During the summer I was pretty good. Salads were my hard-core norm. It all seemed easy enough really: I love lettuce. But once the school year started up again and I was slammed with that crazy schedule that begins at 5:00am and ends way too late with me frazzled and exhausted and wondering why I still have so much left to do, I’d let a piece of freshly baked epi loaf slip through. The one where the peaks of dough turn crispy and crunchy and could double as a weapon if I weren’t so dead set on eating it.
That, paired with an oozing slab of Bouyssou cheese is hard to resist.
Friday nights, of course, posed a challenge.
Maybe I won’t light the candles every Shabbat like a good Jew should, but, by God, I’ll eat the challah! The warm, soft, fluffy, extra-thick slice of challah! (Here skip cheese and go straight for creamy butter with a sprinkling of sea salt.)
You know once you have tasted that you gotta have more and more and more. That stuff is primal comfort.
So, maybe my hard core has some cracks in it.
Some restorative, heavenly cracks.
At that point I find myself saying, to hell with it,love handles are not so bad. And justifying, didn’t Lesley Stahl just report on 60 Minutes that it’s better to gain weight as we age, so long as we aren’t obese? Yup. It was something like that.
Have your salad, yes, but sometimes, when you need a bit of culinary love, have your salad on the side.
Risotto is the ideal carb comfort dish. You must, however, pencil it into your schedule. Don’t run away. It’s not a ten-hour ordeal or anything, but you’re in for a good 30 minutes of stirring, which is just the perfect amount of time to savor that crisp Sauvignon Blanc you’ve had chilling in the fridge.
This dish obviously wasn’t created for a multi-tasking solo mother with two starving and overscheduled teens, but maybe that’s when you have a piece of that yummy bread to throw at them and quiet them up for a bit; the challah, not the epi, as they may get hurt if you hurl a piece of that.
The premise to the whole thing is quite simple: onions and risotto fried gently in olive oil, a drizzle of white wine to elevate the flavor, and then, slowly, lazily, pour in tiny hiccups of hot broth which you will diligently stir on medium/low heat until fully absorbed. When you’re done with that, you’ll pour in some more. And then again, and again and again, until your liquid has melded with your risotto and created a creamy, slightly crunchy delight, to which you will add whatever else you wish. In this case, it will be shrimp and crabmeat and the magic ingredient, mascarpone cheese. Risotto is all about patience, none of that flash-in-the-pan business.
I can’t think of any better accompaniment to a green salad.
In a medium saucepan, combine clam broth and water and bring to a simmer. Keep warm.
In a large saucepan, heat olive oil. Add onion, season with salt and pepper and cook over medium heat, until softened, five minutes.
Add rice and cook for 1 minute. Crumble in saffron and add wine to rice.
Cook, stirring until the wine is absorbed.
Add 1 cup warm clam juice and cook stirring constantly, until nearly absorbed. Continue adding juice, ½ cup at a time and stirring constantly, until it is nearly absorbed between additions. The risotto should be al dente and thick and creamy.
Season with salt and pepper.
Melt butter in a large skillet. Add the shallot and cook over moderate heat until softened, about 2 minutes. Add the shrimp and crab and cook until just heated through. Scrap the seafood into the risotto and stir in the parsley and mascarpone. Serve immediately.
The minute I was handed a clipboard the room changed.
Students decked out in their newly starched white chef uniforms eyed me nervously, recording my face. The other three judges approached me with wry smiles and introduced themselves. I was the fourth judge for the Harvest Feast Culinary Competition.
The process appeared simple enough: there were nine teams competing, ranging from the elite Le Cordon Bleu culinary school to lesser known technical institutes. All students were given a tray full of produce, kitchen utensils, working material and a mystery ingredient, revealed to them only minutes before they would begin. They then had fifteen minutes to plan and one hour to execute a savory dish and a sweet dish.
The clipboard held a blank sheet waiting to be filled with my observations and scores. On the left was a list of the team numbers. On the top of the sheet were the different categories to be considered: Skills, Sweet Dish, Savory Dish, Use of Materials and Presentation. Each category would receive a score from 1 to 10, 10 being the best.
The mystery ingredient was revealed: mussels.
As the Culinary Director shouted, “go!” and the timer began to tick, I watched these students fervently get to work, running around, chopping onions, peeling fingerling potatoes, cracking open fresh pomegranates, doing anything and everything to leave a lasting impression on me.
I walked around slowly observing, careful not to be too harsh, remembering my tenure at Le Cordon Bleu in Mexico and the harried nature in which I worked to produce pastries and cakes which would then be judged by my forgiving French instructor, Chef Eric, a pensive and sedate man that carefully nudged me towards improvement:
“Put more wrist into it,” when I whisked my egg whites haphazardly.
“No tanta mantequilla, Alona,” when my hand overstepped its bounds on the communal slab of butter.
“Magnifique!” on the rare occasion my gateaux would be stellar.
Chef Eric never shouted, unlike his colleague, Jean Paul, whom I could hear screaming at my frazzled peers in the other kitchen.
The students at this competition were not working in a state-of-the-art facility overlooking the lush mountains of Lomas Anáhuac, like I had in Mexico City. Each team was allotted one plastic rectangle folding table to work at and access to one shared stovetop sputtering under the zealous demands of hopeful winners. There was one oven to bake their magic in.
I ignored what school was at which table and simply walked around and observed, immediately noticing personalities popping out in each group. There was the obsessive-compulsive table, where not a spill or a crumb could be seen at all times (plus two points). There was the assiduous table, where one fellow took what felt like 45 of his 60 minutes to sift and inspect each individual leaf of spinach (minus two points.) There were tables I wanted to join in on the fun: That table, there, the one where they are all smiling and having a good time, carving extravagant shapes out of carrots and oranges and strawberries! And there were tables I wanted to join to roll up my sleeves and help out: Dude, put your gloves on, clean your scraps up, let’s make it pop, put some contrast on that plate, there, there, go!
The power entrusted in me was a bit stifling, I confess. How was I to judge these students fairly? Some were just kids, maybe 18 or 19, some, seasoned adults, turning to Culinary Arts as a second or third career. Surely they wore patience, resilience, and time on this earth as a badge?
When the hour was up the teams were asked to move away from their tables.
There was a communal sigh of relief until the four judges were called to taste. Then the air grew thick with anticipation. Eyes burned on me in hopeful prayer.
We arrived to table one, four clipboards in hand, and began discussing and sampling. We had five minutes for each table. There were all sorts of displays of creativity, from meticulously arranged mussels over thin threads of cucumber to carefully concocted sauces, to mussels hidden under clumps of undercooked mystery mash. Desserts were varied as well: light and airy profiteroles graced the winner’s plate, undercooked strawberry scones proved to be the demise of another hopeful contender and harried chopped lettuce with strawberries appeared to be a last-minute resort for the team struggling with time management.
This was not a glitzy television episode on Food Network, I later explained to my children, who seemed slightly disappointed I did not meet with Bobby Flay. But even without the glamour, cameras and lighting, this was an evening worth paying attention to. It was a night filled with achievement, determination and good will. A boisterous group of students going for a dream, pursing it with the purest of intentions, creativity, and hard work.
In the end, I went with camaraderie, not just taste and presentation. I scored tables as a team effort: those who helped each other out, those who had the best laid-out plan, those who worked together as a team. This, after all, is what will guide them, not just a chefs, but through all aspects of their lives.
The winners were one of the underdogs and when they were called up for first place all the teams erupted in applause. Proud parents jumped around the room with cameras, capturing their child’s efforts as if they were Bobby Flay. Students flanked around the judges with questions on how they could improve.
The final plated dishes were presented in a communal table for all to admire, and when placed on that white linen tablecloth in an appealing circular display under crisp white lighting, it could have easily been mistaken for a closing shot of The Next Great Chef. Of course, it helps if the mussels aren’t overcooked.
Rinse mussels under cold running water. Discard any that are chipped and/or have cracks.
Over medium high heat, melt 2 tablespoons butter in a large skillet.
Saute shallots, stirring, about 2 minutes. Your kitchen is smelling good now.
Add the white wine and bring to a boil (raise the heat to high!) I could steer you towards fancy whites with crisp flavor and undertones of apricot or pear but, really, use whatever old wine you have (just make sure it's white.) Save the good stuff for the dinner table!
Add the mussels in a single layer (as much as you can fit) and put a lid on it!
Lower the heat to medium and let simmer for 3 to 5 minutes.
You can act all fancy and shake the thing around if you want. This works well if you've got someone to impress. My dog fancies the sound.
In any case, you need the shells to open up but you don't want to overcook them lest you dig eating something akin to chewing gum.
After 5 minutes remove from heat. Toss whomever didn't want to open. They're disqualified.
Add salt, a bit of fresh pepper and the remaining 1 tablespoon of butter.
Spoon sauce on the bottom of the pan over the mussels.
As the butter melts, the sauce will become glossy and extra yummy.
Sprinkle the minced basil and chopped tomato and serve immediately.
This stuff is good with thick slabs of crusty country bread.
The goldfish is bigger than the Eiffel Tower. True story. It was a prize granted to the kids five years ago in some stuffy sports center at the final hour of an exasperbated Purim carnival loaded with face paint, greasy food, and, obviously, an over-supply of goldfish. The kids were thrilled at the offering. The parents…no so much. Still, the sight of their toddler’s grubby, greasy fingers clasping the plastic bag with a miniscule, petrified shock of orange seemed harmless enough, and, just like birthing them, the horror of what was happenening, washed away with the smiles on their faces. ‘How bad could it be,’ I remember thinking to myself, ‘the thing will be dead in four days anyway.’
So did I mention it’s been five years? Five. Years.
I think I’ve already showcased Goldie (who is now ghostly white) on this site. Back in the day when she was cute. And small. But the thing is no longer either, having outgrown four tanks already. Each time I buy a bigger one (because I can’t bear the depressing sight of her body aching for more space) she just grows bigger. Like a contained annoyance.
Friends gasp in amazement each time they visit us and our Science Project.
“Is that the SAME fish?” they query incredulously. It’s like salt on my wound.
“Yes,” I grumble.
The kids are fascinated. Each vacation we take (and there are many) becomes a feat for her survival. The minute they walk in the door they run to her tank to take a peak and always gloriously announce, “GOLDIE IS ALIIIIIVE!”
And she is, gosh darnit. No matter if it’s two days, or ten, or more. She is always alive and growing, now bigger than her Eiffel Tower statue and too mammoth to swim under her Ponte Veccio replica. It’s sad really. Friends (yes, the same that gape at her and then escape to the safety of their monster-fish-free home) stare me down with humane eyes and meekly suggest I get her a bigger tank, ‘for God’s sake, look at the size of that thing.’ But I know better, damnit. If I buy a bigger one, and this tank is HUGE, it will grow. Goldie seems to outlive and outgrow us all.
This summer poses an interesting problem. We are moving, you see. And not down the street. Or to another state. But to Mexico City. Fish bigger than Eiffel Towers don’t get to go, sadly. So hearty discussions have been steadily underway for several months now: what do we do with Goldie?
One child suggests we have a neighbor come in to the house regularly and feed her and make sure she is okay. (Note, the sex of this thing has never been determined, but the kids unanimously appointed her as female.)
The other insists if we put her in a (big) ziploc bag, she will make the journey.
My husband and I are gourmands at heart. She is big enough. Fleshy enough. And right there. Parguito Frito is a dish we both grew up enjoying on the beaches in Venezuela. For those not fortunate enough to know, Venezuela boasts some of the world’s finest beaches: crystal blue waters, powdery white sand, and amazing food as you sit on the sand enjoying it all, including a complete meal of freshly caught Parguito Frito (fried Red Snapper), Tostones con Queso Rayado (fried green plantains with grated fresh white cheese) and Ensalada de Repollo (shredded cabbage salad with cilantro and a lime mayonnaise dressing.) Memorable stuff.
But no worries. We are parents first and foremost, and anyway, we’ve seen the filth Goldie swims around in (wouldn’t want to ingest any part of that.) Like the famous White House turkey each Thanksgiving, this fish, as big and plump as it gets, will be spared. For viewing eyes only.
Her back was as long and graceful as the bouquet of snow white lilies she held in her slender fingers and as I watched this lovely bride walk to the altar to be wed it dawned on me that this was Gaby, my husband’s niece whom I’d met when she was a wee bitty baby of 15 months and my heart skipped a beat in shock that the time had dared trick me into passing this quickly so that we were here, in this ever lasting moment, witnessing her marriage on a cool November night.
I’d met Gaby only yesterday it seemed. Cradled in the arms of her father we’d been introduced in the dusty hot plains of Venezuela.I remember a lanky baby straddled around her dad’s comforting hold, a mess of bouncy curls and an infectious smile.Gaby. This is Gaby.And that baby I’d first met stretched on and and on to become a teenager full of awareness and purpose.
She’d been staying at my house in South Florida when 9/11 struck as I held my own two-year old daughter and carried another baby on the way.Gaby had been all of fifteen then, recently emigrated from Venezuela, her English barely a mumble but she knew the loss and shock and angst those airplanes plummeting into the twin towers and a vacant field in Pennsylvania caused our nation.And when I could not find an American flag to put up in our front yard, because ours was swallowed in the Bermuda Triangle that is our attic and stores had sold out of any new ones, Gaby, five days fresh an American, sat at my dinning room table and made one, stripe by stripe, star by star she sketched and colored and brought to life the symbol of our country with equal pride and dedication so that when we taped her efforts on the front window it gleamed and shimmered with the hope and optimism that flag represents to so many.This is who she was then and is now:a girl turned woman full of hope and optimism and of course, still, that infectious smile. I will never forget that day, as all of us who witnessed it.But I will never forget how Gaby made it a bit more bearable for me.
And now, she holds a beautiful bouquet of pure white and she is tall, so tall and lovely as she steps into her newfound life as a wife and my pride grows full and gladly overflows.She is kind and strong and pure like the lilies and there is no doubt she makes the days of her husband, Eduardo a little bit easier, a little bit better.I’ve given her a cooking tool set as a wedding gift and she gives me back that smile with a giggle.She is uneasy no doubt.This role as married one still feels awkward, unsteady.Those around her laugh as well and joke she burns water.But I know she’ll do fine, even better, she’ll shine, just as that teenager she was years ago who made a glorious flag out of paper, dedication and passion, she’ll always shine.In the meantime, I’ll offer her one of many cheater’s recipe:a meal that will dazzle even the most skeptical and requires little if any skill.Of course any meal will be perfect served with that dazzling smile.
Once upon a time there was a very young lady and a not-quite-as-young man (a scandal left for another story) that were carefree, adventurous and childless.On a whim, they decided to tour the country of Spain, and as was their manner, to tour it in full culinary detail.Of course, this dashing duo tackled with the small inconvenience of being broke and feared little finance would serve as a burden in their experience of food.
They were joined by other friends on this journey that took place in the heart of a scorching summer twenty years ago and together they all crammed into a tiny and dusty red Ford Fiesta and, listening to endless rounds of Chrissie Hynde’s “Brass in Pocket” and Mecano’s melancholic “Aire” explored their souls and the Iberian peninsula for a sultry five weeks filled with laughter, sights and, many “fixed menu” meals that where exquisite and reliably affordable, casting aside financial doubts.The experience left me, that very young lady, enamored with Spain, whose images and flavors have steadily nourished me over the years.
The trip began and culminated in La Plaza Mayor, the legendary square-turned-tourist attraction in Madrid famed for being the center for public beheadings back in its heyday.By 1989 this pastime was long gone, of course, and in its place stood clowns folding balloons for giddy children, men posing as Charlie Chaplin and heavyset women draped in clay personifying statues under the unforgiving heat. Nestled amongst stores selling Chinese-made plastic albañiques and sword replicas sat an inconspicuous space whose only connection to the outside world was a tiny window with a miniature blackboard scribbling the day’s dish, which was always the same thing:bocadillo de calamares (fried squid sandwich).Our noses had led us to this spot, our eyes saw the crowds lined up and reconfirmed the choice, and the price sang pretty in our light wallets, making it a done deal.Time and time again we sought excuses to return to this alcove and gobbled mounds of freshly fried squid rings crammed into warm crusty mini-baguettes doused with fresh ocean, crunchy sea salt and nothing else. It was a memory I carried and protected vehemently through the years.
So it seemed fitting that now, this young duo that had grown up a bit, married, and created a family head straight for La Plaza Mayor on their return trip to Spain. It was early June and the heat still jostled us, even after being Miami residents for almost fifteen years.Clowns and Chaplins still abounded as well as the outdoor cafes serving overpriced cold beer.We had come here with one purpose really and that was to recapture our carefree youth through the unforgettable bocadillo.Our long-time Madrid-based friend thought we were insane twenty years ago and still insane today: insane to head to this touristy spot and pay what we were paying for a beer that would be colder and cheaper two blocks away and certainly insane to brave the bocadillos of Plaza Mayor.
“Everyone knows you get Hepatitis from those.The grease here is from last century.Let’s go three blocks away, the best bocadillos, fresh calamares, pure olive oil, no worries”, he begged.Now, this is a guy that thrives on cheap eats, so I would be lying if I say I didn’t hesitate a bit. But the memory of youth and flavor drove us forth as our eyes scanned the perimeter of the square in search of that memorable little window.
And then we saw it off to the side.It was dark and dank and still had the scribbled little blackboard but the crowds where gone.My mate and I eyed each other suspiciously and in the silent ebb of mind language shared by soul mates conferred:
“No line, huh?Do we really want to venture there?We’ve come a long way, filled our wallets a bit since then, might it not possibly be a wiser move to hit the tapas bar around the bend?”
It all happened within the span of three blinks.And even those three blinks where futile, as we both knew the answer:Yes. Undeniably, undoubtedly yes.We will forge onward and ahead. To the abandoned window that housed a time filled with adventure and promise and fun, and we think, good food.
Our friend shook his head and moved to the side.Our children smelled distrust and graciously declined.But my mate and I pressed forward, approached the tiny hole and rattled off our order: “Dos bocadillos, por favor.”
They arrived too quickly. We quietly acknowledged this as the first bad sign.No time to heat up the oil, gently batter the squid and fry.But there we were, holding our youth in our calloused hands, hands that had locked together over twenty years ago and traveled the world, filling our hearts and bellies with love, food and adventure. So we did what we do best and flung ourselves forward, creating a new memory, we took a bite of our bocadillo in unison, with our children apprehensively looking on and our friend looking away, and as we both took that first anticipated bite we realized it was disgusting; truly and utterly disgusting.
When something is that disgusting it is hard to describe why.Way too salty.Way too greasy.Way too old.Way wrong.And where someone would normally spit it out and spew in despair we did what only lunatics as us do and took another bite (again in unison) just to make sure it truly was that disgusting, in ghoulish curiosity and desperate need to verify our past, for now the questions loomed in our mind:
Was it always that gross?Did we have no taste back then?Where we that desperate?
I can tell you that was the end of that.The bocadillos ended up in the trash after our giggling fit subsided.Our children looked confused and our friend was vindicated:
“See, I told you. Hepatitis, amigos, hepatitis.”
And with that we let the memory alone, clasped our greasy hands together and held one hand out for each one of our kids to grab and form a chain as together, we moved forward, laughing our youth away as we headed towards the tapas bar around the bend.
Había una vez una joven señorita y hombre, no tan joven como ella (un escándalo reservado para otra oportunidad) que eran aventureros, despreocupados, y sin hijos. En un capricho, ellos decidieron recorrer el país de España, y como era su manera, recorrerlo en detalle culinario completo.
Fueron acompañados en su aventura por otros amigos y este viaje ocurrió en el corazón de un verano caluroso hace veinte años atras.Montados sobre un pequeño carrito escuchando rondas interminables de Chrissie Hynde de “The Pretenders” y las canciones melancólicas de Mecano, exploraron sus almas y sus paladares durantecinco semanas bochornosas llenas de risa, vistas y, muchos “menú fijos” que ofrecian excelentes y baratas. Yo era esa misma señorita y la experiencia me dejó enamorada de España: por sus imágenes y sus sabores.
El viaje comenzó y culminó en La Plaza Mayor, la atracción turista en Madrid famosa de ser el centro de la decapitación pública años atrás. Ya en 1989 este pasatiempo no existía, por supuesto, y en su lugar andaban payasos doblando globos en formas de animalitos, hombres que se hacen pasar como Charlie Chaplin y mujeres corpulentas cubiertas en la arcilla que personificaban estatuas bajo el calor implacable. Recostado entre tiendas que venden albañiques plasticos de la China había un espacio discreto con una ventana diminuta y un pizarrón en miniatura anunciando el plato del día, que era siempre la misma cosa: bocadillo de calamares. Nuestras narices nos habían conducido a este punto, nuestros ojos vieron la cola de gente esperando y el precio barato nos dijo que este era el lugar.Encontrabamos cualquiera excusa para volver a este nicho y devorar esos deliciosos anillos de calamar frito recostados dentro de mini-baguettes crujientes empapados con océano fresco, sal de mar crujiente y nada más. Esta era una memoria que cargaba conmigo todo estos años y protegía vehementemente.
Entonces nos parecio obvio que ahora, este dúo joven que había crecido un poco, se habían casado, y andaban con dos hijos, irían directamente a la Plaza Mayor en su viaje de vuelta a España. Era principios de junio y el calor nos picaba la aun siendo residentes de Miami durante casi quince años. Los payasos y Chaplins todavía abundaban así como las cafeterías al aire libre que sirven la cerveza fría demasiado cara. Habíamos venido aquí con el objetivo de recobrar nuestra juventud despreocupada con ese bocadillo inolvidable. Nuestro amigo Madrileño pensó que estabamos locos hace veinte años y todavía locos hoy: locos por dirigirnos a este punto demasiado turístico y pagar lo que pagámos para una cerveza y definitivamente locos para comer un bocadillo de calamares en La Plaza Mayor.
“Todo el mundo sabe que estos bocadillos dan Hepatitis. La grasa es del siglo pasado. Vamos tres cuadras de aqui donde hay mejor bocadillos, calamares fresco, aceite de oliva puro, ningunas preocupaciones”, nos suplico. Pero la memoria de juventud y sabor nos condujo adelante y con nuestros ojos exploraramos el perímetro de la Plaza en busqueda de aquella pequeña ventana memorable.
Y alli estaba, oscura y pequeña pero completamente abandonada. Mi compañero y yo nos miramos y en ese lenguaje silencioso de los ojos nos consultamos:
¿“No hay gente, ¡eh!? ¿Realmente queremos arriesgarnos allí? ¿Hemos crecido mucho, la cartera un poco mas llena que aquel entonces, no seria mas sabio ir a comer unas tapas en el barrio del lado?”
Dentro de tres parpadeos nos consultamos. Y imediatamente ambos sabíamos la respuesta: Sí. Sin duda, indudablemente sí. Forjaremos adelante con nuestro bocadillo famoso. A la ventana abandonada llegamos llenos de aventura, promesa y diversión, y esperabamos, buena comida.
Nuestro amigo sacudió su cabeza y se movió al lado. Nuestros niños nos vieron sospechosamente sin hablar una palabra. Pero mi compañero y yo avanzamos, pidiendo nuestra orden: “Dos bocadillos, por favor.”
Los bocadillos llegaron rápidamente. Reconocimos esto como la primera falla. No había tiempo para calentar el aceite y freír el calamar. Pero allí nos encontramos sosteniendo nuestra juventud en nuestras manos, manos que se habían unido hace más de veinte años y habían viajado el mundo, llenando nuestros corazones con amor, alimento y aventura. Entonces hicimos lo que solo sabemos hacer y, creando una nueva memoria, tomamos un mordisco de nuestro bocadillo a la misma vez con nuestros niños viendonos aprensivamentey nuestro amigo que no se atrevia ver y en en aquel primer mordisco nos dimos cuenta que este bocadillo era asqueroso; realmente y completamente asqueroso.
Cuando algo es así de asqueroso es difícil describir por qué. Demasiado salado. Demasiada grasa. Demasiado viejo. Y riendonos nos preguntamos:
¿Era esto siempre tan asqueroso? ¿No teníamos ningún paladar en aquel entonces? ¿Estabamos tan desesperados?
El bocadillos terminó en la basura mientras que nos reímos como dos tontos. Nuestros niños se veían aturdidos y nuestro amigo sonría:
“Vez, les dije. Hepatitis, amigos, hepatitis.”
Y con esto dejamos la memoria sola, enlazamos nuestras manos grasosas y ofrecimos nuestra otra mana para cada uno de nuestros niños donde formamos una cadena y juntos, avanzamos, riéndonos sobre nuestra juventud mientras que nos dirigimos hacia el otro barrio buscando comer unas tapas.