Guess Mother Does Know Best

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.)

wide-eyed lilli
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.

ari's chair
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.)

jack's swing
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.)

going for a walk


Her Purim costume will fit better by Halloween.

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.

slicing fennel
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.


Special Delivery

Jason and Lisa were married last October. It was outdoors, in a state park. But before you start to comment about how cold us guests must have been, Lisa nipped that one in the bud by having greeters pass out warm apple cider when we pulled up. Just charming. Jason is a Southern gentleman, so after the ceremony, as we walked into the reception, each guest was handed a mint julep to sip. Loved that. Oh, and Lisa and her mom had gone to the orchard and made pounds of apple sauce that they’d canned and topped with lace. Another perfectly lovely little detail.

apple sauce

And about six weeks ago, Lisa and Jason had baby Emma. Considering that I may have left the wedding with more than one jar of her applesauce, it was time to pay it forward. I know there’s only so much cooking one can do with a newborn (can you believe that baby Miles is now walking?!?!), so last week I spent a little time in the kitchen making a meal for the new parents. Then we packed up the car and headed over to JP for a visit and snuggle with their little peanut.

Baby Emma

Pasta travels well, so I went with a favorite dish of mine from the Zuni Café cookbook. I’m surprised at how many times I’ve made this but hadn’t shared it here. It’s full of things I love, like well-fried broccoli and cauliflower, salty capers, chopped anchovies, and briny olives There’s crushed fennel seeds, though the recipe does suggest using minced fennel bulb if you have it on hand. They also suggest substituting pecorino romano if you don’t feel like bread crumbs, and trading out the black olives for green ones, or even skipping the olives and anchovies. But, they plead, “don’t sacrifice the 8 to 10 minutes of care it takes to cook the vegetables to the delicately frizzled crispiness that gives the dish its great texture and variety. The sautéed vegetables are great by themselves, or a side dish with grilled or roasted poultry or meat.”

Zuni Pasta

I also put together a fennel, orange and beet salad, which Lisa dubbed “the winter salad”, that I packed up in an old yogurt container and snapped a few rubber bands around for the car ride.

winter salad

Notes: My best advice for the pasta dish is to prep everything beforehand. Mise en place, people. Yes, there are some recipes that you can prep as you go, but it is much easier to have everything good to go for this one. I used whole wheat spaghetti as my pasta, and they say that this one works with all sorts of chewy pasta – penne, spaghetti, orecchiette, or shells.

Pasta with Spicy Broccoli & Cauliflower from The Zuni Café Cookbook

For 4 to 5 servings


About 1 cup fresh, soft bread crumbs (about 2 ounces) made from crustless, slightly stale, chewy, white peasant-style bread (optional)

About ¾ cup mild-tasting olive oil

About 12 ounces broccoli, trimmed, with a few inches of stem intact

About 12 ounces cauliflower, leaves removed and stem end trimmed flush


1 generous Tablespoon capers, rinsed, pressed dry between towels, and slightly chopped

1 pound penne, spaghetti, orecchiette, fusilli, or medium shells

1 Tablespoon chopped salt-packed anchovy fillets (4 to 6 fillets) (optional)

6 small garlic cloves, coarsely chopped

About ½ teaspoon fennel seeds, lightly pounded in a mortar

4 to 8 pinches dried chili flakes

1 Tablespoon tightly packed, coarsely chopped, fresh flat-leaf parsley

4 to 5 Tablespoons coarsely chopped pitted black olives, such as Nicoise, Gaeta, or Nyons (rinsed first to rid them of excess brine)


If using bread crumbs, preheat the oven to 425.

Toss the bread crumbs with 2 teaspoons of the oil, spread on a baking sheet, and bake for about 5 minutes, until golden. Keep the crumbs on the stove top until needed.

Slice the broccoli and cauliflower about 1/8 inch thick, and generally length-wise. Most of the slices will break apart as you produce them, yielding a pile of smooth stem pieces, tiny green broccoli buds, loose cauliflower crumbs, and few delicate slabs with stem and flower both. Don’t worry if the slices are of uneven thickness; that will make for more textural variety.

Warm about ¼ cup of the oil in a 12-inch skillet over medium heat. Add most of the sliced broccoli and cauliflower, conveniently leaving the smallest bits behind on the cutting board for the moment. (They’ll burn if you add them to soon.) The oil should sizzle quietly. Swirl the pan, and leave the vegetables to cook until you see the edge bits browning, about 3 minutes. Salt very lightly and toss or stir and fold gently. Add a few more spoonfuls of oil and scrape the remaining bits of broccoli and cauliflower into the pan. Add the capers and swirl gently. Continue cooking over medium heat until the edges begin to brown, another few minutes, then give the pan another stir or toss. Don’t stir too soon or too often, or you will get a homogenous, steamy pile of vegetables instead of a crispy, chewy one. Most of the capers and vegetable crumbs will shrink into crispy confetti-like bits.

Meanwhile, drop the pasta into 6 quarts of rapidly boiling water seasoned with a scant 2 tablespoons  salt (a little more if using kosher salt). Stir, and cook al dente. Set a wide bowl or platter on the stovetop (or in the still-warm oven if you made bread crumbs) to heat.

Once the mass of broccoli and cauliflower has shrunken by about one-third and is largely tender, reduce the heat, add another few spoonfuls of oil, and scatter the chopped anchovy, garlic, fennel, and chili over all. Give the vegetables a stir or toss to distribute. Cook for another few minutes, then add the parsley and olives. Taste – every flavor should be clamoring for dominance. Adjust as needed.

Toss with the well-drained pasta and garnish with the warm, toasted bread crumbs, if desired.

Winter Salad

Notes: For this salad, I used a mandolin to thinly slice the fennel. For the orange prep, using a serrated knife, I sliced off the top and bottom of a navel orange, then sliced the skin off the fruit by following the outside curve. Then I rolled the orange onto its side, and thinly sliced the orange. Each fruit yielded about 8 slices.

I had roasted the beet the day before by preheating the oven to 400, setting the beet in a small baking pan with sides, filling it water about halfway up, adding the beet, and tenting it all with tin foil. It took about an hour to roast. When it was time to peel, I simply ran the beet under cold water and rubbed the skin off into the sink.

My apologies for not measuring out exactly how much cumin I used in the dressing. I grind my cumin seeds in a coffee grinder I use specifically for spices. I was literally taking pinches of cumin for the dressing. The same goes for the brown sugar. My best advice for the dressing is to taste until it tastes right to you. That’s really the best way to handle homemade dressings, anyways.


For the salad:

1 fennel bulb, thinly sliced on a mandolin

2 oranges, sliced thin

1 beet, roasted, peeled and diced into ¼-inch cubes – make sure to prep the beet last, otherwise all your other ingredients will be stained magenta

5 black olives, sliced

Place all salad ingredients in a large bowl or lay out on a platter

For the dressing:

In a small glass jar, shake together:

2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar

4 tablespoons olive oil

1/8 teaspoon jarred mustard

2 teaspoons brown sugar

2 pinches cumin

Taste-test the salad dressing using a piece of fennel. If it’s to your liking, pour the remaining dressing over the vegetables.