Hack #5: Finally, The Best Salad Dressing Ever

In our family, birthing babies and salad dressing share a story. It began three and a half years ago after the birth of a first grandchild and my small role in helping feed tired and hungry parents. Babies and Rice So Very Nice

still tired but photogenic several weeks later [2016]

Recently, I learned something new about dressing a salad from an article about an Italian restaurant in New York City. With a surprise ingredient [warm water] and a special twist in the assembly, there is now a best-ever-homemade-green-salad-dressing to have on hand in the home refrigerator. This one tops them all. So dump those bottles of preservative laden grocery store sludge.

Full disclosure: I have poached and improved a recipe from Via Carota resto in Manhattan’s West Village. The New York Times article stated that people who ordered the “Insalata Verde” swore the dressing was delicious enough to eat on its’ own by the spoonful. I had to see what the fuss was about.

Via Carota, NYC

Via Carota is a charming Italian restaurant featuring exposed brick, cozy wood, and ambient decor. There are no reservations. Since the article appeared in the newspaper, it is always packed. Plan on waiting for a table or try to slip onto a stool at the bar.

I invited my Manhattan based sister-in-law to join me for lunch. We decided to split the “Insalata Verde” as it is a veritable mountain of fresh greens, enough for two, or more, people. We were deep in conversation when the salad arrived.

the infamous green salad at Via Carota

Digging in, we continued talking until I finally blurted out, “Let’s debrief this dressing. All I taste is oil and salt. Where are the other flavors? I wouldn’t eat this with a spoon, even metaphorically.” 

Too much oil, too much salt, but an inspiring blend of other ingredients is the reason a well-publicized recipe from a popular NYC restaurant became an even better one in my own kitchen.

The ingredients are common. And usually found in most home pantries. Well…except, perhaps, for aged sherry vinegar and shallots.

There are a couple of quirks in assembling the dressing. The first is to rinse minced shallots in cold water. Second is to add one tablespoon of warm water to the vinegar and shallot mix and let sit briefly. And third, the greens should be slightly damp before dressing them. For this, a salad spinner is handy.

Use any amount of the freshest greens you can find. A hearty combination of butter lettuce, endive, romaine, red leaf lettuce, watercress, spinach, arugula, and/or the jumbo mixed box of salad found in every supermarket.

The recipe makes enough for more than one use, unless you are preparing salad for a crowd. Stored in the refrigerator it tastes even better the next time. And the time after that.

The tweaks I made to the Via Carota recipe are minimal. Cut the oil, double the garlic, adjust the salt. Modify to your own tastes. Get creative and spoon it over vegetables, or meat, or inside a sandwich as the bread spread.

This dressing is loaded with substance in the form of solid bits of shallots and mustard seeds. The small addition of warm water softens the vinegar edge and smoothes the blended flavors harmoniously, making it sublime.

As a final editorial, here are the three reasons you never need store bought dressing.

  1. Ten minutes of delicious homemade dressing preparation is a good use of time.
  2. Dinner guests and family will rave about a simple green salad. Every single serving.
  3. With a jar already in the refrig, meal planning is simplified.

At the very least, make the Best Green Salad Dressing Ever, just once. Then you will understand the urge to dip in and eat it off a spoon.

BEST GREEN SALAD DRESSING EVER

Ingredients:

  • 1 large shallot, minced
  • 2 T. plus 1tsp. aged sherry vinegar 
  • 1 T. warm water
  • ½ C. extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 ½ tsp. Dijon mustard
  • 1 ½ tsp. whole-grain mustard [with seeds]
  • 1 ½ tsp. honey [optional, but I always use it]
  • 2 sprigs thyme, washed and stripped [or use dried thyme leaves]
  • 2 cloves garlic, finely grated 
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
E-V olive oil, aged sherry vinegar, honey, Dijon mustard, whole grain mustard, S & P, garlic, shallot
minced shallot and grated garlic

Preparation:

  1. Wash the greens in cold water and discard any stems or brown pieces. Spin in salad spinner, wrap in clean dishtowels, and set aside.
  2. Rinse finely minced shallot in mesh strainer under cold water. Drain. Place in a bowl.
  3. Add sherry vinegar and the tablespoon of warm water. Let sit for two minutes.
  4. Whisk in oil, mustards, honey, thyme, grated garlic, and a pinch of salt.
  5. Taste and adjust salt and vinegar as needed. [Using these measurements, I have not found it necessary to adjust anything.]

Serving:   

Place prepared greens in a large serving bowl and drizzle dressing over, tossing to lightly coat. [I don’t like a heavy coating of dressing, so drizzle to your taste.] Generously grind black pepper over the top. Toss again. Taste and serve.

Refrigerate remaining dressing in a glass jar. If the refrigerator temperature is very cold and the olive oil has slightly solidified when you want to reuse, let sit at room temperature for a couple minutes, shake it up, and it’s good to go. 

leftovers for another day

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 Tien Mu 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. Children 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, a green 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 as hot as it will go. 500-550 F. Heat is crucial to good pizza. You must keep an eye on it as it can burn easily.
  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

People Who Pull the Magic Out of You

I knew when I met you an adventure was going to happen. –Winnie-the-Pooh

The important relationships in my life are best explained by this quote: Stick with people who pull the magic out of you and not the madness. These are the people who fill in my gaps with their strengths. They have characteristics I love and want to absorb when we are together. They are the ones with whom I am always comfortable.

I have written about my overseas friend, Janmarie, in an earlier story, Hellenic Halloumi. We saw each other almost every day for the three years we overlapped while living in Nicosia, Cyprus. She came to my kitchen table on weekday mornings for coffee and conversation after dropping off her children at the International School.

In 1993, our family moved from Cyprus and the daily connection was left behind. It was before email and international phone calls were common so we lost touch with the changes in each other’s lives. In 2018, our last year living overseas, Janmarie was in Beirut, Lebanon while I was in Paris. She urged me to visit her before we left Europe. I didn’t hesitate to say “yes”.

Friends are the family you choose. –Jess C. Scott

In an overseas lifestyle, distant from home-country and relatives, new relationships are built to take their place. Friendships tend to be intense and become surrogate family on holidays, vacations, and for celebrations.

My mother visited us the first Christmas we lived in Taiwan. We had just arrived a few months earlier. She was surprised by the closeness of friendships we had already established in a short period of time. She said that we were at a depth of relationship and caring about people we had known for only months that could take years to develop at home.

Having lived in Singapore and Cyprus before, we knew that filling in the details of our home away from home started with the people who came into our lives by chance…and shared geography.

Janmarie met me at the airport in Beirut. We slipped into easy conversation on the way to her apartment as if it had been 25 minutes instead of 25 years. She told me how important it was to her that I made the effort to come to her home, how much it honored her, and our friendship.

A true friend is one you can go extended periods without seeing or talking to, yet the moment you are back in touch it’s like no time has passed at all.–Ellie Wade

Janmarie’s plan was to immerse me in the beauty and culture of Lebanon. Generosity and freshly prepared food are hallmarks of Lebanese hospitality.  After we arrived at her apartment, the dining room table was laid with an array of dishes made in preparation of my visit.

Because I had watched Janmarie feed her family in Cyprus, I knew the importance and love that goes into making nourishing and delicious food followed by sitting  à la table en famille in Lebanese/American households. An abundant table with my friend’s vivacious spirit was the perfect beginning.

at janmarie’s table

Janmarie introduced me to Marti, an American of Lebanese heritage who grew up in Kansas and now lives upstairs. She is a scholar and an intellectual, studying the Quran with a private teacher, working her way through reading and reciting all of the holy prayers in Arabic. Marti became a new friend because of an old friend. We connected right away.

The three of us took a day trip outside Beirut to the beautiful Shouf Mountains and the picturesque village of Deir el-Qamar [Monastery of the Moon], which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Along the way we stopped for coffee and a typical pastry snack, ka’ak [Arabic for cake]. It was savory rather than sweet–a ring shaped bread “purse” filled with cheese and covered in sesame seeds. At lunchtime we dined al fresco, under trees overhanging a restaurant patio, with freshly prepared traditional hot and cold dishes to share.

My favorite cultural experience was the “Hubbly Bubbly” ritual. This is a tall water pipe that sits on the floor and is used for vaporizing flavored tobacco. It is available in every bar, restaurant or café. Janmarie chose a mint/lemon flavor for me. Not a smoker by habit, but there was enjoyment in relaxing with friends and making big puffs of smoke from an aromatic hookah in the midst of others doing the same. When in Lebanon, do as…

hubbly bubbly time

We spoke about the Cyprus years when our children were young and life had a different framework. But we shifted seamlessly to exchanging stories of experiences, perspectives and beliefs that define who we are today. It’s an important quality for ongoing friendships–each person capable of keeping the relationship moving forward, while savoring shared times from the past.

The day before I left, I asked Janmarie to cook one of my favorite Lebanese dishes, Mujadarah. She taught me to make it years ago when my forte was preparing only one-dish meals for my family. Mujadarah is a lentil/rice casserole smothered in fried onions. I probably served it alone because it is flavorful and filling. The version she made for me was finished with a lemon-y dressed cabbage salad over the top. I finally learned to make a complete one dish meal, salad included!

pounding garlic to make dressing

There are reasons, perhaps subconscious, as to why we want to return to certain friendships. And why others remain at a distance. There are people in our lives where any amount of time spent with them is just right, and exactly what we need. We swoop into their orbit because they pull out our better selves, even our best selves. And when a friend knows the joy in your company that you feel in theirs…then the magic is complete.

…And let there be no purpose in friendship save the deepening of the spirit. –Kahlil Gibran, “On Friendship”

raw ingredients for mujadarah
ingredients for cabbage salad

MUJADARAH WITH CABBAGE SALAD-Serves 4 

  • 1 C. dry lentils
  • ¾ C. dry rice
  • Cook the lentils and rice separately. [Leftover rice works great.] Mix cooked ingredients together in a decorative bowl. Season to taste with salt and olive oil.
  • Cut two onions into thin slices. Deep fry onions in oil until crispy and brown. [You can also use less oil and sauté onions very slowly until caramelized.]
  • Smother the top of the lentil/rice combo with cooked onions.  
cabbage salad

Cabbage salad:

  • 2 C. finely sliced cabbage
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced [or probably more]
  • ¼ C. olive oil
  • ¼ C. freshly squeezed lemon juice [or more]. Can use vinegar, but lemon is so right for this
  • ½ t. salt
  • Pomegranate seeds [not optional as they add color and zing.]
  • Optional: 2 T fresh or 1 T. dried mint, also green onions

The Dressing:

  • Pound garlic and salt in mortar and pestle.
  • Add lemon juice [or vinegar] and olive oil.
  • Whisk together and pour over cabbage. 
  • Toss. Refrigerate 1 hour or so to blend flavors.
  • Adjust seasonings.

To Serve:

Place Mujadarah on a plate. Top with cabbage salad. Salad must be crunchy because the cabbage rules!–Janmarie

dinner with candles and wine at home

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 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 New York 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 a favorite TV series.

Over three days, I learned the trending social media sites 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 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, mixed 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.

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

IMG_0292

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.

Picture 7

Singapore when we moved there, 1987

Picture 5

shop row, 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.

Picture 6

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 mixture 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 still 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 said “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 we experimented in everything 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

 

For another story about friendship and Singapore lore check this link: Cocoa Cake With My Curry, Please

Cow Seduction

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When people hear that we are leaving our home in France after eight years, one question that invariably follows is, “What will you miss most?” My answer is not what they expect to hear.

What I will miss most are Norman cows.

Specifically, those geographically situated cows that graze on the sweet green grass of Normandy and produce the most delicious and most flavorful butter in the world.

IMG_8469“Oh, don’t worry,” people will say, “you will find other good butter wherever you live.” I don’t think so.  All butters are not the same. Neither are cows.

We have traveled to both upper and lower Normandy innumerable times during the past thirteen years while living in Germany and France. My first trip to the Normandy beaches and WWII sites was when we were living in Germany. During that excursion I had a personal epiphany to learn French–to use the local language every time we traveled to this region of northern France where we fervently loved the history, the solid stone architecture, and the people. [Story of D-Day 70th anniversary here: The Unexpected in Normandy]

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WWII history commemorated all over Normandy

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American Cemetery Colleville-sur-Mer

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stony norman architecture

Eventually we moved to Paris and I did learn passable French. Soon after came the discovery of how butter from Normandy transforms nondescript food, like breakfast toast or potatoes or steamed vegetables into something noticeably scrumptious. I fell hard for the crunch of sea salt crystals in butter-with-a-real-buttery-taste on otherwise dry or bland food. Now there is no turning back. I have been known to carry salted French butter home to Colorado, frozen, in an insulated container tucked deep inside my suitcase.

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two favorites: but the very best is with sea salt crystals that crunch in your mouth

One weekend trip to lower Normandy, we stayed in an historic, privately owned château. It is also a bed and breakfast, with a fine dining room, which helps pay the taxes and upkeep on an ancient estate.

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chateau in basse normandy

There were wineries to visit and sites to see each day, but we constantly veered off onto pot-holed, muddy dirt roads to pay homage to cows. Just cows–grazing and standing around in fields. I wanted to study the source of my butter obsession, close up, in their natural environment.

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During the Germany years, we belonged to a weekend hiking club. Every Sunday morning we traipsed off, en masse, through forests, hills and vineyards in the countryside. I laughed at a friend who stopped to take photos every time a cow was in the landscape. When I asked why, he said, “I don’t know. I just like them.”

Well, now I like them, too, but for a reason. They give something special back because of being these cows. Norman cows are raised only for dairy. They roam. They eat nutrient flora and grassy greens in the hills and marshlands of the rolling countryside. They produce milk that is heavy and smooth. The fatty milk cream is buttercup yellow and makes butter that is sweet and memorable.

Why is French butter so irresistibly different? Two things. One, it often has a higher fat content [87%] compared to American butter [80%]. And secondly, the real secret behind the fineness of French butter is the way it is cultured.

Cream, separated from the milk, is allowed to ferment before it is churned. Thus, bacteria forms, sugar converts to lactic acid, and the result is a distinguishably creamier, velvet-ier, butter-ier taste.

American produced butter uses only pasteurized [uncultured] milk cream. The French, dedicated to quality, refuse to bypass the fermentation step.

Before industrialization all butter was produced the French way, in small batches, using natural fermentation. As the heavier cream rose to the top of the milk, it was skimmed off and stored until there was enough to churn. That was how bacteria got in and “cultured” the cream. It resulted in a taste that was “ripe” and very delicious.

When I was a child, my paternal grandmother kept one milk cow on her farm. I saw how the yellow cream rose thickly to the top of a container of fresh milk after it sat awhile. I don’t remember any butter churning, but she used that cream to pour into coffee or to make desserts like strawberry shortcake with garden picked berries and a dollop of fresh whipped cream.

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Today, with mass production, there is no skimming by hand and waiting around for natural processes. Cream is spun out of milk via machines. However, in France, a lactic acid producing culture is added to the separated cream and fermentation still takes place. The resulting butter taste is fuller and, to some, even a “nuttier” flavor.

It is well known that the French are extraordinarily fond of butter. Culturally they take it very seriously, and it is not lightly squandered. One vivid example occurred during my slightly quirky two-month tenure assisting a female chef with cooking classes in her Parisian apartment. I functioned as the prep and clean up person during a gap before a new student intern arrived to do the sludge work.

One day, as she was demonstrating her no-bake-tart-pastry recipe, an entire brick of opened butter fell off the counter. She stepped in it with the heel of her kitchen shoes, almost skidding to the floor, but grabbed the counter edge just in time. Without missing a beat, she told me to pick it up and “clean it”.

She carried on with class while I “cleaned” the butter with “beaucoup de paper towels” as that was the only method I could think of. [No suggestion was offered.] Only a sliver of butter remained when I thought it was “clean enough”. After sculpting it into a small ball, I set it out of sight.

During 2017 there was a lot of published hype about a calamitous butter shortage coming to France. It was and wasn’t true. Because of a shortage in raw materials, for a time, there was a supply problem in grocery stores. Concurrently, exported sales increased as the Chinese decided they loved pastries made with French butter. In America, sugar had shifted to being the dietary enemy so butter demand increased across the Atlantic. Fears of mass shortage did not transpire but my restaurant friend, Laurel Sanderson, did stockpile for several months because she is so dependent on mounds of butter for her baked fresh daily southern biscuits, cakes, and savory tarts. [Story of Laurel and her resto: Treize–A Baker’s Dozen, Paris]

Norman cows also produce milk for Camembert–the most famous cheese of the region. The village of Camembert resides in basse [lower] Normandy. The story is that in 1791 a Norman farmer, Marie Harel, while following the recipe from a priest who hailed from Brie, made some slight changes and improved it. Camembert was born.

Camembert de Normandie is a protected designation of origin. With this stamp, it can only be made from raw, unpasteurized milk from les vaches Normandies [cows from Normandy].  It is soft, with a fine rind covered in a “white duvet”. It is at least 45% fat, with a pungent aroma and stronger taste than Brie. When warmed it becomes even creamier and can be used as a dip for raw vegetables, potatoes, or bread. I serve it this way as an appetizer or light supper. It is typically sold whole, in rounds, inside thin wooden containers made of poplar. [How to make and serve baked camembert: “Not a Station, but a Place”–Paris to Avignon]

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thin rind with a white duvet covering

There are many things I remember after more than a decade living, learning and experiencing European life. There are adventures, travel, and friends to reminisce about, food, wine, and restaurants to recall, even exasperations or faux pas to laugh [or write] about.

Still, at the top of my list is “mes vaches Normandies”–those fabulous “buttah-making” cows that touched my senses and tastes in a forever kind of way. Always in anticipation of the next petit dèjeuner of good, wholegrain toasted baguette smeared with a melting pool of butter and sea salt crystals.

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Ogden Nash, the American poet of light verse wrote, “Cows are of the bovine ilk: one end is moo and the other milk.”  Factually and humorously true. But all cows are not the same.

I happen to have been seduced by the Norman ones.

 

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there’s no place like home–in normandy

 

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 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. However, 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 cast iron.

  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.]
  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 always needs to be cleaned properly.

  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

  • 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.