A personal tale of two mothers, & a stuffed lemon appetizer

As mother’s day is upon us, I wanted to share a personal story, go down memory lane with you here.

Before I do, I would like to wish all moms out there a wonderful, joyful Mother’s Day, where all that you do and all that you are is acknowledged and celebrated. Starting with my own mother, whose influence, support, love and help are still invaluable and precious today as they always were, and who is as giving and loving a grandmother to Pablo as she was a mother to me.  Bonne fête des mères, maman.

From about the age of 4 until 22 (at which time I came to live in the United States), my mother and I celebrated Mother’s Day the same way: I would cook a meal for her.

But not just any meal. A six course lunch with a cold and hot appetizer, a fish dish, a meat dish, cheese and dessert, including the most complicated recipes I could get my hands on, on which I worked for several days to plan and pull off.

I was raised alone by a single mom, who worked very hard, out of town most of the week, for most of my childhood. So the times we did have together were very precious, and my principal motivation throughout my childhood was to do whatever I could to make my mother happy.

Thinking back on this tradition we had for so many years, perhaps because of being a mother myself now, I have come to think of my young self almost as a different person. As the child that I was. With more understanding, and more empathy than before. Children do what they need to do to fulfill their needs, and they are incredibly resourceful in doing so. And as it turns out, this need to make my mother happy and proud, was in part how I learned how to cook. I have no formal training, I never took cooking classes, what I know about cooking comes from my mother cooking for and with me whenever she could, taking me to fine dining restaurants and giving me a love of gastronomy, and from those 18 meals I cooked for her on Mother’s Day.

For a number of years, I had enlisted two other children, who also had a single mom, to embark on this adventure with me, and I am so thankful to them for putting up with me then, as it makes me laugh today how pushy and bossy I was! This was cooking bootcamp! I had sheets of planning, cooking durations, shopping lists, task lists, to-do lists etc. We would barely eat all day (we would not sit down to eat with the moms, but served them restaurant-style).

Very fortunately, the cookbook I used the most for those meals somehow followed me through the continents and years, and flipping through it now, what astounds me is the complexity of the recipes I chose, especially given the fact that we had no Cuisinarts or blenders or even hand mixers at the time. It was three kids, a tiny kitchen with basic equipment, and a very tall order.

I found post-its with definitions of things like a sieve, caramelizing and flambeing… The book was divided into recipes for family meals, casual get-togethers, healthy meals, “reception meals”, with the level of complexity. I would of course exclusively pick recipes from “reception meals”, preferably with 3 or 4 complexity marks. So what are some of things I made? Here’s a sample, just for fun, because I am astounded today at how ambitious I was… Fish soup with lumpfish roe, stuffed leg of lamb en croute, Cornish game hens in a champagne sauce, pike quenelles… you get the idea.

The stuffed lemon recipe I am sharing here is the only recurring recipe I made for my mother as an apéritif to the Mother’s Day lunch.

I recall one year in particular, I was on my own, probably about 7, when the recipe called for homemade fish broth. Per the instructions on the recipe, I had asked the fishmonger to give me fish bones to make the broth. But as fate would have it, the fish bones were way too big for the pan I had. And very hard. Being unsuccessful even after going at them with a hammer (!), in desperation, I had to ask my mother for help. (I can imagine her in the living room, being forbidden entry in the kitchen, wondering what I was doing in there with a hammer!)

Writing this, I suddenly fear the post might come though as bragging. Actually, this is a post of healing for me, a way of treating myself on Mother’s Day; and one of gratitude for my mother.

First, it is an homage to the amazing trust and freedom my mother left me, to do this on my own for her, not trying to control, letting me learn, problem-solve… I remember she would give me really supportive, constructive criticism and praise. She would be honest about what dish she preferred and why. This benevolent trust and support ultimately taught me to be resilient (in the face of large fish bones and other life trials:-)), it gave me confidence. She let me do my thing, let me be myself, and this was such an enormous gift.

And then, I am suddenly overcome with emotion, as I think of myself trying so very hard. Because the other part of this post, is being able to tell the little girl that I was, the lonely, but resourceful little girl that I was: you did good. You are enough. You are worthy of love and connection. With or without the six course meal.

We learn from hardships and wounds. That’s just evolution, I suppose. And children shouldn’t feel their parents’ happiness depends wholly on them. But even though much sadness and loss goes with that burden, it taught me a lot. It made me who I am today. It gave me the love of nurturing, an ability to be attuned to others’ needs. It made me a better parent.

And it gave me cooking. It always gets back to that these days, it seems. Cooking was my resource, a quiet friend always standing by me, an old companion in my childhood quest to bring joy, to give myself, to be loved and valued.

In the past year, I have explored cooking in many new ways I had never seen before. I have loved sharing with you here the invaluable life lessons to be learned and taught in the kitchen and at the table. Yet still today, these many years later, an ocean away, cooking remains my dear old companion.

To bring joy. To give myself. To be loved and valued.

Interestingly, I’ve just read an article on the value of learning how to cook very young, and I am certainly very lucky and grateful that I did acquire a love of cooking at such a young age. And I’m thrilled to pass on this gift to Pablo, who is already excited about cooking (unsurprisingly, as so much of our daily life revolves around cooking!)  He’s already told me today he wants to make “Pacho!” again, i.e. Gazpacho. We made this one together a couple of weeks ago, and this is a perfect dish to make with a toddler. He washed the tomatoes, broke down the watermelon, poured the oil in the blender, watched it whirl. He had a blast.

I wanted to leave you with a recipe and a menu…  This recipe for tuna-stuffed lemons is very easy, and a great recipe for a child to make. Remaking it for the first time in years for this post, I found myself filled with sense memories. Emptying the lemons, I remembered feeling the same sting on the picked skin around my fingers. Mashing the butter, tuna, lemon pulp together, I remembered the feeling of that texture.

It is a very simple, tasty refreshing appetizer, with a fun festive presentation.

As you probably have gathered, I will be cooking a Mother’s Day lunch on Sunday, side by side with my mother and my son. Except this time, I will be sitting down to enjoy it too. Because cooking (and eating) makes me happy and brings me great joy. As does celebrating with the people I love.

As our family is a mix (among other things) of Spanish, Greek and French roots, I wanted to honor that in our menu, with some added fun little things too…

Mother’s Day Lunch

Chickpea feta cilantro salad

Seafood paella

Cheese (you know, being French and all…)

Chocolate soufflé, homemade raspberry rhubarb mint ice cream

~~~

Stuffed lemons

Serves 4 people

Prep time : 15 min
No cook time.

Age for babies: 10 months and up

4 lemons
1 can of wild albacore tuna, in water (drained) (Sardines are also an option)
3 tbsp butter, room temperature (or in microwave for 12 seconds)
1 dozen pitted green olives, chopped
1 pinch of piment d’Espelette (optional, or Cayenne pepper)
Salt & pepper
2 tbsp of minced chives
Microgreens for garnish

Cut off the lemons’ hats, and cut a little bit of the lemon at the foot, so it can stand on its own.

With a spoon, empty the lemons out, placing the pulp and juice in a bowl. Make sure to keep the lemon shell intact. Use your hands to peel off the skins inside the lemon. Doesn’t have to be perfect.

Pour the lemon contents through a fine strainer, reserving the lemon juice. Remove all the seeds, and thick skins, until you are left with just the lemon pulp.

With a fork, mash down the tuna, add the softened butter, then the lemon pulp. You can use your finger to mix it thoroughly. Add the chives, the olives, salt, pepper and piment d’Espelette. Taste, add a few drops of lemon juice if needed. (If not, keep the lemon juice for other use, vinaigrette for example.)

Spoon the mixture inside the lemons. Keep in the fridge until serving.

Serve on a plate or bowl with some microgreens for garnish, maybe a few extra olives or cherry tomatoes.

Fish appetizer plate

These days I am very concentrated on work. I am trying to get together a job market paper for when I will be looking for a job this summer and I am loosing pieces everywhere. I am just not able to retain any info that is not job market paper related. It’s like living in a daze in which days go by and I have not managed to get anything done other than worry about job market paper.

Even cooking has taken a bit of a back step. I am still eating at home mostly, so I throw stuff together, but is never something well thought out or planned. And a lot of times I feel in a daze even when I am cooking, forgetting stuff on the stove or not getting to cooking until well past 8.

So when guests come over, I have to throw something together that doesn’t involve cooking too much, having a well stocked fridge but it is still somewhat reminding them of the fact that I am a decent cook. So this weekend I threw together a fish plate for an appetizer.

I used stuff from the pantry. Herrings from IKEA, sardines and anchovies preserved in olive oil from the middle eastern store and homemade pickled cucumbers. If you are a bit better at planning than me, you could also make some cured salmon and pumpernickel bread to go with the plate.

But, trust me, even if it is just stuff out of a jar, your guests will be impressed!

Fish plate

Ingredients

    • Anchovies
    • Pickled herrings
    • Pickled herrings with mustard sauce
    • Butter
    • Sun dried tomatoes
    • Preserved sardines

Pickled cucumber

  • 1 cucumber
  • 2 tbsp sugar
  • 1 tbsp vinegar
  • chive

Directions

  1. Prepare the pickled cucumber. Thinly slice the cucumber and mix it with the sugar, the vinegar and the chive. Let rest for 15 min or so.
  2. Get a nice platter and artistically arrange your sardines, anchovies, herrings, tomatoes and cucumbers.
  3. Cut the butter in flakes and add to the platter with a bit of chive.
  4. Serve to your guest with crackers, instructing them to have the butter with the anchovies, the tomatoes with the sardines and the herrings with the cucumbers.

Tasty Tyropita (Cheese puffs)


Tyropita are delicious Greek pastries made with feta or ricotta cheese (or a combination of both) wrapped in layers of buttered phyllo. Tyropita are great as a snack or as a side dish for lunch or dinner, although in Greece they are usually eaten as a breakfast food. What I love about tyropita is that you can make a large batch and then freeze them. Take some out of the freezer about 40 minutes before dinner, pop them in the oven, and you’ll have a wonderful side dish for the family meal.

Here is Eva’s recipe for tyropitakia. She uses both feta and ricotta cheese, but if you like it a little more salty use only feta cheese. Enjoy!

Ingredients:

  • Half a pound of feta cheese (about 2 cups)
  • 500 grams of ricotta cheese
  • Half a pound of butter (or you can use margarine)
  • 3 eggs
  • A quarter tsp of black pepper
  • Parsley (optional)

Preheat your oven to 325 degrees.

In a large bowl, mix the feta, ricotta, eggs, and black pepper with your hands.

Remove the phyllo from the package, carefully unwrap it, and lay it flat on your counter. Place a slightly damp cloth over the phyllo to prevent it from drying out.

Place your butter in a small bowl and it microwave until softened. Get out a brush and butter a large pan.

Cut the phyllo into 3 or 4 long strips. Take out one pile of strips and cover the rest of the phyllo with your cloth.

Take one strip of phyllo and lightly butter it. Add another layer of phyllo and butter that too. Now drop a spoonful of the cheese mixture at the bottom of the long strip. Fold the phyllo in triangles.

Once you have finished folding each piece, butter it and place it on the pan.

Repeat until you have finished with the cheese mixture and the phyllo.

Once you are finished place the pan in the oven for about an hour (at 325 degrees)

And viola! You have delicious tyropitakia for you and your family.

Delicious Dolmathes (Stuffed Grapevine Leaves)

Dolmathes, also known as stuffed grapevine leaves, are a Greek specialty. There are many different variations of this dish, depending on the region of Greece. Some prepare it with an avgolemono (egg and lemon) sauce, others prefer a tomato sauce. Some Greeks cook the dolmathes in a pan in the oven, while others prefer to cook the dolmathes on the stovetop. In this recipe Eva shows us her unique way of preparing this classic Greek dish.

For the Dolmathes:

  • ½ pound of ground beef
  • 1 medium onion (chopped)
  • ¼ cup of chopped parsley
  • ¼ cup of chopped mint
  • 1/3 cup of chopped dill or anise
  • 1 egg
  • 3 tablespoons of olive oil
  • Juice of half a lemon
  • ½ cup of washed and strained uncooked rice
  • 1 tsp of sea salt
  • 1 tsp of black pepper
  • 20-30 grapevine leaves

For the lemon sauce:

  • 1 tablespoon of flour
  • Juice of half a lemon

To begin you need to blanch your grapevine leaves. Some grocery stores sell jars of preserved grapevine leaves, but if you are using fresh leaves you need to blanch them by placing them in a pot of boiling water for about 2-3 minutes then rise with cold water and pat dry.

In a large bowl mix together the ground beef, onion, parsley, mint, anise, egg, olive oil, lemon juice, rice, and salt and pepper.

Once you have mixed these ingredients well you may begin rolling your dolmathes. Place your grapevine leaves face down (smooth side down) on your countertop. Place a ½ teaspoon of mixture at the top of the leaf and roll the leaf by folding in the sides and rolling downwards. Roll the leaves tightly. Repeat until all the mixture has been used up. After you have finished rolling all of the dolmathes, pour about 1 teaspoon of the olive oil in a medium size pot and place your dolmathes (with the seam side down) in the pot. Put the pot on medium heat and let it cook for 2-3 minutes.

In another small pot, bring 2-3 cups of water to a boil. After the water has come to a boil pour it over your dolmathes. Place a small heat-proof plate over your dolmathes and close the lid. Turn the heat down to a light-to-medium heat and let it cook for about 45 minutes. Once it has cooked, remove the dolmathes from the pot and place on a serving plate. Be sure to keep any remaining juice to make the sauce.

To prepare the lemon sauce, mix 1 tablespoon of flour with half a cup of water. Add the juice of half a lemon to the leftover dolmathes juice. Add the flour mixture to this and whisk the mixture well. Let it come to a boil for 1-2 minutes until it thickens. Strain the mixture as you pour it over the dolmathes. Garnish with lemon wedges and serve!

Eva’s Classic Greek Tzatziki Sauce

Tzatziki is a popular Greek sauce that is often used as a dip with pita bread or enjoyed with various types of meat dishes such as souvlaki and gyros. It is best made with yogurt, but if you prefer not to use yogurt you may substitute it for sour cream. Keep in mind that the yogurt needs to strain for about 8 to 10 hours, so it’s best to begin the preparation the day before you plan to serve it. Some tzatziki recipes call for a bit of chopped dill or mint, but in this video Eva shows us how to prepare her version of this delicious sauce.

1 tub of plain yogurt
2 cloves of garlic crushed
Half a cucumber
1 tablespoon of olive oil
a pinch of salt (or to your taste)
1 tablespoon of fresh lemon juice

To begin you need to strain the yogurt. Place a cheese cloth or a few sturdy paper towels on a strainer and place the strainer in a bowl. Scope out the yogurt into the strainer and allow the water to strain for at least 8 to 10 hours in the fridge. Once the yogurt has been strained, discard the excess water and place the yogurt in a medium-sized bowl. Add the crushed garlic to the yogurt. Peel the cucumber, slice it in half, remove the seeds, and shred the cucumber using a cheese grater. Squeeze out any excess water from the cucumber and add it the yogurt mixture. Add the olive oil, salt, and fresh lemon juice. Stir the mixture well. Garnish with an olive or a slice of lemon.

Enjoy!