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.
Catholics pray to saints, Buddhists burn fragrant incense.
I worship my husband’s former roommate’s mother, whose name I don’t even know.
I imagine her slender and fit. The type of woman who doesn’t look her age, who gardens and rides a pastel-colored bicycle into town. Her bicycle has a wicker basket for the baguette or two she brings back from her trips to the local market along with bunches of earth-covered peppery radishes, plump strawberries, and bright orange carrots whose leafy tops leave a trail on the ride home like a healthy adaptation of Hansel and Gretel’s breadcrumbs.
Of course, my husband’s former roommate’s mother sports a tan.
Not that leathery too-many-years-sizzling-on-a-beach-towel tan, but that healthy-glow tan, the one that comes from endless rounds of tennis, hiking, and kayaking, things involving pure air and strong lungs.
I look to her son, Matej, for clues about her. He is handsome, charming, smart and youthful, with a mane of golden hair and a movie star smile that makes it hard for my husband and I to keep up on who his current girlfriend may be. He is generous, kind, and thoughtful, all of which serve as a nod to his mom, whom I surmise, raised him that way. This is enough to already like this woman, to allow my imagination a one-way ticket into her home, where we’d have many absorbing conversations by a crackling fireplace while stirring risotto laced with fresh-picked yellow morels or sipping a glass of chilled Rebula wine.
But the adoration really began when I got her jam.
It came, several years ago, in a Mason jar wrapped in an old washcloth with a single scribbled word on its red-checkered top: marelice.
“Here,” my husband said while pulling it out of his carry-on after one of his many trips home. “Matej sends this to you.”
I grabbed the jar carefully, like when Indiana Jones first took the Golden Idol off its booby-triggered pedestal in Raiders of the Lost Ark. I don’t speak Slovenian, but, from its deep golden hue, I knew what it must be and my heart fluttered with joy.
“It’s from his mother,” Yeshua added. “Her world-famous apricot jam.”
There are few things I’d give my first-born up for but world-famous apricot jam is certainly one of them. Said first-born would probably go willingly, so tired she is of hearing me complain over the years about how impossibly difficult it is to find a properly made apricot jam. Most of my apricot-jam-eating-experiences are cloaked in the following whines:
Not apricoty enough!
She can tell you that list goes on and on.
But here was a homemade apricot jam that was bursting with promise.
And did not disappoint.
I knew from the first spoonful, when the balance of acid and sweet played footsies in my mouth. After that I kept finding excuses to pull out the jam. My breakfasts became decidedly Parisian with the mandatory croissant and, of course, the irreplaceable apricot jam. In the afternoons I took to being a Brit, taking 4 p.m. breaks for a spot of tea and a scone which I’d dutifully slather with, yep, my husband’s former roommate’s mother’s jam.
The jam was given elite shelf status in our fridge and guarded with the same scrutiny as Fort Knox.
No one in the household was allowed access.
If anyone dared ask for some, they’d be met with heavy resistance on my part (“Jam?You’re more of a Nutella fan!”), many sighs, and many attempts at redirection (“Here, have this bag of chips. You aren’t a fruit eater, remember?”)
Then, the inevitable happened and I ran out of the jam. Teaspoon by teaspoon, scrape by scrape, lick by lick, the jar practically sparkled.
My interest in my husband’s former roommate’s travel plans back home to Slovenia suddenly increased. He had left after university, settling half way around the world in a crowded, Mexican metropolis for a two-year job stint that went on and on.
“Your mother must miss you,” I coaxed.
“You need to stay connected,” I urged.
“Don’t forget everything us mothers do for our sons,” I whimpered, hoping to successfully weave in a thread of guilt that would get him on a plane home.
Remember though, Matej is a good man; his mother made him that way.
He is kind and thoughtful and warm.
Which makes him a good son.
A son that travels back home frequently.
And luckily, brings me back a jar or two of his mother’s world-famous jam.
“One day I want to meet your mom,” I tell him. “I want to be in her kitchen and watch her make her jam,” I say, not sharing with Matej that I would wish for a matching pastel-colored bicycle with a market-filled basket as well.
This is one of those seasonal recipes that normally require ripe apricots, something hard to come by in mid-October, unless you can time-travel back to summer, can find under-ripe versions flown in from Chile, or plain out live in Chile! So, yes, I’d offer to say I’ve made smarter recipe choices in October. Should probably be offering you a squash dish (them squash are everywhere now!), but I’m not. I’m giving you apricot jam because I am impulsive and sentimental and I’ve got apricot jam on my mind.
Don’t worry, though, I’ve also got a solution: dried apricots! You can find those year round, and, yes, a pretty spectacular jam comes out of them too.
2 8-ounce packages of dried apricots
1 cup sugar
half a fresh lemon
OPTIONAL (see notes below)
1 cinnamon stick
2 cardamom pods
Place 8 cups or so of water in a pot with the apricots and sugar. Raise heat to high and bring to a boil.
Once boiled, reduce heat to medium, slice the lemon into very thin slices and then into pieces and add to the pot.
Cook for 30 minutes over medium heat (without a lid).
After 20 minutes, use a potato masher and mash the whole thing up, clumsily, leaving bits and pieces (this will make it more like my husband’s former roommate’s mother’s jam.)
Stir again after a few minutes to see whether it is thick by taking a spoonful and plopping some jam on a plate. If it plops to your liking (i.e., it doesn’t soup all over the place but, rather, sets exactly how you’d imagine it should on a perfectly crispy croissant) then it is ready. If not, cook just a little bit longer. Once thick enough, take off the heat and let it sit until it cools. Place in sterilized jars and keep in the refrigerator.
Some people get uncomfortable with simplicity. If you are one of those, you may add 1 cinnamon stick, 2 cloves, 2 cardamom pods to the whole process. You would do this buy placing the spices in a muslin bag (yes, they sell these on Amazon) and plopping it in at the very beginning of the jam-making process (with the apricots, sugar, and water.) I personally like to be socked in the face with pure apricot flavor.
There are many perks to having a world-traveling husband whose focus lately has been China. Girlfriends will notice my new array of alleged designer handbags, a different one for each day of the week it would seem, but I don’t pay them much mind, I’m stuck on the culinary props that are introduced regularly to my home.
I’ve gotten all sorts of classics: woks, steamers, long chopsticks and frying spoons setting me up for variations on chow mein for the next 365 days. I’ve gotten obscure, tiny corroded contraptions he’s picked up in dingy, crowded alleyways of clustered markets filled with friendly locals entertained by the arrival of this 6”2’ Western man. This is to peel pineapple. This one takes the kernels off the corn. This mashes the garlic.
But then there was the knife. Handed to me in a primitive wooden box with rusted hinges, a box you’d inevitably be apprehensive about, secretly calculate when you had your last tetanus shot while making sure there are no small children around, making sure you are not too upset at your older children.
As I held the box I could have sworn I heard one of those country singers, with names as comforting as a warm slice of peach pie: Blake or Hank or Garth crooning a song about how great America is. I don’t even listen to country music but there it was, whispering in my ear, as I’d picture an oversized pickup truck following a pack of rugged cowboys herding cattle and in that second I’d be overridden with guilt, I’d admonish myself for even holding this contraband, scary knife box and will myself to put it down, give it back. I should accept knives made in America, good solid workmanship from Massachusetts or South Carolina or upstate New York.
But that lasts seconds, because I am weak.
I open it and I am in love, or at least, in a trance, as if you were dangling a gold medallion in front of me and asking me to count to ten. Maybe I’d get to three.
The knife is beautiful. It is a cleaver that is large with a gleaming blade and an exquisite wooden handle.
And sharp. So sharp I could splice an eyelash with it.
So I spend my days conjuring up recipes where I can use it.
Orange Roughy fits tonight’s bill.
I bought the fish because it had such a complicated and unattractive name.
I had already passed over it and focused on names that were easier to pronounce, names I’ve grown to love: salmon, red snapper, trout.
Here was Orange Roughy staring me in the face.
“What is that?” I asked my fishmonger.
“That’s Orange Roughy,” he stated, looking at me like I was an idiot.
“What’s it taste like?” I ventured, now intrigued by his incredulous glare.
“Delicious. Like grouper meets crab.” He said, eyes sparkling.
Grouper meets crab? Two of my favorites dancing in one fish flavor?
I had to try it.
I bought several fillets and rushed home to my new Chinese knife.
The fillet I’ll leave in tact, of course. You don’t want to mess with crab-meets-grouper, you just want to heighten it, and my Chinese knife and I know how.
We’ll take loads of fresh flat-leaf parsley and chop, chop chop!
Seriously, try this at home, if you have an unforgettable blade.
Buy loads of parsley and chop it fine.
You’ll feel so much better after you’ve done that, no matter how lousy the day.
Of course, be careful of the fingers. Keep them away. Losing a finger would really spoil the day.
To that I add some fresh spinach. The cutting board is covered in dark green. The knife works seamlessly and I have found bliss. I don’t even remember what purse I’m carrying these days, is it the Prada, the Michael Kors, the Gucci?
I am done and I throw these ingredients into a bowl, drizzle it with some olive oil, grate some fresh Parmigiano-Reggiano, add a sprinkling of sea salt and black pepper over it all and top it off with some lemon zest to freshen the whole thing up.
I’ve forgotten garlic! Something else to chop! A clove or two, depending on your love of the stuff, who you’ll be kissing tonight. My husband is already off to some other exotic country, so I can go nuts on the garlic, mince a bunch up real fine. This will take seconds now, you are a pro.
The minced garlic is staring us in the face. Add that to the bowl and mix it all up real good. You’ve got what looks like green mush. Fragrant green mush. Take a spoonful or two and coat it on your fish fillet. You can top it with some panko bread crumbs if you want it crusty (I’d mix those with a bit of melted butter for extra yum.) Or you can throw some panko straight into your green mix. Or opt to go panko-less if you are on a carb witch hunt, that’s fine too.
Ten minutes in a 350 oven and you’re done! Crab-meets-grouper is a perfect description. Sweet and meaty flavors meld wonderfully with the citric zest and earthy, peppery bite of parsley and spinach.
I think even the cowboys would forgive the Chinese transgression, if I sat them down to this meal. So long as I play some country music in the background.
I can’t take credit for this recipe. It was given to me by my dear friend, Ana Paula, whom I met in an over air-conditioned corporate office twenty years ago under the guise of becoming executive hotshots. The allure of fluorescent lighting and confining cubicles wore off quickly and we both left our positions respectively, but the friendship remained strong, most notably because of our love for our families and our passion for food. I’m always picking up great tips from this pal. This is one of many.
½ cup flat-leaf parsley, chopped very fine
¾ cup fresh spinach, chopped very fine
2-4 cloves of garlic, depending on you, minced
zest of 1 lemon
1/3 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
salt and pepper, to taste
4 tablespoons panko crumbs
1 teaspoon melted butter
mix and add into greens or on top for extra crunch! OPTIONAL!
There's really nothing to this. Mix all those ingredients and slather on your fillet.
Heat oven to 350 F
Place fillets in greased baking pan (line it with aluminum foil to make it mess-free)
Bake 10-14 minutes, depending on the thickness of the fish.
(Fish should come apart easily with a fork.)
Makes 2 fillets
(And for you fish haters out there, this works great on chicken fillet too! (Although please, please, please work on loving fish!))