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.
Faye

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 flakes 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

Gift the Onions


There is nothing more humble than an onion really. It grows in the dirt. It almost always gets the bottom shelf closest to the floor, and if you are low on cash, an onion lights up in neon.

For the holidays, would you rather have:

a shirt that was picked out in a sweat

a pack of Wrigley’s

chopsticks that are attached at the top

onion confit

I would go for the confit.
Nobody has the time to make a proper confit, unless it is their job, and even then, people don’t take the time. You can eat it with a pork roast, a plain baked potato, or on a tiny slice of baguette with a good gruyere.
A brilliant idea would be to sterilize jars and can the confit, so that it didn’t have to be refrigerated until opened. I only have the tiniest notion about how to do that, so google that part.

Confit I know.

Buy as many onions as the number of pans you have permits. Onions shrink considerably as they cook, but when you are starting, they take up a lot of room. In a ten inch saute pan, you should be able to fit 8-10. Start with a spill of your best olive oil and a few tablespoons of unsalted butter. Add a few sprigs of fresh thyme, a few sprigs of parsley and a bay leaf. Just heat them up a little–no color. Add the onions and give them a good stir. Don’t be shy about adding more butter if you need it. You want the onions to caramelize, but you don’t want them to burn. Your flame should be about medium and your pan should be heavy. Add another bay leaf and 2 whole cloves. Caramelize the onions slowly–for about 45 minutes–with a few good pinches of salt and sugar. When the onions have collapsed, give them a pour of balsamic. No more than 2 tablespoons.
Let the vinegar reduce, and then start adding water, about 2-3 tablespoons at a time. Give it a grind of black pepper; just enough to support the onions, not so they taste like pepper. Keep simmering. The whole process will take about four hours. At the end, when you taste them, they should be so good it brings you nearly to tears.

The Independent Life of Hearts and Hands

I have a perfectly good reservation tomorrow at M. Wells, a more than good restaurant. An excellent restaurant. And yet.
I walked over the bridge to Brooklyn and started feeling up the turkeys at Key Food. The ones in front were frozen. “HEY!!” I started looking for people with a name tag. “These are frozen over here. That’s not right to sell people frozen turkeys the day before Thanksgiving. It is 3 o’clock. That is not going to defrost for dinner.”
I don’t need a name tag. It is obvious who I am.
They have excellent customer management at Key Food.
The guy didn’t even lift a lip at me. He was even friendly-ish.
“Unfrozen are right behind those.”
“Oh.”
“Do you tell people that?”
“Sure.”
“Okay.”
I waited around a minute in case anybody needed unsolicited help and then decided I needed to buy one for myself. Just a little one; an 8 pounder. How could I not roast a turkey for Thanksgiving. And braise a few artichokes with leeks; maybe serve that with a little Camembert. Got to have a cheese course. And potatoes. I already have the cranberry sauce.
I walked my friend Mary home from school and talked her into taking the first half of the turkey tomorrow when it comes out of the oven. She told me there was no way she was agreeing to that. But Mary is tired, and I am way better at arguing than she is. She had ordered a chicken.
No way.
I said, “Listen, you take the turkey for the first act, whole for dinner. Give me the leftovers on my way home from the restaurant. It doesn’t make any sense that I wait to give you the second half, just because you want the second half. I am eating my turkey out of the fridge. You need yours for dinner.”
“I don’t need it. I have chicken.”
“Freezing a chicken is easy. Open the freezer and throw it in.”
“That is ridiculous.”
“No, it’s not. It is logical. It is just a matter of who gets which half.”
Mary has excellent friend management. She agreed with me.
We both went home happy. I get to cook a turkey and she doesn’t have to.

Hearts and hands have a life of their own.

Roast the Turkey

It would be easy to write about family, if you didn’t have to write the truth.
I have been trained to let truth go, like a balloon that slips from your wrist and floats away.

My senior year of high school my English teacher, Ms. Davies said to me,
“Faye, when you put your pen to the paper, you have to write the truth.”
I thought about it for a moment. “I can’t,” I said.

I thought about why I loved Ms. Davies. I loved her for her honesty. She was a little bit mean, sharp as a whip, loved words and used them better than anybody I knew. She had a sense of humor that could win wars. She preferred
wrap skirts with a turtle or whale motif, edged in contrasting fabric. She was on the edge of overweight. Her hair was cut into a highlighted, practical, perfectly formed shag with two curls flattened by each ear that never moved. I imagined she was afraid of nothing. She invited us all to her house and made cherry pie bars with a graham cracker base, a cream cheese filling, and a can of cherry pie filling poured over the top. She had a sweet tooth.

The truth in my house was not allowed. They didn’t like it.
It was too loud to hear and too ugly to look at, like car wrecks. That is why the police rope those things off.

My stepfather denied it. He was like Trump, or the former USSR, whom they told us, rewrote their history books.
My mother would flat out shut it down.
“I don’t want to know about that.”
My grandma would get you to watch her color TV. Or offer up cake. Her motto was, “just don’t think about it.”
In my family I am known as the one who doesn’t speak. I became the best at it.

My ex husband, when he decided to leave, preferred that I not mention it in public.

So.

All these years later, I hear
Ms. Davies talking to me. And I don’t know.

So.

I am going to make a video about how to cook a turkey.

To start:

Cranberry sauce is a perfect thing to make first for Thanksgiving. If you made it now, it will last at least 10 days in the fridge because of the sugar. A bag of cranberries costs $2.48, so if you have to throw the whole thing away, because it doesn’t turn out the way you want it, it is not going to kill you. Remember that. The only thing that can kill you here is if you forget you are cooking and leave the premises and the house burns down. If you undercook the turkey or you put too much stuffing in the cavity, you can feel like it is going to kill you, but even that is possible to recover from. So try to relax.

Cranberry sauce is also the perfect thing to practice getting crazy with, which on any front, either works or it doesn’t. It could give you great confidence in diving off the deep end and laughing at Tradition in the face, or you might just as easily find yourself holding on to Tradition like a baby holds his mother’s hand in the eerie dark of an amusement park after mixing candy apples and fried dough with ropy rollercoaster rides.

Every single year I decide I am going to reinvent the menu and I get lost in a sea of wild ideas about turkey and everything that goes along with it. The thing is, when this happens, I am usually looking at the ceiling; way before the sun or reason has woken up. By the time I am at the stove, if I am truly honest with myself, all I really want is butter. I am telling you, butter, cream, salt and pepper is all you need. So start with the cranberry sauce. Go crazy with the cranberry sauce, and that will either cure you or, you know–more power to you–set you sailing.

I decided I would add apples, fresh ginger, dried figs and lemon. I started with a cup of cranberries, because I am super cheap. If it wasn’t going to work, I wanted the other half of the bag to try again. I added everything at once with a few drops of water, and about a third of a cup of sugar. I simmered it for about 10 minutes. I immediately had to add more water. After tasting, I added a few tablespoons of sugar. Cranberries just need sugar to work; there is no getting around it.

What I liked:

the figs. they were a sweet surprise every time I hit one. I wasn’t convinced though, that the seeds of the figs worked. They got in the way a little. I thought about switching to dates. The flavor of the figs cried on my doorstep, so I in the end, I kept them.

the ginger. I added too much. I am that person that decides if I love something, give me all I can get. That is a mistake. I had already added the ginger, so to slow the train down I added a few more cranberries, and kept it cooking for a little longer to temper the flavor. That worked.

the lemon. I would add a strip of peel (minus the pith) next time as well.

What I didn’t like:

the apple. Funny, that. Apple and cranberry are such a natural combination, but the thing about apple is, it turns to mush when you cook it, taking away the glisten from the cranberry sauce, and muddying the distinctive flavor of the cranberry, instead of supporting it. I am going to try adding the apple raw, after the cranberry has cooked.

Thanks

This Thanksgiving, Ferdinand and I are going out to eat. I have never been out to eat on Thanksgiving, so it feels like I am going somewhere I have never been. Like Aruba, or Copenhagen. I chose the most magical menu I could find. I am going to wear clothes I would never wear if I were cooking and I am going to eat everything they give me.
I am thankful for my boy who is becoming a beautiful man.
I am thankful for my best friends. They love me always. They don’t care if it’s muddy rivers or the sun melting over mountaintops. There they are.
I am thankful for my cooking. For reasons more than one, but this Thanksgiving, especially for the love it has brought me.

And I don’t doubt that even though I have pretty nice ankles and some good jokes, it was my cooking that hooked him. I roll out dough, throw meat on the fire, simmer soups, and wait for clams to pop with all I have got, just to see him smile.
Cooking brought my heart a home.

This week, I am going to make Thanksgiving for you and you make whatever moves you. Get your apron on.

xo

I have been thinking

In case you are wondering where I have been and what I have been up to, I have been trying to gain weight.
And I have been thinking.
I have been thinking about what the truth is. From the deepest place, the most quiet, and still place, where there is nothing to do but listen.

Maude

do you not know how to edit
when what you know is more than
you should say

how to keep your lips tight

when it has been made clear from the
beginning that there is no place
for noise

or truth

what you think
is a storm at sea
what you feel
is the earth about to open.

I don’t want to know
about the rumbling underneath your skin.

deny it

there is no need for climate change
for Goodness sake

stick to one yarn color.
slate.
not shades of orange from the inside of a flame
not the magenta of rose petals that they use to make a satin tube top
Definitely not the full black of a night sky
so dark you can’t see your hand in front of you when you hold it up.

the color of the night sky can’t be contained in a stitch.
orange breathes.
magenta bleeds.
you are supposed to hold that in.

eat it.

When I was nine

When I was nine and smoking cigarettes with Susan Berringer outside of her house in Wethersfield, she told me she got me a date with kid called Jimmy. I hadn’t asked for a date, but I agreed to it. She asked me if I had been on a date before. “Yeah,” I said.
It wasn’t entirely true, but another kid called Dameon, who had just transferred into my 4th grade class had passed me a note with yes or no boxes asking me to go out with him. I had checked yes and passed the note back. I hadn’t spoken with him since, but I figured it counted.

Susan’s father drove us to the movies by the Carpet Giant. Susan’s boyfriend and Jimmy were waiting out front. Jimmy had long hair and wore a black leather motorcycle jacket. I followed him into the movie. Right before the end of it he put his arm around me. He left it there for a while like a bag of cement, and then he took it back.

After the movie we walked towards I-91, the highway that cuts between downtown Hartford and the Connecticut River. I wasn’t sure what the plan was. We stopped at the barrier and watched the cars for a minute. “So where do you live,” Jimmy asked me. “I live in Hartford,” I said. “Whoa”, he said. “You go to school there?” “Yeah”, I said.

When we moved to Hartford, the general consensus in Wethersfield was that my mother was risking our lives. In the two years that I had lived there, exactly nothing had happened. Ken Noel had twisted the skin on my arm backwards and forwards at the same time, but nothing more than that.
Susan had blow pops in her pocket and she passed them out. Then she asked me how old I was. She knew how old I was, but I told her anyway. They all laughed. She was 11 then, so I suppose she felt a lifetime older, which made being 9 laughable.
She asked me if I would cross the highway. I looked at the highway and smoked my cigarette.
“Just go to the other side and come back,” she said.
“Okay” I said, and I ran.
“Oh my God,” she screamed at me, “why would you do that?”
“You asked me to” I screamed back. Cars drove past between us.
Susan grabbed onto the barrier and the boys took a step away from her. She laughed to break the tension. They broke a smile.
“Are you going to walk to your house from there or are you coming back?” I was miles from home. I wouldn’t have known how to get there.
I ran back.
“You are an idiot.” Susan said. We started walking back to the parking lot. Jimmy said, “You are pretty brave for a 9 year old. What is your name again?”
“It is Faye.”
“You wanna go out, Faye?”
“No” I said. “That is okay.”
After Susan’s father dropped the boys on the Silas Deane which was nowhere near a neighborhood, and before my mother picked me up, Susan told me I had hurt Jimmy’s feelings.
“How?”, I asked her.
She said, “You are such a nine year old.”
When we got home, my mother made a giant omelette and served it in the pan. I made a rabbit salad on Bibb lettuce with canned halved pears, cottage cheese tails, currant eyes, and almond slivered ears.