ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL

Living life through a straw. While a liquid diet leaves lots of choices, one is limited by the diameter of said straw. Even a ”big” one for boba bubble tea requires gruel-like consistency vaguely reminiscent of “please sir, can I have some more?”

It all started when I broke my jaw.

Fainting in the middle of the night and landing on one’s chin can do that.

We were in Los Angeles, so my treatment was at UCLA. My alma mater (go Bruins!). I was there for three nights … including the night of the faceplant … to make sure I didn’t have a heart problem (I don’t!). It’s just Dizzy Blonde Syndrome.

With my mouth wired shut for 4 weeks, I was becoming a sommelier of smoothies.

Giving the blender and shaker bottle some well-deserved time off, we did get together with friends at nearby restaurants, all in Pacific Palisades.

At EDO BITES, for lunch I sipped their nice broccoli soup, while David enjoyed Fish Tacos and Jeff had Caesar Salad with chicken. It’s where I learned that warm soup and a paper straw aren’t compatible. (Jeff asked that the salad be tossed with the dressing … I reminded him that’s illegal in L.A., where all dressing must be served on the side.) Another day, we enjoyed coffee with Paolo and Cristina. Three of us also enjoyed pastries.

I had my vegetal fix at CAFE VIDA … a tasty green smoothie full of spinach, kale, celery, and lime juice. David and Fredde shared a tuna sandwich on wheat bread plus French fries.

The best of all possible worlds was at McCONELL’S ICE CREAM PARLOR … guilt-free milkshakes, topped with whipped cream. I enjoyed them on three separate afternoons. Chocolate Chocolate Chocolate when we went with Barbara and Peter, wandering through the neighborhood praising the well-maintained original architecture or criticizing assorted cookie-cutter remodels. Then a Salted Caramel Chip on our walk with Nancy and her wonderful yellow lab Summer (note to self: caramel bits don’t move well through a straw.). And during a rendezvous with Vickie, a Turkish Coffee, which reminded me of Baskin-Robbins’ Espresso, with its flecks of finely-ground espresso … my dad’s favorite. As we sat on the patio, David savored a Bowl, Fish Taco with guacamole, and an amazing-looking Hibiscus Margarita from QUE PASA.

At the airport lounge in Frankfurt … as I shook my blender bottle with coffee, milk, and chocolate protein powder … I looked longingly at my beloved pretzels When we got home, David surprised me … he had taken a couple. They are waiting in the freezer for future enjoyment.

Back at home, my stick blender was getting a workout. And so was my soup pot. Tomato … zucchini and potato … tomato and cannellini beans … carrot and ginger … roast eggplant and tomato. Bean broth is my secret ingredient, adding a healthy liquid to everything.

40 bottles of Ensure in the fridge,
40 bottles for sure.
Take one out
Drink it down
39 bottles of Ensure in the fridge.

Can somebody please invent a teeny, tiny toothbrush that can be sucked in through a straw? Hurry.

I kept emailing back and forth with my high school friend, David, the only person I knew who had had his jaw wired. His mom puréed everything. EVERYthing … with various results, he said. I came to realize that as comforting homemade chicken noodle soup is, it is not the same when it’s opaque and the consistency of slurry. The secret ingredient isn’t only love … it’s a spoon.

I bought Ensure on Amazon(.it) and ProMilk (Italy’s Ensure) at the grocery store. I wanted to make sure I had ample protein every day.

Mornings started with cappuccino “on steroids” … into the shaker bottle went espresso and Ensure, shaken not stirred. With the drink now cooler, I added a portion of protein powder. Shake again. Without the 2-step process, the powder became clumpy and lumpy, and sat appetizingly along the sides of the bottle.

Finally it was time for my panoramic x-ray. The tech laughed when I said that the machine in L.A. played Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons.” I quickly emailed the written report and a screenshot to UCLA maxillofacial specialist and my Italian dentist … who, the next day, would cut-off the wires. Four weeks and one day after they were installed.

Yanking, turning, twisting (no shouting) … and the wires were a thing of the past. In my new Dizzy Blonde lifestyle, I sat in the chair for 10 minutes before getting up.

Behind the mask, nobody noticed a difference.

The fractures are healing well, and both doctors recommended physical therapy to help strengthen the muscles, tendons, and ligaments that had been inactive for 4 weeks.

But … no chewing for another month.

Getting the wires off was exciting ,,, the OCD side of me really, really wanted to brush the inside of my teeth. Imagine my disappointment when I could barely open my mouth. The next morning, it was a little easier, and I was able to angle the electric toothbrush just enough to reach the inside of my top teeth. It was another day before the bottom ones got to feel the gentle buzz of the brush.

25 bottles of Ensure in the fridge,
25 bottles for sure.
Take one out
Drink it down
24 bottles of Ensure in the fridge.

A girlhood favorite, farina (a/k/a Cream of Wheat), was dinner on many a night. When I was feeling particularly indulgent, I added semisweet chocolate chips.

And once those four weeks (at Thanksgiving) were over … I could start to eat VERY small pieces of VERY soft foods. For an as yet undetermined amount of time, but at least until my next exam a month later.

I imagined what I could eventually eat.

Would I remember how to chew?

Gnocchi … salmon … tortelli … branzino … pappa pomodoro … sushi (don’t judge me if I use a knife and fork) … ribollita … pumpkin cheesecake. I was saving the last of our garden-grown pumpkin for Thanksgiving’s traditional pumpkin cheesecake.

Soups got thicker. I remembered Agat’s butter-makes-it-better secret. Shh, don’t tell my Italian friends, who often prefer a splash of olive oil.

Almond butter became itself again, not just a smoothie ingredient.

I used protein powder to make Greek yogurt taste, sorta kinda, like chocolate pudding.

Spoon desserts were re-introduced to my repertoire. Vanilla custard, rich with egg yolks. Chocolate pudding, full of cocoa and melted chocolate. Panna cotta, simple and elegant creaminess. And let’s not forget … gelato.

The egg whites became soft-baked cocoa meringues with melt-in-your-mouth chocolate chips (rather than crunchy nuts). Another batch had espresso powder, which I baked until barely set so they were amazingly melty and fudgy and yummy. Something to eat “in real life.”

Physical therapy was exercise and massage. Francesca’s hands are both strong and gentle. It not only helps my muscles, it feels oh so good. Who knew that you could massage the inside of the mouth …? I explained “hurts so good” to her. I do the assorted exercises 2 to 3 times a day.

Crick. Crick … what was that? The joint, the break. OMG. I wrote to the chiropractor, and he said it was normal for noises in recovery. And at the next physical therapy session, Francesca it’s like cracking one’s knuckles. That was reassuring. Phew.

A few bottles of MilkPro (Italy’s Ensure-style drink) remained in the refrigerator … as I counted down the days. Chew minus 4, minus 3.

As I had imagined, my First Supper was homemade ricotta gnocchi draped in melting gorgonzola. Then salmon … my favorite protein. Maybe not as easy as I’d expected, but as delicious as I wanted them to be.

The following panoramic x-ray showed that my healing was going very well. The DDS said he was contentissimo … the highest scale of contento. Keep going with the soft food until the next appointment in four weeks. Then I could wait three months for the next x-ray.

I remained nervous about eating. Still varying degrees of soft, but the pieces went from tiny to small. I discovered that some things could dissolve on my tongue … so I could enjoy the flavor of tarelli, my favorite savory, crunchy treats (that I make at home, of course). Finely-ground nuts made their way into cookies and cakes, so I could pretend they were healthy.

After 10 sessions, I graduated from PT with a brava from Francesca. My at-home massage and exercises continue to feel very good.

Will I have weird lingering facial tics … a cheek movement, the way I chew? I remained cautiously cautious.

There was also a strange convergence of forces to keep me out of restaurants and in the kitchen (not that I mind being in the kitchen). My only eating soft food and the omicron variant both limited our excursions. Petra and I had a girls’ lunch at CASA DEL PROSCIUTTO … but I couldn’t eat their eponymous item. David & my anniversary dinner was at OSTERIA PER BACCO … pre-explained to the owner that I’d be noshing on gnudi and savoring salmon. And when American friendss Chris and Jennifer came through Florence, we met them for lunch (conveniently scheduled on the day we got our booster jabs) at IL GIOVA … where there’s always a wonderful selection of toothsome yet tender pasta. Stay tuned for another story.

I was counting my blessings. My jaw took one for the team … it saved my forehead, protected my hip. Liquids are a small price to repay that debt.

VANILLA CUSTARD

This is delicious as a dessert … or as the filling for cream puffs en route to becoming Profiteroles.

4 egg yolks
¼ cup sugar
3 Tbl. cornstarch
2 cups milk
1 cup heavy cream
2 tsp. vanilla extract

- In a small bowl, combine the egg yolks, sugar, and cornstarch.
- In a medium saucepan, heat the cream and milk over low heat until it is simmering, stirring frequently.
- While rapidly whisking the egg yolk mixture, slowly spoon in some of the hot milk mixture. Be careful that the eggs don’t curdle. When the egg mixture is warm, whisk it slowly into the saucepan.
- Over low heat, stir the mixture until it thickens.
- Off the heat, stir in the vanilla.
- Pour the mixture into a bowl … then place parchment or wax paper directly onto the custard (to prevent a skin from forming).
- Let cool, then refrigerate for several hours until cold (though it’s delicious warm as a sauce).
- Serve.
Enjoy!

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Life … and cooking … in the Tuscan countryside.

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