Have chicken stock, will travel

Have chicken stock, will travel

by Janice Nigro

I know the best restaurant in Los Angeles. You won’t read about it in any magazines or newspapers, only here in this blog. It’s a pop-up restaurant though that is only open three to four weeks out of the year (at this location), and not just anyone can eat there. The price of entry is free, although for me, it is to make the pasta…and well to show up…

Yep, the chef and innovator of this restaurant is my mother.  I happen to live near my brother in Southern California which makes it easy for my mother to visit both of us conveniently for a long break from Chicago winters. We are both adults-well into adulthood-but every year our mother shows up at Christmas time enthusiastic to prepare meals for us. Los Angeles isn’t lacking anything in the entertainment department, if you are willing to head out into the traffic, but my mother just wants to cook.

It’s doubtful that anyone else in the entire city gets to eat like my brother and I do for so many consecutive evenings when our mother is in town. We are not biased; it is the place with the best meals in the city when she is in Los Angeles.

She doesn’t behave like some kind of diva, but she is very particular about what goes into her cooking. That means she always arrives in Los Angeles with some of her own ingredients. She already gets up so early to take the first flight out of Chicago to LA, but she is up even earlier for the last minute packing of her suitcase with various items from her freezer that she plans to cook with.

Her bags are close to being overweight. She knows because she weighs the bag first in a test run. If her suitcase was accidentally released from the cargo hold on a flight, a two-pound bag of home ground hamburger might come crashing through someone’s roof. I wonder if baggage personnel at O’Hare know her suitcase, and perhaps imagine who is/are the lucky ones on the other end each time it passes through.

She had so much food in her bag this time, turbot (yes, the fish), veal stock, fish stock, chicken stock, hamburger, homegrown tomatoes, and Italian chocolates, that she contemplated sending her clothes ahead of time.

If you are surprised that there is no wine in there, no need to worry. She has already thought this through. The wine has been ordered online and sent before she arrives. She knows where to find her favorite wines, and since the laws in Illinois do not allow such business to consumer shipments from out of state, it’s actually to her advantage to have the wines shipped here and then to visit us. So much for older people not being able to use the Internet. This year we had Bue Apis, a varietal wine we drank in Italy in the fall, Il Corzano (chianti), and the just to have a little taste while cooking wine, Monte Carbonare (suavia).

It sounds a bit unjust to have your mother cooking for three weeks when there is so much of LA to see. But she does see LA when she is here. We all have our mechanisms to get out and explore cities. My mother’s way is to go out to find the fresh ingredients she needs for her cooking.

For example, she actually shops quite a bit in Beverly Hills, but for veal chops (I apologize to all of my vegetarian friends) not jewelry. Any kind of meat or poultry in the stores in Beverly Hills is ironically orders of magnitude better than anywhere else (It seems like a fallacy that movie stars do not eat meat). Although one store in Manhattan Beach is the best for beef. There is a special store for the pasta flour (this choice is based on my brother’s experience) and there are only certain stores where she can get the bread that she likes.

Her favorite activity moving her around LA though is the farmers’ markets. Tuesdays, Culver City, Wednesday, Santa Monica, Friday, Hermosa Beach, Saturday, both markets in Santa Monica, and Sunday, Pacific Palisades. What makes it more interesting in the years since I have been living here is that I personally know some of these people. Even they cannot wait to see her (and vice versa).

She has a general list of items she needs, but we don’t know exactly what we will be eating until we get there. At Culver City this year, it was zucchini flowers. She didn’t do anything fancy with them. She just sautéed them in olive oil and laid them on top of homemade pasta with freshly grated parmeggiano (ha, hand carried by me from Italy).

I often wonder when I go to these markets and see all of the fruit and vegetables being purchased what kind of meals they turn into in other people’s homes. Or if they just die a death in the refrigerator. Many of these vendors cater to restaurants which is probably why you can buy zucchini flowers there…and celery root.

There is always a salad and fresh fruit that follows the main course. My mother loves strawberries although it’s not the best time of the year for them. And persimmons which I don’t hate, but I can’t quite understand what all the fuss is about.

Her menus sound sophisticated but when you watch her, it all seems so simple. On New Year’s eve, she planned to make duck l’orange. It’s something she made only once before-last year also on New Year’s eve. This year was even better which is hard to believe because last year was out-of-this-world incredible. Better than out-of-this-world incredible possibly because of the substitution of orange juice from freshly squeezed tarocco blood oranges for plain old California navel oranges which are already nothing short of super. Now the secret is out.

My mother is such a great cook that she can even convince others to carry important ingredients across state lines for this restaurant. This year my other brother and his wife came from Arizona for just New Year’s day with filets from an elk that he had recently hunted.

Like some kind of celebrity chef waiting for a special ingredient from some exotic place, my mother had a spectacular meal on the table within hours of their arrival.

We didn’t have time to stop and think about how unusual that might be-elk meat flown in from Phoenix-because we had a meal to prepare, to eat, and to converse over. We talked a lot about those who were not there, and those who no longer could be with us.

You can’t really choose favorite dishes, but I could eat her spaghetti and meatballs every day of my life and never tire of it. Of course, there is pasta alla Genovese, pasta with her special zucchini and tomato casserole from the grill, or pasta just with the best vegetable of the day.

Each of her meals was worthy of a photograph…if you could wait that long before eating it.

The true magic of her cooking though is that it somehow makes you feel safe-like when you were a child. As if afterwards, your most pressing activity is only to go out and play. Maybe this is what dinners cooked by mothers do. It’s what that bowl of pasta does for me even if I make it myself.

The dilemma is what to do now that she is gone. The roasted chicken that I normally eat seems even less appealing. And my brother and I will go back to having our separate lives. The best solution might be to simply not eat until the next time she shows up…with her suitcase.

©Janice Marie Nigro/janikiInk.com


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