Transcendent Picnics

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“There is more than the communion of bodies when bread is broken and wine drunk.”

–mfk fisher

MFK Fisher said that the best outdoor eating happens on the side of a hill in the early evening. Her story of a memorable picnic occurred in Switzerland in the 1930s. Ours was on a grassy meadow in Taiwan in the 1990s. Continents and decades apart, these two stories interweave because a certain combination of people, place, and food surpassed simple physical nourishment.

Fisher’s story went like this. She and her husband were building a small house above Lake Geneva, Switzerland, on a steep hillside surrounded by vineyards. Her parents came from California to visit. Late afternoon sun in June promised enough warmth for an outside meal. The four of them came carrying baskets to the construction site, after the workers left for the day. A table under the apple tree was covered with a checkered cloth and set with silver, ceramic plates and cloth napkins. Bottles of wine were placed to chill in an ancient spring-fed fountain nearby. A fire was built, ringed with stones and roofing tiles, fueled with wood shavings.

The first peas were ready to harvest. As the men picked from the terraced garden uphill, Mary Frances ran baskets downhill to her mother who quickly shelled them into a pot between her feet. The iron casserole was set over the open fire where the peas “cooked for perhaps four or five minutes, swirling them in butter and their own steam”. Salt and pepper at the last, then immediately table side.

On each plate lay a small roasted pullet. There was salad of delicate mountain lettuces, a basket of good bread. Fountain-chilled white wine generously poured. And those tender young peas–freshly steamed and seasoned! They sat sharing the harvested feast and each other’s company as the surrounding hills turned rosy and the sun began to sink. Suddenly, in a neighboring field, “…a cow moved her head among the meadow flowers and shook her bell in a slow, melodious rhythm, a kind of hymn.” Fisher never forgot it.

During the spring of our first year living in Taiwan, there was one picnic with our own perfect alignment of people, place, and food. Perhaps more importantly, I witnessed our young daughter’s awakening to this symbolic communion.

Yangmingshan is a national park just north of Taipei. It was typically crowded on weekends with cooped up city people seeking fresh air, flowers and greenery, hiking trails, outdoor recreation. Our friends, Maddy and Cabby, knew of a less populated area of the park where water buffalo grazed freely on the grassy slopes. They organized a picnic for both families on Buffalo Meadows one late afternoon. We were a small group of four adults and three young children.

Hiking uphill, we were completely enveloped in a cool, misty cloud that moistened our hair and skin with droplets of water. At the top of the trail, we emerged into a sunny green landscape with views all around. Under foot, the soft grass was perfect for lounging and playing. Out came a Frisbee and the men took the children to play on the hillside. The two little girls tired of running and tried to follow a slow moving water buffalo. He wandered on.

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lara and liza, buffalo meadows, 1994

Our nine-year-old daughter came over to watch the food preparations. There was a tiny backpacking stove along with a  battered and blackened Japanese wok in which to produce the meal. Ingredients had been previously sliced, steamed, or grated at home. Once the stove was levelled against the hillside, primed, pumped and producing enough heat, assembly began.

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ancient wok from japan still in existence

Olive oil was generously poured into the wok and heated. Thinly sliced cloves of fresh garlic were added to the hot oil. Shaking the pan continuously, the slices began to brown around the edges. Then, bite sized broccoli flowerets [already steamed] were stirred in along with freshly ground pepper. Pre-cooked penne pasta and butter were added. The whole combination was tumbled about with a large wooden spoon until thoroughly heated. Finally, a fluffy  pile of freshly grated Parmesan was layered on top and melted into everything. Lightly browned garlic slices offered toasted sweetness to the broccoli pasta. The simple ingredients combined to make a perfect one-dish meal.

Plates were passed. We sat together on the downy grass, enjoying the view, eating, laughing and talking. As the sun slid over the far hills, the air began to cool. Thimble-sized glasses of single malt whiskey were passed among the grown-ups. A breeze stirred as the light continued to fade. We put on our jackets and leaned in closer, wrapping arms around children. Sleepy four-year-old Liza was zipped into the front her father’s sweatshirt. She curled against his chest with only her blond hair showing. We continued talking as darkness descended. When the mist returned, it was time to go.

Days later, our daughter asked if I could make that picnic pasta at home. She had a faraway look in her eyes as she spoke of how much she loved it while we were in Buffalo Meadows. Watching her face and listening to her speak, it was clear to me that she had made, in her little girl mind, a connection beyond physical taste. There was something more. She was asking to go back to the feeling created on a tranquil hillside with close-knit family and friends. I never forgot it.

It’s not easy to explain why this picnic, more than 20 years ago, remains so vivid–perhaps more so to me than others who were present. Although I still love to reflect on Fisher’s story of peas, a Swiss hillside, and a cowbell, my own memory takes me to a battered wok of pasta, families encircled on a misty Taiwanese meadow, and a water buffalo…and, well, I can’t let it go.

BROCCOLI GARLIC PENNE [via Silver Palate Cookbook]

  • 1 lb. [500 gm] penne, cooked ’til just tender [al dente]
  • 2 heads broccoli, in small flowerets
  • ½ C. extra virgin olive oil
  • 10 [or more!] cloves garlic, thinly sliced crosswise
  • Freshly ground pepper
  • 4 T. [1/2 stick] good butter
  • Freshly grated fresh Parmesan cheese

Assembly:

  • Boil penne, drain, rinse under cold water.
  • Simmer broccoli in boiling water 1 1/2 minutes, drain, rinse in cold water.
  • Heat oil ~ 1 min. Add garlic and cook, shaking pan until it begins to brown ~1 min.
  • Add broccoli, stir, grind pepper on top.
  • Add butter and penne, stirring continuously until well mixed and heated through.
  • Sprinkle with freshly grated Parmesan cheese.
  • Serve immediately.
  • Pass the pepper mill.

Wendy’s suggested options:

Chopped cherry tomatoes, as garnish. Cooked chicken, black olives, green onions or leftover veggies can be added. Red pepper flakes always advisable. Original recipe calls for no added salt, so suit your own preferences. It can use some salt.

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assembled ingredients, except for parmesan

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shake garlic until it begins to brown

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add steamed broccoli and lots of pepper

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stir in pasta, butter, and combine til heated

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grated parmesan overall and cherry tomatoes to garnish

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enjoy immediately

My Market Street

When our son made his first trip to Paris in 2008, he wryly observed that the city seems to be founded on the notion to stop, have a drink, and talk with someone every 50-100 feet. Café culture has been built into centuries of French history. Within almost any radius of where you stop walking in this city, a sit-down-and-take-a-break opportunity presents itself. Locals always have a favorite café in their neighborhood or “quartier”. Here, you take a load off your feet, eat, drink, talk, muse, or hang out. It’s also the best entertainment around.

When I told a French neighbor in our apartment building about my favorite ritual at a café on our market street, she simply nodded and said I had established my “poste d’observation”. Now that’s what I tell my husband when he calls wondering where I am. I’m involved in an activity of great importance–assessing the cast of characters on any given day. Sometimes, he hurries to join me.

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the beginning of market street

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where the ritual begins

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Of course, there are market streets all over Paris—open markets, covered markets, farmers’ markets, daily markets, bi-weekly markets, organic markets. The most important is the one nearest to where you live.

I often venture to market street in late afternoon to find what looks delicious for our evening meal. If, by chance, there is an empty table at my “poste”, I take it as a sign that I must sit down for a moment or two. In warm weather seasons, I count 11 businesses with sidewalk tables on this narrow street. For my musing and entertainment, I have pledged allegiance to only one. It’s on the corner where all the action begins.

There is a children’s book by Arnold Lobel called On Market Street. It tells the story of a little boy enticed by shopping on a particular street. He buys everything from A to Z, then trudges home carrying it all. That is my experience, too, because on this small pedestrian street is just about everything I want or need.

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chickens roast, flowers bloom

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inside the covered market stalls

Butchers, bakers, patisseries, florists, cheese purveyors, books, jewelry, fruit and vegetable vendors, grocery stores, crepes, caviar, oysters, homemade pizza and pasta, middle eastern food, cafés and restaurants, coffee, tea and chocolate, wine, champagne and liquor, Italian and Greek delicatessens, candles, household decorations, a pharmacy and a dry cleaner.

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pastry art

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Before opening my wallet for the day’s necessities, I settle into an empty chair. Greetings are exchanged with the server. I order a glass of wine. This varies by the season or time of day. On a warm day, Côtes de Provence rosé is standard. In cooler temperatures, a glass of Bordeaux feels cozier under the overhead heaters. Every beverage comes with a savory nibble on the side. Something salty and always slightly stale. Homemade potato chips are the standard limp offerings. Sometimes a tiny glass of pretzels fills in. It’s what I expect and is always perfect.

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standing order: rosé and stale chips

The tables on either side of mine are occupied. To the left—a couple moves seamlessly from kissing, to smoking, to drinking beer. To the right—two women of a certain age share a crepe sucré. One has coffee, the other sips beer. I give them only a brief glance because my gaze is focused on the cobbled path in front of me. This is where the rest of the world flows by.

Best times to be positioned at “the poste” are late afternoon or early evening. Sunday morning is perhaps the most perfect day of the week to make important observations. The parade is constant. It requires full attention. And never disappoints.

Sometimes I’m absorbed by the range of footwear–spiky heels, stylish boots, flip-flops, sandals, platform shoes, sneakers, orthopaedic shoes, even chic Italian shoes on a man with crutches.

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crutches plus cool shoes

Shoppers use rolling carts called “chariots” to hold heavy purchases. They carry armfuls of baguettes.

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Or they may be laden with flowers, wine, fruits and vegetables, roasted chickens, oysters or prepared food from the “traiteurs”. On Sundays, a cacophony of sound permeates the air. Parisians are picking up ingredients for lunch at home “en famille”. Vendors hawk produce, servers rattle glasses and silverware, babies cry, friends greet each other with kisses, dogs bark and fight, children laugh and run, sometimes on bikes or scooters, music plays. And always, people talk, talk, talk over everything.

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The sweetest sights drifting by are small children and dogs, completely at home in the hubbub.

 

Sometimes I notice someone watching me watching them. The ritual is recognized. Smiles are exchanged. The parade glides by.

As the wine and stale chips dwindle, I move on to the shops and my own errands.

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time to go

Trudging homeward with arms laden, I pass the chair I recently occupied. Someone else is sitting there–watching me as I walk by…

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On Market Street by Arnold Lobel, illustrations by Anita Lobel

“The merchants down on Market Street were opening their doors. I stepped along that Market Street, I stopped at all the stores. Such wonders there on Market Street! So much to catch my eye! I strolled the length of Market Street to see what I might buy…

My arms were full on Market Street, I could not carry more. As darkness fell on Market Street, my feet were tired and sore. But I was glad on Market Street, these coins I brought to spend, I spent them all on Market Street…

On presents for a friend.”

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illustration by Anita Lobel from “On Market Street”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Two Non Cooks Saved by the Brazilians

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World Cup 2014: Germany 7, Brazil 1 [soccer-blogger.com]

There has been plenty of press about Brazil lately. Their national depression over losses in the recent World Cup barely registered with me. Recently reported problems readying venues for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro seem a minor glitch. These things usually work themselves out. Even if, in the end, there is little hot water in the hotels, as Sochi 2014. The Games must go on.

My love for Brazil comes from another place entirely. Once, many years ago, a Brazilian recipe solved my first-dinner-party-hosting angst in Singapore. An overseas friend recently reminded me of this. She was there. As it turned out, it saved her too.

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adam with his teacher, International School Cyprus, 1991

Mary [aka Mimi by her family] was part of my life in the first three of our five international settings. We met in Singapore as part of a group of friends and families who celebrated Thanksgiving and went on beach holidays together. Then, in Cyprus in the early 1990s we became better friends. cyprus-europeShe lived in the apartment above us and was our son Adam’s third grade teacher. I loved her creative style of communication. When Mary wanted to see me, an empty coffee can was lowered from the balcony above our terrace on a piece of string. Rounding the corner from the driveway, with a tin can swaying in the breeze, I knew there would be a folded piece of paper inside: “Meet after school for a brisk walk” or “Come up for a wee dram of scotch” on her tiny balcony. Often it was both. Later, in Taiwan, we were part of a group of women who bonded during weekly Friday afternoons with wine and hors d’oeuvres in each other’s homes. “Wine and Unwind” sessions solved most of the world’s problems, at least during those years.

The first year in Singapore we accepted many invitations to dinners, parties and holiday events. By the next year, we were past due in repaying friends for their hosting kindnesses. At the time, I barely cooked and certainly nothing worthy of dinner party fare. I consulted cookbooks and generally worried about what to do. For the family, I tended to stick to one-dish meals, everything mixed together without all the fuss and muss of separate courses. I took MFK Fisher’s advice to heart; an in-home dinner party is best when served to no more than six invited guests. Since this would require several weekend party paybacks, the menu needed to be deliciously repeatable for us too.

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singaporean chili crab, courtesy of serena foxon

Singapore was, and is, ripe with fantastically fresh seafood. It’s also known for spicy cuisine from the mix of Chinese, Indian and Malaysian cultures. In the late 1980s, we regularly dined at a seaside restaurant on Punggol Point. There we feasted on chili crab that made our lips and faces sting from layers of spiciness. It was served with thick pieces of white bread to mop up the sauce. The whole thing was so delectable that no one stopped eating until the table was a littered mess of shells, claws and sauce. It was eaten informally, with the hands, wearing a paper bib. When you finally stopped, past the point of “full”, chili sauce covered both hands, went up the arms, and was smeared across cheeks and chin. There were hoses conveniently accessible afterwards.

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nyonya laksa, courtesy of fiona foxon

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walking down emerald hill road

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peranakan place, earlier days

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peranakan place, now

Another Singaporean dish I adored was Nonya Laksa. This is from the Peranakan culture, a combination of Chinese and Malaysian cuisines. It’s a coconut curry-based soup with noodles, vegetables, prawns, and hardboiled quail’s eggs. I lost my taste buds to the heat of spices in this soup and never looked back. A walk from our apartment down historic Emerald Hill Road took me to the restaurant at Peranakan Place, on Orchard Road, where I learned to eat this national treasure. It’s a double whammy to be sweating from the heat and humidity of daily tropical temperatures while simultaneously sweating from spicy food in an un-airconditioned cafe. We adapted. And loved it all.

It was actually another friend who helped solve the dinner party dilemma. Knowing that I needed simple and foolproof, she suggested a one-dish wonder, Brazilian Shrimp Stew. Finding fresh shrimp and produce was easy. Mixing them all together to cook in a large pan, even easier. To serve—a portion of rice for any size appetite with shrimp stew swimming over the top, seemed like a hostess’ dream. Easy preparation, plenty of time for socializing with guests and a tasty result—I could not ask for more.

Mary was among the groups of friends invited for dinner. At the time, she was raising twin sons and a husband, all with good appetites. Like me, she was [and is] uninspired by daily cooking. This easy-to-make stew not only caught Mary’s fancy with its’ spicy shrimp tastiness, she adopted it’s crowd pleasing potential to her own style of entertaining. Since reminding me of eating shrimp stew first under our roof, then making it her own success story, I now call it “Mimi’s Brazilian Shrimp Stew”. It has saved two non-cooks from dinner party anxiety uncountable times.

The enjoyment of Mimi’s Stew should be more global and far reaching than this shared history. It is for anyone and everyone who loves Brazil, her emotively fanatic football fans, and the simplicity of a scrumptious one-dish meal. Just add dessert. Bon appétit.

Mimi’s Brazilian Shrimp Stew

  • 1 kg [2.2 lbs] peeled shrimp
  • 1/4 C. olive oil
  • 1/4 C. chili oil
  • 4-5 large fresh tomatoes, diced, or 1 large can diced tomatoes [do not drain or seed tomatoes]
  • 1 large onion, chopped [or a combination of red and white onion]
  • 1 large green, yellow or orange bell pepper, chopped [or all three]
  • 3 T. parsley [fresh is always best, cut with scissors]
  • 6-7 crushed garlic cloves [or more]
  • fresh hot peppers, red or green, chopped and seeded [optional, or to taste]
  • 1 t. salt
  • ¼ t. pepper
  • ½ can unsweetened coconut milk [or the whole can because what else will you do with the rest?]

Heat oils. Add all ingredients except milk. Cook 10-15 minutes. Remove from heat. Add coconut milk. Serve over rice. Use chopped green onions and fresh lime wedges as garnish. Squeeze lime juice over the stew table side. Serve with good bread to mop up the sauce.

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basic raw ingredients

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ingredients ready to cook

In Mary’s words: “I have made this recipe many times. Since you don’t specify how many it feeds, I just add more of everything if it doesn’t look like enough.”

Spoken like a true non-cook, who adapts.

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cooking for 15 minutes

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mimi’s stew

I made this twice recently for back to back dinners and it serves six easily.