Well, it’s been six weeks since Lilli Virginia has joined us, and, like I’d learned before but had somehow forgotten, whatever plans I had for my new baby didn’t matter. It would be up to the baby to set the rules. For instance, because I thought that I’d never have a chance to cook, I filled a freezer chest with foods and baked goods. I also thought I’d spend a ton of time wearing my baby and going for long walks along the river. Well, it turns out that I’ve actually been able to cook a few meals, and my baby screams like a banshee when I try and wear her. (You’d think after 41 weeks and 60 hours of labor she’d want to be close to my chest and heartbeat, but apparently not.)
In November, when I told my mom about my plans to cook a month’s worth of meals because I wouldn’t be able to cook, she shook her head. “Pfft. Babies sleep a lot. You’ll see. I promise you’ll be in your kitchen just as soon as you’re physically up to it.” Or, as Aleza put it over a porter (hers) and a chocolate banana milkshake (mine), “you’ll just bring the baby into the kitchen.” Well, it turns out that they were totally right: Babies do sleep a lot, and thanks to the generosity of Lilli’s cousins Jack and Ari, she has a swing, chair and bassinet, all of which I have rolled or carried into the kitchen.
So, I have been able to cook and I’ve actually started baking bread, too. Tuesdays my mother comes in from Western Mass, and on Fridays my mother-in-law comes in from just north of Boston. Neither ever comes empty-handed, but I’d like to focus on the goods my mother packs. Like Mary Poppins, her bag seems to seem endless and full of perfect little things you didn’t know you wanted until they’re in front of you.
One week there was some roasted salmon and briny cucumber salad. Twice she’s brought us cantaloupe that she’s stood at the counter and cleaned for us, storing chunks in one of my leftover yogurt containers that is now part of my Tupperware collection. Another time there were blueberries that I sprinkled over my breakfasts of overnight oatmeal. A tub of egg salad, whole wheat rolls and an avocado. Two cooked artichokes that Rich and I ate for a Shabbat meal (Lilli had to sit in her bouncy chair for that one; artichoke eating is best done with two hands.)
And Mom’s not just bringing meals for us, she’s bringing random vegetables that have inspired me to stand in my kitchen and get back into the groove. A gorgeous green pepper found its way into shakshuka. Green beans were steamed and added to a Nicoise salad. Cabbage slaw that I turned Vietnamese.
Last Tuesday, she brought fennel. “Open up one of your cookbooks,” she encouraged me. “Go on, choose a recipe.” I had a recipe in mind from a Lidia cookbook. I’d made it years before, and I remembered how tasty it was. You can see in the photo that I’ve tossed it with farfalle. That way it became an entire meal for us – I said I’m cooking, but not that much. Leftovers, people! (Note: I decided I didn’t like how the finished product photographed, so here are a few photos of Lilli, instead.)
Lidia’s recipe calls for about three pounds of fennel; the one Mom brought came out to a little less than a pound once its stalks and fronds were removed. I scaled the recipe to suit the changes in fennel size, but am keeping the recipe here as it stands in her cookbook. It’s a seriously tasty dish. The sweetness of the fennel really works well with the salty capers.
Skillet Fennel with Capers from Lidia’s Italy
⅓ cup extra-virgin olive oil
3 pounds fresh fennel, trimmed and cut into 1-inch chunks
2 ½ cups sliced onions
½ teaspoon coarse sea salt or kosher salt, or to taste
¼ cup small capers, drained
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
Recommended Equipment: A heavy-bottomed skillet or saute pan, 12-inch diameter or larger, with a tight-fitting cover
Pour the olive oil into the skillet, and set it over medium heat. Dump in all the fennel and onions, season with the salt, and stir and toss well.
Cover the pan tightly, and let the vegetables cook and caramelize slowly, stirring occasionally. Adjust the heat as necessary so they’re sizzling, softening, and cooking in their own moisture, but not burning or browning too fast.
After 15 minutes, stir in the capers; if the fennel pieces appear dry, add a few tablespoons of water too. Cook another 15 minutes, tightly covered, stirring now and then, until the fennel is tender and tinged golden brown. If they’re pale, or you want deeper color, cook them uncovered for a few minutes.
Taste, and season with salt if you want; grind on pepper to taste just before serving, nice and hot.