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.
I’m not reinventing the wheel, I’m just trying to get my kid to eat more fish.
Whatever it takes.
(It takes loads of mayonnaise.)
(And a personable, friendly chef.)
My fifteen year-old daughter and I watch a show called Check, Please! hosted by the talented, darling of Miami, Michelle Bernstein. Every week three amateur foodies sit around a table with Chef Michy discussing and rating the meals enjoyed at their favorite local restaurants. My daughter loves watching Chef Michelle’s cheerful and approachable style and is eager to point out the guests’ practiced waves and accidental blunders on television.
She also always suggests that I recommend our favorite culinary spots but then quickly changes her mind, telling me I’d make a terrible guest: I’d be too impatient with my fellow reviewers, the ones that struggle pronouncing mojito or have never tried quail. She giggles as she tells me this.
I think it’s a compliment.
Michelle always shares a recipe that runs with the theme of the show and last week’s was all about seafood so she offered up her tartar sauce.
About five years ago, my daughter declared she doesn’t eat fish, which is tricky, because the rest of the family could probably eat fish every single day. Still, she hears the word “mayonnaise” and is ready to reconsider. She loves anything slathered in the stuff, and when she learns this sauce has chopped pickles and capers (two of her favorite ingredients) and is mandatory for fish (according to her newest idol, Chef Michy) she listens and nods.
For added effect, she sends me an accusatory look, the one that screams I’ve been depriving her of nourishment by not providing her with this tartar sauce. Soon I’ll hear that this is the reason she hasn’t eaten fish. And, of course, it’s all my fault.
I’m impressed by Chef Michelle’s influence and wonder if she has a teenage daughter of her own. I also want to invite Michi over to my house, not necessarily to bond over one of her stellar recipes (although I’m sure that would be cool) but because I’m hoping she can work some magic on Daniela’s tepid sentiments towards neatness.
Or helping with the trash.
Or any request, really, that comes out of my mouth. Everything is up for grabs for an argument these days.
But this recipe has her quiet and attentive.
I think I even heard the word please, as in:
“Mom, you need to make that sauce. If you do, I’ll eat fish. Please.”
Yup. You gotta listen close, but, it’s there.
I pull out my vat of mayonnaise (restaurant size tub courtesy of Costco.)
I mix the ingredients.
I bake fish.
Dear God, I pray.
The salmon is done and the sauce is ready. It’s tangy, tart, and creamy. A thousand calories per bite, but who cares, my daughter, my daughter, is eating fish tonight.
(adapted from “Check Please, South Florida!”)
Ok, I like my tartar sauce loaded up and spicy, which is why I use way less mayo than the original recipe while keeping the other ingredients pretty much the same. Obviously, if you want it more mayonnaisey, add more of the stuff, less spicy, take it down a notch with the Sriracha.
2 tablespoons capers, minced
4 tablespoons dill pickles, minced
2 tablespoons flat parsley, minced
1 teaspoon dried dill
2 teaspoons Sriracha sauce
¼ teaspoon black pepper
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
½ cup mayonnaise
salt, to taste
Plop in a bowl. Mix. Scoop onto fish, fish sandwiches, salad, whatever!
My husband is quite clever with his cooking and serving tactics. He pulls his favorite garden chair close to the grill, which, he is proud to announce, is not some massive fifteen- foot long steel contraption that doubles as a speed boat, but rather, a flimsy metal square the size of a serving platter, piled high with coals, patience, expertise and nothing else.
If you want food, you must come to him, and we do.
When the first chorizito is ready, he’ll slice that sausage up right then and there and pop a sizzling sliver of garlic and herb-infused deliciousness into the closest mouth, setting the stage for an experiment in survival of the fittest which would have made Darwin proud.
“So, how is it?” He’ll ask as we elbow our way towards the prime feeding spot.
I don’t know why he asks.
He knows it’s killer good.
We all circle around him like desperately hungry chicks waiting for momma bird to drop another worm.
Maybe some of us are dripping wet from the pool, maybe some of us are pouring more wine, maybe some of us are arriving late, straight from work; we know to head to the back for my husband’s sizzling, carnivore feast, because over there, past the modern kitchen and the inviting dinning room, outside in the tiny western patch of neglected garden, just left of the overgrown hibiscus and the dried-up orchids is where the culinary going gets good.
Everyone gets a prized sample of sausage or grilled garlic bread or rib-eye seasoned with Sal de Ibiza and nothing else.
And then another.
This is how we have dinner, all of it, little samplers sliced on the spot and passed around by greasy fingers to assorted hungry mouths. Sometimes a juicy morsel will be balanced precariously atop a slice of crusty bread; sometimes it will come dripping all on its own.
I set out plates, forks and knives beforehand, I always do. But they remain unused, with the exception of a parked piece of corn (I’m just resting, the eater assures), or maybe, pooled in the center of one dish that inconspicuously becomes the communal dipping spot, a drizzle of chimichurri sauce, made hastily with the parsley and jalapeño growing inelegantly near the grill. That stuff goes great with everything offered: the steak, the sausage, the bread, the corn.
The evening passes quickly like this.
Even the mosquitoes fail in deterring us: good company, great wine, and incredible food serve as an indomitable antidote.
Like that scary R.L. Stine novel I once read to my son, the one he’d beg me to continue late into the night while he hid under the covers with his flashlight. The title, Stay Out Of The Basement, was catchy enough, but my son had chosen it because of the book’s cover: a close-up of an alien green plant-hand pulling open the basement door, vying to get out.
Stay Out Of The Basement was all about a father who was a scientist and started messing with houseplants in the family basement. DNA gets mixed. Floricultural madness ensues.
I won’t give away the ending but things germinate in crazy ways.
I thought of that book when I saw my latest basil plant.
Without warning it had gone nuts, sprouting so hyperactively that it deemed its own locked basement.
For years I’d been trying to nurture my basil plants to life.
In my house, cooking with basil is second nature, like breathing air.
But basil plants never stuck around long enough for me to simmer in my bolognese sauce or carefully layer in my caprese salad.
I tried every logistical option, hoping location was the problem for my plants who, to put it mildly, weren’t thriving. But it didn’t matter if I placed them on the far northeast corner of the garden (more sun in the a.m., less in the p.m.) or at the southwest tip by the lake (more sun in the p.m., less in the a.m.) or even if I plopped them smack in the center where I could gaze at them while I worked in the kitchen. Whatever the location, my basil plants, one by one, always shriveled up and died.
Friends and family offered their condolences. They know what such a loss means to me. And then they doled out advice. Lots and lots of advice:
You’re not talking to it enough!
Water it a bit in the morning!
Let it sit!
Move it indoors!
Take it out!
Caring for basil can become a full-time vocation if you’re not careful.
Which is where I was headed until I planned to go on a trip.
A fabulous trip that would lead me far away from my home and my latest floundering basil plant.
I was going to be gone for two weeks so I brought my current limp, leafless plant indoors and set it on the kitchen counter next to the note I left for Rosi, the lady who would be watching over the dog while I was gone. The note was short and simple:
Vet number: (954) 667-3300
Help yourself to whatever food you want.
If you remember, please water the plant.
I returned from my trip with an array of new adventures and was greeted by an excited, happy dog. The house was quiet and tidy, not yet hit by the tsunami of my children and their stuff. I looked around to make sure everything was in place, and it was, it all looked good, all looked great, until…
What was that?
My eyes stopped at the kitchen counter. There was an explosion of green.
Leaves that toppled over and grew wide, reaching and leaning towards the window.
Is that my…I thought to myself, remembering the anorexic basil plant I had left behind.
Backpacks, suitcases and family members were all hustling past me, happy to be home, while I stood there frozen in disbelief.
The plant was transformed, like the mad scientist father.
I quickly called Rosi and asked her what she had done to the plant, hoping she’d reveal a secret elixir I could use from now on, but she laughed casually and answered in her usual happy tone:
“Nothing, I just watered it, like you asked.”
I don’t want to think about it too much. Because I could go nuts analyzing what happened. It could become personal, if I’d allow. Like, “What gives Basil Plant,I fuss over you, rotate you, have even spilled my deepest, darkest secrets to you and you practically die on me while sweet, kind, Rosi waters you once or twice and you thrive?” I fear it would give me the worst possible answer: it’s not you, it’s me; an overused line I wouldn’t believe, couldn’t believe, seeing how the plant was obviously happier without me. Plus, it would be weird to break up with your basil plant. Even I know this.
Things could get ugly, or I could get really, really down.
I’m not gonna do that, no. I’m going to take the high road and do the gracious thing: thank Rosi and then make lots and lots of pesto! Maybe, I should also start planning another trip…
Man o man, is this easy!
I have a Vitamix, which means, I find excuses to blend everything and this pesto is perfectly quick, fresh, and versatile!
Put this on anything! Really…anything! Spaghetti, sandwiches, boiled potatoes, & grilled chicken are great places to start.
Pesto is usually made with pine nuts but that can get expensive! Try walnuts instead- it's just as tasty and kinder on the wallet!
2 cups packed fresh basil leaves
2 garlic cloves, minced
½ cup toasted chopped walnuts
½ cup Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, grated (use the real deal here, it makes a difference!)
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
½ teaspoon lemon zest
salt and pepper to taste
Place leaves in blender or food processor. Add cheese & nuts.
Turn blender on low, carefully remove lid and slowly start drizzling in olive oil. Slowly, ok? You’ll see the pesto start taking shape.
Once it is smooth you can put the lid back on and crank the blender up for ten seconds or so. I’m not sure it that actually does anything, but it feels good and gives the whole blending process closure.
Now, scoop it out into a bowl and add lemon zest and any salt and pepper.
If you want your pesto to retain that beautiful bright green color you can add a pinch of Vitamin C powder.
Pesto freezes really well! Just fill up an ice-cube tray and once frozen, pop those into a Ziploc bag! Each cube = 1 serving and will thaw quickly in the microwave.
Clotilde looked small and unsuspicious and seriously out of place in my kitchen filled with thrust and G force way beyond her means. After all, she was only a 13-pounder turkey, and the kitchen gang had long gotten used to handling birds of more hefty stature. But Clotilde was the fleshiest of the flock for the post-Pilgrim holiday. I like to think of myself as an out-of-the-box person, most definitely cook, so, it was no surprise to me or my friends when I announced my Thanksgiving meal would be taking place three weeks after the holiday had passed.
No one seemed surprised. And no one said no. How could they? They knew it would be an ocean of culinary delights, from the turkey, to the stuffing to the mashed sweet potatoes, cranberry relish, cranberry port sauce, and on and on and on. Ending with pies. Many pies because one is never enough.
My house is colorful and bright, every tile, art work, or cookbook holds a fun and usually tasty story of the life that bonds Yeshua and I together. However, my house is a wee bit tight and breathes easier with the help of our huge backyard, which, for the ocassion, was decked out and ready to accomodate people, particularly stuffed ones. Plans, of course, are made to be broken, for that day was grey and blustery and, fifteen minutes before our dinner party was to begin, showcased a true Florida rainstorm, the kind where your windshield wiper is on overdrive and you still can’t see beyond your nose. Outdoors: cancelled.
Clotilde looked lovely for the event: evenly browned and dazzling with her accessory of Mom’s Famous Stuffing (both cavity and neck). As I set her aside to rest on her own board, she seemed to reassure me that everything would work out, my parties inevitably gravitate around the kitchen. I laughed out loud. Clotilde was right. I laughed again. I am listening and taking advice from a cooked turkey. I must be a chef. Or insane. Or both.
But you read this and you know at some point you’ve done the same (haven’t you?) And you know how this ends, Clotilde was correct: the party did gravitate to the kitchen, where, impromptu butts sat on countertops, stood, chatted, drank delicious champagne and noshed on treats brought by everyone, awaiting for our moment of thanks.
I had added a Hanukah component to the evening, given we were smack in the week of that celebration and as I stood watching my dear friend Ana Paula fry up our latkes, I smiled in agreement when she coined the evening Thankshanukah: a bit of blessing, a bit of grease, a lot of friendship and food.