Paris al Fresco

Sitting every night at the dining table with my wife, sharing our meal and a bottle of wine, discussing the events of the day…This daily ritual has been ingrained so profoundly within us that we could not live without it and that is how food memories are made–Jacques Pepin

If you watch people eat, you can find out so much about them. Eating is learned behavior; one of the ways cultures define themselves is by teaching children what to eat…But as we get older, we begin to make our own food choices and they are equally telling. If I tell you I like very spicy food, I’m not just talking about food…I’m telling you I like adventure. –Ruth Reichl

Yesterday was the first rain/sleet/snowstorm in our part of the Colorado mountains. I spent the afternoon on the sofa with a fire blazing, a book in my lap, and candles on the coffee table as the light faded. The season for sitting outside with a cup of coffee, a glass of wine, or a meal is behind us now.

Europeans have well-established dining rituals built into their cultures for centuries. Having lived in Germany and France, memories filter in on this quiet day. When we lived in France dining outside, “al fresco”, occured throughout the year, weather permitting, whether sipping “un café” or “un verre de vin” or enjoying a meal. It is as acceptable to do this alone as it is with friends or family.

My friend, Michelle, is American/French, married to a Frenchman, Jean Louis. They both own their own businesses. Michelle and her partner are in relocation services with their company, A Good Start in France. Jean Louis took over his mother’s bookstore which started out specializing in rare books on mountain climbing in the 1930’s. Since then, Librairie des Alpes has expanded into books on mountain imagery, guidebooks, rare, vintage, and new books of photos, art, lithographs, and even postcards. It continues to reflect the spirit of the mountains on rue de Seine in Paris’ 6th Arrondissement.

Michelle and Jean Louis live in a charming glass fronted two story house that looks like an atelier [artist’s studio] with so much natural light flooding in. It has a private courtyard outside the kitchen and living room.  

welcome home

Almost every Sunday morning Michelle and Jean Louis walk to the Porte de Vanves Flea Market which is in their neighborhood in the 14th Arrondissement. 

After browsing and schmoozing with vendors they have long known, they head home stopping at a local market for lunch ingredients. Theirs is a mixed ethnic section of Paris which offers a rich variety of flavors in food choices in their market. Seasonal fruits and vegetables come straight from the farm, their favorite fish vendor is from Martinique and specializes in spicy, white fish dumplings called “acras de morue”, from the butcher they buy Lyon sausage, the boulanger provides fresh baguette and pastries.

What do I miss about living in Paris? It’s right here–in every local market in every neighborhood throughout the city. Choosing what to eat from the best and freshest ingredients all year long. I miss daily shopping on my market street.

Sometimes I ran into Michelle and Jean Louis on Flea Market weekends. One Sunday, shortly before we left France, I was invited to meet them at 10 AM for a walkabout/browse/pick up a trinket followed by lunch in their home courtyard. In the warm months, lunch takes on the informality of tapas, an assortment of small dishes. Always wine and a basket of sliced baguette.

The generosity of the French table is akin to honoring the spirit of the guests invited for a sit-down meal. Any meal, simple or formal, pays tribute equally to the guest and to the hosts who prepare it. It is a time to gather, enjoy good food, exchange information, share conversation (often politics), and memorable time with others. The art of the debate is encouraged and freely employed. No subject is off limits. This is a centuries-honored ritual of dining à la français. 

For our lunch fare, the table was laid with spicy “acras” or codfish dumplings, slices of farm tomatoes with basil snipped from the courtyard garden, shrimp and avocado, cucumber salad with dill and a dash of piment d’espelette, a cheese assortment of buffalo mozzarella, goat, and camembert, smoked salmon, asparagus, roasted red peppers and tuna salad which Michelle spices with lots of chopped shallots and Dijon mustard. [She says French people think tuna salad is exotic because of its inherent American-ness]. A glass of wine, bien sûr.

Sunday tapas

What I remember is conversation that was lively and fluid, a Willy Ronin black and white photo [which I admired and was given as a gift], delicious food to dip bread into, and a host and hostess most charming. This “meal as a ritual of exchange and sharing”, in Michelle’s words, is a perfect reverie on a snowy indoor day. In France, every single sit-down meal is like this, whether sitting with one other person or a tableful of guests. Ah, France.

I believe we replicate this in America, perhaps not daily, but better on our national holidays of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter where traditions and patterns around food are more universal in many families. Religious traditions also claim meal rituals and memories particularly around their holidays.

There are other stories of living in France, many written while we lived there. But today, this one of friends and food and time spent around a table in a cozy Parisian courtyard comes just at the right moment. It is vivid and warms me to the core while I gaze at blowing snow and autumn slides into winter.

Michelle and Jean Louis, at home


Michelle often makes a seasonal soup for Sunday lunch. Fresh spinach soup is one of her staples. Spinach is out of season here now, but this is her recipe in simple format to try on your own.

Michelle’s Homemade Spinach Soup

  • Thoroughly wash and stem 2 lb of fresh spinach leaves. 
  • Heat olive oil in a large stockpot, add lots of chopped shallots and sauté until wilted.
  • Peel and chop 1-2 large potatoes.
  • Add spinach, potatoes, and water or chicken or vegetable stock to the pot. [You can use a pressure cooker if you have one.]
  • Simmer until spinach cooks down and potatoes are soft.
  • Using an immersion blender, blend ingredients together in the pot.
  • Season to taste with salt and pepper and some piment d’espelette. [Espelette pepper]
  • Serve in a bowl with a little design made with cream or half and half on top.

Links to more stories about living in France that you will enjoy:

My Market Street, Ode to My Paris Kitchen, Leaving Paris and Hemingway, Cow Seduction, “Not a Station, but a Place”–Gare de Lyon and Le Train Bleu, Paris, “Not a Station, but a Place”–Paris to Avignon, Living Both Sides of the French Coin, Treize–A Baker’s Dozen, Paris, Looking Back To the Present, Champagne: “Tasting the Stars”, La Bonne Rentrée in Paris, The Baba au Rhum Affair, Kindle Some Candlelight, You Say Jam, Nico Says Confiture, The Unexpected in Normandy, The Lowly Leek from Boring to Sublime

al fresco dining Colorado style

Carolina On My Mind

There is something evanescent, temporary and fragile about food. You make it. It goes, and what remains are memories. But these memories of food are very powerful. –Jacques Pepin

It takes a long time to grow an old friend. –John Leonard

These quotes remind me of the last time I visited my friend Gail in the mountains of North Carolina. Gail is my longest “go to” friend. We met at age 16 when my family moved to a small town in Iowa along the Mississippi River. She balances my analytic nature with kindness and consideration toward everyone. She is intuitive and listens like a compassionate counselor. She knows my eccentricities and loves me anyway. When I was undergoing medical treatments and the rest of my family was overseas, she jumped in to help by coming to Colorado and be with me. We laugh easily and know each other’s stories. Even when too much time has passed, there is immediate ease when re-engaging in each other’s lives. Although we don’t share the same blood, she is my sister too.

sister girlfriends

We didn’t know it at the time we became friends as teenagers but that is when we began living the concept of “growing an old friend”. We were unwavering through the high school years, the university years, summer jobs in the Wisconsin north woods, a western road trip at 21, marriages one week apart, children, and now grandchildren. We haven’t lived near each other for a long time, but we talk on the phone or visit back and forth in our respective states of Colorado and North Carolina as often as we can.

When we were 20, Gail and I worked one summer at a camp for girls on a lake in northern Wisconsin. It was the same year that she introduced me to the man I would marry three years later. She loyally returned from her honeymoon to stand next to me in our wedding one week after I had been a bridesmaid in hers. With husbands, our friendship grew as couples.

The last time I was in North Carolina we spent the entire visit in the Blue Ridge Mountain community of Leatherwood rather than in the city. It was early August and humidly warm in the mountains. Low bluish clouds formed a canopy over and around the green mountains across the valley. It’s a mystical and captivating way to greet each morning. And such contrast to Colorado’s high rocky peaks, golden aspens, and dry mountain air. 

The food recollections from that visit are so clear. Gail made a pre-dinner apéro by muddling very ripe peaches in the bottom of a glass then poured Vino Verde [a light Portuguese sparkling white wine] over the top. Along with the wine were appetizers of pickled okra [very southern] and small slices of Manchego cheese. Manchego is a firm sheep’s milk cheese with buttery texture and mild taste. It was a perfect combination. The company, the light food, the ambience.

There was one quirky but memorable cocktail hour involving neighbors who invited us to their home. Burdette, a retired architect, 90 years-old, wanted to prepare his own version of “The World’s Best Martini”. Gail’s husband is a bourbon man and politely declined. But the three women–Gail, her sister, and I agreed to try. There was much ceremony involved in the preparation of glasses, the assembly of ingredients, the shaking of equal parts of vodka, gin, AND vermouth. Only one olive allowed per glass. We sipped. It was okay, but what I appreciated most was the Rumford fireplace–a tall, shallow, masonry fireplace of European design. They had added a swinging black pot apparatus to cook soup or stew over the open fire. It seemed romantically retro, but I could see myself sitting by a fire that way.  

When in Carolina do as the locals do. Or drink as the locals drink. In many southern states, this means bourbon. Craig, Gail’s husband, is a quintessential bourbon guy. He has his own version of an Old Fashioned. The only time I drink bourbon whiskey is when he makes this for me. A slice of orange, some Bada Bing cherries, two shots of good bourbon, fill with club soda and ice. His daily bourbon is Maker’s Mark. For splurging, he reaches for Jefferson’s Ocean or Woodford’s Reserve to sip over ice.

pickled okra appetizer, glass of white, Craig’s bourbon special

The best meal was something new to me. Shredded beef brisket with a smoky homemade sauce. Cooked long and slow in the oven and served as a main course with side dishes of cornbread, beans, and salad–the epitome of southern cuisine. Perfect for guests and great leftovers. 

Each day was full–with morning walks before the heat rose to a crescendo, a side trip to Blowing Rock’s boutique shops, outdoor showers with wide-angle valley views, picnic lunch in a park, and noisy Jenga games ending with blocks crashing to the floor amid cries of “Oh no!” and laughter.

showering with that incredible view!

The Carolina mountains have been on my mind recently for a particular reason. Several seasons have passed and now it feels like time to return. To a different climate and different scenery. To those lower, greener hills, and humid misty clouds. To friends who make a difference in my life when we are together and even when we are not.

Jacques Pepin is right about the fleeting nature of food. You make it. It goes. What remains, what is truly powerful, is when we nourish our lives with memories of food in a spectacular setting, in a meal around a table, and taking time to grow the very best of friends. 



GAIL’S BEEF BRISKET

Brisket is a tough cut of beef that must be tenderized by long, slow cooking. I adjusted the recipe for high altitude as most food takes longer to cook at 8300 feet where we live. My edits are in parentheses. The secret to this recipe is the sauce. Shredding the cooked brisket rather than slicing it eliminates the fat layer, leaving only the lean.

INGREDIENTS:

  • 5-6 lb brisket  [I have used smaller] 
  • Salt and Pepper
  • Liquid Smoke

Place brisket in baking dish with fat side up. Rub salt and pepper and liquid smoke onto both sides of meat. Cover with foil and seal edges of pan. Marinate 12 hours or overnight in the refrigerator.

NEXT DAY:

  • Preheat oven to 275 degrees F. 
  • Place sealed baking dish in oven for 5 hours. 
  • [Better than timing is to test with a meat thermometer as it will take 2 or more hours longer at higher altitudes. Internal temperature should reach 200 degrees F.]
  • When meat is tender and done, take two forks and shred onto a serving platter. 
  • Discard the fat layer.
  • Pour sauce over or serve in a pitcher, on the side.
  • Serve brisket on buns or as a main course with side dishes.
  • Leftovers are easily reheated and just as delish.

FOR THE SAUCE:

  • 2 C. catsup
  • ½ C. water
  • 3 T. Liquid Smoke
  • 4 T. Worcestershire sauce
  • 8 T. butter
  • 3 T. brown sugar
  • 3 t. dry mustard
  • 2 t. celery seed
  • ¼ to ½ t. cayenne pepper

In a saucepan, slowly heat all ingredients together while stirring.


Frozen Euphoria

One of my favorite M.F.K. Fisher quotes is this: Wine and cheese are ageless companions, like aspirin and aches, or June and moon, or good people and noble ventures. To this I would add another companion comparison from my own recent experience: children and ice cream.

In 1686, the first café in Paris, Le Procope, opened in Saint-Germain-des-Prés with a Sicilian chef at the helm. His recipe of milk, cream, butter and eggs, an early Italian gelato, made ice cream available to the general public for the first time. For centuries it had only been enjoyed by the aristocracy. Over in America, it wasn’t until 1790 that an ice cream parlor opened in New York. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln were known to have an affinity for this creamy icy treat. Ice cream’s reign as an indelible taste of summer is in the hearts of people around the world. Perhaps children most of all.

When I was growing up, the seasonal ice cream truck rang its bell through the streets of our neighborhood in St. Louis once or twice a week every June, July, and August. Parents doled out pocket change. We shouted and ran to the ice cream man who opened his portable freezer filled with drumstick cones or chocolate coated vanilla ice cream on a stick or ice cream sandwiches. It was a race to eat as fast as possible in the heat and humidity while trying not to lose precious drips on the way home. There was usually some kind of messy “plop” on the sidewalk which was left for the ants.

There are, of course, other foods typically consumed in the summer besides ice cream. Fresh corn-on-the-cob or s’mores made around a campfire are two of them. Food happiness, measured individually by expression, is certain to occur when delicious things are eaten by young children for the first time.

In April, we drove across two states to care for a two-and-a-half-year old grand-daughter and her eleven-month-old brother while their tired parents flew somewhere else for adult R & R. We brushed off muscle memory around the heavy lifting required with infants and toddlers. By the third day, it was time for a change of scenery away from the house, backyard, and front porch. Some kind of field trip. 

Because of the previous fifteen months of shutdown life during Covid, I thought an outing for ice cream might be just the thing for young and unsuspecting palates. Also, it could be accomplished outdoors on a warmish spring day.

With the 2-year-old, things began with the anticipation of a drive somewhere new. There was curiosity to stand at a window, place an order, and be held up to see what was going on inside. There was eagerness when a cup of vanilla ice cream smothered in rainbow sprinkles was handed through the window. There was barely contained excitement while carrying it to a red iron bench and sitting down with a spoon and her own multi-colored delight.

While husband fed tiny tastes of ice cream to infant brother, the independent “I-dood-it-myself” girl spooned one transformative bite into her mouth. After one or two more she discovered a faster method.

It was the hand-to-mouth-vacuum-cleaner-technique. Her eyes narrowed momentarily as the heady sensation of cold and sweet sank in. Both hands tipped the cup to vertical maximum.

There was a moment of selfish possessiveness as she huffily pulled away from brother’s outreaching hand. Letting the remainder of the icy creamy semi-liquid slide into her mouth, she paused to consider what had just happened. Then, with a smug and satisfied grin, what was left was an empty container and face, hands, and clothes covered in sticky.

The success of the outing was summed up in one final moment. It was the kind of moment that captures the best part of kids and ice cream. With a timely click of the camera, a small girl was framed in a spontaneous second of joy…and ice cream bliss.

Happy Summer.


High Winds

As a mountain is unshaken
by the wind,
so the heart of the wise
person is unmoved
by all the changes 
on this earth.          
–Buddha

Summer 2020. July road trip from the mountains of Colorado to lake hopping in Wisconsin–cancelled. Coronavirus rampant worldwide and no vaccine, yet. While accepting the present moment, something needed shaking up.

A conversation about camping in early marriage led to the basement in search of gear. It was not what we remembered. There was an under sized tent–don’t think so, wafer thin sleeping pads–nope, one camp stove–completely rusted. Not much in the way of basics. However, a reliable looking percolator coffee pot and two fine sleeping bags revived hope and possibility. We headed to the nearest REI store to fill in the gaps.

An open sky half-domed tent, two self-inflating sleeping pads, and one tiny state-of-the-art stove later, we were ready to reconnect with outdoor living in nearby mountain campground terrain.

September was late to get started. We hoped the fire ban, in place since July, would be lifted but instead it was extended for good reason. It’s almost obligatory to come home from camping and smell like campfire smoke. Not this season. 

We scoped out sites in advance because reservations are mandatory. To “walk in” means setting up a tent next to the bathrooms. Our choice was a good one. We had neighbors to the right and left, but lodge pole pine forest behind. 

first campsite 2020

Forgetting a few things prompted the start of a “next time” list. The night passed peacefully for husband who slept right through while I lay awake with a maddening bout of insomnia. Hours spent listening to night sounds–the tent-side scratching and rustling of small rodents. Later, there was a loud and persistent snuffling noise just north of sleeping man’s head. I chose to let him slumber on as I flipped over and over in my sleeping bag in hopes of urging away nocturnal critters, imagined or not.

In the morning, the aluminum coffee percolator worked like a charm. 

A month later, we tried out new territory in the Arapahoe/Roosevelt National Forest. Within the forest is a huge expanse of land originally owned and used by Hewlett-Packard for employee recreation and leadership retreats. It has since become public space with large, natural, private campsites. 

The mid-October day of our reservation began with cold rain, then sleet, and finally horizontal blowing snow. We watched and waited. Hours later, as often happens in Colorado, the sun was shining. Deciding that our tent and sleeping bags could withstand forecast colder temperatures and high winds, we headed out. 

Campsite #38 in Hermit Park is isolated and beautiful. Late autumn golden-leafed aspens, craggy rocks, boulders, and pine trees surrounded the tent. Metal stakes and rocks kept things battened down as the predicted wind picked up with attention getting gusts. Yet again, we were underprepared. This time–no warm gloves, no insulated footwear, no heavy coats. Temperatures dipped even before darkness fell. 

second campsite
late fall aspen past their peak

Only 25-minutes from home, I volunteered to collect missing gear so we could see the night through. Upon return, husband was stamping in circles to keep warm. It was time to open the wine and get the stove fired up. Hands and feet were toasty and battery lanterns lit up the dusk as night settled in, even without a campfire.

preparing the feast

Homemade chili heated in vintage cast iron warmed our insides. Finally, with the wind blowing in breathtaking gusts, an empty wine bottle, and total darkness, we looked at each other and laughed. The tent was an easy invitation to turn in.

snow starts, time to turn in

All night the wind moaned, circled and doubled back relentlessly. But we were snug as bugs. This time, the only outside noises were buffeting tent flaps noted briefly before turning over and settling back to sleep under layers of cozy warmth. 

Husband was up at early light to get the coffee started. It was a feat of expertise to keep the stove lit and protected from the high wind. But he did. Emerging from the tent, I took a photo of the moon above the trees.

daybreak

We cheered when the pot finally began percolating. Coffee was steaming and strong. Continental breakfast, camp style, was s’mores bars dipped in tin mugs. [recipe: Guest Ready Sweetness]

We could have stayed home. We could have sat by an indoor fire in a heated cabin with candles on the coffee table. But a pandemic with ongoing caution to remain hunkered down and distant from others invited us into the wilderness.  

So we found ourselves pitching a tent, in a remote campsite, in inclement weather, inside a slice of time with no past or future, only the present. A late autumn afternoon turned into evening, and then a new day. 

We chose to go deeper into the mountains and sleep on the ground with high winds as our companion. And while there, we let go and breathed deeply in the midst of life’s uncertainty.

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


Guest Ready Sweetness

hazy smoke sunset over Long’s Peak
blood red sunset due to nearby wildfire
smoky 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 lack of visitors except for 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 unbeatable for chewable bites of sweetness cut out of a 9×13 inch-baking pan. 

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

Last summer’s road trip in 2019 was to Maddy and Cabby’s cabin on the Methow River [A Guest Room Under the Porch] in western Washington State. Maddy is a great cook and hostess. Their log 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 for company all summer long.” We sampled and agreed. Caramel bars with chocolate chips and pecans were prepared over and over for our own guests, with rave reviews.

Patricia, whom I have written about in several adventures, Cocoa Cake With My Curry, Please, Sunshine on the Back of Your Knees] vacationed in 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 originated from a friend in Wisconsin. Richly chewy, with texture from chocolate chips inside, these brownies are for every chocoholic. I switched out the garnish of powdered sugar 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. 

The last recipe came onto the scene this summer because of the harsh no burn season. We invited neighbors for a socially-distanced outdoor cookout around the fire ring. S’mores were requested for dessert. Except a campfire couldn’t be 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 real s’mores, which often feature charred marshmallows burnt and blackened over red-hot coals. 

With baked s’mores you can revisit the original in one chewy, not overly sweet, bite of marshmallow and chocolate chip cookie dough over a graham cracker crust. There is melted chocolate on top so licking fingers is required. 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 while I drink coffee next to the picture window with the wide angle view of Long’s Peak, I will muse about the return of 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 1/4 C flour
  • 1 1/4 C oats
  • 1 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, wrappers removed
  • 3 ½ Tbs butter
  • 3 Tbs cream [or Half & Half] 

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 [or dark 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 or dark 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, “USFS 1919-The Ranger, the Cook, and a Hole in the Sky” from
A River Runs Through It

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

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 or baby spinach, 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 and made it our own addition.

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

Fabio Meets Brownies Cocaine

Hellenic Halloumi

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 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
next generation pizza maker

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 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.

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

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 flavorful butter in the world.

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grazing the sweet grass of normandy
to make the “buttah”

“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.

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WWII history commemorated throughout 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 with incredible flavor. 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: 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 vacay 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, up close, 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 into the countryside. I laughed at a friend who stopped to take photos whenever a cow was in the landscape. When I asked why, he said, “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 the color of yellow buttercup flowers. The butter from this cream is sweet and delicious.

buttercup yellow

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 delicious.

When I was a child, my paternal grandmother had a 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. 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 memorable example of this occurred during my quirky two-month job assisting a female chef with cooking classes in her Parisian apartment. I functioned as the prep and clean up person during a gap before her new student intern arrived.

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

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, [Treize–A Baker’s Dozen, Paris] did stockpile it for several months because she is so dependent on butter for her baked fresh daily southern biscuits, cakes, and savory tarts.

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 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. I’m often thinking of the next petit dèjeuner of 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.”  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 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

Garlic and Girlfriends

How can I cook dinner tonight–we’re out of garlic! Aunt Josephine, from the Gilroy Garlic Cookbook

It’s not an exaggeration to say that an absence of garlic in the house could be, as far as dinner goes, a showstopper. Garlic simply makes things taste better. And, as Josephine makes the case, without it, why bother?

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creative advertising, estes park market

There is more lore about garlic than any other food. As one of the oldest cultivated plants, it was thought to be a cure-all, to have mystical powers, and even to protect from evil spirits. It was used in Egyptian burials and placed on windowsills when babies were born.

Garlic is a member of the lily order of plants and the onion family that includes chives, shallots, scallions and leeks. But the most important thing about garlic is the magic it performs when blended into other foods, creating delicious, taste-enhancing flavors.

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I love garlic like I love my friends. Friends, carefully cultivated with time and circumstance, blended into my life, enhancing everything. Friends going back to childhood, at home in the U.S., and while living all over the world.

Our early years in Taiwan, in the 1990s, were the beginning of a ritual of rotating Friday afternoons among a group of women I grew to know and love. We took turns gathering in each other’s living rooms. Friends came and moved on as is normal in ex-pat circles. Yet, through the revolving door of overseas life, those Friday afternoons of “wine and unwinding” were highly anticipated.

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a sampling of TGIF friends, Taiwan, late 1990s

Food served invariably included a healthy dose of garlic. In certain seasons in Taiwan you could find big heads of garlic that were perfect for roasting whole. We squeezed warm, nutty, oil-soaked roasted cloves onto fresh bread or directly into our mouths. Open bottles of wine stood at attention, ready to replenish glasses.

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We let our hair down and put our feet up. The formula within the formula was that all ideas, problems, or dreams were fair topics. Laughter kept everything in check. We appreciated each other’s insights, intelligence and strengths. We learned to love the idiosyncrasies. And couldn’t wait to return to garlic and friendship a week later.

What garlic is to food, insanity is to art.Augustus St. Gaudens

10,000 years ago garlic was first discovered. It has evolved since then, having survived winters in the caves of our ancestors. Garlic is a natural antibiotic, fights bacteria and viruses, thins the blood, detoxifies the liver, decreases inflammation and lowers bad cholesterol. It is also low in calories–one or two per clove.

There are five elements: earth, air, water, fire and garlic…without garlic I simply would not care to live.Louis Diat

Store garlic in a cool, dry place with ventilation. Not above or next to the stove, sink, or in a window with sun exposure. Never in the refrigerator! Strands of garlic can be braided attractively into plaits, ready to pull off a head as needed.

There is no such thing as a little garlic.Arthur Baer

To eliminate garlic on the breath: chew fresh parsley or, my favorite, allow a piece of good, dark chocolate to melt slowly on your tongue and slide down your throat.

The best way to rid garlic odor on the hands is to wash with soap and water then rub fingers and hands back and forth on the chrome of the kitchen faucet. This works!

Avoid at all costs that vile spew you see rotting in oil in screw top jars. Too lazy to peel fresh? You don’t deserve to eat garlic!Anthony Bourdain

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Farmer’s market, Estes Park, CO

For easy peeling of cloves, separate them from the head. Smash each individually with the broad blade of a chef’s knife. Slip skin off. Or, from Dietitian Daughter, place cloves in a plastic container with lid and shake like crazy. The skin will loosen and separate, ready to be easily peeled away. For either method it helps to first cut off the stem ends.

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One little known use for garlic was as glue in the middle ages. It was used to affix gold and silver leaf to furniture, mend glass and porcelain. This seems like a natural idea when literally everything sticks to garlicky fingers after peeling and chopping.

Tomatoes and oregano make it Italian; wine and tarragon make it French. Sour cream makes it Russian; lemon and cinnamon make it Greek. Soy sauce makes it Chinese. Garlic makes it good.Alice May Brock

As good as the garlic was in Taiwan, it is even better in France. I’m partial to the big bulbs of rose garlic on my market street. [My Market Street] It has a pink purplish tinge to the skin unlike white garlic. Once peeled, all cloves look the same. Rose garlic cloves are uniform in size and have a less pungent smell and taste.

We went to a party in Paris one Christmas season. The dining table was laden with an impressive array of food, but I made a beeline toward a casserole of hot artichoke dip. It was perfuming the room with a warm, garlicky aroma that I could not resist. After the first taste, I spooned it directly into my mouth foregoing bread or crackers. I learned that a lot of garlic was the secret.

That recipe for garlic artichoke dip played center stage at the French version of “wine and unwind”, chez moi in Paris. Not all of the women knew each other well, but conversation and laughter flowed as effortlessly as it does among long time friends. Garlic seemed to be the tie that binds. And, well…a few bottles of memorable white and red Bordeaux [Les Hauts de Smith Blanc et Rouge] from my husband’s wine closet worked a bit of magic, too.

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It is not really an exaggeration to say that peace and happiness begin, geographically, where garlic is used in cooking.Marcel Boulestin

I don’t cook everyday now, but I always have a bulb or two of garlic in the kitchen. I’m afraid of being caught in a pinch, like Aunt Josephine, unable to put a meal together because the garlic tin is empty. And, if some girlfriends are getting together, I’m ready with my go-to ingredient to enliven the party…and create a memory of food and friendship.


ROASTED HEADS OF GARLIC

  •  Cut ¼ to ½ inch off the top of head of garlic.
  • Cut off just enough so all clove ends are exposed.
  • Drizzle with olive oil. Salt and pepper as desired.
  • Rub oil in with finger or use a brush to evenly coat.
  • If roasting 1 or 2 heads, wrap each in foil and seal.
  • If roasting many heads, place them in baking pan with cut sides up. Cover the whole pan with foil.
  • Roast 45 minutes at 400 F. [205 C.]
  • Cool a bit.

Squeeze roasted cloves out of skins onto fresh bread, crackers or mix into potatoes or any pasta dish. Or place in oil and refrigerate to use later.


GARLIC ARTICHOKE DIP

  • 2-15 oz. [400gm] cans artichoke hearts in water. Drain water.
  • 1 whole fresh jalapeno pepper
  • 3 large or 6 small green onions
  • 6 large cloves garlic, chopped, then smashed in mortar and pestle
  • 1 C. [250gm] grated mozzarella cheese
  • ½ to ¾ C. freshly grated Parmesan cheese
  • 2-3 drops Tabasco, Siracha or chili sauce
  • Salt and pepper
  • ½ C. [or less] good quality mayonnaise. Not Hellman’s. [just enough to bind ingredients]
  • Sprinkle of cayenne over top

Bake 350 F. [175 C.] for 30-40 minutes until bubbly and brown. Serve with bread, crackers, or vegetable crudités.

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ingredients for artichoke dip
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serve with a side of friendship

SPAGHETTI JOSEPHINE from Gilroy Garlic Cookbook

[This dish was prepared regularly for the family when we lived in Taiwan. You can add in other ingredients as desired. But I like it best Josephine’s way. Serve with a big salad.]

  • 1 medium head cauliflower, separated into tiny flowerets.
  • 1 lb. [500 gm] spaghetti
  • 6 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 T. olive oil
  • ¼ C. minced parsley [cut with scissors in tall glass]
  • ½ C. butter
  • ½ C. or more freshly grated Parmesan
  • Freshly ground pepper
  1. Cook cauliflower in boiling salted water until almost tender [~5 min.]
  2. Cook spaghetti al dente.
  3. Sauté garlic in olive oil ~1 min, then add butter and parsley.
  4. Cook on very low heat until hot and bubbly.
  5. Add garlic butter to spaghetti and cauliflower.
  6. Toss together. Add Parmesan and toss again.
  7. Serve immediately with additional grated cheese and the pepper grinder.
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Janmarie demonstrates how to pound garlic in my Cyprus kitchen, circa 1992
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Estes Park, farmer’s market
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Hack #3: The Hard Boiled Egg

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Somewhere in the world there might still be a few people who don’t know how to boil water. I venture there are a lot more of us fumbling around trying to perfectly hard-boil an egg.

A well-made hard-boiled egg is more than a tasty bite of protein on your toast or in a salad or sandwich. It can be a thing of beauty.

But only if cooked correctly.

There are definitely some bad eggs out there. You have seen them. Eggs which, when cut in half, have a grayish-green line around the dry-as-dust yolk. Or whites so rubbery they might bounce if you dropped them.

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avoid gray perimeter around yolk

When ready for a good hard-boiled egg, here is a foolproof recipe from start to finish. Cooked to perfection every time and consumed for nutrition and pleasure.

Eggs always remind me of the final scene in “Annie Hall”. The main character reminisces about his former girlfriend, Annie, after unexpectedly running into her on the street. He philosophizes, “It reminds me of that old joke–you know, a guy walks into a psychiatrist’s office and says, hey doc, my brother’s crazy! He thinks he’s a chicken. Then the doc says, why don’t you turn him in? Then the guy says, I would, but I need the eggs. I guess that’s pretty much how I feel about relationships. They’re totally irrational, crazy, and absurd, but we keep going through then because, well, most of us…need the eggs.”

Absolutely. We all need them eggs.

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HARD BOILING EGGS

  • Place eggs shell to shell in an uncovered saucepan as space allows.IMG_8349
  • Cover with cold water one to two inches above top of eggs.IMG_8350
  • Add a splash of white [or any kind of] vinegar. This helps prevent shells from cracking during cooking process.
  • Turn heat on high and wait for water to boil.IMG_8402
  • When water reaches full boil, immediately turn off heat and place a lid over pan.
  • Set timer for exactly 18 minutes. [At higher altitudes you need to add time.]IMG_8408
  • As soon as timer goes off, drain hot water and flush eggs copiously with cold tap water while still in pan.
  • Transfer eggs to bowl and set in refrigerator to finish cooling.
  • Once cooled, ready to peel and eat.

Peeling is the other, often imperfect, part of boiled eggs. Some people swear by peeling under running water. Others say it depends on the freshness of eggs whether they peel easily or not. I use the meditative approach and simply take my time, aiming for the smoothest release of shell and membrane from each part of the egg. Sometimes it works.

Other hacks here: Hack #1: Making Perfect Rice and Hack #2: Relishing the Radish

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

French-splaining American Thanksgiving

In November 2005, before I was reading news digitally, I cut out an article by a humor columnist from a prominent international newspaper. The subject was why Americans eat turkey for Thanksgiving.

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roast turkey or la dinde rôtie

In 1952, an earlier version of this article was published under the title “Explaining Thanksgiving to the French”. The back-story, prompting the reprint, was a woman in Maryland who bought an old, yellowed newspaper clipping at a garage sale. She paid $10 for it. Someone-in-the-know, at the Library of Congress, told her it was worth $80,000 as a collector’s item. It became art on the wall of her home.

We were living in Germany in 2005. I didn’t speak French then, but found the story quirky enough to save. I understand French better now, so the literal translations read even sillier.

For history buffs wishing to be enlightened without forking over $80,000, here is one version of why we eat turkey:

One of our most important holidays is Thanksgiving Day, known in France as le Jour de Merci Donnant.

 Le Jour de Merci Donnant was first started by a group of Pilgrims [Pèlerins] who fled from l’Angleterre to found a colony in the New World [le Nouveau Monde] where they could shoot Indians [les Peaux-Rouges] and eat turkey [dinde] to their heart’s content.

 They landed at a place called Plymouth [a famous voiture Américaine] in a wooden sailing ship called the Mayflower [or Fleur de Mai] in 1620. But while the Pèlerins were killing the dindes, the Peaux-Rouges were killing the Pélerins and there were several hard winters ahead for both of them. The only way the Peaux-Rouges helped the Pèlerins was when they taught them to grow corn [maïs]. The reason they did this was because they liked corn with their Pèlerins.

 In 1623, after another harsh year, the Pèlerins’ crops were so good that they decided to have a celebration and give thanks because more maïs was raised by the Pèlerins than Pèlerins were killed by Peaux-Rouges…

 …And so, on the fourth Thursday in November, American families sit down at a large table brimming with tasty dishes, and for the only time during the year eat better than the French do…1

Living overseas for 30 years, without extended family around, our Thanksgiving holidays have been celebrated rather differently. In early Taiwan years, there was an annual pig roast in Maddy and Cabby’s backyard, linen covered tables lit in candlelight, adults drinking wine and trading stories while children ran rampant until late at night.

Another year, we shared Thanksgiving with Chinese friends who delighted in the array of traditional-American-food-in-excess more than we did.

The year we became empty nesters, I said to my husband, “No more beige, brown and white food for Thanksgiving. Let’s check into a hotel and eat what we want.” So we did. Spicy Thai is what I remember.

After moving to Europe, with both children permanently in the U.S., we continued to lay low during this holiday-that-was-never-a-holiday in the country where we were living.

A couple of Novembers ago, we were invited to our friends’ Sally and John’s Paris apartment for Thanksgiving. It was an intimate group of eight, but international with one Spanish husband and one Italian boyfriend mixed among the Americans. We brought champagne,  red wine, and something green to offset the neutrals of what would undoubtedly be served. Thanksgiving food color is traditional.

But then–I was completely turned upside down by the holiday dinner we had been avoiding for at least 10 years. At John and Sally’s table there was color, there was taste, there was texture, and there was deliciousness in the one dish I detest the most–dressing.

Everyone in this family is creative. They are artists, film producers, film animators, screenwriters, painters, musicians, and, as it turns out, they are kitchen creative, too.

The dish I now call “John’s Best Original Holiday Dressing” is far superior to the sage-y, soggy, overl