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.

bassinet
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

Purim

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

Ingredients
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
Directions
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.

An Apple (Cake) a Day

Last week the acupuncturist told me that apples are full of qi and that I should be eating one every single day. “Oh, that’s not a problem at all,” I quickly replied. “The CSA gives us pounds of apples every week, and I’ve been baking apple cakes pretty constantly this year.”

“We really need to work on your filter,” Rich observed, not for the first time, when I recounted the conversation. But it’s true, I’ve been on a bit of an apple cake tear. This gingerbread upside down cake with apples and bourbon cream by Sally Pasley Vargas might be the best apple cake I’ve ever had. Jess’ Teddie’s was another good one; we loved the walnut crunch. We each made a set of these apple chunk breakfast loaves from Liz. The second round was brought to my parents for Rosh Hashana for a nice breakfast cake. I think the apples she found at her shuk in Israel are much smaller than my stateside apples, because I could only squeeze in two per recipe, as opposed to her four. This one, also by Sally, was pretty good, although I think I’d reduce the cinnamon in the topping the next time. And this Dutch Apple Cake from last year is always a fine treat.

But I digress. Anyways, I’ve been following the acupuncturist’s advice all year long, and I’ve been feeling great, so I figured it’s best to do what she says.  I’ve incorporated a peeled apple (sans skin; better for my tummy) with some peanut butter in its core as part of my breakfast on most mornings, although I’m still on a constant lookout for new apple recipes.

So when the good people at Knopf asked me if I was interested in checking out Lidia Bastianich’s new cookbook that she wrote with her daughter, Tanya Bastianich Manuali, I immediately said yes. I think I’ve mentioned in the past how much I adore Lidia – her show on WGBH Create is one of the few cooking shows I watch, and I am a big fan of her Lidia’s Italy cookbook. Although, looking through my archives right now, I don’t think I’ve ever shared a recipe of hers with you. Strange, because I’m a huge fan.

When the new cookbook arrived, I did a quick read of the introduction and looked over the “100 Foolproof Italian Dishes, from Basic Sauces to Irresistible Entrées” in hopes of a new apple cake recipe to use up the bowlful on my counter. Sure, there was a strudel, and a roasted beet and beet greens salad with goat cheese, but the recipe that caught my eye was like none I’d ever heard of before: Spaghetti in Tomato Apple Sauce. We actually don’t eat a lot of pasta in this house, but the acupuncturist also did encourage the eating of deep red and colorful fruits and vegetables, so a dish involving bright red tomatoes and apples piqued my interest.

Lidia does note in the introduction to this recipe that the combination of the two might sound “odd,” but apparently in Tretino-Alto Adige, one of the most northerly regions of Italy which is known for its apples, this recipe wouldn’t be too surprising.

My back was feeling a bit cranky, so I assigned Rich the task of putting together this dish. (This actually served the dual purpose of keeping me off my feet, and seeing how well-written the recipe works for the kitchen novice.) The result? It was incredible. Honestly, one of the better pasta dishes I’ve had in my life.

We continued to cook our way through the CSA with this cookbook, enjoying the butternut squash in the marinated winter squash, and the chard melted ever so nicely when I braised it with tomatoes and cannellini beans. I think tonight I’m going to try out the Brussels Sprouts braised with vinegar for a new take on a beloved vegetable. (At least it is in our house.)

Spaghetti In Tomato Apple Sauce from Lidia’s Favorite Recipes: 100 Foolproof Italian Dishes, from Basic Sauces to Irresistible Entrees

One thing I noticed about this recipe was that it called for a food processor or blender to purée the tomatoes. I’m a big believer in the food mill, but it looks like Lidia has acknowledged that there is more likely a chance of a home cook having one of those two machines than an old-fashioned food mill. This shouldn’t stop you from purchasing a food mill. It’s almost winter time, and the persimmon pudding won’t make itself!

I would also suggest putting the pasta water on to boil before starting on the sauce. Big pots of water take a while to boil, even if you’re not watching them.

Ingredients

3 cups canned Italian plum tomatoes (preferably San Marzano)

6 Tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 large stalks celery, cut into 1/4 –inch dice (about 1 cup)

1 medium onion, chopped (about 1 cup)

1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more for the pasta pot

1 pound tart and firm apples, such as Granny Smith

1 pound spaghetti

1 cup freshly grated Grana Padano or Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, plus more for passing

Directions

Pour the canned tomatoes into a food processor or blender, and purée until smooth.

Pour 4 tablespoons of the olive oil into a skillet, set it over medium heat, and strew the celery and onion in the pan. Cook and stir the vegetables for about 5 minutes, until they wilt and start to caramelize. (Rich says this took a lot longer than 5 minutes.)

Stir in the puréed tomatoes, season with the salt, and heat to a bubbling simmer. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes or so. As the tomatoes perk, peel and core the apples, and remove the seeds. Shred them, using the coarse holes of a shredder or grater.

When the tomatoes have cooked about 5 minutes, stir the apples into the sauce. Bring the skillet back to a simmer, and cook the sauce, uncovered, for about 15 minutes, stirring now and then, until it has reduced and thickened and the apple shreds are cooked and tender.

Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a rolling boil, drop in the spaghetti, and cook until just al dente. Lift the spaghetti from the water, let drain for a moment, and drop it into the warm sauce. (Reheat if necessary.)

Toss the pasta with the sauce for a minute or two, until all the strands are coated and perfectly al dente. Turn off the heat, sprinkle the grated cheese over the pasta, and toss well. Drizzle over it the remaining olive oil, toss once again, and heap the pasta in warm bowls. Serve immediately, passing more cheese at the table.