Hard Math, Easy Friends

Recipes # 28 and 29; ginger snaps and plum ice cream

The rigors of 3rd grade have kept Luca too busy to do much cooking lately. Wait, did I just say the rigors of 3rd grade? What kind of altered reality are we living in when eight year olds are being asked to do twenty math problems in one night? Hard ones. In Spanish. No wonder that Luca, who once after a play date gone bad consoled himself by doing a week’s worth of homework in one sitting, is now suddenly stressed about homework.

As a mother who decided I was terrible at math at an early age, I try to be encouraging without letting Luca get too strong a whiff of my own fear and loathing. I am desperate for him not to label himself “bad at math” just because he is one of those kids who walk around with his head in a book bumping into the furniture.

Because of Luca’s new homework load, he’s been less tolerant of demands placed on his time and I’ve been trying to let him be. I haven’t wanted cooking to seem like a chore so I haven’t pressed it when he says he’d rather dress up like Indiana Jones than make a roasted chicken. So I was thrilled on Saturday when Luca decided he wanted to make gingersnaps for our good friends who were coming to dinner; Rachel and Jeff and their two children, Arielle who is Luca’s age and eight month old baby Moriah.

gingersnaps

Rachel and I have been good friends for sixteen years. She was introduced to me by a mutual friend who described her this way: “She is gorgeous, smart, funny, she dresses great, she’s about to start a job with one of the biggest producers in Hollywood and she knows everyone who is anyone. Basically she is perfect.”  Naturally, I despise people like that and was sure I’d feel the same about Rachel.  But when we met we hit if off instantly and, though we have seen each other through some excruciatingly hard times, Rachel and I have never stopped laughing. Or rather, during the times when the laughs did stop, there was little doubt that they’d start up again. Generous and loyal, Rachel is one of those people you want on your side for life. Due to LA geography, we don’t get our two families together very often. But Luca and Arielle have always had good chemistry, an easy silliness that seems immune to time apart. I had no idea if this would still be the case. But I was encouraged when Luca said, “I want to make dessert for Arielle.”

Luca and I read over the recipe for gingersnaps and both of us jumped in delight at the note at the end of the recipe: “For Plum Ice Cream Sandwiches: Place a scoop of plum ice cream (page 121) onto a gingersnap, top it with another, and press together. Wrap in plastic and store in freezer.”

“Let’s do that!” Luca cried and so we decided to make gingersnaps and plum ice cream. A little while later I began laying everything out on the counter.

“Luca, can you get the vanilla?” I asked.

“I don’t know where that is,” he replied. How did this happen? All this time we have been cooking together I had been playing the part of the dutiful assistant, getting out all the ingredients and the equipment and laying it out for him. But you can’t cook if you can’t find your ingredients and he needed to learn his way around his own kitchen.

Luca at work

He found the vanilla, the cinnamon and the egg. Then he got out the measuring cups and spoons and went to work creaming the butter and sugar in the food processor. We stopped the machine every so often to loosen the butter from the blade.

“It’s not fully incorporated,” I said whereupon Luca erupted in a big giggle.

“What’s so funny?” I asked.

“Monsters, Incorporated,” he answered. Cooking – mixing and blending and smelling – seems to stimulate a kind of free-flowing, free-association train of thought. Luca laughs a lot when he cooks. Because of this and the fact that he loves food so much makes him great fun to be with in the kitchen.

He cracked the egg on the side of the bowl and dumped it in, miraculously with none of the shell attached. His hands were covered in egg goo so he washed them and then he added the molasses and vanilla and mixed them all together. He then measured out the flour. This is always a messy task because he overfills the cup with flour and then has to level it off by tossing half of it onto the counter. The bottle of dried ginger was dusted with white flour and this made him laugh again. I waited while he enjoyed himself by sprinkling more flour on the top of the ginger bottle.

is this funny?

Luca read out the measurements of salt, cinnamon and ginger. But sensing a looming math problem, he balked.

“I don’t know what that means!” he insisted even though he has read and understood 1 1/2 and 1 1/4 many times before. To make matters worse our teaspoons were dirty so I gave Luca the 1/2 teaspoon and asked him to figure out how many of those made one and a half.

“I hate math!” he said and begged me to do the measuring. But I didn’t think that any self-respecting parent could let a moment like this go – a moment in which he could learn the practical value of all that math homework. I figured that Luca loves his food enough that he was willing to go the distance with whatever math was involved. After a moment he came up with a reluctant “Three.”

“Right,” I said pretending not to notice the glint of pride in his eye.

measuring with silly bandz

He went about measuring out the 1/2 teaspoons with the same messy method as he measures the flour and pretty soon the kitchen counter was covered in flour, ginger and cinnamon. He mixed the dry ingredients together and then mixed them with the butter and sugar and the room filled with the smell of ginger, butter and vanilla.

aftermath

“This is outrageous!” he exclaimed.

The batter went into the refrigerator and when it was cool we rolled it into three logs, wrapped it up again and put it in the freezer.

rolling logs

Now onto the ice cream. Luca pitted the plums and tossed them into the food processor to puree. He declared that one of them looked like a butt crack. This is becoming a little predictable. Many fruits, as it turns out, have two halves that, looked at from an eight-year-old boy’s point of view, resemble a human bum. Besides an absurd amount of homework 3rd grade seems be marked by a blooming interest in all things bodily with a preference for the scatological and anything to do with “weenies.” A group of boys were recently sent to the Principals’ office for shouting “Weenie Power!” to the girls in their daily Boys Against Girls Recess War. I don’t know how the Principal kept a straight face.

plum booty

Luca pureed the plums, mixed them together with the cream, vanilla and sugar and poured it into the ice cream maker. He turned it on and while the machine churned, we took the gingersnap logs out of the freezer, cut them into little rounds and placed them on a cookie sheet. They went into the oven and when the ice cream was done I asked Luca to get a Tupperware container to put it in.

cutting the logs

“I don’t know where those are,” he said. This again? I showed him where they were and we had a big discussion about which container was the right size to fit all the ice cream (geometry!) and right then the doorbell rang.

While we ate homemade pizza with anchovies, capers and jalapenos Luca said to Arielle, “Wanna go play?” They went into Luca’s room and in under a minute we heard squeals and laughs and knew they were right back into it again. By the time they came out for dinner, they were whispering secrets and giggling. Moriah who was learning to crawl chewed on a piece of pizza dough for the rest of the night.

Jim made a grilled chicken with peppers and eggplant and, as we were finishing dinner, Rachel’s brother Adam came over with his pregnant wife Jessica. They were on their way to a dance concert and couldn’t stay long. But Jessica couldn’t say no to Luca’s ice cream sandwich. As Arielle stood by licking fingers and bowls, Luca placed two gingersnaps and a dollop of soft plum ice cream onto each plate and handed it around. Not quite ice cream sandwiches the spicy ginger combined perfectly with the cold plum ice cream to make a delicious mess. Someone asked for a spoon. The kids ate close to twenty gingersnaps before anyone got wind and then it was time to say goodbye to Adam and Jessica, and soon after it was time for everyone to go.

Before he walked out the door, Jeff pointed at Luca and Arielle and said: “They have such an easy friendship.”

plums

What Summer Is For

recipes # 26 and 27; tomato salad and peach crisp

For the first time in his life Luca is dreading the end of summer. For a kid who loves school his summers have been fun enough but nothing like the one that is now sadly and rapidly waning. And for the first time in my life I am not dreading the end of summer so much as I am plunged into a deep anticipated mourning.

When I was a child, I hated summer; the endless stretch of days, the blistering heat of Brooklyn thick with the inevitable boredom. Aside from the occasional week or two at sleep away camp, my siblings and I would spend summers at home doing pretty much nothing unless you count driving our mother crazy as an activity. Using the heat as an excuse, we sat around the house all day – napping, killing roaches, complaining and fighting with each other – until she threw us out without much caring where in the inner bowels of Brooklyn we ended up as long as it wasn’t within earshot of her.

what summer should be

Sometimes we’d actually manage to trudge over to the public pool. There we’d fight for space in which to feel any semblance of coolness and bump into giant floating cockroaches that looked dead but were just cooling off in the water. By August we stopped going out altogether. Impervious to our mother’s irritation, we’d sit inside watching through the window as the Puerto Rican kids in their bathing suits and sneakers played in the spray of freezing water from the fire hydrant.

Nowadays for better or for worse, parents plan their kids’ summers week by week. We approach summer with lowgrade panic, looking by mid-May like deer in the headlights of the oncoming eleven weeks of free time. How will we give our kids a healthy, fun summer full of activities plus give them some down time while somehow managing to get any of our own work done? And how much money is it all going to cost?

This summer I didn’t get much work done but it was worth it. Jim was off for three months starting in May, and our mid-June trip to Italy and Spain seems now to have been just the beginning, not necessarily the apex, of a summer rich with experience. Later we went to Cape Cod to see Luca’s beloved cousins on Jim’s side and then drove up to the farm in Vermont where my sister Lexi lives with her partner Art. In between Luca and Jim went camping in the Sequoias and Luca went to various day camps, did gymnastics and spent hours in the pool and in the sun.

sunset on the cape

I suppose it is a hallmark of a good summer that a parent (or a mother anyway) should be brought to the edge of her comfort level watching her children do things she didn’t know they could do. Among the things I watched, calmly or otherwise, Luca do for the first time were diving into deep water, kayaking in the sea far from shore, ziplining and doing flip turns in the pool. He bottle-fed a lamb, ran sheep from one paddock to another and collected fresh eggs from a hen. On the beach at night he made s’mores over an open a fire and then did somersaults in the sand while his more practiced cousin did cartwheels and back flips. He hand picked blueberries and then with Lexi made the most delicious cobbler I have ever tasted. He paddled a canoe, not just to paddle around but to arrive at our campsite on an island in the middle of Lake George, NY in the aftermath of a thunderstorm.

blueberries

If I hadn’t been brought forcibly to the edge of my equanimity at least once it would mean Luca wasn’t playing hard enough. On Lake George I watched Luca swim from one island to another island two football fields away in deep and choppy water. There were currents and wind and Luca, following Jim and Art, was nowhere near land. What happened to my cautious boy, the one who is more adventurous intellectually than physically? “Isn’t that a little far?” I croaked to the air. I took deep breaths and remembered Art saying: “If I can see him I can get to him.”  Still, I couldn’t help muttering to myself “Am I supposed to be OK with this?” Luca reached the far shore and waved to me from across the distance. I could tell even from his tiny head that kept disappearing behind the waves that he was smiling and I pretended to be more proud than scared. When he came back Luca told me he had been fine out there. “Whenever I got tired I just rested on my back,” he said breathlessly. I had had no idea he knew how to do that.

getting water

This was a whole new world for Luca, and I have spent my summer as a bystander to his new, more physical and courageous self. While traipsing through major European cities had kept him in the familiar terrain of his mind where he compared the Italian words with their Spanish counterparts and asked questions about medieval history, getting cooking water from a lake required a different kind of resourcefulness. Using one’s body rather than one’s reason to solve a problem turns out in the end to do much more than make the body strong.

At a rocky gorge in Vermont Luca stood for long minutes on end up to his knees in icy water. I wondered what he was thinking about out there, whether he was observing tadpoles or the pattern of submerged rocks or whatever little boys look at while standing in freezing cold water. It soon became clear that his mind had wandered from the physical world around him because he broke his reverie with: “Daddy, what’s a soliloquy?”

He had somehow been reminded of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn which he had been reading at the time and perhaps this place had reminded him of Huck’s outdoor world of camping and fishing. Perhaps arriving at his question was only possible by first observing the tadpoles and the rocks and standing in this very spot with his legs getting numb on the slippery rocks. It is a beautiful aspect of the meandering mind that it’s movements are totally private, so I’ll never know how he came to ask this question at this moment in this place. In any case, Huck meets up with some actors and that is where Luca read the word that popped into his mind here where the natural world was opening up vistas both external and internal and where there was enough peace, quiet and time for a lazy, wandering mind to do its work.

sitting in the water at our campsite

All this traveling and ziplining and swimming and making time for our wandering thoughts have meant that cooking has been distilled to its simplest form. We have become masters of the five-minute taco. We toss a corn tortilla in a pan to heat, throw some grated cheese on top along with some chopped peppers (hopefully spicy ones), some black beans maybe, add some avocadoes and fresh lime juice and call it dinner. Still, Luca eyes Fanny at Chez Panisse from time to time and picks out a recipe he wants to make, one of the summer recipes that he has been waiting for.

Luca wanted to make peach crisp in the dead of February and apricot jam in March and I’ve had to tell him that he’ll have to wait. So now we are racing to get to the summer recipes before it’s too late and we have to wait until next year. We missed the window during apricot season for me to overcome my fear of making jam (all that sterilizing and boiling is too intimidating). But just when we had a nice crop of fresh tomatoes in our garden, ones that had not yet been bitten it two and left to rot by the squirrels, Luca announced that he wanted to make Alice Waters’ Tomato Salad. So I picked the tomatoes, supplemented them with some nice ones from the farmer’s market, and when I had them laid them all out on the counter Luca said he didn’t feel like making the salad after all. This is how it goes these days: he says he wants to make something and then once all the ingredients are laid out on the counter he says he’d rather go play. Then I say that I’m not going to make whatever it is he’s picked out because the plan was for me to be making something else, so if he wants it he has to make it himself. And then he wrestles with himself, goes back and forth a few times and spends a good long while agonizing over how to manage his time before sighing deeply and saying “Ooooo-Kaaaay.” Once he is engaged in the act of cooking, he starts enjoying himself again.

tomato salad

He made the salad, a twist on a Caprese with tomatoes, mozzarella and a Basalmic dressing. He ate it along with some pasta aglio e olio and declared that he didn’t like the salad much. This was a first. He is usually very impressed with his own results. But I think I understood what he meant. There is something about tomatoes, when eaten raw, that is just… mushy. I can only eat a few bites, even of the best heirloom tomatoes, before the texture becomes unappealing.  I have come to realize that Luca’s food dislikes are all about texture and nothing to do with taste. He doesn’t like mealy or mushy things, no matter what they taste like.

After dinner we watched “Sounder,” part of the ongoing Friday movie night series at our house. Luca loves it because watching movies (all head, no body) is pretty much his favorite thing to do. He will sit through anything with rapt attention and is only now learning to distinguish between movies he likes (anything with Buster Keaton, “Star Wars,” “Indiana Jones”) from ones he doesn’t like (“Toy Story 3”). I like it because I get to pick out movies I want him to see and that aren’t the usual Pixar fare. Recent selections have included “The Bicycle Thief” (pronounced “sad” by Luca) and Charlie Chaplin’s “The Kid” which had him laughing so hard we kept having to pause the movie so he could catch his breath.

peaches and apricots ready for mixing

The other day, Luca said he wanted to make Alice Waters’ Peach Crisp, another summer dish, and we happened to have all the ingredients on hand including a big plate full of fresh peaches mixed with a few apricots. I washed them and laid them on the cutting board whereupon we went through the familiar, tormented dance of Luca wanting to do something else instead and me saying OK fine and then him saying that no, in fact he really did want to make the crisp but wanted to finish playing his airport game and couldn’t decide what to do because he wanted to do both things at the same time and me saying he would have to make a choice. He left the room and I thought that was the end of the crisp. But then came stomping into the kitchen with a scowl on his face. He grabbed a knife but I grabbed it out of his hand and looked him in the eye. “Uh-uh,” I said. “We don’t cook like that. If you’re not in the mood, fine. We don’t have to have the crisp. But if you’re going to do it then you have to change your attitude.” He calmed down but I could tell he was still mad at leaving behind the airport he had laid out so carefully on the living room floor.

We got out the flour and butter and sugars and once Luca’s hands were in the sticky mess of it all his spirits lifted. He ground the mixture together in his fingers and then licked them all. Once he had washed his hands again, he got to work chopping the peaches and the apricots. The knife went through them like butter and once Luca chopped right through the pit. “Look! I cut the pit in half!” He showed it to me and started asking questions about what pits are made of and why they are woody and is it because they come from trees and are made of wood. As anyone who knows me can attest, I am completely ill equipped to answer questions of this nature. Once when we were dating I asked Jim if all plants came from seeds and I have never in fifteen years been able to live that one down.

the flour mixture

The crisp went into the oven, Luca went back to landing his 747 at London Heathrow and a little while later we had tacos with poblano peppers and some grilled baby zucchini. When the crisp was ready we waited for it to cool and then dug in. Even without cream or ice cream (the one missing ingredient), it was delicious, a perfect combination of tangy and sweet.

easy peasy lemon squeezy

As I ate I admired Luca’s taller, tanner, stronger body and the utter gorgeousness of this late summer boyhood. Watching him get happy in ways I never imagined has been better than anything. He has a little swagger now and goes around lifting things, including me, to show how strong he is. One more week, I thought, and he will be back at school doing math problems and catching colds.

peach crisp

Yesterday Jim, Luca and I had the last of the peach crisp for breakfast, heated with a dollop of yogurt. We ate in near silence, relishing the taste of the tart and creamy yogurt mixing perfectly with the sweet tang of the peaches and apricots, and savoring our dessert for breakfast as a sublime celebration of the last tastes of summer.

Food, Art and Coming Home

recipes 24 & 25; quesadillas (again) and Halibut Baked on a Fig Leaf

That the measure of a great trip is how happy you are to return home was never more clear to me than two weeks ago when Jim, Luca and I returned from Italy and Spain. After a grueling trip home, that because we were using our frequent flier miles, involved a twelve hour flight from Madrid to Mexico City on a flight packed with Mexican football fans returning from Mexico’s elimination in the World Cup, and an overnight in a shabby airport hotel, we landed at LAX at 9:30 in the morning. Weirdly energized by jetlag and the luck of it being Wednesday I was at the Farmer’s Market by 11AM loading up on summer’s bounty: apricots, peaches, green beans and zucchini. When I got home, Luca was at the stove making his beloved quesadilla. I made a salad of fresh greens and we all dug in. After two weeks of a diet that consisted mostly of cheese, wine, pasta and just about every possible kind of pig meat, we were too excited about eating our own food to think about the sleep we so desperately needed.

Normal people plan their trips around museums and famous basilicas. We scour Chowhound.com and other foodie sites for places to eat like locals. In much of Italy this advance research isn’t necessary as you can eat well just about anywhere, including as Jim and I found out once, in the Autostrada rest stops where we had great coffee and sandwiches. But we knew from previous experience that you can eat very badly in Venice and spend a lot of money while you’re at it. So armed with a trusty list of off-the-beaten-track restaurants, and no plans to enter a basilica of any kind, the three of us set out to walk the world’s most beautiful city.

A quiet corner of Venice

Because Luca is Luca, he had no trouble planning the day around the best pizza in Venice (Il Refolo) or a nice plate of fritti misti (Il Vecchio Fritolin).

This seafood fritti misti with polenta was so delicious I forgot to snap a photo until it was all gone.

When Luca was a toddler we traveled all over Europe and found that, though he happily sat still for a three hour lunch, he howled in agony upon crossing the threshold of a museum, no matter what kind. We planned museum visits around his naptime and then had to keep him moving in the stroller, doing absurd figure eights through the galleries lest he should wake up and find himself in front of the Mona Lisa and start screaming.

This time around he’d have to suck it up. As an eight year old, he’d have to walk on his own two feet and keep his irritation to himself. The truth is that I don’t have much more tolerance for museums than he does, and this is especially true of big important museums stuffed with religious paintings. I think we learn as much from food as from art, and whatever it says about me, treating museums as stopovers on the way to great food works for me as much as for my eight-year old kid. We got off to a good start in Milan at the Leonardo Da Vinci Museum of Science and Technology where they have constructed wooden models of Leonardo’s technological drawings; bridges, flying machines, weaving looms. But at the Galleria Accademia in Venice Luca’s shoulders slumped almost immediately and he began to moan that he was bored and hungry after only a few minutes. I couldn’t blame him. Nor could I explain the significance in wall after wall of the Madonna and Child or the gruesome depictions of saints being tortured. Luca stopped in front of a particularly grisly portrait of a saint having the thigh muscle cut off by several knife-wielding unbelievers intent on their business. Momentarily absorbed, he wanted answers. “I don’t get it. Why is there so much torture?”

“I don’t know,” I answered lamely and pulled out the list of restaurants and a map. The painting may have been a Tintoretto but it was oppressive enough that three minutes later we were bounding across bridges on our way to the Venice fish market.

Having no place to cook, we bought no fish but, while Luca watched the garbage boat loading, we bought some lovely apricots at the next-door fruit market. For some reason the sight of the garbage boat with its little crane lifting and placing garbage made Luca laugh, so we stood there a while eating apricots while Luca giggled at the garbage boat.

Venice fruit market

Luca did better at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, where, with a steady, lashing rain beginning to pour, we had fun looking at the photos of Peggy in these very rooms with these very works of art surrounding her. It was a relief after the heaviness of the Galleria Accademia, imagining what it must have been like to live here on the Grand Canal with your very own gondola at the front door and with playful works by Picasso and Brancusi hanging in your dining room and, in the bedroom, a silver headboard made by Calder (I have read that this last caused some uncomfortable moments during Peggy’s many romantic encounters).  Luca was especially enchanted by the blue glass sculptures made from Picasso’s drawings that sit in a window through which you can watch the traffic of the vaporettos and delivery boats on the Grand Canal.

We squeezed in visits to the Ca’ D’Oro and the Palazzo Ducale between meals at San Trovaso where we ate squid ink pasta with big tender hunks of squid, and Alla Vedova where we ate our freshest meal of chicchetti; white beans and onions, sarde en saor, vegetable antipasti, and their famed meatballs.

Aside from some 12th Century bronzes, the Ca D’Oro was a trial for Luca that no amount of enthusiasm on my part could alleviate. He managed to amuse himself by sitting on the loggia overlooking the considerable action on the Grand Canal, mostly unchanged since the 13th century when other little boys, bored by the goings on in the palace itself, might have been enchanted by the same view.

In the Ca' D'Oro looking out

The Palazzo Ducale was a lot more fun, part museum and part living-history playground for Luca. With a belly full of a rich béchamel and porcini lasagne he spent the better part of a rainy afternoon in the armory picking out his weapons of choice (crossbow and sling), and in the dank prison cells where he alternately pretended to be a guard and a prisoner.

Blaming it on the long line snaking through the Piazza San Marco in the rain, we skipped the Basilica.

With the World Cup heating up, we watched Cameroon play Denmark in the Campo Santa Margherita where a small crowd huddled under awnings to stay out of the rain while sipping on beer or the incredibly refreshing Venetian spritz made with Prosecco, campari and soda water. The next night, with the rain still pouring, we had the luck to run into a little snack bar draped in Brazilian flags and offering caipirinhas. The place was cozy and dry so we stayed to watch Brazil beat Ivory Coast and made a dinner of tiny sandwiches and their version of the spritz made with Aperol and vodka.

It is said that no visit to Venice is complete without getting utterly and hopelessly lost and that night our visit was made complete as we traipsed through a bleak and eerie part of the Dorsoduro in the rain. Glimpses of the lights of cruise ships only disoriented us further until we found ourselves, blocks from our hotel, in a deserted courtyard of a police station with an armada of smart little police boats bobbing at the docks.

Beautiful food shop in Verona where we bought picnic fixin's.

In Verona, we avoided the local specialty of horsemeat stew and had a picnic of cheese, salami, bread, wine and artichokes on the banks of the Adige River. In the distance was the 12th century Castelvecchio where Luca had passed the morning shooting imaginary crossbows off turrets at the enemy advancing from the river.

Castelvecchio

Then it was off to the much hotter and drier Madrid. We checked into our hotel and immediately went out to find Luca’s beloved and much-anticipated giant pile of chorizo.

Oh beloved!

At the Reina Sofia Museum Luca learned about the horrors or the Spanish Civil War through works by Picasso with titles such as “Mother With Dead Child,” and his giant “Guernika.” Interspersed throughout the galleries were flat screen TV’s on which were shown odd little early experimental films and, to the delight of the loudly guffawing Luca, a 22 minute Buster Keaton short called “The Week.” While I tried to interest Luca in wondrous portraits by Miro he became engrossed in a documentary film about the war. Arguing about why he should be allowed to watch it for the third straight time, he said emphatically: “Mommy, this is history. It’s real. This,” he said with a sweeping gesture encompassing all the great works hanging on the walls, “is not.” I tried explaining that history is understood through art as much as through the so-called “facts,” but Luca’s eyes were glued to the screen where grainy images of dead children flickered. When did he become so literal?

That night we ate at El Mollete, a tapas restaurant in an old charcoal cellar so tiny that there are little luggage racks above the tables. We had an avocado salad that came wrapped in smoked salmon, a plate of tender, spicy pulpo, pork stuffed with cherries and blackberries, and best of all, fiilo dough saquetes of goat cheese drizzled with honey.

Goat cheese saquetes at El Mollete

The next day we were joined by our good friends from London; Nina (one half of the brilliant tropical/rock/pop band Zeep), and her son Johan who was a great pal of Luca’s when we lived in London. Fellow Brasil supporters, Nina and Johan arrived with a suitcase full of carnival paraphernalia and just in time to watch the match between Brasil and Portugal in the Plaza Santa Ana. In contrast to the more staid piazzas in Venice and Verona, the Plaza Santa Ana was hot, loud and smoky and, though less beautiful, a lot more fun.

Viva Brasil!

Sitting on the Plaza we noticed a small but steady stream of people in yellow and green heading to a little bar on the corner and a couple of minutes later we were speaking Portuguese and enjoying a nice plate of paella accompanied by a delightfully chilled light red wine. Brasil won the match 3-1 and just then it would have been hard to improve upon our mood.

Where we watched Brasil

The boys braved a walk in the 90 degree heat to the Parque Retiro where they had ride on the lake in a rowboat. Afterwards they played soccer in the rain and it was off for another tapas meal;  jamon iberico and cheese. Walking with the boys in the heat, it turned out, required regular stops for ice cream and “Fanta Naranja” which in Italy Luca discovered by the name of “Aranciata.”

Fuel for walking

The last museum of the trip turned out to be the most trying for me and, surprisingly,  the least so for Luca. On the way to the Prado, Luca and Jim peeled off to fix a shoe problem of Luca’s and I went into the museum with Nina and Johan. Johan, who is incredibly easy-going and quiet, began to squirm the minute we joined the line for tickets. As I watched Johan in silent tears, literally wringing his little body away from the gloomy paintings on the wall, I wondered how Luca was faring, if he was being tortured as Johan now was, very like the victims portrayed in Goya’s dark works.

We lasted about an hour before we desperately fumbled for an exit, an hour that was a testament to Johan’s forbearance. Luca who is much more vocal would have complained so loudly that it would have been impossible to stay more than a few minutes.

Nina, Johan and I ended up waiting for over an hour outside the Prado for Jim and Luca to emerge, an hour I spent worrying for Luca’s mental health in the face of the monstrous faces of Goya’s masses and the firing squads. When I finally saw Luca bounding towards me across the expanse of the museum’s entrance, he was smiling and saying: “that was my favorite museum, Mommy!”

Then we were off to El Mollete again, this time with friends in tow. When the waiters saw us for the second time in two days, they sat down and shook our hands like we were old friends. We ate well, too well, and then took a long walk through the neighborhoods of La Latina and Lavpies which were deserted in the afternoon heat.

That night Jim watched the boys – and a match between USA and Ghana – while Nina and I went out to see Flamenco at Casa Patas (which turns out to be the best place in Madrid for Flamenco). I had never seen Flamenco and didn’t know what to expect. It didn’t take more than a couple of minutes for me to be completely enraptured with the clapping and percussive foot stamps of the melancholy, mournful singers. The guitar playing was extraordinary, brilliant really, and the dancing was jaw dropping. Everything was sexy and dynamic and musically rich and Nina and I wanted more of all of the performers, the whole gorgeous sextet of them.

High on great music and dancing, we went back to the Brazilian place on Santa Ana and drank a bottle of wine and ate an enormous plate of ham while we watched the thick parade of people walking by the windows. At one point we noticed that the people in the streets, though it was nearing 1AM, were not drunk in the least. They were merely enjoying the night, eating and drinking and, because this was Spain they were of course, smoking. We also observed the way in which the hipness of modern Spain has embraced traditional Spanish culture rather than casting it aside. The big hams hanging in the bars, the wine, the midday siesta which is no longer a siesta of course but which the Spaniards cling to nevertheless, even Flamenco; all of these are part of the new modern here.

Ham and breadsticks

The day after Nina and Johan returned to London, Luca, Jim and I took the train to Segovia. There we had a drink and an ice cream under the perfectly intact Roman Aqueduct and then walked across town to the Alcazar, a 12th century castle built in the shape of a ship’s prow on the confluence of two rivers.

Roman aqueduct in Segovia

This castle was mostly left as as is, and not unlike in the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, it was easy to imagine life as it must have been when people actually lived here. The Fireplace room had its original dining table and chairs, the bedroom had what seemed like a strangely modest bed, and there was even a real throne in the Throne room. Luca examined the weapons in the armory before climbing the 152 circular steps of the Torre San Juan II, and at the top he fought another valiant battle against encroaching enemy forces using (I think) a canon and crossbows.

The throne room in the Alcazar

By this point in our journey my stomach was on strike so we bypassed the whole suckling pig that Segovia is famous for and had a little snack of cheese and bread before heading to the train station. This was our last day in Spain and we spent it by turns arguing with officious train station clerks and watching the rain fall on the Spanish plain from the top of a medieval castle.

Two days later we are home and, by noon, all settled down at the table to eat Luca’s quesadillas and greens from the Farmer’s Market.  “Mmmmm,” I said. “Fresh California salad.”

“I want some Fresh California salad!” Luca said as though this were its name. I heaped a mound of it on his plate and the colors were various hues of almost fluorescent green. He ate a big bite and then dug back into his beloved quesadilla. Less than an hour after landing at LAX, he had been at the stove reuniting with the familiar flavors of home.

________________________________________________________

Halibut in fig leaves ready for the oven

By the way, for Mother’s Day Luca finally made the much-anticipated Halibut Baked on a Fig Leaf. I have had fish wrapped in all kinds of things and usually I can’t see what the fuss is about. But this was different, another example of Alice Waters’ genius for making the simplest foods indescribably delicious. The fig leaves (harvested from our friend’s tree) gave the fish a slightly nutty taste and the halibut itself was so tender it melted in my mouth. Luca had wanted to make all three meals that day for me including breakfast in bed, but I convinced him that one meal was enough. And it was!

Tough Times Sourdough

recipe #21: Vanilla  Snow

There has been a lot of bread baking in our house recently. I tell myself it’s because homemade bread is so much more delicious than store-bought, but really it is because of the recession. In answer to the almost daily barrage of bad news – friends losing jobs, promising projects being canceled and the music program in Luca’s school on the chopping block – I roll up my sleeves and feed my homemade sourdough bread starter.

I spent fourteen days following Nancy Silverton’s instructions on how to make a starter from scratch, discovering along the way that following Nancy Silverton’s recipe for anything is to become a sort of crazed disciple. There are no half measures or shortcuts. Other bakers will tell you it takes three days to make a decent starter and that you need only stir in a cup of flour and a cup of water every day. Nancy says to feed the starter three times daily to the tune of seven cups of flour a day, and to adhere to precise measurements of weight and temperature. She says, apparently without a trace of irony, “Care for your starter as you would a newborn! Don’t miss a feeding!” In other less dire times, I might have read the fourteen page recipe for starter in the Breads of the La Brea Bakery book and laughed out loud. But because the world is in an apparent state of collapse, I am happy to follow her exacting instruction.

starter with grapes

I bought the equipment required for the starter and calculated that I would have to bake at least thirty loaves of bread to make back the money I had just spent. This did not include the price of all the flour that goes into keeping the starter alive and the hours I would have to spend burning off all the cakes and muffins and pizzas I would have no choice but to make. As my starter grew, I became obsessed with the mass of bubbles growing on my kitchen counter and read everything I could find online about starter consistency (it varies), what to do about mold (scrape it off and hope it doesn’t return), what it should smell like (yeasty, beery, bready). For weeks, I took Silverton’s Breads of La Brea Bakery to bed with me and curled up with it like a favorite novel.

I gave away gallons of the painstakingly acquired starter rather than throw it away. As though trying to find a home for a stray animal, I called and emailed all my friends and begged them to take some. “Think of the pancakes! The fresh pizza dough!” I implored. One friend told me that she had a hundred-year old starter given to her by her mother-in-law and that she purposely killed it off as a way to work out family resentments. I had no idea that bread starter could be so loaded with emotional baggage.

pancake or alien creature?

Waiting to find homes for all the containers of starter meant feeding them all according to Nancy’s rigorous schedule and keeping them warmly wrapped in blankets under a warm lamp. Within a few days my kitchen counter was covered with containers of bubbling starter, scales, thermometers and cups of flour. Jim tried making space at the counter and gingerly asked how long this was going to go on.

“She says to feed it for three more days,” I said.

“She who?”

“Nancy,” I replied. The voice in my head.

Jim looked at me as though wondering whether to seek professional help. But I had no time for his worries. My first pizza dough was looking a little blotchy and it was impossible to tell if it was rising properly because I was checking it every five minutes. I knew what was happening, that I was filling a creative void with bread, but I didn’t care. I told myself it was better than Facebooking or any other thing that shouldn’t be a verb but somehow is one. At least you can eat bread, a fact that makes the whole enterprise not only compatible with our tough economic times but deeply satisfying.

When it came time to actually bake bread, I made the mistake of following a much easier recipe than Nancy’s two-day recipe for Country White. Suffice it to say that I learned the hard way that if you are going to bother with any kind of bread baking you should just roll up your sleeves and do it Nancy’s way. Her recipe for Country White is sixteen pages long! Have you ever in your life seen a recipe for anything that is sixteen pages long? Admittedly, she explains the science of bread baking as she goes along and also tries, as anyone might who has reached absolute genius status in her field, what the dough is supposed to feel like at various points in the process, describing it as “flabby,” “soft,” “alive,” “shiny” and “like a baby’s bottom.” There are several baby analogies in her bread book. You can tell she loves babies and children (I actually met her once when carrying baby Luca in my arms and she stopped to admire and coo at him). But you have the feeling it’s possible she loves bread more.

boule ready for the oven

By the time I was successfully baking two of Nancy’s Country White boules another local arts organization had gone under and I was talking to the dough, saying things like, “There you go. Stay warm in there and I’ll see you in a few hours.” Or, “Are you a little too dry? Yes, maybe a little. Let’s give you some warm water and see how you do.” Jim, throwing me sidelong glances, stayed out of the kitchen.

The only person in my life who is not alarmed by the depth of my new obsession is Luca. Unlike me, he doesn’t see it as a sad reflection of how little is going on in my work life. No matter how dire things seem to me, Luca sees only my accomplishments. He doesn’t want me to get a job. He wants me to keep making sourdough pancakes and pizza dough, which he tells me greatly improved with the purchase of a proper pizza stone. He compares one loaf of bread to another, loaves that turn out to have a golden crust and a chewy interior full of fermentation holes and a slightly salty, tangy flavor. This is why you follow Nancy Silverton to the limits of your endurance. When the economy is going to hell in a hand basket and taking the schools and the arts with it, you want to be eating her Country White.

Nancy's incredible bread

When Luca asked to cook, I said there was too much going on in the kitchen. A couple of days later, he asked again and this time I felt guilty and said yes. He wanted to make Vanilla Snow from Fanny At Chez Panisse. Lucky for me it was raining and therefore easy to plan a meal that would put the bread at center stage; a variation of Tuscan white bean soup with kale and potatoes.

"All food is bread. The rest is accompaniment."

I bought a whole vanilla bean and Luca said it looked like a dried up worm. I cut it in half lengthwise and Luca scraped out the tiny grains from the inside. It occurred to me that I had never seen the inside of a vanilla bean before. Completely forgetting about the tiny black flecks that appear in good vanilla ice cream, I wondered if the grains were bitter tasting and tossed them. A minute later a panicked Luca read from the recipe: “Add the bean and scrapings to the milk mixture!” He calmed down when I showed him the other half of the vanilla bean and we started again.

Luca went to work on the egg whites and before long they were holding the shape of “soft peaks.” I started to explain how to “gently fold” the eggs into the milk mixture when he stopped me. “I know what ‘fold’ means,” he said. And then I watched him fold the eggs beautifully so as not to break the air bubbles in the egg, thinking how commonplace this moment will become for us; me looking on as Luca (cooking, solving math problems, solving social problems) stuns me with just how well he can do without me.

Luca admonished me to let him turn on the ice cream machine this time. Last time, forgetting the joy that turning an “on” switch can bring to anyone under the age of ten, I did it myself. He poured the mixture into the machine and turned it on. It loudly began turning the mixture round and round. We sat down and ate the soup and bread while the ice cream machine worked on dessert. Luca couldn’t get enough of the soup. “Mommy,” he said importantly. “This is the best soup ever.” He is like me this way. Whenever something is tasty, it is “the best ever.” When we love something or someone, we forget everything that has come before.

I’m not much for sweets and dessert. But there is nothing quite like eating a perfect meal knowing that a perfect dessert awaits. We filled our bowls and ate the Vanilla Snow. Not quite creamy enough to be ice cream, it was cold and lovely after the hot soup and the slightly sour bread. Best of all, Luca observed: “It tastes just like snow.” Once again, I had to admire the genius of Alice Waters. The name of this recipe caught Luca’s attention back in October, the promise of snow and vanilla together being something no child should be able to resist. And it did not disappoint. If there is no word for the taste equivalent of onomatopoeia we should invent one.

snow!

A few days later, I landed a project that will keep me too busy to bake much bread or to obsess about how much hydration to give my bread starter. But for now the snowy dessert had perfect, tiny flecks of black vanilla rescued from oblivion by Luca’s careful reading of the recipe. The rain drummed on the roof and inside we were warm and full and pleasantly accomplished.

Luca's bliss

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.”

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.