comfort food


by Caroline

Our stay in Portugal was planned as a respite, a no-agenda, unscheduled interlude without a lot of sight-seeing. It’s not that Lisbon and Sintra don’t offer a lot to see, but we know that with kids you can only be a tourist for so long before rebellion sets in and you risk finding yourselves stuck in a relatively expensive vacation rental with children who refuse to do anything but lie on the floor and color (or worse). We’ve learned to pace ourselves so that everyone gets to see and do interesting things, everyone gets some down time, and no one gets (too) cranky. It’s not an exact science (nothing in parenting is) but we’re getting better at it every year.

So, we puttered around the house and garden. The kids drew and played with stomp rockets and practiced their headstands. I picked ruffly leaves of kale from under the laundry line and admired the amazing harvest of red peppers:

We didn’t hurry (well, except for the trip to the ER).

And that gave us all the more time to make baccala, which is pretty much the national dish of Portugal. Or I should say, it would have given us more time to make baccala, but in fact the meal arrived on the table without my input or participation at all. So while I would love to be able to share the recipe here, as well as pictures of how it all came together, would have loved to be part of the process, asking questions about how long to soak the dried cod, who taught her the recipe, how many variations she’s made or eaten, Ursula’s mother-in-law soaked the cod, and rinsed it and soaked it again until it was tender, starting a couple days before our dinner. Then she and Ursula pulled it all together, chopping onions, potatoes, parsley and olives.

It all happened in the background while the kids played and we relaxed. It gave me a wonderful sense of being cared for, which of course made the meal especially delicious. So while I can’t tell you how to make baccala, I can tell you that the soft and salty layers of salt cod and potatoes and onions, eaten at a table with family and friends, make for a most unexpected and wonderful comfort food. And I can tell you that it is the perfect meal after an afternoon scrambling over walls of a ruined 9th century Moorish castle — but you shouldn’t wait for an outing like that to eat it.

A Bad-Good Day

by Caroline

When my friend Ursula moved to Portugal for a year and said she had room for us all to come stay, I started looking into airfares. When she started posting pictures of Portuguese pastry on her website, I booked the tickets. She wrote me about her favorite pastry shop in Lisbon, and said we could stop in on our way home from the airport.

Now I happen to think that all food is stories, but the story behind Pasteis de Belem is a particularly good one, involving nuns and a secret recipe over two hundred years old.

There was no way I was missing a trip to this bakery. But our flight arrived too late in the afternoon to go out for what’s really a morning pastry snack, and besides, there was a medieval fair to attend. We kept the pastry shop high on the to-do list and went to bed.

Not many hours later, Ben appeared at the side of my bed. Before I could even think to curse the jet lag which I assumed had woken him, his face startled me wide awake. He was grimacing in pain, sweaty, crying. He clutched his left side and moaned as he crawled in next to me. I thought at first that he’d gotten sick from his candy apple dinner the night before, but he insisted it wasn’t his stomach, but a spot lower down, on the left. I flashed to countless readings of Madeleine and Tony googled “appendicitis,” which confirmed everything we were witnessing. I woke Ursula, and her husband drove us into Lisbon, quiet in the pre-dawn hours, to visit the pediatric ER.

And this is where the story suddenly improves. Not just because the walls of the ER were painted with a space theme that delighted my child, and not because the wonderful doctor addressed herself, in perfect English, directly to Ben as she examined him carefully, but because somehow his symptoms all disappeared. Two hours later, instead of sitting by a hospital bed while Ben recovered from an appendectomy, we were sitting in the just-opened, nearly empty Pasteis de Belem, enjoying a sleepy but amazingly delicious breakfast:

The pastry is like a cross between phyllo and pie crust, incredibly light, buttery and flakey, while the egg custard filling is light and not very sweet; the pasteis are served with shakers of cinnamon and powdered sugar (if you get the pastry to go, you’re given perfect little packets of the toppings). They look a little burned on top from being run under a broiler, which just caramelizes the sugar in the filling and gives the pastry topping an unexpected extra crunch. We ate plates full at the bakery, took more home to the rest of the family, and then resumed our vacation, just so grateful that we could.

after the ER

Home and Away

by Caroline

For the third summer in a row, people we love were in Europe, offering us a reason to visit and, even better, a place to stay. There is always a moment (sometimes quite a long moment) when, contemplating a trip like this (3 cities and 17 days), paging through guidebooks and counting up the number of restaurant meals, I wonder if we shouldn’t just stay closer to home: rent a beach house with family and friends, do more home cooking, spend less of the summer in museums. But I also know these opportunities aren’t going to come again, and I know we’re lucky that we can take advantage of them now. And we have become pretty adept at traveling in a way that minimizes the upheaval and maximizes family harmony and comfort (that is, we pack food). So for the third summer in a row, we counted our lucky stars, booked plane tickets, and packed our bags.

First stop: Sintra, Portugal, the small city outside Lisbon that Byron described as “glorious Eden,” and where my friend Ursula is living in a beautifully rambling home with her daughter, her Portuguese husband, and her mother-in-law. The house is perched on a hill surrounded by a big yard and lush gardens.

the neighbor's horses, grazing out the kitchen window

The boys quickly got used to the backyard chatter of chickens and geese:

feathered friends

And they learned how to use a familiar tool — the mortar & pestle — in a new way: to crack nuts. In the past, their nut-cracking has been with my dad, whose hickory nuts are so hard-shelled he starts them off with a good whack of the sledge hammer on the garage floor. Portuguese hazelnuts offer a much easier entry:

A familiar snack — yogurt with nuts and honey — was the perfect way to start our time away from home.

Moon Pies for Rocket Boys

by Caroline

It’s all about rockets in our house lately. The boys are reading about Apollo 11 and the other moon missions, drawing rocket pictures, building cardboard and foil rockets, and making plans for their future lives as rocket scientists.

I play along as much as I can, but my kids understand two fundamental things about me: I prefer stories to lists of facts (I refuse to read aloud from the encyclopedia at bedtime); and I’m always happier if there’s food involved. So, during this rocket time, we’re all happy reading Tony Di Terlizzi’s fun picture book, Jimmy Zangow’s Out-of-This-World Moon-Pie Adventure, about a boy who flies into outer space and gathers a year’s supply of moon pies.

And then, in one of those fabulous coincidences that occasionally strike, I realized the boys had never had a moon pie, and a magazine arrived with a recipe for them. It was fate. It was a sign. And it was also an excellent way to spend the first full day of summer vacation.

boiling the sugar

pouring the boiling sugar into the gelatin

whipping marshmallow (or, I Can't Believe I Let Eli Put the Camera So Close to the Goo)

one giant, messy marshmallow

melting chocolate

chocolate-coated graham crackers, awaiting their filling

The resulting moon pies really can’t be beat, but I did, at Tony’s suggestion, make one big change from the original recipe: slice through the marshmallows in half, horizontally, and you get 18 manageable moon pies instead of 9 that are so tall they won’t fit in anyone’s mouth. Make sure to keep a big bowl of cold water handy, both while you’re pouring the boiling sugar mixture into the gelatin (in case of accidental burns) and while you’re spreading and later slicing the marshmallow: if you dip your spatula and knife blade in the cold water, it won’t stick. And then, invite some friends over to share the snacks.

mmm, moon pie

Farm Morning

by Caroline

Henry James famously wrote that “summer afternoon” were the two most beautiful words in the English language, but to me, the words “farm breakfast” are equally sweet and evocative. They make me remember childhood Saturday mornings spent rereading Farmer Boy‘s descriptions of maple sugar pancake stacks, or my mom’s stories of summer mornings on her uncle’s dairy farm, where breakfast often included leftover peach or strawberry pie with soft whipped cream. “Farm breakfast” means fresh, abundant, filling.

When we were in Illinois last month, friends mentioned that a local farm puts on a regular Saturday breakfast; maybe we would be interested in going? Yes, we would! And so we made our way to Prairie Fruits Farm, where they raise goats and fruit, for a lovely breakfast of goat milk and goat cheese goodies: strata with chard, caramelized onions and goat cheese; walnut spice coffee cake; lemon cake; Mexican hot chocolate made with goat milk.

Somehow I failed to get any pictures of the food (or even the menu), but trust me when I say it was delicious, and afterwards we spent plenty of time outside thanking the goats: