Chef Paola

Comfort Food

In every hero’s journey, or in my case, heroine’s, there is a call to action.  There’s some problem to solve, some question to answer.

On Monday night, that call to action came once again in the form of Sofi asking, “Mami, what’s for dinner?”

So many times I’ve met that call with dread, anxiety and aversion.  Practically speaking, that call has been met by a Domino’s pizza guy or the sweet old Asian man who delivers regularly from Sushi Maki.

In the past couple of months, I don’t know that I have become a better “chef”.  That said, it is something just to recognize that I consider myself a “chef” in any capacity.  I definitely don’t feel compelled to cater parties, nor do I day dream about things like how I can incorporate rosemary or cumin into a dish.  What I have found, is that I can celebrate my family and my friendships. I can bring comfort and show affection.  I have found that with some courage, discipline and patience, I can define that role of “chef” for myself.  I can answer the paola

I began this challenge with so many strong and harsh feelings about what it meant to be a woman who cooks.  I held a contention that somehow made me feel more independent, more liberated more at ease.  In reality, I had made myself a slave to that idea. In the same way that any statement that begins with “I’m not the kind of person who…” is just a shackle, a delusion, a limitation.

So this week, when my sweet and hungry little girl presented me with the challenge, I knew how to respond. With my Wok, some rice, left over chicken, eggs and a few slices of deli ham, I was able to answer the call.

For years I’d look at my refrigerator as a vault of disappointment.  I saw things in three categories:  what I should eat, what I shouldn’t eat, and what is not edible.

Now, my relationship with my refrigerator has changed quite a bit.  Like a magician’s trunk, not only can I make a dinner happen when I’ve got hours to traipse about town buying this and buying that, I’ve learned I can make something out of seemingly nothing.

On Monday night, that something was Fried Rice with Chicken and Ham. It was the perfect mish mosh of comfort and creativity, it was the perfect meal to end this journey.

Originally I had imagined I’d make some big meal and host all my family and close friends.  I’d have it on nice tables and plates and the whole neighborhood would be filled with aroma of my delicacy.  But that’s not who I am.  I’m still a single mom who works a lot.  I’m still a single mom who wants to be more for my children and for myself.

That “more” doesn’t come in the form of showing anything off to anyone else.  It’s in the quiet moment within my heart when I hear

“Mami, what’s for dinner?” that instead of dread, I feel delight.

So I’ve reached the end of my 10 week experiment and what I want to do is offer up a reflection on what this venture has meant to me.  It’s so simple to say “10 weeks”, but I invite all of you to pause and look back on your own 10 weeks, or at least, let today mark the beginning of a new set of 10 weeks.  What I mean is, that of all the experimenting with ingredients, heat and appliances, the biggest gift hasn’t been all the gadgets I’ve collected or the spices and sauces that fill my cupboards and fridge.  The biggest gift has been my ability to see myself differently.

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Sous Chef Sofi

Sometimes there’s just no time.  Not in the exaggerated sense of, I could be doing something more productive, but instead I can’t miss the next episode of the Breaking Bad marathon.  Sometimes, you’re doing something productive.  Sometimes you are actually doing those things that the world deems valuable.  You’re working, creating, managing, making mergers, planning meetings, planning trips, writing business plans.  Sometimes you’re spending so much time planning and producing, you don’t get a chance to – live.

That’s how I felt this weekend.  The people closest to me know how I am.  I’m usually at my happiest and most miserable when I’m working.  It’s a complication of emotions that makes me a workaholic at times.  I tell myself to say yes to the new opportunity, to delete the old, rewrite the draft, record another take.  I had so much work to get through this weekend that I shut myself up in my room, alone with my iPad and a microphone to record my voice for an online seminar.  But I wasn’t alone in that room, really.  For one, I was in there with my cat Teela.  But more significantly, I was in there with my twin Capturedemons of hyper-perfectionism and abject slackerdom.

I found myself tangled in an emotional web that went back and forth about wanting to redo each take because I knew that just one more would make it sound so much better, would have that much more meaning and wanting to just hit “save” when I had barely gotten the words out correctly because I was so tired, so frustrated and especially, so hungry.

I had locked myself in my room with my ambition, plans and expectations, while the world I had already built and nourished was forced to be on the other side of that door.  I locked out everything I already loved in exchange for what I hoped to one day love.

Sofi and Max basically spent the weekend motherless.  It makes for a kind of guilt that I think is particular to us working single moms.  It was one of those moments where you make the decision to shut them out, leave them without your attention because you believe in your heart that you’re investing in the future you want to give them, the life you want to be able to provide.  It’s the kind of small, piercing decision that breaks your heart every single time.

So after having provided meals from frozen boxes all weekend in order to dedicate more time to my job, Sofi presented me with a challenge I couldn’t escape.

“Mami, my Spanish project is due tomorrow.  We have to take food. Remember?”

I hadn’t remembered.  In the midst of all the work, recording, writing, bill paying and life living, Sofi’s Spanish project had escaped my mind. But there was no way I was going to look into those beautiful round brown eyes and say anything other than

“Of course, I remember”.

Now what to do?  I had a deadline to meet, no time for the grocery store, no time to chop or prep.  Still, there was my little girl with a poster board full of all kinds of facts on Nicaragua. A poster board she had put together all week alone because her mom was working.  A poster board that with the most gorgeous crayon outlines and misplaced accents you’ll ever see. It was a poster board that was breaking my heart. And that poster board was going to get the food it deserved to get my girl her A!

After googling all the different and delicious dishes from Nicaragua that I’d never have time to make, I got up from behind my computer to get a drink of water and there on the right side of my kitchen counter, like some kind of appliance epiphany, sat the empanada maker!

Yes! They eat empanadas in Nicaragua!

Now in all honesty, I don’t know if it’s a fair representation of Nicaraguan cuisine, but to those big brown eyes holding that big white poster board of facts, the thought of having her hands in a bowl of guava and goat cheese was enough to make the room light up.

So that’s what we did – rather, that’s what SHE did.  She mixed the goat cheese, guava and olive oil.  She cheerfully laid out the empanada discs and filled and folded them.  She preheated the empanada maker, set the kitchen timer and safely completed her project.

“They look great!” she said.

“Yes they do” I replied.

After we wiped down the counters, wrapped the empanadas in foil and got everything ready for school the next day, I gave her a kiss and sent her off to bed.

I went off to my own room, reflected on how proud of her I was, how mature and independent she can be.  Then I quietly wiped the tears from my face and got back to work.


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Post-Love Love

Love is difficult.  When you’re really in it, you know how tough it is.  If you have a child, parent, sibling or spouse, you know exactly what I mean.  There are the moments of joy, excitement and pride, but a lot of the time you’re mostly loving while getting through the routine, often in the midst of a messy house while fighting about the bills, the car, or the shoes left by the doorway.

A lot of times, love just looks like quietly reading the paper while the little ones color, picking up the clothes from the floor or listening to the events of the day. A lot of time love doesn’t look like love much at all. But that’s when you’re really in it.

This week I found out my friend’s father is ill with cancer.  When he texted me a month ago that he wanted to talk, I wasn’t sure what it was all about.  We’ve been through so much, as friends, lovers, colleagues.  When he texted me I was so embroiled in making moves in my career that I didn’t want anything to distract me.  I didn’t want to be emotionally sidelined by whatever it was he had to say.

But then he said it. “I’m in town for a few days.  My father needs treatment.”

Even then, I felt the hesitation in my heart.  I did.  I wasn’t sure what that meant for him, but in the selfishness that where not supposed to admit to, I wasn’t sure what that meant for me.

I slept on it that night.  I let sleep be my meditation on what it meant to love someone and answer his call for comfort, solace, friendship –  even when you’re no longer iWokScallops_009n love.  The post-love love.

By the time you’ve reached your third decade of life, the post-love love becomes a bigger part of your life.  It’s the way you may react when you run in to your first crush or your grade school best friend.  It may be the way you react now to the guy who took you to prom or the best friend who took him from you.   It’s definitely the love you want to show the man who was once your husband and the family you once called in-laws.

Anyway, on Monday afternoon he called.  He was waiting while his father got radiation for his stage four throat cancer.  He wanted to watch the process he said.  He needed to see what it was like.

We briefly spoke about how the family was handling it, how the kids were all pitching in.  He’d have to fly in to Miami more often now to help with logistics.

I listened wondering, what is there to do?  What is there to say?  I grew up having known parents were mortal, but I realize that some of my friends are only learning this lesson now.  And just like I didn’t know what I needed to hear or what I wanted to say when I was 11, I didn’t know it now.

But when he mentioned his dad needed food, I thought, yes! This is how I can help.

I packed my wok, sauce pan and apron and headed over to his family’s home in Pinecrest.

Earlier in the day after perusing through the recipes site, his dad said he wanted Thai Style Seared Scallops with Coconut Milk.  So we made plans to head to Whole Foods to stock up for the evening’s meal and the rest of the week.

When we returned my friend, his sister and I got to cooking.  He patted dry the scallops, she lined up the plate with paper towels and got out the utensils I’d need.  I heated the wok, added the oil and butter and got to the business of cooking.

WokScallops_013We poured oil and salt on the asparagus and put it in the toaster oven.  We scooped the cooked rice and kept it warm in the oven.  We tested a scallop.  And then another.  And then one more.  I took a bite of an asparagus and fed him the rest from my fingers because in the midst of the synchronicity of creating, the mind gets lost and acts like it used to, like it once was.

When we were done, we sat down as a family to eat.  It wasn’t my immediate family.  It wasn’t even a family I had been in touch with closely over the last decade, but on that night, with the weight of everything they were about to face, we sat there and shared a meal.

My relationship with my friend doesn’t look at all like I had once imagined.  I’m not there as his girlfriend or fiancé.  But after so many years of back and forth, often insisting “never again”, sitting beside him, his mom, sister and father, we talked about work, TV shows and movies with ease.  It’s not the passion of the expectations I once used to harbor, but in this new way, after the heart breaks and mends, life really hits, and if you pay attention, it looks a lot like love.

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Little Sister

While it’s not always easy, I do love being a little sister.  It’s one of those conditions of life that doesn’t change no matter how old you are or how much you’ve accomplished.  I’m in my thirties, divorced and a mother, but to Alex and Javi, I’m still just their little sister.

Over the years being the only girl among the siblings has meant a lot days of watching the fun through the window, not always understanding the jokes and often being the butt of them. At times it has meant being the first one blamed or the last to know.

It did sometimes mean being the dummy when they were learning new wrestling moves.  And it meant wedgies, wet-willies and bathroom jokes.  It also meant never getting the remote or picking the radio station.

I remember often sitting on the sidelines while they played basketball or tennis.  I never got a chance to be the one in the driver’s seat or at the head of the table.

But it has also meant having someone, two rather, to always come to the rescue.

Being little sister has also comes with knowing someone would always walk me home from school or drive me to my best friend’s house.  It meant having someone to lay in bed to cry with on the day our father died.  It meant hearing “you’re not alone in this” when I broke the news of my divorce.09_21_ImusaSpinachOmelet_011

It still means I’ll never be alone on a holiday, even during the loneliest of seasons, because one or both of them will open their homes and their refrigerators to keep us all together.

Saturday was much like all of our family gatherings.  We were at my brother Javi’s house to celebrate my nephew’s birthday.  Javi is 15 months younger than Alex and 6 years older than 1.  In other words, Javi is the middle child.  As the middle child, Javi fulfills a special role.  He’s the call it like I see it, don’t try to full me, cynical wiseman.  He’s part Buddha, part Han Solo.  With a single lash of his wit he can reduce you to tears of shame or make you laugh until you cry.  Javi can be your most ferocious defender or your sharpest adversary.  So when I decided to plan a meal for one of my brothers, I chose to invite our older brother Alex and my sister-in-law Paula.  Maybe I’ll be ready for Javi in a few weeks.

Alex the quintessential big brother. He is smart, handsome and ambitious.  He is a lefty with great handwriting. He’s a great student and his own best teacher.  You’ll rarely see him without his shirt tucked in and he speaks to you with passionate sincerity about everything from barbequing to the Middle East.

The family had spent all day Saturday at Javi’s house celebrating my nephew’s birthday.  So much good food and wine was served that it was 8PM when something dawned on me…for the first time I wasn’t panicked in preparation for a meal!  It isn’t just because Alex and Paula are among the most gracious guests you’ll ever have, but because I thought, with confidence, it’ll turn out fine!

I almost couldn’t believe my own thinking.  Previously, when I hosted my friends and family, I spent hours scrutinizing the recipe trying to decipher the unmentioned appliances and utensils that are never written but are imperative, things like knives and bowls.  Previously I’d need to make time to cook the meal twice – the first one just to try and throw away!

Instead, I got home Saturday night, put the kids to bed and fell asleep confidently, even though I knew I had to make a 7AM grocery run in order to have everything ready by 10.

09_21_ImusaMultigrainFrenchToast_017I challenged myself to make BOTH the Spinach Goat Cheese Omelet and The Multigrain French Toast.  Naturally, I also had to make some with plain white bread for Max.

I got to Publix and moved through the aisles with surgical precision. I have already learned that pre-sliced bread is too thin for French toast and I knew where to go for two loaves, unsliced thank you very much.  I know now where the vanilla extract hides, so it was no big feat to find its cousin the almond extract.  The last thing I needed was chorizo, and to my delight, they sell it chopped!

By the time I got home it was after 8AM and I started with the French toast.  Among the many things I’ve learned (like a chef’s knife is always necessary), keeping the oven at 325 degrees allows you to put the final golden touch on many meals. I don’t like soggy French toast so I kept them warm there while I mixed the goat cheese, spinach and chorizo for the omelet.

I made the egg mix and poured it into the Imusa Sauté pan followed by the cheese, lowered the heat and covered.  After a while, I noticed it puffed up a bit and looked really delicious, but again my fear of a soggy middle got to me! So I pulled the French toast out of the oven, plated it, took the lid off the omelet, covered it with a cookie dish, flipped it and placed it in the oven to continue on to its golden goodness!

At 10 AM Alex and Paula arrived and we sat to breakfast with the kids.  They both really like the omelet, noting that it was way more flavorful than other “egg white” dishes they’ve had in the past (it takes tabasco).  Alex liked the Multigrain French toast so much he took the leftover home and I even bottled the guava maple syrup for him.

So after breakfast, we finished our mimosas and chatted.  Alex talked about cooking on the grill and Paula gave me advice on keeping chicken breast tender.  But I got so much more than practical advice from them, I got a chance to feed my brother and his wife.  For everything he’s done for me over the years, it seems like a small thing really – eggs and some toast – but trying to express what he means to me otherwise, well, that would be impossible.  As I continue daily to step into my own, not away from my brothers, but beside them, I know that I can show them some of what’s in my heart.  Even if it’s just one meal at a time.

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The Waiting Game

“She looked out the window her whole life, the way so many women sit their sadness on an elbow. I wonder if she made the best with what she got or was she sorry because she couldn’t be all the things she wanted to be… I don’t want to inherit her place by the window.” – The House on Mango Street

Sometimes my life feels like a waiting game.  Waiting for the alarm to ring, the dryer to finish, the kids to go to sleep.

There’s something else I often find myself anxiously waiting for and I’m just going to say it…I’m going to say the thing I’m not supposed to say.  I often find myself anxiously waiting for the Fridays when my ex comes to take the kids for the weekend.  I do.  I know.  I’m horrible.

I’m not always counting the minutes to pick-up, but sometimes, like this past Friday, I feel like a caged animal wanting a moment to go to the bathroom without having to conduct a conversation from the other side of the door. Those Fridays are also the same day I hire someone to clean the house.  It’s one of my suburban luxuries and one that I’m not ashamed of and for which I would (and have) sacrificed a lot.  I wait two weeks for this treat.

The weekend then becomes a whole other kind of waiting game. I wait for the gym to open, the mall to open, the party to start.  Sometimes I’m waiting for the weather to get better or the my phone to buzz with a text.  At times, waiting for the right person to walk into my life, to fall in love.

BuffaloChickenDumplings_017This weekend was different.  This weekend there were no happy hours, bars, or late dinners.  I didn’t go to the movies and I didn’t go dancing.  I didn’t wear heels or put on my contacts.  As a matter of fact, I think it may have been the first time in my life where I just spent my weekend all by myself.  I spent the weekend with the TV on Law and Order and on my iPad recording a voice over job.  I went from my bedroom to the kitchen to the family room with reckless abandon. I waited for no one and no one was waiting for me.

At times I got lost in my imagination and enjoyed thinking about the future I’m always waiting for.  At times I was lachrymose, remorseful of the futures I’ve given away.  At times I wondered how long I could endure this.  What if it was forever?  What if, this is what the rest of my weekends will be like?

The truth is that over the last four years I’ve made strides to find relationships or companionship at the gym or yoga, at clubs and bars and have found many empty nights and dead ends.  And I know it doesn’t seem logical, because companionship isn’t just going to walk through my door, but being alone feels like the only thing I haven’t tried.

Anyway, I stood in the kitchen Saturday morning, thinking that since it’s just me I could live of egg whites and Ezekiel bread all weekend…That I’d wait for the kids to get home so Sofi and I could start making the chicken dumplings she’s been dying to try. By now all the anticipation I had for wanting the kids to leave was replaced by the longing to have them back home.

It was while I was staring at the steamer that I recognized the flaw in my thinking.  Why am I always waiting?

It’s a habit of thinking I know too well.  Any time I’ve wanted to accomplish anything in my life, I’ve had to battle the demon of thinking I should just wait.  I’ve had to stop sitting around with my sadness on my elbow wishing things were different, and convince myself that I’m worth more than my current salary, partnership, weight.  Tonight, I had to struggle to convince myself I was worth more than a meal on a paper plate and reheated piece of chicken.

Just that morning I did two loops around US1 before I convinced myself that I was going to do my workout instead of waiting until later, and I had to convince myself that evening once again, that I don’t have to wait for anyone or anything to chop the garlic and the onion, dampen the dumpling wraps and make myself a beautiful meal.

I know there’s something that lies within me that worries if I get so good at being alone, that that’s how I’ll stay. I’ve put off being more independent, treating myself, and pushing myself for fear that no one will want to stand by me, much less share a meal.

Either way, I put out the spread, wrapped the dumplings, set them in the Bamboo Steamer and made myself a something special, something delicious.

About an hour later my ex and the kids arrived in time to taste them and share the meal with me.  Sometimes, I suppose you don’t need to wait, you just have to DO, and the people you love and the moments you need simply arrive.