Caroline Barrett, Mother's Day story

Celebrating Mom with Food and Time Together

Here’s my Times Union story for April. It goes along with recipes for Super Green Lentil Salad, Asian Chicken Salad with Herbs and Crunchy Noodles and Chai Spice Vanilla Pudding.

‘Tis the season, isn’t it, for all things Mother? Mother’s Day is soon upon us and in the spirit of this holiday, I am celebrating the moments and time I have with my own dear mother, trying to enjoy every last drop of it. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about all the things I’ve learned from her, but I don’t mean the usual mother-type lessons of working hard and being kind and grateful and all that stuff. Instead, her lessons, taught by example, are subtle and gentle. They’re the kind of things that if you’re not paying attention to, you might miss. 

My mother lives in a nursing home and when I visit, she is always full of good cheer. The sandwich she had for lunch, the book she read, the game of solitaire played that afternoon, all of it is done with an air of contentment. Imagine being fulfilled with whatever is offered to you. Imagine feeling like whatever you receive is a gift, even regular old things like a sandwich. When I arrive in the evening after work, no matter the day, she is joyous. Her cup, she says, runneth over. I am always in awe.  

And, she is full of wonder. We go out now and then, and it is ever an adventure. We go for drives and look at pretty houses in cheerful neighborhoods. Sometimes we watch airplanes come and go and guess at where they’ve been. She loves to shop and so sometimes we do that, but no matter what we do, my mother exclaims and points and holds her hand close to her heart. She has exquisite gray eyes and I think how nice it would be to see the world as she does: as if it was new, each and every day. 

And then there is food. She loves to eat, and to drink. She loves dessert and often eats that first. And why the heck not? We like to eat in restaurants and it might sound weird but lately, we’ve been skipping the dining room and going straight to the bar. There’s so much more to see in the bar and it’s way more interesting for her than looking across the table at my face. So I hoist her up onto a big barstool, order two glasses of wine and from there, we chat with people, watch sports and enjoy every bit of it. We order fun appetizers and share them. She loves it all. 

I gathered up a few recipes here, inspired by my mother’s lessons and her good nature. Here is food that’s good for almost-springtime, good for moms, good for anyone you love and admire. 

I particularly love how one vegetable can be the spokesperson for an entire season and asparagus is certainly the one who speaks for spring. The stalks, sauteed briefly in a bit of hot oil, turn bright green and if you time it right, stay crisp and retain their earthy and slightly bitter flavor. The asparagus salad here, though primarily green, has various textures and flavors: The base of mild green lentils, then asparagus (our spring ambassador) and the bits and pieces that make it interesting: crisp shallots, lemon zest and cheese. Lentils — the French variety — hold their shape and provide a subtle backdrop to the other more robust tastes in the dish. Pea shoots, which you can find at the farmer’s market or the grocery store right now, are delicate and though they’re shaped like tiny leaves, have the bright flavor of a pea. Pecorino Romano is a dry and crumbly Italian cheese, made from sheep’s milk. It’s salty and robust, and I find that a small amount goes a long way. The recipe calls for two tablespoons, so start with that, and add more as you like. Fresh basil adds a final pop.

The chicken salad is a throwback to a similar dish from the ‘90s, one we sought out and ordered often in restaurants. Make this salad with any chicken: Poached breasts, leftover roasted chicken or thighs that are tender enough to shred with a fork. Chunks, shreds, slices, it doesn’t matter. The cabbage is in the background to all the other goodness going on, and if you take the time to salt thinly sliced pieces (I was lazy and pushed it through the shredder of my food processor) and let it all rest, it will stay crisp through the next day. I used a few clementines in my recipe, which are at the end of their season; this salad is a good way to use up less-than-perfect pieces of fruit. We are cilantro lovers and a big handful adds good, herby flavor. The dressing is a lip-smacking mixture of nutty toasted sesame oil, orange juice and salty soy sauce. The best part is the dressing-soaked bits of toasty ramen noodles, made by breaking up and baking the cheapie packages of ramen noodles, the kind we ate in college. They make really good crunchy nuggets in a salad. Top it all with sesame seeds, and you’ll know why it was a classic back in 1990. 

My mother taught me how to love and appreciate all tea. I have sweet memories of barely warm chamomile tea made the way I liked it: with plenty of milk and sugar, served by my mom. She would go all out and be super fancy with her silver tea set, and I’ve loved tea of all kinds and flavors ever since. Chai was a post-college discovery for me, and the blend of warm spices – cinnamon, anise, pepper and cloves – is particularly good when combined with sugar and cream. I’ve borrowed its flavors for scones and cookies in the past, and here, in a sweet and simple pudding. Pudding is quite easy to make and only requires stirring and a bit of attention. This recipe calls for a few bags, steeped in the hot milk. Stir in the cornstarch and sugar, then stir and stir until it thickens, and you’ve got creamy, warm pudding—the ultimate in comfort foods. Eat it warm from the pot, or portion it into little cups and top with berries and whipped cream. Doesn’t that sound like a nice dessert for any mom? 

I like to paint a rosy picture of me and my mother and quite often, it is rosy. But as Alzheimer’s advances, however slowly, there threatens to be cracks in our rosy world. I worry and fret about it but mostly I feel good about her because she is, quite simply put, so good. There’s still time for us to be together, to sit on big barstools and have grand adventures. Most of all, I’m sure there are still lessons to learn from my wise and beautiful mother.


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