I know I’m a bit old to be writing you this letter, but no one around here listens, so I’m hoping I’ll have more luck with you.
2014 has been fine. However, as I like to tell my daughter, there is always room for improvement. I don’t end up telling this to her, I end up telling this to the lovely oil painting I have of an exasperated woman, the one where she is resting her head in her hands in complete resignation (can so relate!) That fine artwork hangs in my living room right behind my daughter, above an electrical outlet.
The outlet is what lures my daughter there regularly, charging a phone or a computer or both. Fingers are quickly composing a witty text, eyeballs nervously checking social status on Instagram (I need more likes on that picture!!!) or maybe she’s perusing Facebook, just biding time until it is 9:00pm and she can tune into the season premier of PLL.
That’s Pretty Little Liars, Santa. Come on, get with it.
Look, I’m not going to ask you for the big stuff.
I’m not going to ask you for a larger house.
With an infinity pool.
Perhaps an ocean view.
That would be outrageously abusive of me.
But maybe, could you do something about the stovetop?
The thing is, it’s electric.
And yes, fancy shmancy electric, seriously high-end German electric, with an eco-friendly Ceran glass surface that claims to heat up faster than you can say omelet, with double and triple size elements that make the whole thing have more rings on it than the Olympic emblem.
By the way, Santa, I don’t know how savvy you are in the kitchen, but, if the brochure tells you it heats up faster than you can say omelet, the brochure is lying to you. Or you aren’t reading the German properly. Something.
I could walk over to my neighbor’s house, make an omelet there, clean up, come back home, and then my skillet would be ready.
I’ve learned to roll with this electric stovetop situation ever since I moved to the Florida ‘burbs a kazillion years ago, but my children don’t get a break, I am constantly kvetching about this. You know about kvetching, Santa, you must have some complaining to do as well, say, when the elves slack off or that darn chimney somehow becomes more narrow.
I fill their heads with stories about the perfectly simmered black beans I enjoyed growing up in Venezuela or the fantastic puttanesca pasta that I’d whip up in a flash in New York, or the spicy Moroccan chicken couscous I’d dazzle their dad with when we lived in Boston.
It’s not that I can’t make these dishes here. I can and I do. It’s the experience of making them over a gas stovetop that is so different, the ease and control of creating them under the embrace of a real fire that makes a difference. Maybe it’s that primal, caveman instinct of cooking with actual fire that makes me happy. Maybe it’s the hypnotic dance of the blue flame and the way it instantly heats up my skillet, even the heaviest cast iron one, making my heart flutter just so.
The year we lived in Mexico, my kids witnessed this jubilation first hand.
“Look, see! See how fast the water boils?” I’d scream, vindicated, drunk with joy.
“Crispy, crunchy hash browns in seconds! “ I’d revel.
I admit, I had gone a bit mad. But it was a happy mad, one in which everyone seemed to benefit and eat a lot.
The euphoria ended upon returning to our South Florida home where my German engineering quietly awaited to disappoint me.
The kids poke fun at me, Santa.
There seems to be two lethal attacks they inflict on their mother regularly:
1) Commenting on how lovely whatever sunset we are currently enjoying would look from a beach home (because they know I am an ocean girl through and through)
2) Reminding me of how grand it would be if we had a gas stovetop.
They know I’d pretty much give one of them up for either one of these two things.
I’d definitely give up the dog.
But hey, they say Christmas is a time for miracles.
And Hanukkah, which is the holiday I celebrate, is filled with stories of miracles.
So, I’m writing you this note (because I don’t have Hanukkah Harry’s address, and, let’s face it, you must have more pull.)
I’m asking: amongst the tricycles and trucks and dolls banging around your bag, could you possibly spare a gas stovetop?
Because I live in South Florida and on occasion will overhear “chévere” or “chamo” or “pana.”
Because I fill my children’s heads with stories about this wonderful place I grew up in, this place filled with sunshine and pristine beaches and majestic mountains. This place that nurtured me with amazing food and happy-go-lucky people.
Because my children won’t know this place, a place that has been replaced by rampant crime, inflation, and tyranny.
Because I miss Venezuela, I make arepas.
Arepas are round corncakes that can be grilled or fried and that are stuffed with anything savory, making them a sure win for picky families with specific tastes and needs. Rebel-without-a-cause teen just announced she’s a vegetarian? Arepas go great with any version of cheese, from fresh white mozzarella to shredded sharp cheddar. Other child craving a bit more protein? Dice up last night’s rib eye and toss it in, along with whatever condiment inspires you. You can all sit together and no one will complain/argue about what they are eating/forced to eat/refusing to eat, making me wonder if perhaps, I should suggest they serve these in the next United Nations General Assembly as a reminder that our differences can be enjoyed in the enveloping embrace of an arepa.
If global peace is feeling too ambitious for you, then keep the whole issue domestic: arepas serve as a useful excuse to clear out your fridge! Have half a pork tenderloin from Monday’s supper? Great in arepas! How about that roast beef you made for the in-laws that night they just wouldn’t leave? Arepas! Let’s not forget Thanksgiving leftovers…if your turkey was a big as mine, you must still have some balanced in the Tupperware on top of the Tupperware on top of the other Tupperware crammed with side dishes. Guess what? Turkey with a generous slab of mayo inside an arepa…amazing!
Sunday night is often roast chicken night at my house, which means, by Thursday, I’m ready to clear the fridge of what’s left of that meal in order to make room for newer items. Leftover chicken is perfect for Reina Pepiada, which is the Queen of all Venezuelan arepa dishes. Nestling this chicken and avocado salad inside a piping hot arepa fresh off the griddle brings me back to so many wonderful places/moments of my youth, whether it be a lazy weekend lunch out with my family or a quick pit stop at La Sifrina with my boyfriend, well past my curfew, once again. We’d devour these while slurping on fresh fruit shakes, and even though it was only a few hours before dawn, the day was alive with possibility, hope, and happiness.
Because these are things one should never forget/always strive for.
The Venezuelan arepa has its origins hundreds of years ago, cooked by the various indigenous tribes across the country (Arawak, Carib, Timoto-Cuica, Cumanagoto, Karina, among others.) What was initially made with fresh corn is today made using pre-cooked white corn flour, called “Harina Pan.” Arepas are eaten by Venezuelans in almost every meal and can be eaten just with butter or stuffed with all kinds of meats, cheeses and salads. In Venezuela there are places called “Areperas” that serve only arepas and fresh fruit juices and are open at all hours: this is our fast food!
For the arepas:
1 cups Harina Pan, white (pre-cooked maize, if you can’t find Harina Pan, you can use Goya)
1 ¼ teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons corn oil
2-3 cups warm water
For the Reina Pepiada:
1 cup shredded chicken (great with roasted chicken leftovers.) You can use white meat, dark meat, or combo.
¼ cup microscopically minced onion (seriously, you want the flavor, but you don’t really want to feel them)
¼ cup mayonnaise
¼ cup sour cream
1 Haas avocado, ripe
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
3 tablespoons fresh cilantro, minced (optional)
salt and pepper to taste
For the arepas:
Combine the harina pan and salt in a large bowl and mix well. Add oil. Slowly drizzle in warm water and knead it into the cornmeal. There should be a soft but firm consistency. If it still feels too dry, add more water.
Form arepas: grab a handful.
Size varies according to preference (get your head out of the gutter, we’re talking arepas!) Some people prefer large arepas, I tend to like them smaller (that way I can have more of them!!!) so my round is about the size of a golf ball, maybe a wee bit larger.
Roll into a ball shape and then, moving the dough in a circular motion, slowly start flattening it out. Your arepa should be approximately half an inch thick.
Cook on a heated and greased griddle pan over medium heat for 6 minutes on each side, then pop them in a 350° F heated oven for 5 minutes.
Cut lengthwise about ¾ down.
Here’s another debate amongst Venezuelans: to scoop or not to scoop. Some folk like to scoop out the soft, warm, extra dough inside the arepa, and thus leave basically the shell that has been on the griddle. This makes for more stuffing space. Others enjoy a bit of that comfort texture to meddle with their stuffing. Totally up to you.
Makes 10 arepas
For the Reina Pepiada:
So, pretty much stick it all in a bowl and mix it up. The avocado needs to be mushified. No slicing or dicing. Just smash it up.
Now if you are a die-hard mayonnaise person, feel free to up the mayo to ½ cup and ditch the sour cream.
Cilantro adds a tad of brightness, a term they all throw around in the cooking shows, so, I’m throwing it around here. It’s a preference thing, again. No right or wrong. Want to be a rebel? Add parsley instead. That would be killer good, actually.
When I was a little girl my family would leave our tropical home in Venezuela and head to Vermont for our winter vacation. My parents would rent a narrow chalet tucked in the corner of the woods and we’d cast ourselves in a winter wonderland production that managed to squeeze in every glacial activity imaginable during our two-week stay. Vermont, by the way, does winter hard-core. There’s no messing around. Everything froze, even my hair.
My mother took those opportunities to warm us up in the kitchen. It was a cramped space that she worked expertly, producing enough heat and love to feed my sisters and I throughout our chilly adventures. When we went sledding down the local farmer’s hill, we were always greeted with her soothing hot chocolate. When we explored the woods in hopes of finding the land of Narnia (or at least the lamppost that would lead us to Mr. Tumnus) there might be a steaming bowl of chicken noodle soup waiting for our return. When we came home from a day of careening down the ski slopes, exhausted and slightly frostbitten, she’d offer us her pièce de résistance to record-breaking low temperatures: a hearty bowl of beef stew.
I loved this stew.
It made everything right in the world when I ate it, replenishing a tired body depleted from endless rounds on an icy bunny slope. We all snuggled around the rustic wooden dining room table with a front row seat to another awe-inspiring winter snow storm and I knew, at that very moment, that I had with me everything that mattered: my mother’s warm, delicious food, my family, and the absolute promise of another beautiful snow-capped winter day waiting for me tomorrow.
Somewhere along the road of parenthood, I began adding okra to my version of this stew. Okra is mucilaginous, which is just a fancy way of saying it can get quite slimy and gooey when cooked. I love this because it helps thicken the sauce and binds everything together nicely. It is quite popular in Middle Eastern cooking, where it is referred to as bamia, and used frequently to make lamb stew. Mom passed away before I perfected my okra stew, but several years ago my father, a Jerusalemite expat living in the Andean city of Quito, came to visit me in South Florida and was very excited to see this familiar dish simmering on my stovetop. Vegetarians will be happy to note that this vegetable sparkles without the meat altogether. Either way, make sure to serve it over some steamy rice or alongside a crisp green salad.
3 potatoes (Yukon Gold work great), peeled and cut in fourths
½ teaspoon coriander
½ teaspoon cumin
salt and pepper to taste
¾ cup white wine
¾ beef broth (or vegetable broth)
2 tablespoons tomato paste
In a large skillet over medium-high heat, add olive oil and brown meat, around five minutes. Remove from skillet and sauté onions and garlic until translucent, five minutes. Add coriander and cumin and sauté another minute (your kitchen should smell amazing.) Return meat to the pan and add remaining ingredients.
Increase heat and bring to a boil.
Reduce heat to low and simmer for 2 hours, or until meat is tender and done.
The weather dipped the other day in South Florida.
It did, real quick, but, it did.
In fact, if you are a late riser, if you’re not privy to dark, pre-dawn alarms piercing into peaceful slumber so you may assemble prosciutto and tapenade sandwiches for school lunches while simultaneously flipping gruyere and wild porcini omelets for breakfast (because culinary requests are very high in this household) you may have just missed it.
The chipper weather forecaster on the morning news was as ecstatic as when she was crowned Miss Florida years ago. She eagerly urged her viewers to “dress in layers,” which, even I, who am perpetually cold, thought was a bit much. She continued to inform us that the temperature was a chilly 66 degrees and would only climb up to a mild 85. That would explain the goose bumps on her tight-fighting atomic tangerine dress.
Chilly 66. Mild 85.
I’m not big on tattoos, but that is one I’d consider getting.
You know, as a reminder.
We may have a lot of crazy things going for us in South Florida, a lot of nut jobs seem to hatch from the glorious Sunshine State, but Chilly 66, Mild 85 is something I can deal with.
With breakfast for the children already plated, I opened the front door to grab the morning paper, and instead of being greeted by the familiar frizz-your-hair humidity, I got a crisp, cool caress that left me pleasantly chilly. To experience cold is so unusual in South Florida that it made me wonder if I was dreaming.
Or somehow transported to Ithaca.
I realize folks in Ithaca don’t get caressed by the weather. I’ve seen their winters on television. It’s the no-nonsense type of winter. The type that makes national news. The type that most definitely doesn’t breed chipper weather forecasters in candy-colored dresses. You’re more likely to get a weather person akin to a stern officer in the army: Gimme one hundred pushups and grab a shovel to dig yourself out of your house! Now, do it again!
We’re softies here in South Florida when it comes to cold weather. It’s still cute. Celebrated. Fun!
Watch and see.
We have about seven days when things get cold. People will pull out their Ugg boots and designer fleece. Die-hards may sport that winter coat as well. The friendly weather gal will tell us all about it: warn us about frost and frostbite, about wrapping our children thoroughly in scarves and mittens and hats. Keeping body heat starts with a warm head, she’ll say. She’s trained hard for this moment, for this week.
Oh and it is such fun! Who cares if by 11:00am, once that South Florida sunshine is beaming down on us, the thermostat is climbing to 70, then 80, then…you stop looking because you are so damn hot in all your brand new winter gear. You wonder why the svelte weather chick didn’t educate you on how feet regulate your body heat- yours are shvitzing up a storm in those sheepskin boots, the ones you refuse to take off no matter how many beads of sweat are falling down your back or how dizzy and dehydrated you may feel. You now remember (and understand) her sexy, strappy sandals.
It’s South Florida in winter! Glorious! Fun!
It also gives me an excuse to make heartier food: saucy, rich, meat-laden, pasta-slapped, oozing cheese type stuff one needs to survive a cold winter night. I’m thinking specifically of pasticcio, which is like lasagna, only, if you can believe it, better. It’s like some kooky person took a look at lasagna and thought, “yeah, I can improve upon this,” and then did! Crazy right? Impossible? No. They got it down on the pasticcio.
There are several versions of pasticcio, from Greek, to Italian, to Egyptian, but they all rely on four main ingredients: meat, pasta, cheese, and some sort of a béchamel sauce. I favor the Italian version, which my mother used to purchase from our local Italian market on those nights we were rushing around and she’d have no time to cook dinner herself. I grew up in Caracas, Venezuela, which witnessed a heavy influx of Italian immigrants in the 1940’s, resulting in, amongst other things, a bountiful access to homemade pastas, salume, and Nona-style pasticcio. The principle of layering meat, cheese and noodles is the same, only tucked away for added flavor are slices of ham, and then, just because, the entire thing is coated in a creamy béchamel. Oh, and sprinkled with more cheese. Why not? It’s cold outside, remember? On some survivalist level you need this.
And if you have any leftovers, you can always send them to some shivering, shoveling soul in Ithaca.
You know that look of disgust and horror your friend would give you? The glare that would shoot out of horrified eyes when you’ve done something unforgivably wrong, say, if you ever murdered an entire colony of baby seals or trampled through rose gardens carefully pruned by your great-grandmother Eunice, the one who lost everything in the war and since then has dedicated her life to creating the optimum blend of hybrid tea roses and floribundas?
That’s the look I get when I tell people I love to eat rabbit.
“Rabbit…as in bunny rabbit?” they clarify.
It’s the one time I am grateful so many of us are trapped in lifelong student loan debt. It was obviously worth every penny.
“Yes,” I state resolutely.
“Bugs Bunny?” They continue, aghast, instantly hating me more than that mean old Elmer Fudd.
“Well, not specifically Bugs Bunny. He’s quite old and, I imagine, tough to chew.” I counteract.
“But bunnies are so cute! That would be like eating your own pet! Your dog, or, your cat!” Said person explains in between gasps.
Friendships have been known to shift at this point. Ever so slightly, but, shift. We both judge each other quietly after such a conversation, certainly sharing a meal is never the same. I may be imagining things, but, pets are held a wee bit tighter around me, just in case.
I’m not sure why the cute-conundrum doesn’t apply to our accepted dinner choices. After all, cows are mighty cute. Especially those with big eyelashes and cowbells munching on grass with the Swiss Alps as their backdrop. I mean, talk about naming that gal Bessie and wanting to take her home! And chickens? Okay, sure, they are not winning many cute prizes when subjected to mass production and crammed into wire cages, but remember those fellas as babies? Little fury fuzz balls that waddle about and cheep cheep cheep? Awwww, come on! Where are the viral videos on those guys?!
I grew up in South America where giving someone a baby chick was like bringing over a bar of chocolate or a bouquet of flowers. It was a popular just-because-you’re-awesome type of gift. Sometimes the chicks were dyed bright colors, like, you could get a neon blue chick or a chartreuse chick, which every nine-year old thought was the super cool way to seal a BFF.
Of course, eventually, every nine-year old becomes bored with Fernanda the Fuchsia Chick and so Fernanda would be left to wander the back garden and grow up to be a regular chicken that may or may not have something to do with that amazing Ensalada de Pollo that would miraculously appear for lunch. There was always loads of mayonnaise in that salad, and we all know loads of mayonnaise makes everything better, even your former neon pets.
The great thing about having my own children is that I’ve had them since they were young (and brainless) and so, when it comes to all things culinary, they’ve pretty much eaten whatever I’ve eaten. At least, whatever I’ve managed to expose them to eating. Before they came around I sampled sheep balls and maggot-infested cheese and lived to tell the tales, so, when presented with such eccentricities, why shouldn’t they? The key, all cuteness aside, is to try everything. At least once.
It seems this philosophy spoke to them, which is why my kids, now teens, have a list of exotic (and sadly, expensive) foods as their favorites (foods that would most likely leave their peers running for the nearest Hot Pockets.) Sure, they won’t pass up on a good cheeseburger (she prefers with foie gras) and fries (he prefers with truffle oil) but give them a plate filled with octopus tentacles, a mountain of escargot, a serving of grilled Kudu or a bag of Chapulines (fried grasshopper) and they are happiest.
Which brings me back to the cute bunny issue and the question of eating your own pet.
Sure bunnies are cute, but, damn are they tasty! And anyway, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. That steak you just grilled could also be cute, if you thought about it carefully. If we gage our eating habits on the way things looked, we are closing the door to many delicious options. It’s like I tell my kids: be open-minded and try stuff, at least once. You just might be surprised. Bunnies, particularly roasted with fresh rosemary and heirloom potatoes will most definitely leave you pleasantly surprised, possibly coming back for seconds, perhaps instigating your friends to hold on to their pets a wee bit tighter next time they see you. Just in case.
(adapted from The New Basics Cookbook by Julee Rosso & Sheila Lukins)
2 cups heirloom baby potatoes, halved
24 large garlic cloves, not peeled
6 tablespoons olive oil
4 oz. bacon, chopped up
2 rabbits (2 lbs. each)
6 tablespoons fresh rosemary
2 teaspoons freshly ground pepper
2 teaspoons salt
6 sprigs of rosemary for garnish
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
Place the potatoes and garlic cloves in a shallow roasting pan. Sprinkle with 3 tablespoons of olive oil, ½ teaspoons salt and 1 teaspoon pepper. Toss to coat. Bake until golden, 15 minutes.
In a skillet over medium heat, sauté bacon with 3 tablespoons olive oil until slightly cooked (but not crunchy!) Remove bacon with a slotted spoon and reserve.
Sprinkle 1 ½ teaspoons of salt and 1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper on rabbit pieces and sauté them (in batches) until slightly brown, about 2 minutes on each side. If you need to add more oil you may!
Add rabbit to your potatoes, mix to combine, and bake for 30 minutes.
Add bacon bits on top and bake an additional 10 minutes.
Remove from oven and place decorative rosemary sprigs.