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.
PLANTATION- Between 7 and 8 o’clock on the night of January 27, 2015, a local teenager was spotted eating large quantities of fresh vegetables.
A number of witnesses said that many of the veggies seemed to come from the food category said teenager has adamantly rejected her whole life.
“It’s like I don’t even know her,” her stunned younger brother announced.
The parents of the teen were also flabbergasted.
“It was astonishing, and a little bit frightening,” the mother, Alona Martinez, said. “A lifetime of begging her to eat vegetables with no luck and now, in one sitting, she enjoys them all!”
The teen’s father was not in Plantation at the time of the event as he was busy traveling around Asia for work, but he managed to send in a message on WhatsApp upon hearing the news.
“I’m so proud of my little girl. I knew she had it in her!”
Food experts suggest such voracious and uncharacteristic enthusiasm towards cabbage, zucchini, carrots and green beans can only be attributed to the irresistible format in which they were prepared: a heavenly rendition of minestrone soup.
Close monitoring suggests that children apprehensive to eating plain vegetables may reconsider their stance when such food items are simmered in a hearty beef broth and sprinkled with fresh Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. The ditalini pasta doesn’t hurt, either, experts concur.
“I’m a chef and a mom,” a local Plantation resident who prefers to remain anonymous (because she may or may not be the teen’s mother) stated, “and I’ve never seen such an impressive turnaround in attitude towards vegetables. That’s one miracle minestrone!”
The teenager doesn’t see her newfound love of veggies as anything newsworthy. She took a few seconds out of her busy texting schedule to share her succinct assessment of the situation:
“Finally, Mom made vegetables taste good.”
When asked if she had anything else to say, she smiled and returned her attention to her buzzing phone, but first, she added:
There are many wonderful things about having family members live in Germany.
There’s the traveling to Germany part (thanking hubby for his zillions of frequent flyer miles.)
There’s the adventure of a new language (I really didn’t get past “nein,” sorry!)
There’s the instant bonding cousins who’ve never met have while careening down snow-coated hills.
There’s the snow-coated hills. We hail from Venezuela and South Florida, this, and any other winter-related activity (including scraping ice off car windshields) spawns enthusiasm/excitement.
And then there are the waffles.
Waffles are hard-core Christmas street food in Germany. They sort of became a thing there in the 18th Century. I know Belgium has an international reputation as waffle masters, but, believe me, the Germans know what they are doing with their waffles, and it doesn’t matter if there is a blizzard, ice, or below freezing temperatures, waffle stands are out there making waffles non-stop. If they pour waffle batter, they will [and do] come!
My children (and my first child, my husband) can’t resist anything chocolate, so they got their waffles bathed in chocolate syrup. I am more of a traditionalist when it comes to Sandwaffeln, which, unlike American waffles, are enjoyed in Germany for Kaffeetrinkin (afternoon cake and coffee), so I got mine with just a light sprinkling of powdered sugar. I also passed on the coffee and headed straight for another German winter favorite: glühwein, a hot brew of spices, sugar, citrus, wine, and booze served in a festive mug designed just for that year.
Either way works wonders for the soul, especially a very weather-wimpy tropical soul who was instantly revitalized sitting on a frozen German bench, gobbling warm dough while alternating with sips of hot mulled wine.