Peasant Food

Recipe # 18: polenta

Luca is fascinated with Google Earth and explores our planet via the screen on my iPhone whenever I allow it, which is not often. He likes typing in a city or mountain range and then seeing the earth whirl around at eye level, the eye of the camera passing over the ice of Antarctica before landing on Buenos Aires, say, or skimming the Pacific Ocean in search of Cabo San Lucas where you can actually see palm trees and hotels. What kind of magic must it seem to him (and to me), this tiny screen that holds a living globe, one that literally flies you from your suburban street marked by a throbbing pin to wherever on Earth you want to go.

Lucca

A few days ago he went to Lucca, Italy via Google Earth, a place that appeals to him because he shares its name (give or take a “c”) and also because we tell him the story of taking him there when he was eighteen months old. It was at a place called Trattoria Da Leo that we had the very meal to which we attribute Luca’s culinary adventurousness and that also happened to be the most fun lunch we have ever had in our lives. We think it is because of this lunch that Luca likes nothing more than to sit down to a meal with friends and that if an afternoon playdate does not evolve into a shared dinner, he is invariably disappointed. He likes to entertain, to light candles and sit around the table for hours eating and talking.

At Trattoria Da Leo every dish was a surprise and a celebration. The place was packed and buzzing with people eating and drinking and laughing their way through their weekday lunch (it was Tuesday!). For upwards of three hours we gorged on braised pork belly, stewed veal with olives and polenta, homemade ravioli with pine nuts and basil. It went on and on. The wine was cheaper than the bottled water and so we drank happily. The waiters stopped every now and then in the midst of all the chaos to pick Luca up and toss him around a little. The rest of the time Luca sat almost without moving, his interest held by the parade of taste sensations and the sheer joy that real and unpretentious food can bring to a roomful of strangers.

Luca was teething at the time and had painful gums. I had heard somewhere that a little wine on the fingertip could help numb baby’s sore gums so I dipped my pinkie finger into my glass of Chianti and rubbed it on Luca’s emerging tooth. At the taste of red wine, a  light went off in him. I have never seen him leap so fast for anything in his life as he did for my glass of wine that day. He wanted the whole package; primi, secondi e vino.

When Jim and I decided on the name Luca for our new baby, neither of us had never been to the city of Lucca and nor had we any concrete plans to go there. Although we had been to Italy many times between us including on our honeymoon, Lucca had not made it onto the itinerary. So naming our son had nothing to do with the city, and everything to do with our love of Italy and its culture of beauty and food and wine. Being one quarter Italian myself, it was also a way of honoring my ancestry, even though my own connection to it had been severed way before I was born. My father has never acknowledged his Italian roots and has spent considerable energy in pursuit of a pseudo-Anglo identity inclusive of a fetish for busts of Admiral Nelson and a love of Wonder Bread. It was his father before him who changed his surname from Latima to Lathem when he arrived in this country even though no customs official compelled him to do so. My father left our family when I was eight years old, but still, I don’t remember any pictures or stories about Italian relatives or the mention of any towns in the old country where the Latimas might be found. It is remarkable how completely the line was cut. On the Italian side, the family tree remains bare.

I suppose a psychoanalyst might have a thing or two to say about the fact that when pregnant with my son, I chose to give him a name as Italian as any in existence (the name Luca is like Joe in Italy). Was I intentionally defying the father with whom I share such a pained history? Was it an attempt to make whole a family broken by so many inexplicable sadnesses and cruelties, not the least of which is a two-generation legacy of denying an Italian identity? Was I trying to reconnect the broken line to the Latimas? Maybe. But it was also a way of claiming for myself a part of my history that had been denied to me, one that Jim and I had our own tradition of taking pleasure in. We love Italy, the place, the food, the language… and the name Luca. It means “bringer of light.”

Luca (18 months) in another famous Tuscan city

When Luca made polenta last week, I couldn’t help wondering about its humble origins in the land of our ancestors. Corn meal boiled with salt until it is soft and somehow deeply comforting, it is the simplest of foods made interesting only by what goes on top of it. It is peasant food, so defined by easy-to-come-by ingredients such as carbohydrates and vegetables. In contrast to modern times, meat used to be much more scarce and considered a luxury. Now time is the luxurious commodity and, to the detriment of the environment, meat has been made cheap. Today’s working class person is more likely to work three jobs and make do with fast-food hamburgers than to work the land and have an hour to spare at the end of the day for a stovetop risotto.

Still I wonder where the peasants got the time, between plowing the fields and tending the children, to stand over a pot of polenta for a half an hour. Cassoulets, bread, risotto and polenta, “peasant food” takes time and care. It is also the kind of food I love the most, rich stews and braises as well as homey dishes with only two or three ingredients and a heavy reliance on fresh herbs. I like food that makes a big sloppy mess on the plate and am less likely to be tempted by a towering architecture of foams and emulsifications or any dish requiring the use of a syringe and a laboratory. I most enjoyed polenta the time it was served to a table of guests on a plywood board along with sausages and tomatoes, a presentation that would have made my father and grandfather turn away in disgust. More often, though, polenta is a little dull. You can add the same sauce to a bowl of pasta in half the time and it will taste just as good.

lumpy

Luca stirred the polenta in the pot. “It looks like lumpy applesauce. With rice,” he said. I agreed. He was bored as he stirred. We worked at getting the lumps out but nothing special was happening in the pot. There were no enticing smells or great transformations. The best you could say about it was that it was fortifying. I assumed Luca wouldn’t like it much, that the texture would put him off. As a way to forestall his inevitable dislike, I pointed out that Fanny at Chez Panisse mentions the option of letting the polenta cool in a pan and then cutting it into squares to fry in olive oil. Luca wanted to try it so when it was ready we poured some into a pan for later. Then we put the rest onto our plates, piping hot piles of it topped with sausages sautéed with beet greens, garlic and olive oil.

Luca’s eyes rolled back. “Ooh, yum,” he said. “I love polenta.”

Someday we will take him back to the walled city of Lucca and to Trattoria Da Leo where we will once again see what it is to eat with the joy of our Italian forebears.

But for now there is polenta and its power to sustain us through the ages. Here is the line unbroken.

Buon appetito.

Close Call for Santa

recipes 16 & 17: roasted potatoes with garlic aioli

On the day Luca was planning to make roasted potatoes with garlic aioli from Fanny at Chez Panisse he cried in the car on the way home from school. “I had a really bad day!” he wailed. Apparently not only had he been excluded from a game by a couple of kids on the playground, but one of those same kids had told him that Santa Claus is a fake.

“I know that Santa Claus doesn’t buy the presents. The parents do,” Luca said looking at me as though daring me to give him his innocence back. He was bereft.

“Who told you that?” I demanded. I don’t know why it mattered who it was. What was I going to do to the little cynic? Beat him up? Complain to his parents?

“Santiago,” Luca said.

“Uh-huh,” I said feeling a surge of irrational animosity for Santiago. I was new to this, but it sprung to mind that there must exist a certain type of child who takes pleasure in bursting the Santa bubble. Since Santa Claus does not exist such a child is not actually doing anything wrong. And yet parents uniformly think it’s mean-spirited. Maybe it’s all the in intention. Some kids simply don’t believe in Santa and want to enlighten their friends. Other kids take pleasure in wielding the power of knowledge over their more gullible peers.

What struck me later was that even Santiago’s skepticism had its limits. The idea that Santa does not exist did not occur to either him or Luca. In the middle zone between believing and not believing, Santa was real. He just didn’t buy the presents.

Each year Luca has believed more fervently in Santa Claus, not less. Last year he was blinded with celebrity worship when he met “the real Santa,” so identified by his real white beard. “All the other Santas have fake beards,” he said. On Christmas Eve Luca left cookies for Santa along with a glass of milk, and that night after Luca went to bed Jim and I ate the cookies, making sure to leave a big crumby mess. Messy Santa was my sister’s idea and it was a great one. At the sight of the crumbs and spilled drops of milk on the table in the morning Luca’s eyes widened in delight. Santa was ravenous and sloppy, like a giant kid.

I don’t remember ever believing in Santa Claus. With three older siblings it would have been hard for me to maintain anything like this level of childlike ingenuousness. When Luca was a toddler I had mixed feelings about Santa Claus. I never told him that he existed one way or another and when his first encounter with Santa at age two left him in tears, I thought that settled the matter. I half expected Luca to grow up as I did, thinking that Santa was a harmless lie. Luca has come to his belief in Santa, just as he came to his disbelief in God, without any coaxing from his parents.

I suspect that Luca’s belief in Santa is really his way of attending to his own rituals. For every holiday he remembers everything we did the year before and wants the same events repeated to a T. Tradition is important to him, even if he makes them up as he goes along. As of two years ago Luca began insisting that we also celebrate Hannukah, which in our house consists entirely of lighting candles for the menorah which was given to us by a friend, and then hoping to get invited to a party with really good latkes. I think that Luca and I are not far apart in our notions of what constitutes holiday spirit: giving, eating good food and getting together with friends and family. But in the end it’s all about the candles. I light one or two at every opportunity, certainly with every nighttime meal (I roll my own from beeswax sheets), and doing so almost makes me mourn the coming of Spring when the need to light up the dark days wanes.

We once visited Copenhagen in December. Tickets from London were cheap because no one, especially not the British, wanted to go to Denmark in the darkest days of winter. Airline tickets were 99p each way (yes, the plane had wings and an engine but could have used a good cleaning). When we arrived we were struck by how many candles there were everywhere. Every shop window, every café, every house was lit up. Window displays filled with pastries and flowing fountains of chocolate glinted in candlelight. Here was a city that knew how to take advantage of its darkness and turn it into pure charm. Copenhagen was gorgeous (as were the people – within an hour of our arrival Jim and I were compelled to make a vow to remain attracted to each other no matter how many stunning Danes sailed past us on bicycles).

I pulled out the potatoes while Luca tied on his apron.

“How does Santiago know that Santa doesn’t buy the presents?” I pressed.

“Because one year he asked Santa for a car and he didn’t get one!” Luca said.

“Santa can’t get you something that is illegal for you to play with,” I countered. “Because it would get taken away from you and then it would be no fun.” This was obviously a desperate stab in the dark, and I had little hope that it would work. But miraculously, Luca perked up.

“He can’t get you a rocket ship!” he joined in.

“Or a 747 jet,” I said. It was working! Luca was coming in off the ledge. As the weight of not believing in Santa Claus lifted from him, his mood soared.

“Or an army base! Or a space station!” Now he was cracking himself up. My little boy was back. The belief in Santa Claus had suffered a terrifying blow, but it had been rescued. At least for the time being.

Luca cut each potato in half and then lined them face down in the baking pan. This precision is genetic. Jim is a detail-oriented film editor, a master suitcase packer and a thorough reader of instructions. He also has a very tidy underwear drawer. I am the opposite; impatient, impulsive, and imprecise. Where Jim measures out spices by the half teaspoon, I throw in pinches and handfuls and taste as I go. As a result we alternately admire each other and drive each other crazy and have learned to stay out of each other’s way in the kitchen.

When Luca’s potatoes were lined up like little soldiers, he chopped up some rosemary and sprinkled it on the potatoes. Then he drizzled olive oil and added salt and a few grinds of fresh pepper.

No longer afraid of putting things in the oven, Luca slid the potatoes in. I got out an egg for the aioli and then remembered that it was supposed to be room temperature. So while the egg warmed in the oven (probably a bad idea but I couldn’t figure out a better way) Luca measured out the olive oil.

When the egg was the right temperature, Luca wanted to separate it himself. I suggested that I do one and then he could do one afterwards. I cracked the egg and showed him how to transfer the yolk back and forth between the egg shell halves until all the whites were in the bowl. Then it was his turn. The egg fell apart and Luca dumped it in the bowl. Because it was too gooey and gross to resist, he shoved his hand in after it.

“OK,” I said. “Wash your hands.” Instead he dipped his other hand into the bowl and squeezed the yolk. If he was young enough to think this was fun, I thought, he was young enough to still believe in Santa Claus.

Then we took turns pouring the olive oil into the egg yolk “drop by drop” while the other whisked. The process proved to be quite suspenseful as we desperately tried to stave off the dreaded separation of oil and egg. Alice Waters states with frightening finality:  “Once they separate they cannot go back together.”  Because I am impatient and imprecise, I dribbled three drops at a time instead of one. Luca cried out “Mommy! Is it separating?!” It wasn’t. When it was his turn to dribble he slipped and dumped ten drops of oil in at once. He held his breath while I whisked and when it was clear that it was going to be OK, we both cheered.

This was my first time making aioli. I have heard too many stories of it going wrong. Even Jim with his precise measurements and strict adherence to instructions makes a chipotle mayonnaise that tastes delicious but is always way too thin. So far Luca’s was thickening up nicely.

We checked the level of the oil in the cup and it had not gone down one hair. This was going to take all night. “Mommy, I think it went up instead of down,” Luca said. I thought he was right.

We slapped each other five when we got to the point where we were allowed to add the oil in a “steady stream.” But now it started to thin out. I checked the recipe and there was nothing about thickening it, only remedies for thinning it. This is why I don’t make aioli.

Before Luca got a chance to say, “I don’t want to work with the garlic!” I showed him the mortar and pestle. “You don’t have to touch it. You just mash it.” Being a seven year-old boy, mashing was something he could relate to. He went at it, making a “purry” of the garlic.

He whisked the garlic into the oil/egg mixture and tried thickening it by whisking it some more. It didn’t work.

“It doesn’t matter. It’s going to taste great,” I said.

I lit some candles and we sat down to a meal of brussels sprouts with pancetta and breadcrumbs braised in balsamic, turkey soup made from Thanksgiving leftovers, and roasted potatoes with garlic aioli. Watching Luca dip his potatoes in the aioli one by one and pop them in his mouth I wondered if this the last year he will believe in Santa, the end of lining up to sit on Santa’s lap to ask for the outrageously huge toy that only his aunt will buy for him, and the end of Jim and I messily eating Santa’s cookies on Christmas Eve.

When Luca finally knows that there is no Santa, I wonder if he will he mourn the loss as he did today. Or if he will be satisfied, happy even, with the tree and the cookies, the trip to the snow, the Venice Boat Parade the music of Bach and Handel… and the light.

The Fire

Thanksgiving; menu with links to recipes appear at the bottom of this post.

On Thanksgiving Day, Luca refused to make the biscuits that were such a huge success the first time around. Compared to past years, we were having a small gathering; my mother-in-law Christine who was visiting us from Cape Cod for the first time in six years, and a family of German/Bolivians; Wolf, Sandra and their two polyglot children who moved here from Berlin last year and are still discovering just how big a deal Thanksgiving is in this country. From the mad scramble to slog through airports across the country in rush-hour crowds to be with family; the obsession with turkey, a bird that leaves most non-Americans scratching their heads; and the almost heroic value we place on eating an obscene amount of food in one sitting, Thanksgiving is more than a little dumbfounding. For my part, I’m in it for the pies.

apple pie

most divine pumpkin/hazelnut pie

With cornbread-sausage stuffing, mashed potatoes and spicy roasted sweet potatoes on the menu, neither we, nor our arteries, actually needed biscuits made with heavy cream and dipped individually in butter. I just thought Luca would enjoy taking part in the creation of the meal. He kept going back and forth. First it was no. Then I reminded him of how delicious they were and how much our guests would enjoy them and he said yes he wanted to make them. But then Grandma turned the TV to the Thanksgiving Day Parade and once again the answer was no.

Until recently, Luca had three living grandparents and no relationship of any substance with any of them. Until he died in February, one grandfather was in a nursing home on Cape Cod and could barely remember the names of his own grown sons. To say that Luca’s other grandfather is estranged is a vast understatement; I have had little contact with my father throughout my life and he has never met Luca or acknowledged him in any way. That leaves Christine, Luca’s only living grandmother whom he visits maybe once a year and usually when his three cousins are there too. The kids have a blast but the chaos makes Grandma jumpy and forces her to turn up the TV volume to deafening levels.

Grandma

Luca has friends whose grandparents pick them up at school and take them for weekend-long sleepovers, and I think I can sense the envy in him when he sees all the love and attention that he is doing without. Or maybe it’s my own envy I am feeling whenever I hear that friends of ours are leaving the kids with the grandparents in order to enjoy a grownup weekend of wine tasting and sleeping late (remember morning sex, anyone?). With no grandparents able or willing to take Luca for a weekend, we take him with us when we go wine tasting, which is not often, and wake to the sounds of droid battles in the next bed.

Jim, Luca and I invent our family as we go, the definition of “family” being by necessity more fluid than it is for people with lots of blood relatives in close proximity. Luca gets as much love as the next kid, even with a fractured and spread out extended family. And yet, he craves loving contact with his grandmother, even if his notion of it is influenced as much by the Bearenstain Bears as by reality.

Having Grandma in our house for a week was an opportunity for Luca to have her all to himself. From the minute she entered the house, he was showing her things he has made, books he likes, even the Cat Piano iPhone app on my phone which she didn’t much like (the meowing made her jumpy).

chorizo and onions

I didn’t expect Luca to last long watching the Thanksgiving Day Parade since for me watching a parade, live or on television, is about as much fun as having hot pokers drilled through my eyeballs. I can’t for the life of me fathom the appeal of watching floats and marching bands move at a glacial pace down the street. When I worked as a waitress on the Upper West Side in New York City, the Wednesday night before Thanksgiving was one of the best nights at the restaurant. The place would be packed and outside, the floats were laid out on the street where people gathered with drinks in hand for a big street party. I figured the parade couldn’t get any better than that.

The only parade that has not left me in tears of boredom is the Carnaval in Sao Paulo. Within hours of arriving from New York and still jet lagged I found myself dressed as a record album, surrounded by three hundred percussionists, dancing in a School of Samba down the avenida. Fueled by terrible cognac and good cafezinho I stayed up for 36 hours straight and then fell down dead in a bed (what bed? I have no idea) for another 14 hours. That was fun.

brussels sprouts with chorizo

While I trimmed the Brussels sprouts, I expected Luca to come out ready to tie on his apron and get to work on the biscuits. Instead, with two ovens at 450 degrees and the heat outside climbing to an absurd 78 degrees (on Thanksgiving! Will I ever get used to Los Angeles?) I kept hearing these little whoops and exclamations of delight from the den. I sautéed chorizo to go with the brussels sprouts. I opened the doors and windows and sautéed the mushrooms for the stuffing. When I went to check on Luca and Grandma he was patiently explaining to her who Dora the Explorer was. And best of all she was listening with interest.

cornbread sausage stuffing

I have always viewed watching television as a solitary and anti-social activity and could never understand the idea of families watching TV together as a form of togetherness. But what do I know, I thought as I put the turkey in the oven. This might prove to be Luca’s happiest memory of his grandmother, the two of them watching the Thanksgiving Day parade with Mickey Mouse, Santa Claus and all.

The previous weekend Jim and I took Luca to the LA Philharmonic to see Gustavo Dudamel conduct. We sat in the best seats in the house, front row center behind the orchestra and facing Dudamel (although I have heard that the view from behind has its charms). Dudamel, who has been given rock star status in a city full of stars, did not disappoint. He was incredibly fun to watch; gently gliding his hands over the air and then pounding his fist skyward sending his curls flying in perfect time to the kettle drum. Other times, he’d appear to be conducting only with his eyebrows and a glint in his eye, giving an occasional nod to the woodwinds and a sexy come-hither motion to the strings. At one point all of us with a frontal view of Dudamel broke into unintended laughter. And the music was sublime; two Mozart symphonies and one by Alban Berg, a composer of twelve-tone music with a decidedly modern and more challenging sense of the melodic. Surprisingly, Luca was ansty during Mozart’s Prague Symphony and liked the Berg better (his non-living grandmother, my mother, was a student of Arnold Schoenberg and would have been thrilled). Luca also like the Jupiter Symphony but mostly he liked watching Dudamel. On the way home he said he wanted to be a conductor.

Dudamel and his curls

Later he said he liked watching Dudamel because he was funny and “kind of crazy” and he made a lot of faces.

“It’s because he has a fire in his mouth,” Luca said and then he ran out of the room.

I stopped what I was doing. I had no idea that he remembered ever making this comment about wanting a fire in his mouth. This was in reference to the desire for fire and spice in his food, a desire he claims not to have anymore though it seems to come and go with a randomness that is maddening even in a seven year old. He has no idea that I have given this blog this title – he is not much aware of the blog at all in fact – and here he was hitting the meaning right on its metaphorical head.

“What does that mean?” I yelled after Luca.

But I knew what he meant; a fire in the mouth is the heat we get from the things we love whether or not they themselves are fiery to begin with. It is the habanero salsa that brought tears to my eyes in Playa Del Carmen; it is twelve-tone music and the Jupiter symphony and the curls on top of Gustavo Dudamel’s head. It is the plain (always plain, no matter what we do with it) turkey bird eaten after a lazy day watching the Thanksgiving Day Parade with Grandma.

Wolf and Sandra arrived with mashed potatoes, wine and plenty of Prosecco to start. They knew enough to be a little apprehensive about the sheer volume of food they were about to consume. But they took a deep breath and jumped in with a game spirit, partaking not only of the uber-American tradition of overeating, but of the even more American one of sitting around afterwards in front of the television. In a slight deviation, instead of football, we watched Pixar’s “Up,” which Grandma pronounced “sad.” She went to bed after a while and the rest of us finished “Up” and then watched scenes from the Marx Brothers’ “Night at the Opera.” Wolf, Sandra and their kids had never seen it and we had to pause the final opera scene in order to explain what “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” is, another staple of Americana. I had seen this movie countless times as a child (it must have been a regular on the Million Dollar Movie) and it was fun watching it through the eyes of our friends for whom it was all new. It occurred to me that going back to the old traditions – parades, Marx Brothers, grandmothers on Thanksgiving – can be a kind of reinvention, and that reinvention is perhaps the most American tradition of all.

The kids were in hysterics watching Harpo hanging from the stage ropes, making a mess of the opera. Here again were the curls on top of the head, the fierce talent, and the unmistakable fire in the mouth.

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This is what we ate on Thanksgiving with links to recipes where available (asterisks denote especially delicious dishes):

Dry-brined roasted turkey.

Cornbread-sausage stuffing.

Gravy.

*Cranberry/tangerine relish (with and without jalapeno).

*Brussels sprouts with chorizo.

Mashed potatoes.

*Spicy sweet potato wedges.

Apple pie (from Silver Palate and with Trader Joe’s crust).

*Pumpkin/hazelnut pie – a combination of this and the variation at the end of this.

Whipped cream.