The Two Tias

recipes #12 and #15 repeated; # 20 french toast (not from fanny at chez panisse)

On a recent Friday night, just as I was about to start making pasta aglio e olio, Luca asked for risotto instead. “If you want risotto, you have to make it yourself,” I responded, expecting this to put an end to the matter. Instead Luca’s eyes lit up. “This is my best Friday ever!” he said. Then he tied on his apron and got to work, all the while repeating the admonishment that he would make the risotto all by himself, except as it turned out, where the onions were concerned (not even swimming goggles helped the stinging and Luca was compelled to announce once again, “I am NEVER working with the onions!”).

Thus began a series of recipes in our house that end in “all by myself,” actually pronounced something more like “Aaaaaall By M’self.”  Luca’s risotto was not mushroom risotto, but “Mushroom Risotto All By Myself.” The next night he was moved to make “Cherry Tomato Pasta All By Myself,” and the next morning he made French Toast,” you guessed it, “All By Myself.”

Luca's second risotto

The weekend of Luca’s cooking spree, my sister, Lexi, and her partner, Art, had been with us for a few days before embarking on a bicycle trip down the coast from Monterey to San Luis Obispo. They live in Vermont where Art, who has cycled across the Himalayas several times, bicycles up a mountain to his job as a ski instructor during all kinds of weather. He will do anything not to get into a car and owns a T-shirt that says “Cars R Coffins.” When they travel to places like Newfoundland and Cuba Lexi and Art pack up their tandem, checking it into baggage in a box and then put it together in the airport before riding off with all their belongings in a trailer. I suppose the tandem has its practical purposes but I can’t get past the sheer adorableness of the two of them riding off into the Cuban countryside on a bicycle built for two.

The next time they come west, they plan on riding south into Baja, camping out and foraging for firewood on the beach. In a startling intra-family contrast to how Lexi lives and travels is my other sister, Fre, who spent her winter vacation in Baja as she does every winter. For Fre there is no question of foraging for firewood however, because the private beach outside her luxury hotel suite would have been pristine and empty except for the waiters shuffling across the sand to deliver 24-hour room service. It’s hard to imagine two people more different than my two sisters in personality and lifestyle. One lives on a farm where she raises lambs and grows her own food. She writes poetry and investigative journalism about environmental issues, owns no cell phone and tries to generate as little garbage as possible. The other lives in a Brentwood mansion, and drives her BMW to her private pilates lesson. She recently had three hundred tons of snow hauled onto her lawn for her daughter’s 18th birthday party, and is never more than a few inches from her Blackberry which emits a steady stream of blips and beeps. She also enjoys taking large groups of people out to very expensive dinners and when thanked will say something along the lines of: “We can afford it.” In other words she remembers where she came from.

I am the moderate in the family, or so I like to think. I ride my bicycle often and try to pick Luca up from school at least a couple of times a week on the bike with the tagalong attached. I would love a bicycle trip down the coast but instead of camping out, I’d probably prefer to spend the night in some small, family-run hotels. When I travel I find that the bigger the hotel, the greater the obstacle to contact with real people. So increasingly I try to arrange trips to places where I can stay with someone I know. I would not, however, turn up my nose at a private suite on the beach in Cabo San Lucas whereas Lexi would be miserable in such a place.

We often laugh about the extremes in our family; how unlikely it is that we should all get along as well as we do. The thing is that, aside from sharing a childhood of memories and an ironclad loyalty, we genuinely like each other. As we have unfortunately learned more than once, we come together rather uncannily in a crisis. But mostly we crack each other up. My sisters are the reason I sometimes get a pang that Luca is an only child; he will never have the sense that a person can be as different from him as night from day and still feel like an essential fifth limb. There are smells and jingles and bad jokes that bind my sisters and me. There is the memory of my mother’s French Toast, appearing miraculously as it did from the wasteland of our mostly unused kitchen.

Luca's welcome message to Art (note the trailer)

Luca has special names for my sisters, or “tias” as we have come to call aunts in our family. Fre is “Poopy Tia” because when Jim and I lived in London with two year-old Luca, Fre had the genius to lace every phone conversation with Luca with references to poop and farts and other bodily functions. If Luca said he took a bus that day, Fre would respond with: “Did you go poop on the bus?” If he said he did a drawing, she would ask if it was a poopy one. He would laugh until he turned red. Her master plan, of making him remember her despite the time and distance, of course worked brilliantly. She became forever more Poopy Tia. When Lexi found out about all this poop business, she was jealous. “Why didn’t I think of that?” she moaned. How could Luca maintain a clear picture of the quieter aunt who he sees much less often, who is more apt to make something beautiful out of origami than make poopy jokes?

It’s not a competition of course, but this is how: This is a photo from Lexi and Art’s farm, one they call Family Portrait.

Family Portrait

And then there is the fact that as Luca learns to play piano (on one given to him by Fre), Lexi travels with her sheet music and plays The Moonlight Sonata for us. She draws beautifully detailed drawings of fire trucks and, when making up names with Luca for Star Wars podracers, she came up with Muffin Detonator. I really think you have to be a poet to come up with Muffin Detonator. So while Lexi once was “Musical Tia,” she is now “Muffin Detonator Tia,” a mouthful to be sure. Luca is ridiculously lucky of course. While Fre takes him to Legoland for the weekend (staying at the Fours Seasons), Lexi gives Luca handcrafted little painted boxes from Cuba and all the best books (and this) he owns.

Luca cooking w/ step stool

It’s too bad that Muffin Detonator Tia missed Luca’s big weekend of cooking. She would have enjoyed eating his food and watching him up on his step stool working away with his apron on. For my part, I am loving the determination. It’s clear that he has a goal: total independence in the kitchen. How else to explain his insistence on going back to dishes he has already made rather than racing to the finish of Fanny at Chez Panisse as fast as possible? Yesterday as we were buying fish so he could make Lemon Sole Fried With Breadcrumbs All By Myself, he did remember about the Halibut Baked on a Fig Leaf and said, “I thought we were doing everything in the book!” But mostly he seems intent on becoming fluent with the dishes he knows. Perhaps learning how to do this will help him with other pursuits. The next time he tries riding a bicycle without training wheels maybe he can be reminded of how in the kitchen he started out not knowing how to crack an egg and now his parents can sit around drinking cocktails while he whips up a nice risotto and fricasseed chicken with Jerusalem artichokes. Fantasy aside, it’s clear that he is driven to learn how to do this, and to do it well. Here, again, is the fire.

Or maybe he just likes to eat.

On the morning I taught Luca to make French Toast, I was reminded again of those certain Sunday mornings when my siblings and I would awaken to the smell of it and the sound of my mother singing in the kitchen; of the improbability of its arrival on the table in a house where TV dinners were eaten without the benefit of a working television and “ratatouille” was zucchini fried with canned tomato sauce. On such a morning my mother would make incredibly thin and delicate pancakes called palichinken which she learned how to make in Austria. She made scrambled eggs and bacon, loads of strong Puerto Rican coffee and the thick French Toast which was probably the only recipe she ever taught me. Such are the consequences of oral recipes that, because I never looked it up in a cookbook, it was only years later that I learned that vanilla extract was not my mother’s “secret ingredient” for French Toast.

Luca cracked two eggs into a bowl perfectly. Two months ago he had trouble with this task. Years from now it will be embedded in his physical memory, automatic and perhaps laden with associations. He added milk, cinnamon and then too much vanilla and soaked the bread in the mixture. Then he lobbed the wet bread onto the pan and the kitchen filled with the same cinnamon sizzle of eggy bread that transports me back to Brooklyn every time. Surrounded by my sisters, my brother and I, is the table laden with the fruits of my mother’s only happy labors in the kitchen; there is the smell of the impossibly strong coffee and the hours passing by eating and telling jokes and asking for more.

Luca's first French Toast

Next time Lexi and Art come to visit, maybe Luca will make French Toast for them before they head down to Mexico on their tandem. Lexi will no doubt find it delicious; it tastes just like our mother’s.

Forbidden Food

Recipe # 19: strawberry ice cream (not from Fanny at Chez Panisse)

When I was growing up no one ever told me what to eat. There was no notion of healthy or unhealthy foods, no one watching over my shoulder to make sure I ate my vegetables. A fried steak next to a pile of buttered spinach noodles was considered a balanced meal. There were no forbidden foods or foods that were considered “bad,” and no negotiations along the lines of having to finish your broccoli in order to get dessert.

My mother worked a full time office job and at the same time she produced a series of multi-media concerts at an East Village disco. Cooking for her four school-age children, whom she was raising on her own, was not her highest priority. Far more important than eating regular meals was having an understanding of why John Cage was important. As a result we could talk about the importance of accidental sounds in Cage’s work and the cupboards in our kitchen often didn’t contain much else besides Ritz crackers and peanut butter. I’d make lunch while standing in the open refrigerator door; a slice of Wonder Bread slathered with mayonnaise and covered with a slice of bologna. Sometimes when there was no bologna, I’d have just the bread and mayonnaise. No one ever said anything about having a carrot with my lunch.

pita bread

That we didn’t suffer from some sort of vitamin deficiency is most likely due to our regular dinners out at a local Lebanese place called Near East Restaurant. There were many Middle Eastern restaurants in our neighborhood near Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn but this was our favorite. We’d walk the bleak streets past the Brooklyn House of Detention to feast on unbelievably tasty kafta kababs and babaganough, hummous, tabouleh, fresh pita bread and stuffed grape leaves. The restaurant had a sign in the window that said “It Pays To Eat Well” and this became our name for the place because, after all, it did pay to eat well, even when sometimes the paying part was an exercise in humiliation. Cash was short, checks bounced, and even worse, the manager was always gracious and let my mother off the hook for the check. Still, every night at dinnertime I’d long to hear the words, “Come on kids, we’re going to It Pays To Eat Well.”

stuffed grape leaves

Luca has no food allergies but is highly allergic to dust mites and cats, and as a result he spends months at a time with very congested sinuses. Because Jim has suffered equally from the very same allergies (ain’t DNA grand?), he has insisted on limiting Luca’s dairy intake as a way to control the immense amount of mucus in Luca’s head. I only half-believe this will help and yet I have signed on because it seems like a reasonable attempt at alleviating Luca’s discomfort. Jim and I try to go at the problem with a sense of balance, with one eye on the state of Luca’s sinuses and another on his enjoyment of food and social gatherings.

At Luca’s preschool there was a mother who was a raw foodist. She enforced a strict vegan diet on her child and allowed her no sugar or wheat. When I brought cupcakes to school for Luca’s birthday, this child sat apart eating an apple while all the others got messy with the cupcakes. The raw foodist mother glared at me as though I had served up little toddler-size vials of crack instead of homemade, organic cupcakes, and a few weeks later she was rushed to the emergency room with an obstructed intestine. No wonder! I remember thinking. All that dietary austerity can really mess up a person’s digestive tract.

We mostly choose flexibility over isolation, and try for moderation rather than outright prohibition. In any case banning dairy altogether from the diet of an American child would require more policing on a daily basis than either Jim or I are willing to do. So our loose policy is to control the diet at home as much as possible and then let it go once he’s out the door. We put rice milk in Luca’s cereals and serve water at dinner. But once he is at a party or at movie night at his school where they serve pizza and hot dogs, he is off the leash. And he knows it. We watch him load his plate with pizza (often preferable, even loaded with cheese, to the wretched hot dogs) and nachos covered in a fluorescent cheese byproduct. He’ll steal a glance at me as though expecting me to stop him and relishing the fact that I don’t. It’s only when he goes for the third helping of pizza that I put the kibosh on his little cheese fest, reminding him that if he wants a donut sprinkled with blinding colors he has to have some bullet shaped carrots first.

who can resist homemade pizza?

I often think of the parents of children with severe food allergies to peanuts, eggs and wheat, of the vigilance and stress involved in keeping such ubiquitous foods off the plates of their kids for fear, not of a stuffy nose, but of the throat closing up. In comparison, we have it easy. And yet, when Luca cannot sleep well, complains of fatigue for weeks on end and partially loses his hearing due to impacted mucus, we wish he had inherited my tolerance for all things cheesey and creamy rather than Jim’s sensitivity to dust mites and Camembert.

Every culture throughout the ages has had its forbidden foods. In Biblical times, many of these likely developed as a result of health concerns. Animals that chew their cud are herbivores and possibly cleaner feeding and less likely to cause disease than other animals. Long ago, pigs were known to carry worms and therefore considered unclean. For Hindus, killing a cow for meat is impractical as the cow produces so much food; milk, ghee and curds. Plus they use the dung for cooking fuel. I have read that in ancient India, bulls were sacrificed for religious purposes and their meat was then eaten, but never milk-producing cows.

But what is the relationship between prohibition and temptation? Are we naturally inclined to crave that which we cannot have? It’s hard to imagine that to an Indian child the cow crossing the road could look yummy, and such a child will rarely, if ever, see a piece of cooked beef. I know some Jewish children who beg their parents for hot dogs, but there are beef alternatives and these are better anyway. To me there is almost nothing as tantalizing as the smell of bacon, but to my Muslim friends it smells literally filthy. For a seven-year old American child it’s almost impossible not to be tempted by dairy products on a daily basis. Having to forgo quesadillas alone is enough to make any food-loving person put up with any amount of congestion.

So how are we doing with our policy of considered balance with regards to Luca’s diet? Whether it is because of it or in spite of it, Luca is a total cheesehead. He is obsessed with cheeses of all kinds, no matter how sharp, aged or stinky. We have learned to put a cheese plate out for guests at the last minute so that he cannot devour it before they arrive. At the table he will carve a big hunk of aged Parmesan, pop it into his mouth and call it dessert. Who can blame him? A child after my own heart, he cries out “Is that Manchego?” before hacking off half of the wedge.

ice cream maker

We gave Luca an ice cream maker for Christmas. This was partly so that he could make the Vanilla Snow recipe in Fanny at Chez Panisse, and partly because it seems like a fun activity for a food-obsessed kid. Jim has recently given up all refined sugar (it is January after all), the exception being homemade desserts. This seems like a great policy to me, and since Jim is a chocoholic who works long hours, one that will inevitably result in eating less sugar and enjoying it more. So the new plan in our house, to the extent that we have one, goes something like this: better to eat forbidden foods at home where they are more likely to be as delicious as the strawberry ice cream Luca and I made last week. And if Luca should have a bad bout of allergies, the ice cream maker also makes sorbet and fun, slushy, summer drinks.

Following the recipe in the Cuisinart booklet that came with the ice cream maker, Luca and I hulled and sliced a pint of fresh strawberries. Luca noted that one particularly large strawberry looked like a butt crack and I had to agree.

We put the sliced strawberries in a bowl with lemon juice and sugar and left them to macerate for two hours. Luca did homework. I made risotto.

booty call

After dinner we reserved the strawberry juice that had pooled at the bottom of the bowl. It was incredibly, impossibly red. The recipe says to mash half the strawberries. This was harder than it sounds, so after a few tries with a potato masher and a fork, we gave up and left them in chunks.

macerated strawberries

Then Luca mixed the milk, sugar, heavy cream, and vanilla together. He poured in the strawberry juice and the mashed strawberries and we put them into the freezer bowl. Luca turned on the ice cream maker and it started to turn. We ate dinner and talked about Star Wars the Clone Wars. Or rather, Luca talked and I pretended to know the difference between a battle droid and a clone trooper.

After about twenty minutes, we added the rest of the strawberries and let it run for five more minutes. I’m not sure what happened here but the ice cream overflowed the freezer bowl and ended up all over the ice cream maker, the kitchen counter and, after I tried cleaning it up, my shoes, my clothes and the floor. Soon Luca and I were both covered in strawberry ice cream; me, because I was cleaning it up and Luca because he was licking it off of every surface he could find. He was in heaven, literally covered in forbidden deliciousness.

Finally, we put some ice cream into actual bowls and ate. It was more creamy than icey and much less sweet than the store bought stuff. The chunks of strawberries were cold and sour. Luca made comments between big frozen mouthfuls. “This is so yummy,” he said and spooned more in his mouth. “You can’t even taste the lemon juice!”

“I could get used to this,” I thought as I scraped my bowl with what I promised myself would be my last taste of ice cream for the night – or at least until Jim got home. Why didn’t the contradiction bother me, that we were still attempting to monitor Luca’s dairy intake while encouraging him to make huge buckets of ice cream at home? I suppose because he made it himself with love and fresh ingredients and no amount of prohibition could be healthier in the long run than such an intimate awareness of food. Also, Luca was more proud of his ice cream than of anything else he has made in the kitchen so far. But mostly it was just so damned delicious.

Luca said he had brain freeze and then ate his last spoonful. He put his face in the bowl to lick it. With a tiny dollop of ice cream on his nose, he said: “Wait until Daddy tastes this.”