Aglio e Olio Con Amore

Recipe #11: Pasta With Garlic and Parsley

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We make pasta aglio e olio all the time in our house. It’s fast and easy and to my mind it is just about the most perfect meal imaginable especially when lemon and a little crushed red chiles are added. On our second date, Jim made aglio e olio for me. I had never had it before and now I find I could eat it almost every night.

So when Luca was searching for his next recipe and skipped right past Pasta With Garlic and Parsley, I had him take another look. He looked it over and then only got excited by the optional additions to the dish which he read aloud. “’Parmesan cheese, rocket (arugula) or basil instead of parsley.’” Luca looked up and said, “No.” He went on: “’Chopped anchobies (sic) or olives, fresh tomatoes, and pine nuts or walnuts.’” Jim, a huge fan of pine nuts, perked up at the mention of them. “That sounds good.” But Luca said, “No pine nuts. No walnuts.” Then after a moment of considering, he said, “Anchobies, fresh tomatoes and olives. And Parmesan cheese, of course.” I told Luca that half of being a good chef was knowing what will taste good, and I thought he had picked an excellent combination of ingredients. I couldn’t wait.

The next day when it was time to start cooking, I got out all the ingredients and laid them on the counter. Luca washed his hands and then looked at the garlic and panicked. “I don’t want to work with the garlic!” he shouted. This has become a sort of mantra of his. I have no idea where he got this particular phrasing but every time he sees that garlic is involved in a recipe, he shouts out: “I don’t want to work with the garlic!” I tried coaxing him into it but saw almost instantly that it was no use. He will get over his fear of garlic one way or another and it won’t be due to my powers of persuasion.

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I started chopping garlic while Luca separated the parsley leaves from the stems. We worked side by side in relative quiet (all but for the new album from Zeep, friends of ours from London who make incredibly fun and sophisticated music that cannot help but put you in a great mood). After a few minutes Luca said, “What is parsley’s protection?” This idea tends to occur to Luca as he is annihilating something at the chopping block. In the case of the onions of a couple of weeks ago, his eyes welled up leading him to marvel at the way the onions keeps predators like him away. The parsley must have seemed defenseless in comparison because Luca was ripping it apart.

He chopped the anchovies and then went to wash his hands. Then he chopped the olives (one by one until I intervened) and now there were five piles of delicious things ready to go into the pasta.

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olives, parsley, anchovy...

Luca poured the olive oil into the skillet and I added the garlic. He stood on the step stool and stirred it gently. “Be careful not to let it brown!” he remembered from the book, and I thought of how faithfully he adheres to Alice Waters’ directions. How much easier our mornings would be if only she would write a recipe for getting to school on time. “Step one: get out of bed precisely when you are told. Step two; put on your clothes and go the bathroom to brush your teeth. You must do this right away.

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The water was boiling and Luca poured in the pasta. He jumped back a bit when he felt the steam on his arms and I realized that this was his first time putting dried pasta in a pot of boiling water. Not a milestone exactly but one of a thousand hurdles that will make him more capable in the kitchen and the world beyond. I hadn’t realized until Luca embarked on this cooking project that the kitchen provided so many opportunities to conquer one’s fear; fear of knives and heat, fear of garlic, fear of getting it wrong.

This last has to do with risks other than the physical ones. Because what is cooking if not an offering? And with any offering we hope that it spreads some joy and also that no one laughs in our faces. For this reason baking is infinitely more terrifying than making things like pasta sauces and stews. With baking there is no hiding the ugly mistakes (see the post below). Luca’s desire to cook comes from his love of food. When he is cooking he learns about chemistry and flavor and how to manage utensils and fire. He is learning that some aspects of cooking are tedious and tiring and that therefore the whole enterprise requires a certain amount of generosity. He is learning that even though we have to put dinner on the table every night we can try to do so with imagination and sometimes even a sense of adventure. He is learning the joy of giving pleasure. In short, he is mostly learning about love.

When the pasta was ready, Luca read that we were supposed to drain it and put it in the skillet with the olive oil and garlic. Luca took the tongs and tried transferring the pasta to the skillet but it was a big mess so I took over. With the tongs, he turned the pasta over and over in the oil and garlic. Then he put in the olives and parsley and turned that round and then the rest of the ingredients.  He added salt and pepper and mixed it all together.

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Luca’s first pasta dish ended up looking like this:

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Perfetto!

Because this is exactly the kind of food that I live for, I dug in happily and then remembered to grate some Parmesan on top. I scraped my thumb on the cheese grater and it started to bleed a little. I was too busy eating to care.

“Luca, “ I said, devouring the pasta. “What do you think? This is incredible!”

But he was worried about my thumb. With a full plate of food in front of him, he came around to my side of the table and gave my thumb a serious look. Then he hugged me went back to his food. Neither of us spoke until our plates were empty. Then we went for seconds.

Now that’s love.

Magic

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Recipe # 10 biscuits

I was wondering if Luca was bored with cooking since he hadn’t wanted to make his beloved tomato sauce the day before. But right after dinner that night he picked out his next recipe: biscuits.

I am not much of a baker. With the exception of Alice Waters’ Plum Upside down cake which for some reason always turns out great, I don’t have much luck with cakes and pies. Cookies are OK as long as I don’t try for anything too complicated. I once made an apple pie with homemade pie crust to bring to a friend’s Thanksgiving dinner. This friend happens to be an expert baker. His pies and cakes come out looking like something you’d want to put on your wall if they weren’t so unbelievably delicious. He is more like a magician than a baker. I spent the day working and reworking the pie crust and ended up with a pie so ugly I thought of a hundred lies to tell about how it had met its demise. It was wrinkled and brown with stray pieces of crust that were badly patched together. After dinner the desserts came out and there was my failure on display along with an astonishing array of perfectly stunning cakes and pies. I couldn’t bear to listen to the nice guests try to find something nice to say about my hideous pie so I invented a story. I said that it was called an Estonian Apple Pie, and that in Estonia the tradition is to make pies as ugly as possible to deter pie thieves from stealing them off the kitchen window sill. They get prizes in Estonia, I elaborated, for the ugliest and tastiest pie. For about a minute everyone believed me and then afterwards nobody felt the need to say anything nice about my ugly apple pie.

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Luca’s first order of business was to place his army action figure on the kitchen counter, so now we had a witness in the form of a plastic army guy on steroids. Luca measured out the flour (1/2 whole wheat as is the custom in our house), baking soda, sugar and salt. Then Luca poured out the milk and mixed it together. He loved watching it get lumpy. “It looks like a fossil,” he remarked. Then he formed the dough into a ball, gently working it inside the bowl.

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He sprinkled some flour onto the counter and rolled out the dough. Then he went to work kneading it. It was something of a wonder watching him do this. He was silent and heaved his shoulders into the work as though he had been doing it his whole life. Watching him, one would have thought that perhaps he had come from a long line of bakers. And he was fast. Some days it seems like all I ever say to Luca is “Come on. Can’t you do that a little faster?” So watching him work the dough so swiftly was a revelation.

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The recipe says to knead the dough only for a minute and Luca had gone over, so I stopped him and went to look for something to use as a cookie cutter. I came up with a small wine glass. Here again, Luca was incredibly fast and precise. He loved making the biscuit shapes and then reworking the dough so he could cut more round biscuits from it. When we were done we had 14 biscuits.

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We poured the melted butter into a bowl and Luca dipped the biscuits in the butter one by one and placed them on the baking sheet. My arteries were hardening just looking at how much butter was dripping off the biscuits and then the biscuits sliding around in the butter on the baking sheet. I told Luca to get his mitts on and he did that but the top oven was too high for him so I placed the baking sheet in the oven.

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Luca went back to playing with his army action figure but when he smelled the biscuits baking, he came over and stood in front of the oven. “Oh, yum!” he said with a deep growl of appreciation. Then Jim called. Luca told him the biscuits were baking and that they smelled so good he was planning on putting his head in front of the oven so that his hair would smell like them.

When the biscuits came out of the oven they looked and smelled divine. It really was a little bit of magic, I thought, mixing these ingredients together, putting them in an oven and ending up with something so deeply satisfying. We ate one right off the baking sheet and Luca’s eyes rolled back into his head with the pleasure of it. Just then I remembered the biscuits my mother used to make for Thanksgiving. My mother was a really terrible cook and we almost never had dinner around the table together. Instead we would sort of forage on our own and as a result eating was a lonely affair. But on Thanksgiving my mother would roast a big turkey and make mashed potatoes. Best of all she’d pop open a pressurized can of Pillsbury biscuits, and ten minutes later we’d have them right out of the oven and smothered in butter. They were so warm and buttery and comforting that they almost made up for all the TV dinners eaten, not even in front of the TV, but alone at the dining table.

Luca’s biscuits were light, slightly nutty and of course buttery. “I’m going to divide them up into three,” Luca said apparently planning on eating them all that very night with dinner. I wanted to do that too but I didn’t let on. “We’re each going to have one or two tonight and save the rest for tomorrow,” I said doing my best imitation of a grownup.

Over dinner I told Luca how great it was going to be when he went to college and could cook a nice meal for himself. “All your friends are going to want to come to your place for dinner,” I said.

“Oh yeah, because in college the mommies only make their lunches,” he said.

“When you’re in college, you have to make all your own meals because your mommy and daddy won’t be there. You’ll be on your own then.” Luca just stared at me and I felt just terrible. He has heard this before, about how one day he will move out and be on his own, but he continues not to want to hear about it.

“Then the teachers make the lunches,” he said. This was tremendously satisfying to him and he slathered a big lump of blueberry jam onto his second biscuit.

“No, the teachers don’t make lunch. They are too busy teaching to make lunch. You have to make your own lunch.”

“Or go out to a restaurant,” Luca said.

“Right,” I said and then tried changing the subject. “You are so lucky that you’re learning how to cook so you will always know how to make something really good at home.” But it was no use trying to come up with something cheery to say. At the thought that Luca could not imagine a world without nurturing, lunch-making adults my eyes welled up. Likewise, I cannot imagine a world without a seven year old boy asking his constant questions and driving me crazy with how long it takes to put on his shoes. I looked at him across the table, not even trying to hide my eyes that were swollen with tears. We are both blind to a future without each other. We know it is coming, but we are happier when we choose not to think about it. And happier still when there are fresh, warm biscuits on the table.

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Next up: pasta with garlic an olive oil (plus anchovies, olives and fresh tomatoes).

Alien Species In My Kitchen

recipe #9 (sort of): tomato sauce

Pasta with tomato sauce is Luca’s favorite food, but he didn’t want to help me make it even though I had a big bag of fresh tomatoes that needed cooking. He wanted to make Halibut in Fig Leaves – again. Every time I ask him what he wants to make next, he mentions the halibut. I told him we didn’t have the halibut or the fig leaves and that I wouldn’t know where to find fig leaves even if there were time to go hunting for them. And anyway what about the fresh tomatoes? He shrugged and went off to play with his Star Wars action figures.

I started chopping and Luca came in throwing pretend grenades. There has been a marked escalation in recent days of fake violence, guns and shooting noises, and more elaborate explosions. Even in his drawings, Luca has graduated from rescue scenes involving helicopters and ambulances to bloody stabbings and people falling off cliffs. Luca wasn’t particularly interested in guns when he was younger. While all the boys around him were playing guns and war, Luca was building things with blocks or playing violin. I thought, with a hint of smugness, that he just wasn’t that type of boy and was glad I didn’t have the problem of how to tolerate the gunplay.

Luca found this when we were camping

Luca found this when we were camping

 

Along came Star Wars and first grade and surges of testosterone that I swear are actually visible. Luca started playing with guns occasionally and I found that it didn’t bother me as much as I thought it would. There was even something vaguely wholesome about the sight of two boys playing army. I don’t believe in censoring imaginary play, and I do believe that boys need to learn how to manage their aggression. At the same time, I don’t want guns in my house for the simple fact that I don’t like them. Likewise, I don’t let Luca put stickers all over the furniture not because I think stickers will damage his character, but because I don’t like them.

Consulting other parents is no help. Parents I admire are all over the map on this issue. One friend lets her son play with guns in the house as long as he doesn’t point them in anyone’s face. Another does not allow toy guns in the house but doesn’t stop her son from making a gun out of whatever is lying around and then shooting at will. Another mother I know lets her son do anything he wants while a mutual friend of ours enforces an absolute ban on violent play on sociopolitical grounds. I have fallen somewhere in between these extremes, which is another way of saying that I am inconsistent. We don’t have guns in the house (real or pretend), and when Luca makes one out of driftwood, it doesn’t bother me. When he’s outside he can do pretty much whatever he wants, but in the house, the rules change, although not with much consistency. And wherever we are, I don’t like being shot at. Where Jim will pretend to fall down dead, I make a vaguely disapproving comment with only half-hearted conviction. I know he doesn’t mean to kill me and that it may be important to his development to shoot at me. But I can’t help it. It offends me.

Luca's driftwood pistol

Luca's driftwood pistol

Along came second grade, the Star Wars obsession has only grown and with it (because of it?) more interest in weaponry and violence. Now he is asking for an X-box so he can play the Star Wars video game. The answer to this is “No. No. And, oh by the way? No.” I tell him video games are like MacDonald’s for the brain. Because this is a food metaphor, Luca gets it and grows quiet.

I remember 17 weeks into my pregnancy being shocked to learn I was having a boy. It didn’t seem possible. It wasn’t what I was picturing. And besides, I was not equipped to be the mother of a boy. I had the thought that this child would be Jim’s and the next child, a girl obviously, would be mine. Then I began hearing from mothers of boys about how they love their mothers forever and how the mothers of girls must brace themselves for the day they will hear their daughters say “I hate you.” OK, I thought. Maybe this having a boy thing would turn out all right in the end. Yet I wonder about Luca’s Star Wars fixation, coupled with his new love of missiles and grenades. Is it working out a healthy instinct or succumbing to mainstream America’s idea of what it means to be male? And whichever it is, do I have to like it? When presented with a drawing of someone getting shot, replete with blood spatter and a thought bubble that says, “Die, Scum!” am I required to say  “Great drawing?”

This is what I was thinking about as I made Alice Waters’ tomato sauce for the first time. The smell of thyme filled the kitchen. The recipe called for the use of a food mill at the end of the cooking to strain out the skin and seeds. Being more phobic about food mills than I am about skin and seeds, I planned on skipping this part. The recipe also calls for covering the sauce for the first 20 minutes and I thought this might make it too thin. If so, I could always thicken it with some tomato paste.

While I was topping and tailing some green beans Luca ran in, hid behind the kitchen counter and then peered around and shot me. We were in different worlds.

Luca was “starving” when he sat down at the table. He took one look at the pasta with tomato sauce and panicked. “I want more sauce!” he said. I told him that there was no more, that it had turned out a little thin, that’s all (I was out of tomato paste and cooked it down as long as I could). He took another look at the food and burst into tears. I have made pasta with tomato sauce for him hundreds of times and he has never noticed any variation in consistency or flavor. Now he was crying and demanding to know what went wrong. I told him he was welcome not to eat it, but there was nothing I could do about the state of the sauce.

“Did you make it from here!?” he demanded incredulously, pointing to Fanny at Chez Panisse. Then he went searching for the recipe for evidence of my misdeeds. My patience was wearing thin. I told him if he was going to whine about the food he could just get up and leave the table. He had after all been invited to cook it himself. He cried a little more and then settled down and ate. In a few minutes he was in a good mood again.

“Do you know why sand troopers are cool?” Luca asked. “Because they have two lives.”

I may have to get a food mill.

Math and Other Dangers

Recipe #8: chocolate kisses

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The recipe for chocolate kisses calls for 3 1/4 oz of chocolate, and the bar of Scharfenbergers semi-sweet chocolate was 9.7 ounces. This was bad news for me. If these had been rounder numbers, or if I were less of a mathematical moron, I could have seized the opportunity to turn this into a teaching moment. You know, showing how to apply math in everyday life and ending up with chocolate kisses! Instead, I punched numbers into a calculator and got nowhere. I looked at the bar of chocolate and started over. No number came up that was useful. Luca was watching me fumble around and in an effort to hide my fear of math, I turned it into a comedy act. I stared at the calculator and made funny faces at it and banged it on the table as though it were broken. Luckily, Luca is at an age where his mother can still crack him up.

I have truly despised math all my life, and I will feel horribly guilty if Luca inherits my deficiency. I realize that in certain fields, math is power and that it even contains a certain beauty. I was too bored by math drills to appreciate any deeper mathematical concepts, and now I see that I missed out. In drumming, for example, I can see that having even a basic understanding of math would be beneficial. For this reason, I lie to Luca regularly, saying things like, “Math is fun, right?” And, “Math is cool. You are so lucky to do math every day!” Luca is already a lover of books and words, and I am determined that if he decides to hate math it will be his own doing and not mine.

The best I could do was to come up with an approximation of how much chocolate to use. Then Luca looked at the recipe. “30 kisses,” he read. “That’s a lot,” he said looking doubtful. Then he said, “Oh, because they are small.” But I didn’t see how the little block of chocolate could amount to 30 kisses no matter how small they were. Luca agreed. “Let’s make the whole thing,” he said. We decided to double the recipe which made the math calculations only marginally easier.

Cutting the block of chocolate was hard so I did that and then Luca put it into a metal bowl. When the water was “just bubbling,” I placed the bowl over the water and Luca got up on his step stool and started stirring. The chocolate melting into thick goo was a divine sight. Luca kept stirring. The metal bowl was smaller than the pot of water underneath it so that I had to hold it in place. Even so a little water got inside the bowl of chocolate and I had to pour it out. Luca had on his blue mitts and kept stirring.

When all the chocolate was melted, I got out the “cold butter,” and cut out two tablespoons worth. It went into the bowl and Luca stirred some more. We took turns stirring until the butter had disappeared into the melted chocolate. I don’t know why this was so much fun but it was.

“Now it has to cool,” I said. Luca read from the book. “Place chocolate in a small plastic bag and squeeze into a corner.”  I looked for a good plastic bag and when the chocolate held its shape, we spooned it in. Luca laughed because it was messy.

“This is easier said than done,” I said and he laughed some more.

“Is that an expression?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said.

“Is it an expression people say all the time?”

“Not all the time, but when something sounds easier than it is.”

Once the chocolate was in the bag we had to get it all into one corner. Luca went to work on this as I lined a baking sheet with parchment paper. Luca was being extremely thorough about getting the chocolate into the corner of the bag and when he was done he said, “Now we need scissors.” I told him that all of the scissors were in his room, probably three or four pairs, because every time we have a pair anywhere else in the house, he takes them and they subsequently disappear into the unholy mess that is his room. He grumbled something on his way to his room and then emerged holding a pair of child’s scissors. He cut the corner of the bag.

“Here comes the fun part,” I said. I squeezed out the first kiss. Really it was more of a blob than a kiss. The second one looked like a slug. Another cooking mystery: how do you get a perfect kiss shape? It seemed impossible to get them to look like the picture:

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Luca took the bag and made a few. “These don’t look like kisses,” he said, and I told him that they would taste great no matter what shape they were in. We took turns squeezing out the kisses, and then we did some together. Luca started getting silly with it and filled a second baking sheet by himself. Doubling the recipe made 36 kisses, not 60, and some of them were very small.

Who cares what they looked like? They were delicious.

Chocolate smudges

Chocolate smudges

Luca’s own batch tasted just as good.

Now these are kisses!

Now these are kisses!

Luca went to work on the bowl with a spoon and his fingers, and I put the kisses in the refrigerator to cool. Just then I got a call from my bank saying that someone was at that moment trying to cash a check from my account for 996 dollars. I didn’t know this person, and she was just then fleeing from the bank. She had all my account information including my home address. I was instructed to go right away to my nearest bank to close the account. Since my husband’s name is also on the account, I wasn’t sure they would let me do this, but I told Luca we had to go right now. He got on his shoes and we went to the bank.

Luca seemed unfazed by the fact that some strange person was trying to steal our money. He has seen a few bikes stolen from our old house in Venice, but that is about it as far as his awareness of criminal activity goes. When I was his age, my house was getting broken into regularly. I’d come home from school and find that the place had been ransacked with a chilling ferocity. Other times we’d wake in the middle of the night to the sound of people breaking in and rifling around through our things. Once we even saw a dead body in the street moments after a stabbing. And then of course we lived under the forbidding shadow of the Brooklyn House of Detention which was next door. So the life of crime and its aftermath was never far from my consciousness. Luca, on the other hand, has been largely sheltered. He knows there are “bad guys” out there in the world, but he hasn’t brushed up against them much.

The “personal banker” closed my existing account and moved all the money into one with just my name on it. She did all this without so much as a phone call to Jim. So this is how easy is to steal from your spouse, I thought. I’d put Jim’s name on the account as soon as we could get to a bank together but how did the banker know that? As Luca and I were leaving the bank, my phone rang again. This time it was another bank asking if we had authorized a check in the amount of 998 dollars to a woman with a different name than the first one. I didn’t know if they were two separate people or if it was one person with fake ID’s. I explained the situation adding that if the woman was still in the bank, she needed to be arrested.

It felt strange asking for someone to be arrested. I have taught writing in prisons, mostly to juveniles and women, and have heard about the desperate circumstances that lead to incarceration. Many women end up in jail because some guy has coerced her to commit a crime. I had no idea what the story was behind the woman (or women) who was trying to steal our money, just that right then I couldn’t feel much sympathy. Still, whoever she was, she was having a shitty life and sending her to jail wouldn’t solve any of her problems. Nor would it make me any safer from thieves. In any case there was little chance of her being arrested because the bank teller couldn’t exactly jump over the counter to detain her and what were the chances she would hang around long enough for a cop to arrive?

When Luca and I got home, he suddenly looked panicked. “What about my account?” he said. He has exactly $52 in his account, one dollar for every week of 2008 (more math!). I told him not to worry, that we didn’t pay bills with that account so his money was safe. He was relieved.

The chocolate kisses were cold by now and we ate a few of them. They were buttery and melted instantly. “Mmm, so good,” Luca said. My phone rang again and this time it was a policeman saying that he did indeed have the woman with the bad checks in custody and that he would call back later with more information. Luca was excited that I was talking to a police officer and he got on another phone and listened in. I was very surprised that the woman had been caught. This was probably the first time I have ever been the victim of a crime where the perpetrator had been apprehended.

Luca and I went to meet Jim for dinner at Mozza Pizzeria. We had three different kinds of pizza: clams and garlic, funghi misti, and what we called the Pig Fest: sausage, salami, bacon and guanciale.

Outside Mozza

Outside Mozza

The View From Mozza

The View From Mozza

When we came home Jim saw the bowl full of chocolate kisses and opened his birthday present. We watched “Bringing Up Baby” with Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn and ate all the kisses. I can’t think of a better combination of mood elevators. Luca laughed all the way through the movie.

Right before bed he asked, “What would happen if there was no such thing as money?”

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Captain Rex in the Kitchen

Recipes 5, 6 & 7: Lemon Sole Fried with Bread Crumbs, Clarified Butter, Bread Crumbs.

Jim had to work on Saturday on his birthday, so Friday night’s attempt at Alice Waters’ lemon sole fried with bread crumbs turned out to be his birthday dinner celebration. This meant that Luca and I had to keep stopping in the middle of cooking to call Jim who was stuck in traffic so we could gauge how much longer it would be before we could start the fish. Traffic on the freeways was terrible. Luca read the last line of the recipe with urgency: “Mommy,” he said. “It says serve right away!” Right, I said.

Actually the stopping was fun for Luca. He had just gotten his Halloween costume and had done little else for two days besides walk around in it making very realistic shooting noises. I told him the sole would be messy and that he would probably want to change, but I knew there was no way he would agree to this. Instead he tied on an apron and rolled up his sleeves. In the pauses of waiting for Jim, he took off the apron and resumed his role as Captain Rex. I expected the costume to distract him from cooking. But the responsibilities of clone trooper captain and home cook must be pretty compatible because Luca had no trouble handling them both simultaneously.

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We put on some music; Baaba Maal’s new album, Television, our current favorite. Luca keeps playing his two favorite songs, the 1st track called “Television” and 7th track which is a gorgeous song called “Dakar Moon.” I beg him to let the whole album play out but he keeps running to the stereo to skip the songs in between. I wonder if all kids get stuck in a groove this way; the costume, the songs repeated over and over, the favorite pair of shorts that turn shiny and stained with overuse. As a character trait, a certain amount of obsessiveness has its good sides: the intense focus, the loyalty to people and work. But because I am a catastrophic thinker, I look ahead to the bad girlfriend, the one who loves sex and methamphetamines. There will be no turning Luca’s head from the object of his fixation.

Having a child is a lifelong exercise in relinquishing control little by little. I marvel at the parents of sixteen year olds who sigh and say, “Jake just got his driver’s license.” Lock him up! I think to myself. I know one day I will get there but I can’t for the life of me see how. I have no idea how my own mother managed with four kids who rode the subways at all hours all over New York City. We had no cell phones. She never knew where we were and half the time she was better off not knowing. I remember as a teenager coming home late and hearing her voice from the bed saying, “Sweetie? Is that you?” The poor woman never slept. One day Luca will be out there on the roads with the drunks and the texters, and along with the usual dangers over which I will have no control will be Luca’s own intensity.

But for now, Luca was laughing at the bread crumbs. He put a handful of bread cubes in the blender and pushed grate. The bread jumped up and down a few times before it settled into the grind. Each time bread went into the blender, it jumped up and down and Luca erupted in delighted fits of laughter. It is so much fun to cook with a person who gets a kick out of watching bread jump up and down in the blender.

Clarifying the butter was a mini science experiment. Luca liked watching the butter melt and then foam up. I understand the concept of separating the fat from the milk solids and why it is necessary. But whenever I do something like “skim the foam from the butter” it turns out not to be that simple. We took turns skimming the foam and putting it into a bowl. But the milk solids and fat seemed impossible to separate and the contents of bowl and the pan were identical.

We called Jim. He had moved less than a half a mile since the last phone call. I lay my head down on the counter and said, “I am so hungry.” Luca came over and patted me on the back, and there we were; a grown woman being comforted by a seven year old boy in full Star Wars regalia. He went back to playing and I drank some wine.

A little later, Luca cracked his first egg ever. He was good at it and he liked it. He got to crack another and then mixed them with a fork. Then he put flour in another bowl and the bread crumbs onto a plate.

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Meanwhile Jim had budged another few feet. Luca suggested I have some chips. I had a little more wine instead. Finally Jim called and said: “Start the fish!” At first Luca said, “I don’t want to touch the fish.” I have found that if I sometimes utterly ignore him he does a complete reversal. I have no idea why this is and have spent no time trying to figure it out. But here it worked again, because a few seconds later Luca said, “Oh! Actually I do!” And he picked up a sole filet and started dipping it in the flour.

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“Mommy! What about the lemon?” he said suddenly. I panicked for a second and then found a lemon. But there was no lemon listed in the recipe. Luca looked at me as though I were a complete idiot and, just like a teenager with a driver’s license, he said, “Lemon sole?” I had gotten plain old sole. But I cut the lemon anyway because it would be good on the fried fish.

Luca dredged each filet in flour. Then he dipped it into the gooey egg and then into the bread crumbs. His fingers were covered in eggy batter. He put the filets in the skillet and stood on his step stool. As the bready mixture began to sizzle it sent up a delicious buttery fried smell. Luca rubbed his stomach and said, “Oh, yum,” in a deep whisper.

Jim came in and said it smelled great. We opened some champagne and Luca gave him the best pieces of fish because it was his birthday. We added some salt and some lemon. But I found the fish a little disappointing. The bread crumb mixture had not stuck to the fish the way it is supposed to (maybe the crumbs were too big?) and the fish itself seemed little slimy (not cooked enough?). But Luca and Jim loved it and it was good to be home all together on a Friday night. Just as I had predicted, Luca’s eyes rolled up in his head as he dug in. “Mmmmm…”

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Gadgets

Luca has been reading Fanny at Chez Panisse every morning at breakfast. The book is open on the table and he chews on his toast and reads the recipes. Today he read “Candied Orange Peels” and “Lemon Sole Fried With Bread Crumbs.” When he reads ingredients he says “one slash two cups water.” When he reads temperatures he says “two-seven-five faramites.” I don’t correct him. I figure I can stop time if I don’t correct him. For years instead of Portuguese he said “Porkagese” and I’d have to remind myself to say it like this so he wouldn’t catch on and start saying it correctly. Since I speak porkagese and we have Brazilian friends and lots of Brazilian music that we love, it’s a word that gets mentioned pretty regularly. Anyway, now he says “Portuguese” and is one step closer to leaving us to go off to college.

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This morning Luca was reading about candied orange peels and we were all getting pretty excited about them, especially the part about how the cooks at Chez Panisse like to dip the ends in melted chocolate and then “chop them up to put them into pies and tarts, ice creams and on top of cakes and custards.” Luca looked up from the page and said “Ooooooh. Yum!” He read on. “Let them boil for five minutes, then turn off the heat and let them sit in the pan for… twenty-four hours!” We all let out a big disappointed, “Oh!” This is why you always have to read a recipe all the way through. I remember being interested in a recipe for lamb in Alice Waters menu cookbook and the first step was this: “Roast the lamb on a spit.” Obviously I read no further. I don’t have the most equipped kitchen. Any recipe that mentions a double boiler or a food mill is out. Zesting used to be a problem until I got a really good zester and now it’s a breeze. But I can tell you that a spit is one item I will go without for the rest of my days. Unless I move to a big chateau in the French countryside or a stone farmhouse outside of Lucca, Italy. These are the types of places I imagine a spit would fit right in. Not so much in my Los Angeles kitchen.

When I was a kid my mother bought a crockpot. She thought this was the greatest invention ever created. Since her idea of cooking was to fry a hunk of tuna and call it a tuna burger the crockpot didn’t improve things much from a culinary standpoint. But for her it was a revolution. She could start a pot of rice in the morning before work and come home to… rice! I think she used it every day for about a month and then it sat on the counter gathering grease from the fried tuna burgers.

Another gadget intended to modernize the kitchen was the garbage compactor. Remember those? My mother bought one of those too. Considering that she was a single mother with four kids living on a secretary’s salary, she must have believed in the power of these things to make her life better. No more cooking! No more garbage! The problem was that we lived in Brooklyn and had what could politely be called “a cockroach problem.” You can imagine therefore that crunching up garbage and saving it in the kitchen until it weighed over sixty pounds was perhaps not the wisest idea. It made the roaches happy, but none of us wanted to lug it out of the house.

One day I will get over my fear of double boilers and parchment paper and food mills. (At the end of Fanny at Chez Panisse are a few recipes that call for an ice cream maker.) But for now I am looking forward to Luca’s Friday night attempt at breaded lemon sole. I really think Alice Waters is a genius for making this book for kids. I imagine Luca’s hands all sticky with egg and flour and breadcrumbs and then his eyes rolling up into his head as he digs into the buttery fried fish. Really, what could be better than gourmet fish fingers you made yourself? Maybe just watching Bringing Up Baby afterward and waiting for Saturday.

Next up (after the fish): chocolate birthday kisses for Daddy:

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In Search of the Sunday Lunch

Recipe # 4; garlic croutons (sort of)

On Sunday we had friends over for lunch, a couple (one American, one French) and their two very adorable boys. These are people we like a lot and who also make beautiful meals for us, so despite being on the tail end of a cold that made me want to stay in bed and the fact that I was on my own because Jim was working all day (on Sunday!), ordering pizza and making a nice green salad were out. I had planned to serve grilled chicken thighs with a cardamom rub and tomato/mint salad (from Thrill of the Grill by Chris Schlesinger and David Willoughby), grilled zucchini spears, homemade guacamole, bread, cheese and olives.

I become very bitchy when I am not feeling well, parceling out my energy bit by bit and sniping at anyone who asks for more than their fair share. So it was with some hesitation that I asked Luca if he wanted to make the next recipe in the Alice Waters cookbook, garlic croutons (which are more like bruscetta unless you chop them up after). He said “Sure!” and once again, I hoped I had it in me to see him through it.

I lived in London when I was a young child and aside from some truly vile nannies, my most vivid memories were of the Sunday lunches we had at various friends’ houses. They started at around 2pm and involved enormous roasts, vegetables dripping with meaty juices and many bottles of red wine for the adults. We’d get dressed up for these lunches and stay until it grew dark outside and beyond. There would be pies and then other kinds of sweets. There was always a fire in the fireplace. It felt like the perfect way to spend a Sunday, especially in the grey, cold damp of London in winter.

More recently Luca, Jim and I lived in London while Jim was working on a film, and I was happy to see that the Sunday lunch still thrived, and that aside from the more relaxed dress code, it was largely unchanged from my childhood memory. And anyway in London when all else fails, there is always the pub lunch which is a pretty good substitute for the homemade version especially when you live, as we did, a short walk from a really good gastropub. We came back to LA when Luca was three years old and for a while after, whenever we mentioned going out to eat, he would say, “To the pub!” This raised some eyebrows but we had happy memories of sitting with Luca around a wooden table drinking the winter ale and waiting for a plate of haddock and prawn gratin.

I have always wanted to have a real Sunday lunch like they have in London, but people don’t do this in LA. There are too many soccer games and kids’ birthday parties. There is no carry over from a mid-day activity to an evening one; the two are sharply divided by complicated scheduling of playdates and sports activities. Whenever I have invited people over on a Sunday they can’t make it until 5 and then have to leave by 7 to put the kids to bed. Our childless friends have brunches and theater matinees and get testy if they are asked to dinner before 8pm. We have one friend with a good excuse. She is a violist with the LA Philharmonic Orchestra and because she is often performing on Sunday afternoons, she can’t make it anywhere until after 5. Still, she eats whatever is left and has a good time without looking at her watch until her daughter falls asleep in her lap. It’s all in the attitude.

Luca came into the kitchen to make the croutons and right away he started arguing about the kitchen apron I was wearing and that he wanted. Too bad, I told him. I was busy adding salt and pepper to the rub. But he was insistent.

“I can’t wear the other one!”

“You wore it the other day when you made quesadillas.”

“That was when I changed into a waiter. I can’t wear this one when I’m a chef.”

There is no arguing with someone whose logic is completely lost on you. I took off my apron.

Luca searched for the recipe in the book and couldn’t find it.

“I looked everywhere! I looked in the garlic section!”

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I made  a snotty remark about how it must have deleted itself from the book (I told you, I am bitchy when I am not well). Then I found the recipe and Luca read it out loud.

“Cut slices of good tasty bread and brush or rub olive oil on one side…”

I cut the bread from a loaf of ciabatta from Whole Foods, realizing that in Berkeley this would not be considered good and tasty bread. In Berkeley this would have been a sad and desperate measure taken only after every market in town had been sold out of their last loaf of the divine Acme bread. I don’t understand why it is so hard to get decent bread in LA without going to the actual La Brea Bakery itself (the bread they sell to the supermarkets is nothing like the real thing). It seems to me that there are a few places on Earth that have really good bread: Paris, New York, parts of Italy and Berkeley.

I placed the bread slices on a baking dish and told Luca to brush a small amount of olive oil on each one. I started on my tomato salad and when Luca announced, “Done!” I saw that he had brushed just the tiniest smidge of oil on the bread. He is the kind of person, extremely literal and cautious, who when told not to fill a bucket quite to the brim, fills it up less than halfway just to be sure. So I showed him how much more he could use and then got out his oven mitts.

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“My mitts!” he cried, as though reuniting with a long lost friend. These bright blue child-sized mitts have been used in countless science experiments and on spaceships and archaeological digs but rarely in the act of cooking. He put them on but balked when he realized he was going to have to negotiate the oven.

“It’s too hot,” he said turning his head away.

I coaxed him closer and he deftly placed the baking dish on the shelf in the oven.

“That was easy!” he said. He was proud.

The oven light was very bright and we could see the bread inside. I told him to keep an eye on it and to call me when he thought it was ready.

“How will I know?”

“It will start getting brown. You have to watch it.” But he ran into his room to play with Legos. After a few minutes I called him, saying: “Luca! Chefs don’t leave their food untended in the oven!” But all I heard from his room were vocal sound effects of a space battle in progress.

I made the tomato/mint salad and checked the bread. They were very close so I called Luca again. This time he came, put on his mitts again and took the baking dish out of the oven. I had a peeled garlic clove ready and showed him how to rub it on the oiled side of the bread. He backed away.

“I don’t want to work with the garlic.” He was rubbing his eyes. “It will sting my eyes!”

“That’s onion. Garlic won’t sting if you wash your hands.”

He took the garlic and reached for a slice of bread, brushing his wrist ever so slightly against the hot pan.

“Careful!” I barked. “This pan is very hot.” But before I could form the thought that I should have taken them out of the pan myself, Luca was rubbing his eyes and backing away again. “I don’t want anything to do with garlic,” he said, sounding panicked.

“How are you going to cook anything if you won’t touch garlic?” I said. Not to mention having anything resembling a fire in your mouth, I thought.  Ironically, one of the guests coming to lunch that day does not eat garlic so today’s menu had been a challenge. It turns out everything I cook has garlic. Luca’s garlic bread was meant for those of us without the garlic intolerance. There were just six slices.

But Luca ran back to the battleships and I finished rubbing the garlic myself.

Our guests arrived and because she is French, they do not frown on having wine in the middle of the day and can even be counted on to bring a delicious bottle of white. This day was no exception and so we ate and drank well, despite a mishap with the grill that left some of the pieces slightly underdone. (Jim is the grill master of the house. I am better with fricasees and things that braise.) The garlic bread/crouton/bruschetta was perfect with the manchego, and after lunch the boys had a Jacuzzi and splashed around. Because you can’t have French kids over without serving sweets, I had some not-too-terrible store bought lemon cookies which they devoured. Due at another party that evening, our friends left by 4.

Luca and I spent the rest of the afternoon watching Spirited Away, an animated film from the Japanese master Hayao Miyazake. In the opening sequence, a little girl watches her parents eat from a platter of food that they find in an abandoned building. They load up their plates and chow down while the girl watches in fear, certain that something terrible will befall them. The parents snort and make animal noises as they stuff their faces. They grow enormously fat and when they turn around, the little girl sees that they have turned into pigs.

Hmmmmm…

Next up: chocolate kisses for Daddy’s birthday. “Because they are kisses!”