Friday, May 24, 2013

Zucchini almond gratin... & the pursuit of real food & community




Our childhoods are made of joy (hopefully), sorrows, regrets, losses, traumas small (and sometimes big). They're also made of unsuspected blessings we didn't have the tools (or wisdom, or distance) to appreciate at the time. As an adult and especially as a parent, I have found myself sorting through these childhood experiences, processing, understanding, accepting what needed to be processed, understood or accepted (a lot of that goes on while I chop, fry or whisk). A sort of spring cleaning, decluttering of the soul, if you will.

So there are some things about the way I grew up that I am only now grateful for. Things that were just part of my environment in France, that were in the order of things where and when I grew up, in a small town in Normandy in the 80's. Things that were just the norm then and there, but that have become the object of a deliberate pursuit today.

Like real food, for example. A trendy topic if there ever was one. Real food was just regular food when I grew up. Processed foods were minimal, artisan products were the norm. Going to the market, eating seasonal fresh fruit and vegetables, as well as meats and fish (a lot of meats and fish are seasonal in France, scallops for example can only be fished between October to May), from small local producers... all that was just the way it was. There was no other alternative, really. Only now do I realize what a blessing it  was.

Or things like a sense of community. It wasn't as explicit as that. We lived in a small town, walked most places, knew the baker, butcher and fishmonger enough to have a chat with them and know their kids' names. I never really saw the benefits of all that then.

Now that I am a mom in Los Angeles, whose toddler is being offered junky popcorn from CVS in art class, it's a whole different ball game. But there's a lot to be said about creating these things we value for ourselves deliberately.



This week, my husband, my son and I went to our little neighborhood farmer's market. It's close enough for us to walk to, through a residential neighborhood, where I noticed the purple jacaranda trees blooming and raining purple onto the streets. It reminded me that the first anniversary of this blog is coming up in a couple of weeks. I can remember taking a picture of the purple leaves and talking about the farmer's market in one of my first posts. My life follows the rhythm of the seasons again. There's some calm serenity to that, in stark contrast with an anxious-ridden sand-through-fingers sense of time passing.

As soon as we arrive at the market, we notice a buzz, a hustle bustle we haven't felt in a few months. The trepidation of the warmer season. We always stop by our friend Sam's organic fruit stand first. Sam is kindness incarnate. He always takes time to cut up a piece of fruit for Pablo. He has a soft spot in his heart for Pablo. And it's mutual. Pablo looks forward to going to see Sam at the farmers' market.

So there, at Sam's stand, is where I start to get very excited (and proceed to flood Instagram with shots of produce!). Stone fruits are here. Tender delicate apricots, white nectarines so sweet they make the apricots taste bland. Cherries.

We stay there longer than we need to, just to baste in the warmth of the moment. Pablo munches on a nectarine, the juice dripping from his chin, peeks at the cherries. People pass by and smile.

Then we're off to our favorite tomato and vegetable stand. The first tomatoes grown outdoors are here. And fava beans, and zucchini. It's held by a family farm, a couple and their two grown sons. They throw in a couple of free tomatoes and fresh basil. Last time, they handed Pablo a bunch of carrots he proudly held and walked with.

Pablo has become almost famous there. He feels at home. He makes his stops. Grabs an ice cube or two (or three) from the fish guy. Stares down one of the produce stands for samples. Grabs an olive from the Greek vendor.

On our way out, we notice a new stand. A bakery held by an Armenian family. They laugh as they see Pablo run with abandon and hop like a bunny.  We chat and they tell us they mill their own wheat with a handcrafted stone mill they brought back from Switzerland. I can't wait to go visit their bakery. The bread is beautiful, artisanal. New friends.

Then it's getting late, it's bath time and soon dinner time, and we've gotten everything we need. But we don't want to leave quite yet. This half hour spent there, is a half hour of happiness. And real food. And community. We don't take it for granted for a minute. Well, Pablo takes it for granted, as he should. To him, that's the norm. He'll appreciate it some day. In 20 or 30 years. But right now, it is contributing to who he is inside, and who he will become.

And as we walk home, I feel a moment of pride. Of contentment. I am able to provide this environment for my son, here and now. That's my job. Providing him with the right environment, and then trust him to thrive in it. Or to struggle in it, as he inevitably must. But an environment where he feels safe, loved, trusted, with a sense of community, and real food.

This morning, we ate the boysenberries we got at Sam's stand, and they seemed even tastier with the image of Sam's smile in our minds. Last night for dessert, Pablo and I shared some plain yogurt and an apricot, two spoons in one bowl. His little chubby hand grabbed the apricot half, he looked at it, then looked at me and said, smiling, "Sam!" before biting into it wholeheartedly.

























So among the exciting new produce of the season, we came across some zucchini, which we love, as simply as just cold, boiled with mint vinaigrette, or in a terrine, or in a ratatouille.

I was overdue to share a gratin with you here. Gratins are a family favorite for vegetables. This one was scrumptious, and I hope you enjoy it too.



Zucchini almond gratin

Adapted from Petit Larousse des Recettes des Légumes du Potager by Valérie Lhomme

Serves 4-6

Prep time: 15 min
Cook time: 35 min

Age for babies: 10-12 months, in bite size pieces as finger food can work well (avoiding the sliced almonds, which would be hard to gum down)

4 zucchinis
2 tbsp coconut oil
2 tbsp olive oil
2/3 cup heavy cream
2 eggs + 1 yolk
1 pinch of nutmeg
3.5 oz of grated Parmesan (a packed cup) (You can also use Pecorino, Manchego, or Gruyère)
4 tbsp almond meal
1 tbsp butter
3 tbsp sliced almonds
Salt & pepper

Wash and slice the zucchinis (no need to peel them). Melt 1 tbsp coconut oil and 1 tbsp of olive oil in two large frying pans  (each) (or do several batches with one pan). Place the slices of zucchini in the pans and fry until just golden, about 2 minutes on each side. (By the time you're done flipping over the slices in one pan, it's time to do it with the other pan). Add a pinch of salt and pepper, and place on absorbent paper or cloth to let cool a bit.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the cream, eggs and yolk. Add nutmeg, salt & pepper, a third of the Parmesan, and the almond meal.

Preheat the oven at 400°F.

Butter a baking dish (with your hands, it's way more fun). Place one layer of zucchini slices at the bottom of the dish. Pour a bit of the cream/almond mixture over it. Add another layer of zucchini, then another layer of cream, and so on until you're out of zucchini slices. End with a layer of cream. Sprinkle the sliced almonds over it, and the rest of the Parmesan.

Bake for about 30 minutes, until golden.

Serve it warm, as an entree with a butter lettuce in an almond oil vinaigrette, or as a side dish with a roasted chicken, for example.


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Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Asparagus, arugula, avocado soup, & eating on the wild side





Last weekend, I went foraging, for the first time in my life. And I think I fell in love. There I was, with a new group of people, in the woods, learning about a completely new topic. I felt so alive.

This was the perfect symbiosis of nature and cooking. And you probably have gathered by now how much I love cooking. Perhaps I can share a little bit here about my love of nature.



Not to be overly dramatic, but the love of nature might have saved my life, many years ago. 

When I was 16, I had what you might call a crisis of faith. Faith in life. In its value. I was a cerebral kid, who spent a big amount of time in my own head. My head was my space, for better or for worse. And so not so surprisingly, at 16, I reached the very cerebral conclusion that one should live only as a deliberate act, provided one could find something worth living for. Something that could justify going on living when everything around seemed hopeless and dark.

And I had come up with nothing. Everything that might make life worth living seemed either inaccessible or inauthentic. And so I was coming close to the inevitable conclusion: I had no business going on living.

Then, there was a trip to the United States. A backpacking trip with a group of other teens, traveling across the country.

And there was the Grand Canyon.

The day I flew over the Grand Canyon, the overwhelming beauty and immensity of it, I thought for the first time: this is worth living for. Seeing this.

So this land, this beautiful land, now my land, gave me a reason to live when I needed one.

As I spent more and more time in the United States (I ended up actually working at the Grand Canyon for a few summers before moving here), my love of nature became less cerebral and more real. It got me out of my head and grounded me. Ever since, it has made me feel like I belong on earth. I love to seek it out as much as I can, whether it’s hiking through Yellowstone, or going camping, or simply eating outside.

And now, there’s foraging.  I mean, what’s not to love: you go hike in the woods, learn about wild edible plants, learn how to cook them or how to use them in your cooking.  (And it will be so great to take Pablo foraging when he’s a bit more of a functional hiker :-))




I am so thankful to my good friend Linda for introducing me to Pascal Baudar and Mia Wasilevich this weekend, the lovely and talented couple who guided our foraging experience. (If you are in the LA area, definitely check these guys out.)



Pascal Baudar, a Belgian man who has lived in the US for many years and a forager for the past 13 years (he forages for chefs too!), had black fingers, from harvesting thousands of black walnuts, he explained. How I love hands who tell a story.



He guided us down a trail and talked (among many things) about green, red and black currants, elderflowers and berries, wild peaches, wild fig leaves, mugwort, thistle and chickweed. I munched on wild mustard flowers that taste like broccoli, smelled white sage and sage brush.



























What better way to commune with nature than to actually eat it? Its flavors open up every one of your tastebuds at once. Nature as a tastebud opener. I like that. Next time, I can’t wait to forage wild spinach, wild radishes and watercress.

After our walk, Mia, a very talented wild food chef (more about her right here) had prepared some treats for us: roasted potatoes with her foothill spice blend made with local wild aromatic plants. Wild spinach empanadas. Nectarines roasted inside a wild fig leaf. And a wild watercress gazpacho with wild watercress flowers (picture below), that tasted like a cool running creek at dawn. And there was Pascal’s fermented white sage lemonade and wild mugwort beer too...      



I plan on experimenting first with fermented sage lemonade and elderflower syrup, recipes I will be sharing with you here soon (should they be successful, that is ;-))  

I have so much to learn it makes me feel young.

So if culinary hiking sounds like something you would enjoy, I highly recommend you give foraging a try! And if you have gone foraging, please tell me all about it! What have you made? What have you found?

It’s such an appropriate metaphor for life too. Let us spend less time in our heads and more time in the real world. Let’s forage the good stuff out of life, for it is so flavorful...



In the meantime, I leave you with this lovely & seasonal asparagus wild arugula soup, nicely complemented by some wild mustard flowers foraged by yours truly. 







Asparagus, wild arugula & avocado soup with wild mustard flowers

Barely adapted from Small Plates and Sweet Treats by Aran Goyoaga

Serves about 4 generous bowls

Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 10 minutes

Age for babies: Without the crabmeat (just the soup), 6-8 months.

2 tbsp coconut oil
1 shallot
2 cloves of garlic
1 bunch of green asparagus
3/4 tsp salt
3 cups vegetable stock
2 cups (about 2 oz) wild arugula
1 avocado
4 oz crabmeat (optional)
2 tbsp sheep's milk yogurt
Foraged wild mustard flowers (optional)

Mince the shallot and garlic. Cut off the tough ends of the asparagus, and dice them. Peel, pit and dice the avocado.

Heat the coconut oil in a large pot of medium heat. Add the shallot, garlic and asparagus with 1/4 tsp salt, stir, and cook for about 3 minutes (do not brown).

Add the vegetable stock, bring to a boil, lower heat and simmer for 5-6 minutes, until the asparagus are tender.

Add the arugula and cook for another minute. Remove pot from heat. 

Pour mixture in the blender, add the avocado and remaining 1/2 tsp salt. Blend thoroughly, until very smooth. 

You can serve hot or chilled, topped with some crab meat, a swirl of yogurt, and a few wild mustard flowers on top. 



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Friday, May 17, 2013

Strawberry rhubarb apple tart... & mindful eating





The other day, as we were enjoying a family dinner, my husband spotted a recipe book on the table and started to look through it as we were eating. (It happened to be the amazing and ever so appetizing Small Plates & Sweet Treats by Cannelle et Vanille's creator, Aran Goyoaga). As we were eating, we started to get excited about the many recipes we were going to make off that book.

"You're really turning into a Frenchman. Talking about food while eating", my mother commented.

Indeed this is something French people love to do. Talk about food while eating food. Going on and on about it in fact!

I realized that unknowingly, the French are actually practicing mindful eating.
























































"Focus on the task at hand", our teachers, or mothers, or grandmothers said. I guess this was another way to ask us to be mindful. To be in the moment with whatever we were doing.

This has been something I've been very consciously practicing with Pablo. Trying to stay away from outside distractions while at the table whenever possible. So while I do occasionally indulge Pablo with a small toy if he's particularly tired and impatient at dinner time, I try as much as possible to keep our family engaged with our meal, with each other in conversation about our day, with the food we are eating (or will be eating), the cooking of it, the shape, flavor, color, texture of it. A lot of playfulness can arise with the "crunch crunch" of the butter lettuce, the fun of making a mini-kebab by prickling a piece of tomato with a piece of hearts of palm on the fork, or Pablo's new favorite game, calling every item on the dinner table "Monsieur" : Monsieur Patate, Monsieur Radis, Monsieur Pain (Mr Bread) etc. (Yes, barely bearable cuteness ensues.)

I remember reading about mindful eating in Karen Le Billon's book, French Kids Eat Everything, as one of her strategies to convert her picky eaters. It's not about hiding broccoli in some pasta or baked good, or trying to distract our children into eating well, or rushing through meals to get them over with. It's about showing them that eating is a pleasure.

And to find that out, you've got to pay attention while you eat.

Pay attention to how the food feels, how it tastes. Be mind and body (aren't our best, happiest or most fulfilling moments in life when we are engaged both mind and body?). I remember how she described making a game of eating a chocolate mousse as slowly as possible, as a family, and talking about the experience together. What a clever idea to get kids engaged in the wonderful, vastly underestimated, communal, cultural and pleasurable experience that is the family meal.

Beyond easy and quick recipes, convenience and logistics, beyond calories and "healthy eating", making cooking and eating about connection and pleasure, vs obligation and nutrition, is the core of this education of taste journey I've been documenting here. A journey that makes our life so much richer, each and every day.






























Sharing today a seasonal variation to the French classic tarte aux pommes. It's the first year I am experimenting cooking with rhubarb and its lovely flavor. This is really two recipes in one: one for the compote, which can be made on its own. But should you have a couple of apples lying around, the tart is a delicious way to put them to good use. Basil goes surprisingly well with strawberry and rhubarb, and adding it to the spelt crust was a fun, and successful, experiment.







Strawberry rhubarb apple tart on basil spelt crust

Serves 6-8

Prep time: 45 mn
Cook time: 15 mn + 35 mn

Age for babies: The compote by itself is great for a baby from 5 months on, though be sure not to use honey for a baby under 12 months. Add just a sprinkle of sugar. What you don't use within a couple of days can be frozen for a couple of months (individual serving containers make it easier).
The tart can be given in small pieces (as long as no honey was used) from 8-10 months.


For the strawberry rhubarb compote

Yields about 2 cups.

2-3 stalks of rhubarb
1-2 cups of strawberries
2 tbsp of sugar (or honey)
1 tsp lemon juice

Peel the rhubarb by making a diagonal incision at the top and pulling off the stringy part. Repeat from both end, until all strings are gone (you will be taking off the pink part.)

Then cut the rhubarb in small pieces, place in a bowl with half the sugar (or honey), and let macerate at least 15 minutes. (The rhubarb with produce some juice in that time).

In the meantime, wash and cut the strawberries.

In a pan, place the rhubarb and its juice, strawberries, remaining sugar or honey and lemon juice. Cook over medium high heat for about 15-20 minutes, stirring often.

Mix in food processor or blender until very smooth. Pour through a fine mesh strainer, pressing with a spatula, for added smoothness.

For the basil spelt crust

1 cup (150g) spelt flour
5 tbsp (75g) butter, softened and cut up
4-5 large leaves of basil, minced
1.5 tbsp ice water
1 egg yolk
1 tbsp sugar
pinch of salt

In a bowl, mix the flour, minced basil, sugar and salt.

Pour the dry ingredients on a work surface. With your hands, work the soft butter into the flour mixture, by rubbing your hands together, until you get a sandy texture. Then place the flour/butter mixture in a circle with a whole in the middle.  Place the egg yolk and water in the middle, and mix with your hands until you obtain a ball of dough.

Then fraise the dough: flatten the ball into a rectangle (of sorts), and with the heel of your hand, press the dough, little by little, onto the work surface. This is very simple (and therapeutic!), but a picture is worth a thousand words on this one, so you can get a visual here. Do it a couple of times.

Wrap in plastic and place in the fridge for 10 minutes.

To put it all together

2 apples
4-5 oz rhubarb strawberry compote
2-3 tbsp sugar
1 tbsp butter +  for mold 

Preheat the oven at 375°F.

Butter a tart pan (preferably with removable bottom).

Roll dough onto a lightly floured surface so it's slightly bigger than your pan.
Press the dough into the pan, pressing the sides with your thumb.

Spoon and spread the compote over the dough.

Peel and core the apples, reserve the peel. Slice them thinly. Gently place the apple slices on top of the compote, in a circular motion around the pie pan (I can never do this perfectly by the way, there's always an odd piece of apple that doesn't fit!)

Sprinkle with a bit of sugar, and add a few bits of butter throughout.

Place in oven for about 30-35 minutes, until the apples are soft.

While it's in the oven, boil 1/2 cup of water with the apple peel and sugar for about 10/12 minutes.

When you bring the tart out of the oven, brush some of that syrup over the apples for a nice gloss.

Let cool and eat warm, or cold.




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Tuesday, May 14, 2013

An herbed chickpea feta salad, and Pablo's weekly menu





I had a lovely Mother's day spent mostly between the kitchen and the table. Even though I was exhausted by the end of the day, I wouldn't have it any other way. I was imagining what a Mother's Day with brunch at a restaurant would be like, for example. And that would be lovely, of course, but celebrations where I don't cook feel slightly off to me, as if something is missing. I realized that cooking and sharing a homemade meal with loved ones is truly my way to celebrate. When I first lived in the US, I was always puzzled at the fact that the expression "partying" was synonymous with drinking. Because to my French self, "partying" (faire la fête) had always been synonymous with a good meal.  A "feast" of sorts. And a feast we did have.

Our  meal was quite delicious (quite a few shots of it on Instagram if you want to check it out), in particular these beet tartlets which I highly recommend, and the chickpea, feta, cilantro salad I'm sharing here. I was looking for a Greek recipe for our menu and found this lovely salad in the beautiful family cookbook I got as a gift for my birthday, Falling Cloudberries, by Tessa Kiros. I love how it connects cooking, family and culture as inextricable.

And this salad... So flavorful and simple. I take a bite, close my eyes, and can see myself sitting at a terrace by the sea with my Greek sister and niece, feeling the warm, dry, salty air of Greece on my every pore.





























Here's the recipe. And scroll down further for our week's menu... A lovely spring week to all.

Chickpea, feta & cilantro salad

Barely adapted from Falling Cloudberries by Tessa Kiros

Serves 6 as appetizer or side dish

Prep time: 20 minutes
Cook time: 12 minutes

Age for babies: 10-12 months, the chickpeas make a nice finger food.

1 can of chickpeas (aka garbanzo beans)
1 cup of olive oil (Greek, if possible)
1 large red onion
5 cloves of garlic
1 2/3 cups of crumbled Feta (about 5-6 oz)
4 scallions (green part)
1/2 bunch of cilantro
1 small bunch of Italian parsley (depending on size, basically twice as much parsley as cilantro)
Juice of one lemon

Open the can of chickpeas, drain and rinse them well. Set aside in a bowl.

Chop the red onion and garlic cloves finely. Chop the scallions.

Wash the cilantro and parsley, pick the leaves off the stems. Process together in a food processor until finely chopped. (Or chop by hand).

Heat 3 tbsp of olive oil in a pan over medium heat. Fry the red onion gently, until cooked through and golden, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for a few more seconds, until you can smell the garlic. (Do not brown the garlic.) Transfer to a bowl and let cool completely.

Add the mashed feta, the chopped cilantro/parsley, scallions and lemon juice to the chickpeas, and a pinch of salt and pepper. Add the onion/garlic mixture (Make sure it is completely cooled, if it's still warm, the feta will melt). Then the remaining olive oil (a little over 3/4 cup left.).

Mix very well. You can make a few hours ahead of time or even the night before. You can let it marinade at room temperature and serve.

It keeps well in the fridge for 2-3 days.



























And sharing our week's menu :-)


Cheeses of the week: Following French tradition, I always offer a little bit of cheese at the end of every meal, between the main course and dessert. Rotation this week: Camembert, Gouda, Goat Brie.

DessertsAt lunch, I offer a fruit yogurt (or plain yogurt with fresh fruit), but at night, I prefer sticking to plain yogurt (regular homemade* whole milk, sheep’s milk, goat's milk and Greek yogurt for extra protein) to avoid too much sugar before bedtime.

If you would like a particular recipe on the menu, feel free to contact me! (I marked with a * the recipes that will be the topic of upcoming posts).

MONDAY

Lunch 
Appetizer / Finger FoodsSpring pea salad
Main course: Leftover paella from Mother's Day lunch


Goûter (4pm snack) – Dark chocolate fondant*

Dinner
Appetizer / Finger Foods: Artichoke leaves with vinaigrette
Main course: Pan-fried garlic shrimp & this braised fennel, potatoes & radishes in brown butter lemon sauce

TUESDAY

Lunch
Appetizer / Finger Foods: Authentic Greek salad
Main course: Sardines, baby bok choy puree

Goûter - Apple-strawberry compote

Dinner
Appetizer / Finger Foods: Endive & goat cheese salad with beet greens walnut vinaigrette
Main course: Herbed lamb meatballs in coconut milk over quinoa


WEDNESDAY

Lunch
Appetizer / Finger Foods: Green beans, cauliflower, Italian parsley salad
Main course: Turkey filets & snap peas in mustard cream sauce*

Goûter – Strawberry rhubarb compote*

Dinner
Appetizer / Finger Foods: Chards, blood orange, goat cheese salad from Vanilla Bean blog
Main course: Pan-fried Dover sole filets, spinach broccoli puree

THURSDAY

Lunch - Picnic at the park
Grated carrots French-style; hard-boiled eggs; mixed quinoa salad with cherry tomatoes, avocado, hearts of palm, beans, bell peppers, cucumber; bread & cheese; grapes.

Goûter - Pear-blueberry compote

Dinner
Appetizer / Finger Foods: Pea, edamame, mint soup from Gourmande in the Kitchen
Main course: Oven roasted pork ribs, blue potatoes

FRIDAY

Lunch
Appetizer / Finger Foods: Warm leeks with vinaigrette
Main course: Mushroom prosciutto tartine

Goûter - Homemade rhubarb raspberry mint ice cream*

Dinner
Appetizer / Finger Foods: Shredded Brussels Sprouts with walnuts & dates from Food Loves Writing
Main course: Duck filets with braised radishes


SATURDAY

Lunch
Appetizer / Finger Foods: Orange tomato gazpacho
Main course: Chicken liver salad with raspberry vinaigrette

Goûter - Apple

Dinner
Appetizer / Finger Foods: Lentil shallot salad
Main course: Trying the braised fennel with saffron & tomato from Green Kitchen Stories


SUNDAY

Lunch/Brunch
Appetizer / Finger Foods: Zucchini mint terrine
Main course: Smoked salmon, avocado & radish garnish


Goûter - Kiwi

Dinner
Appetizer / Finger Foods: Asparagus, arugula & avocado soup with crab*
Main course: Eggplant au gratin





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Friday, May 10, 2013

A personal tale of two mothers, & a stuffed lemon appetizer





As mother's day is upon us, I wanted to share a personal story, go down memory lane with you here.

Before I do, I would like to wish all moms out there a wonderful, joyful Mother's Day, where all that you do and all that you are is acknowledged and celebrated. Starting with my own mother, whose influence, support, love and help are still invaluable and precious today as they always were, and who is as giving and loving a grandmother to Pablo as she was a mother to me.  Bonne fête des mères, maman.




From about the age of 4 until 22 (at which time I came to live in the United States), my mother and I celebrated Mother's Day the same way: I would cook a meal for her.

But not just any meal. A six course lunch with a cold and hot appetizer, a fish dish, a meat dish, cheese and dessert, including the most complicated recipes I could get my hands on, on which I worked for several days to plan and pull off.

I was raised alone by a single mom, who worked very hard, out of town most of the week, for most of my childhood. So the times we did have together were very precious, and my principal motivation throughout my childhood was to do whatever I could to make my mother happy.

Thinking back on this tradition we had for so many years, perhaps because of being a mother myself now, I have come to think of my young self almost as a different person. As the child that I was. With more understanding, and more empathy than before. Children do what they need to do to fulfill their needs, and they are incredibly resourceful in doing so. And as it turns out, this need to make my mother happy and proud, was in part how I learned how to cook. I have no formal training, I never took cooking classes, what I know about cooking comes from my mother cooking for and with me whenever she could, taking me to fine dining restaurants and giving me a love of gastronomy, and from those 18 meals I cooked for her on Mother's Day.

For a number of years, I had enlisted two other children, who also had a single mom, to embark on this adventure with me, and I am so thankful to them for putting up with me then, as it makes me laugh today how pushy and bossy I was! This was cooking bootcamp! I had sheets of planning, cooking durations, shopping lists, task lists, to-do lists etc. We would barely eat all day (we would not sit down to eat with the moms, but served them restaurant-style).



Very fortunately, the cookbook I used the most for those meals somehow followed me through the continents and years, and flipping through it now, what astounds me is the complexity of the recipes I chose, especially given the fact that we had no Cuisinarts or blenders or even hand mixers at the time. It was three kids, a tiny kitchen with basic equipment, and a very tall order.

I found post-its with definitions of things like a sieve, caramelizing and flambeing... The book was divided into recipes for family meals, casual get-togethers, healthy meals, "reception meals", with the level of complexity. I would of course exclusively pick recipes from "reception meals", preferably with 3 or 4 complexity marks. So what are some of things I made? Here's a sample, just for fun, because I am astounded today at how ambitious I was... Fish soup with lumpfish roe, stuffed leg of lamb en croute, Cornish game hens in a champagne sauce, pike quenelles... you get the idea.

The stuffed lemon recipe I am sharing here is the only recurring recipe I made for my mother as an apéritif to the Mother's Day lunch.




I recall one year in particular, I was on my own, probably about 7, when the recipe called for homemade fish broth. Per the instructions on the recipe, I had asked the fishmonger to give me fish bones to make the broth. But as fate would have it, the fish bones were way too big for the pan I had. And very hard. Being unsuccessful even after going at them with a hammer (!), in desperation, I had to ask my mother for help. (I can imagine her in the living room, being forbidden entry in the kitchen, wondering what I was doing in there with a hammer!)

Writing this, I suddenly fear the post might come though as bragging. Actually, this is a post of healing for me, a way of treating myself on Mother's Day; and one of gratitude for my mother.

First, it is an homage to the amazing trust and freedom my mother left me, to do this on my own for her, not trying to control, letting me learn, problem-solve... I remember she would give me really supportive, constructive criticism and praise. She would be honest about what dish she preferred and why. This benevolent trust and support ultimately taught me to be resilient (in the face of large fish bones and other life trials:-)), it gave me confidence. She let me do my thing, let me be myself, and this was such an enormous gift.

And then, I am suddenly overcome with emotion, as I think of myself trying so very hard. Because the other part of this post, is being able to tell the little girl that I was, the lonely, but resourceful little girl that I was: you did good. You are enough. You are worthy of love and connection. With or without the six course meal.

We learn from hardships and wounds. That's just evolution, I suppose. And children shouldn't feel their parents' happiness depends wholly on them. But even though much sadness and loss goes with that burden, it taught me a lot. It made me who I am today. It gave me the love of nurturing, an ability to be attuned to others' needs. It made me a better parent.

And it gave me cooking. It always gets back to that these days, it seems. Cooking was my resource, a quiet friend always standing by me, an old companion in my childhood quest to bring joy, to give myself, to be loved and valued.

In the past year, I have explored cooking in many new ways I had never seen before. I have loved sharing with you here the invaluable life lessons to be learned and taught in the kitchen and at the table. Yet still today, these many years later, an ocean away, cooking remains my dear old companion.

To bring joy. To give myself. To be loved and valued.



























Interestingly, I've just read an article on the value of learning how to cook very young, and I am certainly very lucky and grateful that I did acquire a love of cooking at such a young age. And I'm thrilled to pass on this gift to Pablo, who is already excited about cooking (unsurprisingly, as so much of our daily life revolves around cooking!)  He's already told me today he wants to make "Pacho!" again, i.e. Gazpacho. We made this one together a couple of weeks ago, and this is a perfect dish to make with a toddler. He washed the tomatoes, broke down the watermelon, poured the oil in the blender, watched it whirl. He had a blast.

I wanted to leave you with a recipe and a menu...  This recipe for tuna-stuffed lemons is very easy, and a great recipe for a child to make. Remaking it for the first time in years for this post, I found myself filled with sense memories. Emptying the lemons, I remembered feeling the same sting on the picked skin around my fingers. Mashing the butter, tuna, lemon pulp together, I remembered the feeling of that texture.

It is a very simple, tasty refreshing appetizer, with a fun festive presentation.

























As you probably have gathered, I will be cooking a Mother's Day lunch on Sunday, side by side with my mother and my son. Except this time, I will be sitting down to enjoy it too. Because cooking (and eating) makes me happy and brings me great joy. As does celebrating with the people I love.

As our family is a mix (among other things) of Spanish, Greek and French roots, I wanted to honor that in our menu, with some added fun little things too...

Mother's Day Lunch

These beet tartlets on spelt crust from Vanilla Bean Blog

Chickpea feta cilantro salad


Seafood paella

Cheese (you know, being French and all...)

Chocolate soufflé, homemade raspberry rhubarb mint ice cream

~~~

Stuffed lemons

Serves 4 people

Prep time : 15 min
No cook time.

Age for babies: 10 months and up

4 lemons
1 can of wild albacore tuna, in water (drained) (Sardines are also an option)
3 tbsp butter, room temperature (or in microwave for 12 seconds)
1 dozen pitted green olives, chopped
1 pinch of piment d'Espelette (optional, or Cayenne pepper)
Salt & pepper
2 tbsp of minced chives
Microgreens for garnish

Cut off the lemons' hats, and cut a little bit of the lemon at the foot, so it can stand on its own.

With a spoon, empty the lemons out, placing the pulp and juice in a bowl. Make sure to keep the lemon shell intact. Use your hands to peel off the skins inside the lemon. Doesn't have to be perfect.

Pour the lemon contents through a fine strainer, reserving the lemon juice. Remove all the seeds, and thick skins, until you are left with just the lemon pulp.

With a fork, mash down the tuna, add the softened butter, then the lemon pulp. You can use your finger to mix it thoroughly. Add the chives, the olives, salt, pepper and piment d'Espelette. Taste, add a few drops of lemon juice if needed. (If not, keep the lemon juice for other use, vinaigrette for example.)

Spoon the mixture inside the lemons. Keep in the fridge until serving.

Serve on a plate or bowl with some microgreens for garnish, maybe a few extra olives or cherry tomatoes.





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Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Radicchio à la mozzarella... & the open mind





"Don't wait for it to happen. Don't even want it to happen. Just watch what does happen."
Who knew Sean Connery could give such sound parenting and life advice? This is actually a David Mamet line from the movie The Untouchables. And it struck me as being so immensely wise.

The epitome of open-mindedness really. Insightful for life. For parenting. For cooking.

For a long time, I thought there was no other alternative than either having high expectations (and often setting oneself up for disappointment), or low expectations (which seems so negative and cynical, and perhaps self-fulfilling). But I see now that both are very inorganic, constructs of the mind, defense mechanisms designed to protect ourselves. So what I've been working on is to exude trust and be completely open to what unfolds.

Take the steps that make sense, following what feels true and right to me, and just focus on the process, forgetting any results I may want, watching and taking in "what does happen". Because things will happen in time. Good things too. Or helpful things. Or useful things. Growth will happen. And that's what life is all about.

I think this might also be the secret to keeping a sense of awe and wonder. There's something so special about people who have kept that intact.

As always, the kitchen is a wonderful place to practice this. Open a recipe book you like (or pick a photo on Pinterest, or follow an idea you have, or revisit a family recipe). Pick a recipe that inspires you, that makes you salivate. Listen to what your palate is craving, and just follow through step by step, giving little thought to the result. And watch it evolve, a loaf swelling, a quiche setting, a soup becoming fragrant. And savor every bite with that open mind. It might need to be tweaked next time, it might not be perfect, but you made it, it is yours. Nothing can take that away. That experience, you can take it with you.

I know time is a-lacking, tiredness weighs in, and chaos can surround us. Let us go back to cooking, even if it's not always quick and easy. Not just for convenience, but to ground ourselves, nourish mind and body, to truly live. Every day.




Another parcel recipe we really enjoyed, hope you will too. Pablo has been getting a bit more involved in the kitchen recently. And parcel making is particularly engaging to him. He says we're making dinner cadeaux (gifts), he gets his own little surprise package to unwrap on his plate. It's such a joy to watch his wonder as he opens it up. 























Radicchio à la mozzarella


Serves 4 parcels (this is a somewhat small portion for an entree, but with a good size vegetable first course, like a soup or salad, it leaves you room for a piece of cheese - or two - after :-))

Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time : 10 minutes

Age for babies: 10-12 months, cut up.

12 leaves of radicchio (from 2 heads)
5 oz fresh mozzarella
2 tbsp grated Manchego (Parmesan, Pecorino would do nicely too)
1/2 slices of smoked salmon or lox (optional)
1 sprig of dill (Alt: fresh oregano)
8 leaves of basil 
2 tbsp olive oil
Salt & fresh ground pepper

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Preheat the oven at 400°F.

Cut the head of radicchio at its foot and peel off the larger leaves whole, being careful not to tear them. (To get bigger leaves, I peeled the outer leaves from 2 heads and kept the rest for a salad).

Rinse the leaves, and plunge them in the boiling water for 30 seconds (better to go 3-4 at a time so as not to overcook some). Then place them over a kitchen towel to drain and let cool a bit.

Slice the mozzarella, wash the herbs, cut the salmon in small pieces if using.

Cut four pieces of parchment paper. For each parcel, brush the center with a bit of olive oil. On top, place three leaves of radicchio on top of each other. Then add a couple of slices of mozzarella, a couple of slices of basil, and a couple of pieces of salmon (if using). Put a bit of dill on top (I just use kitchen scissors to cut the dill), add some freshly ground pepper, and a bit of grated Manchego.

Close up the parcels (not too tight). Place in a baking dish, and in the oven for 8 minutes. (Don't overcook it as the mozzarella is best just melted.)

Serve the parcels directly on each plate.


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Friday, May 3, 2013

Coconut rosemary carrots, lamb chops... and a quiet day



























A strange afternoon. A few quiet hours. The house is silent, and yet loud by what it’s missing: the hustle-bustle of the playing toddler, playing and busying elsewhere. I am left with my thoughts. With myself.

Yesterday, I longed for it. Today, I’m not sure what to make of it. My mind swirls, unproductively. Doubt, insecurity, idleness, questioning. And planning, listing, comparing, anticipating. It’s quiet on the outside, but I feel unsettled on the inside. I can’t see my North. Like standing in the middle of a large deserted intersection, not knowing where to go. Feeling like I should. I should know.

That “should” is a bad word.

So I decide to sit in the middle of that intersection. Ground myself. And see what happens.

A strange afternoon. A few quiet hours. I wasn't sure what to make of it. So why not improvise an apple tart, thought I.

A botched attempt. Flavorful, but unsatisfactory. Crust too crumbly. Falling apart within my hands. Just not coming together. A lot like this day.

So I try it again tomorrow. What else can one do? Learn. Try again. That was my Thursday.

That, and a simple dinner, in the haven of the garden. Some spring carrots. And lamb. And rosemary too.



















































Rosemary carrots in coconut milk baked in a parcel & lamb chops

Serves 2-3

Prep time: 15 min
Cook time: 20 + 7-15 min for the meat

Age for babies: You could make this into a baby puree steaming together a bit of lamb with carrots, mixing to desired consistency with milk or coconut milk (which you steep the rosemary in before adding.) You can give from 8 months on. If you give the carrots alone, cook them as described below, they make an easy finger food, also from 8 months old on. (I used ground lamb for Pablo's baby purees mixed with vegetables starting at 6-7 months).

Note: I am a big fan of cooking in parcels as I've blogged about before. It's easy, it's very healthy, it keeps the nutrients and flavors in. No downside really.

1 bunch of new carrots
2 sprigs of rosemary
3/4 cup coconut milk
salt & pepper
2 cloves of garlic
Lamb chops (however many per person you would like. I recommend the thicker pieces with two chops, unless you like your meat well done, in that case, you could get a thinner piece.)
Olive oil

Peel the carrots, and cut them up.

Preheat the oven at 425°F

In a pan over medium heat, bring the coconut milk to a simmer for 2 minutes. Take the rosemary leaves off the stem, wash them, mince them (I cut them up with kitchen scissors) and put them in the coconut milk. Remove from heat, cover and let steep for a few minutes.

Place one sheet of unbleached parchment paper on a baking dish. Place the carrots in the center. Spoon the rosemary coconut milk over them.

Fold up the parchment paper over the carrots to make a parcel. You can use string, or I just fold and crumple up each side.

Bake in the oven for about 20 minutes. Open the parcel when ready to serve (it will keep hot if closed).

Meanwhile, brush the lamb chops with some olive oil (rosemary olive oil if you have some, or put some rosemary in the olive oil for a few minutes before brushing). Rub the chops with the garlic cloves.

Cook the lamb chops as you prefer. For convenience, we often just pan-fry them (we like them rare, so it usually takes about 7 minutes total over high heat, turning them on each side. About 11-12 minutes for medium rare).
Of course, you can also cook them in the broiler (turning them over half-way through), or on the grill.






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