Island Life (Featuring Fig and Fennel Bread, Hazelbeet Butter, Asparagus Basil Chevre Spread)
I don’t remember where she came from. She must have discovered my website online or found me through the American Private Chef Association “find a chef” webpage. It was late May of 2011, and I was floundering to find work. She sent me an email requesting information about my private cheffing services. She said her daughter was sick and she needed help.
A call to action! A sick child!! Of course, I would help. I would do whatever I could.
Being a free-lance chef is like being a gambler. Or a junkie. The adrenaline spike from the possibility of a new job is addictive. The insecurity of your daily work search disappears from your purview, replaced quickly by the potentiality of doing what you love the most in the world. Opportunity. Speculation. Anticipation. I’m hooked.
The client explained her predicament.
“My daughter is having a very difficult time.” She sounded young and had an Eastern European accent.
“I’m so sorry to hear that, ma’am. How old is she?”
“She is 15. She has had attacks, like seizure fits, and I’ve taken her to the doctor, and he’s recommended a special diet that I’m too busy to cook. We live on Staten Island, can you help us?”
At that time, I was living in Harlem, about as far from Staten Island as you could get in New York City. It seemed like a schlep and a half, but I needed the work, and I was impassioned to help this little seizing child and her desperate mother.
The daughter was being put on a ketogenic diet by the doctor. She normally ate a lot of pasta and dumplings but now was being starved of carbs and starches so that her body would start using fat as its only source of energy and produce ketones.
I read online that higher ketone levels often resulted in fewer epileptic seizures. The food would have to be weighed and monitored because the dietary switch of caloric intake from carbs to fats should remain the same. 1500 calories of full carb/ starch diet must now be 1500 calories of proteins, vegetables, and fats. I wasn’t sure I was right for this job, but it was fascinating to work on the menu development with the mother. She was truly invested in getting her daughter healthy, and I was learning a lot as a result.
We worked out a plan wherein, after the mother and I figured out what I would be cooking, she would shop for the ingredients on Staten Island. I would meet her at the station after my long subway and ferry journey, and she would drive me to her house. She would pay me for my travel time as well as my cooking time, and I wouldn’t have to worry about shopping for food without a car in a place I’d never been.
I arrived at noon onto the Island of Staten. I’d taken the ferry once or twice for fun, but I had never gotten off to look around. It was funny to be so close to New York but feel so far away. I hoisted my knife bag off the ferry’s wooden bench, threw my empty coffee cup in the trash, and walked to the parking lot. The mother waved to me from her blue Saab. She was tall and pretty with long dark hair and frosty blue eyeshadow.
“Welcome!” she said to me. “Have you ever been to Staten Island? I hate it here.”
Good to get right to the point, I thought. I liked her quite a bit. She was feisty and determined.
Her living room had a lot of wood paneling and one of the biggest flatscreen televisions I’d ever seen, but it was a nice suburban house. I spent my day in the kitchen, where the mother had carefully organized the ingredients for each dish into piles on every countertop. Most of the recipes had been provided by the doctor. I was cooking chicken soup: salmon borsht with coho salmon, beets, cabbage, and mayo; leg of lamb with lentils and cauliflower rice; spaghetti squash with beef ragu; French toast with blueberries. Wait, you say, French toast? But I thought there were no carbs allowed! This French toast was made with pork rinds ground down in a food processor to resemble breadcrumbs. It was then added to eggs blended with egg nog extract (?) and cinnamon and then fried like a pancake. I don’t think of pancakes as being “fried,” I’m quoting the recipe. You serve this “French toast” with a special sugar-free maple syrup. And fresh blueberries. I could only think the blueberries were thinking, “What the fuck is going on here?!? Are those pork rinds?!?”
As I finished ladling the chicken soup I had made into the designated Tupperware bowl; the daughter walked in from school. She was hardly the delicate epileptic flower I had created in my mind. She was your average 15-year-old– unwieldy, rebellious, awkward, standoffish.
“Time for your drink, dear!” the mother hollered as she poured a shot glass full of olive oil and handed it to the daughter.
I don’t have a poker face.
The mother looked at me and laughed.
“The doctor recommends she drink a shot of olive oil every day. It’s to help with the ketosis. It’s all going really well with this diet, especially now with your help!”
“It’s true,” the mother confessed to me. “She goes to her grandparents every weekend, and they order a pizza and get cake and ice cream.”
“BUT THE DIET WON’T WORK IF SHE EATS PIZZA! That will take her out of ketosis immediately. She won’t have a regulated ketogenic diet if she eats pizza every weekend! She could have another epileptic seizure!!!” I had been cooking strange food on a strange island for many hours, and I was losing it.
“Oh, she doesn’t have epilepsy. She doesn’t have seizures. She has moody fits. And I told her grandparents about the pizza, but they just spoil these kids rotten. Finish cleaning up, and I’ll drive you to the ferry.”
I stood there in shock. Had I made up the epilepsy thing? She definitely said the word seizure at least once, and a doctor had prescribed this diet. I had his notes and recipes.
It turns out that the doctor was a dietician in Staten Island who had convinced a lot of mothers that their moody (TEENAGE) daughters would truly benefit from intensive ketosis.
“You could make a lot of money if you came out here and cooked daily.” The mother said to me as I sat in her Saab headed back to the ferry terminal. “All of the mothers in town are starting their daughters on this diet.”
“Well, ma’am, I’ll think about it. I do have a lot of clients in the city though, and this would be a long journey to make every day.” I stared out the window and thought of the lack of clientele I had in the city and then that olive oil shot glass. No, Staten Island wasn’t for me. I thanked her and headed home.
For all her misjudgments, I loved the mother. She truly thought she was doing the best thing for her daughter. So, for her and all the wonderful mothers out there– especially both of mine– I say, Happy Mother’s day!
And to celebrate in the least ketogenic way, I bring you recipes for fig and fennel bread, hazelbeet butter, and asparagus basil chevre. Beautiful food to share with your mom!
Fig and Fennel Boule
Before you start this recipe, you’ll need some biga which takes 24 hours to ferment. Here’s a link to the recipe: http://awonderlandofwords.com/peter-panning-featuring-an-herb-marinade-and-bread-starter/
Makes 2 loaves
- 1 cup dried figs
- 1 ½ cups boiling water
- 1 ½ teaspoons dry yeast
- 7 cups unbleached flour
- 1 tablespoon salt
- 2 tablespoons fennel seeds
- 2 ¾ cups cool water
- ¾ cup biga
- With a small paring knife, cut the stems off the dried figs. Place them into the boiling water and let sit to plump for a half hour. Remove the figs from the water, but reserve ½ cup of the water. Quarter the plumped figs and set off to the side.
- Stir the yeast into the reserved (warm but not hot) fig water. Let it sit until creamy, about 10- 15 minutes.
- Measure the flour into the bowl of a mixer fit with the dough hook. Add the salt, the fennel seeds, and start the mixer. Slowly add the yeast mixture, the cool water, and the biga. Let dough hook knead for 5 minutes. Add the figs and continue to knead with the dough hook for another 5 minutes. The dough will be sticky but should eventually clean the sides of the bowl as it kneads.
- Lightly oil a bowl and place the dough into the bowl, turning to coat all sides with a little bit of oil so that a crust does not form as it rises. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let rise for an hour and a half.
- Punch the dough down and divide into two. On a floured surface, form the two balls into round loaves and let them rise for another hour and a half.
- Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
- Place loaves on parchment lined baking sheet and let rise another 20- 30 minutes while your oven heats up. With a sharp knife, cut slashes into the top of the loaves. This will prevent the outer crust from tearing while baking.
- Mist the preheated oven with water right before placing the loaves inside. Mist the oven and the loaves again and bake for 5 minutes. Mist the loaves one more time and turn the heat down to 400 degrees.
- Bake loaves for 40-50 minutes or until they become brown and sound hollow when tapped on the bottom.
- 2 beets, peeled, trimmed, and quartered
- ½ cup hazelnuts
- 1 teaspoon honey
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 teaspoon lemon juice
- 1/8 cup fresh mint leaves
- Bring a small pot of salted water to a boil. Add the quartered beets, reducing heat to simmer for 30 minutes.
- Toss beets into food processor and add hazelnuts. Process for 30 seconds. Add the honey, the oil, the salt, and the lemon juice. Process for a minute. Add the mint leaves and process until the mint seems to have disappeared. Taste for seasoning.
Asparagus Basil Chevre Spread
- 12 ounces asparagus, ends snapped off
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 teaspoons lemon juice
- 1/8 cup fresh basil leaves
- 4 tablespoons chevre
- ½ teaspoon salt
- Bring a small pot of heavily salted water to a boil. Blanche asparagus for 1-2 minutes, depending on the thickness. Take out of boiling water and toss in a bowl with ice water to stop the cooking process.
- Place asparagus into food processor with oil, lemon juice, basil and pulse for 20 seconds. Add the cheese and the salt and process for another 30 seconds or longer to blend completely.