I’m halfway through my first pregnancy now, and the question I get the most from people—after "girl or a boy?"— is "what are you craving?" Even well-wishers are always disappointed to find I’m not craving something bizarre, like sardines in ice cream. It’s as if pregnant women hold the key to some secret food universe, where all the rules are upturned and new, unlikely delights are waiting to be discovered. Well, there’s no such place, unless you’re counting Barcelona. But if you really want to know, I’ve been craving what I can’t have.
First, there’s the forbidden. One of the first things you find out in your first prenatal doctor’s visit is the long list of foods you now cannot enjoy; damned if all my favorite foods weren’t on that list. No more sushi, raw milk cheeses, deli meats, undercooked meats, hot dogs, and champagne.
The hobgoblin behind most of these foods is the bacteria listeria. According to the Center of Disease Control, pregnant women are twenty times more likely to become ill with listeriosis than other healthy adults. And one third of all cases happen during pregnancy. Then again, given that only 2,500 people get listeriosis in America each year, this means only about 833 are pregnant women out of who knows how many millions of pregnant women. Still, if even the Japanese have a word for illness brought on by contaminated raw fish (shokuchuudoku), I feel I should try to avoid becoming one of the unlucky 833.
Sushi is one of the foods I am almost always in the mood for, pregnant or not. And it is the food I miss the most. I’d tried a few of the many perfectly-good-but-not-spectacular sushi joints in Brooklyn and found myself ordering the same California rolls I used to mock as scaredy-cat suburbanite fare. These were fine for a quick weeknight dinner. But I knew I’d find something better at Park Slope’s Gingko Leaf, which has a growing reputation for excellent sushi. We went there on a Friday night after a long, tiring week that left me in a foul mood. Gingko Leaf’s interior was instantly soothing, with its garden space, wall of bamboo, hanging plants, and little stone ponds.
Instead of sake I ordered some cool peppermint tea, which was poured over a tiny frosted bowl of ice with fresh mint leaves. Like many details at Gingko Leaf, it was a simple, refined, and refreshing. We were presented with a small salad of tuna (cooked) and seaweed as we waited for our dinner. This air of cool elegance was disrupted when I attempted to eat my spider roll, a four-inch-wide roll made with tempura soft-shell crab, avocado and crab stick. Does anyone know how to eat these with chopsticks without the sculpture falling apart on you? Maybe you’re not supposed to use your chopsticks, I don’t know. Anyway, it’s a fun roll, with textures of crackly tempura and shell and the mellow squish of avocado.
I then tried the kanpyo, a roll made with a mild Japanese squash. The texture of the squash is just like that of fresh raw tuna, and if you close your eyes and use your imagination, you can pretend it really is. Dragon roll with eel and avocado is something I’d had before. But Ginkgo Leaf wraps the avocado around the outside. Beautiful dark green scales reveal their yellow interiors above the rice and fish. The effect is a creamier start to the meaty eel. But my favorite of all is the umeshiso, a roll of plum and shiso leaf. The small roll has a delicate floral taste, with a bit of astringency from the shiso leaf. Last of all I had an airy lychee sorbet.
Gingko Leaf has generous selection of sake and holds regular sake tastings. Maybe next year I’ll be able to report on that as well.
The second thing I crave the most is my mother’s cooking. I have a cherished snapshot in my mind of coming in on a chilly late autumn evening to find all the lights out in the house except for a glow from the kitchen. My mother is making spaghetti and meatballs, with an iceberg lettuce salad dressed in bottled Italian dressing, and grocery store-brand "French" bread with melted margarine. I will top my spaghetti with Kraft Parmesan cheese from the green can, and it will seem as if life just can’t get any better.
Of course, I can’t go back to Parmesan cheese from the green can. And even if I could, that wouldn’t be the point. The point is feeling nurtured in a cozy environment, and that is even harder to duplicate than ersatz cheese product.
Since my own mother is often too far away (in Utah) to cook for me, someone else’s mother will often suffice. Mama Duke’s is owned by none other than Janice Combs, Sean Combs’s mother, and the Southern comforts there are based on her own home recipes. There’s not a lot of room to dine in—a counter and a couple chairs. This is mainly a catering and takeout establishment, which is just fine with me. This way I can enjoy someone else’s home cooking in my own home. If you get takeout, hurry home. You’ll want to eat the fried chicken while it’s still hot and crispy. Everything I tried there tasted the way I’d hoped it would—simply delicious in that homemade way. In addition to the gently seasoned, juicy fried chicken there is also barbecued chicken. The sauce is just spicy enough, with tang and a touch of molasses.
Sides sit in a large case under heat lamps, seeming to languish. But the collard greens hold up well, firm and perfumed with bacon. The noodles in the macaroni and cheese are anything but al dente. They are wonderfully mushy, giving way to mild cheddar, which is rendered crispy at the top. It’s the creamiest of casseroles. The iced tea comes tooth-achingly sweetened. Mama Duke’s also offers an array of tempting desserts: red velvet cakes and mini cakes with cream cheese frosting, sweet potato pie, and peach and apple cobblers. Of course, none of this even remotely resembles the food of my childhood. But it makes me feel cared for all the same.
For gourmet home cooking, there is Cocotte. The first time I ate there was several months ago. We wandered in almost at random one blustery winter evening to celebrate some good news. Cocotte happened to be hosting a wine tasting dinner in conjunction with Prospect Wines and Fort Greene’s Loulou (the former providing the wine, the latter providing its chef, Joseph Nagy). We hadn’t made reservations for the event, but they welcomed us in anyway and found us a table. There I found one of the coziest restaurant environments I’ve ever encountered. With the heavy wooden furniture, brick walls, and timbered ceilings, the place had that home-like glow I’m craving now, even if in a corny way. Well, especially in a corny way.
The theme that evening was Provence. We enjoyed a fisherman’s stew of monkfish, aioli, and a hint of Moroccan spices. This was followed by a pepper-seared tuna with a tomato and olive canapé, quail eggs, and anchovies, atop wonderful foil of bitter endive. Then we were served lavender and chamomile-crusted rack of lamb over Provencal ratatouille in a black truffle demi-glaze. And for dessert, Cocotte’s own pastry chef, Valerie Pryor, presented blood oranges in honey compote. The oranges were crowned with a latticework of burnt honey, the perfect light dessert for such a heavy feast. The accompanying dessert Muscat was especially memorable with its fragrance of orange blossoms (Domaine de Durban, Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise). The next Prospect/Cocotte tasting dinner will be October 14, and will feature Moroccan flavors with French, Italian, and Spanish wines. Please go for me.
We went there again this past summer for a late supper after watching the movie Swimming Pool. A 30-second scene with foie gras was enough to start me fixating on fatty French organ meats. I was hoping Cocotte would oblige, and lucky for me their specials that night featured a simple duck liver pate on crostini, so I stayed. I thought I was justified in eating pate, since it is made with organ meat, which is high in iron, albeit mixed with cognac and chunks of butter (which I justify as a source of calcium). But I’ve since found out that because liver for most patés is lightly cooked, it puts you at risk for listeriosis. Plus, liver is high in vitamin A, which can be harmful in large doses for pregnancy. I should not have gone looking for that information. At any rate, the pate was spread in nice, fat blobs on the crostini, which rested on a bed of greens, so I felt even more virtuous in my appetizer.
I went straight for more iron in the form of the cognac hamburger—I have to get my booze somehow. It’s a big thing, smothered in sliced portabella mushrooms and oozing gruyere, and comes with piping hot French fries topped with parsley shavings. I was soon overwhelmed. Most of the French fries ended up in my scrambled eggs the next morning, and the burger was chopped and added to spaghetti sauce. So in a way, I came full circle to Mom’s meal. I also helped myself to my husband’s choice, the bouillabaisse, and Cocotte’s specialty of the house. It’s a thick, tomatoey stew flavored with coconut and chunky with shrimp, scallops, and sea bass. What a happy glow this created in my belly. There is no returning to the womb, metaphorically or otherwise. Now it’s up to me to create a nurturing environment of coziness for someone else. Am I up to this new role? I think I will be, if I can just have a few more bowls of that bouillabaisse.
788A Union Street
Mama Duke Southern Cusine
243 Flatbush Avenue
337 5th Avenue
Loulou (same owners as Cocotte)
222 DeKalb Avenue
Prospect Wine Shop
322 7th Avenue
Velez is a food blogger based in Brooklyn, NY.