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.