Comforted By An Italian [Classic]

Just as I got used to the weird, off-balance silence of having one kid in college, she came back.  And Husband.  And teenage son (from school, that is.)  They all stayed at home one day. And then the next and then the next.  Days passed huddling around the television watching the news, hearing panicked-yet-professional reports from newscasters and meteorologist about this catastrophic growing (and staying strong!) storm called Irma:

We were doomed.  Florida was going underwater, after everything got blown away to bits, Big Bad Wolf style.

One of my sisters took her dog, got in the car, and headed north.  Way north.  D.C. I-ain’t-taking-no-chances north.  So did 1.3 million other Floridians- the biggest evacuation in the state’s history.

I can’t say I blame them.  After all, mandatory evacuations had been issued to 8 counties.  Anchormen had taken off their jackets and rolled up their sleeves, quite literally.  Our pretty, statuesque meteorologist, Lissette, suddenly looked pail, her lower lip slightly quivered.  She mentioned having slept over at the station. She mentioned missing her pretty daughters, the ones she always posted on Instagram wearing matching sundresses.  She mentioned her husband putting hurricane shutters OVER their hurricane-proof windows.

Wait, what?

I have hurricane-proof windows.

When we remodeled the house sixteen years ago, it was the single most expensive investment.  Burly men carried bunker-sturdy panels of double glass while chatting to each other in Italian in between puffs of unfiltered Camels.  I remember being impressed by their coordination: the lifting, the walking, the talking, and the smoking.  The fact that it was in a Romance language certainly elevated the experience.  And the sharp jaws, all lined with stubble before stubble became chic. That seemed part of their uniform.

You no worry, miss.  You and de baby will be so safe with dees now,”  Vitto promised.  De baby was my soon-to-be-born son, who’d turned my belly into a sphere freak show.

I knew Vitto by name because he was the one always fucking things up.

“Fai attenzione, Vitto!”

“Vitto! Non lasciare cadere il bicchiere, per amore di Dio!”

“Lentamente…lentamente….No più lento, Vitto! No!!!”

Ya, you had to feel a bit sorry for Vitto, really.

But even though he wasn’t as skilled in the hurricane-glass installation business as his brothers (I assumed they were brothers, they all had the same gorgeous eyes) they seemed not minding having him around.  He knew the best jokes, or, at least, fool-proof ways to make the others break into unbridled laughter.  His English was apparently the most advanced, so aside from encouraging phrases directed at my belly (“is gonna be a stronga boy, eh?  Molto forte!”) he also explained the lock mechanisms, the screen system, and other critical information one would need to know in the event of a hurricane.

Like the one barreling towards South Florida now.

It had been a while but I decided to trust Vitto and his brothers.  Irmageddon was approaching.  I had water.  I had batteries.  And I had faith in Italian craftsmanship.

It turned out I also had a lot of free time waiting for the storm to make landfall.  So I baked.  And I cooked.

Peanut butter cookies, brownies, cumin-marinated chicken and orange-infused pork tenderloin.  There was also plenty, and I mean plenty, of pasta.  That bump Vitto pointed at is now a constantly ravishing fifteen-year old boy.  Pasta is a favorite of his and he is quite flexible with what goes in it.  Pesto, seafood, bolognese, and vongole are top picks, but for all the Irma craziness, which thankfully only took a few beloved trees, I found comfort in a classic basic spaghetti al pomodoro.   Sometimes the sweetest and simplest things are the ones that help make us feel safe, happy and molto forte.

 
    
Spaghetti Pomodoro (Pasta in Tomato Sauce

Ingredients

  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1/2 cup onion, minced
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 16-ounce can of whole tomatoes (Marzano, if you can find)
  • 1 tablespoon tomato paste
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 4-6 whole basil leaves (you can also use some more for garnish)
  • 3 tablespoons heavy whipping cream
  • salt, to taste
  • 1 lbs. of spaghetti
  • 4 quarts water
  • 1 tablespoon salt

Instructions

  1. Heat oil in a 2-quart saucepan over medium heat. Add onion and garlic and stir until clear, five minutes.
  2. Add whole tomatoes and tomato paste, raise heat to high and bring to a boil, stirring.
  3. Reduce heat to medium/low and add water and basil leaves.
  4. Partially cover and leave on a slow simmer for 30 minutes.
  5. Add salt, to taste.
  6. Remove basil leaves and place in a blender.
  7. Blend (be sure to hold top of blender!)
  8. Adjust seasoning and add cream.
  9. Meanwhile, prepare pasta- boil 4 quarts salted water and cook spaghetti until it is al dente (read package for time.)
  10. Place pasta in a large bowl and add sauce, mixing thoroughly.
  11. Serve immediately (you can add additional basil leaves for decoration)
  12. Serves 4-6 (or one teenage boy)
http://culinarycompulsion.com/2017/09/comforted-by-an-italian-classic/

Growing Pains Made Easier With A Simple Breakfast

It turns out it doesn’t matter if your college-bound kids moves away to a school the distance it would take to toast a pop tart or to a university half way around the world- the growing pains of leaving home remain the same.

 

My daughter, who will be an assuring 45 minutes away and already “left” for summer term, is back after a brief one-week break and preparing now to head back for the fall.

 

The days are quite consistent:  an odd mix of excitement and nerves, anxiety and empowerment, denial and overthinking about what the whole thing entails.  And that’s from the two of us.

 

She may wake up wanting mommy to fix her a full-blown sunshine breakfast, the kind I used to make when she was seven.  I’d quickly fry up an egg and slice pieces of buttered toast into rectangles that I’d then place around it, creating my overeasy masterpiece.  If I were truly crafty, I would have, should have, cut out the whites, leaving the yolk as the sun’s core, then floated the whites above as drifting clouds.  But my daughter was always so thrilled with my lazy version that I never bothered to upgrade.

 

Other times I am the one hurridly trying to shove last minute parental lessons down her throat, as if I were Tevye bidding my daughter farewell, never to meet again.  “Make sure to make eye contact and say thank you whenever someone holds the door.  Don’t forget a firm handshake.  Always handwrite a thank you note, I don’t care if everyone else just texts.”

 

We fight.  Constantly.  In the parking lot of the supermarket.  Rushing to Target for last minute lotions.  Or sitting across from each other at the dinner table.

 

Then clumsily, we find our way back to an apology, always with a hug, a joke, a laugh, a peek at our iPhones to see what the latest craziness has appeared on Twitter.  And life goes on.

 

I had lunch with a friend, who is in the midst of driving her son to college far away, who reminded me with a tinge of fear and an ocean of sadness in her eyes that things will never be the same.  We sat and picked on our salads at a café trying to grasp the idea of empty nesting, that not understood identity that hovered very close by, just days away.

 

“I still have the boy,” I joked to lighten the mood, referring to my teenage son still at home.  But we both knew that would not be for much longer.  That just as we’d blinked and gone from overwhelmed first-time mothers we now sat, a little worse for wear, staring at our Nicoise, wondering where the hell the time went.

 

We assured ourselves everything would be okay.  One way or another.  Because it will. Because it must.  Because, as we’ve told each other and our children, we have done our best, perhaps not a perfect job, but what is life without a little imperfection, a little stumbling, a heated argument followed by a heartfelt apology, and of course, a deliciously simple, comforting breakfast.  Just remember to always hand write a thank you letter, never send a text.

 

Celebrating National Caviar Day in Miami

photograph courtesy of TARA, Ink.

People tell me it’s my fault, but I swear to you she was born that way.  How else does one explain an 18-month old pushing away the apple juice, the milk, heck, the chocolate milk, and insisting, sorry, demanding, the Perrier?

“No puede ser,” stunned friends visiting our Florida home from Venezuela would comment as they watched my daughter’s plump fingers clasp the bottle and chug chug chug the fizzy imported content in one gulp.

“Why not a jugo de guayaba or a merengada de cambur?“worried relatives would suggest, reminding me of all the fresh guava juices and banana milkshakes I grew up on in Caracas.

My daughter would have none of that.  She’d only have Perrier.  Which meant Husband and I would make many visits to Costco, where one could most affordably buy it by the caseload.

I’ll admit, there was a distorted sense of pride in this newly-forming upscale palate.  But of course, as things that are newly-forming tend to do, it grew stronger and, hmmm, more upscale.

Soon she discovered prosciutto.  And not just any prosciutto, prosciutto di Parma.  Because what’s a mother to do but only give her daughter the best?  After that, it was foie gras.  Foie gras in any shape or form:  pan seared, torchon, terrine.  As long as there was an endless supply, our toddler was happy.

“Remember the foie gras we served at our wedding,” Husband beamed, nudging me at a dimly light, quiet restaurant where even seasoned waiters were in awe of their young guest’s sophisticated taste.  Our daughter sat focused and content, gobbling her serving and then mine before waiting eagerly for the grilled octopus that came next.

So…maybe we are a bit to blame.  Some may call us enablers.  We managed, oh heck, okay,  bragged about it at playdates (“no, she hates peanut butter and jelly, but, by golly, give her quail eggs and she won’t stop eating!”)

It was only a matter of time before my daughter discovered caviar.  She loved the whole prep work involved:  mincing up hard boiled eggs and onion and serving them in separate bowls with tiny mother of pearl spoons.  The baby toasts bowled her over as did the blini, Russian pancakes with which the delicacy is traditionally served.  But after trying out all the accompaniments, she did what she always does, went straight for the good stuff, quietly pulling the tin of caviar closer to her and double-timing the scoops, working rather proficiently to snag the last roe.

She’s eighteen now and those habits haven’t changed a bit. If anything, she’s developed a keener radar to the more expensive tastes in life, something her father and I can’t help but glow with pride over, even if our wallets may keep getting skinnier.

National Caviar Day is this Tuesday, July 18th, and as a tribute some of Miami’s hotspots are celebrating the day with specials for those with fancy tastes.  Seaspice will be offering Hokkaido Scallop Tartare on a bed of crispy bamboo rice topped with Ossetra caviar ($24), LaMuse Café , housed inside the chic Avant Gallery, is upping an American comfort classic with their Dora’s Deviled Eggs with Caviar ($18).  If you want to people-watch and eat like a celeb, head over to Villa Azur for modestly-priced caviar specials such as lobster rolls: scallions, shallots, chives, dice radish, mayonnaise, yuzu sauce and finished with Kaluga caviar ($25).

 

The Frog Toss

You know, my husband and I said, way back when, we did this for our kids.  They were little back then.  Like, really little.  They wouldn’t sit through a Passover Seder, the long, tedious amounts of reading, praying, and singing I’d been subjected to as a kid.  I remember feeling that night to be endless, even if I had the coveted spot of sitting in between my mom and my dad.

And don’t get me wrong.  My dad was quite the show man, and Pessach was no exception.  No one could sing Dayenu faster than him.  No one could storytell like he could.  Glasses of wine stopped being counted, heck, in fact, we had a huge plastic bin filled to the rim with homemade Sangria providing a constant flow for those longing to remain sweetly and happily inebriated.

But there was still tradition.  My father was still, after all, the son of Itzaak Abbady.  And even though I never met my grandfather, I knew he was a hard core traditionalist.  I’d heard from my dad, the rebel and adventurer of the family, as he sizzled up bacon on Saturday mornings in our Venezuelan home.

“Your saba would turn in his grave,” he say with mischief in his eye, nodding towards the pan as he flipped over a piece of bacon.  I never knew if he was serious or not.  I grew up on a steady diet of Jewish law rule-breaking, but, when it came to Passover, the Haggadah was pulled out and read from front to end.

 

I was always starving throughout it all.  Matzoh, I tell you, isn’t much of an appetite repellent.

 

So when my husband and I found ourselves in the role of hosting the Seder, we turned to The Rugrats, our 2-year old’s favorite cartoon show.  They, apparently, covered the whole thing in 32 bright and funny picture book pages.

 

That first Seder was a huge success.  We cut up an ocean-themed shower curtain, nailed it over the front door, and announced everyone would cross the Red Sea.  Craft paper covered our front entrance, paint brushes were handed out, and instructions shouted: “Here!  Paint!  Mark the house so God will pass over us!”

 

When we read about the 10 plagues, toy frogs and wild animals whirled across the table at each other, making sure Eliyahu’s cup didn’t get knocked over.

So, here’s the secret:

If you include a shower curtain, red paint, and toys in your Passover Seder, people pay attention, people come back.

The funny thing is that, as you have also figured, kids grow up.  From babies to teens, ours, and everyone else’s grew in front of Eliyahu.   But the Rugrats still reigned during Passover Seder.  The Rugrats, actually, are still in high demand.

This year my daughter will graduate from high school, but in between making her list for what she will need for college and figuring out what classes she will take once there, she is still a killer frog thrower.  Knows how to zonk one right on her dad’s forehead.

Those things hurt, you know.

They are small and plastic and surprisingly pick up speed, efficiently bypassing plates of chariest and half a rosemary-infused lamb.  My husband may flinch at first impact, but he does what makes this night even more special, he laughs, and immediately throws one right back.

That’s all you can do.  It’s a war zone of flying plastic frogs at our Seder.  Attack or be attacked.

We keep a fresh supply of plastic frogs handy. Next year they’ll all come back again.

 


Rosemary-infused lamb

Ingredients

  • 1/2 a lamb (leg, ribs, and shoulder)
  • 10-12 garlic cloves, slivered
  • 6 tablespoons rosemary (preferably fresh)
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 1/4 tablespoons soy sauce
  • salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

Instructions

  1. Have your butcher divide the lamb up for you.
  2. Insert tiny slivers with a sharp knife throughout the lamb.
  3. Stuff a sliver of garlic in each one.
  4. Coat the lamb with remaining ingredients.
  5. Place in the oven for 1 hour (for rare).
  6. Remove and let sit for 20 minutes before carving.
  7. Serves 15
http://culinarycompulsion.com/2017/04/the-frog-toss/

Cranberry Poetry Slam

cranberry-can-pic

I was walking along a crowded, brightly lit passageway.

Filled with food.

All kinds of food.

That was lovely, of course.

But then I turned the corner.

And saw the cans.

Lots of them.

More of them; all the same.

Stacked up so neatly that I was afraid.

To breathe, to blink, daresay to sneeze.

Lest these cans come tumbling down.

 

All in a sea of white and red.  With characteristic blue font as well.

The cans haunt.

Taunt.

Judge.

Glare.

 

It is my supermarket and it is November.

Thanksgiving is upon us.

So the cranberry cans come out to play.

Along with bags of fresh cranberries shoppers rush by wondering nervously, “now what would I do with that?”

 

So much easier to pick up a can, take it home, and turnturnturn the old rusted opener.

Flip the cylinder upside.

Wait.

Ooze squeeze slip plunk.

A gelatinous cranberry mass (oh what fun, can rings and all) is birthed onto the awaiting serving plate.

Passed around.

For a cloying addition to a fabulously toiled-over turkey

hoping its dinner date is more than this.

 

I don’t give the can

a place by my gravy.

Stop.

Take those bags of fresh cranberries and mix them into a magical mold

Crunchy, tangy, sweet, nutty wonder.

A relish of flavor.

 

Passed around and praised.

Perhaps surpassing the turkey

even if you’ve given it a unique star’s name:

Keanu, Denzel, Scarlett or Cameron

 

Or made extra stuffing (yes, Mother’s famous recipe.)

People will leave full, happy, and wondering,

What was in that cranberry crown? What did she make?

 

So I am peaceful again in my market.

Walking purposefully,

Proudly,

Victoriously.

Past vast terrain of cans forever erased.

cranberry-relish

Cranberry Relish

This recipe comes straight from my sister-in-law, Maria Neesman, or as she’s known to her family, Koko.

Ingredients

  • 1 (9 ounce) can crushed pineapple in syrup
  • 1(6 ounce) package cherry gelatin
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
  • 1 cup chopped celery
  • ½ cup chopped walnuts
  • 1 cup ground fresh cranberries

Instructions

  1. Drain the pineapple and save the syrup. In medium bowl, dissolve the gelatin and sugar in 1 cup hot water. Add the reserved syrup and lemon juice.
  2. Chill until partly set, 30 minutes.
  3. Add the celery, walnuts, pineapple and cranberries.
  4. Chill overnight in a 5-cup ring mold. Remove from the ring mold and serve.
  5. Serves 8-10
http://culinarycompulsion.com/2016/11/cranberry-poetry-slam/