on the bright side

I have nearly a full roll of toilet paper.

I woke up at 3:16 this morning, but couldn’t move. There is nothing wrong with me physically, unless I am an asymptomatic carrier and the virus is lurking in me like an old wolf dressed up as me and my cells. Or if my son, who also appears not to be sick, shed the virus on me when I hugged him as if he were a ship with no compass after he finished eating last night and told me he was headed for home. He was in his slippers and was going no further than to where he lives; across the street.
It is wearying to live in constant and necessary fear of something you don’t know and can’t see.

It is my heart that is not winning the war. I called the heart ambulance. He wasn’t up yet, but he answered. I couldn’t say anything, because who wants to start crying before you even say hello to someone, so I just looked at him. And he was who he always is, like that rock connected to the earth’s core that shows itself in low tide. The sight of him is enough to remind me that this isn’t all there is. The world as we know it may have changed for better or worse, but this way station of waiting in a valley of uncertainty will not own us forever. The future will come.
Some of us won’t have the joy of seeing loved ones when it is over because they are gone–stolen during the siege–and we will have to gather around them. But hope will come. Hope will rise from the ashes.

I listen for it. I listen for it in the birdsong that travels easily now over the sound waves of city air. I listen for it in my dreams of the hot summer when we might be able to venture out again.

I try to grow it by planting everything from my kitchen cabinet that has the possibility of sprouting. My chances of success take a nose dive every time I dig it all up to check on signs of life, but the hope is worth a faster heart rate.

I try to capture it with yeast from used fruit, added to flour and water. The directions say to throw half away for the first five days before feeding, but I can’t bear to. I use what I am supposed to ditch, to make another. I hide the starters like Easter eggs all over the apartment, wrapped up in tea towels to protect them from the wide open windows.

I try to pass it along when I go out walking. I wave. Every smiling eye I get, patches the cracks.

My potted tulips are twice the height they were when I bought them a week ago. I just read how to save the bulbs for next year.

I found a stash of cheap candles at the deli.

Ferdinand is good.

I saw my friend Julia by chance in the afternoon, half way across the Polaski Bridge. I waved like crazy and slammed to a stop 6 feet from her and we chatted through our masks about all the news we could think of.

It was supposed to rain today, but the sun is shining.

Vintage for the win

The man I love, makes clothes. Not just any clothes. Clothes that take your breath away. Beautiful clothes that fit like nothing ever fit before. The colors remind you of what color is meant to be and the fabrics make you want to hug them like a lover. I used to be able to keep all the clothes I own in a chest that would fit in the backseat of a compact car–I cook–the only clothing requirement I have is that I have something I can wear, and something I can wash for the next day.
Not any more. He gives me clothes as if they were Sunday breakfast. “Here you go,” he says. “Try that on for a walk.”
But what I wear now, what I reach for every morning when I talk myself into getting out of the bed for another day of soldiering through, are the sweaters that he left folded up on his dresser, because he knew I loved them. Stuff that he had worn for years, pocked with holes and saturated with the essence of him. Stuff that brings him back to me.
I don’t know exactly when I will see him again, but the first thing I will make for him will be a lemon cream pasta. The one where you simmer a pint of heavy cream with a few wide strips of lemon zest, taken off with a peeler, a clove of garlic, a few sprigs of thyme, and a good grind of black pepper. I am sure I have already told you how to make this, but I will tell you again. I simmer it over a low flame, until the garlic is soft, and then smash it through a sieve to strain the sauce. The best pasta to use with this is, homemade. One that doesn’t have too many eggs, so it doesn’t compete with the cream. Roll it out on a wooden board until you can just begin to see through it. Hang it in sheets over the back of a chair and then fold the sheets up like a business letter. Cut into narrow strips. Boil the pasta for 2-3 minutes and then drop into the simmering sauce. Shower with parmigiana reggiano, or a pecorino from the Marches, Umbria, or Tuscany.

survival mode, NYC

as the days go by, I am struggling to eat. I offer up all kinds of treats for breakfast to myself that I know I love. Corn cakes with blueberries and maple syrup, or yogurt with pumpkin seeds and bananas, a pile of clementines, dried figs. I light a candle and put it all on the table with a silver spoon from my grandmother and a mug I got in the airport at Fiumicino and a blue and white plate that Steve from Champfreau gave me that came from saving up all of his G&H stamps and handing them in at the gas station. I play Flamenco guitar or Pavarotti and sit down at the table. I take as long as I need to in order to eat at least one of the pancakes. Normally, I drink one cup of coffee, but drinking is easier than eating, so now I drink two cups of espresso loaded with whole milk for the calories.
For lunch I insist on one of everything. Meat or beans, vegetables, more fruits. If I can’t, I whisper to myself to at least eat a bowl of hot oatmeal with butter and honey. Maybe another banana. I buy full fat ice cream and shove a spoon right into the container. Forget the dish, I say to myself; just eat. Eat the Rum Raisin.
For dinner I lay all of my cookbooks on the kitchen table and open them randomly to pages that I may have never considered before. I listen to the people who wrote them, my mentors who speak to me from their notes and recipes. I listen to my mom and my grandma and my friends in Italy whose wish for everyone is a good appetite. They could care less if you talk too loud or talk too much, and they might remind you to take your elbows off the table, but they don’t really care about that. They are offended if you leave something on the plate.
Last night I had hopes in the wild mushroom minestrone, from Mr. Portale. I looked at the picture and argued with him about how much tomato should go into it. I disagreed how long to cook the onions, and I thought I could get more complexity if I added a little leek; instead of adding the garlic at the beginning, I chopped it finely, threw in pepperoncino to the pan with olive oil and stirred it in at the end. I got up from my chair to prove my point. I chopped up an onion, carrot and celery that I had bought a few weeks ago, but still had life in them. I added a leek, rosemary, parsley and a bay leaf that I had walked to Brooklyn for. I let that simmer slower than a herd of turtles. The vegetables collapsed at the bite. I cut the mushrooms thickly and waited until they had some color to add the salt. I didn’t have any beans left. I added enough whole tomatoes that I pureed, and then a little water to cover. I let it simmer for an hour. I wished I had a little red wine for it. I added the garlic and pepperoncino and olive oil. Mr. Portale was happy enough. I flooded tagliatelle with it and used my vegetable peeler to drop shards of parm over the top. I ate all of it.

Brave New World

Huxley wrote the dystopian novel amidst massive unemployment and abandonment of the gold currency in England, way back in 1931. He was convinced that in order for people to be happy, there had to be order. True. We are all feeling it.
We are at once being asked to order our lives in ways we never imagined that the whole world in real life would ever have to do together, and at the same time; we are all suffering from the upheaval from being confined to our homes; or in the trenches of care for others. There is no order to the stumbling to understand where it will lead us.
But
as human beings, we cling to our phones and computers for news. Of each other. We cling to our need to connect. To love. That is a beautiful thing. There will be no perfect way to get through this, and no need to worry about getting it right. The only way through is through.
I will tell you all the good things, because I imagine you have enough of everything else.

I realized how much I love butternut potage before it is pureed. It made me cry. (everything makes me cry right now–happy, sad, you name it.). Because it was so delicious. Because it took me so long to find it and that I found it. Because no one was there to eat it with me.

Ferdinand hasn’t been much for talking lately. His number one choice for school has closed, so there is no telling when he will find out if he got in or didn’t. He can’t see his friends, or potentially go back to school for the rest of his senior year. He is out of work, and just generally frustrated. He never misses coming over to see me though. I considered it a necessary for him. He is 17. I am not his primary residence, but he touches nothing, walking across the street from his house to my house. He doesn’t touch a doorknob, and he needs me as much as I need him.
I asked him what was new last night.
“nothing,” he said.
“you see anything good on the internet?”
“no.”
“did you talk to anybody today?”
“no.”
After a few moments of silence I said, “Ferd”, “I can’t see anyone, and I have 10 more days of it. Please tell me something.”
I don’t usually call on Ferdinand to be an adult. I don’t usually cry in front of him.
He looked up at me and his face changed. It was filled with compassion.
He told me a story about a guy and his wife on his last subway ride before it was restricted from anything but essential travel. He told me about his last visit with his best friend, who lives a subway ride away. He told me that he loved me.
He stayed with me for at least a half an hour. He joked about the cooking videos he was going to make for me, and then he waved.
“I will see you tomorrow, mom.”

I am a cook

I am a cook. It is not only how I make a living, but it is who I am. I speak in Food.
As of yesterday there are no more jobs on the horizon, but I continue to cook. Ferdinand needs to be fed. My boyfriend loves to eat. The date that Ferdinand and I had every Tuesday and Thursday with my friend his French tutor, stands. The French has been completed, but we love eating with Julia too much to let that part go.
I bought calamari yesterday. Up at Citarella in the city, they have a meat and fish selection to beat the band. Glistening squid was only $10 a pound. I am going to dust it in cornmeal, fry it and serve it with my favorite avocado, lime and tomatillo sauce.

Hold on

Way back in 1978, when my family came to NYC to see the museums (not the sights, not Broadway, not the food) my stepfather was predicting a pandemic. He was even more frugal than he was apocalyptic, so we took the subway instead of cabs, and as we walked down the steps with all of the other thousands of people shoving their way through, he would call out,
“Don’t touch the railings. They are diseased. Everybody is sick!”

On a day like today, he could have finally taken a deep breath and said, “you see, I told you so”.

My mother was a member of the same team, but she didn’t have the same energy for in-depth lectures or research, so her panic was reserved more for personal devastation. If you went to the hospital because you were pregnant, you were at risk of death from the girl in the bed next to you. Who knew what she had? Or if we were downtown having a soda and a doughnut, and a firetruck drove by, it was on its way to our house. “You know”, she would say, “the house is built from wood and full of fabric.”

I never thought of there being an upside to growing up like that, but I recognize now that the upside is, you are at every moment, mentally prepared for anything, including, to do whatever it takes to make dinner. No matter what happened or was imminent, my mother made dinner. Always.

So in the midst of all of this confusion, I am cooking. I do the daily mother check of a child, and then I forage for food. At the moment, I look for stuff to make soups with. I figure if anything happens, I will have soup in the freezer. After washing your hands every six minutes, and keeping 2 feet away from everybody, making soup is imperative.

And hold on the railings. A pandemic does not prevent you from breaking your neck.

On my list for today:

Tomato garlic soup

Pea soup, using combination of dried and fresh peas and bouquet Garni

short rib soup with danish butter balls (so far I have only found shoulder meat, no bones or ribs; I may have to substitute chicken bones to get more flavor for lack of beef bone)

pasta fagioli with mushrooms

broccoli soup with garnish of mascarpone and croutons

will cook for French

Ferdinand has a French tutor. She comes on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 6:30 for dinner and at 7:00, I do the dishes, and they do the French. She is a friend of mine and as reliable as the sun rises and sets. In she comes, and right behind her, my son. I make them meat sauce with bucatini or little steaks with chive butter, chicken parm or a pile of rice and lentils with a starter of red pepper potage, and they laugh and talk and then somehow a little miracle happens, and the two of them plow through a semester of vocabulary and verbs.
I am so entirely grateful.

what to do when there is nothing left to do

It is almost Spring. Just forget about the present situation and let that soak in for a minute. Feels better, doesn’t it. Daffodils and little sprigs of wild arugula and dandelion greens in the fields. The birds are coming back. They have to; it is in their DNA. They don’t read headlines.
I can’t hug my own child without thinking “ARE YOU DISEASED”? And you know, he probably is. He is a male, 17 year old. The only way to protect yourself from that is, well, forget it. It is impossible.
And if you think I can keep my hands off my face, you are crazy. My hands were born to cook and touch my face. They are a face accessory. Need to think? Hands on face. Frustrated? Hands on face. Yawning? At the dentist? Windy, and there is a tear in your eye? Eyelash fall somewhere?
I don’t have a chance in Dante’s Hell.

Don’t worry. We can only do our best and keep living.

Cook everything you eat, instead. It will leave you exhausted and happy enough to put things in perspective. It will be like having a new baby. You can’t quit a baby, just because he won’t sleep. A new baby makes you go above and beyond anywhere you have been before, and every single minute is worth it. You come out a badass. That’s what we need to tap into.

You can cheat with things like bread and butter. You don’t have to make those.
At the end of the week, you are going to be a master of your own fast food and much better at delegating.

What to Make When you have Nothing Left to Give:

frozen bananas, blueberries, lime and yogurt in a blender

fried eggs and toast with braised black cabbage, grate of parm

sausages and boiled potatoes with side of butter peas

buckwheat pancakes with cured salmon, creme fraiche and chive. side of champagne.

roasted shrimp, scallion, lemon and chile and side of rice. arugula salad

hamburger and side of thin, thin, thin, potatoes tossed with olive oil and salt at 425. broccoli with ripped parsley and garlic (no need to cook the garlic)

tortillas with cheese and jalapeño, side of black bean soup. (go ahead–buy a can; but all you have to do is throw a poblano pepper, half an onion, uncut, a few garlic cloves, a bay leaf and a spill of olive oil into a pan of pre soaked black beans, and let them simmer in water that you keep just over the top, with plenty of salt. smash a few at the end.)

grilled cheese (cheese week!!) and tomato soup. (again, canned is ok, but waaaaay better: get some color on a few cloves of uncut garlic, thyme sprigs, rosemary sprig, then can of whole tomatoes. 15 minute simmer. Puree with immersion blender. Add milk to taste. salt and pepper. (I add a little half and half)

peanut noodles (peanut butter, lime, water, rice vinegar, fresh ginger, garlic, scallion, cilantro). side of romaine

broth. Whatever you do this week, make some broth. Throw a bunch of raw chicken and beef bones in a pot with celery, carrot, onion, leek, garlic, thyme, bay, parsley and a tomato. Let it simmer and spoon it into all those Tupperware containers you have. Freeze it or refrigerate it. Eat it with the best bread you can get your hands on and a little hard salami or a tear of chicken that you roast with nothing but olive oil, salt and pepper.

then get in the shower with a big bar of soap and tape your hands to your sides if you have to, but hug the one you love. hug them with everything you have and all that you are. (update: hug them from a far)

Tanika

Tanika is a young mom with a toddler. She lives in Queens. She is an interior designer and has a masters degree in science. She glows when she talks about her husband, and she delights in her daughter. I have never seen her looking anything but beautiful and completely put together.
Tanika was the first person to contact me for a food makeover. At first glance, I couldn’t see a problem. Not anything that isn’t every mother’s problem–no matter what we do, is it good enough? I could have that printed on a t-shirt and every mother who passed me would look at me and say, “no.”
I asked Tanika what she wasn’t happy with, what she wanted to change.
“We are still ordering out at least two or three times a week. We buy some steamed vegetable packets and occasionally have the time to try out a new recipe, but typically stick to standards. When we do cook, it is healthy, but we are definitely stuck in a rut..We need more options..And more options for the baby. She will only eat peas and corn, so I end up giving her a standard meal with a few add ons. HELP!”

This stood out to me. We live in NYC; if Tanika is ordering out twice a week, to most that is the equivalent of a cook olympian. Are you kidding me? Most of us feel we should get a slap on the back for getting it together to cook once a week with a brain teaser of Can You Name the People at the Dinner Table?” On top of that, she eats mostly chicken, vegetables and pasta. Fish once a week and meat twice a month. So, she is healthy.
Why call for help?

I got up and thought about it. I walked to Brooklyn and back.
I thought about when Ferdinand was Tanika’s daughter’s age and I was on the top of a hill in Umbria without my own car or my own phone and cows and sheep for neighbors. The grocery store was an hour and a half walk away. If I ran out of food, I would have to cozy up to the farmer’s wife who came up to tend the animals with her husband at about 6:30 in the morning and left for the village about 6 that evening. She cooked flatbreads on a stone in the fireplace and made a meat sauce with leftover parts from a slaughtered cow or sheep. She collected firewood to cook with as she was shepherding. For snacks we picked cherries or figs or walnuts. Her kitchen garden was a farm in its own right. We cut zucchini, black cabbage, chard, tomatoes, cucumbers, small pumpkins, eggplant and herbs. We pulled onions and carrots and brushed off the dirt. In exchange, I did anything she needed or asked of me.
And then it dawned on me.
I didn’t have a car or a phone when I had my baby, but I had a neighbor who pulled me in. I had vegetables that I witnessed grow from seed and would drink a little glass of vin Santo with Olga and Pietro as the sun was setting after they had watered everything that needed a drink. I ate a rotation of probably no more than six dishes, but each one had a hold in the heart of Olga that could make you cry if you watched her prepare it. The cheese on the table was cured on a long flat board above the fireplace and the prosciutto hung on the same hooks that I used in my house for Ferd’s Jonny Jump Up. Seasonal vegetables showed up raw with salt and olive oil, sautéed or boiled til that magic moment of not quite, but close to death, with olive oil and salt, or pickled with vinegar, sugar and salt.

Around Lisciano Niccone parts, there was no such thing as making a separate meal for anybody who had their teeth. Baby food was whatever everybody else was eating, cut up. That is it.

And then I realized what the problem might be. Tanika needed roots.

It so easy when we are living in the city to lose the sense of where our food comes from, to loose the life of it. A clue was when she told me it was easier for her when she got a weekly CSA box. It made her think about using vegetables she might not otherwise consider, but I will bet it also made her feel more attached to them.
As Americans, maybe because of a tsunami of marketing or the need for more time, what we cook more often than not, doesn’t come from what our mothers and fathers and aunts and uncles cooked. It comes from desperation or magazines and websites. I have piles of books and magazines and websites, and I don’t know what I would do without them, but to cook something because it brushes by your eyeballs like a street sign on a bus ride, is different than cooking something that you would jump up from your seat and run off the bus for.

Except for baked goods, chicken pot pie, and a beef vegetable soup with smorbolle, I didn’t grow up with food that I felt rooted to. I had to find it. I think that is the secret to the rotation.
Everybody, no matter what kind of cook, has a rotation, and it is critical to love it because the plain truth is, that is what your are going to be eating most of the time.
When your grandmother shows up to visit, you throw your arms around her. You don’t get tired of her just because she is exactly the grandmother she was the last time you saw her.
It is the same.
My rotation:
I make that chicken pot pie and the vegetable soup.
I make curries because my best friend is from the south of India, and every time I make one, I think of her.
I have another best friend who is English and lives in Italy and is vegetarian. Whenever I cook a vegetable I think about making her happy.
I have a whole family in Italy whom I have taken on as my own. When I make pasta, sauce or osso bucco, I commit to making it to their unbreakable standard.
I make crepes and soufflé to remind me of France and paella to bring me back to Madrid.
I make frittatas to remind me of my old cafe.

That is what I should have said.

Here is what I said before I got there:

I love the cookbook by Jamie Oliver, Five Ingredients, quick and easy foods
He has really delicious stuff, inspired and interesting enough to keep you as an eater, but easy enough so you won’t get discouraged as a cook.

Plan menus on a day off for as many days as you want to cook. Doesn’t have to be elaborate, just a framework.
roast chicken with orange ginger soy, string bean, rice
spaghetti with turkey meatballs/fried sage&rosemary,salad
lentil soup with side of sausage and garlicky greens
Change any of those up by coming at it from a different angle: roast chicken slathered with dijon, lemon zest and thyme sprigs with mashed.
Spaghetti with clams, garlic, parsley and white wine..

Once a week challenge yourself. Walk into the grocery and make something that you are inspired to do in the minute.
Once a week, buy a grain fruit or veg you have never bought before. Any veg can be braised with a little olive oil lemon and salt to try it out.
Fruit is great because you can just whack it in half and serve it on a beautiful plate. Buy a piece of fish or a piece of meat you have never bought before, and give it a whirl. Have a bottle of wine and a delicious piece of cheese on the ready in case it doesn’t work out. Who cares.

PS

Fresh veg is as quick as frozen. Forget about frozen. Just throw anything in salted boiling water for two or three minutes. Marinate with whole cloves of garlic or shallot, a sprig of fresh herb, spill of olive oil. Buy grey French sea salt or flaked salt to finish stuff. So delicious.

If you plan basic menus ahead, it gives you more time to daydream about it afterwards. maybe you want a dollop of fresh ricotta on top of that spaghetti or the lentil soup topped with full fat yogurt, pomegranate seeds and a toasted coriander oil. Fun to let your mind run wild.

For Ferd, if he was making me especially crazy, I would give him what we were having, but with nothing touching. So lentils, but all the crazy stuff on the side in little bowls. he would also eat any veg if it were puréed into a potato leek soup.
That one is so easy: sauté cleaned rough chopped leeks with equal parts peeled potato, salt and pepper, 5 min. Cover 1/2 inch over top with salted water. Summer til tender. Purée. Finish with spill of cream. Serve with a tiny wheel of goat cheese.
xoFaye

Over 21

(I am a mother.)

Can you imagine, if all you had to make love to was a rubber doll? Gives you the shivers, doesn’t it. Most people would rather just fall asleep and do without.
The thing is, we have to eat. No matter what. If the choice is between frozen and nothing, you are going to get up close and personal with Sara Lee or try to make yourself believe you will feel better if you go for Healthy Choice, so you grab that. Which leads you nowhere good, but full. Food that keeps you alive and food that makes your heart beat are two completely different things. I think the difference is what gets people stuck at the roadblock.
Stock in a box or a block of frozen lasagna does nothing for my mojo. Nothing. Not when I am cooking, and not in my bed either. How charged up do you feel opening up a foil pack of compressed chicken powder with an extended shelf life? Or a man/woman who breathes once at birth and possibly before death?
My guess is, not so much.
You know how when you first meet someone who really moves you, all you want is the chance to have them to yourself, to press your nostrils into their neck and smell who they are, to run your fingers down their side to feel what vibrates, to memorize the sound of their breath. That can only happen with someone living.
Same with food. The closer anything is to its true self, the more you are going to get from it, and the better you are going to be at working with it.
And a lot of you might be thinking, really? What is the matter with you? This is America. We don’t talk about things like that.
I want to start.

I have the rock solid knowledge that a lot of people are unhappy with their food. How they eat and how they cook leaves them joyless. They do it because they have to. And it is easy to think that there is one answer, but how could there be? What makes me sing, might not speak to you at all. Love and cooking, cooking and love, is all about listening to the one in front of you. I want to take the risk of listening.
I started asking my friends how they feel about what they eat and what they cook or don’t cook, to help figure it out with them, one by one.

My first try: Tanika