(by Toby Poser)
A full belly is like a lullaby. It soothes.
In late summer, Lulu and I left home in upstate New York for JFK Airport. It was a big day, and we left early to dodge the clutter and char of rush hour traffic in the city. The air between us felt hollow and hot, pierced only with short rumblings of Lulu’s empty belly from last-minute packing and my last-chance maternal mentions. With a small chunk of time to chew, we stopped in Bayside, Queens, a mecca of multicultural tastiness and an easy balm for the chafe of the morning. We wandered between street carts and storefronts, sampling empanadas, arepas, and shawarmas, sucking salt from our fingers, dulce de leche from our thumbs, until we could no longer stretch stomachs nor minutes and it was time to go.
At the airport, I curbed the car and kissed my darling girl. Kissed those dimples in all their umbilical glory. Engulfed, with an amoebic hunger, my firstborn, my lovely Lu. I watched my lifeline, the green buoy of her backpack, bob and juke until it finally slipped into the sea of others.
In the car, I ate away my emptiness with nibbles of sugar-coated cookies until they blossomed into something like courage in my belly and celebration in my heart.
After the first week of Lulu’s year abroad in France, I began wooing my girl with photos—not of her dog and cat, of her sister, father, or mother. No. I sent her photos of my dalliances in the kitchen. Bulging lasagnas; creamy verdant matcha lattes spiked with bronze swirls of cardamom; vibrant salads jungled with every green and jeweled in rings of ruby beets and haloes of pistachio dust. A wicked agenda, to be sure. But soon my temptations ricocheted with pictures from Lulu: bready delights (crusty batards and buttery croissants), sweet assassins (melt-in-your mouth meringues, gateau opera, tarte au chocolat), and French heavy-hitters (escargots aux pépites, steak frites, and Alsatian choucroute). All year we conversed in a language we both loved: food. A dialogue in sensorial snapshots. A photo of my brown-butter biscuits was just another way of saying “I miss you,” while Lulu’s picture of a brie-stuffed baguette competing with the Eiffel Tower translated to “I’m doing great, Mom.” Her text of a candlelit coq au vin might suggest “I’m down to my last euro but I’m living large,” while a text from me of a rustic leek and Gruyère galette responded with “I’ve got you covered back here, babe.” Our food-flirtation became my new lifeline. If her adventures drifted her towards saffron-soaked paella in Madrid, my kitchen-captures provided a visual anchor for the steady—and free—comforts of home.
A year later, I found myself again making the trip down to JFK. This time a simple homemade sandwich would do. Good bread from the local baker (mayo on one side, apricot jam on the other), turkey, a jag of cheddar, and a shiver of rosemary. Lulu would be hungry after her cross-Atlantic flight, and I anticipated mid-chew stories of final exams and finished romances. I wanted to offer an edible pillow to catch her thoughts; the cottony, easy sympathy of a sandwich to fill the silence that would eventually rise from exhaustion, sadness, and the shock of return.
I curbed the car, barely, like a metal sticky bun jammed into the hot-mess skillet of JFK. I waited, my arms and eyes eager. I watched the insatiable maw of Baggage Claim spit out streams of tired bodies into a sea of tired faces. I scanned the sea of faces, hundreds of other hungry souls searching, like heat-seeking missiles, for their own lifelines. And then I saw mine. First the percolating green buoy of her backpack, then the body attached to it (a body now much longer and stronger than my own), then the face (a round familiar face, sky-weary but lit up like a hot-summer-night carousel), and then the mouth. My Lulu’s mouth, half-mooned wide and sweet as a slice of pie.
I kissed those dimples and feasted on the feel of her. My joy ate all the air around her. And when I loosened my hold and she dropped her heavy pack to the gum-pocked ground, it was she who consumed me. She kissed my wrinkles and inhaled my missing her. She engulfed me, ocean-like, and swallowed me whole. My wanderer, my wonderer, my little life-eater.
When we escaped the sizzle of the city and were headed north towards home, Lulu unwrapped her sandwich. She hummed appreciation, and my heart grew tipsy. Stories bubbled up and out of her until they slowly fizzled and faded into the murmur of chewing. Then silence. Then the soft, circulating pulse of breath as Lulu slept.
Leek and Gruyère Galette with Pear and Chard
1 1/2 c. flour
1/2 t. salt
1/2 c. cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch size cubes
5 - 6 T. ice-cold water
4 T. butter, divided
2 green pears, cored and sliced thinly
2 large leeks, chopped thinly
3 garlic cloves
2 T. olive oil
2 large bunches of Swiss chard (any color), chopped roughly, stems separated and finely slivered
red pepper flakes
4 T. cream cheese, softened
2 T. heavy cream
1 c. Gruyère cheese, plus 2 T., grated
fresh black pepper
1 T. milk
In a processor or by hand, mix flour and salt, then pulse or cut in the butter until a ragged mix of pea-sized crumbs form.
Little by little, drizzle in the cold water, pulsing or stirring with a fork until the dough is moist enough to just come together.
Gather dough, and turn it out onto a floured clean surface, quickly and gently pressing it into a ball.
If too dry, use very small drops of cold water to slightly moisten and combine dry crumbs.
Mold into a disk, wrap in plastic, and refrigerate unto ready to use.
(Dough can be frozen for future use. Thaw for an hour before rolling out.)
Melt 2 T. butter in a large pan over medium-high heat.
When butter foams, add a pinch of brown sugar and a pinch of salt.
Stir until butter turns brown and bubbly, about 1 - 3 minutes.
Place sliced pears flat in the skillet, overlapping as little as possible.
When pears begin to sizzle and turn crisp at the edges, turn and cook for 1 minute.
When pears are beginning to brown, remove and set aside.
Reduce to medium heat and melt remaining 2 T. butter.
Add leeks and cook, stirring often, for 12 - 15 minutes, or until soft and fragrant.
Add garlic, a pinch of salt, and a dash of vinegar.
Stir and cook an additional 2 minutes, or until caramelized, then transfer contents to a bowl.
Add olive oil, pepper flakes, and chard stems to the pan.
Cover and sauté, stirring often, for 6 - 8 minutes, or until soft.
Add chard leaves and cook, covered, for a few minutes, until wilted. Uncover and cook until most liquid cooks off.
Add a few cracks of black pepper and any desired salt.
Add cream cheese, and stir to combine.
Slowly stir in heavy cream.
When cream begins to thicken and slightly brown around the chard, turn off heat.
Preheat oven to 375 F.
Flour a clean surface, and roll dough into a circle (bigger by two inches than the width of your sheet pan), about 1/8 inch thick.
(If dough is sticking, flip it and sprinkle flour on the sticky sides.)
Loosely fold the dough so that you can transfer and unfold it onto a parchment-lined sheet pan.
Sprinkle 1 c. Gruyère on bottom of the dough, leaving a two-inch border without cheese.
Spread chard mixture on top, followed by caramelized leeks.
Place pears in a pretty pattern on top.
Sprinkle remaining cheese on top, and crack a few turns of black pepper over all.
Fold outer dough edges towards the middle, creating a shallow pocket on the edges while most of the galette is exposed in the center.
Pinch together any cracks or holes.
Whisk together milk and egg, and brush over the folded pocket of crust.
Bake on the center rack for approximately 40 - 45 minutes, or until the crust browns and the pears and cheese turn crisp on top.
Slide away the sheet pan, and let the galette cool on the parchment for 5 - 10 minutes. Cut into wedges and enjoy hot or at room temperature.
Serves 8 - 10.