A new round of high school seniors are sprouting all over high schools right about now including my best friend’s oldest daughter, whom I consider my first child as well. They will spend the last year at home relishing the grandeur of being top of the school food chain while surviving the bombardment of advice hurled out to them by their parents, who are still befuddled as to how it came to happen that they now have a kid about to graduate.
Of course, there is the matter of all the practical skills that need to be taught, steps necessary for a smoother transition flying solo in the real world, like balancing a checkbook or cleaning spark plugs. I realize I need to hit the books and learn the 2014 equivalent of such skills so I may successfully pass them along to my child, but, lucky for me, my oldest is entering the 10th grade so I still have a few more years to prepare.
The advice I do find imperative to offer now is this:
If you haven’t already started, learn to cook!
Oh, sorry, I’ll say it louder:
It’s what one does over there on that thing in that room you enter to grab a bag of chips or to whine to Mom about how hungry you are and when is dinner.
Don’t worry, I am test-driving this on my teenager as well.
She is very proud of her culinary tastes while bypassing the topic of her culinary skills, eagerly informing others that she despises fast food of any sort, has for years.
Some of her favorites foods are (in random order):
Sautéed foie gras
Terrine (of any kind)
Coq Au Vin
It’s easy for her to like them, I know. I’ve been serving her these dishes since she was a baby. So I remind her, she’s in for a shocker if she doesn’t learn to do this stuff, on her own, or at least, get off her computer and watch her mama make it. This stuff doesn’t come out of a box. I mean, it can, I assume, pretty much anything can nowadays. But that means it will be gross, loaded with preservatives, way too much salt, and ridiculously overpriced.
I can hear you teens out there now:
Why cook? I won’t have a kitchen in my dorm!
Eventually, you will have a kitchen. And it will scare the wajeebees out of you if you don’t know how to use it. Start bumping around in there now, with your training wheels on and perhaps a parent gently guiding you. Start small. Make pasta. Add butter. Grate cheese.
Parents, help out. This is the time you must tell your child to use fresh Parmigiano-Reggiano. Grasp your child firmly by the arms, look squarely into their eyes and announce: “You must never buy cheese in a green tube. Ever.”
They’ll thank you later.
And teens, did you know that if you boil up some farfalle pasta (Google it), add some broccoli florets, a wee bit of garlic, maybe some chopped up ham, a bit of salt and pepper and throw that all in a bowl with a drizzle of olive oil and a dab of butter you’ve got a meal that will feed an army and keep them happy? You want a happy army, trust me, you do.
And if you want to make them really happy, grate some lemon rind over that dish and mix it in. Wowza! They won’t know what hit them.
You can do it!
When I was in high school I found amongst my mother’s cookbooks one that would forever change my culinary life. It was an unpretentious book with whimsical illustrations and food combinations that dared my adolescent mind: carrot soup with orange juice? Chicken with raspberries? You’re on!
It was called The Silver Palate, by Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins, a best seller that ushered in the wave of New American cooking in the 80′s, something I was completely oblivious to as a teenager growing up in Venezuela. I did the same thing Julie Powell did with Julia Child’s recipes in her book, Julie & Julia, which later became that Hollywood blockbuster, and I cooked my way through the entire book. I mean, I didn’t have a blog to record everything in (they didn’t exist in 1987) or the chance to meet Meryl Streep, so there are a few differences.
But I cooked!
How I cooked!
There were plenty of disasters along the way. I’ve chosen to forget most of them. You will forget yours too.
An enormous amount of successes are still revered. Remember the profiterole baked in that tiny toaster oven? Remember the endless rounds of strawberry mousse? Remember how decadent the decadent chocolate cake really was? All worthy of 3 Michelin stars!
Cooking delicious food is an easy way to dazzle potential boyfriends or girlfriends, by the way. Especially starving ones strung out on greasy pizza and Starbucks.
You don’t even have to visit the stovetop for a great meal.
Salads are good.
I learned this one from my Mom, who taught it to me one quiet Sunday afternoon my senior year when there was nowhere to go and nothing to do, just the two of us together. I was the baby of the family, the last to fly the coop, so on those days, there was a certain weight to the casualness of time for both of us, like if we were walking inside a frozen photograph frame. Mom whipped up the salad in minutes, while we talked about everything and nothing at all: the math test I had miraculously passed, the cover art chosen for the yearbook, the purple flowers that had finally bloomed in the front garden.
The salad was creamy and tart, fragrant and crunchy and instantly became a favorite of ours, a moment we shared regularly over the course of that year when we both knew that June was around the corner and inevitably our lives would be changed forever.
Mom gave me a copy of The Silver Palate as a going away present. It has the prized spot on my bookshelf today and I have to open it carefully nowadays, the binding is so shot, the pages so worn from so much use. I’ve mastered new American cooking and so much more over the years and I am constantly learning new techniques and dishes. But on those rare, quiet days when my teenage daughter miraculously has nowhere else to go, it’s my mother’s curry tuna salad that I like to prepare. I’ve already showed her how to do it too. We share it, just as I did so many years ago with my mother, casually, perhaps with a bowl of soup or a slice of freshly-baked bread and some heartfelt conversation: who liked whose photograph on Instagram, what are the latest dress styles for Homecoming, when would we go bathing suit shopping. Simple life moments bound together by food.
The real reason I slow-cook a spicy, hearty beef brisket in the thick of a scorching, humid South Florida summer and not save it for a more weather-appropriate chilly day is because I’m time-pressed for love.
And we don’t have chilly days in South Florida, anyhow.
Even if you can fry an egg on the pavement outside and the weatherman is begging you to please stay cool, keep yourself hydrated, spend the day in the pool, I pull out my slow-cooker and my fieriest spices.
My husband stopped by for a visit a few days ago. Most spouses live in the same country but mine doesn’t, so, it was a rare treat to share time with him at home without the children.
That investment in summer camp is all the worthwhile when you can spend time together running errands, joking around, gazing dreamily at each other, sharing great wine, and eat amazing food without having to care for anybody else.
Yes, we still gaze dreamily at each other. Go figure.
Three days is not nearly enough time for all the meals I’d love to share with him, but, this one, a spicy, slow-cooked, chipotle, BBQ brisket, came to mind. After all, my husband has a bit of Texas in him, having lived in the Lone Star State for part of his childhood. And once that state gets in you, it’s hard-pressed to come out. I have tripped over many a pair of his misplaced cowboy boots over the years to know this is true.
I’m not even sure if this BBQ hails from Texas, actually. It is brisket, which is favored there, but, truth be told, it doesn’t really matter. Barbeque is code for telling my husband that I love him; his heart melts a bit and his eyes light up when I serve him this dish, even if we are in the middle of another scorching South Florida summer where most culinary folks are suggesting we eat salad and chilled soups. That’s when ice-cold beer comes in handy.
We march to our own drumbeat together, always have. Ours is a long and winding tale of breaking rules for the sake of love. I’ll save those stories for another day and stick to offering up this meal, which is hassle-free and outrageously delicious, leaving plenty of time for eye-gazing and holding hands.
We’ve made it to mid-July. Summer is officially full swing.
The kids are both gone, romping around the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina making memories with their sleepaway camp buddies. The husband is hard at work in Mexico, or China, or, who knows?
Which leaves me with the dog, who appears a bit confused and deflated with having me as his only option for companionship. He deals with his disappointment by upgrading his napping schedule.
I, who am programmed to carpool, to do endless rounds of laundry, to shout commands, to check homework, to check summer work (as if!), to pick up after messes, to complain about picking up after messes, to fry eggs and scramble some too (because one likes it this way and another that way and I am far too accommodating. I know, it will bite me in the butt later.)
I am stuck in a quiet, empty, neat house with a hebetudinous dog.
At first, I was quite useless, roaming from room to room, unsure of what to do with myself, with all this time. But by day two, I felt better. Much better. Found myself wondering when was the last time I could sit in my office and write, uninterrupted. Ever? And I have coached my children to be sensitive to my writing needs. There’s a big bold sign I made that reads: Working! Don’t bug me!!! My kids know they’d better be careful to go near me when that sign is up. But as trained as they are, I still have to feed them. At some point.
In mid-summer it appears my biggest responsibility as a caretaker is to make sure the dog has food and water- supply that rarely dwindles since he is busy snoozing.
With all this coveted open-ended time on my hands, you’d think I’d get right down to working on my book. After all, I’m this close to being done with the manuscript.
Instead, I’ve been going out of my way to find new digressions, because a writer, even one gloriously stripped of family-related distractions, will always find ways to procrastinate in his/her craft.
No one said editing a weighty manuscript was sexy work.
So, there’s the cheesy films I’ve put on my Apple TV Wish List that need watching.
And the neglected garden that suddenly begs tending.
Let’s not forget re-organizing closets, that’s a stellar time suck.
Of course, there’s always the kitchen. Visits there are not really distractions, but rather, a space to process whatever literary hump I’m stuck on. As I knead dough or mince garlic my mind quietly reworks the awkward phrase that has me stumped or seeks the adjective that eludes me when I’m in the office. Usually it works, by the way. And if it doesn’t, I still win: I get a tasty treat in the end.
Today’s diversion is a twist on key lime pie. Instead of using a traditional graham cracker crust, the crust is made out of saltine crackers. I learned about this pie while listening to All Things Considered on NPR.
Another benefit to my solitary status is that I get to listen to all the NPR I want.
The pie, called Atlantic Beach Pie, is a staple of the North Carolina coast. Because my kids happen to be in the same state being featured, I took it as a sign to step away from my keyboard and make the pie that instant.
Plus, I was having a heck of a time resolving Chapter 46 of my book.
This pie is perfect for writer’s block.
The first step requires crushing a whole bunch of saltine crackers, which, the recipe recommends you do with your hands.
Thoughts whirled as I crushed crackers and crumbs flew.
Maybe she learns to forgive him in the end?
Maybe she moves on?
Maybe she doesn’t, though. Not everything has a Hollywood ending.
Maybe I need to crush some more crackers.
Luckily the recipe is quick. There’s not enough time to rethink the plot.
When I was done, I had solved a few of the hiccups, I had just a few more to go. My mind was at ease and I trusted I’d soon have a fabulous, final manuscript, worthy of another round of this incredibly delicious salty, sweet, simply perfect summer pie.
(adapted from Bill Smith, Crook’s Corner, featured on NPR All Things Considered)
For the crust:
1 sleeve of saltine crackers
¾ cup softened unsalted butter
3 tablespoons sugar
For the filling:
1 can (14 ounces) sweetened condensed milk
4 egg yolks
½ cup freshly squeezed lime juice
Fresh whipped cream and coarse sea salt for garnish
For the topping:
½ cup heavy whipping cream
1 tablespoon sweetness (see below)
coarse sea salt
Preheat oven to 350°F.
Crush crackers to crumbs with your hands. Get in there and get down on it.
Add sugar, then knead in the butter until the whole thing sticks together.
Press into an 8-inch pie pan.
Pop into the freezer for 10 minutes.
Bake for 15 minutes, or until crust starts turning golden.
Meanwhile, whisk in egg yolks with the condensed milk. Add juice. Blend well.
Pour into shell (the shell can be warm) and bake for 15 minutes.
Make the topping:
Beat ½ cup of heavy whipping cream until it forms soft peaks. Oh, I know what you’re thinking:“Why can’t I just use that canned thing from the supermarket with the pretty picture and the cool spray doohicky?” Because this is so much better, trust me. So, buckle down and beat it, it’s two minutes of your life and you’ll be happy you did it.
Add a wee bit of confectioner’s sugar to the cream, if you’ve got it around, say, a tablespoon or so. If not, regular sugar will do. Or a drizzle of agave. Or maple. Oooh, maple!
Once that’s all stiff upper lip, spread it on top of your pie. It doesn’t have to look all perfect. Scratch that. It shouldn’t look all perfect. We’re going with messy here. Think rough draft. Sprinkle with coarse sea salt- if you’ve got funky sea salt, like that grey Turkish pyramid stuff, that works great and is a visual conversation starter: “Hey, what are those grey specks on the pie? Is that on purpose?” “Why yes, it’s Turkish pyramid sea salt.” Well, you get the picture. The conversation can go anywhere from there. If you want to converse. Maybe you just want to eat pie, because this pie is amazing. If that’s the case, perhaps pick a white sea salt, or, go with the grey and slice and serve quickly. No nonsense like. Your call.
I’m home with my homebody kid, which is very different from being home with my can’t-stay-in-this-house-for-one-more-second kid.
Homebody kid owns being home.
Takes it up to an art form, crowns it with its own capital letter.
I am a homebody in my own right, but this kid leaves me in the dust.
And it’s not like the kid rots in front of the television set or loses himself inside PS4’s latest Call of Duty, no.
It’s a very balanced, orchestrated series of events that take place when at Home. There’s down time watching quirky comedies (Napoleon Dynamite jokes never cease to be funny), some rough-housing with the dog, lots of outdoor play, a bit more computer, a smidgeon of time spent reviewing the teenage methodology of Hanging Out In The One’s Room, then outdoor play again, dog, perhaps pool, a movie with Mom on the big screen TV, until, somehow, before you know it, that day is through.
In between activities I manage to feed him a very healthy array of things: cheese, eggs, sliced cucumbers, frozen raspberries, grilled salmon, broccoli, and lots of smoothies with colorful straws. These are all his requests. (No, you cannot adopt him.) To junk it up a bit we throw in Oreo milkshakes with extra Oreos.
Leaving the house takes negotiation. I coerce him to go somewhere at least one time a day. Even for the most mundane activities. Yesterday we went to Target. I needed socks and a few other humdrum things. We spent the bulk of our visit fighting each other with oversized Turtle Ninja swords found on aisle 10, then hopped over to aisle 13 for a hula-hoop competition. Shockingly, I won! That was the most fun I’ve ever had buying socks.
I get asked often what we are doing all day long, what activity my son is enrolled in, what’s the schedule like. When I reply we are doing absolutely nothing there are uncomfortable pauses. People aren’t sure what to make out of nothing. Everybody’s kid is enrolled in something. Even my husband sounds a tad worried when he calls in to check on us from whatever worldly destination his work takes him to. “You don’t want to do something with him? Go somewhere?” He asks, concerned that my schedule-less reply must be a problem. Now would be the time to tell you that my can’t-stay-in-this-house-for-one-more-second kid is just like her daddy.
Soon my son will be off to sleep away camp to join his sister where he will be hit with a plethora of activities, a full and complete schedule that will have everyone else breathing a sigh of relief. He will leave Home eagerly, willingly: he loves his time at camp. But I will miss him and the permission he gives me to spend a few unencumbered weeks together, where we just let days drift into each other, stop and enjoy the back yard or the way a lizard is sunbathing on a leaf, or the joys of playing tug of war with an over-enthusiastic golden retriever.
When I was a little girl growing up in Venezuela, I was infected with the fútbol craze. I know most Americans don’t get too nutty around soccer once it graduates from shuffling fifth-graders to after school practice in minivans and turns into proper fútbol (although that is slowly changing) but when the World Cup comes around every four years, the rest of the world stops to watch. Not that Venezuelans have any claim on fútbol; their sport is baseball and they master it well. But in the summer of 1978 all eyes, at least a tiny set of Abbady eyes, were on that final World Cup match between the Netherlands and Argentina. I remember rooting aggressively for the Netherlands. I was seven, so, I’m not sure how such a strong loyalty had formed at such a young age.
I had no affiliation of any kind with the Netherlands.
If anything, I should have been cheering Argentina, whom I knew invented those succulent blood sausages I’d enjoy regularly at my family’s favorite steakhouse in Caracas.
Maybe one of my sisters was set on Argentina winning and so the Netherlands became my pick.
We had a small, sunny room off the side of our one-story house that was crowded by the bulky Zenith television and a worn buckskin leather couch where I’d sit, along with my mother and my two sisters, and jump and cheer and feel hope and despair and hope again as the sportscasters howled their timeless chant: “Gooooooooooooooooool!”
It’s intoxicating to remember your first bout with futbolmanía.
By the way, the Netherlands lost.
So I should remember that feeling, which, nobody likes.
But I don’t.
I remember feeling elated, joyful, entranced!
I remember shouting at that Zenith as if it were an irresponsible younger sibling crossing the road without holding my hand.
“No! Stop! Don’t do that! You’re not going to …wait!”
And then directing the players as if I were the coach on the sidelines.
“Pass it to him! Go! Go! Go! Run!”
At least I think that’s what I said. It’s hard to remember accurately when there’s a room of girls shouting.
Fútbol returned to my life this month with the 2014 World Cup Brazil and I’m still shouting at the television.
This year my son is watching with me.
Not because he is particularly a fan of the sport, but, because he gets front row seats to watching his mother unravel into a crazy, screaming, lunatic. He’s hoping I may throw something at the television. He’s also grateful for the World Cup because it means all Social Norms of Proper Behavior in the Martinez household are temporarily on pause.
This includes eating at the table.
The dinner table is way too far from the television and thus guilty of committing an egregious infraction worthy of its own red card. Plus, eating at the table feels too orderly and civilized and we’ll have none of that during matches of fútbol.
Meals have become quick and easy to transport- preferably one-stop dishes that work in bowls or are okay to eat with fingers. Nothing too distracting or requiring too much eye-hand coordination as the eyes must be on the television screen. Trout is out.
The next match’s meal will showcase Chili.
Perhaps in tribute to team USA, which is still a contender in the World Cup even after yesterday’s loss to Germany. Considering they were nowhere to be found when I became a hard core fútbol fan in ’78, I figure I’ve got a lot of cheering to catch up on for them. Chili also offers up the best of World Cup chow because it is a tasty, quick, and fire-hot dish I can make in between games and have ready to scoop up into bowls when that first whistle is blown.
It goes great with tortilla chips too.
Some crumble them into the bowl first, maybe add steaming white rice, then scoop on the chili and all the other fixings. Some use those little scoop chips and do Martha Stewart-Style Chili Bites, complete with toppings (this is great for the more restless, un-interested family member forced to watch the game.) Others (and I won’t name any names) occasionally toss them at the television and reprimand, like one would to an irresponsible, younger sibling: “No! No! Why did you do that?! No!”
Heat olive oil in large skillet or small soup pot, add onions and garlic and cook until tender, about 5 minutes.
Add meat and cook over medium-high head until brown.
Stir in tomato paste, cumin, oregano, chili powder, mustard and salt. Saute until fragrant, 3 minutes.
Add wine and canned tomatoes and simmer for 5 minutes.
Add remaining ingredients, correct seasoning, and simmer gently for 10 minutes.
To make Martha Stewart-Style Chili Bites: Pick your most bored family member to assemble- a scoop of chili, then some fixings (see below), then neatly arrange these on a plate to be thoughtlessly gobbled in seconds by the fútbol obsessed members of your clan.
Fixings may include: sour cream, shredded cheese, scallions, jalapeños, and avocado.