Today is National S’mores Day, so, even though she is away at camp, I’ve got celebrating with my daughter on my mind.
If there is such a thing as a S’mores Addict, she’s definitely one. I, on the other hand…not so much.
She is unsettled by this difference of opinion. I tell her it must be a cultural thing, that this quintessential American treat must not tickle my fancy because I grew up in Venezuela, where the closest thing to melted marshmallows was the leche condensada I’d have drizzled on the coconut raspados, or snow cones, for an extra 25 cents. Hershey’s never made it into my mother’s pantry – that pantry was bursting with local Venezuelan chocolate favorites with names that sung: Samba, Suzy, Cri-Cri, Ping-Pong!
It’s a tough sell. Ever since my daughter, a native South Floridian, has been old enough to chew, she’s been consuming anything S’mores-related and trying her darnest to win me over to the S’mores crowd.
Obviously, there is a constant supply of Hershey’s chocolate, graham crackers, and marshmallows in our pantry at all times.
And then, whatever S’mores-esque products The Marketing Gods come out with, we must buy:
S’mores Pop tarts.
S’mores ice cream.
S’mores Rice Krispies Treats
Even S’mores Goldfish!
My daughter promises me, with each new product purchased, that I will like S’mores this time around. I taste, hear Marketing Gods’ evil laughter and, well, tell her to go ahead and enjoy it, and leave it at that.
But my daughter is persistent, hopeful and never one to give up on whatever it is she sets her mind to. I do love her for that. So, when we found ourselves trying out a local restaurant, The Red Cow and I saw her face light up as she read the menu, I knew something was up.
“Mom, they have a S’mores brownie,” she announced. “You gotta, we’ve gotta…”
I knew the drill.
We’d get it.
I must try.
I will love S’mores this time around.
“Okay,” I told her, and the pact was done.
After devouring our Smoking Gun sandwiches the waitress placed the coveted dessert in front of my daughter, whose eyes looked like they were about to fall out.
Something strange happened.
Did I tell you that part?
The part where I heard music.
Not the country music crooning in the background (that stuff always makes 12-hour smoked brisket and cowboy potatoes taste better, you should know.)
It was more like church-choir music.
For a second.
As she placed the plate down.
The plate, which, OMG…glowed.
Not in a creepy, chemically way, no! In a golden-spiritual-live-in-the-present-Buddhist kind of way.
This all happened in seconds, see. While my daughter’s eyes popped out. I heard music. I saw a glow.
Then I rubbed my own eyes.
Because I was a jaded anti-s’mores Venezuelan, remember?
So something must be wrong with my eyes.
This dessert looked…
“Mom, this is beautiful,” my daughter stated.
Yes! Beautiful! Took the words right out of my mouth!
What can I tell you?
I want to tell you the truth: as cheesy as it sounds when I’ll type it out.
I want to tell you what happened, exactly as it did.
I want to tell you that I saw the light. I saw the S’mores light!
There was this enormous cloud of perfectly melted marshmallow hugging chocolate and some sort of graham cracker crust underneath and perched beside it an utterly unpretentious scoop of vanilla bean ice cream and good God I wanted to snatch that plate away from my child, my flesh and blood, and devour it all myself.
But I didn’t.
I still have an ounce of composure and an itty-bit of restraint.
I pride myself in believing I am a pretty-decently-okay parent.
So, I grabbed the sides of the wobbly table and said, as calmly as I could:
“No darling, go ahead.”
“What?” My daughter asked, confused. “Oh? You want some, Mom?” She offered, watching me closely, witnessing change.
“Oh, sweetie, thanks, but, you, uh, you can, um, just…”
There’s a very important part of this story I’ve left out.
It’s about my daughter.
I told you she’s sixteen.
I told you she’s a S’mores Addict.
I haven’t told you how incredibly giving and perceptive she is.
You see, at that moment, while an imaginary S’mores choir sang and our tiny table for two lit up with delicious joy, my daughter, the S’mores Addict, pushed the untouched plate under my chin.
“Here Mom, go for it. I’m sure you’re gonna love it this time.”
I’m not sure if it was that soft, sweet blanket of surrendered marshmallow or the rich chocolate brownie dancing with buttery graham crust underneath. It all tasted magnificent in the company of my girl, smiling and savoring the moment with me, without even taking her first bite.
“Con todo,” rolled off my tongue automatically whenever I approached those beloved metallic carts parked precariously on congested street corners in my hometown of Caracas.
It didn’t matter that it was steaming hot outside, that a distressing amount of flies were on a holding pattern awaiting tasty scraps or that I was standing in a puddle of questionable grey water at the time. All senses were zeroed in on the incomparable meal I was about to have.
The man in the white cap would give me a slight nod, an acknowledgment that I had requested my order “with everything,” and begin creating the best hot dog known to mankind in seven seconds flat.
He’d pluck the link out of murky waters and plop it onto a steamed bun, and then, the expert assembling began.
Diced onion. More diced onion.
A hefty grating of fresh white cheese.
And a huge mountain of shoestring potato chips to top it all off.
If he was a jovial guy, and they all were, he’d drizzle some more pink sauce on top. Because in Venezuela, you can never have too much salsa rosada.
The expertise used sprinkling, drizzling, squeezing, grating, and piling all items with such bravado and fanfare could have easily served as inspiration for Tom Cruise’s character, Brian Flanagan, in Cocktail. Not only were you being given the best hot dog in the world, but you were being given the best hot dog in the world with a show.
It was heaven in a bun. The type of experience you just had to close your eyes for, because your other senses would simply be short-circuited if they dared function at the same time.
I’d block out the horns and the people and, yes, even the flies, and I’d take a big bite filled with crunch and soft and heat and smoky meat and it was the most delightful, delicious six seconds of my life. And then I’d do it again and again and again until I’d be left with crumbs on my lips, a dirty napkin and a small mound of fallen potato sticks on the ground.
I’ll give you the recipe, but, unless you’re on a street corner in Sabana Grande or Las Mercedes, hearing the crazy car horns and the shouts of “epa mi pana!” or “como esta la vaina?” it’s really not the same.
1 hot dog, 1 bun
diced white onion
spicy sauce (use your favorite kind)
Salsa Rosada (Pink Sauce: a mixture of mayo, ketchup and a dab of spicy sauce)
Queso blanco, rayado (in Gringospeak this translates to any of those hard, white Latin cheeses they sell in most supermarkets. Take a chunk and grate it, plop that on top.)
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.