Perciatelli pasta with brothy asparagus, roasted pepper & olive sauce

Asparagus and red pepper sauce for pasta

Asparagus and red pepper sauce for pasta

Well, I survived another mother’s day lunch shift as a waitress. Nine hours with no break at all, literally not one second to sit down. I’ll pause for a moment so that you can shed a small tear for my plight. Aw, it’s not so bad. This is a fairly typical shift for the restaurant business, and it certainly suits me better than a job at which you can’t do anything but sit! I like the non-stop pace, I like being active, I enjoy talking to people. But it was tiring, and by the end of the day I stood in the middle of the restaurant yelling, “I’M A MOTHER TOO, DAMMIT! SOMEBODY HAD BETTER BUY ME A GLASS OF WINE RIGHT NOW!!” And when I walked Isaac to school this morning, and joined a group of parents talking about their mother’s day celebrations, I said, “I spent nine hours serving mothers lunch, and let me tell you, mothers are horrible people.” Heh heh, I can say that, because I am a mother! I’m kidding once again, of course. Mothers are wonderful people, each and every one of them. But mother’s day is widely recognized in the restaurant business as a particularly difficult day. You walk away from it bewildered by just now needy everybody is. Why is this? You ask yourself, as you walk home on tired feet. Why do people seem so needy on mother’s day? Maybe it’s because mothers are as needy as everyone else, but we have to suppress that neediness 364 days of the year, and on the one day we’re told by the media and the greeting card companies that somebody should take care of us, we’re going to squeeze every drop of sympathy and attention we can get. Because mothering, though it is a gratifying and demanding job, is not a very well-rewarded job in the usual ways that jobs are considered rewarding. We have no pay, no awards, no performance-reviews, no gold stars, no bonuses, no free gifts, no paid vacations, no benefits, no gala luncheons. We do have people who don’t listen when we talk to them, who keep us up all night when they’re sick, who expect us to feed them even when we’re sick, who act embarrassed when we talk to them in front of their friends, who shudder visibly when we try to feed them delicious foods that we’ve worked on for hours. And most of the time, that’s fine. Isaac has had some sort of stomach virus the last few days, and I haven’t gotten a lot of sleep, but I’ve been thinking that it’s sort of perfect for mother’s day weekend, because it makes you realize how good it feels to be needed by someone, to actually make somebody feel better if you rub their back or cuddle with them, to love someone so much that you’re always glad to hear them call your name, even at 3 in the morning (and 4 in the morning, and 6 in the morning…). So if a mother wants to fuss a little when her family takes her out, and be sure the meal is exactly as she likes it, and that her water has precisely the right number of ice cubes and lemon slices, more power to her!! If she wants to send something back because it’s not just the way she ordered it, that’s fine–she should have the perfect meal. If she wants proof that somebody is actually listening to her, even if it’s a stranger in an apron and stupid white shoes, I’m okay with that.
For mother’s day Isaac gave me a hand-print flower glued into a flowerpot made of brown construction paper. It was quite a big flowerpot, and I believe he was supposed to fill the whole thing with a poem. In his usual wise and simple way, he wrote, “I love my mom because she’s my mom.” And that sort of says it all. It defies rational expectation, but it’s true–we love our moms because they’re our moms. Because in reality all moms aren’t wonderful people, and no mom is always wonderful, but children have a remarkably elastic and forgiving sort of love, and most of the time, that’s reward enough.

Both of my boys actually liked this meal! I made long tube-shaped pasta called perciatelli. Like spaghetti, but with a hole in it. I wanted to make a brothy sauce to go with it, so I made this concoction of asparagus, roasted red peppers, olives and capers. It’s got white wine and lots of herbs, and a little bit of tomatoes. The boys used the pasta like a straw to suck up the broth, but they ate all the vegetables as well, miracle of miracles.

Here’s Goody Mob with Soul Food

Looking to be one of dem days
When Momma ain’t cooking
Everybody’s out hunting with tha family
Looking for a little soul food

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Chard “lasagna” with fennel, roasted reds, olives, and walnut ricotta

chard lasagna

chard lasagna

One summer, when I was 11 or 12, I fell down a lot. I skinned my knees so many times in one summer that they’re still mapped with scars. I don’t remember being all that bothered by it. At some point scabby knees became normal for me – itching and peeling and catching on my clothes. A few years later I fell off my bike on the way to my piano teacher’s house and I cried for a week. There’s no accounting for my irrationally fervent response, but everything seemed suddenly so fragile and vulnerable and poignant. My boys seem to like falling. When Isaac’s nervous and trying to impress someone he’ll make a silly face and topple to the ground. Pratfalls never fail to amaze! When they’re riding skateboards and scooters, it always seems to me that they’re learning how to fall as much as they’re learning how to ride – it’s an equally important skill. Of course, raising children is a pattern of watching them fall and then get back up again. When they first sit up, and they’re so proud and so happy with their new vantage point, and then they just…tip over. When they’re learning how to walk, and you brace yourself for the sickening sound of hard little head on pavement. Sometimes they bounce back, sometimes they crumple and wail. Malcolm has always loved to climb – chairs, tables, trees, rocks. I could create an extensive photo essay of “Malcolm sitting on top of things.” It was hard to let him go, at first. I remember consciously telling myself not to blurt out “be careful” as he clambered from chair to table. And, of course, that was the exact moment he fell. Mostly I let him go, now, because I trust him to know what he can do. I close my eyes and hold my breath and wait to look till he’s safely on the earth again. I’ve been thinking about falling a lot, lately, for some reason. When I’m running with Clio, or walking down the stairs, I can imagine myself falling, I can almost feel that it’s going to happen, so I go very cautiously. I feel gravity’s pull more. I dream about falling and wake myself with a start, like a newborn. When Clio and Malcolm jump and climb and clamber, it’s not just that they’re young and strong and agile, it’s that they don’t doubt themselves. It never occurs to them for a second that they might not make it. If Clio is behind the tall-backed couch and wants to be on the other side, she doesn’t run around the couch, or get out a measuring tape and calculate the height of the back of the couch, she doesn’t take a few trial hops. She doesn’t imagine what would happen if she wipes out before she reaches the top of the couch. She leaps! When Malcolm scales a giant rock-face, he doesn’t catastrophize about what would happen if he slips, he clambers happily to the top and beams down at us from on high.

I love giant chard leaves. It always feels like such a shame to chop them up. So I decided to leave them whole and use them in a sort of lasagna, instead of noodles. I have layers of braised fennel with roasted peppers, capers and olives, layers of melty mozzarella, layers of walnut ricotta, and layers of chard leaves. It turned out very tasty indeed! The walnut ricotta is made with walnuts, olive oil, balsamic, rosemary and honey, and it’s very earthy and good. Nice all together!

Here’s Tom Waits with Falling Down.

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White bean, roasted red pepper, tomato risotto

White bean tomato risotto

Yesterday, for no reason in particular, I started singing Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend while I was making dinner. I get stupid songs in my head all the time, and I usually can’t stop myself from singing them. Isaac was very upset! I was surprised by his reaction, and tried to laugh it off. I told him what a silly song it was. Or that it was about David’s childhood dog, named Diamond. And then we talked about other things, and I thought he’d forgotten. On the way to school on this drizzly fall morning Isaac said, “Diamonds are not a girl’s best friend!” Very emphatically. No, they’re not, I said. And then he said, “A girl’s best friend is a son!” And I laughed and said, sure it is! And then he started singing a song, “A Claire’s best friend is an Isaac, and a dog, and a Malcolm, and a daddy, and her house, and her land.” (Heh heh, my land! My acres and acres of land!) He’s right, of course! Being a crazy mom, a little whirlwind of reactions spiraled around my head. I’m glad he believes that! I like his anti-capitalist leanings (quite out of proportion with his acquisitive instinct around a toy aisle). I’m worried that he’s worried about money. Have we told him one-too-many times that we can’t afford a certain toy? Mostly I’m proud that he’s such a wise six-year-old, and grateful that he cheered me up. I’ve been in a blue funk lately about my inability to contribute much to the constant struggle to keep our heads above water, financially. It’s David’s birthday today, and I’m sad that I can’t give him something nice. But I’m making him dinner, and I hope he’ll like it, and I’m happy to be doing it! Happy to be thinking about foods he likes, happy to be thinking how lucky I am that he’ll try all my crazy meals, happy to be thinking about all the meals we’ve had together over the years, and the way our tastes have evolved together. Happy to spend a rainy day in a warm and fragrant kitchen, making food to feed someone I love.

Last night, on David’s Birthday Eve, we had this risotto. It’s a nice meal for a chilly fall day, when you still have piles of tomatoes tumbling off your counter. I realized, yesterday, that I’ve never had a risotto with beans in it. Which seems surprising, because rice and beans are so perfect together. I think of tomatoes, roasted reds, olives and white beans as being something of a classic combination. So I cooked it with arborio rice, and left it nice and warm and brothy.

Here’s Louis Armstrong with I Can’t Give You Anything But Love
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Chickpea stew with tomatoes, chard and castelvetrano olives

Chickpea, chard, castelvetrano stew

Isaac wants a baby orangutan for a pet, and so do I. Actually he just asked if I’d rather have an elephant, and I think I might rather. He’ll get the orangutan, and I’ll get the elephant. So we’re going to head down to the local animal shelter and see if we can find one of each. He’s home sort-of-sick from school, and watching a show about orphaned orangutans and elephants. They’re raised by humans and then returned to the wild. They’re all so beautiful you could cry! The shot of a herd of baby elephants, red with the dusty earth, running, eager, giant ears held high, following people with soccer balls, threw me for a loop. A loop, I tell you! The film centers on the two women that run the retreats. Rightfully so, I suppose, they’ve given their lives and probably lots of their money to these animals. David and I were thinking it would be interesting to see a movie about the people that work there, and care for the animals every day, as well. Orphaned animals can’t sleep alone. In the wild they cuddle with their mothers, and in this strange environment they have too many bad memories of why they became orphaned animals. There’s a shot of a man trying to sleep, with a baby elephant cavorting all around him. I well remember days of trying to cuddle a toddler to sleep. Can you imagine if the toddler weighed several hundred pounds?! And a scene with a woman cuddling a tiny baby orangutan, singing to him, and rubbing his tummy, as he frowns and struggles to keep his eyes open – well it kills me. I wonder what the lives of these people are like. Do they have children of their own? What strange hours they must work. What a demanding but rewarding job it must be! What kind of dreams do you have when you care for orphaned animals all day and night?

We’re back to stew season, here at The Ordinary! The evenings are drawing in, and it’s time for warm saucy meals. This particular stew extends the bridge between summer and fall. It’s full of fresh tomatoes and basil, chard from the farm, and a sweet roasted red pepper. And it has castelvetrano olives, which I love so much. They’re lovely and bright and juicy, and they’re very pretty with the tomatoes. I had mine with bulgarian feta crumbled on top, but if you leave that (and the bit of butter) out, you have a good vegan meal. Serve it with a salad and a loaf of crispy bread, and you’re golden.

Here’s Elephant Gun by Beirut. It’s a beautiful song, but it’s a sad story of elephant hunting, and it’s why these baby elephants are orphans.

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Tomato steaks au poivre; Semolina dumpling baked in tomatoes; roasted red salad stuffed heirloom

Giant heirloom

It’s hard not to become defensive when you grow up in New Jersey. From an early age, you’re aware that you’re the butt of jokes – not just the jokes of snarky Manhattanites, but of pretty much everybody, everywhere. You hear stereotypes about New Jersey accents, New Jersey styles of dress, New Jersey music. You know, of course, that those accents and styles of dress actually originate in certain boroughs of Manhattan, and the attribution is false, but you grow tired of explaining that. People drive from New York to Philly and see the ugliest part of New Jersey – the Strip malls and refineries. You think about telling them that where you live, there’s nothing but vast expanses of beautiful countryside, but you don’t want everybody moving here, so you keep quiet. You know that Jersey is overpopulated, but that population is incredibly diverse, which means that we have a rich culture of languages, art, and food. We have mountains and beaches and meadows. We have a sense of humor about ourselves – we have to – it’s a survival instinct. We’re adaptable and tolerant – living so close to your neighbors (as you do in much of the state) you learn to respect them and care for them.

Baked semolina dumpling tomatoes

And we have tomatoes! Jersey tomatoes – pride of the garden state! At the moment I have a bewildering number of tomatoes! But I’ve had a lot of fun thinking of ways to prepare them. We had some big, beautiful heirloom tomatoes. I scooped out some of the flesh and replaced it with semolina dumpling batter. I baked the tomatoes, and made the flesh into a sauce with chard and basil.

Tomato chard sauce

The semolina has a lovely, soft texture that absorbs the tomato-y juices. Then I thought about giant slices of tomatoes that feel like steaks, and I decided to coat them in pepper, fry them in a little butter, and then use the juices to make a sauce, with shallots, garlic, and wine. It made a nice side dish, and I think it would be nice over angel hair pasta. Finally, we had an heirloom tomato the size of a small pumpkin. I decided to open it in thick slices, and stuff a flavorful salad into the spaces – roasted red peppers, fresh mozzarella, capers, olives, and fresh basil. Fresh and delicious!

Tomato steaks au poivre

Here’s Tom Waits with Jersey Girl
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Eggplant rollatini with almond ricotta and fresh basil

Epplant rollatini

I’ve been thinking a lot about failure lately, and by association, about success. It all started when I read an incredibly patronizing article in The Guardian about Michelle Obama’s new book American Grown. To me, writing a book about gardens, having it published, and then actually mentioned on The Guardian, even in a negative and snarky way, would be a huge success. But apparently, for Michelle Obama, it’s an embarrassingly domestic and female abandonment of her successful career as a lawyer – of her intellectual pursuits. (How is writing a book not an intellectual pursuit? How?) This article put me in a tizzy on so many levels that I can’t respond rationally. Firstly, it seems so sad to me that we spend so much time tearing other people down, and deciding that they’re not successful. And, of course, there’s the old debate about whether or not a woman’s traditional work, of raising children and feeding her family, is valuable in any way. And as for gardening! It will come as no surprise that I find growing a garden, and cooking the food that you grow, a noble pursuit. When we visited Monticello, the tour guide told us that of all of Jefferson’s achievements, he was most proud of his garden and his farm. Of course his farm was only a success because of the people that worked it, and was a financial success because he didn’t pay those people, he owned them. Which, as a way to live, is no kind of success at all. As for myself, I feel like the person Churchill described when he said, “Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.” By most standards, I’ve probably failed at everything I’ve tried to do, but I only feel like a failure when I let myself feel sorry about it. I’ve succeeded at making two feature-length films, but I’ve failed at having them distributed. Would it be better if I’d never tried to make them? Surely not! And yes, I’m a “homemaker” and a “mother” and I’m not even first lady, I haven’t published a book, I haven’t started a national campaign to fight childhood obesity. I never had a successful career as a lawyer, or as anything else for that matter. Forget staying home with children – I stopped looking for a full-time job because I didn’t want to leave my dog home alone.I would love to have a career. I’d love for somebody to be able to refer to me as their “colleague,” I really would. I admire mothers that have careers. Someday, maybe, I’ll do something useful for society. Oddly, I don’t feel like a failure, most of the time. I like the balance in my life. As long as I can persuade myself to cheerfully pursue things I’m passionate about – to write stories nobody will ever read, and make films nobody will ever see – I feel alright. As long as I can make a meal and have David or one of the boys look up with a smile and say, “this is lovely!” I’m doing fine.

Which is what happened when I made this eggplant rollatini. It’s a simple dish. Long strips of eggplant, marinated, breaded and roasted, lined with slices of roasted red pepper, thin pieces of mozzarella, and an almond “ricotta.” I thought the almond ricotta turned out very good. Obviously, the meal isn’t vegan, because it contains an egg and mozzarella, but if you left those out, it would still taste good. The almonds added a lovely, deep, sweetish flavor to the very savory and tangy tastes of eggplant and tomato sauce.

Here’s Bob Dylan with Love Minus Zero/No Limit. “She knows there’s no success like failure
And that failure’s no success at all.”
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Vegetarian sausage (with red beans, pecans, and roasted reds)

Vegetarian sausages

I’ll start, if I may, with a quote from Wind in the Willows.

“…till he had dust in his throat and eyes, and splashes of whitewash all over his black fur, and an aching back and weary arms. Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing…”

Well! I’ve been trying to describe something like that lately! (You might have discerned incoherent traces of it if you’ve been following along.) But not the last couple of days, because they’ve been positively february-y or novembery. Cold, rainy, grey upon grey upon grey. And Isaac has strep throat, which is a wintery worry, in my mind. I was stuck at work on Sunday, with Isaac home sick. I hate that! I really do! I just want to be able to sit next to him and kiss his hot forehead anxiously every other minute. Is that a lot to ask?!?! But I determined, while I was still at work, that I would make bangers and mash when I got home. It seemed comforting, for a cold drizzly day. Did I eat bangers and mash in my nursery, when I was a child, surrounded by talking teddy bears? I did not!! Did I think that my Isaac, even on a good day, would eat a “sausage” made from roasted red peppers, pecans and red beans? I did not! I knew he’d eat mashed potatoes, though, if I made it into a volcano of butter. And he did. And my Malcolm would (and did) like the idea of a roasted red pepper sausage. He helped decide what would go in. He helped mash the red beans. He helped mash the potatoes. I think this is a fun meal to make with little ones!!

Bangers and mash

The sausages were delicious! Smokey, a bit spicy, a nice flavor of fennel. They were softer inside than an actual sausage, lacking gristle. But there’s something quite pleasant about a crispy outside/soft inside bit of sausage.

Here’s James Brown with Mashed Potatoes. This is a nice one!
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Malcolm’s peppery pepper crisps

pepper crisps

The boys were home all last week for spring break, bringing their own little whirlwind of boyish joy and drama. Do I look frazzled? We had a nice week, though. We went away for a few days, which we never do. And I got to go on lots of walks with Malcolm. He’s good to walk with because he talks and talks. You can just walk next to him and listen. He talks about how he gets all his best ideas right before bed, he wonders if I’d like yoshi from some game we don’t have, he thinks that everybody thinks that we’ll have flying cars some day, he had one lamb’s ear that we bought that died, and one he dug up that lived a long time till some kid at a party tipped it out of its pot. And he came up with the idea for these peppery crisps. He wanted them to be very spicy and very crispy. He wanted them to have lots of different kinds of pepper in them. Sweet red peppers, red pepper flakes, cayenne, black pepper, and smoked paprika. He wanted to make the red peppers themselves crispy, but I couldn’t think how we’d do that, so we made the roasted peppers into a puree, and mixed it into a sort of pastry dough. Then we rolled the dough out quite thin, cut them into diamonds, and fried them in olive oil. They got nice and puffy and crispy, and they didn’t take too much oil to make. Everybody loved them! Isaac ate them by the fistful (and he’s a hard boy to feed!). Malcolm was a little disappointed that they weren’t spicy enough, so we’ll up the red pepper flake content next time.

I made some ginger and basil red bean dip to go with them. Very quick to make and tasty. But they were quite flavorful all on their own!!

Red bean dip

Here’s Desmond Dekker with Mother Pepper
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red pepper semolina crepes with broccoli rabe & chickpeas

My favorite meal in the summer is any meal that involves a lot of different little dishes. A mezze or tapas type of situation. It’s sort of funny that this makes me think of summer, because in the summertime we like to eat outside. If you do the math, you’ll see that this means that we carry lots of little dishes out the kitchen door, down a small path, down a step, and onto the outside table. It’s worth it, though! I swear it is! It was crazy warm last week, so we ate outside, and I’ve already started in with the summer meals.

Let me tell you about this one. I like to make a kind of crepe, a kind of green, a kind of sauce, a kind of salad, and a kind of potato, and have them all together. However…although we’ve had exactly this kind of meal before, we’ve never had anything quite like this!! I made crepes with semolina flour and roasted red peppers. Delicious! Not thin and elegant, exactly, but very satisfying! I made broccoli rabe sauteed with chickpeas and grape tomatoes. Lovely! And I made thinly sliced roasted potatoes seasoned with sage and Spanish smoked paprika. Finished with a simple salad of baby spinach and baby arugula dressed with with olive oil and balsamic, salt and pepper.

I’m going to post Dead Prez’ Happiness at this point. I should probably save it for later in the summer, but I need it now. So here we go…
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