For the past ten years, my Nonna has been wishing her ancestors would scoop her in the night and whisk her away to another planet. She’s traveled all over this one – from Italy to India and everything in between – by foot in her youth and now from her armchair. I remind her, “Nonna, you will come back and tell me where you’ve gone, won’t you? I’d like to come find you one day.” She strokes my hair, squeezes my hand and promises, “cara mia, of course I will.”

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On Earth she swears the flowers have lost their smell, the ruby punch has vanished from the strawberry, and that men insist on fighting and war. I stifle my unwavering optimism; after all, my Mamma’s flowers are drenched in their own perfume and her strawberries are surely the best to ever sprout!

But I get it. Age 90 must feel like eons of living and life. Fortunately for me, and unfortunately for Nonna who begs to join the ranks of aliens, she remains preserved and virtually ageless. Sure, her hearing and eyesight are faltering and she has suffered her share of elder ailments, but Nonna’s colorful, spirited fire seems far from burning out – she is well fed with memories from a past, better world. I can see her at eleven, trekking up the steep slopes of the Marmolada in the Italian Alps, cautiously placing her boots in her father’s tracks. I see her on the shores of Goa, with a community of Italian wanderlusts in search of nirvana, before the treasured place was invaded with rave bars and trash.

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And oh, is she loved! To celebrate her 90th birthday, family and loyal friends surrounded Nonna for a Sunday lunch. My uncle Roger surprised Nonna by flying in from his home in Ethiopia – she was thrilled to have her baby! On Saturday I cooked with Mamma, under her instruction – though I itch to take charge, I never lose the opportunity to learn how to cook from my mother. The spread was divine and fresh, and the birthday wishes sealed with Nonna’s favorite desserts: my Mamma’s lemon-poppy seed cake and chocolate-covered strawberries.

It’s June, and strawberries are peaking and begging to be dipped in dark chocolate: an easy, luscious crowd-pleaser!

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My brother-in-law, Nolan: willing chocolate eater (er, I mean helper).
My brother-in-law, Nolan: willing chocolate eater (er, I mean helper).

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Right: Francesca, event planner and manager for Tim Labant Events, made the room look gorgeous with fresh flowers from Mamma's garden and shawls from Nonna's friend Ismael in India (which Mamma imports and sells in CT). Left: Nonna with my uncle Roger, her youngest son.
Right: Francesca, event planner and manager for Tim Labant Events, made the room look gorgeous with fresh flowers from Mamma’s garden and shawls from Nonna’s friend Ismael in India (which Mamma imports and sells in CT). Left: Nonna with my uncle Roger, her youngest son.

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Nonna front and center, surrounded by two of her children and four grandchildren. Left to right: my little sister Francesca, me, my uncle Roger, my twin sister Dimity, Mamma, my little brother Sebastian.
Nonna front and center, surrounded by two of her children and four grandchildren. Left to right: my little sister Francesca, me, my uncle Roger, my twin sister Dimity, Mamma, my little brother Sebastian.

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Left to right, clockwise: baked salmon with apricot-soy sauce (recipe), grilled asparagus, grilled eggplant and peppers, grilled chicken wings with mustard-thyme marinade.
Left to right, clockwise: baked salmon with apricot-soy sauce (recipe), grilled asparagus, grilled eggplant and peppers, grilled chicken wings with mustard-thyme marinade.
Left to right: Nolan and his beautiful mom, Mern - matching! Mamma (right) and her dear friend Juliet (left).
Left to right: Nolan and his beautiful mom, Mern – matching! Mamma (right) and her dear friend Juliet (left).
One of Mamma's famous quinoa-lentil salads.
One of Mamma’s famous quinoa-lentil salads.

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 So much glee to be with our uncle, who we don't get to see very often! Brings back memories of living in Kenya with him and his family in the Summer of 2005, while we were doing internships with Unicef and the Food and Agriculture Organization.
So much glee to be with our uncle, who we don’t get to see very often! Brings back memories of living in Kenya with him and his family in the Summer of 2005, while we were doing internships with Unicef and the Food and Agriculture Organization.

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Perfect Chocolate Covered Strawberries

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Cook Time: 45 minutes

Total Time: 1 hour

Yield: 45 strawberries

Ingredients

  • Dark baking chocolate - 17 ounces
  • Organic strawberries - 45 organic strawberries

Instructions

  1. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
  2. Melt the chocolate in a microwave-safe dish in the microwave, or if you’re microwave-less like me, in adouble boiler. If you don’t have a double boiler, you can improvise with two pots (a smaller one resting on top of a larger one). Fill the larger pot with about 1 inch of water. Put the chocolate in the smaller pot and put it over the larger pot. Stir until the chocolate melts.
  3. Holding the strawberry by the stem, dip the strawberry into the chocolate, twirling and coating the strawberry with chocolate - a lot or a little, it’s up to you!
  4. Place the strawberry on the baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining strawberries, lining them up on the baking sheet.
  5. Refrigerate the chocolate-covered strawberries for about 45 minutes, until the chocolate sets and is hard.
  6. Use to garnish desserts or devour as is!
  7. * Note: The Environmental Working Group's 2013 Shopper's Guide to Pesticides in Produce puts out a list of the most popular fruits and vegetables, ranked in order of pesticide residuals found on the produce. Strawberries come in at a whopping number two, making them the second most toxic produce item. So, please look for organic or chemical-free when possible. My two favorite resources:
  8. pickyourown.org - find a farm near you where you can go harvest your own fruit and meet your farmer.
  9. localharvest.org - find a farmers market near you.
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