt way easier. My daughter’s name was one I’d always loved and knew I’d use years before she even came into the picture. It’s a good thing my husband dug it because there was zero wiggle room in the choice. For my son, we tossed around a few options before deciding on his, which then felt immediately right.
The mango tree was different. It just stood there in the sun.
I settled for Hilda, after Hilda Carrero, the leading lady in the soap operas I was addicted to growing up in Venezuela. She was glamorous and graceful and played characters who managed to succeed against all odds and get the incredibly hunky, rich guy in the end. Naturally, I figured such a name would inspire mangoes.
I forgave my Hilda for the hiccup of no fruit, as her Home Depot label had promised, and waited patiently for the next summer.
And the next.
And the next.
My father owned an expansive mango plantation in Venezuela and, as a teen, I had planted the first mango trees there. Those went on to grow into mango beasts: rising high up into the sky and producing endless supplies of lush, aromatic fruit that were shipped around the world.
Surely I could draw on that karma to kick start Hilda into a mango or two of her own?
But my mango tree refused to comply.
“Something is wrong with Hilda,” I moped to my husband, the agronomer with advanced degrees in plant propagation.
“Who?” He asked in his best careful-to-not-get-in-trouble husband voice.
I explained about Hilda and what was going on, hoping he’d offer some scientific advice.
“Hilda Carrero?” was his reply. “Didn’t she die really young? Cancer or something?”
I called him an idiot. Because this man gets off on Friedmann Equations and Boltzmann’s Entropy Formula. He can explain all the ins and outs of the supermassive black hole astronomers discovered, the one that is 12 billion times as massive as the sun. He can recount, in detail, the Duke of Wellington’s success in the Battle of Waterloo (I can sing you the entire Abba song.) But he cannot, for the life of him, recall or keep up with anything to do with pop culture. Wasn’t it just last week that he’d asked me, “Kardashian? Who are they?” I imagined Hilda Carrero was alive and well, living a quiet retirement in the penthouse of some luxury condominium in Aventura, Florida.
After insulting him, I ran to Google to learn that he was correct.
Cancer had claimed the life of the beautiful, graceful, successful, love-conquers-all actress years ago, when she was just fifty years old. I took a moment to pause and thank her for all those hours I spent pining over her feathered haircut, tiny waist, and unwavering power over men. Then, I went outside to have a chat with my Hilda.
Because everyone could use a pep talk when they find out the person they were named after perished much too soon and mango Hilda was bound to find out.
It could have been the time of day, but she looked a bit withered.
Down and out.
Not so lush.
So I did what a good Mom does and I cheered her on:
You have great qualities!
You march to the beat of your own drum!.
You’re strong and healthy!
(And take this extra sprinkling of fertilizer, for good measure.)
Still, a few more summers passed and Hilda remained fruitless.
The cheering subsided. The obsessive fruit-checking disappeared. I bought (and killed) other, smaller plants: basil, tomato, even lettuce.
It’s not her, it’s me, I concluded, resigned to the reality that my produce would come from the sterile bins of the supermarket.
Until this spring Hilda woke up full of flowers.
At least I think they were flowers.
But I didn’t want to get my hopes up too high.
Maybe that was some sort of freakish Florida spider web all over the thing.
One never knows.
I did skip that day and found myself singing “Te Quiero,” the theme song to Hilda Carrero’s classic soap opera, Andreina.
And then I killed more produce: chives, oregano, and rosemary. Full disclosure: if you manage to kill rosemary, you pretty much suck at this 100%.
Summer approached and my son came running inside from the garden one afternoon screaming.
My blood pressure dropped as I did a quick check for wounds, blood, missing body parts, dilated pupils. Nothing. He seemed fine. A bit of a crazed look, but, otherwise, fine.
“Mom!!!” He shouted again, jumping.
“What? What is it? Are you hurt?” I screamed back at him.
He didn’t need to say more. He turned his head towards the garden and my eyes followed him, past the pool, beyond the cemetery of failed produce, culminating in the lone mango tree, now proudly bearing teeny tiny baby fruit.
“Mangoes!” We both shouted, hugging and screaming like we’d guessed the price of the washing machine on The Price Is Right.
We ran over to Hilda to bear witness. My son counted ten mangoes, the size of kumquats (I tried and failed at those too) and the coaxing began anew.
Every afternoon I’d visit Hilda. I’d sing to her. I’d tell her about my day, which, at times sounded as crazy as some of those telenovelas I obsessed over as a kid. Slowly but surely, the mangoes grew. From tiny babies, to teens, to adults, changing from dark green to hues of purple, orange and yellow. A sunset of love and sweetness in my very backyard.
Amongst his many talents, the man makes a mean mango dessert!
4-5 ripe, but firm mangoes, peeled and sliced into chunks
1 cup red wine
1 cup papelón, also known as panela, raw, hardened sugar cane juice- found in Latin specialty markets. You can also use dark brown sugar instead.
3 whole cloves
2 tablespoon vanilla
2 teaspoons cinnamon
4 tablespoons butter
juice of 1 lemon
Place mango pieces in a skillet and cover with red wine. Add sugar and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium and add remaining ingredients, except for the lemon juice. Simmer until liquid thickens slightly, 15-20 minutes.
Remove from heat and add lemon juice.
Can be enjoyed hot or chilled- over vanilla ice cream!
It’s what I’ve been drilling into my children’s minds since they were tiny enough to eat a mushy pea.
My daughter came three years before her brother, so, naturally, she was subjected to these instructions first.
I’d say this about every food I placed in front of her, which back then, sat readily exposed in her plastic Barney dinner plate.
I was prepared. I’d read up on all the books. Books about those terrible twos and their picky eating habits. Kids that get hooked on deep-fried, over-processed remnants of chicken and pre-made frozen French fries laden with trans fats and, like little fast food addicts, can never kick the habit.
Mothers had also warned me with their battle stories of sautéed spinach tossed across the room, chunks of stew hanging off the chandeliers, or meatballs flung right into their faces as if their child was Roger Clemens pitching his famous dangerous splitter. There were endless sighs and moans and cries of horror from these women, women I respected, admired, looked up to, who suddenly sat in front of me defeated, with shoulders slumped and permanent stains on their shirts.
So I bought that plastic dinnerware set of Barney, my daughter’s favorite, and held my breath.
And much to my surprise, I watched her eat and not toss.
First it was taboule, heavy on the lemon and parsley, which she gobbled up with glee. If I paired it up with labneh it would be consumed even faster and with my daughter’s enchanting one-dimpled grin.
From that experience my confidence strengthened and I moved on to black beans. But not just any black beans, my nanny Yoli’s caraotas negras, a recipe that required hours of simmering the hearty legume with her famous sofrito of onions, garlic, tomatoes and green peppers.
As my daughter grew older, her demands for variety increased. Rarely did I have to ask her to try it, at least once.
There was baby octopus, sautéed in a pomodoro sauce, which she declared her all-time favorite food at age four. “The yummiest part is the tentacles,” she’d say, eagerly slurping them up.
If a preschooler is enamored with tentacles, you’ve nowhere else to go except to oysters, clams, mussels and snails, all of which were devoured faster than her peers could say “Happy Meal.” An empty plate would inevitably lead to those temper tantrums I’d read up about so fervently, but not because she didn’t approve of the dinner selection, because she wanted more.
Each time I nudged and introduced a new food, I was met by her sparkling enthusiastic eyes, adventurous spirit, and innate appreciation for world cuisine.
Roasted bone marrow.
Korean shrimp pancake.
Venezuelan tripe soup.
And then, she discovered foie gras.
Of course, my husband and I are to blame. “We created this,” he proclaimed (beaming, I might add), recalling that first moment her tiny hand grasped a sliver of Argentinean blood sausage and never let go. Our daughter, and later our son, have paid close attention to our passion for food and travel, becoming our culinary partners-in-crime, exploring the world with us and making the mandatory food stops I research and anticipate along the way.
In Paris, there was the lengthy line winding along Boulevard du Montparnasse for a chance to sample the legendary steak and frites at le Relais de l’Entrecôte. In the Basque town of Errenteria, there was the 6-hour culinary odyssey at the famed Mugaritz, a unique dining experience run by chef Andoni Luis Aduriz, the prodigy of Ferran Adrià, king of Molecular Gastronomy. In Marrakech, we made our way through the chaotic maze that is the Souk Semmarine and climbed up to the rooftop of a dilapidated structure where we dined on the finest lamb tagine, and in Johannesburg we came home with bags of biltong, a South African speciality of dried, seasoned game meat that quickly became my daughter’s favorite snack.
On our last trip to New York, I managed to land a coveted reservation at Prune, the tiny East Village restaurant of famed chef, Gabrielle Hamilton. As we studied the menu, our waitress placed a bowl of seasoned, fried chickpeas in front of us. My daughter was the first to grab a handful, pop them in her mouth, and then ask, “Mom, what are these?”
At fifteen, she was far from that toddler with the plastic Barney plate, learning about the wonderful pleasures of good food. Not once had I experienced the food ambivalence or rejection I had been warned about by those frustrated mothers so many years ago. Quite the contrary, my daughter has blossomed into a seasoned foodie, always willing and eager to try new things and quickly developing a growing repertoire of exotic favorites. I’m not sure if it was the excellent glass of Lebanese Château Musar that was already taking effect on me, but I suddenly started to tear up.
“Fried chickpeas,” I answered, beaming with pride.
“Hmmm. They’re awesome!” She replied, that one-dimped grin beaming back at me. “But we’re going to need a bigger bowl than that!”
2 15-oz. cans chickpeas, rinsed, drained, patted very dry
2 teaspoons finely grated lemon zest
Combine paprika and cayenne in a small bowl and set aside.
Heat oil in a 12” skillet over medium-high heat. Working in 2 batches, add chickpeas to skillet and sauté, stirring frequently, until golden and crispy, 15-20 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer chickpeas to paper towels to drain briefly. Place in a medium bowl. Sprinkle paprika mixture over; toss to coat.