We packed a Styrofoam box full of frozen single-portion containers of chicken soup and a bag of matzo balls, and hoped they’d stay solid for the three hour ride to our sister-in-law. But the car smelled strongly of pastrami. My Irish sister-in-law L had been calling every day to remind us to bring pastrami-on-rye, knishes, the soup, “and don’t forget the matzo balls.”
We were taking her the following morning for Day 1, Round 6 of her bi-weekly chemo. She is in her three-day halo before the poison turns her inside out. The chemo toxins have caused some kind of religious snafu, and she—or, rather, her palate– seems to have converted to Judiasm.
L lives alone, which is horrible when you are going through chemo. She’s been alone for five years now, ever since her beloved husband (Johnny, my husband’s brother) died. She has learned to deal with certain things, going through chemo alone. When her treatments will leave her too exhausted and debilitated to open the cans of food for her five cats, she opens them all in advance and lays a big plastic lid over them that she can just knock off at feeding time. She can microwave a little soup (or something) for herself if she takes the bowl out ahead of time and keeps a chair in the middle of the kitchen so she won’t have to stand for more than a minute. Cold and hot pierce through her: opening the fridge can cause searing discomfort, but she knows she has to eat. Sometimes she is even a little hungry until she has three or four nibbles.
For several days before the start of her two-week cycle, L’s appetite comes back along with a little energy. She thinks about food almost manically in those brief periods: friends and neighbors who shop for her bring broccolini and crusty bread; marinated artichokes and hummus and pastel-colored peanut M & Ms. Shortly after we walk in the door, she asks about her sandwich: I can see she wants it right away. She eats nearly half the sandwich while we pack the soup in her freezer. On a food high, she yells “WAIT!” and directs me to leave one soup and two matzo balls out for tomorrow.
Ebo and I mindlessly work our way through a pound of baby blue, pale pink, and insipid orange candy while L talks and talks aloud all the thoughts she’s had no one to tell. The candy doesn’t make us feel any better.
The next morning we head to the doctor, where the veil of stoicism and determination briefly lift from her eyes, exposing fear and longing. Once she is hooked up to the poison, I pull out my laptop and ask for her help. For each recipe in my files, I tell her, I need to choose the most appealing photo from dozens. I ask her to tell me which photos make her want to cook or eat the dish.
For three hours as she sits in that pleather recliner with bags of colorless liquid dripping into her veins, she helps me sort through hundreds of pictures of food I’ve cooked. We develop a rhythm as I click through the photo files: “No…no…no…no—wait—go back! Yes! My mouth watered—that’s the one!” I slide the photo over, and we move to the next recipe.
As the hours wear on, I am sure she will tire. I offer to stop and she says not yet. And then, excitedly, “Ohhh-ohhhh-ohhhh! What is that?” I tell her and her foggy, distant eyes clear, and– I swear this is true—she got some color in her face. “We could stop at Wegman’s on the way home and pick up a couple of things and we could have that for dinner tonight.” Which is what we did. And after downing an entire bowl of chicken soup with two matzo balls (a recipe I will post as Passover draws near) , she ate an enormous portion of this Cheese, Tomato, and Bread Strata.
Cheese, Spinach and Tomato Strata
1 10-ounce box frozen chopped spinach
6 large eggs
1/2 teaspoon thyme
1 1/2 cups skim milk
7 ounces cheddar cheese, shredded
8 ounces bread, preferably thinly sliced
1 pound tomatoes, cut in 1/4-inch slices
- Preheat the oven to 450F. Coat a 9 x 12 baking dish with cooking spray.
- Cook spinach according to package directions; drain and squeeze dry.
- Lightly beat the eggs, add the thyme, milk and stir in the cheese.
- Layer the bottom of the baking dish with about half the bread. Pour half the egg mixture over it. Place the remaining bread in the remaining egg mixture to soak while you continue preparing the strata.
- Top the bread in the baking dish with the spinach, distributing it evenly. Make an overlapping layer of the tomato on top of the spinach, covering the entire surface. Place the remaining bread in a single layer to cover the tomato, and pour the remaining liquid and cheese over the top. Press down on the casserole with your hands to lightly compact it.
- Bake 30 minutes, or until the top is golden brown and the inside is set.
Makes 4 servings
Nutritional analysis per serving: 356 calories, 22 g protein, 28 g carbohydrates, 3 g fiber, 17 g fat, 9 g saturated fat, 247 mg cholesterol, 570 mg sodium