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.
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.
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.