Mama's Birthday Dinner

"The second I became pregnant with you, I knew I was having a girl," my mother sang. "I was so happy! All I wanted was a little girl with curly hair." This is a story I have heard a million times and yes, she got her wish. I couldn't control my curly mane if I tried. A much less talked about but just as strong parental desire for my mother was that this curly haired child would love to cook, promising countless hours of mother-daughter time the kitchen. That, unfortunately, was not in the cards. Granted I adore cooking now and rarely want to be anywhere but my kitchen, but this is a relatively new phenomenon. As a child I HATED cooking, just hated it. I was perfectly satisfied to eat any of my mother's creations (chicken in mayonnaise-curry sauce was a favorite) but help her in the process, no way! Every few months my mother would gently ask, "Jamie, would you like to help mommy make dinner?" "NO!", I'd emphatically state.

Even baking didn't interest me, it still doesn't actually, but looking back, what kid doesn't want to bake cookies? Luckily my mother found a baking compatriot in my little sister, which got me off the hook. Laura would make these ghastly concoctions in her easy bake oven that my mother lovingly ate. I specifically remember a cake resembling a flat round turd that Laura quickly doused in a powdered sugar, nonfat milk, and food coloring frosting. As my mother cautiously cut the thinnest possible slice I shouted, "MOM, that is SOOO gross!" "Jamie, be nice," she scolded. "I want to encourage your sister." "Yes, but do you have to put your life on the line for it?," I questioned. I must admit, my sister is now quite an excellent baker, most likely due to my mother's unconditional culinary support.

Not one to push, my mother gave up all hope of cooking with me pretty soon after I admonished her advances. Of course with my new view towards cooking, my mother now stands in the kitchen, mouth agape in amazement, wondering what happened to her anti-cooking daughter. "I never thought this day would come! I'm SO happy", she says. "I know, Mom. I love you. Now come help!"

My mother's birthday has always been a special date for me. March twelfth: 3/12. The curves of the 3 and 2 remind me of my mother's soft nature, of her innate "motherness". Fine I admit it, I am a Mama's girl! And the possessiveness I feel towards her birthday is simply an extension of my adoration. I decided this year I wanted to make something new and exciting. I usually stick to favorites but I was ready to go out on a limb this time. I came up with a menu I new she would love: roasted cannellini beans with sundried tomatoes and parmesan, braised fennel in lemon, and farro with pine nuts. As I cooked through the afternoon the aromas of sweet fennel and garlic emanated from the kitchen, spilling into every room in the house. "Want a glass of red wine," I asked. "Sure, it's my birthday!", she replied. By the time the food was done, my slight mother was clammering for her birthday meal through purple teeth.

Her first bite was the farro with pine nuts. "What is this??" she questioned. "Oh, it is SO good. Like barley...but BETTER." Next came the cannellini beans. "Jamie, this is amazing. With each bite I get a little surprise of parmesan and tomato." Finally, the fennel. "Who would have thought to cook fennel this way? I always avoid it because I'm scared!" By the time the meal was over my 120 pound mother had polished off seconds of the beans and fennel and fourths of the farro. (Not that I was counting.) I left her enough for lunch the next day, glad to provide another meal for the birthday girl. When I got home on Sunday I worried how I would top this year's extravaganza. "Don't worry," I told myself. "You have an entire year to figure it out."

Farro with Golden Onions and Pine Nuts

Serves 2-3

1 cup farro, rinsed and drained 2 cups water 2 tsp. salt 2 tbs. extra virgin olive oil 1 red onion, minced 1/2 cup parsley, chopped 1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted

Cover farro with water by 2 inches in a bowl and allow to soak overnight. Drain in a colander.

Combine farro, salt, and 2 cups of water in a medium sized pot. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and boil for 10-15 minutes, until farro it tender but not mushy. Remove from the heat, drain any excess liquid and set aside.

Heat the oil in a saute pan and add in the onions and a pinch of salt. Saute on low-medium heat until golden, about 20 minutes.

To serve, combine the farro, onions, pine nuts, and parsley. Add salt and a bit of olive oil to taste and enjoy!

Cannellini Beans with Sundried Tomatoes and Parmesan

Serves 4-5

2 cloves of garlic, chopped 4 tbs. extra virgin olive oil, divided 2 cups kale or swiss chard, washed and chopped 2 tbs. fresh rosemary, chopped 4 1-inch pieces of hard Parmesan cheese 1 lb. cannellini beans, picked over and rinsed 1 cup sun dried tomatoes in olive oil, chopped 1 cup pot liquor 1/2 cup parsley, chopped Sea salt to taste

Cover the beans with water by 2 inches in a large bowl and let them soak overnight.

Drain the beans in a colander. In a large pot, cover the beans with water by 1 inch. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cook until the beans are tender, about 1 hour. Drain the beans into the colander, saving the pot liquor for later use.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. In a small Dutch oven, warm up 2 tbs. of olive oil, toss in the garlic, and cook for 1-2 minutes. Add in the kale and saute for another few minutes until tender. Add the rosemary, Parmesan, cannellini beans, tomatoes, a pinch of salt and 1 cup of pot liquor. Stir well. Cover with the lid and place in the oven for 20 minutes. Remove the lid and allow the beans to crisp up in the oven, about 10 minutes. Remove from the heat, drizzle with remaining olive oil, top with parsley, and serve.

Braised Fennel in Lemon

Serves 4

4 tbs. extra virgin olive oil, divided 2 fennel bulbs 1 clove of garlic, chopped 1/4 tsp. salt 3/4 cup water 2 tbs. fresh lemon juice

Cut off fronds from the fennel bulbs. Cut bulbs lengthwise into 1/2 inch slices, leaving the core intact. Heat 2 tbs. of oil in a large saute pan over medium heat. Place the fennel slices in the pan, sprinkle with salt and brown well, turning each slice over once.

Reduce the heat to low and add in the garlic, water, remaining olive oil and lemon juice. Cover and cook for 10-12 minutes until fennel is quite soft and tender. Add another squeeze of lemon if you like and serve immediately.

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