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.
People tell me it’s my fault, but I swear to you she was born that way. How else does one explain an 18-month old pushing away the apple juice, the milk, heck, the chocolate milk, and insisting, sorry, demanding, the Perrier?
“No puede ser,” stunned friends visiting our Florida home from Venezuela would comment as they watched my daughter’s plump fingers clasp the bottle and chug chug chug the fizzy imported content in one gulp.
“Why not a jugo de guayaba or a merengada de cambur?“worried relatives would suggest, reminding me of all the fresh guava juices and banana milkshakes I grew up on in Caracas.
My daughter would have none of that. She’d only have Perrier. Which meant Husband and I would make many visits to Costco, where one could most affordably buy it by the caseload.
I’ll admit, there was a distorted sense of pride in this newly-forming upscale palate. But of course, as things that are newly-forming tend to do, it grew stronger and, hmmm, more upscale.
Soon she discovered prosciutto. And not just any prosciutto, prosciutto di Parma. Because what’s a mother to do but only give her daughter the best? After that, it was foie gras. Foie gras in any shape or form: pan seared, torchon, terrine. As long as there was an endless supply, our toddler was happy.
“Remember the foie gras we served at our wedding,” Husband beamed, nudging me at a dimly light, quiet restaurant where even seasoned waiters were in awe of their young guest’s sophisticated taste. Our daughter sat focused and content, gobbling her serving and then mine before waiting eagerly for the grilled octopus that came next.
So…maybe we are a bit to blame. Some may call us enablers. We managed, oh heck, okay, bragged about it at playdates (“no, she hates peanut butter and jelly, but, by golly, give her quail eggs and she won’t stop eating!”)
It was only a matter of time before my daughter discovered caviar. She loved the whole prep work involved: mincing up hard boiled eggs and onion and serving them in separate bowls with tiny mother of pearl spoons. The baby toasts bowled her over as did the blini, Russian pancakes with which the delicacy is traditionally served. But after trying out all the accompaniments, she did what she always does, went straight for the good stuff, quietly pulling the tin of caviar closer to her and double-timing the scoops, working rather proficiently to snag the last roe.
She’s eighteen now and those habits haven’t changed a bit. If anything, she’s developed a keener radar to the more expensive tastes in life, something her father and I can’t help but glow with pride over, even if our wallets may keep getting skinnier.
National Caviar Day is this Tuesday, July 18th, and as a tribute some of Miami’s hotspots are celebrating the day with specials for those with fancy tastes. Seaspice will be offering Hokkaido Scallop Tartare on a bed of crispy bamboo rice topped with Ossetra caviar ($24), LaMuse Café , housed inside the chic Avant Gallery, is upping an American comfort classic with their Dora’s Deviled Eggs with Caviar ($18). If you want to people-watch and eat like a celeb, head over to Villa Azur for modestly-priced caviar specials such as lobster rolls: scallions, shallots, chives, dice radish, mayonnaise, yuzu sauce and finished with Kaluga caviar ($25).
She promised us she doesn’t normally cook this way, but believe me, a tall, attractive woman in a tight black dress, stiletto heels and a chef’s jacket is quite a turn on, even if you’re heterosexual. This is how the culinary goddess Daisy Martinez, from The Food Network’s Daisy Cooks! arrived to cook on stage last Friday night at Miami’s Adrienne Arscht Center. She was joined by the well-loved and charismatic local Miami celebrity Food Network star of Simply Delicioso, Ingrid Hoffman (whose warmth and approachable nature reminded me of a Latin Rachael Ray) Together they kicked off the center’s Celebrity Chef Series (which includes other greats, Jacques Pepin, Emeril Lagasse and Anthony Bourdain) beginning with a spice of Latin fun.
And what fun it was! Part interview, part storytelling, part cooking demo (with a house filled with salivating audience members), Daisy and Ingrid (because after hearing about Ingrid’s struggles with Lupus and Daisy’s affection for martinis we fast forwarded to a first-name basis) talked about their own multi-cultural families and journeys from humble Latin roots to successful Food Network mega stars. There was much reminiscing about abuelitas (grandmothers) and the influential role they had on each one of these women. This was something I could relate to because even though I didn’t have an abuelita, I had my Colombian nanny, Yolanda, whose jokes, wise cracks, and culinary secrets (such as the tastiest cabbage salad from Tia Beatriz) shaped me as much as their abuelas had shaped them.
The atmosphere at the Arscht Center was so casual, Daisy nearly stepped off the stage to reprimand those who admitted not knowing what annatto oil was. Silent gasps amongst Latin peers were heard as she took pause and carefully explained this secret of Latin cooking: annatto seeds are seeped in oil and used as a coloring and flavoring technique for many Latin dishes, such as the shrimp she was preparing that night.
Ingrid cooked for us first, embracing her mantra of healthy, wholesome eating, using a stalk of cilantro (a favorite ingredient of hers) as her floral arrangement and showing her fast and simple style with the preparation of shrimp in a poblano chile and tomatillo salsa, coconut rice, and a heart of palm salad. Reflecting the same multi-cultural pride that compromises Miami, she explained this to be a diversely Latin dish drawing ingredients from Mexico, Colombia and Argentina. She finished dazzling the audience with a mouthwatering guava martini made with jalapeño-infused vodka. Pardon the cliché but, caliente! And she did this all in ten minutes.
Daisy cooked shrimp as well but took a more traditional route with a classic sofrito rendition adding a surprise twist by serving this savory piquant dish on top of a Venezuelan sweet corn cachapa, or cornmeal pancake, traditionally eaten with fresh white cheese. As the cachapa sizzled Daisy promised us it would be crunchy on the outside but tender on the inside serving as the perfect companion to her shrimp. There’s something about Daisy that makes you just believe.
There were a couple of hiccups for her along the way: having to maneuver an electric stovetop (“I do gas, what can I say!” she confessed) and being given a spatula the size of a toddler’s cooking set instead of the real deal to flip her cachapas. But, these obstacles only served to enhance her funk and funny style as she brazenly plowed through them giving the audience plenty of laughs (her assistants became Cooking Ninja #1 and Cooking Ninja #2 and enjoyed basking in her fun limelight) along the way and equally important, producing a delicious smelling dish at the end. Again, as a mere audience member, I was not privy to tasting, but, being on row #7 smack in the middle, I sure as hell did get the aroma and it was intoxicatingly rich and sweet and spicy all at once.
Later on, during a Q&A session, two little girls donning chef hats and mucho moxie approached the microphone to admit they didn’t have a question but could they get a hug instead? Both Daisy and Ingrid gladly complied, leaving more than a few audience members jealous no doubt.
Lorena Garcia, a Venezuelan native chef and host of Univision’s Despierta AmericaCocinando Con Nestle, was the moderator of this jovial event and the only lucky soul able to sample the exquisite food prepared by these two talented ladies. Lorena would instinctively pop up on the stage as both Ingrid and Daisy were barely done stirring their final stir and eagerly give us all a hands-on preview of the food being prepared. Her enthusiasm wolfing down the food (piping hot and knifeless) served to attest what my sense of smell said:excelente!
This was not only an evening filled with good laughs, pleasurable conversation, and enticing aromas. It was what makes Miami my home and why: the conversion of cultures, languages and backgrounds that mold so easily that an entire audience is able to slip in and out of Spanish and English and not even notice they’ve done so. I suppose growing up the way I did, food obsessed and raised in Venezuela by an American mother and Israeli father, all the while meticulously nurtured by my Colombian nanny, gave me the flavors of many worlds. These are flavors that have formed me, nourished me, and propelled me through my life. Seeing these women sharing similar patchworks of tastes to a house filled with an eager and anticipating audience made me feel a part of a bigger and more flavorful culinary whole.