by Tori Klein:
Cooking is my salvation. It resets me. Calms me. Fires up all my mom genes and gives them an outlet. It is there for me when I need it most. So, on one fateful Sunday early this summer, when I found a lump on my dog’s calf and found out shortly after that it was cancer, first I bemoaned the sorry saga of my summer, but quickly realized that I had to refocus my heartache and worry before the inevitable rabbit hole slide into darkness pulled me in.
I reached out to my friend Deirdre and to my former student intern, Leah—both new moms. I knew they were incredibly weary as all new moms are. I asked if they were hungry and if I could I cook for them. Both confessed they weren’t really that hungry, but they definitely had no interest in cooking, and they knew they needed to eat. So yes, they’d love it. What new mom should have to cook anyway?
I set to work. I had ground turkey, beef and pork, as well as ripe plums and bananas. So Leah got first pick since her baby came first—beef/pork or turkey? Meatballs, Meatloaf, or Bolognese? “Turkey Bolognese,” she said happily. Done. Plum torte or banana pudding? “Banana pudding,” she drooled. Done.
Deirdre would get the beef/pork mix, and I knew immediately what she’d want. A year ago she asked me for a recipe for Swedish meatballs. So I forged ahead and let her know I’d be coming by that evening with dinner.
Once you have a plan, you need to get organized. It made sense to me to make the banana pudding custard first so it would have time to cool, and then get the Bolognese going, since it’s best when made low and slow. Once it was on and simmering, I got started on the Swedish meatballs, taking them all the way to finish with sauce. Lastly, I would make the plum torte then assemble the banana pudding while the torte was in the oven.
I realized I only had gluten-free noodles in the house, so I also allotted time to do a quick run to Whole Foods for good pasta for both dishes. Once back, I’d cook the pastas, package the dishes, feed my dogs, and then hit the road. My goal was to be able to deliver the dishes to the moms while they were warm enough to eat upon delivery and have enough time to hug and kiss on the little ones and get caught up on my new moms’ lives.
With a plan of action, I hunkered down.
I have a huge collection of cookbooks. But I didn’t have time for the luxury of getting lost in that rabbit hole either. So, my go-to on the web is Epicurious. That doesn’t mean I will follow the recipes exactly (that’s why I’m not a good baker), but when it comes to cooking, I know how to riff—I can read a recipe and know where I need to tweak it, and usually my instincts are spot on.
There were a couple of recipes in Epicurious that I thought might work, but I chose this one from New Orleans (source matters, people). After a quick scan of ingredients, I was covered—woops, cornstarch? Ugh. None in the pantry. And I couldn't for the life of me remember which or how I’d have used it all. So a quick google of pudding recipes that use flour put me on the right path again. I subbed this custard for the one in the Epi recipe and got started.
One of the tips I picked up quickly from one of the reviews was to amp up the banana flavor. But instead of adding liqueur to the recipe, I mashed up two super-ripe black-skinned bananas—perfect for pudding—and added them to the custard, done and delicious! A touch of lemon juice prohibits browning and doesn't overpower the banana flavor, merely enhances it. Into the fridge it went to cool down.
There were only two recipes that popped up on Epi for turkey Bolognese, and neither were actually turkey Bolognese, so back to Google I went, knowing I could find a good source, and I did. God bless Martha! Martha Stewart recommended Emeril’s recipe on her show and it was solid: simple, few ingredients, and fattening, which both my new moms really wanted (since fat helps with breastfeeding), and I could amp up the nutrition by adding Great Lakes unflavored gelatin (collagen) into the broth, and instead of boxed stock, I could use my own bone broth that I make regularly.
Also, amping up the vegetables would be an easy adjustment that would increase fiber—something else new moms want. All organic—check. Time to start chopping. Onions, celery, carrots, garlic—classic mirepoix. It all came together pretty quickly with a sharp knife and good music.
Within minutes, I had a pot of vegetables happily sweating in a little evoo and a smidge of bacon fat. Don’t hate. Once I got the turkey browned and broken up, the herbs in, the tomato paste, and the broth, wine, and garlic, I let it simmer and turned my attention to meatballs, since I now had onions on the cutting board and the delicious scent of sautéing vegetables in the kitchen.
Want a great cheat? If you’re short on time, buy pre-prepped mirepoix from Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods and amp with additional chopped garlic and herbs.
Now it was time for Swedish Meatballs!
This recipe, also from Epicurious, is a four star, beef-pork winner. I could taste it as I read the recipe—it was just what I wanted. I’d had a friend and his daughter over for dinner earlier in the week, and they’d brought bread from our newest Italian restaurant in town, Esther’s Kitchen. They make the most delicious house-baked bread that had been lingering on my counter for several days since I try my best to eat gluten free. It would make amazing breadcrumbs and turn good meatballs into great ones. So into my processor it went.
Sautéed onions went into a pot, then once softened, into the pot with the beef-pork mixture, the spices, breadcrumbs, chopped parsley, and eggs. To keep them uniform, I used a 1 oz scoop to measure them out and then rolled them into balls. I browned them in three batches, making sure to keep them a bit under since they still had to have time to cook further in the sauce—and again if they were reheated. Nothing worse than a rock hard meatball, so I had to be careful and stay focused—not moving on to another dish until all the meatballs were completed and resting on a plate.
After this task was completed, I needed a well-deserved break, so I ran outside, throwing clothes off as I ran, and threw myself into the pool. It was a 110-degree day so the pool was icy and refreshing. This is the real perk of cooking at home: a beautiful sunny summer day and a high-enough fence so as not to terrify the neighbors. Dried off and clothed, I returned to the tasks at hand.
I mentioned that I eat gluten free—always at home. I would like to say I do all the time when I’m out, but the reality is it’s impossible to not be ‘glutened’ or come into contact with it some way, some how. I’m so uninterested in the whole food issue conversation, truthfully, that I try my best to order and use information provided in the menu or discreetly ask the server without it becoming a big deal at the table. As a chef’s wife, the fact that I have become celiac is one of the cruelest jokes of my adult life. But I digress . . . my point is, I don’t even have regular AP flour in the house anymore, I only have C4C (Cup 4 Cup), which is my go-to brand. It’s flawless, and it can be used cup for cup as a replacement in any recipe. I’ve never had it fail me. So I used it to make a roux that would serve as the base for my Swedish meatball sauce.
The browned butter mixed with the flour after browning and seasoning made a perfect thickener for the broth, and I decided to use labne instead of sour cream. Labne is a fermented kefir that is great for the gut.
Want a trick? You can use labne instead of sour cream, cream cheese, yogurt, crème fraiche, even mascarpone—think about how much space you’ll now have in your fridge if you keep these on hand, plus you get the gut benefits!
I knew this would work out well, it just needed a more umami—by adding a touch of fish sauce, more black pepper, and then the called-for cream. Now, it was ready for the meatballs to go back in and get their Swedish on. Redolent with allspice and nutmeg, they turned out great and were tender and juicy and would survive a hit from the inevitable microwave, which I hate, but I knew was in their future. #newmoms #millennials
A quick clean up of the kitchen, cutting board and utensils, and I was ready to tackle two more projects. The banana pudding recipe called for grinding up the vanilla wafers and toasting them in butter in the oven. That was a quick project.
Then another clean out, and I turned my attention to the plum torte. This is Marian Burros’ legendary plum torte, which became famous in the New York Times recipe section in the 80s when readers fell in love with it and demanded that it be reprinted every year in some form from 1983 til 1995. After that, the food editor told her readers that that was it, they’d better laminate it and keep it on their fridge . . . thank God for the Internet.
It’s super simple and it always works making baking idiots like me look like bloody geniuses. I am not over exaggerating. Even for folks who don’t like plums, this dish is transcendent both for its use of the perfect summer fruit that is always underutilized and underappreciated and for its use of the food processor—which makes it even simpler. The hardest thing about the dish is having the fruit on hand, making sure they’re not too ripe, and then slicing them in half and removing the stones. Yep—that’s the hardest part.
Cleaned processor at the ready, in went the sugar and flour (yep, C4C works just fine here too), you just blitz until the butter and sugar are incorporated and the mixture is light yellow, smooth, and creamy. In go the egg, salt, vanilla (homemade), the flour and baking powder, and a few more blitzes, and that’s it.
Simply pour the batter into a buttered spring form pan, and put the halved plums on top in concentric circles, skin side up, and lightly dust with cinnamon, sugar, and a squeeze of fresh lemon juice. Into the oven it goes for an hour. That’s it—although some McConnell’s vanilla bean ice cream makes a pretty great bedfellow, and your guests or your new-mom friends won’t complain—trust me on this one. (Nor will the new dads.) The trick I share with all is something I learned from my Alsatian mother in law. Once cool, transfer the torte to a plate and keep it in the microwave. That way it won’t attract fruit flies and it stays delicious. And one last sell for this dish and why it’s great for new moms? Fiber. Remember plums become prunes. ‘Nuff said.
The turkey bolognese smelled great (a few stirs throughout the day kept it moist) as did the addition of cream and a bit more stock and an addition (not part of the recipe) of Calabrian chilies—which are simply to die for. Just a touch.
Before I could leave on my necessary noodle run, I had to clean up and properly store all my hard work, because my two Hungarian vizslas are quite adept at counter cruising and by adept, I mean professional! Abigail can even open the trash compactor. Never a dull moment at my house.
Once home, pastas are cooked in salted, boiling water, strained, and added to the respective sauces, packed and readied in bags for delivery. Banana pudding assembled, dressings made, lettuces packaged (I’ve made a last minute decision to add a fresh green salad for my moms) with homemade dressing (both tend to buy packaged which makes me gag . . . sorry, just honest).
Car gets loaded and I’m off—only to realize, I don’t have Leah’s address. How can that be? Oh right, her life has dramatically changed in the past 6 months. I text frantically from the garage and get an immediate response—enter it into Waze and I gasp. She’s 45 minutes away! I’d not anticipated that. I breathe and set off.
This is going to be a longer day than I thought, but Deirdre and her family live fairly close to me and they eat late, so I’m good. Vegas traffic is, in LA terms, a cakewalk. In Vegas terms, if you find out you’re heading to NW Las Vegas, it’s far, but to do that in LA would mean at least tripling the amount of time it takes, so I’m grateful! Today, I will finally get to sit down, hug her and her newborn, pet her dog—who’s bloody awesome I might add (that’s Brutus in the pics)—catch up on all she’s going through, and just listen to her.
My time with Leah and Baby Brendon (and Brutus) was precious. He was one month premature, so to see a baby with his neck strength was impressive. To have two newborns in my life is pretty amazing. And also triggering.
Not to be a Debbie Downer, but these women both know this is hard for me. My only child was stillborn at 8 months. So I don’t go to baby showers, although I broke my ‘rule’ for both of these moms because they mean so much to me, and because I thought it was time (14 years) that I begin to move forward.
They’ve been kinder to me than I’ve been to myself. They know I have a rule about no baby presents until the baby arrives. I’ll happily give the moms presents, but I just can’t give something to the babies until they come home. I know how hard it was for me to have a house full of lovely gifts when our child didn’t come home to enjoy them. I was forty-two and she would have been our first child. Two failed adoptions afterward, and more gifts to return, and I’ve earned my right to these boundaries.
So why do I share this? Because that’s what I do. These women both know my story. And they didn’t care if they got gifts in advance. They know I love them, and God forbid, had anything happened, I’d be their point person. I know what to do in the bad times, almost more than the good. Unless you’ve been through it, you cannot imagine. Interestingly enough, you’d think that would cast me in some sort of negative light . . . but Deirdre’s husband, without even knowing the story, was determined that I be his daughter’s godmother. He had no reservations. He is a proud man, and he wanted me—ME—ME! to be his first child’s, his daughter’s, fairy godmother (my term because that puts the focus on the fun).
I was beyond touched. Again, I digress.
So, I made it to Deirdre & Drew’s house by 8 pm. They teased me that they hadn’t finished the first meal I’d made them the night they came home from the hospital three nights earlier. Because I’ve been in and out of their home and hospital room since Friday, I knew I didn’t have to stay long.
All I wanted and prayed for was that they’d taste love.
Both moms seemed really happy when I checked on them that day. But Deirdre’s response was pretty great . . . lots of hearts and nom-nom-noms and in the process, she confessed her love for another dish I’d made for a dinner party that I was equally unsure of—and can you believe, it’s a dessert!? She said she didn’t even know she liked it, but still remembered eating it—that’s the kind of encouragement this cook needs when it comes to desserts.
Maybe I’m being too hard on myself. Maybe what ‘they’ say about getting outside our comfort zones is exactly what the doctor ordered.
Key lime pie, here we come!