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 tiny 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 the 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.

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

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

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 fear and worry for hope and optimism.

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.

MFK 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.

A Guest Room Under the Porch

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

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

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

Buddy as a youngster

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

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

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

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

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

the corner room

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

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

antler growth one half inch per day

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

left home alone

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

dozing
resting
and spying the web cam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CLICK HERE to view a short video of Buddy coming home

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

[Our own spiritual geography described here: Bugling Elk and Sacred Spaces

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, chez bentley

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 to invite guests for dinner, I needed guidance to learn and perfect 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. 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 NYT series of articles published October 2017 are in italics preceded by her initials, GH, followed by my 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 or our friend Alec’s chronic 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, we laughed long and hard about an awkward departure where we were suddenly 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 a 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 Chinese toast of draining glasses until empty. It was a time-and-place cultural experience, but a bit tragic, too. This old 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 or 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 tell 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 well 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 imprinted forever–the communion of good people around a grown-up table.

________________________________________________________________________________________

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 the world

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dinner chez tennis/hewitt, athens, greece

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, those 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.

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la belle equipe memorial after paris shootings november 2015

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 can’t forget it, even now, entwined in the 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 season, we will chop, stir, and assemble the 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 carrots, chopped
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 6 stalks celery, chopped
  • 6 large mushrooms, chopped
  • 6 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 300 gm bacon, chopped [In France, I use lardons which are already chopped chunks of bacon]
  • 500 gm [1 pound] lean ground beef [5% fat]
  • 600 gm or 1 large can of tomatoes in juice
  • 150 cc [2/3 cup] red wine
  • 150 cc [2/3 cup] 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.]
  • 250 gm mature salty cheddar cheese, grated
  • 250 gm mozzarella cheese, grated
  • Baby spinach or torn up leaves of regular spinach
  • Fresh basil leaves [optional]
  • Fresh or dried lasagna noodles, enough for 3 layers in casserole dish [Do not use wavy edged noodles. Anna says these are ugly. Use thin, flat sheets of pasta.]

Making the Bolognaise Sauce:

  1. Heat 2 T. olive oil in large saucepan over medium heat.
  2. Sauté onion until translucent.
  3. Add carrots and celery and 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, 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 [and a few mushroom slices if you kept any aside.]
  6. Add 5 leaves of fresh basil, optional.
  7. Cover with another layer of noodles.
  8. Repeat layers one more time.
  9. Cover all with noodle sheets.
  10. Mix red and white sauces over top and spread to edges of pan.
  11. Cover with remaining cheese, as generously as you desire.
  12. Bake 180 C. [350 F.] 30 minutes for fresh pasta, 60 minutes for dried. [Noodles must be cooked all the way through. No crunchy pasta like German mama!]

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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 serve 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 dinner chez nous, recently, for friends

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 salty cheddar are enough.

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

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anna jerofejeva ulfers

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

Bugling Elk and Sacred Spaces

Every part of the Earth is sacred to my people. 

Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every humming insect is holy in the memory and experience of my people. The perfumed flowers are our sisters; the deer, the horse, and the great eagle; these are our brothers.

We are part of the Earth and it is part of us.

–Chief Seattle, native American

 

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

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dining room window courtyard view, paris, france

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kitchen courtyard view, paris

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

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looking south, camp estes, long’s peak in background

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

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

Returning to the mountains is particularly significant to me because of our overseas lifestyle. For twelve summers, during the years we lived in Taipei, Taiwan, I needed to come home and recalibrate. Living and breathing for a few months at a higher altitude with clear blue skies was so different from an Asian city constructed of concrete and the equivalent of subway tiles. The mountains gave us our “spiritual geography”, a term coined by Kathleen Norris in Dakota. It is the place we inhabit to find our best selves.

Joseph Campbell was of similar mindset when he talked of finding “sacred space”.

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

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

–J. Campbell

 

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

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

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

Mountains are the constant that makes this work. Feeling small and insignificant amid the backdrop of a huge landscape clears my mind. I love the smell of rapidly changing weather, seeing wild animals roam without fences, poking campfires with a stick–sparking thoughts and creativity. I think of years of good fortune that lie ahead–sharing all of this with a generation of grandchildren.

Another way to tell the story is with pictures. Here is “Camp Estes”–summer 2017.

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“mexican hat” flowers are not native to our hillside. these germinated from seeds sowed over many years without luck. then, in 2005, a new cabin was built and out they popped from the regraded soil

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leila, at 15 months. free to discover and get dirty, to stumble and wobble on uneven terrain

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jet lag means early sunrises over long’s peak with coffee on the deck

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august sunset with first quarter moon rising

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avocado margaritas at ed’s cantina. for a full description to “get in here” as their motto invites, follow this link: Sipping Avocado Margs in Summer

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leila’s face after tasting sour. she actually loves sucking on fresh lime, stopping only when it gets to be too much.

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horse rides with “deedee” at the shaka shaka [baby Russian for playground]

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chalk art in perfect squat formation.

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early morning laughs with auntie “yaya”

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afternoon thunderstorm in sunshine

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produces perfect rainbows

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I bought a vintage necklace at an estate sale. three waterford crystal glasses were thrown in as freebies. must have overpaid for the necklace, but the result was ambient champagne sipping.

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fireside supper and girl chat with leila, deedee and yaya

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iowa high school girlfriends reunited this year in estes park, photo courtesy of betty cleffman hager

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girlfriend hike in rocky mountain national park, courtesy of betty cleffman hager

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on mountain trails with big views, photo courtesy of debbie windus

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marking time with an “old time” photo shoot

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capturing beauty in rocky mountain national park, photo by debbie windus

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september light, rocky mountain national park, photo by debbie windus

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closeup of chief seattle’s “shining pine needles”, photo by mary beckey kelly

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mountain lavender at camp estes, photo by debbie windus

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girlfriend entertaining–snacks followed by dinner, photo by debbie windus

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preparing coals for making s’mores. fire ring built in 1991 has mostly remained in the same configuration. I might have re-arranged it a “few times”, but no one can tell except me. one day a landscaper called it a “spiritual circle” and I quit messing with it.

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lineup of s’more ingredients: grahams, marsh mellows, European chocolate–choice of plain, with sea salt or caramel and sea salt, whisky and wine optional.

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Recipe: toast marsh mellows over red hot campfire coals. [or char them black in the flames if you like.] place on chocolate lined graham crackers.

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smush together. enjoy the sticky sweetness with adult beverage of choice. [red wine or single malt whisky in this scenario.]

Campfire at Wendy's with Joyce and Dave

hair and clothes must smell like smoke before leaving fire, from barb barton minquet

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summer becomes fall with elk rut. 6:30 AM reveilles outside bedroom window the last week of vacation.

CLICK HERE for 30 second video taken from our front porch of big bull daddy re-claiming the harem after three younger males tried to take over. A thin adolescent response from the young bull who ran away.

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herding on south side of camp estes

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the long view

 

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baby elk cuteness

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and baby leila cuteness

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nature’s symmetry

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outside looking in

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low hanging clouds and yellowing aspens

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next day skies with high country snow

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spirit of the flame

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incarnates into spirit of the double horse head

It seems appropriate to end with fire. It’s my symbolic totem, along with the wolf, but that’s another story, another time.

For those who dropped in this summer and those who stayed awhile, for those who loved being there and those who will return to the mountains; share the memories.

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

 

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

–John Muir

 

 

Rocky’s Meadow Mountain Cafe

A year ago I wrote a story about my favourite Colorado hometown cafe. It was called “A Mountain Gem for 70 Years”.  A Mountain Gem for 70 Years  The owner, Rocky St. John, passed away right before Christmas. In tribute to her, I have revised my words with a few new photos. Over breakfast this morning, I spoke with her sons, Ben and Joe, who, along with their father, are keeping the cafe open in her memory. She trained them well.

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Allenspark, Colorado lies in a curvy bend off Highway 7, between Estes Park and the valley below. As you drive past the majestic scenery of Wild Basin and the backside of Long’s Peak, it’s easy to simply bypass this tiny town. But if you turn right onto the business spur, it’s probably because you know about Rocky’s Meadow Mountain Cafe.

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On a hillside halfway through town is a small green building with purple trim. Colorful buttons are mixed into the cement between the slate stone steps climbing to the front porch. The main room has knotty pine walls and an antique potbelly stove, radiating warmth. Shelves are lined with an eccentric collection of salt-and-pepper shakers. Local artwork is for sale on the wall. Behind this quaint façade is a long history of food, friendly service, and loyal customer relationships.

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It began in 1946 with a local character named Lil Lavicka. Known as the “Pie Lady”, Lil was famous for her homemade baked goods. As part of a divorce settlement, her husband hastily built a two-room cafe across from her tiny home. Lil’s Pie House flourished for twenty summer seasons.

Then, after several changes of ownership, Meadow Mountain Cafe was born. Breakfast and lunch became the daily fare. Food was fresh and home-cooked to order. Coffee was hot–with a touch of cinnamon. Consistently good food, friendly service, and reasonable pricing enhanced its’ reputation beyond the boundaries of the small community. Locals and tourists lined up for a table inside or on the covered porch, complete with hummingbirds, flowers and an overhanging pine tree. Lil Lavicka’s seasonal pie house evolved into a legendary year-round cafe with returning customers, who became friends.

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Roxanne [Rocky] St. John began waiting tables at Meadow Mountain more than 30 years ago. It wasn’t long before her cooking finesse and creativity nudged her into the kitchen full time. Rocky worked the grill for several female owners until finally, in 2007, she took over solo ownership. Already an established part of the ongoing success of Meadow Mountain, it was time to put her personal stamp on the place.

Rocky introduced two new house specialties–the veggie burger and the green chili sauce for huevos rancheros. Cinnamon spiked coffee is still standard, of course. She chose the outside paint colors and easy-on-the-eye peach walls for the kitchen. The button-inlaid steps were designed and built for safer access in all weather conditions. An herb garden was planted out in back. Inside, the eclectic collection of coffee mugs and salt-and-pepper shakers [always part of her style] continued to grow. Her kitchen blasting music-of-choice ran along the lines of Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash.

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We have been driving from our cabin in Estes Park to Meadow Mountain Cafe for more than 15 years. It never disappoints. It’s not meant to be fast food. You wait patiently and sip good coffee, talk leisurely. Perhaps you warm your back near the antique stove, muse over the salt-and-pepper collection, read a book or eavesdrop quietly on another conversation. You watch regulars walk into the kitchen to say hello. At a corner table, friends sit and play cards after their meal. A man at the counter leans his chin into one hand and dozes, holding a coffee cup with the other.

Orders parade out of the kitchen. Coffee mugs are refilled. Homemade brown bread, thickly sliced for toast or sandwiches, is baked twice daily in summer to keep up with demand. The scene is homey and multi-dimensional–from the diversity of customers stepping through the door to the din of country or rock-n-roll music pouring out of the kitchen. Conversation and laughter is spiced with the clatter of plates and silverware as tables empty and fill.

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beaded tapestry made by a friend of Rocky’s

What sustains this kind of success in a town of just over 500 people? Rocky, along with the women before her, crafted a timeless formula. It begins with an old-fashioned hard work ethic. It’s maintained by keeping quality high, service friendly, and community relationships strong. Rocky was passionate about what she did and consistently did it very well. And then, just maybe, that hint of cinnamon in the coffee didn’t hurt either.

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Rocky St. John, 1960-2015

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new step up to the cafe

A Mountain Gem for 70 Years

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Allenspark, Colorado lies in a curvy bend off Highway 7, between Estes Park and the valley below. It is situated within the Roosevelt National Forest and surrounded by mountains of the Front Range Colorado Rockies. As you drive past the majestic scenery of Wild Basin and the backside of Long’s Peak, it would be easy to bypass the business spur and keep descending the mountain.

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looking back on Long’s Peak from Hwy 7

But if you do make the right hand turn into Allenspark, it’s probably because you know about an historic hillside landmark halfway through town–Meadow Mountain Café.

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On the outside, it is painted green with purple trim. There is always a line up of cars parked below. An assortment of buttons are mixed into the cement and stone steps that you climb to the front porch.

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Inside, the main room has original knotty pine walls and a working potbelly stove for heat. Hand colored photographs by a local artist are displayed for sale.

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An eccentric collection of salt-and-pepper shakers line the walls.

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Behind this quirky façade, there is a long history of food and relationships that began in 1946, with a local character named Lil Lavicka.

Lil was known as the “pie lady”. As part of a divorce settlement, her husband hastily built a small two-room café where she could sell her baked goods. On this hilly spot, in tiny Allenspark, her pie house flourished for twenty summer seasons. It was just a stone’s throw across the street from a teeny house, where she lived into her 90’s.

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where Lil lived

Several changes of ownership and some 30 years later, Lil’s place was renamed Meadow Mountain Café. The menu became daily breakfast and lunch fare. Food was fresh and home-cooked to order, the coffee hot, with a hint of cinnamon. Consistently delicious food, friendly servers and reasonable pricing enhanced its reputation within the small community and radiated beyond. Locals and tourists began lining up for a table inside, or on the covered porch with hummingbird feeders, flowers and an overhanging pine tree. Lil’s seasonal pie house evolved into an Allenspark landmark with regularly returning customers, who eventually became friends.

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Roxanne [Rocky] St. John began waiting tables at Meadow Mountain in the late 1970s. Almost right away she was moved into the kitchen and continued to work the grill after two other women purchased it in the 1980s. Rocky finally took over solo ownership in 2007. It was time to put her personal stamp on the place.

Rocky is responsible for introducing the veggie burger and the incredible green chili sauce for huevos rancheros. Both became specialties of the house. Cinnamon spiked coffee remains standard, of course.

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a delectably fine lunch: veggie burger and sweet potato fries

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breakfast specialty: huevos rancheros with green chili sauce

She chose the current paint colors, including easy-on-the-eye peach walls in the kitchen and built the button inlaid steps for safer access in all weather conditions. The funky array of coffee mugs and salt-and-pepper shakers were always part of her style. The music that blasts from the kitchen is pure country western or rock-n-roll oldies. Son Joe mans the grill, daughter Alicia works the front, and husband, Danny, does whatever needs doing. It’s a full family operation, year round, with added help in summer. On Tuesdays, they take one day of rest.

We have been driving from our cabin in Estes Park to Meadow Mountain Cafe for more than 15 years. I go by myself, with family, or with friends, usually for breakfast, sometimes lunch. It never disappoints. It’s not meant to be fast food.

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You wait patiently and sip good coffee, talk leisurely. Perhaps you warm your back sitting at the counter by the antique stove, muse over the salt-and-pepper collection, read a book, or eavesdrop quietly on another conversation. You watch regulars walk into the kitchen looking for Rocky and to say hello. A table of friends play cards in the corner after their meal. At the other counter, a man leans his chin into one hand, and dozes, holding his coffee cup with the other.

Orders parade out of the kitchen. Coffee mugs are refilled. Homemade brown bread is sliced thickly for toast or sandwiches. Summer requires twice-a-day baking to keep up with demand. The scene is homey and multi-dimensional–from the diversity of people stepping through the front door to the din of kitchen music, mingled conversations and laughter, and the clatter of clearing plates as another table empties and fills. It always feels just right. You are glad to be hungry and in Allenspark.

What sustains 70 years of successful continuity in a community of just over 500 people? Rocky, and the female owners before her, perfected a simple yet timeless formula. Starting with an old-fashioned hard work ethic, they stay passionate about what they do and consistently do it very well. Quality is always high, service friendly, and customer relationships strong. And then, just maybe, a little hint of cinnamon in the coffee doesn’t hurt either.

I hope you have your own gem of a hometown café–a place with honest food, ambience, and feeling of community–where you seek to be nurtured over and over again.

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St. Catherine of Siena Chapel [Chapel on the Rock], St. Malo Conference Center, Allenspark, CO

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hand colored black and white photo of St. Catherine chapel, before the flood of 2013, purchased at Meadow Mountain