When I hugged Sara Liss hello, I felt how soft her cropped fur coat was. It lay casually draped over her narrow shoulders, a precisely placed detail that came across as a forgotten afterthought. It’s going to be another great evening with the Saffron Supper Club, is what I thought.
Sara and Maude Eaton, the culinary dynamo behind The Saffron Supper Club, the roving pop-up dinner club with a Middle Eastern twist, have food lovers with a soft spot for all things Persian smitten. It’s not just the locations they thoughtfully choose for their fantastic food gatherings that make the night dazzle, it’s the cultural flair they add that has everyone coming back.
Take last night, for example, at Chef Daniel Boulud’s recently opened Miami outpost, Boulud Sud. If you haven’t been yet, goodness, go! The place is amazing, with carefully crafted dishes like yellowfin tuna crudo served with lemon confit, fresh herbs, and pine nuts or arroz bomba with sepia, chorizo, and Valencia saffron rice. Under the helm of the Saffron Supper Club, Sara and Maude have a way of making the celebrated chef’s latest eatery even more memorable. Its space grows immediately intimate, despite it being the supper club’s largest gathering yet, as Sara reads excerpts from Daniel Boulud’s best-selling book, Letter’s To A Young Chef. Maude entertains and prepares diners with lively quotes pertinent to the experience guests are about to embrace.
It’s quite a food journey one embarks on attending The Saffron Supper Club events, and, for $65, it’s easy to say, a steal as well. Last night’s began at the stylish bar, where guests were offered a choice of bubbly or a Mediterranean martini. I like champagne as much as the next gal, but when there’s a pretty pink cocktail served in a martini glass, I’m in. The drink was exquisite: made with fresh lime juice and Q Grapefruit, a grapefruit soda that is, for once, not cloyingly sweet. Apparently there were appetizers passed around too: barbajuans, Monaco’s equivalent to a fried samosa, stuffed with short rib, swiss chard, and parmesan, agnolotti with pumpkin, ricotta salata, and guanciale, and chickpea croquettes. Thanks to the infamously congested I-95, I missed that.
By the way, this could be a lovely evening. Just this: a night at the bar, with soft lighting, a peek at Brazilian artist’s Vik Munoz colorful collage art, surrounded by elegant and global folk who’ll geek out over a good tabouli.
But luckily for me, there’s more to come.
We are seated in the main dining area. What used to be Boulud’s db Moderne space has been completely changed, not only in menu but in its appearance as well. The place is bright, airy, and minimalist, with light hues contrasted by a fun Morroccan-inspired tile floor. But who’s looking down when food begins to arrive in droves? Mezze, which included spicy Moroccan hummus, babaganoush, muhammara (Aleppan hot pepper dip), and tzatziki come first. A waiter quietly places a rectangular board of lamb flatbread. It comes dotted with roasted eggplant and yogurt with pomegranate seeds sprinkled like sparkling rubies on top.
Lamb flatbread with eggplant, pine nuts, and yogurt.
Wines were offered courtesy of Zonin, Italian winemakers with nine wineries throughout Italy, beginning in the north and heading all the way to Sicily in the south. It was plentiful and quite impressive, and I enjoyed using my newly-achieved sommelier skills from the WSET Level 1 class I graduated from just the day before (remember, aerate the wine in your mouth!)
Masseria Altemura, Primitivo Salento
But truly, there is a reason food-lovers bow down to the great chef Daniel Boulud time and time again. Here, under the careful stewardship of executive chef Clark Bowen, Mediterranean magic happens as each dish presented hit the mark.
Boulud Sud’s mastery of fish.
There was a seared mediterranean branzino, cooked to perfection, that was absolutely divine, followed by chicken tagine that arrived in its namesake earthenware pot.
Chicken tagine with couscous, cauliflower, and turnips.
Sides included cauliflower tabbouleh made with za’atar, mint, and fig as well as patatas bravas coated in thick smoked red pepper sauce that I am doomed to crave from now on.
…and then, dessert.
Yes there was dessert.
Yes I made room.
Because those who know me know I will always make room.
Apple chiboust with mastic gum ice cream.
Saeko Nemoto is the humble executive pastry chef producing some sweet home runs. When I was a little girl visiting my Aunt Miriam on Rehov Rambam in Jerusalem, she’d pull out a few shekels from her change purse and hand them to my sister and together we’d run to the corner kiosk to buy some mastic. It was a glorious five minutes of independence we’d relish, always awarded by a pack or two of our favorite gum. Boulud Sud almost topped that memory (almost, sis, almost) when I was presented with his apple chiboust served with, what else but mastic gum ice cream!
Turns out chocolate, coffee, and architecture go very well.
An architectural coffee and chocolate cube arrived, looking too pretty to eat (I got over that) as well as a Sicilian cassata, and, true to any Mediterranean feast, a plateful of baklava.
Throughout the evening Sara and Maude greeted their guests as a festive, communal, and intimate culinary atmosphere filled the entire restaurant. The irritation from the bumper-to-bumper hour-plus long ride south was a faint memory now. People are full and happy, but already anticipating the club’s gathering next month. “At the Besty” Sara confirms, revealing no more information than that. Details are secondary at this point, eventually Saffron Supper Club enthusiasts will find out. There will be exquisite food, drink, and engaging company. That’s the one hard fact guests can count on right now.
Preparing dinner can present itself as a challenge with kids bearing opposing tastes, as, you guessed it, what one loves the other tends to hate. Now that the Girl is away at college, (okay, a 45-minute drive from home) her arrival home for the occasional weekend presents itself as a full-blown celebration, which, of course, includes at least one home cooked favorite.
The Boy, cursed with three more years of high school, may curl a lip.
“Steak!” the Girl may inevitably proclaim, when asked what dish she’d like me to pamper her with.
“Steak?” Is the rebuttal coming from the other side of the room. “I don’t like meat,” may come next.
(Please note that “meat” excludes bacon in any format, cheeseburgers, and spaghetti bolognese.)
“With pepper!”, college girl will proceed, now fueled by her little brother’s protest.
“Moooooooom! Too spicy! No mom!” The response immediately bounces back.
I’m the net in the middle of a tennis match between Roger Federer and [insert whomever Roger is beating at the moment.]
“Guys, guys, come on!” I may squeal, though Switzerland is always overheard.
“FISH!” Boy will announce, just to get the mood going. He knows what comes next.
You may not.
So allow me to tell you something:
GIRL HATES FISH.
(Please note that “fish” excludes any type of sushi, especially the super duper expensive sushi rolls with foie gras, black truffles, and Beluga caviar.)
“Fiiiiiiiiiiiiiish?????” she squeals, biting the bait. “I haaaaaate fish! MOOOOM!!!!!”
It always comes down to this: Mom.
Both look at me then and there. It’s match point. Who will win?
Really, boy has a little grin, the kind only moms can see in their children. That little grin speaks volumes. It speaks of a brother just messing with his sister, because perhaps, only perhaps (because I don’t want to put words in anyone’s mouths) he missed her a teensy bit. Especially this part. The part where he teases and taunts her and pokes her buttons the way he only knows how.
It’s a quick moment of eye exchanges over at this family Wimbledon match. The girl’s look softens. I watch her and still wonder how this girl, whom I remember walking around with a baguette that was practically her size, is now in college flourishing into a young adult.
“It’s okay, Mom, make something everyone wants,” she manages to say, just barely, but does. Her brother, on cue, joins with “I don’t really care. Steak is just fine.”
I make the steak, because, quite frankly, I am the one in charge. I add the peppercorns, rubbing them well into the meat before searing it in a hot cast iron pan. For good measure I’ll throw in a good old-fashion Cognac cream sauce, because that goes deliriously well with a rare ribeye. Everyone eats it, quietly, which is how you know you’ve won the match.
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.
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.
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.
This is not how I wanted you to learn of Amatrice. No. Not this way. Not this footage of distraught relatives, of broken families. Of rubble. Of desperation. Of so many lost lives.
I want you to learn of the Amatrice I first discovered as a recent college graduate in 1992, the Amatrice that greeted a young, curious foodie exploring the culinary treasures nestled in the smallest Italian towns.
“Where to next?” my traveling partner had asked, and I had replied, “Amatrice,” with my finger set on the tiny spot half-way down our weathered Italian map.
The earthquake that hit Italy on August 24, 2016 destroyed most of the town I visited almost twenty-five years ago. “Amatrice is not here anymore,” the mayor was quoted as saying in response to the earthquake that registered a 6.2 magnitude. I, like the rest of the world, stopped at the gravity of those words, wondering, how can an entire town be gone, just like that?
My partner did not know of this town, I could tell by the confused look he gave me as my finger froze over a web of lines and names. But he could tell from my smile that I did. Because even back then, in an era before Tripadvisor or Yelp or Google, I did my research of where to eat what, when. I did this recognizance old school- namely scouring through a dog-eared copy of The Lonely Planet and by asking as many locals as I could in broken Italian (courtesy of my 9th grade language teacher, Signora DiLeo) :
“Dove è il posto migliore per mangiare?” Where is the best place to eat?
The failproof source to ask were old men sitting at the piazza, chatting and chain smoking. Every town had them. They’d glow at the opportunity to dazzle a pretty young Americana and would always steer me well.
“Amatrice! Amatrice!”, these chosen men had answered in unison, their face falling a bit when they noticed The Boyfriend staring protectively by the fontana over there. But they had all been young once and surely in love, and of course, still knew how to eat well, so they nodded in approval at him and continued, “Prove la pasta!”
They were right. Spaghetti all’amatriciana is a delight and, as it turns out, quite simple to make.
Guanciale (pork jowl), is one of the local ingredients used in this dish. It is hard to come by here in the States, but pancetta serves as a worthy replacement. Bucatini, also known as perciatelli, is a thicker spaghetti with a hole running through it, and is the pasta traditionally used. The long strand is perfect for absorbing the rich, smoky flavors of sun and meat.
This is what I remember of Amatrice. This splendid meal I had on a bright sunny day, amongst friendly, kind people with the man I most loved and still most love today. It is simple, pure comfort food, what one is craving in sadness and happiness as well.