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.
The best charoset is made by a Catholic woman who crosses herself instinctively when she passes by any church. Because you just never know. Growing up with the stern assurance that God is always watching has a way of sticking to your psyche.
This woman knows what it takes to make the celebratory sweet dish enjoyed by millions of Jews on this important holiday commemorating the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. The holiday is one filled with rituals and symbolic foods and charoset, a sticky combination of dried fruit, apples, and matzoh, takes center stage in representing the mortar used by the slaves in Egypt.
She knows this, and has the patience and precision to, not just chop the apples, dates, and dried figs that go into the dish, but to mince them with microscopic, surgical precision, and, although not a mathematician by trade, she astutely calculates the proportions of dry ingredients with wet, incorporating the crispy matzoh with the cloying Manischewitz wine to produce the perfect blend of crunch with mush, tart with sweet. The end result has flavors of Biblical proportions.
Moses would be impressed.
I’ve actually never had her original charoset. I’ve sampled, through the years, her son’s, who is the man I married twenty years ago. He comes from a long, enduring line of devout Latin Catholics that was interrupted by the inquisitorial mind of one man who was studying to become a priest, and, unfulfilled by the answers he received from them, converted to Judaism.
This man went on to marry that woman, the charoset woman, whom must have loved him very much, because she, too, came from an extensive line of Catholics, and yet, together they built, not only an almost-completely Jewish home, but a Zionist home, sending all three of their sons to study in Israel. The youngest of these, the one I married, went on to stay there, living on a kibbutz and becoming an Officer in the Israeli Army.
Theirs was a life filled with colorful contradictions; the yin-yang of an enduring marriage woven from a kaleidoscope of beliefs and traditions that shines brightly in this family’s lexicon. The charoset my mother-in-law learned to make could easily represent the glue that bound them together, allowing each member the opportunity to explore, not only their religious identity, but their curiosity for the world, explaining why they ended up living in Mexico, Africa, Germany, Israel and the United States.
My mother-in-law lives meagerly in a small apartment in her hometown of Barquisimeto, Venezuela. Her children have long moved away and her husband, my father-in-law, passed away many years ago. She no longer feels the need to orchestrate an entire Passover meal. Which is why I am even more grateful she appeased that youngest son of hers, the one who was born inquisitive like his father, the one that grew up to become my husband, and showed him the culinary secret of a Catholic woman, who for the sake of her family and the importance of tradition, helped build an enduring and loving Jewish home. One charoset spoonful at a time.
10 ounces (1 2/3 cups) dried figs, diced very fine
12 ounces (2 cups) dried dates, preferably Majul, diced very fine
1 large Granny Smith apple, peeled and diced very fine
3 sheets matzoh
1 ¼ cups kosher sweet red Concord grape Manischewitz wine
In a bowl, combine figs, dates, and apple. Mix well. With your hands, crumble matzoh into the fruit mixture. Mix well. Add half the wine and blend with your hands. Add remaining wine and blend. Refrigerate until serving time.
Makes about 4 cups.
*Note: make this as close to time as consumption as possible, otherwise the matzoh will look its crunch!
The first person I met who wore bright, short silk scarves tied tightly around her tan neck was Signora DiLeo. She also pulled off elegant button-down blouses with jeans and loafers flawlessly. It was back in the 80’s, when I was a teenager trying hard to navigate through the many ridiculous messages thrown my way about beauty. Aside from big hair and bigger shoulder pads, that included electric blue mascara, Sassoon jeans (worn two sizes too small), and miniskirts, the shorter the better. When I walked into my 6th period class of Italiano 1, however, and saw Signora DiLeo’s effortless elegance and class, I knew everything Seventeen Magazine was screaming at me to do was wrong.
Signora DiLeo’s room was in the farthest corner of the second floor of my high school’s sprawled out campus, away from the main traffic of noise: girls crying over latest heartbreaks, boys playing basketball well past break time, teachers exchanging pleasantries on their way to the copy room. We heard none of that in her hidden alcove. We were privy only to Signora DiLeo’s singsong voice as she conjugated verbs.
Eventually, we arrived at the verb “eat” and Signora DiLeo’s friendly hazel eyes brightened.
“Questa settimana impareremo sui cibi italiani!” She announced, her words gliding quickly and comfortably in her native tongue.
“To eat: mangiare!” She proclaimed, gesticulating with her slender hand.
We all understood this much Italian and even the boys in the back, the ones that were always joking around and being disruptive, suddenly grew attentive at the subject of food, which really sounds quite beautiful in Italian.
For that week we learned to conjugate the verb “to eat”:
Lui, lei mangia
We learned how to order food in Italian: antipasto, primo, secondi, and of course, dolce. We learned about pasta: agnolotti , bucatini, conchiglie, and pappardelle, to name a few. When we were delirious and dumbfounded by those options, we learned about the sauces: arrabiata, bolognese, burro e salvia, fra diavolo, marinara, ragú, puttanesca.
“And then, of course, there’s pomodoro, tomato sauce,” Signora DiLeo whispered. “The best sauce. Simple.”
She raised her chin and closed her eyes for a second, falling back into a happy memory that I assumed included this sauce.
“Tomato, onion, garlic, olive oil, a pinch of salt, a pinch of sugar, and of course, time,” she told us, her eyes still closed. “È davvero così semplice. Le cose migliori della vita sono le cose più semplici. The best things in life are the most simple things.”
She translated the last part, for good measure. This was a lesson she didn’t want us to miss.
When Friday came around, we got a taste of Signora DiLeo’s cooking as well as her wisdom. The hallway leading to her room was enveloped in a luring scent of onions and garlic simmering in olive oil, making the whole school wish they had signed up for Italianio 1. Signora DiLeo stood in the front of the classroom, her stylish outfit covered up by a spotless white apron with the Italian flag flanked across the front and, just to hone in on the point, the proclamation, Italia!, scrawled underneath it in vibrant red. She was stirring sizzling onions over a portable burner that had magically appeared in the front of her room.
Signora DiLeo explained the steps involved on how to make the easiest of all Italian culinary treasures: salsa di pomodoro, pronouncing each ingredient carefully as she added it: olio d’oliva, cipolla, aglio, pomodoro, una presa di sale , una presa di zucchero.
When she was done, she pulled out bowls that she filled with spaghetti and ladled up pomodoro sauce for us to eat. I’m not sure where or how she made spaghetti, but I do remember the sauce. The sauce was memorable. The sauce was magic. The sauce was elegant, classy, and sophisticated, just like Signora DiLeo.
1 28-ounce can of tomatoes (if you find San Marzano tomatoes, use those!)
½ teaspoon sugar
salt, to taste
In a medium saucepan, heat up olive oil and sauté onions and garlic over medium-low heat, stirring every so often for 10-15 minutes. The onions should get a caramelized look to them.
Add remaining ingredients, raise heat to bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low and cook, partially covered, for 45 minutes-1 hour, stirring once in a while, crushing up tomatoes with back of a wooden spoon.
When sauce is done, you can add fresh basil (3-4 leaves, torn) and/or ¼ cup heavy cream.