Guest Ready Sweetness

hazy smoke sunset over Long’s Peak
blood red sunset due to nearby wildfire
blurred mountain views in RMNP [drone photo by Jeremiah Green]

To say it has been an atypical summer in the mountains is an understatement. Forest fires burning around us since July, ash and haze obscuring mountain outlines, no rain in three months, statewide fire ban, surging global pandemic, and a dearth of guests except for brief visits with children and grandchildren.

rocks and a river

I’m more than ready for next season’s return to normalcy, if it works out that way. By ready, I mean that I have three exceptional recipes to satisfy the sweet tooth of any person or group that drops by, sits around a campfire, or stays overnight.

idle campfire ring [drone photo by Jeremiah Green]

Maddy’s Caramel Bars, Patricia’s Double Chocolate Brownies with Sea Salt, and Jean’s S’mores Bars are an unbeatable threesome. Any one, or all of them, is a winner for chewable bites of sweetness cut from a 9×13 inch-baking pan. 

As all great passed-on recipes should be, these come from encounters and stories about friends.

Last summer’s road trip to Maddy and Cabby’s cabin on the Methow River [A Guest Room Under the Porch] in Washington State was the beginning. Maddy is a great cook and hostess. Their log cabin home, with overflow teepees and tents, is a revolving door of family and friends. She offered us her always-on-the-counter pan of caramel bars and said, “Try these. People love them! They are my go-to staple for company all summer long.” We sampled and agreed. Caramel bars with chocolate chips and pecans were prepared over and over for our own late season guests, with rave reviews.

caramel bars in the pan

Patricia, whom I have written about in several adventures, Cocoa Cake With My Curry, Please, Sunshine on the Back of Your Knees] came to Colorado in August. She rented a cabin bordering on the National Park just down the road from us. The double chocolate brownies she brought to our front porch table originated from a friend of hers in Wisconsin. Richly chewy with a bit of texture from chocolate chips inside, these brownies are for every chocoholic. I switched out the garnish of powdered sugar from the original recipe for flaky sea salt sprinkled over the top. Et maintenant ç’est plus délicieux. Chocolate and salt can’t be beat. Except by caramel and salt, or almost anything with salt. 

double chocolate brownies with flakes of sea salt

The last recipe came onto the scene this summer because of the harsh no burn season. We invited neighbors for a social-distanced outdoor cookout around the fire ring. S’mores were requested for dessert. Except a campfire couldn’t be legally lit with the restrictive ban. Our friend, Jean, came bearing S’mores Bars baked in the oven and cut into bite-sized squares. These are better than actual s’mores, which typically feature marshmallows charred black over red-hot coals. 

With baked s’mores you can revisit the original in one chewy, not overly sweet bite of mini marshmallow and chocolate chip cookie dough over a graham cracker crust. There is even melted chocolate on top to lick off fingers. You might decide you want “s’more” to give it a true taste test. I substituted dark chocolate for traditional milk chocolate. [S’more better.]

baked s’mores

I’m anticipating the return of a next summer’s season of sequential guests. This winter as I drink coffee and sit by the picture window with the wide angle view of Long’s Peak, I will muse about daily summer afternoon rainstorms followed by rainbows, campfires by sunrise, sunset, or moonrise, and baking pans full of dessert bars to sweeten everything that happens in between.

CARAMEL BARS  [Maddy Hewitt]

First Layer:

  • 1 C melted butter
  • 1 ¾ C flour
  • 1 2/3 C oats
  • 1 ¼ C brown sugar
  • 1 ¼ tsp baking soda

Combine dry ingredients in a bowl. Pour melted butter over and mix in. Reserve ¼ of the mixture for topping. Pat the rest into bottom of a 9 x 13 inch baking pan. Bake 15 min. at 350 F. Cool 5-10 min.

Second Layer:

  • 1 bag Kraft Caramels
  • 3 ½ Tbs butter
  • 3 Tbs cream 

Melt all together, SLOWLY, in cast iron skillet over low heat. Stir constantly. When melted, pour over cooled crust.

Third Layer:

  • 1 C semi sweet chocolate chips
  • ¼ to ½ C pecan pieces

Mix together and sprinkle over caramel layer

Fourth Layer:

  • Using reserved crust mixture, sprinkle over the top of chips and pecans

Bake 10 min. more at 350 F. Allow to cool completely before cutting. Store in tins. Freezes well.

DOUBLE CHOCOLATE BROWNIES WITH SEA SALT FLAKES  [Patricia Green-Sotos]

  • 4 oz. unsweetened chocolate
  • 1 C butter
  • 2 C granulated sugar
  • 4 eggs
  • 2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 C flour
  • 12 oz semi-sweet chocolate chips
  • 1 ½ C miniature marshmallows
  • Flaky sea salt crystals 
ingredients for brownies with sea salt [instead of powdered sugar]

Melt chocolate and butter slowly in a saucepan over low heat. When melted, add sugar and set aside to cool slightly. Beat in eggs, one at a time. Stir in vanilla and flour. Mix well. Fold in chips and marshmallows.

Bake in a parchment paper lined 9 x 13 baking pan [or grease the pan] for 30-35 minutes at 350 F. Top may be bubbly. Don’t overcook. Sprinkle with sea salt flakes and cool completely before cutting. Store in tins or plastic ware. Freezes great.

S’MORES BARS  [Jean Adam]

Crust:

  • 1 ½ sleeves graham crackers, crushed with rolling pin in zip-loc bag
  • 2/3 C melted butter
  • 1/3 C granulated sugar

Mix together and press into bottom of 9×13” pan lined with parchment paper. Bake 7 min at 350 F. Cool slightly.

Cookie Top:

  • 1 C butter softened to room temperature
  • ¾ C brown sugar
  • ¾ C white sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla

Cream together. Add: 

  • 2 eggs

Stir in:

  • 2 ¼ C flour
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp baking soda

Mix in:

  • 1 C semi-sweet chocolate chips
  • 2 ½ C mini marshmallows

Drop by large spoonfuls of dough carefully over crust and press into graham crackers without disturbing the layer underneath. Bake 15 min at 350 F or until golden brown on top. Quickly remove from oven and cover the top with broken pieces of Hershey’s dark chocolate bars. [2 large ones or 3 small]

Return to oven until chocolate melts ~ 3-5 min. Don’t overcook or let the top get too brown.

place broken chocolate bars over baked cookie dough layer
heat in oven just until melted

Cool completely before lifting parchment out of pan and cutting into small squares.

Refrigerate to slightly harden. Freezes well.

Summer’s End…

“It was now one of those moments when nothing remains but an opening in the sky and a story–and maybe something of a poem.” –Norman MacLean

Rain Happened

It’s late summer in Estes Park, Colorado. Smoky haze from surrounding forest fires has begun to subside. Afternoon rain showers precede lower temperatures day and night. A bugling elk was heard from the open window last night. Change of season is near. 

Sunday afternoon. We spontaneously headed into Rocky Mountain National Park. A picnic supper was packed, and we set out to an undetermined location for sunset watching and contemplative time. 

This wasn’t our first venture in improvising an outing at the last minute. But it turned out to be a memorable one.

Moraine Park is a vast landscape with 360-degree wide-angle views. Elk herds typically congregate here during the rut, covering wide swaths of the meadow. It is still early for this so we looked for a scenic place to set up temporary camp.

The Big Thompson River flows east through Moraine Park, gurgling and sparkling and encouraging fishermen to cast lines in late afternoon sun. We spied an empty sandbar and a trail leading there. Pulling over, we walked to the water’s edge. 

The sandbar was wide and pebbled with small and medium sized rocks. Clear, shallow water curled around with soothing sounds. There were tall green reeds on the far side, shining in the sun, waving in the breeze. The river is narrow here but cold, as expected of mountain run off streams.

Green folding camp chairs, a small oak table, a cooler and a basket of food completed the set up. We settled in and began with a toast to the sunset, to the high peaks, to living in such an incredibly beautiful natural environment, and to each other.

Up river from us, backlit by sunlight, a fly fisherman cast again and again. His wet line glistened and lashed out like horizontal lightening. It was perhaps too breezy for trout to bite, but the silhouette of his attempt was lovely.

Husband indulged with homemade pizza taken from the oven just before leaving home. There was farmer’s market arugula as salad on top. And, there was champagne because bubbles create an optimal accompaniment with pizza. [Champagne: “Tasting the Stars”] [Wait Twenty Minutes Then Add Salt] A square of dark bittersweet chocolate accompanied last sips.

Clouds formed between the sinking sun and western mountains. Breezes blew them south and then new ones took their place. We settled in to see what would happen. 

Rain happened. A misty, silky, spotty rain destined to subside quickly. Reluctantly we began to pack up. 

Then, the almost certain finale to showers in the mountains lit up the sky behind us–a full rainbow that touched the meadow on both ends.

There it was–nature’s beautiful end to a serendipitous outing. It gave us more than we expected on a late August evening. 

day is done

Of Twins and ‘Tinis

It is not economical to go to bed early to save candles if the result is twins. –Chinese Proverb

when cowboys wore snow-boots on horseback

There is something about a Martini, a tingle remarkably pleasant, a yellow, a mellow Martini, I wish I had one at present.Ogden Nash

mellow martini with a view

Twins and martinis are an interesting study of compare and contrast. 

I’m married to an identical twin. He is ten minutes older than his brother. They learned to speak the mother tongue on the normal developmental curve, but retained a private language from the time they were infants until four-years-old. 

Look at identical twins. When you get closer, you start to see the small differences.Brian Swanson

still flying united

Placed in different classrooms in elementary school, their interests and friends diverged. One gravitated toward sports, fishing, and camping, the other to art, music, and drama. As adults, it is easy to identify who is who because hair parts are on opposite sides and voices differ, but they use identical hand gestures and are both creative leaders in their respective professions.

Not even identical twins can have the exact same experiences and their brains are not wired the same way.John Medina

There are significant differences in food and taste preference in these twins. My husband’s brother eats coriander, both raw and cooked, while my husband vehemently pushes away any dish with a hint of it. In childhood, one twin developed a food allergy to shellfish, the other to fish with fins.

And then I stumbled onto the great martini divide, placing them firmly into polarized camps…

I’m not talking a cup of cheap gin splashed over an ice cube. I’m talking satin, fire, and ice, surgical cleanliness, insight and comfort, redemption and absolution. I’m talking MARTINI. –Anonymous

with a Capital “M”

In the late 1990s, my brother-in-law joined colleagues after work at a bar conveniently located on the ground floor of their office building in New York City. Martini culture was popular, and an architect he knew always ordered one. The bartender used a small aerosol bottle to spray vermouth inside the glass. Then he added a 50/50 ratio of gin and vodka. It was a memorable first martini because my brother-in-law despised it. Later, when he decided to try again, there was the same essence of vermouth spray followed by chilled vodka only. Thereafter, his go-to cocktail was born. 

During the same time period we were living overseas. My husband never drank distilled liquor, preferring wine or beer as a social beverage. Then, last summer in Colorado I began experimenting with “dirty” vodka martinis as a late-in-the-day-cabin-cocktail. He turned up his nose and stuck with wine. Dabbling with other recipes, I mixed vodka and gin. He agreed to taste, but only tolerated a few sips before a decided, “No thank you”. Several months later, experimenting again, I offered a pure gin concoction and substituted Lillet [a French aperitif wine from Bordeaux] for vermouth. He surprised us both by saying, “This could be my martini.” He is also big on multiple green olives as garnish.  

And so, with ongoing research, I discerned a new difference–to each twin, his own base spirit.

The iconic martini is never completely out of style. Yet it could be the most argued about drink in history because it comes in such a variety of variations. Amazing for a cocktail with only three parts:

  •  1. Base alcohol
  • 2. The ratio of spirit to vermouth
  • 3. Garnish 

Seemingly simple, yet every martini must be carefully created. Often it’s better not to order one in public. Most bartenders, unless you instruct them carefully, don’t have the time or inclination to make it to personal specifications. There is no right or wrong recipe. It’s just that the best martini is one made the way you like to drink it. Begin mixing at home.

home mix up line up

If someone says they hate martinis, it’s possible they never had a proper one. The disgruntlement is most often not with the gin or vodka. It is usually with the concentration of vermouth. 

A perfect martini should be made by filling a chilled glass with gin then waving it in the general direction of Italy. –Noël Coward

For many martini lovers, the “right” proportion of vermouth to spirit is more art than science. An exact measurement can be difficult when it is more like a hint or a suggestion. Like the spritz my brother-in-law sprays inside his glass. Or the way Dukes Hotel Bar in London pours vermouth in and out of the glass. Whatever sticks inside is just enough. A fraction of the whole, the vermouth ratio can define or ruin a martini depending on your taste.

Vermouth should be used quickly. Some sources say within a month. Toss out those years-old-dusty-bottles on a shelf. Keep it cold. Never buy icky vermouth. Buy the smallest bottle of the best quality [not Martini & Rossi] and make great martinis.

The vermouth dilemma was solved at home by ditching it entirely. We only use white Lillet. One half measure of this French invention offers smoothness not tasted with vermouth. I don’t know if vermouth really goes bad after a month, perhaps it’s that we don’t like it, but Lillet keeps in the refrigerator for a long time and is always just right. The point is, to each his own proportion of spirit to vermouth, or to Lillet, or to none.

It was Ian Fleming who introduced me to Lillet. In the 1953 novel, Casino Royale, James Bond invents the “Vesper”, named for a short-lived girlfriend:

“A dry martini,” he [Bond] said. “One. In a deep champagne goblet.”

“Oui, monsieur.”

“Just a moment. Three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it’s ice-cold then add a large thin slice of lemon peel. Got it?”

“Certainly, monsieur.” The barman seemed pleased with the idea.

“Gosh, that’s certainly a drink,” said Leiter.

Bond laughed. “When I’m…er…concentrating,” he explained, “I never have more than one drink before dinner. But I do like that one to be large and very strong and very cold, and very well made. I hate small portions of anything, particularly when they taste bad. This drink’s my own invention. I’m going to patent it when I can think of a good name.”

–Ian Fleming, Casino Royale, Chapter 7, “Rouge et Noir”

the vesper dressed to kill

It was in Dukes Hotel, on tiny St. James Place, Mayfair London, where Fleming regularly consumed vodka martinis while writing his infamous 007 spy stories. Today, Dukes’ bar is an institution with an established reputation for creating great martinis. Head bartender, Alessandro Palazzi, is Italian and has worked there for more than three decades. He says, “A martini is a drink that has to be strong and three ingredients only.” No chocolate, no espresso, no fruit additions make the cut. Their current signature drink has been around since the mid-1980s. Dukes is known for using a direct martini method, cutting out ice as middleman. After a thin wash of vermouth, already frozen gin or vodka is poured like syrup directly from bottle into glass. 

alessandro palazzi and the dukes’ vesper

There are martini snobs today who claim that Fleming’s British spy ruined the cocktail with his standard “shaken not stirred” preparation and for ordering vodka instead of straight gin. It’s remarkable that people not only target a fictional character with a cocktail crime, but that martinis still provoke argument 100+ years after being invented.

A martini should always be stirred, not shaken, so the molecules lie sensuously on top of one another. –Somerset Maughan

If you belong to the stirring-only-fan-club, mix ingredients in a container with ice for 30 seconds to bind and thoroughly chill. It will only be diluted a touch. If you shake, use plenty of ice and keep going until shaker is frosted over, your hand is frozen to the metal, and/or you felt a decent upper body workout. For the unprofessional, occasional imbiber there is no discernible difference in taste or chill factor with either method. We tend to go the shaken route because we like sipping through a sea of ice shards. 

Whether shaken or stirred, the “have to” of every martini is that it must be served extremely COLD.

The real key to a great martini is it should be all arctic, deliciously crisp… –Victoria Moore

Glassware can be freezer chilled or let ice cubes rest inside while ingredients are assembled. Also, consider the allure of the glass. A long stemmed V-shaped martini glass looks better in your hand than any other drinking receptacle. [Except for a champagne flute!] The conical shape allows olives to stand upright rather than clump unattractively in a heap. The stem protects cold glass from warm hands. The wide bowl opens the alcohol to air and makes it pleasantly aromatic, especially with gin.  

This is an excellent martini – sort of tastes…just like a cold cloud.Herman Wouk

a cold cloud on a hot day…

Dueling twin tastes parallel ongoing general public debate between classical gin martini lovers versus those who drink only vodka. I went to my own double sources to learn why each side aligns so dramatically this way or that.

Brother-in-law is a man who enjoys the peppery taste that certain vodka emits. Ketel One for everyday, Christiania–Norwegian potato vodka–on special occasions. He likes one spray of vermouth in his glass, replicating the method of the bartender who made his first martini. He believes gin tastes like fertilizer or moldy leaf compost.

Mr. Ketel One mixing his way

Husband who prefers gin says it has substance and tastes like earthy herbs and spices that linger on the palate. His current favorite is Fords Gin, known for its’ juniper essence. He likes a martini laced with Lillet rather than vermouth. He believes vodka tastes like lighter fluid.

There you have it–true twin diversity in taste and preference, martini style. In finishing the story, two final quotes from two favorite writers:

I had never tasted anything so cool and clean. They made me feel civilized. –Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms

A well-made martini correctly chilled and nicely served has been more often my friend than any two-legged creature.M.F.K. Fisher

Civilized or not, friendly or not, it’s wise to be slightly scared of martinis. This is not a girly wine spritzer you can swill in multiple rounds when thirsty. This is an adult drink, a serious drink. This is a pond of pure booze in a glass and should be treated as such. For most of us, who inhabit a world with both civility and friendship, one martini is probably enough. Unless you happen to be drinking with these twins…then, better make it a double.

4 MARTINI RECIPES

[Shaken or stirred, or eliminate ice with frozen gin or vodka & a very well chilled glass]

THE 007 VESPERTINI

[Disclosure: Impossible to replicate exactly as Bond created. Why? Gordon’s gin in 1953 was not the same gin as by that name now. Kina Lillet is no longer made either. Use a strong rather than a soft gin, Stoli vodka, white Lillet and a dash of bitters for the closest approximation.]

  • 2 shots gin of choice
  • 1 shot vodka [100 proof Stoli preferably]
  • ½ shot white Lillet
  • Optional: 2 dashes bitters
  • Always shaken
  • Garnish with large twist of lemon peel

THE SIGNATURE LONDON DUKES HOTELTINI

  • Rinse a well-chilled glass with dry vermouth by pouring in and out
  • Add 5 shots [oh my!] of frozen gin or vodka
  • Express the oil from the peel of an organic, un-waxed Italian Amalfi Coast lemon over the top and then drop in as garnish
  • House rule–maximum 2 drinks only
  • Served with olives and snacks on the side
  • Customer has table rights all evening

THE MARK GINTINI

  • 3 shots Fords Gin
  •  ½ shot white Lillet
  • Always shaken
  • Garnish with minimum of 4 green olives on a stainless skewer
  • Float ice chips over the top

THE ERIK VODKATINI

  • 1 spray vermouth to inside of glass
  • 3 shots Ketel One or Christiania Vodka
  • Always shaken
  • Garnish with lemon peel or burnt blood orange peel, olives if you must
“The Boys” back then…
and several years later…

There are two things in life for which we are never truly prepared…twins. –Josh Billings

Hack #6: Quarantine Comfort Food

It’s the middle of April. There are eighteen inches of snow outside our cabin in the Rocky Mountains. It’s stay-in-place quarantine time so there is nowhere to go anyway. 

We watched a coyote run by in the early morning hours yesterday, on the hunt for something to fill his stomach, followed by four more.

Today, a family of deer bedded down among the pine trees on the southern hillside. What we actually saw was heads and ears, their bodies completely blanketed in white powder like a downy duvet. 

The pine needles are so heavily laden that they create avalanches when they unburden themselves from the top, cascading down through lower branches in bulky snow burst plops.

All of this is pretty to look upon, but we must occasionally venture from the fireplace to don boots and hats and gloves and shovel out the drive, now a pileup growing foot by foot instead of inch by inch. Back inside, we shake off the snow and head to the kitchen. It’s time to refuel with something hot, hearty, and with ingredients almost always on hand. 

Our quarantine comfort food go-to is an improved reboot of a childhood staple–grilled cheese sandwiches. But this is not some processed-cheese-slices-between-layers-of-white-bread kind of sandwich. I’m talking Grilled Cheese. With caramelized onions, bacon, and fresh spinach on hearty rye or sourdough bread.

It’s a simple how-to with satisfying returns.

GRILLED CHEESE WITH CARAMELIZED ONIONS [and More]

Ingredients:

  • 1 whole large onion, halved and sliced thinly
  • Good Butter, European if possible
  • Grated mix of cheeses such as Gruyere, cheddar, or whatever is on hand
  • Thick sliced bacon, if desired
  • Fresh baby spinach
  • 4 slices hearty bread such as rye or good sourdough

Preparation:

  1. Fry bacon slices [if using], set aside, and drain grease from pan.
  2. Add some butter to heavy skillet [cast iron!] and slowly sauté sliced onions over med-lo heat. Onions will brown slowly. Stir occasionally. It can take 20 minutes, so be patient. The crucial step is to caramelize those onions!
  3. Place grated cheese in bowl. 
  4. Add the browned onions and mix together thoroughly.
  5. Pile onion/cheese mix onto each slice of bread.
  6. Top with bacon [optional] and spinach [if you have it].
  7. Press sandwich halves together.
  8. In cast iron skillet, place sandwich into melted butter and heat to grill bread on both sides. It’s helpful to press down with heavy spatula to squish insides together. Turn over carefully.
  9. When bread is toast-y and cheese is melt-y, serve at once.

Enjoy with a Mediterranean salad of chopped tomato, cucumber, red onion or scallion, black olives, and feta or goat cheese. Glass of wine–always nice. 

Afterward, poke the fire, add some wood, lay down on sofa with a book or for a shelter-in-place power nap. 

Quarantine comfort eating is complete.

Colorado sunshine, blue skies

Why cast iron cookware rules in our home: care-about-cast-iron

Ode to My Paris Kitchen

I’m watching snow fall outside the dining room windows in our mountain cabin in Colorado. It’s good to have a retreat for winter hibernation or to avoid cities during a pandemic.

With the world facing a global health challenge and each of us needing to do what we can, collectively and individually, my thoughts turn to kitchens. Kitchens are the heartbeat of a home. During uncertain times we need them more than ever as a calming, comfortable retreat to nourish body and spirit.

A kitchen is a good place to be, almost always the best place in the house. Michael Ruhlman

The world begins at the kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live. The gifts of the earth are brought and prepared, set on the table. So it has been since creation, and it will go on. Joy Harjo

Designed as the room to prepare food and feed a household, kitchens are also the place for informal banter, story telling, blasting favorite music while cooking or cleaning up, problem solving around the table, and memory-evoking aromas from childhood onward.

From early marriage through 31 years of overseas living, I have unpacked and set up sixteen kitchens. Eleven were in rented houses or apartments. Five were in homes we purchased. One is of my own design. It stands as a close second to the best kitchen I ever inhabited.

Good kitchens are not about size.Nigel Slater

My favorite kitchen has an old, yellow and orange, hexagonal-tiled floor. There is strong natural light, wooden countertops, and a window that opens in, like a door. It overlooks an interior courtyard of leafy Virginia creeper, twining thickly up brick walls. There is a small eating area next to it with a brown and gray marble fireplace and a tall French window with wavy antique glass. Outside, tendrils of vines hang down and create a living curtain that moves in the breeze.

informal dining
courtyard from kitchen eating area

To reach the kitchen, you crisscross the entire apartment–from the front door, through the wide entrance corridor, zig zagging down two narrow interior hallways to the backend of the building. This is the original floor plan for family-sized apartments, built in 1905, in the sixteenth Arrondissement in Paris.

During the early 20th century, Parisian kitchens were largely domains of household help who slept in tiny bedrooms under the roof. They shared a Turkish toilet and cold running water from a miniature corner sink in the hallway. There is a spiral wooden staircase to these rooms behind a double locked metal door in the kitchen.

By the time we moved to Paris, my daily cooking years were over. Children had grown up and now lived on another continent. Still, I was drawn to this kitchen every time I came home. Windows that opened wide over the quiet green of the courtyard became my meditative retreat.

olive tree view
window meditation

I have a fireplace in my kitchen that I light every night, no matter what.Alice Waters

During the dark wintery months, candles and oil lamps were lit on the fireplace mantel every morning and evening in the kitchen dining area.

My writing mentor, M.F.K. Fisher [1908-1992] said that a good kitchen requires few things. 

There are only three things I need to make my kitchen a pleasant one. First, I need space to get a good simple meal for six people…Then, I need a window or two, for clear air and the sight of things growing…more of either would be wasteful.M.F.K. Fisher

During our last six years overseas, I found Fisher’s vision in my perfect kitchen too. It had sufficient counter space for setting out an array of ingredients or rolling out pizza dough. The chopping board under the window opened to flowers in window boxes and vines that unfurled in tender green shoots each spring and dropped to the ground in red, yellow and orange splendor by November.

chopping block with a view

This kitchen was the site of preparing simple meals for two, dinner parties for ten, girlfriend TGIFs, or standup cocktails and hors d’oeuvres for a crowd. Sunday pizza night was a weekly ritual. [wait-twenty-minutes-then-add-salt] It was the gathering place for breakfast and Christmas holiday meal preparation with family visiting from America. The chopping block was the stage for photo shoots to illustrate my story writing.

adam, anna, and leila in paris for the holidays, 2017

You start out playing in kitchens, and you end up playing in kitchens. Trisha Yearwood

Our first grandchild played with wooden utensils and plastic storage containers on the tile floor while her mother and I played at roasting a chicken or making Latvian Lasagna. love-and-layers-of-lasagne She patted her own tiny pizza dough with her grandfather at the marble topped table in front of the fireplace.

The kitchen is where we come to understand our past and ourselves.Laura Esquival

Many people think spending an hour or two in the kitchen is a waste of time. But it is a good investment in your spiritual development.Laura Esquival

People who find their kitchen a good place to spend time would agree there is another dimension beyond mere preparation and cleanup.  Whether you cook regularly or not, “inhabiting” a space that is pleasant and inviting is paramount to defining the kitchen as the soul of the house. More importantly, this is where you can retreat into your thoughts and dreams and nourish health in a personal way.

True health care reform cannot happen in Washington. It has to happen in our kitchens, in our homes, in our communities. All health care is personal. Mehmet Oz

These days, as we are staking out a safe place in the world by spending more time at home, don’t forsake the importance of your kitchen. Use it as a haven for renewing spirits, replenishing bodies, and exchanging worry for hope and optimism.

Hopefully, there is a window nearby to provide “clear air and the site of things growing”. And candles to light when the sun goes down.

I believe that one of the most dignified ways we are capable of, to assert and then reassert our dignity in the face of poverty and war’s fears and pains, is to nourish ourselves with all possible skill, delicacy and enjoyment.M.F.K. Fisher, How to Cook a Wolf

Weeknight Bolognese from the Barefoot Contessa–Good comfort food

Ingredients:

  • Good Olive Oil
  • 1# lean ground sirloin [or 1# mushrooms for vegetarian, or both!]
  • 4-5 minced garlic cloves
  • 1 T. dried oregano
  • 1/4-1/2 t. red pepper flakes
  • 1 1/4 C. dry red wine
  • 28 oz. can crushed tomatoes
  • 2 T. tomato paste
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 1# dry pasta, any kind
  • 1/4 t. nutmeg [optional]
  • 1/4 C. chopped fresh basil, packed tightly
  • 1/4/ C. heavy cream [or use milk]
  • Fresh parmesan

Assembly:

Heat 2 T. olive oil in large skillet on med-hi. Add ground meat and cook until it starts to brown. Stir in garlic, oregano, and red pepper. Cook another minute, then pour in 1 C. red wine. Add canned tomatoes, tomato paste, 1 T. salt and 1 1/2 t. pepper, stirring to combine.

Bring sauce to a boil, lower heat and simmer 10 min. In another pot, cook pasta in salted water until al dente.

Add nutmeg [if you have], chopped basil and milk or cream to the simmering sauce and continue another 8-10 min. Add remaining 1/4 C. red wine or some pasta cooking water [as needed] to make enough sauce.

Serve sauce over pasta with lots of freshly grated Parmesan on the side.

My Brief Stint With the CIA

A Hollywood movie was released in 1998 called Sliding Doors. It’s a romantic comedy in which the plot alternates between story lines depending on whether the female character jumps through a closing subway door and catches the train or misses it entirely.  

The concept of “sliding doors” is life’s trajectory. Even mundane moments of decision-making can alter future outcomes. We all think about what might have been if we had chosen differently in our lives.

I wonder if we sometimes pass through sliding doors completely unaware. When what we are doing is different than what we think it is. When someone else chooses for us.

It helps to have an active imagination.

For example, I could have been recruited as a CIA operative earlier in life, making a conscious choice to jump through that door. But it didn’t happen that way. Instead, the CIA found me.

In the early 1990’s, I was married and raising two young children with a husband working in Nicosia, Cyprus.  We had a friend I will call “John”. His job was with the “State Department” in the U.S. Embassy. We assumed he was part of the CIA desk because he made extensive trips throughout the Middle East, Europe and North Africa. Also, he never talked about his work.

John was a foodie before the term was common in popular culture. He relished good food and wine, and was knowledgeable about both. When he wasn’t out of town gathering information and following leads, he enjoyed long lunches at his favorite Italian restaurant, La Romantica. The owners knew him well. They were cued to his wine preferences and shared what was fresh on the menu. He always reserved the same corner table.

As John often entertained visitors, he began inviting me to join his lunch gatherings. I had no idea who any of the guests were, met them only once, never saw them again. It was always new people from different countries and cultures. At first, I thought I was rounding out the table for some good food and conversation with a friend and his clients.

I can talk to just about anyone in a social setting, even people I don’t know, by asking a question that leads to a further question. “Tell me about…” followed up with  “And what about…?” A slight nod and unwavering eye contact helps people go on and on with their stories. 

As a conversational skill, the focus is on the talker. Begin with one searching question, followed by the next, and then another.  Sometimes people share more than intended. Perhaps John knew I naturally asked a lot of questions. What I noticed about him was that he hardly said anything at all. He just listened. 

Oh, he ordered bottles of wine for the table, joked with the chef and his wife and made recommendations about food. Otherwise, he quietly took in what people were saying, what they were telling me.

After several lunches, I began to wonder if I was gathering info for his professional files instead of being a good guest chatting up sophisticated visitors. The thought escalated after my husband asked, “Do you ever wonder why John invites you to lunch with people you don’t know?”

Eventually the lunch crowd thinned and the restaurant emptied, but our table remained intact. There was no mention of needing to vacate the space. This should have been my cue to excuse myself so John and his guests could get down to “real business.” If non-verbal cues were signaled, I missed them.

Instead, I busied myself a different way. Over the course of four, and sometimes five-hour lunches, I became familiar with Romantica’s owners who invited me into the kitchen for a mini-cooking lesson. With hindsight, Signor and Signora “Romantica” were probably in on the gig, too. Allowing John some professional space in the front of the house while they tried to beef up my cooking skills in the back of the house.

I have often said that I am not a natural born cook. Eating well is important, but I love when someone else is in charge of the preparation of a good meal. Still, I learned two memorable recipes from my post-lunch lessons.

The first was how to make a fresh tomato sauce from the beautiful, deep red, Cypriot tomatoes. It begins with removing the skins by dropping them into boiling water. After de-skinning, it is basically a stir-fry for about 20 minutes with olive oil, garlic, salt and pepper, fresh basil leaves added at the end. The eye-closing-wonderful-taste of this simple sauce, with any pasta, has everything to do with tomatoes grown in ancient soil, ripened in blazing hot Mediterranean sun. I found it difficult to replicate elsewhere.

The second thing I learned was how to prepare my favorite order at Romantica; spaghetti aglio, olio e peperoncino. This became one of my comfort foods–spaghetti with garlic, oil, and red pepper flakes. It’s a fast prep made as easily for dining solo as for a crowd. 

If the afternoon wore on toward 4:00 or 5:00PM, my husband and John’s wife would show up, their working day ended. They wondered why lunch had stretched into the apéro hour, but sat down as John ordered a final round of wine before we all headed home.

What they didn’t realize was that I had completed another assignment of covert information gathering as a CIA volunteer.

Well, anyway, all imagining aside, what those lunches provided was a set of skills that served me for the rest of our years overseas. With insightful questions, I learned to navigate, and [mostly] enjoy, large social gatherings where I didn’t know anyone.

I’m not wild about stand-up cocktail parties, shoulder-to-shoulder receptions, huge galas, or fancy dancing balls. But we participated in all of these during 31 years overseas. Many times. Gearing up for such events was less formidable when I realized I didn’t have to talk to every person or “work the whole room” as my husband did naturally and very well.

My tactic was to zero in on one or two people for meaningful conversation. Time flew by in a satisfying way and felt better spent without idle mingling and wishing to kick off high-heeled shoes. Thus, my brief interrogation stint with the CIA had a positive afterlife.

Life’s opportunities come and go. Whether we decide to enter a door as it opens, or miss it and choose the next–there is always an experience or an unexpected something that follows.  

Overseas living was a sliding door of opportunity for us. The courage to jump [blindly] was necessary only once.  With the next international job and the next, we understood that our family unit would remain tight and our collection of memorable stories would continue to grow.

However, I still wonder about one sliding door, many years ago, which briefly opened for me personally. Riding horses in my 20’s, I was offered a job as an exercise rider for thoroughbreds. It required travel flexibility and hinted of excitement, risk, adventure.

Now there’s another story ending to imagine…

SPAGHETTI AGLIO, OLIO E PEPERONCINO

Ingredients:

  • 1 lb. spaghetti
  • 1/3 C. good olive oil
  • 8 garlic cloves, minced
  • ½-1 tsp. red pepper flakes
  • ½-1 C. flat-leaf parsley, coarsely chopped
  • 1 C. freshly grated Parmesan cheese
only 6 ingredients: red pepper, olive oil, parsley, garlic, parmesan and spaghetti

Preparation:

  • Cook spaghetti in boiling salted water until al dente. Reserve ½ C. pasta water.
  • Heat olive oil in large saucepan. 
  • Sauté red pepper flakes with garlic until garlic just begins to brown.
  • Stir in the reserved pasta water.
  • Add the cooked spaghetti and heat through, mixing all together.
  • Sprinkle with parsley and Parmesan.
  • Serve immediately.
  • Use additional parsley and Parmesan as garnish.
  • If you don’t like spice, leave out the pepper flakes and you have spaghetti aglio e olio.
comfort food garnished with extra cheese and parsley
or a whole meal with spinach salad, wine, and candles

Addendum:

Some Italian lineages say never use Parmesan on any pasta dish with an oil base. Parmesan is for tomato sauces. Signora Romantica was of that tradition. But we love Parmesan, changed her way of doing things, and made it our own addition.

Other stories of friends and adventures in Cyprus [with recipes, too]:  

Fabio Meets Brownies Cocaine

Hellenic Halloumi

A Guest Room Under the Porch

Summer at our cabin in the Colorado Rocky Mountains began in June this year. 

A guest I wasn’t expecting had already arrived. Stepping onto the covered front porch, a young deer with budding antlers leapt out from underneath my feet. He had moved in below the decking, among rocks laid down years ago.

The buck didn’t venture far, sticking close to nearby pine trees, pretending to graze and glance silently at me. Over the course of days, I became familiar with his routine and he with mine.

Buddy as a youngster

I began calling softly, “Hey Buddy, it’s just me”, when he startled awake with my footsteps above him. If it was late afternoon, nocturnal foraging began and he wandered away.

My husband arrived one week later. We have our morning coffee here, on the porch that faces north, with a view of craggy rock knobs and towering Ponderosas. Rays of rising sunlight are welcome when the air is cool.

We began to see Buddy meandering “home”, well after sunrise, having pulled the typical all-nighter for a mule deer. Sometimes there were two younger bucks with him. When he angled down the hill toward his sleeping space the others strolled on down the road.

Because we were often sitting on top of his semi-concealed den, he began lying down in the grassy weeds off the porch, awake and relaxed. He saw us. We saw him. He heard our voices as we talked. An unusual compatibility formed. When we left our chairs he would ease back into his rocky enclosure and bed down. One day led to the next…

Mule deer are indigenous to Colorado and Rocky Mountain National Park. They differ from their whitetail cousins with a larger body build, oversized ears, a black tipped white tail, and white patch on the rump. Males prefer sleeping among rocky ridges while females like bedding down in meadows protected by trees and shrubbery. Life span can approach ten years, but only if they avoid mountain lions, bobcats, and packs of coyotes.

the corner room

Antlers are shed and re-grown every year. In the beginning, they are covered in hairy skin called velvet. Velvet supplies blood to protect and nourish them while they are still soft and fragile. As they grow, [as much as half an inch a day] a deer’s antlers branch forward and “fork”, then fork again. When full size is reached, the velvet dies off and bucks remove it by rubbing on trees and bushes. This also strengthens their neck for sparring with other males in the fall rut.

Days turned into weeks as we watched Buddy’s frame fill out. His antlers seemed to grow visibly overnight, forking once, then twice into an impressive display. He was going to be a player in this season’s rut.

antler growth one half inch per day

In late July, we left Estes Park heading northwest on a road trip to visit friends. In contrast to dry, grassy, wildflower meadows and granite-rock mountains, our friends summer near water–a large lake in the Idaho panhandle, and the Methow River valley in northern Washington State.

left home alone

Sometimes we wondered about our under-the-porch guest back in Colorado. Husband surreptitiously placed a web cam to observe activity while we were away. Feedback went to his phone, but only for a short time. Within days, Buddy stuck his face into the camera lens and apparently kicked the whole thing over. We could only guess whether he abandoned the den…or simply triumphed over unwanted technology.

dozing
resting
and spying the web cam

Spending time with friendships that began in Taiwan in the 1990s was the highlight of our days on the road. In northern Idaho, on our friends’ boat, we enjoyed a scenic tour of Lake Pend Oreille followed by a sunset dinner al fresco. The next day, in a two-car caravan, we drove to Mazama, Washington where the Methow River runs through the property of our friends.

Lake Pend Oreille, Idaho
Methow River valley, Mazama, Washington

Important activities take place along this strip of rocky, sandy riverbed as the Methow flows by. Cooking over fire in a circular rock surround, lumberjacking dead trees for winter firewood, sleeping in teepee or tent, sharing meals, talking and story telling, watching clouds, the sunrise or the sunset, reading with the soothing background noise of water sounds. Rhythms of a summer lived outside play daily here. It is the spiritual landscape of our friends. While sharing their space we moved within its’ cadence and felt it, too.

to teepee island with the Methow running through
symbolic exchange of antique tins

A circuitous route took us back to Colorado after saying good-bye in Mazama. When we pulled off the dirt road onto the cabin driveway, it was still light enough to note the sleeping den was empty. The web cam was upside down near rocks about fifteen feet from the porch steps. Buddy returned the next morning, noting our presence by plopping down and waiting for us to finish breakfast and move off the porch.

Our cabin was built to house a crowd. Family and friends pile upstairs and bunk in rooms with multiple beds. Less than a week after we returned home there were rounds of guests–more footsteps, new smells, even a baby’s babbling voice. Buddy moved out.

It’s been several weeks now since he left. A woman mentioned that her husband saw a deer sleeping in an unused barn on the property they are renting. It is just below us. Visiting sister-in-law saw a buck with good-sized antlers walking with a doe early one morning. We ran into Buddy, grazing one evening, as we walked home from a neighbor’s cabin. He started to walk toward us, then turned and kept his distance. There is a return to natural order on the hillside.

These days the morning air smells of approaching autumn. The temperature at sunrise can be nippy in that put-on-your-sweatshirt-to-sit-outside kind of way. Sunlight has shifted its’ arc. The bugling chorus of bull elk, signaling the start of the rut, is only days away. Change of season in the mountains propels the notion of moving on.

Yet, for a short while this summer we shared an uncommon acquaintance with a young deer as he grew into strength and maturity. We liked his quiet presence. He tolerated ours. We didn’t invite him, so I guess he chose us…because he found a guest room that suited him under the porch.

CLICK HERE to view a short video of Buddy coming home

Long’s Peak sunrise
and sunset
lounging by the fire ring

Our spiritual geography in Colorado described here: Bugling Elk and Sacred Spaces

Will Our Children Know and Care About June 6, 1944?

Editor’s Note: While we were living in France, my husband was invited by the American Embassy in 2014 to take a group of students from the American School in Paris to a commemorative ceremony overlooking Omaha Beach at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial. It was the 70thanniversary of the D-Day landings on June 6, 1944. The presidents of France and the United States spoke. American veterans of that fateful day were present. It was a time to reflect on remarkable courage and leadership–with freedom as the outcome. I wrote about that here: The Unexpected in Normandy

Five years later, as the 75th D-Day anniversary approaches, we now live in the U.S. and find ourselves thinking about our country’s role in today’s world. I asked my husband to be a guest writer and offer his perspective on keeping the spirit of D-Day alive. What follows are his remembrance and thoughts about an historic event and the hope that the metaphoric message of D-Day will live on throughout all generations. Thank you, Mark.

“an orchard of graves”, Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, Omaha Beach

There’s a graveyard in northern France where all the dead boys from D-Day are buried. The white crosses reach from one horizon to the other. I remember looking it over and thinking it was a forest of graves. But the rows were like this, dizzying, diagonal, perfectly straight, so after all it wasn’t a forest but an orchard of graves.Barbara Kingsolver

Second Lieutenant Richard Winters parachuted into D-Day in the early hours of June 6, 1944, separated from his weapon as he jumped, landing miles away from the rest of his Easy Company 506 Parachute Regiment.  A soldier from another company, who came down near Winters, asked if they were lost. Lieutenant Winter’s response? “We’re not lost private, we’re in Normandy.” Operation Overlord had begun at 1:30AM on a pitch-dark morning. 

In all, about 75,000 Americans parachuted behind the lines or disembarked from an armada of boats onto Utah and Omaha beaches that first day. Casualties were over 10,000. With unimaginable sacrifice and courage, so began the liberation of France and, once the breakout unfolded beyond Normandy, the fall of German Fascism.  

Consider that seventy-five years ago the youth of America with their lives out in front of them came ashore, under withering fire, based on a premise of arriving into a country not their own, fighting to liberate a people they did not know, and becoming one with the human race in a fight against Nazism. Not words but actions to preserve democratic ideals of self-government, liberty, equality and human freedoms. “America First”–no.  American leadership–yes. In the words of Harry S. Truman, “America was not built on fear. America was built on courage, on imagination and an unbeatable determination to do the job at hand.”

But on June 6, 1944 there was terror amid bloodshed and dying young men crying out for their mothers. It was a time when America did the most important thing on earth by letting besieged nations know they were not alone. It was American power with characteristic capacity for good.   

Today if you fly into Paris, rent a car, and drive into the Normandy countryside you will see two flags adorning doorways of farmhouses and homes–the French tri-color and the American stars and stripes. Young school children still tend the graves in allied cemeteries across France.

two flags, two allied nations

Five years ago, I took students to Colleville-sur-Mer, in Normandy, France, to participate in the ceremony of the 70thanniversary of the D-Day landings. That year’s commemoration brought together then U.S. President Barack Obama and French President François Hollande at the Normandy American Cemetery.  They spoke of what love means after all: sacrifice and selflessness. Standing on this ground, absorbing the meaning of their speeches, made me weep.  I wanted every child from now to eternity to understand what happened in Normandy.  

entrance to American Cemetery and Memorial, Omaha Beach, Normandy

President Obama observed that, If prayer were made of sound, the skies over England that night would have deafened the world. And in the pre-dawn hours, planes rumbled down runways; gliders and paratroopers slipped through the sky; giant screws began to turn on an armada that looked like more ships than sea. And more than 150,000 souls set off towards this tiny sliver of sand upon which hung more than the fate of a war, but rather the course of human history.”  

Then our president said, But in the annals of history, the world had never seen anything like it.  And when the war was won, we claimed no spoils of victory — we helped Europe rebuild.  We claimed no land other than the earth where we buried those who gave their lives under our flag and where we station those who still serve under it.  But America’s claim — our commitment — to liberty, our claim to equality, our claim to freedom and to the inherent dignity of every human being — that claim is written in the blood on these beaches, and it will endure for eternity.”  

How important it was for our students, surrounded by 9388 gravestones, to hear about America’s (and our allies) sacrifice beyond borders.   

9388 gravestone markers stretching toward the sea

President Hollande described the reality of that day in 1944, “Seventy years ago to the day, right here, opposite this beach, this beautiful beach on the Riva Bella, thousands of young soldiers jumped into the water under a torrent of gunfire and ran toward the German defenses. They were 20 years old, give or take a few years, and at that moment, who could say that 20 was the best age in life? For them, 20 was the age of duty, it was the age of commitment, it was the age of sacrifice. They were cold; they were afraid. On that June 6th the air, so pure today, was thick with the smoke of the first clashes, and riven by the din of explosions. The calm water we see today was striped with foam from the landing craft and red with the blood of the first combatants. What were those 20­-year­-olds thinking in the face of this terror? They must have been thinking of their beloved mothers, their fathers so worried, their loved ones so far away, their childhoods so recent, and their lives so short, lives whose horizons were blotted out by the war.”

“And yet those young men, amid that hell of fire and steel, didn’t hesitate for one second. They advanced, advanced across the soil of France, braving the bullets and shells; they advanced, risking their lives to defeat a diabolical enemy; they advanced to defend a noble cause; they advanced, yes, and went on advancing, to free us, to liberate us at last.”

The French president reminded us about the character of America and our country’s leadership, But the soldiers who came from the sea had achieved the essential thing. The essential thing was to set foot on French soil, and on 6 June they had begun to liberate France. And as the sun set on the Longest Day, a radiant beam of hope rose over subservient Europe. On these Normandy beaches, the memory lingers of a bitter, uncertain, decisive confrontation. On these peaceful Normandy beaches, the souls of the fighters who gave their lives to save Europe live on. On these tranquil beaches, whatever the weather, whatever the climate of the seasons, a single wind blows, the wind of freedom. It still blows today.”  

Presidents Barack Obama and François Hollande, June 6, 2014, Omaha Beach

On that beautiful spring day in the “orchard of gravestones”, Normandy American Cemetery, all of us attending the 70thanniversary recognized that freedom is fragile and that we must stand together as nations. Hollande continued, “I’ve talked about courage – the courage of the soldiers, the courage of the resistance fighters, the courage of people at the time; courage in wartime. But courage in peacetime is just as essential and necessary. What motivated the soldiers who landed here 70 years ago? Their patriotic duty? Yes, no doubt. But also an idea, an idea they all shared, whatever their nationality: by setting foot here, on these beaches, they were carrying a dream, a dream which seemed impossible in 1944; a dream born out of the depths of despair, a dream which enlightened their conscience. What was this dream? It was the promise of a world free from tyranny and war.” 

Speaking directly to President Obama, François Hollande said, Mr. President, the French people recognize an indefatigable energy in America, an ability to innovate, create, invent and carry the dream of success. But what they admire the most in the American people – because they themselves are its most ardent champions – is their love of freedom. And my compatriots know that, when the critical moment comes, when our principles are in danger, France and the United States always come together, as in that terrible summer of 1944 on the beaches of Normandy and on the beaches of Provence.”

playing the national anthems of France and the U.S.A.

How is it possible to hear the French president’s words about the spirit and character of America and not feel proud, and today wonder how we would ever compromise this legacy under the moniker of “America First?”  What is the message we send our youth about the principles of democracy and friendship between nations being worth courage and sacrifice?  The story of June 6, 1944 must live in the hearts of today’s and future generations too.  

As the 75thanniversary of the Normandy landings approaches, with many fewer World War II veterans alive, is there not still a message about America’s leadership overseas?  To honor those young, forever young soldiers who died for our freedom on foreign soil that day in 1944, what decisions will we make about our world? Is it going to be totalitarianism or will democracies prevail?  Will the current “America First” idea, or runaway nationalism, diminish the message of Normandy?  History tells a different story. America was not so constructed. We lead with generosity.  

Today, American leadership around the world is perhaps in doubt, especially when leaders of other countries are asked. We appear to be an uncertain friend. Our moral compass is without a true north.  

Maybe the Longest Day, seventy-five years later can serve as a reminder that if there is an “America First” concept, it is our willingness to step into the breach–to advance values born out of the Constitution and with our allies in common purpose to preserve freedom around the world.

It was William Blake who said, “The most sublime act is to set another before you.”  We remember June 6, 1944 by defining a hero as someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself. Such thinking might well apply to individuals and nations alike. A life message to all children–we want them to know and to care.  

Let “America First” mean finding our way with confidence and courage to confirm our nation’s place as an agent for good in the world. On this principle, we need to stand rock solid. Think of two soldiers finding their way on the darkest of nights, having been dropped from the sky, not knowing what was ahead, but optimistic–where the metaphor of our time lies in the hopeful words of Dick Winters, “We’re not lost private, we’re in Normandy.”  

Wait Twenty Minutes Then Add Salt

Naples, Italy is the birthplace of pizza. When tomato was added to flat bread in the late 18th century, pizza, as we know it today, was born. If you go to Naples, you will certainly enjoy eating pizza on a cobblestoned street after touring the Amalfi coast and the dusty excavations in Pompeii. Then fly out the next day. Naples is not an easy city.

Pizza ranks high as a favorite food all over the world. You can order in, carry out, or enjoy at your neighborhood spot. However, I don’t eat restaurant pizza anymore, except in Italy, because my husband learned to make perfect pizza dough at home. His finesse began with a not-so-subtle suggestion and a friendship of mine.

My husband enjoys creative time in the kitchen. Not everyday. But when people come to our home he will go to finicky recipe extremes. I call it performance cooking. No one would do this on a daily basis unless highly paid. Guests love it. Each course is beautifully plated and presented with a detailed description of what goes into whatever is being served.

His foray into kitchen time began years ago when we lived in Taiwan. Home dinner parties were an almost every weekend event. This, in contrast to meeting up with friends in fluorescent lit, Formica tabled, disposable chopstick, plastic plate only restaurants circa 1990s.

We did that, too, because the food in Taiwan is freshly prepared and delicious. It was also a no-nonsense way to get the eating chore done. However, it wasn’t a place for long, conversation filled evenings with good wine and food, heavy china, linen napkins, and candles flickering down the middle of the table.

One of our family rituals while the children were growing up was to have a formal Sunday night dinner. Husband­ was in charge of menu planning, shopping and meal prep. I laid the table with the “fancier” china and flatware. Son and daughter were on cleanup and some form of “presentation” as entertainment. Those responsibilities worked some of the time.

My friend, Linda, is a Midwestern born ex-pat who moved to Taipei with her family several years after our arrival. We became fast friends with husbands and children joining in. Linda’s Sunday night family ritual was making homemade pizza. Her youngest daughter liked to participate by carefully rolling out the dough, just so. Her two teenagers would occasionally help with preparation, but often just showed up for the eating part.

When she made pizza for entertaining, I latched right onto my favorite Linda-version. It was always this: the thinnest crust, basil pesto sauce, toasted pine nuts, sliced garlic and fresh chili peppers with grated Parmesan cheese over the top.

Along the way, a quirky tweak was added to her recipe because of an Italian chef named Max, who found himself temporarily employed in a Taipei restaurant. He left Barbados for one year while the hotel where he worked was being renovated. What he loved about the Caribbean was the warm, turquoise colored water and beautiful beaches. Max found Taiwan on a world map and saw it was an island, too. He thought he could happily work and still be near sand and water. The sand and water part didn’t work out. Not much beach in Taipei.

After an evening of cooking, Max enjoyed chatting up lingering late night restaurant customers. When Linda mentioned she often made pizza from scratch at home, he told her the secret for the “best pizza dough”. It was a tip from his Italian mama.

Don’t add salt right away”. Wait at least 20 minutes to let the yeast, sugar and warm water begin their bubbly reaction. Yeast reacts better without salt added until later. It creates more pliable and elastic dough. From a mother in an Italian village, to a beach loving chef in Taiwan, to an American home cook, here was insider pizza chemistry.

Before Linda left Taiwan, I wrote down her dough recipe with Max’s tweak. I’m the basic kind of cook rather than the finicky kind, so it was filed away and several years went by. Children left home. A new job with new geography moved us out of Asia.

With only two at the table, formal Sunday dinner faded away. We ate out more often because it was Europe! Germany! Restaurant atmosphere was charming. And the food didn’t disappoint.   

Sundays in Germany are quiet. Everything closes from Saturday afternoon until Monday morning. Pulling out Linda’s recipe, I waved it in front of my husband and suggested, “We need a new Sunday ritual. I love Linda’s pizza. Why don’t you learn to make it?”

And so, my man began kneading and punching and creating homemade dough with puffs of flour in the air and a rolling pin in hand. Sunday night became Pizza Night. It worked when there was just the two of us. It worked as a night for entertaining guests. It worked as a Christmas Eve meal for a crowd.

From rustic Naples centuries ago, to an ex-pat friendship in Taiwan, to a misplaced Italian chef and his mother, to a man who found contentment in mixing flour, water, yeast and salt into elastic dough, a new family tradition was formed. Linda’s pizza became ours.

We have made it for family, and for people from cultures around the world. In whatever geography we find ourselves, and in the midst of complexity and the rush of life, we always wait twenty minutes. And then add salt.   

MARK’S PIZZA CRUSTS

Yield: 4, 15-inch or 6, 12-inch pizzas

Ingredients:

  • 2 packages active dry yeast 
  • 1 t. sugar
  • 2 C. semolina flour–mix in first [optional, but a good Italian touch]
  • 3 C. all purpose flour, plus more for kneading
  • 2 t. salt
  • Olive oil for coating bowl as dough rises and for pizza pans

Preparation:

  1. Place 2 C. warm water [110-115 degrees F.] in small mixing bowl.
  2. Stir in 1 t. sugar. Then sprinkle in yeast. Stir to combine.
  3. Set aside for at least 20 minutes, letting it expand and bubble.
  4. After 20 minutes, combine flours, salt and yeast mixture in a large bowl. If using semolina flour, stir in first, then add the rest.
  5. When dough becomes difficult to stir with a wooden spoon, turn out of bowl onto a lightly floured smooth surface.
  6. Begin kneading by hand. Add small amounts of flour, as needed, so dough is not sticking to hands and surface.
  7. Knead at least 10 minutes, squeezing and folding dough over on itself, pushing with heels of both hands. I like to pick the dough up and throw it down hard onto kneading surface several times. Husband likes punching it. 
  8. When dough becomes smooth and elastic, form into a ball.
  9. Lightly wipe a large bowl with olive oil. Place dough in bowl. Turn once to coat both sides in oil. Cover with a clean kitchen towel.
  10. Set aside to rise 45 min. to an hour or until doubled in bulk.
  11. Punch down, reshape dough, and cover. Let it rise once or twice more as you wish. It’s not necessary to do multiple risings, but time gives more structure and flavor to the dough.
  12. Preheat oven to 465 degrees F.
  13. Wipe or spray pizza pans lightly with olive oil. Optional to sprinkle pans with semolina flour.
  14. Roll out sections of dough as thinly as possible to fit prepared pans.
  15. Arrange toppings on dough. Less is more with homemade pizza. This keeps crust from becoming soggy and heavy.
  16. Bake in preheated oven to desired doneness. Start checking at 10-12 min. Watch the edges so they don’t get too brown.
  17. Remove from pans and cut into slices. Kitchen scissors work great.

Toppings:  

  • Unlimited variety 
  • Individual preferences rule 
  • Allow guests to create their own pizza topping combination

Toppings and Sauce suggestionslight brushing of red pesto, basil pesto, tomato sauce or olive oil over unbaked dough

  • Thinly sliced [or diced] garlic cloves–always
  • Red pepper flakes or sliced fresh chili peppers–optional
  • Meat–chicken, prosciutto, pepperoni, sausage
  • Or no meat 
  • Roasted vegetables such as eggplant, broccoli or cauliflower 
  • Raw veggies like sweet peppers, mushrooms, black olives, onions or shallots 
  • Toasted pine nuts
  • Anything else
prepared toppings
parmesan cheese, chicken, garlic slices, shallots, feta cheese and mushrooms

Cheese

  • I like freshly grated Parmesan, only, over top of ingredients. 
  • Husband mixes a little fresh buffalo mozzarella, or goat cheese, or mixed grated cheeses with a topping of Parmesan.

Final Flourish:

  • Fresh arugula or baby spinach strewn over cooked pizza adds a bite of salad and green. Add before serving or let people help themselves table side.
  • Champagne is our pizza beverage of choice. There is some kind of chemistry going on there too. In your home, family choice rules.
Santé, cheers, za nas [За нас]


arugula
champagne sipping for assembling and eating

Final Note:

  • Practice makes perfect. Play with proportions until you are comfortable with the sequence of steps. You won’t need a recipe if you make it regularly.
  • This makes a LOT of dough, which is efficient for later use.
  • It freezes well in zip lock bags and thaws easily. Place in refrigerator overnight or on the countertop until soft.
  • Roll out on lightly floured surface and proceed with toppings.
  • Make friends and family happy! Pizza night!
yeast bubbles begin
the next generation of pizza makers

My Favorite Kind of Teenager

My favorite kind of integrated person–some of each thing and not too much of any one.  Gabrielle Hamilton, owner of Prune Restaurant, author of Blood, Bones & Butter

Prune Restaurant, 54 E. 1st St, New York, NY

Two great-nieces came to stay with us in Princeton, New Jersey over a winter holiday weekend. The trip was a Christmas gift from their parents. They arrived from the Midwest, St. Louis, Missouri, which is my birthplace too.

The girls are “16 going on 17”, and since we live in proximity to New York City it seemed like a fine place to send them on a cousin adventure.

waiting for train on NYC day

The weekend was a mixture of a full on activity in NYC balanced with some leisurely relaxation at home. One day–an early morning train to Penn Station, three hour shopping spree in Soho, a Broadway matinee [Hamilton!], followed by dinner at Prune Restaurant in East Village. The next day–a sleep-in/pajama morning, breakfast in bed, and binge watching reruns of a favorite TV series.

Over three days, I learned the trending social media sites that teens use as well as a photo editing/filter app that I will use [VSCO]. I waited outside dressing rooms as clothing options were tried on, modeled, considered, or rejected. Only the very cutest made the final cut to the checkout line.

On the last day, before departing to the airport, the girls shared with us their favorite things about the weekend. Then I spoke up, because I wanted them to know there was a best part of the visit for me, too.

It was simply this–I loved observing, and then knowing, how confident they are in their ability to talk about anything–high school, friends, teachers, popular culture, university options, career wonderments. Most importantly, when asked a direct question requiring an opinion, a preference, or a desire, they had thoughtful, ready answers. Two young women with a point of view!

When these girls were given choices, there was no dilly-dallying around, no hemming and hawing, no shrugging of shoulders or murmuring, “I don’t know” or “I don’t care” or “Whatever you think”.

Plans and logistics seamlessly came together because there was no second-guessing. I didn’t have to be in charge of every thing. Their ease in speaking up was a gift that led us forward. It allowed us to recalibrate or mix things up. And to fine tune how we enjoyed time together over the weekend.

In the best circumstances, a person begins to develop self-confidence, including the ability to express one’s own ideas and thoughts during childhood and adolescence. Some develop it later, after leaving home and living independently. And some people find it a challenge throughout life. There are adults who hedge and defer and cannot give a straight answer to the simple question, “What do you want…?”

I don’t know how or when my nieces became so comfortable in their own skins. It is testimony to guidance from home, influences in school, the community and friendships.

The girls’ maturing confidence reminded me of an M.F.K. Fisher story, which I shared with them. Fisher wrote about a cross-country train trip where she learned to use her own voice and life changed forever, in a good way. She began to speak up almost a century ago.

Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher was 19 years old in the mid-1920s when she was sent to school in Illinois from California. She was both naïve and extremely self-conscious. Her words follow, in bold italics:

m.f.k. fisher, 1908-1992

“I must have been a trial, or at least a bore, on that trip. I was horribly self-conscious; I wanted everybody to look at me and think me the most fascinating creature in the world, and yet I died a small hideous death if I saw even one person throw a casual glance at me…”

Her travelling companion on the train was her mother’s brother, Uncle Evans. They ate together every night in the dining car. From the first evening meal, he began teaching her to really look  at a menu, to use deliberation and care when deciding what to eat, and never make decisions haphazardly or with phony indifference.

“…I would glance hastily at the menu and then murmur the name of something familiar, like lamb chops. ‘But you know what lamb chops taste like,’ my uncle would say casually. ‘Why not have something exciting instead?’” 

Then her uncle would order food that seemed quite exotic at the time such as Eastern scallops and an avocado salad with fresh lime. Over the next five days she began to feel more comfortable, enjoying their meal times together. When the train reached Chicago, Uncle Evan’s son, her older cousin, met them for dinner. Suddenly Mary Frances lost her confidence, and her way. Asked what she would like to eat, she averted her gaze and mumbled, “Oh, anything…anything, thank you.”

“’Anything,’ I said, and then I looked at my uncle, and saw through all my gaucherie, my really painful wish to be sophisticated and polished before him and his brilliant son, that he was looking back at me with a cold speculative somewhat disgusted look in his brown eyes.

It was as if he were saying, ‘You stupid uncouth young ninny, how dare you say such a thoughtless thing, when I bother to bring you to a good place to eat, when I bother to spend my time and my son’s time on you, when I have been so patient with you for the last five days?’

I don’t know how long all that took, but I knew that it was a very important time in my life. I looked at my menu, really looked with all my brain, for the first time.

 ‘Just a minute, please,’ I said, very calmly. I stayed quite cool, like a surgeon when he begins an operation…Finally I said to Uncle Evans, without batting an eye, ‘I’d like iced consommé, please, and then sweetbreads sous cloche and a watercress salad…and I’ll order the rest later.’

I remember he sat back in his chair a little, and I knew that he was proud of me and very fond of me. I was too. 

 And never since then have I let myself say, or even think, ‘Oh, anything,’ about a meal, even if I had to eat it alone with death in the house or in my heart.” **

It doesn’t necessarily matter when a person learns to speak with confidence and purpose, but it matters very much that they eventually do. My nieces are clearly on the way. 

showtime!

That evening, after the Hamilton performance, the three of us sat at the black marble counter facing the antique fuzzy mirror behind the bar in Prune Restaurant. I told the girls that any food choice, no matter how simple, would be delicious prepared by this chef. We discussed options and then ordered. 

where we sat

Elizabeth chose soup and then a plate of tender potatoes and herbs to satisfy her tastes. Emily and I had different soups and then split the duck breast with white beans and sautéed root vegetables. Conversation flowed between bites as we sampled each other’s fare. The finale was sharing three desserts and deciding, unanimously, which one was best. “Lemon Semifreddo” drizzled with extra virgin olive oil and sea salt. Oh My!

Dining in French bistro ambience, with good food, and easy banter was a fine way to end an event filled day, as I hoped it would be. Each of us will surely hold onto different stories and memories from the time together.

But for me, it will always be this–a snapshot moment of two lovely nieces when they were sixteen years old. They came, and they readily shared the best parts of themselves. They showed me that my favorite kind of teenager is one with a few life lessons already in place, integrated with “some of each thing and not too much of any one.” 


**Excerpts from the chapter “The Measure of My Powers” in The Gastronomical Me by M.F.K Fisher, compiled in The Art of Eating, published by Collier Books, Macmillan Publishing Company, NY.

Million Mile Stories

I have flown a million miles over the past 31 years. As the miles accumulated so did stories of airports and airplanes. One of them, now part of family lore, involved a plane departing with my  child but without me. 

There are two other unforgettable stories about one airport in particular, the old Hong Kong Kai Tak International. It closed 20 years ago, in 1998, after serving the city for 73 years. In the late 1980s we used it for three years to fly from the U.S. to our home overseas in Singapore. It was a 24 hour trip from Denver, Colorado with layovers in California and Hong Kong before landing at Singapore’s Changi Airport.

One decade and two international moves later, a chance encounter with a contemporary oil painting transported me back to the first, spectacular, pulse-racing landing we made into Hong Kong.

In 1999, an overseas friend, who is a Brazilian artist, held a gallery showing of her oil paintings in Taipei, Taiwan. Strolling the array of artwork, I saw the title “Rooftops” next to a large canvas. Looking from the title to the painting, something shivered through me. Art is supposed to create emotions like this. When I looked again, I had a visceral flashback to 1987, the summer we left Colorado and moved to southeast Asia. Now, I wanted to own that painting.

In the years since Taiwan, “Rooftops” has hung in our home in the “altstadt” in Oberursel, Germany, later above an elaborately carved marble fireplace in Paris, and now in the living room of an apartment in Princeton, New Jersey.

Neither of our two children understand why I love this painting. One summer, our son Adam stayed in Taipei to work while the rest of the family was on home leave. He disliked it so much that he removed it from the wall and stashed it out of sight until August.

Adam was only 5, 6, and 7 years old during those early years overseas. He doesn’t remember what made this particular piece of art “real” for me. Or why I keep dragging it around the world to hang in a place of prominence in our homes.

Hong Kong’s Kai Tak International was a city airport in the midst of densely populated Kowloon. There were mountains and hills and multi-story apartment buildings surrounding it. The runway protruded into the sea. Reclaimed land kept extending its’ length as airplanes grew bigger. 

kai tak runway into kowloon bay

But there was something even more remarkable about it than just longevity. Pilots of all airlines regarded it as one of the most difficult airports in the world to land a jet smoothly and safely. Because Kai Tak was renowned for its’ challenging, hair-raising approach to the runway. For a spectator on the ground witnessing jumbo airliners land was eye-popping entertainment. As a passenger in a window seat–it took my breath away.

45 degree turn to runway
landing approach into kai tak
skimming rooftops part of a normal day

One commercial pilot with 30+ years of experience remembers, “As a pilot, it was totally unique. It was the only major airport in the world that required a 45-degree turn below 500 feet to line up with the runway, literally flying between the high-rise buildings, passing close to the famous orange and white checkerboard as you made that final turn toward the runway.”

making the turn with checkerboard marker
night time view of landing pattern

With two sleeping children who were oblivious, I watched with my forehead pressed against the window while the pilot executed that sharply arced turn to align with the runway. As the engines decelerated, the fuselage and wings seemed to barely skim the flat tops of square-shaped apartment buildings–block after block after block of them. In slow and slower motion, I looked down onto rooftops, laundry flapping on clotheslines, children playing, and Chinese faces with features easily distinguishable, turned upward. It was a bird’s eye view teeming with life. 

Landing at Kai Tak was tricky partly because of a prominent hill blocking what would normally be a straight-on approach to the runway. Another daunting reason for a truly “white knuckle” landing was inclement weather.

A Cathay Pacific pilot reflects, “This [landing on runway 13] was quite a challenge, especially in strong wind conditions. As Cathay pilots, we had plenty of practice and became very adept at flying the approach…but it was quite a challenge for pilots from other airlines, especially in the more demanding flying conditions, as they might only come into Kai Tak once a year.”

Wind was one very big problem. Rain and low ceiling cloud cover were another. Because of the unique approach over the city,  it was important for pilots to have a good view of the runway in order to avoid overshooting the turn on the approach.

A retired pilot recalls watching unsuccessful landings from the ground. “Being at the Kai Tak car park watching airplanes land in heavy rain could be very worrying. The pilots could not see the runway, and landing over Kowloon, you had to be visual with the runway. Some [pilots] seemed to wait a little longer than others before they aborted the landing and went around for another go. Some would appear out of the low clouds on the approach path, then power up and vanish back into the clouds.

Another year I was traveling alone back to Singapore via Hong Kong.  The descent began in extremely foul weather. There was rock and roll turbulence, heavy rain, and no visibility as we neared the airport. Everyone strapped in, no rooftop views, just a wish and a prayer to be on solid ground. The plane angled and tipped drastically with a big “bump”. Suddenly, the engines powered into high acceleration as the nose pulled upward sharply. We were pinned back in our seats, gripping armrests. The cabin was silent. No explanation from the flight deck. We swung around for another try. 

circling for another try

Vivid memories tie me to that now defunct airport of crazy turns, aborted landings, and inhabited rooftops appearing like colorful concrete terraced gardens in the sky.

rooftops like gardens in the sky

And that is why a painting always hangs on a wall of our home depicting blocky, geometrically aligned squares and rectangles in colors of red, blue, yellow, green, and mustard brown.

“rooftops”, painted by heloiza montuori, 1999

The other story, mentioned as family lore, has tried to remain buried at the bottom of mothering mistakes. But it is the one our son most definitely remembers. In today’s world of air travel the same series of circumstances would never happen again. It was bad enough 30 years ago.

Our first home leave trip was not until 1989, the second summer away from the U.S. I made the trip alone with the children, husband coming later. Four-year old daughter did not sleep for the interminable hours from Singapore to Hong Kong to California to Arizona where we had one final flight before meeting grandparents in Iowa.

She passed out in deep slumber as we landed at the Phoenix airport. There was no plane change, simply a one-hour layover to pick up additional passengers and a new crew. I asked the flight attendant if I could leave soundly sleeping child to run into terminal and make a phone call about our very delayed arrival to Des Moines.

Taking seven-year-old son, we disembarked and found the pay phones. Twenty minutes later we were back at the gate.

The jet-way door was locked. The plane was no longer there.  A new crew had boarded quickly and, because the flight was well behind schedule, a decision was made to depart right away. I went into panic mode, pleading that my child was asleep in the back of the plane. IT COULD NOT POSSIBLY HAVE LEFT! The flight attendant who had [minutes before] agreed to my brief leave-taking “forgot” to mention sleeping child. The gate agent told me it was too late, the plane was in the sky.

In actuality, the plane taxied to the departure runway, was cleared for take off and began acceleration. As a new crew member prepared to take her jump seat, she discovered a small girl in the back of the plane with no adult nearby. A hasty call to the flight deck and jet engines were powered down seconds before lift off. The plane returned to the gate.

I did not look at the faces of the other passengers as I re-boarded, holding tightly to the hand of the child with me. I knew they were appalled at the situation and angry about the further delay.

In the long walk to the back of the plane, I focused only on the shining face of my now awake child, eyes blinking and small blond head bobbling back and forth above the seat, calmly wondering what was going on.

Two stories–one of a plane swooping low over flat rooftops teeming with life, the other of a plane that left the gate…early.  A painting reminds me of one. A heart-stopping memory will not let me forget the other.

Both are reminders that life unfolds as a collection of stories–some of them expand the world we know, as when we see or do something extraordinary, and others remind us there is a world of unexpected, too.

Somewhere in between is where we live.

Becoming a Casual Animal

Every one of us is called upon, perhaps many times, to start a new lifeto embrace one possibility after anotherthat is surely the basic instinctBarbara Kingsolver, High Tide in Tucson

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In 1989 Ray Oldenburg coined the term “third place” to define an essential zone separate from home and the people you live with [“first place”] and work [“second place”]. Third place is your hangout, an informal social space with no dress code and a welcoming vibe that invites you to return again and again.

A third place is also one’s anchor to community life. You are drawn to it because it is socially fun, playful, and light-hearted. It’s where you go to chew the fat, discuss issues, ventilate, play games, or get to know someone.  It is “…where you relax in public, encounter familiar faces and make new acquaintances.”

Third place is like pitching a tent in your back yard. It is home away from home.

When life opportunities create a geography change and your third place is left behind, it’s important to find a new one. And if what you are looking for can’t be found after searching, a creative instinct might emerge “…to start a new life…to embrace one possibility after another”.

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This is Kyle’s story. He grew up in Kansas, in the heartland of America. From the age of five, he began drawing images–people, animals and made up characters. Riding in the car during family vacations, he drew the storylines from books-on-tapes while the rest of the family listened. While still a high school student, Kyle knew he would pursue an artistic course of study at university. He graduated in Fine Arts and Graphic Design.

In 2006, Kyle’s first job took him away from home and long-term friends to Fort Collins, Colorado. He started out living in the basement of a relative’s house. It was isolating for a young man. He needed friends his own age and a place to socialize with them.

A booming craft beer industry was the catalyst for many microbrewery openings in Fort Collins. Kyle found his “third place”, along with a friendly social circle, in the evolving scene.

Later, in a widening circle of mutual friends, Kyle met Lara. They enjoyed camaraderie in the breweries, but also shared a strong sense of community service. Together they coached Special Olympic basketball and softball for disabled adults.

When Lara accepted a new job in another state, Kyle’s mother said, “I thought he would never leave Colorado. So when he followed Lara to Kansas City, I knew she was the one he would marry.” They did.

In 2014, the craft brewery scene in Kansas City, Missouri was not as mature as the one left behind in Colorado. Lara and Kyle searched but couldn’t find the informal, social environment they were looking for in their new hometown.

Creative “can do” instincts took over. Kyle had experimented with beer making in the past. Now he became serious, bought equipment, and began home brewing in the basement. He went to weekend fairs, gave away samples, and won some tasting competitions, too. Feedback was consistent and positive.

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He read book after book about the chemistry of beer making, industrial brewing equipment, hops and grains and flavor additives as well as how to open a small business. He enrolled in the American Brewer’s Guild Intensive Brewing Science and Engineering program. The final weeks of coursework were on site in Vermont.

Kyle befriended local KC brewers by cold calling them. He volunteered to work one day each week to help them brew commercial batches. He gained knowledge and a warm welcome into the community of micro-brewers. By now an idea was actively fermenting.

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logo designed by kyle

Over the next couple of years, Kyle and Lara drafted a business plan, found real estate property to buy, cultivated investors, and a bank loan. In a former commercial garage space, Kyle designed a back-of-the-house brewery with a front-of-the-house taproom. Doing most of the interior construction, alongside family members who pitched in time and expertise, Lara and Kyle founded a craft brewery on the principle of creating a social community space and then giving back to it.

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kyle and his dad building the deck
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lara after new equipment installation
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In early February 2018, Casual Animal Brewing Company opened its’ doors at 1725 McGee Street in the Crossroads area of downtown Kansas City, Missouri. Their signature motto is: “Laid back beers that tap into your wild side.”

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1725 McGee St, Kansas City, Missouri

Casual Animal runs eleven full taps. Each has its’ own beer style, name, and an original logo of Kyle’s design. Animals are a recurring theme. Names are metaphorically linked to the style of brew. Customer favorites include Chaos Monkey [a banana cream pie ale], to Honey Wheat light ale, Nomo Rhino IPA, Branch Out Stout, and Hop The Fence IPL.

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one “flight” is 5 tasting choices
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menu changes by popular requests and brewer’s creative recipes
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full house
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front door open, weather permitting
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casual animals hanging out

Tying into Kyle and Lara’s commitment to community service, Casual Animal taps into the ethic of “giving back” by designating a rotating beer called Local Motive. The beer style changes quarterly along with the charitable organization the staff votes on to support. Two dollars of every pint of Local Motive sold is donated. In-house events promote the spirit of the current charity.

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brut IPA featured for one local motive promotion
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designed by kyle–graphics and artwork for quarterly local motive tap

The most recent charity promotion was the Kansas City Pet Project, a nonprofit pet shelter that guarantees every stray animal a home. Kittens and puppies were brought into the brewery for customers to play with and cuddle. A completely contagious combination–adorable baby animals plus eleven beer styles equals fun AND donation success!

Unless you are a real brewer, all there is to know about the process of grain and hops and water turning into deliciously drinkable beer is the basics of what happens in Casual Animal’s back room. Inside a series of huge shiny stainless steel tanks,  Kyle’s chemistry know-how is mixed with the help of fermentation, time…and recipe magic.

Hot Liquid Tank water is piped into the Mashtun Tank where grains are mixed together and cooked. Next, this mash up is transferred to the Brew Kettle where hops [and sometimes other flavors] are added. After time in the Kettle, the liquid is piped into the Fermenting Tank, leaving behind all the grain residue. Now yeast is added and fermentation begins. This takes approximately two weeks depending on the kind of beer. From the Fermentation Tank, beer is transferred to the Brite Tank for carbonation and clarifying. And finally, kegs are filled and stored in the massive walk-in refrigerator that feeds the taps at the front-of-the-house. 217 gallons of beer per brew.

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walk in refrigerator with full kegs
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keg feed from refrigerator to taproom
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looks like this on the other side

Cycle complete. As for the magic? Well, every time I sip Casual Animal’s velvety dark nitro stout, it’s easy to believe in magic.

When I asked Kyle to talk about his favorite beer tastes, he said, “Well, it depends on the day. On cold, snowy days, I would say smooth, slight malty sweetness, and roast-y to describe a tasty pint of Nitro Stout. Other days it might be an IPA with resin-y, fruity, and bitter characteristics imparted by the hops. Now, is anyone thirsty?”

There is passion and precision in Kyle’s word selection that describes every beer Casual Animal makes. That same passion speaks of a man who dreamed of possibilities and pursued them with intense preparation. And labor. And love.

The truth is, when Kyle couldn’t find his “third place”–he built one.

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…Let me be a good animal today. Let me dance in the waves of my private tide, the habits of survival and love…–Barbara Kingsolver, High Tide in Tucson

Casual Animal Brewing Company, 1725 McGee St., Kansas City, Missouri 64108

www.casualanimalbrewing.com

Instagram and Facebook: Casual Animal Brewing Co.

On 10-10-18, Lara and Kyle produced a new brand of casual animal sweetness and introduced her to the world. Welcome Sloan Kasey!

Home Is Where You Are, Even Overseas

A new experience can be extremely pleasurable, or extremely irritating, or somewhere in between, and you never know until you try it out. Lemony Snicket, The Blank Book

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artist rendition of singapore, 1980s

There are myriad ways to experiment with life. Moving away from the known or familiar is one way to keep things interesting. Finding enriching friendships is another.

In the late 1980’s, a new job opportunity nudged our family geographically away from the comfort zone in middle class America. Our two children were young and adaptable. As the decision-making adults we took a chance–letting go of two jobs, two cars, a house in the ‘burbs of Denver, Colorado. Just for a couple of years. We moved to Southeast Asia.

From the beginning, everything we saw, smelled, ate, drank, or experienced in those first years in Singapore laid the foundation for what followed over the next three decades. We moved to four other countries. Singapore was the catalyst to keep experimenting.

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Singapore when we moved there, 1987
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shopping, late 1980s

My husband remembers pacing the aisles of the airplane as we flew there for the first time, children sleeping peacefully, worrying about what he had wrought on our family. How would we adapt a very American lifestyle to this small, tropical, island-state with three predominant cultures–Chinese, Malay, and Indian?

Actually, it was easier than we imagined. Because of the people we met, the friends we made–living a little off balance and learning to experiment became the new norm. The first important overseas experience happened after I met Jan.

Jan was an operating room nurse–we had that in common–who left her job to follow a husband to work in Germany and then Singapore. We both missed the camaraderie of our co-workers and the hospital environment. Here we were, in a foreign country, unable to work professionally. It was time to find something else to do.

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still a lot of bicycles in 1987, singapore

There was a refugee camp located in a former British barracks on Hawkins Road in the Sembawang area of Singapore. It was established after the fall of Saigon in 1975 for Vietnamese “Boat People”. Because Singapore did not accept refugees, this camp was a transit stop before deportation to countries accepting them. Volunteer nurses were needed. Jan signed us up.

We took long bus rides to the north of the island to work in the clinic. Giving immunizations, tending injuries, dressing wounds, treating minor illnesses in men, women and children who usually spoke no English, but knew how to smile in gratitude. A steady influx of refugees created long lines of those needing help. I jumped feet first into learning the risks that other people take, too.

Friendship with Sandy provided something different. She was also an American nurse who moved to Singapore with a husband and three children several years before we did. It didn’t take long for her to start a business by filling suitcases with wholesale women’s clothing made in Hong Kong and selling them out of her home. Clothing in Singapore in the ‘80s was available only in small Asian sizes and styles. Non-Asian women were an eager and ready market for her niche.

Sandy’s home was a cozy, eclectic mix of styles and textures that I loved. When I asked where she found certain pieces of furniture or funky artifacts, she said, “We should go Kampong shopping.”

The word “Kampong” is from the Malay language, meaning village. Throughout Singapore’s early history, and well into the 20thcentury, kampongs were settlements of houses and small shops where the indigenous population lived. Initially, huts were built with palm-thatched roofs designed to let the air pass through and temper the heat of tropical sun. Later, wood and zinc replaced thatch, which seemed exotic but actually leaked horribly in monsoon rains and housed centipedes and other creepy crawlies that dropped down from overhead.

The kampong communities were close-knit, doors left open, children of Chinese, Malay, Indian, and Eurasian culture played together seamlessly. Rainwater was collected. Cats, dogs and chickens roamed in co-existence. Later, generators that sometimes worked brought electricity.

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map of known singapore kampong locations

Colonial British government began addressing overcrowding and poor hygienic conditions within the kampongs in the early 1900s. Public housing began in earnest after WWII as the Singaporean population rapidly increased.

In 1960 (prior to independence in 1965), the Housing Development Board [HDB] was established to further urban renewal. Mass demolition of shop houses and kampongs began to build affordable, low cost, high-rise, housing estates for all Singaporeans. HDB flats led to the creation of “new towns” throughout the island.

Transition from kampong living to government sanctioned housing flats allowed people to easily enjoy clean water, electricity and gas. However, life changed dramatically in the sense of decreased community spirit, less neighbor interaction, and a population of children who grew up playing on concrete, not in nature.

By the time we moved to Singapore many kampongs had been partially bulldozed or completely razed as residents moved on to modern living. Tropical heat, humidity, and prolific vegetation growth from daily rains rapidly invaded and took over abandoned sites.

Sandy knew locations of deserted kampongs where, if you dared to venture into the overgrowth of tenacious weeds and jungle vines, dodge snakes and crawling things, repel dengue-fever-bearing mosquitoes, you could unearth left behind possessions with potential for renewal and use.

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in the jungle, 1988-’89

It was the Singapore equivalent of an archeological dig, with a recycling component. Here we witnessed the life of a community after the community had moved on.

Kampong shopping was always a dirty, sweaty proposition of hunting, excavation and fun. Rewards were in the discovery. We found crocks used for storing water, oil or food, incense burners, altar tables, tea pots, baskets, dragon pots, glass jars, marble lamp bases, teak tables, a wooden kitchen cabinet with rusted screens. We hauled our “treasures” home and spent hours cleaning or refinishing them. They functioned as decorative or usable artifacts, with a back-story.

Then there was my Singaporean friend, Mary, who lived in the apartment building next to ours.  She was a tiny woman who loved food–as culturally important to her as Chinese matrilineal family hierarchy. Mary would call me on the phone and say, “I’m picking you up to go eat!” The food in Singapore was, and is, phenomenal. This is the country where my taste buds learned to crave anything spicy. Mary was my guide.

We ventured all over to her favorite “Hawker Centres”–informal, open-air food stalls specializing in Chinese, Malaysian, Indonesian, or Indian food. Cooked on order, on site, eaten with chopsticks while sitting on plastic stools at plastic tables on the sidewalk.

I tasted Nonya Laksa [Laksa Lemak] for the first time at Peranakan Place on Orchard Road–a spicy noodle soup in curried coconut broth with prawns and a quail egg. Carrot cake [Chai tow kway] is not cake and not carrots, but a favorite hawker dish of mine. Steamed white radish and rice flour cut into cubes and fried with garlic, eggs, preserved radish and other spices. Whatever Mary ordered I ate, sweated through, and loved.

Singapore was the beginning of making friends who lived as we did, away from the usual, outside the familiar. People who say “yes” to living outside of the box.

I thrived in our international moves because of every friend I made. Sometimes it was hard to leave one place to rebuild relationships in the next. But the easy part was sustaining those friendships because of everything we experienced together.

Creating relationships and life lessons is really what overseas living is about. In such a nomadic lifestyle, the key is making a home where you embrace friends as family. Anywhere in the world.

A REASON, A SEASON OR A LIFETIME

When someone is in your life for a REASON, it is usually to meet a need you have expressed. They have come to assist you through a difficulty, to provide you with guidance and support, to aid you physically, emotionally, or spiritually. They are there for the reason you need them to be. Then, without any wrongdoing on your part, this person will say or do something to bring the relationship to an end. Sometimes, they die. Sometimes, they walk away. What we must realize is that our need has been met, our desire fulfilled; their work is done. The prayer you sent has been answered. Now it is time to move on.

 Then people come into your life for a SEASON, because it is your turn to share, grow, or learn. These people bring you peace or make you laugh. They may teach you something you have never done. They give you an unbelievable amount of joy. It is real, but only for a passing season.

 LIFETIME relationships teach you lifetime lessons, things you must build upon in order to have a solid emotional foundation. Your job is to accept the lesson, love the person, and put what you have learned to use in all other relationships and areas of your life.author unknown

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sandy’s teak kampong table

Hack #4: Care About Cast Iron

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cast iron skillet with lid–before seasoning

A solid Dutch oven, a cast iron skillet, and an excellent knife with a fine blade–the good life. –Anonymous

Cast iron cookware is one of the things to have in your life–but only if you love it.

An iron skillet is a link to the past [one of the oldest cooking tools in any kitchen], relevant to the present and can be passed into the future. It connects you to the people who used it before–to the everydayness of their lives.

Cast iron is durable on top of the stove and inside the oven. It retains the flavor of foods cooked in it and is considered to be superior for cooking in general. Cast iron grabs heat and holds it. It is not Teflon, something you throw away when it becomes scratched and used. Cast iron will outlive you and begs to be passed on.

There aren’t many things in modern life that are passed down through generations and remain both beautiful and useful.Ronni Lundy, historian of Appalachian food

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vintage cast iron, seasoned to the sheen of glass

Older cast iron is considered by purists to be superior. It is made with higher quality raw materials and the interior surfaces are smoother. A good vintage pan will be completely black in color and almost glassy in the texture of its’ interior surface. Seasoned right it becomes nonstick. Pitted surfaces on newer cast iron allow food to stick. It’s also more difficult to season.

Several summers ago, I met “Cast Iron Don” in an antique mall in Saugatuck, Michigan when my daughter and I were on a mom/daughter getaway. Don is a consummate collector of vintage cast iron, owning more than 100 pieces. He uses only two.

Don offered a wealth of cast iron history and information when he spotted my interest in a marked “Griswold, Erie, PA” skillet for the reasonable price of $17.00. He said it was the best-priced-name-brand-cast-iron-piece in the whole market.

Cast iron cookware was made in the U.S. from the 18th century to the first half of the 20th century. Griswold, Wagner, and Sidney were brand names casting pans in foundries, which also made farm tools and weapons. Each piece was poured and polished by hand which took hours of human labor, but produced a notable difference. They were lighter, thinner, with a smoother interior.

Today, some cast iron pans are being made this way but, with labor costs as they are, prices are in the hundreds of dollars for a contemporary artisanal skillet. For the fun of a treasure hunt you can find vintage cast iron in your relatives’ kitchens, garage sales, estate auctions or flea markets at a fraction of the cost of anything new. Many of them will already be seasoned.

Well-seasoned cast iron is the equivalent of a broken in pair of well-loved jeans. This is what makes it both beautiful and utilitarian.

Cast iron is porous. To make a nonstick cooking surface it needs oil for protection. Seasoned correctly, oil bonds with the iron pores. When exposed to heat, the polymer chains link and form a durable, slick coating surface.

Back in Michigan, Cast Iron Don has refined his own techniques for rehabbing antique ironware. I don’t recommend any of his rather dangerous methods. Vats of lye, boiling water, hoses, and protective wearing apparel require a lot more time and caution than most consumers need to muster.

Rusted or mistreated skillets can often be restored with a simple steel wool scrubbing before re-seasoning. Or, use coarse salt mixed with oil and rub mixture around with a paper towel. For a super tough buildup of dirt and grime, place pan in a self-cleaning oven for one cycle. Sediment flakes off and can be wiped away.

After cleaning, the important next step is to season iron correctly.

  1. Animal fat! Use lard, bacon grease or Crisco. [Do not use vegetable based oils because they leave a sticky residue and you have to start over, so no olive oil.]
  2. Coat the entire surface including edges. Place upside down in 500 F. or 260 C. oven over a piece of foil. Bake 1 hour 15 minutes.
  3. Cool gradually in oven with door ajar. Once thoroughly cooled, wipe off any excess oil.

Cast iron needs to be cleaned in a specific way.

  1. Do not soak in water, put in dishwasher, or use soap.
  2. A hot water rinse using a stiff brush to clean off residue will keep seasoning intact. If necessary, use a small plastic scraper first.
  3. Dry completely. I always air-dry, but my daughter puts her cast iron on the stove over a low flame, briefly, to evaporate water.
  4. If necessary, wipe with a thin coat of oil and buff with paper towel.

Use your cast iron often. For everything! Consider it an heirloom to be passed on and on and on from generation to generation. Embody it with your own family’s cooking lore. Someone else may get a taste of it down the road…

Two classic cast iron skillet recipes:

DUTCH BABY, SWEET – serves 2

  • Start with ingredients at room temperature.
  • In a bowl, whisk together 3 large eggs.
  • Then whisk in ½ C. flour, ½ C. milk, 1 T. sugar, ½ tsp. vanilla, and a pinch of nutmeg and salt.
  • Melt 2-3 T. butter in 10-12 inch cast iron skillet by placing in oven at 425 F. [220 C]. Watch so butter doesn’t burn! As soon as butter melts, pour in the batter.
  • Bake for 15-20 minutes until puffy and golden.
  • Cut into wedges and serve immediately with choice of toppings: maple syrup, confectioner’s sugar, confiture [jam], cinnamon sugar, or fresh berries.
  • Makes an excellent, light, breakfast pancake.
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with confectioner’s sugar topping

DUTCH BABY, SAVORY

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dutch baby savoury ingredients in kitchen window with a view
  • In a large bowl, whisk together 1 C. + 2 T. flour, ½ tsp. salt, ½ tsp. pepper.
  • In a separate bowl, combine 8 large eggs and ¾ C. whole milk.
  • Whisk wet ingredients into dry until just combined.
  • Stir in 2 T. fresh thyme, 2 T. minced chives [or parsley or tarragon].
  • Melt 2-3 T. butter in 12-inch cast iron skillet until it smells nutty and brown. Swirl to coat sides and bottom of pan.
  • Pour in batter. Scatter ¾ C. freshly grated Gruyère or Parmesan cheese over top.
  • Bake 15-20 minutes at 425 F. [220 C.] until puffy and golden.
  • Serve with lemon wedges and Siracha sauce. Both add a lot of flavor!
  • Perfect brunch or hors d’oeuvre dish.

The Grown-Up Table

Long ago, M.F.K. Fisher [1908-1992] wrote about the art of good eating in one of these combinations: “one person dining alone, usually upon a couch or a hillside; two people…dining in a good restaurant; six people…dining in a good home.”

Fisher suggests that six people, together in a private dining room, form the ideal dinner party combination. The reason is simple; that number engenders the best conversational banter.

The six should be capable of decent social behaviour: that is, no two of them should be so much in love as to bore the others, nor at the opposite extreme should they be carrying on any sexual or professional feud which could put poison on the plates all must eat from. –mfk fisher

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dinner for six

Her other requisite for a memorable party is to make the usual unusual, the ordinary extraordinary. In other words, when inviting people to your home, be playful and sometimes mix up expected rituals or habits.

I still believe…that hidebound habits should occasionally be attacked, not to the point of flight or fright, but enough. –mfk fisher

 During our years of living overseas, we have been both frequent dinner party guests and hosts in various countries and cultures. Our own rituals evolved from naive beginnings. But we improved with creativity, time and practice.

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sunday pizza night–courtyard oberursel, germany

When we first began inviting guests to dinner, I sought guidance to learn one decent dish to cook. Two Non Cooks Saved by the Brazilians After that, I shifted into doing-everything-mode; the guest list, menu planning, shopping, prepping, cooking, creating the ambience, serving and finally…retreating into a Zen moment of clean up.

Gradually, and gratefully, we changed our entertaining routine. My husband began cooking for dinner parties. He planned menus, shopped for ingredients, selected the wine, did most of the cooking and serving.

Left to my preferred activities, I prepared the table, carefully, on the day. Sometimes layering antique linens that belonged to my mother and grandmother. Filling tiny vases with small flowers or vines, alternating them with candles down the middle of the table. Scattering glass beads, randomly, to reflect the candlelight.

Later, when echoes of departing guests drifted away, I stayed up late to put the kitchen in order listening to favorite tunes on high volume. Then, lights off, I sipped a last bit of wine as candlelight faded in the living room, recalling the best parts of the evening.

My current mentor of all things culinary is Gabrielle Hamilton, owner and chef of Prune Restaurant in the East Village, New York City. Her memoir, Blood, Bones, and Butter, was a gift to me several years ago by my daughter. Since then, I have gone to Prune every time we find ourselves in NYC. Twice, late at night, I have seen Gabrielle climb the stairs from the basement kitchen and hurry out the door as diners lingered over conversation and dessert. Once, she stopped to briefly say hello and signed a copy of her book.

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Prune Restaurant, East Village, NYC

I have read Hamilton’s description about the art of a grown-up dinner party. Her words depict not only a vision of a perfect dinner but some advice for the perfect guest, too.

Gabrielle’s words from a New York Times series of articles published October 2017 are in bold italics preceded by her initials, GH. They are followed by my own thoughts and experiences.

GH: To me it has always been clear that a dinner party is about what is said, not what is eaten. There would always be wine and salad and bread and stew: chocolate and fruit and nuts and sparkling cold duck. But those were just the props — the conduits for funny and real and meaningful conversation; the set pieces of a lively, engaged, lingering old-school dinner party. The one that I have been chasing ever since…

WCU: I believe the best dinner parties are the ones you think about in the wee hours afterward. When guests have departed, before candles have been snuffed and you tumble into slumber, there are precious moments of remembering everything from mishaps such as trying to cut into underdone chicken breasts rolled in pistachio nuts to our friend Alec’s kitchen clumsiness Taiwan Green-Marble Pesto or the philosophical exchange of ideas during a group study of Joseph Campbell’s Power of Myth interviews with Bill Moyer. For me, this is the way a good party night should end–in a quiet, candle lit room reflecting on the communion of spirits present around the table hours earlier.

Conversely, if you are a guest, “debriefing” is the perfect transition while you head home. Once, in a taxi in Paris, my husband and I laughed long and hard about an enforced departure where we were offered orange juice on a silver tray followed immediately by our coats. Buh-bye now.

GH: But there were always, also, a couple of guests who knew exactly what to do. Who never arrived too early but allowed you a 10-minute breather just past the hour they were expected. Who never just plopped their paper cone of bodega flowers on the kitchen prep table in the middle of your work but instinctively scanned the cabinets for a vase and arranged the gerbera daisies then and there. They found the trash and put the wrapping in it, leaving your counters clean and your nascent friendship secured for eternity. When less-experienced guests arrived, those perfect friends guided them quickly to the bedroom to stash their coats and bags so they wouldn’t sling them willy-nilly over the backs of the chairs at the dinner table I had spent a week setting.

WCU: There is cultural variety in correct “arrival times” at dinner parties. Americans are almost always exactly on time, unless they follow Hamilton’s ten-minute rule. Europeans generally adhere to a 20-30 minute-late rule. They also thoughtfully send flowers in advance so there isn’t the scurry to trim stems, arrange, and find a vase while other dinner prep is going on. I love this idea. But if you haven’t pre-planned, then be the guest who knows how to put flowers in a container without leaving a mess.

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GH: I’ve always been against the insistent, well-meaning cleanup brigade that convenes in the kitchen before anybody has even digested. Those people who are pushing back their chairs and clearing the dessert plates from the table just as you are squeezing the oily tangerine peels into the flames to watch the blue shower of sparks, who are emptying all the ashtrays just as you are dipping your finger in the wine and then running it around the rim of your wineglasses to make tones like those from a monastery in Tibet. When I invite you over, I mean it. I mean: Sit down. I will take care of you. I will buy the food and get the drinks and set the table and do the cooking, and I will clean up after. And when I come to your house, you will do the same. I will get to have the honor of being a guest. To perfectly show up, 10 minutes after the appointed time, with a bottle in hand for you, to bring my outgoing, conversational self, my good mood, my appetite, and to then enjoy all that is offered to me, and to then get my coat at the very end and leave without having lifted a finger. It is just the greatest thing of all time…

WCU: This is my pièce de résistance, the centerpiece of all parties. I truly believe that invited guests should be the King and Queen of Everything. They should not clear plates or stack dishes or put away leftover food or wipe kitchen counters. They have been invited to be taken care of, to feel special. A guest need only bring an appetite, a good sense of humor, and their best “conversational self”.

GH: The dinner party now depends more than ever on having one frequently, offhandedly, with abandon. If there are only eight seats and you know a few are going to end up with someone who’s got his head down to check his phone every 20 minutes, or who will be drunk on red wine by the salad course, just think of next month. To know that there will always be, for you, month after month, year after year, decade after decade, a well-set table and a roast and a salad and still, always, the wine, is to know that you are always going to find along the way another perfect friend, and then yet another.

WCU: About the wine…In Taipei, we had an experience that clearly marked cultural differences around wine and a meal. Seated in the dining room of a Chinese family home, the first bottle of red wine was 1953 Château Lafite Rothschild which had been “breathing” on a side table before gently poured into each glass. A brief toast, then the tasting which was velvety, delicate and delicious. There was a pasta course generously garnished with white truffles our host had imported from Italy. He proposed another toast. This time he held his wine glass with both hands and looked directly at my husband, who followed his example but held his glass slightly lower to show respect. They executed a perfect “ganbei”, the traditional Chinese toast of draining glasses until empty. It was a time-and-place cultural experience, but tragic, too. This vintage Bordeaux wine, which we were privileged to drink once in our lives, was downed like a beer on a hot day.

At our own formal dinners we like to announce each course as it is served, giving a little description of ingredients and preparation. It’s a quirky ritual, but seemingly enjoyed by guests. We also begin the meal with a toast. One of my well-used ones originated from home cook and author, Laurie Colwin, “One of life’s greatest pleasures is eating. Second to that is eating with friends. And for an unsurpassed double whammy, there is talking about eating while you are eating with friends.” Cheers and bon appétit.

A dinner party doesn’t require formality. As Hamilton says, throw them often, even with reckless abandon. It’s about getting people together. We often entertain by making homemade pizza topped with arugula, served with champagne for Sunday night supper. There could be placemats instead of tablecloths or bare wood with a colorful Asian tapestry running down the table length. Candles always. [Kindle Some Candlelight]

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family style, at the cabin, estes park

GH: …Set the table. Arrange the chairs. Even if you can now afford real flowers, trudge across a field for a morning anyway collecting attractive branches and grasses to arrange down the center of the table — it will put you right. Roast the rabbits and braise the lentils, and clean the leeks and light all the candles. Even now, someone may get a little lit on the red wine and want to do a shot. But that may be just what your dinner party needs…When your kids come downstairs to say good night, give them a glimpse of something unforgettable.

Our children are adults now and the best ones to say what they remember about growing up overseas. Yet, I believe they might recall coming home from their own night out with friends to a dining room full of adults known to them, backlit with candles, open bottles of wine, empty dessert plates and coffee cups and, always, the lingering aura of good friendship and conversation around a table.

I can’t say whether this memory is unforgettable to them. But, to me, it is indelibly imprinted in my mind as the communion of good people around a grown-up table.

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Excerpts from “The Grown-Ups’ Table” NYT, Oct 26, 2107 [The Art of the Dinner Party]Gabrielle Hamilton, owner Prune Restaurant

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the best dining room view in Paris

Scottish Highland Liquid Sunshine

The last time I turned down a whisky, I didn’t understand the question. –Anonymous

 I always take whisky as a night preventative of toothache. I have never had a toothache. What is more, I never intend to have one. –Mark Twain

 Whisky is liquid sunshine. George Bernard Shaw

I love so many things about Scotland–except perhaps the native food culture that takes mashed up sheep innards, encases them in stomach lining and disguises the whole mess by calling it “haggis”. Scottish comfort food for some, perhaps an acquired taste for others. On the other hand, a morning bowl of hot porridge with good butter and honey stirred in, topped with fruit and a wee drizzle of whisky–well, I took to that right away. *

Our New Year’s holiday was spent in the countryside of the central Scottish Highlands, south of Inverness. We stayed in a stone cottage on the grounds of a 17th century farm in Cairngorms National Park. It was nicely decorated, outfitted with a wood-burning stove that kept the living room toasty warm. Otherwise, we wore layers.

Our excursion was inspired by the Outlander series of books by Diana Gabaldon. Each is a captivating tome of historical fiction set in 1700s Scotland, England, France, and the young U.S. colonies. There is also some time travel. Certain characters have an ability to pass through a cleft in a ringed cairn of standing stones in the Highlands and fall into a different century. Don’t let that put you off–somehow it all works. Gabaldon weaves an engrossing tale with strong protagonists that pull you right along.

The other reason we headed from Paris into the winter Highland hills is that I enjoy single malt whisky. My husband–well, he enjoys driving on the opposite side of the road. Match, game, win-win!

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driving north from Edinburgh–not a black and white photo!
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next day, a bit more color

I don’t simply like to taste or sip whisky. I need to understand it. “Distilled” into bullet points, this is what I know about the drink of my ancestors.

  • Single malt Scotch whisky is distilled and matured in Scotland from 100% malted barley and water. No other grains are added. It is the product of only one distillery.
  • It must be kept in a wood barrel for a minimum of three years in its’ country of origin. [Otherwise it is considered a “spirit”.]
  • It is at least 40% alcohol by volume.
  • The difference between Scotch whisky and Irish whiskey is in the spelling and the process of how the malt is dried. Hence, flavor differences.
  • Peat is partially carbonized plant matter [largely heather and mosses] decomposed over centuries. It is cut directly from the bogs and marshes where it forms. Its’ characteristics differ from geography to geography.
  • If there is a ready supply of peat for drying the barley during malting and firing the stills, the whisky will have a smoky flavor.
  • Location of a distillery is dependent only on a supply of good, clean, fresh water.
  • Water is of critical importance in the production of whisky. It is used for soaking the barley, making the mash, condensing, and diluting the spirit.
  • Water must be COLD, unpolluted, and as constantly flowing as possible.
  • Water picks up the influence of the peat over which it flows.
  • Every distillery is on the bank of a river or by a mountain stream or spring.
  • Water guarantees both the quantity and the quality of the end product.

It is crucial that a river runs through it

Water is also important when enjoying whisky as a beverage. You can drink it straight, unmixed, or un-chilled. Or, water can be added to bring out flavor.

Ernest Hemingway contributed to the misconception about water when he proclaimed, “Real men drink whisky straight.” An unnamed source “straightens out” Hemingway’s assertion. “There are two things everyone should know about Hemingway. First, the whisky he drank had already been diluted by the distillers before he got it; secondly, that man was an awful fool.”

If water is added to whisky, it should be “as soft and pure as you can find”–ideally, natural spring water. To enhance subtleties in flavor add an equal amount of water, depending on the whisky and its’ strength. Tap water works fine. **

Water taken in moderation cannot hurt anybody. –Mark Twain

When in Scotland never request “a Scotch”. Total tourist talk. Ask for “malt whisky” or request by distillery name to guarantee being served native spirit.

Words for whisky measures vary in Scottish jargon. “Dram” is now in common use, but there is also a “nip”, a “toot”, a “tot”, or a “wee goldie”. All equate roughly to a single measure or one shot, 25-35 ml. A double shot is 50-70 ml. Asking for “a glass” of whisky means a double pour.

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three glasses holding the same amount of whisky, a two dram pour

Measurement size is ultimately determined by the generosity of the pourer. In most Scottish bars, one dram is usual, but not always…a bartender in Edinburgh overflowed the measuring cup directly into my glass upon hearing the saga of my cell phone’s demise only moments before, after falling on rain slicked cobblestones.

With designated driver on hand, I sampled whisky from two distilleries, Tomatin [Speyside] and Dalwhinnie [Highland], because they happened to be within easy traveling distance on icy roads.

Dalwhinnie Distillery was particularly popular on New Years’ eve as it was open all day. Their sampler of six whiskies was served with individual chocolate palate cleansers on the side. I wanted to purchase something that was not exported or distributed in mainstream stores. Dalwhinnie Distillery Limited Edition is sold only on site–6000 bottles produced, 900 left.

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Dalwhinnie Distillery–six whiskies, six chocolates, and a pitcher of water too

A serendipitous Highlands coup occurred in the town of Aviemore. I walked into a shop and asked the man behind the counter where to find a liquor store. He scratched his head and said, “What? You must be American. No one says that here. We call them booze stores.”

Ben Harris is the proprietor of Cairngorms Creations, a shop of colorful knickknacks. I told him I was interested in whisky found only in Scotland to take home with me. He said, “Do you know the black whisky, Beinn Dubh? It’s made just a few miles down the road.” I had never heard of black whisky. Speyside Distillery, which produces it, is not open to the public.

December 31, late afternoon. We followed Ben’s hand drawn, not very accurate map, got lost, backtracked, and finally found a store with the right address but selling home furnishings. The glass doors were locked–early closure. I knocked, pressed my map to the door and spoke loudly through the glass, “We were sent here to buy black whisky!”

They let us in. The man behind that counter was drinking a glass of Beinn Dubh before he went home. He held it up and offered me a taste. The dark-as-night color is specific to its’ maturation in Portuguese ruby port casks. [I later learned that added coloring helps too.] I bought a bottle for my son and one for myself.

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calling the kettle and the whisky black

New Years’ eve night–after three days of sleety rain, icy snow, and bone chilling cold the clouds parted to reveal a full moon.

Killiehuntly Farmhouse and Cottage now has a Danish owner. He and his extended family were using the main farmhouse, up the hill from our cottage, for the holiday. While they ate dinner inside, we sat by a bonfire outside, drinking champagne under fog-rimmed moonlight and tossing large logs into the pit to keep warm. It was exactly where we wanted to be.

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New Years’ eve–bonfire, champagne, full moon
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and a fence post poking stick

The owner came outside wearing a tuxedo and, after chatting for several minutes [ascertaining our politics-yes indeed!], invited us in to see the restored 400 year old farmhouse, meet his family, and share a dram of…black whisky. The very same we had chanced upon that afternoon.

In the living room a fire burned brightly. The Christmas tree was adorned in Scandinavian straw ornaments. Conversation flowed easily between Danish and American cultures and across three generations from children to grandparents.

The whisky was very smooth, very black, and served neat. My husband politely, tentatively, sipped his first-dram-ever. He looked up from his glass to me…and smiled.

It was a “verra” good holiday.

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* Whisky in the morning oatmeal was not on the menu during our Scotland trip. The idea came from Gabaldon’s books. She describes steaming bowls of porridge served with butter and honey melting in. If whisky was available to the character Jamie Fraser, he would drizzle it onto his porridge. Now, in the wintertime, I make it that way at home. Sublime! [Note to self: hack this recipe for future story.]

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** I’m neither a water purist nor a Hemingway abstainer from adding water. I have my own method for the perfect water to whisky ratio. Running a very thin stream of cold water from the tap, I pass my glass under it three times. Just right.

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Dalwhinnie Limited Edition Highland Single Malt and Beinn Dubh Black Mountain Single Malt, Speyside Distillery
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Showing color variations. No added colouring on the left, caramel colouring on the right and a lot of something in the middle
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We drove by these ruins daily in the Highlands. It is Ruthven Barracks built in 1720 by King George II to keep the Scottish Jacobites in order. The barracks played in history until after the Battle of Culloden in 1745 when the Jacobites were finally defeated and Bonnie Prince Charles fled to Italy in exile.
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another view, closer in

Love and Layers of Lasagne

There are two kinds of people who make messes in the kitchen–those who cook and those who simply prepare meals.

Anna, our Latvian/Russian daughter-in-law, is one who cooks. All the women in her family chop, combine, stir, taste, and serve wholesome food from scratch. From a very young age she watched and learned from her grandmother and mother before beginning to experiment on her own.

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The cooking gene skipped around in our family. My grandmother cooked. My daughter cooks. My mother prepared food that fed us. Joy of cooking didn’t inhabit me either.

Because I care about nutrition and eating well, I put in the time required for meal prep during the years when everyone was living at home and hungry. Friends who loved stirring up tasty concoctions everyday were a regular source of inspiration. I copied their easiest ideas. One-dish meals, everything mixed together-protein, veggies and carbs, were my best efforts. This was also efficient because meals could be made in large enough quantities for leftovers.

I have never lusted for or spent any time making lasagne. To my taste, béchamel sauce is like eating wallpaper paste, bolognaise sauce so heavy with meat and thick chunks of canned tomatoes. Then, so many layers of rubbery pasta–simply too much of everything.

One December, several years ago, Anna made what she called Latvian Lasagne for our Christmas Eve dinner. It was a recipe she invented. The origins began while she was a student in university. It evolved as circumstances in her life changed. Each improvement was sparked by an episode of love.

The Beginning Episode:

In 2007 Anna left Riga, Latvia to attend Bournemouth University in the United Kingdom. While there, she bought a book for one pound Sterling called Simple Pasta. She found her bolognaise recipe and cooked it many times for herself and friends in their shared living quarters. They poured it as a sauce over different kinds of pasta or ate it as a hearty stand-alone meat and vegetable main course.

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The Second Episode:

There was a German boyfriend for a few years. His mother was a wonderful cook who took enormous pride in her meals. Anna enjoyed many excellent dinners in their home. One time, lasagne was served. But, it was a disaster. The green colored pasta was undercooked and crunchy, the sauce too dry and tasteless. All three sons complained loudly. There was drama as their mother, humiliated by criticism, slammed her hand on the table, stood up and left the room, taking a bottle of wine with her.

Anna thought the recipe could be improved. She began by using her already perfected bolognaise sauce, layered it with thin, flat sheets of pasta and baked it in the oven.

The Final, Most Important Episode:

A new relationship bloomed between Anna and our son, Adam. He told her his mother said he should eat something green everyday. So they began adding fresh spinach and basil leaves into the lasagne layers. Then he suggested a bit more cheese might enhance the final result. This became his special part of the assembly. Collaboratively, they improved the recipe to its’ final evolution and, soon after, began a new life together. Letting Go In Latvia

It was during that Christmas Eve dinner several Decembers ago that my taste buds took serious notice. This was lasagne I wanted to eat again. It wasn’t ponderously heavy. It was slightly sweetened with the addition of bacon, flavor-enhancing vegetables, liquefied and mellowed with milk and red wine reductions. The ingredients blended smoothly, beautifully, yet distinctively. You couldn’t help but comment on the wonderful combination of flavors. Everything worked in this dish. I wanted to know how to cook it.

November 2015, in the days after the terrorist shootings in Paris, Latvian Lasagne offered me respite from the shock waves that followed. Planned attacks on several cafes and the Bataclan concert theatre occurred on a Friday night. Everyone in Paris was tender and raw after the devastating events. Friends from the U.S. were arriving on vacation. We had already arranged to take them out to a restaurant for dinner.

la belle equipe memorial after paris shootings november 2015
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Eating out socially in a public setting was the last thing anyone felt like doing. Instead, I shopped in the morning on my eerily quiet market street and spent the afternoon meditatively chopping, sautéing, and stirring a bubbling pot of sauce. Then I went about setting a formal dining table, assembling and baking Anna’s lasagne to share with our guests. It was an activity I needed, focused and calming, to cook for friends we love and hadn’t seen in many years.

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That evening, six of us sat around the table, warmed by candles, nourishing food, friendship, and conversation. It was the right blend of the right ingredients and the right recipe. I remember everything, even now, entwined as it was in those world circumstances…

This month we are approaching a holiday season where family and friends gather in celebration and familiar food is often featured. Traditions in our family have benefitted from each overseas location where we have lived. Merging ideas from other geographies and people who became part of our extended family have contributed to our own evolving traditions.

With our dual culture family with us in Paris this holiday, we will chop, stir, and assemble layers of Latvian Lasagne together on Christmas Eve.

Even if you have your own traditional holiday meals, this is one of the very best cold weather comfort foods to cook for family or dinner guests.

Everything about the end result is worth the mess in the kitchen!

LATVIAN LASAGNE

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Some of the basics: flat sheets of pasta, spices, canned tomatoes in juice, white and red sauces, red wine, milk

 Ingredients for Bolognaise:

  • 2 large carrots, chopped [or diced]
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 4 large stalks celery, chopped [or diced]
  • 6 large mushrooms, chopped in half, then sliced
  • 6 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/2 lb [300 gm] thin, streaky bacon, chopped
  • 1 lb [500 gm] lean ground beef [5% fat]
  • 1 large can [600 gm] diced tomatoes in juice
  • 2 C. red pasta or marinara sauce
  • 2/3 cup [150cc] red wine
  • 2/3 cup [150cc] milk
  • 1 T. dried oregano
  • 1 T. dried basil
  • Fresh ground pepper
  • Red pepper flakes [optional]
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spinach, mushrooms, celery, carrots, onion, garlic, grated cheeses, fresh basil
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chopped and ready to cook

Ingredients for the Layers:

  •  Red sauce of choice, ~400 gm [This is approximate, but use an amount that when mixed with the white sauce covers the casserole to the edges.]
  • White Alfredo or lasagne sauce of choice, ~300 gm [As above.]
  • 8 oz. [250 gm] grated Italian blend cheese
  • 8 oz. [250 gm] grated mozzarella cheese
  • Baby spinach or torn up leaves of regular spinach
  • Fresh or dried lasagne noodles, enough for 3 layers in casserole dish [Use thin, flat sheets of pasta rather than the wavy edged variety.]

Making the Bolognaise:

  1. Heat 2 T. olive oil in large saucepan over medium heat.
  2. Sauté onion until translucent.
  3. Add carrots and celery. Cook until softened.
  4. Add bacon and cook until it turns pink.
  5. Add ground beef. Cook and stir until it turns brown.
  6. Add red wine, reduce heat and simmer until ½ has evaporated.
  7. Add milk and do the same thing.
  8. Stir in canned tomatoes with juice, red sauce, garlic, fresh ground black pepper, mushrooms, and dried spices.
  9. Keep stirring and mix everything together well.
  10. Turn heat to low for 45 minutes to one hour, cooking until mixture is thick.
  11. Take off heat and set aside.

This sauce can be used with any type of pasta.

Assembling the Layers:

  1. Wipe bottom and sides of a deep-sided casserole dish lightly with olive oil.
  2. Place a layer of noodles on the bottom. Break dry noodles to fit evenly in pan.
  3. Spread one layer of bolognaise sauce over noodles.
  4. Sprinkle a sparse layer of grated cheeses over sauce.
  5. Add a layer of fresh spinach [as much as you wish] and a few mushroom slices if you kept any aside.
  6. Cover with another layer of noodles.
  7. Repeat layers one more time.
  8. Cover all with noodle sheets.
  9. Mix red and white sauces over top and spread to edges of pan.
  10. Cover with remaining cheese, as generously as you desire.
  11. Bake 350 F. for convection oven, 385 F. for gas oven about 30 minutes. Keep an eye on it. When top is browning and bubbly, check that noodles are cooked all the way through. Take from oven. Let sit 5-10 minutes.
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first layer of noodles, sauce, light cheese, spinach
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mushrooms sprinkled in
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grating salty english cheddar
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pouring red and white sauces over top layer and spread to edges
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adam fine tunes the cheese layer
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out of the oven and straight to table

Serve immediately with salad and fresh baguette. Decant a Volnay red wine from Burgundy or pour Chablis if you prefer white. Light candles. Savor everything and everyone around the table for a long, relaxing evening.

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latvian lasagne served chez nous

Final notes:

  1. Purists will note this is not Italian style lasagne. Anna describes it more as a “pasta cake”. She believes cheese is what makes the whole thing extra delicious. Adam still does the cheesing at home. She usually thinks he overdoes it, but then says it always turns out great.
  2. You can make it non-dairy by eliminating milk, white sauce and cheeses. It then becomes a tasty “red-only-pasta-cake”.
  3. You could make it vegetarian by eliminating bacon and beef. I don’t actually know how that would taste. The bacon adds something subtle and sublime.
  4. There is no added salt. Bacon and cheese are enough.

There is flexibility in personal touches. I usually put red pepper flakes on the table because I never know other people’s preference for spiciness, but sometimes I sprinkle them inside the layers.

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anna jerofejeva ulfers

Other stories about Latvia and Anna’s family: Begin With Russian DumplingsShrooming in LatviaLetting Go In Latvia

Bugling Elk and Sacred Spaces

Every part of the Earth is sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every humming insect is holy in the memory and experience of my people. The perfumed flowers are our sisters; the deer, the horse, and the great eagle; these are our brothers. We are part of the Earth and it is part of us. Chief Seattle, native American

It’s autumn now in northern Europe where I returned a week ago. The courtyard Virginia creeper vine is reddening more each day. Heavier bed linens are in place so the window can remain open for good sleeping. Scarves donned for outdoor wear. And rain.

Still, for the moment, I’m thinking about a longer than normal summer season in Colorado. Three months at “Camp Estes”–our hillside home with Front Range views and walk-in access to Rocky Mountain National Park.

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camp estes’ long’s peak view

What made it particularly special were the visitors, different from other summers. A toddler grand-daughter’s first time to roam rocky, hilly landscapes, a reunion of women from my high school graduating class, visual apparitions of campfire spirits after two years of “no-burn” ban, s’mores with dark European chocolate, and a herd of rutting elk who wandered in–and stayed.

These events fused with other things I love; wildflowers in profusion, mountain sunrise and sunsets, thunderstorms and rainbows, low hanging clouds clearing to snow on the high peaks, elk bugling in the change of season.

Returning to the mountains is particularly significant to me because of our overseas lifestyle. For twelve summers, during the years we lived in Taipei, Taiwan, I needed to come home and recalibrate. Living and breathing for a few months at a higher altitude under clear blue skies was very different from a big Asian city of concrete, tile, and smoggy air.

The mountains give us our “spiritual geography”, a term coined by Kathleen Norris in her book Dakota. It is the place we inhabit to find our best selves.

Mythologist Joseph Campbell wrote of the importance of finding individual “sacred space”:

“A sacred space is any space that is set apart from the usual context of life. It has no function in the way of earning a living or a reputation…In your sacred space, things are working in terms of your dynamic–and not somebody else’s…You don’t really have a sacred space until you find somewhere to be…where joy comes from inside, not something external that puts joy into you, a place that lets you experience your own will and your own intention and your own wish…”

Your sacred space is where you find yourself again and again. J. Campbell

My sacred spaces begin in physical forms–a cabin in Colorado mountains, a campfire ring, and a hidden destination called “Rock on the River” where I hike alone to heal or think.

There is a chameleon-like aspect to living an overseas lifestyle, between home in the U.S. and home elsewhere in the world. In the mountains I live in jeans and soft shirts, moccasins or cowgirl boots. I drink coffee on the front porch in sunshine or on a deck overlooking Long’s Peak and Rocky Mountain National Park. I go to bed after sitting around a campfire and awaken to the smell of smoke on my pillow.

Returning home to Paris, there is a seamless slide into the city version of myself. I adapt to the rhythms around me as I sit in cafés watching people instead of coyotes, hawks, deer and elk.

Returning to the mountains is what makes this work. Feeling small and insignificant amid the backdrop of a huge landscape clears my mind. I love the smell of rapidly changing weather, poking campfires with a stick, and wild animals that roam without fences. I think about the good fortune that lies ahead–sharing this with a generation of grandchildren.

Another way to tell the story is with pictures. To those who dropped in or to those who stayed awhile, and to those who will return–a look back at the best of this season’s memories…

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“mexican hat” flowers germinated from seeds sowed over many years [without luck]. in 2005, a new cabin was built and they popped out of dormancy
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leila 15 months, discovers and wobbles on uneven terrain
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jet lag means 5:30AM sunrise with coffee on the deck
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sunset, first quarter moon rising
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avocado margaritas at ed’s cantina. description here: Sipping Avocado Margs in Summer
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leila loves fresh lime until it gets to be too much.
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horse rides at the shaka shaka [Russian for playground]
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chalk art in perfect squat formation.
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early morning reading with auntie “yaya”
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thunderstorm in sunshine
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followed by perfect rainbows
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sunset champagne
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fire ring supper with leila, deedee and yaya
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high school girlfriends reunite in estes park, photo by betty cleffman hager
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hiking in the park, photo by betty cleffman hager
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trails with big views, photo by debbie windus
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marking time with an “old time” photo
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RMNP natural beauty, photo by debbie windus
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september light, RMNP, photo by debbie windus
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“shining pine needles”, photo by mary beckey kelly
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mountain lavender, photo by debbie windus
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pre-dinner snacks for friends, photo by debbie windus
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fire ring built in 1991 has mostly remained in the same configuration. I re-arranged it a “few times” until a landscaper called it a “spiritual circle” and I quit messing with it.
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s’more ingredients: grahams, marshmellows, European chocolate choices–plain, sea salt or caramel and sea salt. whisky and wine, optional
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toast marshmellows over red hot coals, place on chocolate lined graham crackers.
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smush together, enjoy with adult beverage of choice
Campfire at Wendy's with Joyce and Dave
smoke in our eyes, photo by barb barton minquet
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summer becomes fall with elk rut. 6:30 AM bugling wake ups

CLICK HERE for 30 second video taken from front porch of biggest bull re-claiming the harem after three younger males tried a take over coup

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herding on south side camp estes
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the long’s view
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baby elk cuteness
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leila cuteness
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natural symmetry
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outside looking in
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low clouds, yellowing aspen signal change
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next day high country snow
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flame spirit turns into double horse head

And finally, to Leila: I hope the wide and wild natural world will always be part of your adventure, that you will be nurtured by its’ rhythms and beauty, and know that nature exists to support all of her creatures. You are now part of the earth and it is part of you.

Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The wind will blow freshness into you, and cares will drop away like leaves of Autumn. John Muir

Sex in a Pan

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painting by gustave moreau, french symbolist, 1826-1898

Some “firsts” you remember and others you don’t. I can’t remember my first Sex in a Pan.

Many years ago, I was told Sex in a Pan was for women only. Men don’t like it. It is something you never do alone, always with others, preferably in the afternoon.

Hemingway once said, “Never go on trips with anyone you do not love.” I say, never have Sex in a Pan with anyone you don’t like–at least a little bit. Otherwise, why go to all the trouble?

What’s special about Sex in a Pan? It’s not the equipment, which is ordinary. It’s not the getting ready, which is straightforward. It’s not the result, which is pleasurable. It is when everything comes together.

When we lived in Taiwan, I remember one Sex in a Pan party around my friend Linda’s dining table. The other guests were Asian women who had no idea what to expect. But, as with our American Thanksgiving dinners, they wanted to learn and share new customs. So they joined in…and loved it.

Sex in a Pan is like secretly swiping your finger across a thickly frosted cake. It’s what lingers in the memory after taste melts away. But Sex in a Pan is not cake. It is a decadent dessert of many layers–for sharing.

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The recipe I have carried around the world is in someone else’s handwriting. That well-worn piece of paper is the key to unlocking where I was and who I was with my first time. It’s sadly lost to memory now.

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who wrote this?

So, by default, Sex in a Pan is mine to offer anyone who loves smooth and creamy with some crunchy, slightly sour with some salty, chocolate-y, close your eyes, eat-with-a-spoon-kind-of-fun.

At the Taiwan party, inhibitions were safely shed around the table as we talked of taste and texture and guiltless self-indulgence while eating something pleasurable. There was laughter and letting go among friends. And that, in a nutty crust, is what Sex in a Pan is about.

Recently, I updated the recipe Euro-style since we live in France. The ingredient choices are different. Butter from Normandy embedded with crystals of sea salt, Chantilly whipped crème [from a can] instead of Cool Whip, dark chocolate shaved into curls instead of milk chocolate.

We were four women around the table–two Americans, one French and one German. The other three had little forewarning except I needed help to write a story.

It doesn’t really matter who or how many you gather for Sex in a Pan. Once you invite people in, they are mostly curious, ready to dabble in the unconventionally offbeat, perhaps with a touch of “double sens”, [“double entendre”, which is strangely not the expression in France]. The truth about Sex in a Pan is that what’s in the pan is simply a channel for what happens around it.

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sex in a pan parisian party

In double-sens-speak, I learned that “sensuously seductive” is said to be “croustillante” in French or “eine heisse Affäre” in German. We romanticized taste by describing the salty [yes to French butter!] and crunchy [those pecans!]. Layers of chocolate, sweetened cheese, and fluffy crème mingled in the underbelly. Tiny pellets of chocolate atop hid unexpected softness below. Voilà! Quelle langue!

We sipped Champagne and dipped into the communal dish. Late afternoon gave way to evening. And other liaisons.

When you host a Sex in a Pan party, try to keep the memory alive by having it again…and, then again.

SEX IN A PAN

Ingredients:

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  • 1 C. flour
  • ½ C. butter–best quality salted butter you can find
  • ¾ C. chopped pecans
  • 8 oz. cream cheese [let get to room temperature]
  • 1 C. icing sugar
  • 1 large pkg. instant chocolate pudding [6 ½ C. size]
  • 1 large pkg. instant vanilla pudding [6 ½ C. size]
  • 3 C. cold milk
  • 1 large container Cool Whip [or a good whipped cream]
  • 1 large dark chocolate bar

Preparation:

  1. Mix flour, butter and pecans and press into bottom of 8 1/2 x 11 inch [22 x 28 cm] pan. Bake for 20 minutes, 350 degrees F. [180 C.].
  2. Mix cream cheese and powdered sugar and spread on top of cooled crust.
  3. Spread ½ of Cool Whip or whipped cream over cream cheese layer.
  4. Mix together instant chocolate and vanilla pudding with COLD milk and beat by hand with a whisk until it starts to thicken.
  5. Spread over top of whipped cream.
  6. Spread remaining Cool Whip or whipped cream over pudding.
  7. Shave, grate and chop the chocolate bar. Sprinkle all over the top.
  8. Refrigerate until ready to serve.
  9. Serves 12-15 from one pan, depending on appetites.

Serving:

Pass out spoons, one to a person. Place Sex in a Pan in the middle of the table. In the spirit of communal adventure everyone dips in and eats spoonful by spoonful from the pan. Scoop all the way to the bottom with each bite.

So far, I’ve only known one man who said he enjoyed Sex in a Pan. He was able to rise above the gooey communal aspects others have no taste for. However, let it be known that my brother-in-law, Frank, has a very strong bias for anything chocolate.