The Cherry Tree Knows

IMG_0234The cherry blossoms popped out this past week, throwing their abundance in my face. I wasn’t ready for this. The large tree behind our house in Brooklyn declares that Lucian’s birthday is approaching. I watch the tree each year, holding a small hope close to my heart: that it blooms its lush, pink petals just around April 27th, that they will hang over us like they did on his second birthday when one little friend came over. We ate cake with strawberries and cream, and my curly haired boy sat on my lap to blow out his candles. Or like they bloomed for his third birthday, when we invited other children to bring their tricycles and scooters, and they raced around on the driveway under the pink canopy.

I’ve been peeking at the buds all around our neighborhood, able to enjoy their occasional bursts of color and frivolity with a peaceful sense of appreciation.  At the same rate as the buds themselves (tiny, timidly at first) come out, I’m drawn back into the circle of growth, dormancy, regrowth.  Life, death, life.

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If I Could Save Thyme in a Bottle/ Blanquette de Veau

IMG_8542I approached the butcher’s counter today with no thought other than: spring vegetables. The market at piazza san Cosimato looked so much more verdant than it did one week ago, before we left town. I saw a small piece of rosy veal behind the glass – it was just the right size for the three of us, and looked perfect; compact and muscular with tender fat in between. After a few clumsy words (including brasato, which I think impressed the butchers that I knew my stuff) and a little bit of pantomime, including me slapping my left thigh, dinner was in my bag. I returned to the produce stalls, and walked home with bright, fresh peas, young carrots, leeks and a lemon. I knew the veal was good for slow cooking, and I had decided to try my hand at blanquette de veau.  I know, it’s a little bit weird to make that when in Italy. But I’ve been thinking about making a spring trip to the kitchen of Buvette Paris, and blanquette is one dish that is pure comfort food to many French people. My little boy has eaten brasato di vitello here in Rome, served totally plain in its brodo and liked it- so I decided I should make us all a good dinner for our first night home.

While he was still at school I simmered the veal in salted water with leek trimmings and thyme (the only herb I have here, and my true favorite). When it was tender I turned off the stove, leaving the veal in its aromatic poaching liquid. I crossed the Tiber and met the school bus…then it was time for the daily gelato.  On our way home from the gelateria, my son proposed visiting the Orto Botanico, a botanical garden in Trastevere.  At 4:30 the sun was strong, and the bright, spring grass and tall palm trees looked inviting. As we wandered amongst them, though, a sadness swelled inside me.  I recalled mornings spent at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden with him when he was a toddler while his brother Lucian was at school, and many other memorable days spent there as a family. One of my favorite photos of my son Lucian is of him with his friend Walter, both less than three years old, carrying walking sticks and wearing winter hats in the BBG. A couple of years ago, when Walter turned eight, I made a photo book of some moments they had shared over the years; dressing up as astronauts with white paper jet packs, and covered in mud, laughing in our little garden. I knew then that their friendship was shifting but they remained connected, picking up where they left off each time they saw each other. Now, walking in the Orto Botanico I wondered what Walter thinks when he looks at the pictures in the book I gave him. How did his parents break it to him that Lucian had been killed, and how had he reacted?  I hope he holds that book forever.

IMG_8504Back at home I focused on my blanquette...preparing more leeks and carrots to simmer in the broth, and I started a bechamel sauce in another pot; traditionally cream is used, and the sauce is thickened with a roux and egg yolk, but I only had milk today. I was winging it, feeling good. All the meandering thoughts from the garden had left me, replaced by the urgency of making dinner. I briskly stirred milk to make the creamy sauce. I added a wide strip of lemon peel to the veal pot, and fetched more thyme from the patio. As I stood at the counter, rapidly plucking the leaves I remembered a chef I once knew telling me how much he hated it when cooks threw thyme in to a dish, coarse stems and all, in a misguided attempt at being casually rustic. My thyme today had tender stems, but I stripped them anyway I wanted my stew to be soft and pure, with only a few flecks of delicate leaves. Next thing I knew I was deep in a meditative state, stirring, skimming, tasting, boiling rice, blanching peas… all the while only half-conscious of my actions because the thought of thyme led me on a long trip down memory lane, to Cambridge, Mass, 1992.  Hard work in the kitchen, a romance gone wrong, staff parties and afterhours fun. A famous chef who honored me with his respect, and hired me years later to work on special events what had he seen in me? And then, 2004: an off-season walk down a Massachusetts beach, with my first baby strapped to my body. I’d seen the chef passing by, we’d waved, not sure whether to stop and chat. What a lifetime away that day seemed now! I recall my self-consciousness at my new role as mother; the physical changes and lack of freedom. My sweet baby, Lucian, waving his hands up and down and closing his eyelids against the wind, his first exposure to the coastal breezes. His life begun and ended between then and now; celebrated and mourned. All these thoughts passed through a few thyme leaves. There is no escaping the persistent sadness; memory infuses every moment.   And so we go up and down, round and round… another spring is here, and still my days go on; feeding a little boy and hoping he will enjoy his meals and grow (turns out he didn’t like this one)…

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Venice in Black and White

IMG_6343When I think of Venice I first think of color and light.  The colors of the city, though, are in transition; some are fading- bleached by the sunlight that bounces off the lagoon- others are growing green with moss, or becoming speckled with dark dots of mold. Buildings are rippling blue reflections, and grey stones become darker as they step down into the murky canals.  This transience can make it seem as if there’s a scrim over the buildings, loosening the definition of their edges just a little bit. Painted shutters are chipping, walls are leaning, cornices cracking.  The water has an elusive palette too- more green than blue; clear and opaque at the same time.

But the food I seek in Venice is monochromatic.  I will always remember my first plate of spaghetti with squid ink on the island of Giudecca when I was in my early twenties, and how my napkin was marked with black each time I wiped my mouth. I proudly practiced my Italian on that trip, my culinary terminology earned through studious reading of Marcella Hazan and Elizabeth David. It swept me away, seeing the foods I had imagined brought to me on plates, and I gobbled it all up. Through the years of culinary work and raising two children, when travel seemed impossible, I had to hang onto those taste memories in order to conjure up recipes for restaurants and food publications. Preserved in my mind, they were vividly black and white- it was not difficult to do:

Pasta al nero di seppia; creamy baccala mantecato on grilled polenta; tender pieces of cuttlefish in black ink with white polenta morbido; sardines in saor (those melting, soft onions); marinated white anchovy fillets; frittura of the tiniest squid, whiting and shrimp– their little black eyes popping through the crisp batter- and tender rings of white calamari

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And then finally, I was to see Venice again. What a treat to return to this beauty: a city on water, solid yet shimmering, full of alleys and mystery. Its tarnish suited my mood, rubbed rough from mourning and in need of gentle inspiration. Its prettiness lifted me.  I sought local flavors, those black and white memories to match my black clothes. Occasionally some diced red tomato snuck into my pasta with spider crab, or I permitted a dramatic leaf of port-colored radicchio onto my plate. A “spritz Aperol”, like an electric sunset, was fun for a while. I sifted through lists sent to me by friends and colleagues; they stood me well, those friends. And over three days I tried to see and taste as much as possible. I walked until I ached, wished I could swim. And now I have the beginnings of my own list.

I know what I like; Carnevale costumes, glitter and feathers are not for me. Mostly, when in Venice, I will remain in palette: a simple black mask; scrimshaw; or the worn black tire dangling from the prow of a boat.

 

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What I Can Hold in My Hands

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It’s dark before five and the lights are shining on our little tree. Yesterday I had an urge to bake gifts to give to friends: tiny brown sugar-apple cakes, compact and rich. These I wrapped in waxed paper and tied with a bright bakers’ string. Cheery, satisfying and good; they looked adorable all wrapped and ready to go.  Before heading out to visit a friend, I baked off a double batch of cakes and prepped a large amount of granola, also for gifts. I don’t really have time for all this- I’m supposed to be packing and organizing my home, tying up loose ends; paying bills and suspending magazine subscriptions. We’re moving to Rome for the semester and there’s so much to do.

So what does all this baking bring me at a time like this? I can’t help but wonder where my priorities are. I know that busy hands help me put off doing the things on my list- I’d call it productive procrastination. Busy hands help me manage my feelings; and busy hands are also a way of remembering.

These apple cakes are filled with memories. About ten years ago I created the recipe for a magazine story, which featured a gifted ceramicist and her stylish husband. Our team from Martha Stewart Living brought a van and two cars filled with food and props from the city to the country, where we laid them out and spun a story out of pictures. In their kitchen I cooked mushroom and pumpkin soup, and spread artisanal cheese on wholesome bread. Then I checked with the photographer before darting out to the bathroom, where I unpacked my plastic breast pump and anxiously listened to the voices of my co-workers on the other side of the door while the pump did its work, extracting the nourishing milk from each breast. I would bring it home in little bottles for my first baby, Lucian. No matter that I had been away from him for two days. This mundane activity gave me a sense of purpose and allayed my guilt; if I could produce milk for my son while I made this beautiful meal for the ceramicist and her husband, I was still a virtuous mother.

The baby is gone, and now so is the child- taken much too soon. The hole that remains is so large. Can I fill it with my boundless love for the one who’s left behind – little Theo? Not completely. So here, in this new landscape of mourning, I take what I know and turn it into these warm cakes; lightly fragrant with cinnamon and nutmeg and filled with warm apple slices. This is one way I can feel sure-footed while the ground underneath me shifts and I see the tilt of the planet as if from above. I can hold these in my hands before I give them away- they are nourishing and good.

 

Small enough to hold in my hands

Small enough to hold in my hands