What do you do when you travel 27 hours to get someplace?
You eat, of course…you eat!
There’s other prerequisite things one must do. There’s showering… that’s always good. There’s sleeping on a bed- something most of us take for granted until we become weary travelers emerging from two nights spent cramped on ever-narrowing airplane seats. And then there’s the food issue.
Food is my mandatory favorite thing to set straight after a long trip.
My family recently traveled to Johannesburg, South Africa from Miami, Florida.
That’s a long-ass haul that required hours of shoving whatever oversalted snacks you brought to sustain you.
The other option, of course, was eating grey rubbery puffs on plastic trays that the airline referred to as “eggs” or “chicken” or “beef,” depending on the hour. Can they legally do that?
Yes, landing on terra firma required setting the food situation straight.
I’m talking about a home-cooked, delectable, sit-at-the-table meal. Something that doesn’t entail counting the freckles on the bald head of the inconsiderate bum in front of you who has decided to recline his chair all the way onto your lap for the next nine and a half hours.
Let me get finicky and tell you that it helps if you cook said meal with one of your best friends, like I did. You know, a forever friend. The kind you exchanged Hello Kitty stickers with on the school playground in 1978. Now you exchange shoes, parenting advice, and recipes.
It also helps if said best friend has an industrially-equipped kitchen the size of your living room.
My friend has been tempting me to come visit her in Johannesburg since she moved there two years ago and I finally understand why.
It was not because I’d love it there (I did.)
Nor because Johannesburg’s lush landscape would remind me of where we grew up in Caracas, Venezuela. (It does.)
Or even because I must meet her smiley baby girl, whom I’d instantly adore (I do.)
It was because of her kitchen.
“Good God Alona when you see this kitchen you will never want to leave,” my friend promised.
I’d been hearing about all the comforts of life in South Africa, but the most loudly spoken comfort of all was this kitchen.
Forever friends know the straight route to my heart.
South Africa is magnificent.
Sofia, my friend’s 17-month old blonde cherub, is delightful.
But the kitchen, the kitchen is indeed glorious.
It boasts every possible professional appliance a chef could ever dream of.
I have to emphasize this, you see. As a person obsessed with food, I can’t help myself.
Industrial gas range, mammoth hood, open flame grill, food warmer, food steamer, and three ovens.
But wait! There’s more! Off to one corner is a wood-burning pizza oven.
Off to the other corner, just to balance things out, is a walk-in cooling unit. With two rooms! In between lie three endless counter tops of cool marble, perfect for kneading, shaping, stirring, chopping, or sifting anything.
My friend’s kitchen most certainly had me at hello.
I wanted to chain myself to this kitchen and never leave it.
But of course, I had the country of South Africa to visit.
The baby to play with.
The gossip to catch up on.
Luckily, my friend had my itinerary all set up, and first and foremost on her list was cooking a meal together in her kitchen.
That first night we chatted, sipped a crisp local chardonnay and chopped onions while our husbands sliced and simmered the meat. In my kitchen, one’s a crowd, but in this one, we all had our own zip code.
Appliances crooned and food sizzled.
Nuts were blended.
Thyme was picked from the extensive herb garden (off of the main garden boasting the pool, jungle gym, and tennis court.)
You can see why my friend insisted I come.
We sat down to our first dinner in South Africa: a Spanish dish of slow-cooked pork shoulder served in an almond cream sauce.
We caught up with each other’s lives and laughed and watched Sofia sleep on the baby monitor as intensely as if we were watching the championship game of March Madness. My husband was astounded at how thin those things have gotten since our own kids were babies. I squeezed his hand and smiled at him, for all the baby milestones we’ve long passed as parents of a high schooler and a middle schooler and then I raised my glass and toasted my friend for the unpredictable journey of parenthood that awaits her.
The kitchen watched and waited quietly nearby. Breakfast would be our next rendezvous.
There were many South African moments I enjoyed during my stay. Safari adventures where I was surrounded by a herd of wild elephants and hungrily scoped out by lions, beach excursions where I rolled down gigantic sand dunes and ducked surfer waves in the Indian Ocean. I relish them all. But the simple pleasure of preparing a meal with one of my closest friends in her gourmet kitchen as her baby daughter waddled around us and my own teenage girl took her one hundredth South African selfie nearby sits comfortably in my mind as a moment, now that I am back home, I replay over and over again.
Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a large flameproof casserole dish. Add the whole garlic and the slices of bread and fry over a medium-high heat for 2 minutes, turning once, until golden brown. Lift out and leave to drain and cool.
Cut the pork across into 1” slices and then into 2” chunks. You want them to be quite large.
Season the pieces of pork well, then dust in the flour. Add another 2 tablespoons of oil to the pan and, when hot, add the pieces of meat and fry briefly until lightly golden.
Remove to a plate and set to one side.
Add the remaining tablespoon of oil to the pan with the onion, chopped garlic, Spanish paprika, thyme and bay leaves and cook gently for about 10 minutes until the onions are soft and translucent.
Add the wine and stock and bring to the boil, rubbing the base of the pan to release any bits and pieces.
Return the pork to the pan, lower the heat, and season with some salt and pepper.
Cover and simmer gently for 1½ hours or until the meat is tender.
Spoon about ½ cup of the sauce into a blender, add the fried bread, garlic cloves, almonds and parsley leaves and blend to a smooth paste.
Add to meat and stir. Simmer for 5 minutes until blended.
My daughter insisted I become socially active. After all, it’s 2014 (her words, not mine.) Luckily for me it is 2014, where there are plenty acceptable, almost mandatory, paths for social shortcuts. This seemed like wonderful stuff for an introverted writer who spends excessive amounts of the day in front of a computer, until I understood the extent of work required to upkeep one’s social network.
My daughter offered to teach me, insisting it would be okay.
“Trust me, you can handle it,” she commanded. Wearily, I agreed, stepping beyond the boundaries of Facebook and into the Wild West of Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and even Tumblr, gently guided and instructed by my teenage daughter, who is extremely forgiving to my crusty old mind.
“Mom, you should really ask your successful Hollywood friend to send you a shout out,” she assessed one morning as she did her daily spot-check on the multiple social sites she had set up for me. Her fingers tapped away at my iPhone and her voice carried the professionalism of a seasoned Head Hunter.
“He has to tell me to shut up?” I queried, anxious. Had I pissed Thomas off lately?
“Shout OUT, Mom. It’s when they promote you on their Twitter account.” She is too good-natured to roll her eyes at me.
“Ah,” I mumble, making a mental note to ask to be shouted at.
I am grateful for my daughter’s guidance. The day feels squeezed already trying to manage my limited time writing The Great American Novel, raising children, baking bread, and the other precious events that cannot be put on hold, like dying that stubborn white out of my hair.
Now I have to shine with snazzy pictures, clever phrases, and pound signs?
The hair will have to wait.
“You need to put your food out there,” my daughter informs me. “Promote your site.” This seems obvious enough for her, but she is smart and sensitive and comprehends the challenge such a concept poses for me. After all, I am the only human being she knows who still reads an actual newspaper each day.
“Start with lunch today,” she instructs as she hands me my phone and steps out of the car. I watch her curls bounce away as she enters her school and vow to not let her down. After all, doesn’t she have Personal Branding first period?
For lunch I prepare turkey-cilantro sliders. The pale, lean ground turkey had been taunting me in the refrigerator, doubting my skill to make its fat-free pallid presence into something memorable. It would have been easier to grab the slabs of porterhouse steak to its left: a dash of salt and pepper and a hot grill and voilà! Or transform the porcinis perched on the last shelf into garlicky slivers sparkling with olive oil, minced onion and a squeeze of fresh lime. If I’d introduce some Arborio rice, steamy chicken broth and a sloppy dash of white wine I could promote the whole experience to a creamy mushroom risotto. The trick is to tease that risotto, just a half a cup of liquid at a go, and sturdy, patient, stirring. Of course, I’d add freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano towards the end. It’s a marvelous, nutty wonder, a simple remedy that eludes many home cooks.
Yes, these would have been clean, quick victories, but I had my daughter on my mind. I wanted to make her proud, and I knew the quickest way to her heart would be with a juicy slider.
I went to work sautéing some shallots. Shallots are usually sold in a plastic mesh bags next to your garlic and regular onions. Perhaps you’ve passed them a zillion times and not noticed.
Grab a bag and toss it in the lower drawer of your fridge.
They are like onions, but with a mellower, almost buttery flavor, another culinary treasure passed up by many home cooks.
I diced my shallots really fine and plopped them onto a heated skillet with a drizzle of olive oil. Then along came the garlic. I sautéed them until they were transparent in color, a minute or two.
I placed the ground turkey into a medium-sized mixing bowl and went to town adding the usual suspects for sliders: a raw egg, fresh breadcrumbs, salt, pepper, oregano, and the onion/garlic mix I had just made. A half a cup of grated Parmigiano Reggiano would grace this dish as well.
A quick trip to my garden brought back some snipped basil leaves and cilantro, which I minced and threw in. A wave of spicy freshness made me smile and feel grateful for my garden and the sun on my face.
Now for some condiments: a squeeze of Ketchup, a scoop of tomato paste, and a spoonful of coarse-grain mustard, simply because I couldn’t find the Grey Poupon.
At this point my wedding band and that other funky ring I got in the art show in Buenos Aires came off. I knew what I was about to do would get messy.
The dog stared.
He hoped I would drop a clump of meat.
But I didn’t.
I worked quickly and thoroughly, using my hands to blend all the flavors together and form tiny little balls, two inches in diameter. As I did, I put the skillet to heat on medium-high.
The dog was persistent. Hopeful.
He stayed, resigned to the fact that I wasn’t giving any samples, and just kept me company.
The sliders went on the grill with a happy sizzle. A few minutes on each side and they were done. I set one up real nice, on a warmed bun, nestled amongst a bounty of lettuce, fresh-sliced tomatoes, pickles, onions and jalapeños. Mayo and mustard and ketchup went in as well.
I found my prettiest placemat and positioned the meal just so, taking the photograph as the sun shone graciously on my creation, making it twinkle.
It was time to think of something hip and snazzy to say. But wait, did this have to be 140 characters? Was that rule for Instagram or Twitter? I was overcome with a wave of confusion as I struggled with my social media ineptitude. I longed for my daughter’s fast-tapping fingers to readily snatch the phone from me followed by her calming, controlling voice that sighs on automatic, “here Mom, let me do it.”
But she was in Biology now and I would have to fend for myself.
epic sliders @alonamartinez #lunch, #sliders, #turkey, #no filter, #tap tap
I couldn’t remember most of the vital tips my daughter had shared with me during my crash course in Social Media. I certainly had forgotten all the hip language to use. I did remember that hashtag was something powerfully important, so I went to town with that. Then I posted it on every site she had opened for me, just to be safe and sat down with my newspaper for a quiet and quite delicious lunch, grateful for both my daughter’s savvy guidance and the ink staining my fingertips.
If you want to get fancy this Valentine’s Day and thin out the wallet the options are endless.
Or you can declare this true love and go for the no-frills, unpretentious dish of a Crock-Pot simmered meal.
The one where you just plop five ingredients into the Slow Cooker, hit the ”start” button and get on with your day.
Because, love-struck or not, your day has to get on, does it not?
No one else in going to make breakfast for the children.
Or make sure their completed math homework is in the backpacks.
Or, heaven forbid, make and pack everyone’s lunch.
No, you’re still on, whether Cupid is on duty that day or not.
It takes a certain relationship clearance to get to the stage of the garlicky, Slow Cooked, just-thrown-together meal, I admit. So, maybe if you’re not there yet, if you’re still lighting up the bathtub with rose-scented pink candles every night and inviting your special someone to join you, you may want to skip this part. Just scroll down to the bottom, where the recipe is. You’ll be using it soon enough. And you don’t want to miss it. It’s real good.
Those of you with clearance know who you are.
You’re the ones who shove the lacey thong in the back of the lingerie drawer and wear the cotton control tops sold in bulk from Costco. Thank goodness. Some things just need to be held in.
Perhaps you’ve slacked a bit on the body-waxing regimen, always producing a perfectly logical explanation:
Who has time?
If God intended me to have hair there, so be it!
What’s another ten days?
And, of course, the ultimate clearance for relationship clearance: you have to have heard each other’s farts.
You have come to be okay with it.
Accept that it happens more often than not.
That, yes, he is cute, has good shoulders, perhaps even holds the door open for you to walk through (if you’re into that sort of thing, of course) but man, can he let one rip!
When you are good with that, pull out the Slow Cooker.
There’s enough stuff to get right each day, anyway.
Aside from all the kids’ needs, that is.
For example, if you live in the real world and have to show up for work at an office or such, there’s prep for that. Not all of us have a fifty-person Oprah team to make it happen. Good for her for bravely showing us her before pictures with the puffy makeup-less eyes, the Spanx-less bod, the bedhead hair. But of course, she shows us the after pictures as well, the ones where she is dazzling- a beautiful, perfectly sculpted, glittery, mega-watt smiling Oprah! The Oprah we will remember, adore, hold a grudge against, beg to emulate, and forever compare ourselves to. Damn! And she is actually sixty years old already? At that point, standing in front of the mirror before the sun has risen with no one but the dog to cheer us on feels tough enough.
So, trying to woo someone with an individual serving of Beef Wellington just because it is February 14th may push you over the edge.
I grew up in a Latin American country, one driven by (and proud producer of) stellar telenovelas: sappy tales drenched in passion and redemption and love and love and love. Dia de los Enamorados is hardcore there. So, I understand the temptation to create an elaborate culinary artwork drizzled in a truffle oil reduction.
And still, I will tell you:
A man is a man is a man.
And by this wise sentiment I mean to say:
If you serve a man a huge hunk of delicious, juicy meat that has been gently simmering for ten hours in a tasty sauce he can easily scoop up with a crusty baguette, he will love you for it. And if you go nuts on the carbs, load up with white rice (perfect to soak up the sauce), throw in some tiny baked potatoes and skip the salad altogether, don’t even mention roughage, why, then, you are in for a night to remember.
A man’s heart is through his stomach! They don’t make that shit up.
So, yes, you could debone a trout and poach it just so, I mean, if it makes you feel better. I can give you a killer Orange Saffron sauce, if you’d like.
But do yourself a favor and stick with me on this. It’s low-maintenance and sublime. You’ll both sit through dinner and not say a word, because you are that close, that connected, that language is not even needed.
Or because you’ll both be too busy chowing this amazing meal down.
If you bring up Oprah in the conversation, non-chalanty, of course, in between bites and slurps, I bet you’ll both agree she’d even dig serving this meal to her beau, Stedman. Whether they’re sharing a quiet evening in her Montecito, California estate or enjoying the ocean breeze at her Hawaii farmhouse-style homestead, she’d be singing your praises for enlightening her with such an easy and wonderful lover’s day recipe.
A funny thing happens when you become a parent. You change. Obviously, you change.
But in fundamental ways you thought were genetically impossible.
You know what I’m talking about. You that are out there.
I’ve been a parent for almost twelve years now and I am still astounded by these changes.
I recall a feverish argument with my husband in a crowded restaurant in an even more crowded airport. We were off to one of our many exotic destinations and had dropped in for a quick drink. Ahhhh, the days of unfettered travel. I admit my husband and I refuse to kick our travel habit and we make it a point to take our children to all sorts of distant destinations. But of course, it entails a lot more work, planning and schlepping.
This particular argument was all about Diet Coke.
“I forbid you to have Diet Coke in the house when we have children. It will ruin them!” (Okay, maybe not my exact words, but the general message was that crystal clear (and crazy.)) And I did say ‘forbid.’
My husband, with his sexy tan skin and jet-black hair looked at me with warmth and infinite patience and said:
Add this and a several glasses of merlot and the argument didn’t get any better.
Fast forward to the present and our children are now almost 12 and 8. The fridge is regularly stocked with my husband’s favorite drink, Diet Coke. The kids aren’t ruined (not by that, at least). ‘Forbid’ is out of our lingo, for those wondering.
Then there’s my sister-in-law, whose children are a good ten years older than mine. When hers were little and mine weren’t even a thought, I’d tease her constantly about her letter writing, or lack thereof.
Occasionally, we would get crisp wallet-sized portraits of her children with cheesy paint splash backdrops in fake hues of teal or grey, and if we were lucky, a post-it with an illegible afterthought: “All well here. Picture of kids. Love, K.”
“What???? Can’t you have the decency to sit down and write a line or two???” I’d reprimand as soon as the post office made its delivery. I didn’t have the heart to tell her how tacky I thought those portrait shots were. I certainly would never do that when my kids would come around, I smugly thought to myself.
Flash forward to the present and my children are now almost 12 and 8. I don’t send post-its. I send only the pictures. The same portrait shots (I tend to favor chestnut brown and olive green backdrops. It brings out the hazel in their eyes…)
And of course, there was the food issue. I swore on my culinary spirit that my children would never and I mean never, ingest the fat and sodium-laden Haden that is McDonalds. This, there was no budging about. Non-negotiable. A child of mine – no.
Flash forward to the present and my children are now almost 12 and 8. I won’t reveal anymore except that the golden arch is no stranger to them. You get the picture.
But some things have made me the wiser. Like the 1-2-3 approach to a time consuming meal like lasagna. I want to say wisdom and good parenting taught me to divvy this dish into several days so that the moment of making it requires only a quick assembly. But like most eye-opening moments in parenting, this was completely an accident.
I had the best intentions. I did. I wanted a carb-loaded nutritious meal of lasagna for our Wednesday night. So off I went to diligently prepare a nourishing meat sauce, a creamy béchamel, and some sautéed spinach, all to be readily assembled into layered bliss. The kids were getting cranky and hungry. 6:15 soon became 6:45 and then 6:55. I was creeping into their bath time and reading time and the pressure was on. I could handle it though, I could handle it.
Until I realized I had no lasagna noodles or mozzarella cheese and two very cranky children. The plan was ditched, or delayed; however you look at it. I quietly wrapped up my prepared goods and scribbled out a list for tomorrow’s run to the supermarket. The lasagna would be assembled another day.
The kids, on the other hand, had resorted to full meltdown mode offering incessant whining about hunger pains. I did what any reasonable mother would do. Even a culinary snob has her breaking point.
“Everyone get in the car”, I commanded. “We’re headed to McDonald’s for dinner!”
“If you let your leg dangle just a teensy weensy bit off the side of the bed, the bed monster will get you,” my older sister informed a gullible six-year old me many many moons ago.Her steady, authoritative gaze bore deeply into my impressionable eyes and I instantly believed her.Why wouldn’t I?She was my big sister and my guide to survival in life.Whatever she said, stuck.
And so, this freshly seared image of a patient beast (slightly benevolent and cuddly but with a wicked temper that could turn on you in an instant) housed itself in my psyche and settled in so comfortably that it took me years to stop sleeping with my feet safely curled up by my chest…just in case.
I would greet mornings with a quiet sigh of relief and a quick toe count and then eagerly jump out of bed to the welcoming aroma of our nanny Yolanda’s cooking.Yolanda seemed to never sleep, for, walking into the brightly lit kitchen as dawn turned to day was like entering a whirlwind of a restaurant at high peak.Pots clattered, coffee brewed, fresh orange juice awaited, and something always sizzled on the stovetop.
On top of being an amazing cook, she seemed psychic as well, for, on nights that had seemed particularly bumpy (maybe my foot had accidently slipped and my big toe leaned precariously over the side, maybe I had felt a sharp claw or furry paw make its deadly move) she’d erase my troubled, sleepless look with a batch of her famous empanadas de carne, meat empanadas.These would sputter shamelessly on the skillet, ending up as golden crescents exploding with seasoned meat, carrots and potatoes.Crunching into them made my stomach and every other part of me, for that matter, feel happy and safe.
Years later I confessed to my sister the countless nights I slept curled in a ball, not because I liked it, but because I felt my life depended on it.She seemed puzzled and asked me why and I, aghast, reminded her that it was because of the monster story she told me when we were little.A chuckle escaped her mouth and her blue eyes softened and sparkled at me.
“Seriously?” she said,“I don’t even remember saying that.”
I could have kicked her, as siblings do.But instead, I joined her in her chuckle and more than anything, got an instant craving for Yolanda’s meat empanadas.