For 50 years, I've been in the thrall of women who cook. When I was a little girl, my mother strapped me into a highchair while she fed me lunch and watched Julia Child. Julia's voice must have settled into my unconscious, because I've spent most of my life looking to women to tell me how to cook. In high school and college, I read almost every word Laurie Colwin and MFK Fisher wrote, then moved on to the funny, soothing words of Darina Allen, Lisa Fain, Nigella Lawson and Julia herself. These women will teach you how to cook, and through their no-nonsense, thoughtful, attitudes towards life, they will also teach you how to cope. Tucked beneath their recipes, essays and stories are subtle messages: This is how you cook for a spouse. This is how you cook for a lover. This is how you cook for a child. This is how you cook for a dinner party. This is what you cook for a funeral. This is what you cook when your heart is broken. Make one thing for yourself in the kitchen every day and you will bring yourself joy. All these women and their wisdom keep me company in the kitchen and in life.
That said, I live in a house with men, specifically, two teenage boys and one husband. I grew up with a brother who now has three teenage boys of his own. My husband has two brothers and his five first cousins are all men. Other than the four years I went to Wellesley, I've spent most of my adult life living with men. Sometimes this is wonderful, and sometimes it makes me want to scream. I teach a writing workshop in the city that is blessedly all women, but when I come back to New Jersey, I go back to living with men---which is probably why I keep running to take cooking classes with women.
Last week was a case in point. We went to pick up our almost 15-year old from sleep away camp. When kids come home from camp, they behave as if they have just returned from a moon landing. They go through withdrawal, wander around in a daze, morosely stare at their phones and wonder what their camp friends are doing. The remedy is to invite the camp friends over right away. At camp pick-up, I asked my son's friend's parents if their son wanted to come to the beach with us. Three days later, he arrived by train. Off we went to the Jersey Shore. Me, and two teenage boys.
I was willing to do this because we have a nickname for my son's camp friend. He is "Best Guest." I love this kid. He likes my cooking and he makes his bed without being asked. Plus, he is helpful. After I had yelled at my son for 15 minutes to load his bag into the car, Best Guest was the one who finally hauled my son's duffle downstairs and brought it outside. Once we got in the car, he said, "Remember last year, you made that creamed corn? That was really good." Oh, my beating heart. How could I not want to spend time with this kid and my son at the beach? I would read, write, walk the dog, and stare at the bay. They would talk, text, sleep 'til noon, then pretend to walk the dog so they could sneak off to the deli and slurp diet Cokes. We would all be happy.
But after a 35-minute rest stop on the Garden State Parkway, during which they disappeared into the bathroom and didn't answer my calls or texts while I sat in the hot car with the gassy dog, I started to get cranky. When we finally arrived at the beach, the boys disappeared into separate rooms, turned on their laptops and slammed their doors shut. It was 3 o'clock in the afternoon. Sunny and beautiful, one of those days when your mother might have said to you, "The weather is absolutely glorious. Don't you dare stay inside."
"Don't you want to go outside?" I shouted to the walls. Silence.
That's when I realized I was really alone with them. What the hell had I done? There were no women around, and none coming. I unpacked the groceries, put away the laundry detergent, and went back into the kitchen. (The fact that I was staying inside the house, just like my son and his friend were, didn't occur to me.) Whenever I am slowly -- or rapidly -- freaking out, I station myself in the kitchen. I had a stack of recipes from my friend Karina, a nutritionist and cooking instructor. Seven of us had gathered to take her class. One woman was diabetic. Most of us were gluten-free. A few were avoiding dairy. One woman was in her twenties, the rest of us were fiftysomething. The one thing we had in common was that we were all working our butts off not to grow out of our pants. Karina had put together a menu of vegan summer salads and desserts. She whipped up berry smoothies with hemp and chia seeds, cold zucchini soup with coconut water, made "no bake" energy bars with fresh dates and almond butter, and assembled a fantastic quinoa salad with blueberries, grapes, peaches and sunflower seeds. Everything was delicious. But my favorite thing was the dish she made first, which was also the simplest: Lime avocado mousse.
I know the world is divided into two groups of people: Those who think that avocado and raw honey make great vegan substitutes for cream and sugar, and those who don't. I'm in the former category. I love Karina's chocolate avocado mousse. Some people find the combination of chocolate and avocados disgusting. I find it divine. Karina knows what she's doing. Her recipe for lime mousse called for limes, avocados, coconut oil, raw honey, sea salt and shredded coconut. I got busy.
Eventually, Best Guest wandered upstairs. "Do you want some lime mousse?" I asked. "Sure," he said. I spooned some into a bowl. He ate it and nodded. "I think it may be too sweet for me. But it's good." He looked apologetic. I didn't even ask my younger son, who wouldn't eat lime mousse if you paid him.
When my husband walked into the kitchen the next day, I offered him a spoonful. "What is that? Some kind of guacamole?" He shook his head no. I ate his spoonful. Wow, that mousse was fantastic, an electric combination of sweet and sour. I finished the entire bowl standing over the sink. But life is not just about stuffing yourself silly, alone in the kitchen with the desserts you've made. (Actually, it is, but I try to mitigate that instinct from time to time.)
I had packed a bunch of peaches, nectarines and plumbs, which had ripened quickly in the back of the car. I had another recipe leftover from a cooking class I had taken with Kathleen Sanderson last summer. When I took Kathleen's class, I was still using sugar and butter with abandon. I would take one for the team. I would make a decadent, old-fashioned fruit cobbler for the men.
Of course, I gave Best Guest the first plate. "This is good," he said.
"This is incredible!" my husband said. I was sitting outside, reading with our dog, trying not to be tempted by the cobbler inside. I looked up. The dog had wandered off.
"Can you go find her?" I asked.
"I can't," my husband said. "I have to get some more of this cobbler."
I went inside. The scent of that cobbler was intoxicating. Even though I was trying to eat virtuously, trying to ignore food that would turn me into a stout, middle-aged lady, the siren song of butter and sugar was too powerful. I had sliced the fruit, rolled out the biscuit dough. Couldn't I taste the cobbler? Try and stop me. The buttery biscuits and the warm, soft fruit tucked beneath were scrumptious. There's a reason people bake with butter, flour and sugar.
This is one of the easiest fruit cobblers you will ever make. Men love it. Women do too.
Key Lime Mousse (adapted from Nutrition-365.com)
3 ripe avocados, peeled and pitted
1/4 cup shredded, unsweetened coconut
1/4 cup raw honey
1 1/2 tablespoons coconut oil in liquid form (put in microwave for 20 seconds)
1/4 cup freshly squeezed lime juice
1 tablespoon lime zest
Pinch sea salt
In a food processor fitted with the "S" blade, or a high-speed blender, combine all the ingredients except the lime zest. (If you don't have a food processor, mash the avocados up with a big spoon.) Add in lime zest and blend until smooth, stopping to scrape the sides if necessary.
Pour mousse into individual containers. Freeze for 1 to 2 hours. Garnish with lime zest and/or shredded coconut, if desired.
Seasonal Fruit Cobbler (adapted from Kathleen Sanderson)
1.5 quarts (6 cups) seasonal fruit -- I used peaches, nectarines and plumbs (sliced and pitted)
1/2 cup sugar
1/6 cup cornstarch
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1/2 tablespoon lemon zest
*Biscuit topping (see recipe below)
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Combine fruit in a large stainless steel or glass bowl. Mix together sugar and cornstarch. Add sugar mixture, lemon juice and zest to fruit and toss to coat thoroughly and dissolve sugar mixture.
Lightly butter a Pyrex style casserole. Pour fruit into casserole. Top with biscuits (6 in all) and bake in preheated oven for 25-30 minutes, until fruit is bubbling and biscuits are golden brown.
1 1/8 cups flour, divided
1-2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 stick butter, softened, cut into 1/2 inch chunks
1/2 cup buttermilk or sour milk (to make buttermilk, use the ratio of 1 tablespoon lemon juice to 1 cup milk)
Combine 1-cup flour, sugar, baking powder, soda and salt. If you have a food processor, mix it up in that. (I didn't have one so mixed it all by hand.) Add butter and combine until flour resembles course meal. Add milk all at once and pulse just until dough forms. Turn dough onto floured surface.
Lightly knead dough with remaining flour. Roll dough out into 1/2-inch thickness and cut into desired shapes with a cookie cutter or a small shot glass. (I didn't have a cookie cutter so took small balls of dough and flattened them into small, flat pieces.) Top the fruit with the biscuit dough.*
* You can also use this dough to make shortcake.
For more recipes from Karina, go to www.nutrition-365.com.
Laura Zinn Fromm is the author of Sweet Survival: Tales of Cooking & Coping, published by Greenpoint Press, available from Amazon, BN.Com, Words Bookstore, Watchung Booksellers, Parnassus, Bookworm, Book Passage, Bloomingdale's and Canyon Ranch.