Food, Family, and Memory
Ever since joining the club, my diet has changed. Health club? Good God no! Book club, country club, beach club? Wrong again! I am now a card carrying member of the worldwide group of “empty nesters.” The club one is automatically granted membership to once their last or only child leaves the house for college or life elsewhere. No dues, no rules, and absolutely no where to go!
When my husband and I dropped the youngest of our two daughters off at college this past September in London no less, (our eldest went east to upstate NY, but not far enough for our baby, she needed another continent!) there were, of course, tears. I did cry myself to sleep the night after we said goodbye. Exhaustion and jet lag could’ve played into it a bit. We should have planned the trip better. A week to shop for a college room in a foreign city, plus a winter wardrobe (her Southern Cal cutoffs and T-shirts wouldn’t do in London come October) and her own kitchen setup as her dorm had no cafeteria just a communal kitchen on every floor that the 8 residents to a hallway shared, was a race I barely won.
Mother Nature in her infinite wisdom, as I learned with the first college drop, sets it up so well. The last few weeks before they leave, the kids are so nervous aka obnoxious, you really can’t wait to kiss them goodbye, put the pedal to the metal and head home. The old gal was on the job this time as well, but London is so far away from Los Angeles and this was my baby! Even though she had me running in and out of every frigging vintage shop in London for the winter coat that didn’t exist, and up and down the escalator at the largest Tesco ever created until I begged for an oxygen tank, (“Excuse me Sir, would you happen to have an inhaler I could borrow?”) I fell to pieces after we left her. So much for the year of living dangerously. Senior year when I didn’t know who to kill, her or me...or my husband, for if I hadn’t married him to begin with...
I adore lamb shanks - even as a child. When I eat them gray clouds depart, the rain stops and on occasion I hear music. I love them that much. In a perfect world they are small, less than a pound but better closer to three quarters of a pound. They ideally come from the front leg and are called fore shanks, not the pseudo/imposter shank cut off the rear leg.
They need to be browned in a small amount of olive oil and braised slowly in stock or water to release their rustic flavor and to make them melt into tenderness. My mother always braised them in garlic, oregano, onions and chopped whole tomatoes. It was the scent of our home growing up. She’d slowly braise them on the stove for at least an hour and then placed the shanks onto raw rice and ladled the remaining liquid on top and baked them covered in the oven. When you could smell the rice, it was done but it still needed to rest for 15 more long minutes.
Our mother used ‘Greek rice.’ Lord only knows what that was. My guess is that it was long grain Basmati rice from India. No one ate much rice in Maine in those days. Our mother and my sister and I went on food shopping trips once a month to Boston. She’d order up a taxi from the doorman at the Parker House Hotel to take us to the less-safe area of Boston and have the taxi wait while we filled our shopping cart with small brown bags of ‘Greek rice’, tins of finely ground Arabic coffee for our father, pounds of feta cut from a wooden barrel, big plastic bags of Kalamata and Alfonzo olives, whole milk yogurt with a creamy top, a few long boxes of phyllo dough, dried oregano and large non-boxed heads of garlic, a tin of Greek olive oil, tiny capers and still warm spinach pies.
It's autumn and that means....
Max's Fresh Raspberry + Pear Bundt Cake with Buttercream Frosting
This cake was the result of what I didn't have. I wanted to make a cake for my son's birthday, but it was late in the afternoon and I didn't have time to drive to the store. So I decided to just wing it in the kitchen, which always leads to the new and unexpected. Plus, the birthday son isn't a stickler about his birthday cake and in truth doesn't even like sweets. This gave me permission to experiment.
So I guess I should call this Max's Fresh Raspberry and Pear Cake. I'm honoring him. This cake is dense, moist, filed with hunks of fruit, and in my estimation, delicious. I'm fairly certain that it's also not on any diet plans. I serve it topped with Buttercream frosting, the kind that you make from a SINGLE BOX of powdered sugar (recipe on the back of the blue box -- you add to the powered sugar a cube of butter, a 1/4 cup of whole milk and a teaspoon of vanilla. Beat with the blender. Works every time).
Let us begin....
When Chloe was three, we lived on Martha’s Vineyard. She was an unusual three year old. She didn’t like pink, or dolls but her most unusual quality at that tender age, was her love of lobster.
Every summer, our friends from Chicago, rented the home next to ours for the month of July. We had celebrated their return this particular year with a big lobster feast – This is when, to my knowledge, Chloe tasted her first lobster and the love affair began.
The following morning, I heard our friends next door calling over the fence, “Chloe’s here.”
It was about 7am! I rushed through the gap in the garden to find Chloe, still in her pajamas, sitting on the back porch steps, expertly devouring a whole lobster that had been left over from the night before. She wasn’t interested in anything or anyone, except the massive coruscation as big as her arm that she was pulling apart and devouring.
The conversation went something like this…
My nephew, who lives in a tiny New York apartment, called me with a recipe emergency. He’d invited a new Potential Girlfriend (PGF) over for dinner and wanted to cook something that was cheap and easy but impressive. I thought this was ambitious for a guy whose cooking skills are limited to pouring cereal and microwaving popcorn, but I had an idea.
Henry’s understanding of ingredients is, shall we say, unsophisticated; he has probably never spoken the words “paprika” or “fennel.” But he did well with the shopping list I gave him, texting me only once when he was bewildered by varieties of olive oil.
We began Skype instruction two hours before the PGF’s ETA. “So, first you preheat your oven to 350 degrees,” I said.
After a brief silence, Henry admitted that the oven was where he keeps his shoes. After a less brief silence on my end, I told him to get the (damn) shoes out of his oven and call me back. We hung up, resuming instruction five minutes later when Henry’s oven was vacated.
If a group of 10 people playing the word association game were given the word “summer”, chances are at least half would say picnic. Probably more. For me, the best summer picnic, the only summer picnic, is a beach picnic. My family wasn’t park picnickers or picnic in the woods people. We were Long Island beach lovers. And that’s where we did our picnicking.
Every summer from the time I remember, until I was 18, my family belonged to the Lawrence Beach Club on the south shore of Long Island, New York. When school let out in June until after Labor Day, my sisters and I were there, rain or shine. If it rained while we were in the pool, we just opened our mouths to catch the drops.
On hot days after school started back up in September, my mom would pick us up at 3, the station wagon idling at the curb, and take us to the beach until 5 well into October when it was starting to cool down and get dark early.
Memories of Lawrence Beach Club own prime real estate in my memory bank. Beach picnics on summer weekday nights with my family are among the most precious. So precious they are usually keep vaulted in the back of the bank and brought out to be viewed on rare occasions.
I am in Cape Cod today, on vacation with my husband’s extended family. Yesterday it was my turn to make dinner, and I envisioned a gorgeous piece of broiled bluefish. I made the fatal mistake of sharing this vision with my in-laws.
“Bluefish? Really?” said my brother-in-law Scott, as if I’d announced I was braising a hedgehog. He begged for an alternative. My sister-in-law Julie chimed in: “But please, no salmon. Too fishy. Or tilapia. It tastes like dust.”
When I suggested shrimp or scallops, my niece Katy made a barfing sound. Cousin Noah let it be known that hates halibut and Suzie is sick of sole. Bette said flounder was too boring, and octopus was a non-starter since Uncle Johnny won’t eat things with more than four legs. Aunt Sue won’t eat squid, having been traumatized by “20,000 Leagues Under The Sea” as a child.
I tried to appeal on the basis of geography. “What about cod?” I said. “In honor of our current location?” I was greeted with blank stares. “Okay, well, catfish?”
“Ew. Bottom-feeders,” said my daughter Nora.
My dad clumsily peeled the skins off a few garlic cloves and then looked up at me with an expression I didn’t recognize. He looked like a little boy.
“I’m nervous cooking for you,” he said.
I smiled at the slight power shift from the man whose passion in the kitchen inspired my career– and intimidated the hell out of me.
“Naw, Pop, you’re just using cloves closest to the center of the bulb. The skins are thinner, especially if they’ve been around a week or two. I had the same problem the other day in my kitchen.”
He steadied his hands, deftly chopped the garlic and tossed it into the pan of onions and chili flakes sauteing on the stove. He pulled the can opener from a drawer and opened some DOP San Marzano tomatoes. He was preparing a simple arrabiatta sauce.
I fished the garlic that I was blanching out of a small pot of boiling water and washed some basil for the pesto.
A sizeable t-bone steak rested in butcher paper on the marble counter, seasoned and coming to temperature before getting tossed on the grill outside.
I know a man who gave up smoking, drinking, sex and rich food. He was healthy right up until the day he killed himself. ~Johnny Carson
I finally tuned into “Mad Men.” At least, the first show of this last season. I’m a little late to the craze. I had heard for years about the sets and the wardrobe, but what hit me most was the food. They nailed the food. And it’s what I miss most about that era.
Truth is, I still eat like that -- but I’m alone. All the restaurants that serve “old school” food are dying. Everyone’s dropping gluten, dairy and sugar. We are bombarded with studies about how bad they are for you. Gluten triggers stomach problems and brain disorders. Sugar generates cancer. All three cause inflammation that will kill me. Well, kill me now, because all I really want is bread, butter, sugar and a big cold glass of milk. And I don’t want so many choices of milk that I have to read the carton. I want to live again in the late 60’s and early 70’s.
Around the same time I saw my first “Mad Men” show this season, I noticed the dismantling of Chart House on Pacific Coast Highway. Immediately, I was lost in memories of my first grown up dates there. My boyfriend would take me to Chart House and regret it around 30 minutes into the long wait for a table, as my mood dropped with my blood sugar. They were WAY ahead of their time on the no-reservations policy I still loathe. I get cranky when I can’t sit right down and be served some bread & butter.
It was a cool, rainy fall day at our store in Maine many years ago. My sister was running errands and I was alone at our store. A well-waxed black truck pulled into the driveway and parked way too close to our building. I admit I was a bit nervous as I watched for the person or persons to get out from behind the blacked-out windows. The door opened slowly and a huge single foot appeared from under the door and slowly another emerged. The single occupant was the tallest and biggest person I had every seen in my life and he was headed for our front door. Tom was 6 feet, 8 inches and weighed around 600 pounds, seriously huge.
I no longer feared being robbed. Now I was worried that our floor couldn't hold that much weight. My brain went into overdrive trying quickly to calculate how much 3/4 inch plywood could hold for weight per square foot. Instant answer was - he was over gross. Three steps in and he was drooling over our lobster tank filled to the brim with a fine selection of jumbo lobsters. Then it happened, the crackling sound of a dozen laminate layers of plywood giving way as his foot slowly disappeared and all I could think was how I was going to explain this gapping hole in the middle of floor to my sister when she returned.
I helped him get his foot unstuck from the layers of plywood as he pointed at 3 jumbo lobsters that he wanted to buy. He never missed a beat. If it is possible for someone that large to spin in ecstasy, he spun around our store taking in everything and shaking with true glee. I cashed him out, carried his bags of lobsters out and apologized repeatedly for my floor. He slowly lifted himself back into the truck as the vehicle listed under his weight on the driver’s side. He promised to return the following day. Yikes, I had a floor to repair and story to tell....
by Chef Mark Shoup