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 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 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 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

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, overly bread-y brown mess I have skipped since childhood.

John’s dressing, rich with veggies, full of crunch, a hint of sweetness and tang, was the centerpiece to a remarkable meal in my favorite city where Thanksgiving is not celebrated.

Last year, when we were invited again, I asked to learn the family secret to the best dressing ever invented to be eaten with roast turkey on Thanksgiving. Like most naturally creative cooks, John uses no recipe. It varies from year to year, ingredients added or subtracted.

For the Benson/Bentley family legacy, as well as our own future holiday celebrations, here is, thankfully presented, the most delicious stuffing/dressing recipe you will ever enjoy eating. Second and third helpings, yes! Next day leftovers, if there happen to be any, yes!

There is room here for your own creativity too. Play with some of the spice amounts and optional ingredients.

À chacun son goût. To each his own taste. The essence of French-splanation.

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­1.   Story excerpt from International Herald Tribune, November 5, 2005

JOHN’S BEST ORIGINAL HOLIDAY DRESSING [serves 12]

Ingredients:

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  • 1 head celery, chopped
  • 4 onions, chopped
  • 6 large cloves garlic [or more], chopped
  • 2 red bell peppers, chopped
  • 2 yellow bell peppers, chopped
  • 2 green bell peppers, chopped
  • Button mushrooms, sliced
  • Fresh bread croutons–explained below
  • 2 apples, chopped
  • Greek Kalamata or Moroccan olives, pitted and chopped-optional
  • Tomato confit [or sun dried tomatoes, softened with just enough hot water], chopped–optional
  • 1/2 to 1 lb. good butter, melted–as much as you want
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 2 tsp. thyme
  • 4 tsp. sage, rosemary, oregano and tarragon [approximate]
  • Turkey, chicken or vegetable broth, 2/3-1 Cup*
  • Olive oil
  • Several Tbs to 1/4 cup Maple syrup**

*For turkey broth: boil/simmer neck and chopped gizzard in 2-3 cups water, lightly covered, for an hour. You want 2/3 to 1 cup of liquid to add per casserole dish. Okay to use chicken [or veggie broth] as substitute.

**John’s turkey preparation involves brining it beforehand. He likes using the salty drippings and basting liquid to add to the dressing. He uses maple syrup during basting to caramelize the skin and add sweetness. If you don’t use the drippings with syrup in them, then add syrup, as directed, at the end of preparation.

Preparation:

1. In a large pan, sauté red, yellow and green peppers in olive oil on medium to high heat, until they are slightly browned and softened. Add in onions and finally garlic. Add spices–2 tsp. thyme, 4 tsp. each sage, rosemary and oregano during sauté. [Quantities are suggestions because he doesn’t precisely measure.]

It needs to smell herby-and good-as it is cooking!”–John

2. In another pan [flat-bottomed] melt a couple tablespoons of butter. Place sliced mushrooms flat in pan without overlapping. Sprinkle tarragon over it all for a light coating. Brown both sides on medium to high heat. Keep adding butter to the pan as mushrooms soak it up. Don’t skimp on butter. Mushrooms should still be firm on the inside.

3. Make croutons by cutting day old baguette into cubes. Sprinkle olive oil and rosemary over them and toss together. Place in oven on low temperature until browned or crispy.

They should get oiled all around a bit, not soggy of course. Rosemary should be a light sprinkle.”John

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cubed bread before oil/rosemary toss and crisping

4. Mix together all sautéed ingredients in a large bowl while still warm. Add prepared croutons.

5. Add remaining melted butter, at least 1/4 cup or 250 ml [melt more if you need it!]. Divide amounts evenly per casserole dish. Just pour it over and mix in. Use 1/2 bay leaf for each casserole.

6. Stir in broth, a little at a time until everything is mushy and moist, but not soggy.

“Croutons should not crumble into crumbs if smashed. You will probably use 1-2 C. of broth, based on crouton softness.”–John

7. Now add chopped celery, apple, seeded olives, and sundried tomatoes [or tomato confit]. These will add crunch, flavor, and a bit of tang.

8. Smell and taste. Perhaps add more butter or broth and drippings. Can also add sprig of fresh thyme or extra sage.

9. Stir in some maple syrup, a few tablespoons up to 1/4 cup per casserole.

10. Spread all ingredients into ovenproof dishes. Can place some inside turkey as stuffing. Grind black pepper over the top, if you think about it.

11. Bake uncovered 180 C. [350 F.] for about 1 hour. Halfway through, give it a stir to check for softness. If it’s too wet, stir again in 15 minutes to help with evaporation of broth. If still too moist after an hour, turn on broiler for a couple of minutes to brown and crisp the top. Watch carefully so it doesn’t burn!

Ingredients are already cooked so baking is to evaporate the broth and crisp everything. A good dried out, browned, crispy top is unbeatable. I think it’s the butter.”John Benson

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maybe the secret is in the butter, but it’s really much more than that…

Set a festive holiday dinner table. When seated among family and friends give thanks to everyone and everything for which you are grateful.

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Remember to raise a glass to those Peaux-Rouges and Pèlerins who started it all…

Joyeux Jour de Merci Donnant!

Happy Thanksgiving!

Other stories about Sally Bentley here: Foxglove and “Oreos” on the Camino or Sex in a Pan and the Tennis/Hewitts [Maddy and Cabby] here: Transcendent Picnics

Bugling Elk and Sacred Spaces

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

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

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

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camp estes’ long’s peak view

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Max and the Beanstalks

Our friend, Max, has spent a lot of time with his hands in the dirt. That is, when he wasn’t a student athlete, coach, husband, father, and Athletic Director for two universities in the mid-western United States. Since retiring [as AD] from Kansas State University, Max keeps an active hand as consultant and mentor to athletes, coaches and directors. He is a man who is wired to pay it forward by giving back to his profession as well as devoting boundless time and energy to his family and friend relationships.

Max also likes to get his hands a little dirty–by tending the soil.

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the hands of max

He grew up in Troy, Ohio in a family of three boys. Every spring his parents planted a large “truck garden” outside of town. A truck garden is larger than a backyard or “kitchen” garden. A pick-up truck is often used to haul things back and forth to the plotted site. His parents worked the fertile Ohio soil without motorized equipment, using only hand tools. Each summer they grew the fruit and vegetables their growing family would eat for a year.

From an early age, Max played alongside the garden patch as his parents worked. He learned the rituals of tilling, planting, weeding and harvesting. It became natural–this annual cycle of producing fresh food with your own hands. And feeding people you love from the harvest.

He carried the tradition into adulthood while raising a family and growing his career. Certain veggies are a mainstay. He always plants asparagus, beets, cucumber, green beans, leaf lettuce, onions, potatoes, spinach, tomatoes, and zucchini squash. He sometimes plants bell peppers, hot peppers, garlic, peas, or yellow squash.

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We are among the fortunate beneficiaries of the abundance that grows from Max’s hands and heart, in the friendship he shares with us. Visiting his home in Kansas or when he and his wife drive to our cabin in Colorado there is always a gift…fresh and delicious from the garden.

Two summers ago, Max brought something different. Green beans in a jar, packed in seasoned brine. It was a new thing–pickling the extra beans from a bountiful harvest.

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Admittedly, at first glance, these beans deserved some skepticism–pale and limp in liquid–I wasn’t sure whether I could even try them. That’s because I grew up in a household that served beans only from cans. At the family dinner table, my learned behavior was to move them as quickly as possible from mouth to paper napkin to garbage can.

Max’s proffered jars were placed in the cupboard and overlooked until later in the summer. I finally took one as a dinner hostess gift to a neighbor on our mountain hillside. She called me a few days later and RAVED about the pickled beans. She said they were BETTER than any other kind of pickle, especially for hamburgers. Did I have more jars to share?

Our daughter came to visit. She likes almost everything and is creative about ways to present food. I cracked open a jar of pickled beans and added them to a tray of small bites to have with drinks. At her suggestion, we placed them in icy martinis to sip on the shaded front porch.

I tried my own hand at pickling beans purchased from the local farmer’s market. It was a little trickier at the higher altitude of the Colorado Rockies, [see notes for high altitude processing at end] but they turned out fine. Now I’m hooked.

This summer I drove back for a lesson from the source–Max’s plot of land in the Manhattan, Kansas Community Garden. We awakened early, Max, Lynn and I, to pick beans before heat, humidity, and biting insects overtook us.

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Max and his beanstalks
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morning produce

In the afternoon, we pickled our harvest from start to finish, ending the day with wine and unwind time–featuring, you guessed it, pickled beans.

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wine and unwind time starring beans, etc.

Our Latvian daughter-in-law comes from Russian heritage that pickles any and all kinds of vegetables. Current nutritional trends suggest that fermented or pickled food should be included daily in healthy diets. Preserving food this way is an easy activity to do at home. Everyone reaps benefits.

Pickled beans can be eaten as a low calorie snack or as a garnish to any food where pickles are used [Barbara’s hamburgers!]. They can be added to drinks such as Bloody Marys or vodka martinis. Let the beans stand as green centerpiece to a tray of rainbow colored hors d’oeuvres. They make a unique and perfect homemade gift to a friend, tied with a ribbon and a sprig of herbs.

Max–here’s to you. Keep your hands in good soil and your beans in brine.

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max and lynn urick

MAX’S PICKLED GREEN BEANS–Makes 4 Pints

INGREDIENTS:

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green beans washed and sorted by size
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pickling salt, spices, vinegar, garlic, fresh dill
  • 2 pounds green beans–washed, trimmed and sorted by size
  • ½-1 tsp cayenne pepper [optional, if you like a bit of spice]
  • 4 heads fresh dill weed or 4 tsp dill seed
  • 4 cloves garlic, peeled
  • 2 ½ C. water
  • 2 ½ C. 5% white vinegar
  • ¼ C. pickling salt
  • 4 tsp pickling spices

METHOD:

  1. Sterilize pint sized canning jars and lids by boiling for a short time in a water bath. Place lids first in bottom of pot to keep jars off the bottom.
  2. Tightly pack same-sized beans, lengthwise, into sterilized jars, leaving ½ inch of headspace. [Stem end goes on top [Max style], unless you trim both ends of beans, which I like to do.]
  3. Make pickling solution by combining the vinegar, water, salt and pickling spices. Bring to a boil.
  4. Pour hot liquid over beans, leaving ½ inch headspace.
  5. Place one clove garlic, fresh dill weed or dill seed on top of beans before sealing lids. [Can also garnish with a strip of red bell pepper or red onion.]
  6. Remove air bubbles. Wipe jar rims. Adjust lids securely but not overly tight.
  7. Process in boiling water bath for 5 minutes. Water should cover jars by 1-2 inches.

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water bath boil, cover jars by 1-2 inches
  • Remove from water and set upright on countertop.

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    canning tongs to remove from preserving bath
  • Each jar will have a small rounded dome in the center of the lid. After 15 minutes of cooling time, there is an audible “Ping” sound as the dome depresses and the jar becomes sealed.

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    domed jar in front before “ping”, sealed jar behind–post-ping
  • Let beans stand at room temperature for at least two weeks to allow flavors to develop. Refrigerate after opening.
  • VARIATIONS FOR HIGH ALTITUDE WATER BATH PROCESSING

    If you are preserving at an altitude higher than 1000 feet above sea level, you need to adjust processing time as indicated in the chart below.

    Altitude in Feet                    Processing Time [Increased by Minutes]

    • 1001-3000                                           +5 minutes
    • 3001-6000                                         +10 minutes
    • 6001-8000                                         +15 minutes
    • 8001-10,000                                       +20 minutes

    After removing from water bath, leave undisturbed on countertop for 12-24 hours. Then check jar lids for sealing. They should not flex up and down when the center is pressed. If the lid does not seal in 24 hours, product can be immediately reprocessed or refrigerated.

    Sunshine on the Back of Your Knees

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    photo by patricia green-sotos in ubud, bali

    It’s summer.

    For some, this might involve a long trip across many time zones. Perhaps even to geography halfway around the world.

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    Yellow Flower Cafe at sunset, Ubud, Bali, Indonesia

    Because of our overseas lifestyle, I have been flying internationally at least twice a year for the past 30 years. In the beginning, I ignored the concept of jet lag and simply acclimated with a lot of sleeping. It was easy to fall asleep on planes. When the engines revved up and white noise began, I closed the window shade and REM sleep took over. After reaching destination, I slept some more. Eventually, day and night realigned.

    Numerous tips have been written about preventing or overcoming jet lag. Some are helpful.

    Suggestions such as a good night’s sleep before a long flight, over-hydrating by consuming more water than you want, and refraining from too much alcohol or caffeine. Other tips include not flying with a hangover [major hydration no-no] and immediately adopting the day/night schedule of your destination geography.

    These days jet engines don’t automatically make me pass out, so I think about waking/sleeping hours on a plane differently. I diligently perform ankle circles and spinal twists in my seat. I get up to walk or stand. I drink many glasses of water. I take brief naps rather than sleep for hours at a time. All are decent behaviors for trying to align my body clock. But they never accomplish the whole thing.

    Recently, I made a long flight from Paris to Singapore and Bali and back to Europe two weeks later. Sixteen hours of flight time each way with six hours of time difference.

    The friend who travelled with me to a yoga retreat in Bali had two jet lag ideas that were completely new. The first came from a limited study done in 1998. It was quirky enough I wanted to believe its’ conclusion–exposing the back of your knees to light, particularly sunlight, in the first days after travel, alleviates jet lag.

    An instant antidote! And perfectly timed as we had two recovery days in a hotel in Denpasar before the retreat began. Our base of operation was established immediately after breakfast in poolside lounge chairs. When knees overheated [front or back], we obligingly cooled them by sliding into the water. If boredom or cloud cover made it silly to continue this “therapy”, we went exploring.

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    retreat location, ubud, bali, by patricia green-sotos
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    our room
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    rice field from our porch

    The other new jet lag treatment was more medically aligned with the body’s circadian rhythms. It was the result of a hormone study by my friend’s physician brother on human cortisol fluctuation.

    I emailed him after the trip to ask more about it. Dr. John replied, “Jet lag is hormone dislocation.” Translation: The body’s normal clock gets out of whack when you pass through multiple time zones.

    “Your cortisol level surges each day at awakening. It is set to your biological clock and changes only reluctantly–about one hour per day per time zone. Hence the lag.”

    At the opposite end of the day, when it’s time to go to bed, the brain produces melatonin and off to sleep we go. Cortisol levels rise again with the sun. The cycle continues.

    Big time zone changes mixed with fluctuating biorhythms can play out dramatically in young children. Our son was six-years-old the first time we flew home to the U.S. after moving to Singapore. During an early dinner, we watched his head suddenly sag forward and plop down in the center of his plate. Sound asleep in mashed potatoes.

    Dr. John suggests: “The fix [to jet lag] is in replacing the hormone [cortisol] at the right time of day. Hydrocortisone is safe and effective when you take it at 7:00AM local time for just three days. You can’t do it everyday, only with international travel. Combine that with melatonin [3-10mg] to help get you to sleep and you get the benefit both ways. Works like a charm.”

    Take 20mg Hydrocortisone for three days only, at 7 AM local time, for international travel.

    You need a medical prescription for oral cortisone and it may be challenging to find a physician willing to write one for jet lag, even in such a limited dose. You could try encouraging your physician with what Dr. John says: “Simple replacement dose is not the same as a treatment dose of prednisone which overpowers your own cortisol. It’s safe and effective.”

    I have yet to use cortisone therapy for jet lag. Instead, I researched that back-of-the-knees-light-study from the ‘90s. It was debunked, not long afterward, as nonsense.

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    After returning from Bali I took 45 minutes each afternoon for a week to lie on the floor by my dining room window and expose the back of my knees to sunlight. When I really wanted a jet lagging nap, I found that sunny-knee-time seemed to warm up my brain and nourish it, too. I was more alert, avoided the nap, and slept through the night.

    Fact or fiction, back-of-the-knee sun exposure worked for me.

    Regardless of this or that tip for recalibrating your body clock, you can just live out jet lag and do nothing. Eventually, day and night cycles return to “normal” wherever you are.

    However, try to avoid falling asleep at the dinner table. Or try to finish your meal first so as not to wake up in a pool of gravy.

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    double tree pose
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    ohm in flowers
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    rice field yogi trees

    Treize–A Baker’s Dozen, Paris

    There is a story behind the phrase “13–a baker’s dozen”. In the days when bread was sold by weight, bakers regularly gave customers an extra +1, or 13 items, on every dozen sold. There were strict penalties if found guilty of shorting the customer. Since loaves easily varied in size and weight, they made a practice of “giving more”. Today, generous bakeries might offer a “freebie” as a courtesy for buying a dozen.

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    laurel in the treize kitchen

    Laurel Sanderson was a baker long before she decided to open a restaurant in the back of a Paris courtyard. She comes from a line of southern home cooks and bakers going back to her mother and grandmother in upper Charleston, South Carolina, USA.

    At twenty years old, Laurel took off to learn French–in France. She immediately found other English-speaking friends doing the same thing. The combined excitement of new friendships and travel initially slowed the process of acquiring a second language.

    After four years of polishing her French and having fun, she moved to Paris and began working in a bar off rue Mouffetard in the Latin Quarter. There, a group of same-age ex-pats from all over the world bonded in friendship. Most of them stayed on. They gravitated from those beginning days of tending bar to the grown up world of food and beverage distribution, management, organizational planning, and in Laurel’s case–a bakery.

    Fast-forward another fifteen years–after starting a family and ending her bakery business partnership, Laurel discovered a former auto garage, at the far end of a centuries old cobblestoned courtyard, in the middle of Paris. She envisioned a new enterprise, all her own, and named it Treize…a baker’s dozen.

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    For the first two years, after opening in January 2014, Laurel managed with irregular part time help that came and went. Finally, in February 2016, she asked a friend from those early bartending days to join her full time.

    Kaysa von Sydow is Swedish. For many years, she owned a special events business with food and beverages. Now she runs the front-of-the-house at Treize, which highlights her engaging people skills along with creative coffee, tea, juices, and drinks. She brings the best of Swedish café culture [Fika]–savouring the moment, slowing down, making time every day for a break with coffee, tea, a baked good and [perhaps] some friendly gossip. She also sources the best products for variety and bio-freshness.

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    kaysa and laurel, chez treize

    Laurel now focuses on lighting up the kitchen space, as well as the whole restaurant, with whatever she is doing: cooking, baking or treating customers as life-long friends.

    Why did a southern girl from South Carolina open a miniscule resto in a space that evolved from a storage workshop for antiques, to a jeweler’s workshop, to a hair salon, to a mechanic’s garage? When asked how she made the switch from full time baking to chef she replies, “It was actually pretty easy. People want pastry, but people need food.”

    There’s more to it than that, of course. She missed the tastes and recipes from her southern American roots. She wasn’t planning to return to Charleston because “home” was now Paris, with a husband and children. So she created her own style of southern comfort cooking and opened it to the public.

    When you push open the many-paned glass door at Treize, it’s like walking into a favorite friend’s quirky kitchen and dining room combined. It’s highly organized with floor to ceiling storage, but overflowing with jars and baskets and tins and spices, hanging cast iron and copper pots, piles of fruits, vegetables and herbs. Even the windowpane grills hold ripening avocadoes. There are flea market finds decorating out-of-reach shelves; vintage muffin tins, dough cutters, cake pans, antique copper or enamel cafetières. There is a gargoyle. And cookbooks tucked in everywhere.

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    a place for everything and everything in some place
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    carrot cake under glass, a basket of biscuits, ginger root, & a gargoyle!

    On the largest wooden table, there is a seasonal flower arrangement next to a stacked pile of “Garden and Gun” magazines. [Laurel’s favorite periodical, from Charleston, y’all.] In the corner by the door, birch tree trunks support curling dried vines that snake upward toward the skylight. Vines decorated seasonally, of course. An antique glass chandelier hangs from the pressed tin ceiling. On one wall is a black and white mural of a little girl swinging meditatively into the air. Opposite, a chalkboard sign reads “In Buttermilk Biscuits We Trust” along with the recipe for this daily served bread.

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    winter vines in twinkly lights, snowflakes, & pages from a french novel
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    springtime in greenery and birdhouses
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    southern biscuits, y’all

    It’s an eclectic use of very small space. Vintage, antique-y, industrial-ish, chic/messy/favorite auntie décor are all terms that describe Treize. Your senses respond instinctively to the all-embracing ambience. Capturing any empty stool or chair, you melt into the friendliness AND the delicious food smells. It is the sanctuary you were dreaming to find–an escape in an accelerated world.

    The kitchen is an incredibly small working space, but open to everything. As soon as anyone enters, Laurel and/or Kaysa look up with huge smiles and say, “Heeeeyyyyy, how are you? Come on in!” If they know your name, you are greeted with bisous [xx] too. By now, they know practically everyone who walks in, from around the globe.

    The recipes change by the day and the season. Menus are based on traditional family recipes that Laurel grew up eating. Some are inspired from The Southern Cookbook. All have been updated and improved with Laurel’s creativity and by sourcing 100% bio ingredients. Top-notch staples of butter, flour, cream, sugar, seasonal fruits and veggies are easily found in Paris. They make everything taste better.

    Everyday, Laurel bakes light-as-a-feather, melt-in-your-mouth buttermilk biscuits. [More than 40,000 since Treize opened!] Everyday, there is a three-tiered butter-cream-frosted carrot cake under glass. Laurel’s carrot cake is inspired. It is her own particular version. People come in just because they have heard about it. They return because they are hooked by everything else about Treize, too.

    Laurel generally arrives first, very early in the morning. This is her quiet time to bake–biscuits, cakes [one or two in addition to carrot cake], and small pastries for savory tarts. Kaysa arrives next, soon followed by the current prep-cooks, Sam and Anne. Alam arrives last, but stays well past closing to finish cleaning and setting up for the next day. He moves quietly and knowingly in the back of the kitchen. By late afternoon, he nudges Laurel out to sit down for a moment.

    After hours of multi-tasking: chatting up customers, overseeing and doing preps, sorting out Kaysa’s orders over the din of customers, unceasing chopping, cooking, baking– finally, it’s late afternoon and a special time to be at Treize. A bottle of wine is often opened and glasses poured. There may be time for more in-depth conversation while sitting on high stools around a tall table peeling oranges and lemons for the next day’s juices. It’s my favorite time to be there. I join in and the prep work goes faster.

    I’ve spent many hours at Treize since stumbling into this hidden gem of a courtyard three years ago. I have taken friends or out-of-town guests or my family. I especially love going alone. In this coziest of environments, I find my better self.

    There are stories about other people who find Treize, too. A family of five from Luxembourg was visiting Paris. They were looking for food after normal restaurant hours on a frigid wintery day. No place would serve them. They staggered into Treize–cold, tired and famished. Arms readily opened to hold the baby while mom ate her meal. The other children were nourished. Everyone was nurtured. They return every year.

    A honeymooning couple scanned a fashion blogger’s website where Treize was mentioned and happily lingered over lunch and several rounds of beverages. A weekly table of mothers and babies has been coming in since before the babies were born. “Paris by Mouth” [restaurant review website] rents the large table several times a week to end their tourist walking tours with wine and cheese. A stream of regulars working in the area, bring in their own plates or coffee cups to be filled and taken back to work. A professional chess player, who summers every year in Paris, eats there weekly, if not more. A newcomer, curious about what he saw at the end of an ambient courtyard, walks in and claims his new favourite place in Paris. People find Treize. And they return.

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    il y a d’or a la fin de la cour

    The success of Treize is not hard to understand. But there are subtle, even humble, layers mixed into the daily joy of achievement. For Laurel, Treize is not about her or what she has built. It is about the connectedness created with everyone who walks in the door. It’s a throw back to an environment beautifully crafted twenty years ago in a bar off rue Mouffetard, where customers became friends. Sharing back-stories and experiences, staying in touch with each other’s lives, supporting one another through thick and thin. Both Laurel and Kaysa are masters of weaving friendship into work they love.

    The essence of Treize, the thing that lingers, is this–no matter the time of day or the moment in the week or whatever else is going on in the world, when you push open the door, you always feel glad to be exactly there. It’s about broad smiles and sparkling eyes.  It’s about lighthearted banter between co-workers doing what they love to do. It’s about warm greetings to everyone, every single time. It’s the kind of place where you want to know their names and their stories. And they want to know yours, too.

    There is a feeling of receiving something “more” each time you go. And that’s because the heart of Treize is not simply a baker’s dozen, it’s a baker’s soul…

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    the smile that lights up a kitchen and a restaurant
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     Addendum July 2018:

    Treize has a re-opened in a new and larger location across from Jardin du Luxembourg. Check their website for menu offerings and hours. No reservations. 5, rue de Médicis, Paris, 75006

    http://www.treizebakeryparis.com

    Hack #2: Relishing the Radish

    It’s time for a new food hack. This one is French-inspired. Consider the radish–eaten in a certain way, as a starter course, particularly at lunchtime.

    Shortly after moving to Paris we were invited to a long Sunday lunch, family style, in the apartment of my husband’s administrative assistant. Traditional to such gatherings, there was a mixture of ages from toddlers to grandparents around the large dining table. There was a casual centerpiece of low flowers, printed cloth napkins and tablecloth, baskets of chewy baguette slices, small dishes of butter, and, of course, there was wine.

    There was a small plate of elongated red radishes with short green stems already at each place setting. Also on the plate was a little pyramid of sea salt. After sitting down, our hostess said, “I will show one way we like to eat radishes in France.”

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    She picked up a radish in one hand and a butter knife with the other. She smeared good French butter on the surface and, with her fingers, sprinkled sea salt over it all. She bit into the radish down to the stem.

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    That was the first course of our first French family lunch.

    Recently, a former Paris friend [who is American] was back in town for a visit and came to lunch “chez moi”. I planned to serve a small casserole of “Latvian Lasagna”.

    But I wanted a different kind of starter from green salad. Early spring radish season was in full swing so that became the plan.

    The best thing about French radishes is there is no harsh “bite” or spicy bitterness to them. They are simply a beautiful mouthful of sweetness,  crunch and moisture. Combined with creamy butter from those Norman-grass-eating cows and salt crystals from the sea, a single red radish becomes the perfect trilogy of beauty, taste, and satisfaction.

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    My friend loved the surprisingly subtle combination of butter and radishes. She had forgotten how refreshing they were to eat. And how easy to prepare.

    Another way to serve radishes is with homemade guacamole–simply mashed avocado, minced red onion, salt, pepper, and lime juice.

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    radishes, guacamole and snacks for “wine and unwind” party

    Buttered radishes would be an inspired idea to try anywhere else in the world–outside of France. You can’t call something so well known here as “inspired”, unless you are a foreigner. So, wherever you live, tantalize taste buds in an unexpected way, wow guests with a “new” starter, and veer away from always serving the same old green salad as a first course.

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    french radishes in farmer’s market, laguna beach, california

    Cocoa Cake With My Curry, Please

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    It is almost impossible for the average person to prepare authentic Indian curry. With its’ countless spices and detailed combination of ingredients, you need to be born into the culture. Or, you can absorb the know-how as my friend Patricia did, by growing up in India.

    Friendships and food, often in exotic locations, are part of the story that has richly colored, and flavored, our life overseas. “Curry Love” began in our family when we moved to Singapore with two young children in 1987. It is also where Patricia and I became friends.

    Patricia was born in a colonial bedroom in the remote village of Tilda, in the state of Chattisghar, central India. Two generations before, her grandfather built the hospital there. Infrastructure was limited because it was a tribal area, but the local people had medical care. One generation later, her father returned to India as a Village Extension Worker with a specialty in agriculture. His job was to bring clean water, air, and other forms of conservation [soil, sewage] to rural India. He moved the family to a different village, Bisrampur, with a local population of 500, when Patricia was very young.

    From the age of five, the four children in the Whitcomb family were sent to Woodstock, a Christian boarding school in Mussoorie, Uttarakhand, India. Mussoorie-Landour was a former British hill station in the foothills of the Himalayas. Hill stations, during the British Raj, were high altitude towns used for vacations to escape summer’s blistering heat and dust in the plains.

    It took three days and three nights on a third class train to reach Mussoorie. One carriage held all the students rounded up in various villages. There were many stops, re-hooking to different trains, and finally taxis up to Woodstock. The school is spread over a steep hillside, 7000 feet in altitude. Students scamper up and down trails from campus into town like mountain goats. The beauty is stunning.

    Woodstock School, Mussoorie Landour, established 1854

    At eighteen, Patricia moved to the United States. She attended the University of Iowa with a double major in East Asian Languages and Literature [Japanese] and Anthropology/Archeology. Four years later, she earned a bachelor’s degree in Nursing [BSN]. She received an ESL degree [English as a Second Language] in Singapore after moving there with her teaching husband and young family in the mid-1980s. When they returned to the U.S., she worked as a neonatal ICU nurse in Madison, Wisconsin for more than 25 years. In retirement, she teaches and leads retreats in Alignment Yoga with 500-hour teacher’s certification. Oh, and by the way, Patricia speaks fluent Hindi, too.

    During school holidays, back in the village, Patricia and her local friends entertained themselves creatively. Collecting dried dung patties for fuel, they cooked rice and curry in primitive outdoor picnics. Later, in university years, her older sister, Cate, began the tradition of family curry night.

    Curry-themed parties in Singapore, hosted by Patricia and Bart, brought together a large group of friends. Sometimes we dressed in traditional garb from “Little India”. We also went there to eat curry with our hands, served on fresh, green banana leaves. The pungent aroma of open barrels of fresh spices intermingled with the heady sweet smell of jasmine flowers woven into necklaces is my takeaway memory of Little India.

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    Patricia, Bart, and friends, curry night, 1988-89
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    our try at Indian style, 1988-89

    In May 2015, Patricia came to visit me in Paris. She proposed one full day to teach me to cook a curry meal. This was worked in between sight seeing, yoga-posing photo ops, and eating delicious French things.

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    triangle pose, trocadéro, paris
    double tree pose, jardins du palais royal, paris

    We purchased fresh produce and spices at the Indian grocery store in the 10th Arrondissement. Green beans, tomatoes, eggplant, green chili, garlic, ginger root, potatoes, onions, spinach, and okra. This is also the neighborhood with the best Indian restaurants in Paris.

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    It takes many spices to cook proper curry. We accumulated black mustard seeds, yellow mustard seeds, sambar powder, garam masala, turmeric, coriander and cumin seeds, desiccated coconut, dried curry leaves, cumin powder, fenegreek, red pepper flakes, sea salt and black pepper.

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    sooooo many spices

    The menu was all vegetable curries, as those are our favorites, with fried pokora, an Indian fritter made with graham flour and veggies and coriander chutney on the side.

    I busied myself taking photos of the beautiful array of ingredients and spices in between some chopping prep work. When it was time to begin cooking, Patricia talked me through each step–one by one.

    Suddenly overwhelmed, I drifted to the other side of the kitchen with a strong urge to re-arrange the spice cabinet. Admittedly, I abandoned the micro steps of curry prep almost from the beginning. I lost my way with the endless ingredients and order of spices from start to finish. Notes I wrote were a jumble of words without amounts or explanation. I cannot replicate a single dish she prepared.

    The truth is, you have to feel it with curry.

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    curry feast, except pokora which was consumed before reaching the table

    At the opposite end of the food spectrum, dessert, I learned a Patricia recipe I have used many times. In the Green family’s Singaporean kitchen there were two things you could count on. One was about food. The other was about tropical living.

    On the kitchen countertop there was always a dark cocoa chocolate sheet cake with thick gooey frosting. Everyone was welcome to dig in, anytime. The tropical living side involved a gecko that resided under the refrigerator. He scurried out to eat mosquitoes, ants, and food crumbs, usually under cover of darkness. In the beginning he was tiny, two or three inches in length. Over the years he grew substantially longer–and wider.

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    One day, Patricia came home and found the chocolate cake tin uncovered. Not a good idea in that climate. On closer inspection, she saw the gecko, now a robust eight-inches, floundering on his back in the frosting. Alive and wiggling wildly, unable to re-right himself, he was going nowhere.

    She picked up the cake pan and ran outside. With a spatula, she flipped the gecko onto the grass. Fearing fire ants would attack his sugary skin, she doused him with pitchers of water to rinse away some of the chocolate-y coating. Eventually, he was left to his fate.

    Back in the kitchen, she scraped off a bit of frosting, re-smoothed the surface and covered the pan. That evening, her husband asked, “What happened to the cake? The icing is so thin.”

    In the end, she had to tell him because, after all, the gecko was part of the family. Somehow that chocoholic lizard found his way back to the five-star-refrigerator-hotel and remained part of the household until they moved.

    Of the many things I have learned from Patricia throughout our friendship, I believe this to be the most important. Her upbringing as a third culture kid in India paved the way to a life lesson she exemplifies so well in adulthood. Honed in primitive villages in the dry plains, to boarding school from a tender age amid lush Himalayan hills, to the mid-western United States, to Singapore, and back to the U.S., Patricia learned to lean into life’s changes and persevere through its’ challenges.

    She didn’t teach me how to cook curry, but she teaches everyone by example. With compassion, intelligent curiosity, a completely positive outlook, flexibility, and laughter, Patricia leads in the direction of how far we can grow.

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    friends anywhere in the world, paris, may 2015

    COCOA CHOCOLATE CAKE [credit to Cate Whitcomb and P. Green-Sotos]

    Butter a 9×13 inch cake pan. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

    Ingredients and Preparation:

    • 1 ¾ C. flour
    • 2 C. sugar
    • ¾ C. cocoa [best quality cocoa recommended]
    • 1 ½ t. baking soda
    • 1 ½ t. baking powder
    • 1 t. salt
    • Combine all dry ingredients in a large bowl.
    • 2 eggs
    • 1 C. milk
    • ½ C. vegetable oil
    • 2 t. vanilla extract
    • Mix the wet ingredients into dry. Beat at medium speed for 2 minutes.
    • 1 C. boiling water
    • Add this last, stirring just until combined. Do not over-mix.

    Bake 35 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in center of cake comes out clean.

    -5 (1)
    out of the oven, cool before frosting

    Icing:

    • ½ C. butter
    • 2 C. powdered sugar
    • 4 T. cocoa
    • 3-4 T. milk or chocolate liqueur
    • Beat with mixer until light and fluffy. Spread over cooled cake and cover.
    -6 (1)

    Hack #1: Making Perfect Rice

    We lived in Asia for a total of fifteen years in two separate cycles. First in Singapore for three years, followed by an interim three years in the Mediterranean, followed by twelve years in Taiwan.

    Throughout Asia, the daily carbohydrate staple is, obviously, rice.

    As a child who grew up in the American Midwest our daily carbohydrate was the potato. When my mother tried to spiff up evening meals by serving rice, we shunned the tasteless pile of grain. In frustration, she resorted to sprinkling sugar over it. Which made things worse.

    Fast forward to Singapore where rice and noodles became a regular part of the family diet. It was presented in many delicious ways as a base to vegetables or bits of meat. Our son and daughter learned the dexterity of handling chopsticks at tender ages. Three-year-old Lara had her own style. Holding a chopstick in each fist, she pinched food between the two ends. With some luck, it eventually reached her mouth.

    For me, making rice was always a guessing game–ratios of water to rice, cooking time, lid or no lid, rice cooker or no rice cooker. Finally, it was our Taiwanese helper, Alon, who showed me that preparing perfect rice requires only one thing–an index finger.

    The index finger method works for any kind of rice–white, brown, red, black or multi-grain. It works in any size pot. It works over gas, electricity or induction heat. It is the best way to prepare fluffy, un-sticky rice.

    Perfect rice can be made this simple way at home or even in a restaurant.

    IMG_5306
    Treize Restaurant, 16 rue des Saints Pères, Paris

    Here’s an example. While hanging out one morning at my friend Laurel’s small Paris restaurant, Treize–A Baker’s Dozen, Paris, she wondered aloud how to cook the large amount rice needed for the lunch special. I offered to show her the foolproof-hack method. When you know the chef/owner and it’s an open kitchen, the answer is “Sure, go ahead!” And that’s how a Charleston cook learned to make perfectly cooked red rice to accompany southern black beans.

    PERFECT RICE HACK

    Ingredients:

    • 1 cooking pot and lid, any size
    • rice of choice, optional to rinse first
    • water
    IMG_6972
    brown or basmati

    Preparation:

    • Place any amount of rice into cooking pot.
    • Add water to cover and stir gently until floating rice grains settle on bottom.
    • Gently touch the tip of your index finger on the top layer of rice.
    • Continue adding water until water level reaches the line of the first joint.
    IMG_5309
    place rice in pan
    IMG_5311
    place tip of index finger on top of rice
    IMG_5312
    add enough water until it reaches the line of the first joint

    Cooking:

    • Place uncovered pot over high heat. [Sometimes I add a drizzle of olive oil or vegetable bouillon cube for flavor.]
    • When water begins to boil, adjust heat to continue boiling gently at lower setting.
    • When there is no water visible and the surface of the rice shows craters, immediately turn heat to lowest setting and cover with a lid.
    • Set timer for exactly 5 minutes.
    • Turn off heat when timer buzzes.

     

    IMG_5327
    surface of rice becoming visible
    IMG_5330
    forming craters or sink holes
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    when no boiling water visible, cover with lid, turn heat to lowest setting
    IMG_5334
    time exactly 5 minutes, then turn off heat

    There you are. No fussy measurements. Just a finger joint level of cooking water. And a timer. Rice is ready immediately or will stay warm under cover until ready to serve.

    For small amounts of rice, the cooking is very fast, only a few minutes. For larger amounts with more water to boil away, keep an eye on it until it’s time for the final five minutes.

    For heavier rice grains like black, red or multigrain, I measure water to just above the line of my index joint. Somehow it always seems to work.

    Because I don’t measure rice there is always more for another meal. I found a new recipe for leftover rice called Torta di Riso. Credit to Sasha Martin from her memoir Life from Scratch.

    TORTA DI RISO

    • 6 slices bacon, chopped [can be omitted]
    • 1 T. olive oil, plus more for baking dish
    • 1 chopped onion
    • 3 C. leftover cooked rice [any kind]
    • 6 eggs, lightly beaten
    • ½ C. grated parmesan cheese [or more]
    • ¼ C. chopped parsley [or more]
    • S&P
    • Red pepper flakes, optional
    1. Sauté bacon in olive oil until fat begins to render. Add onion. Sauté until it turns light brown. Set aside.
    2. In large bowl, place rice, cheese, eggs, parsley, salt and pepper. [Can add chopped up spinach for more green.]
    3. Stir in slightly cooled onion mixture.
    4. Pour into lightly oiled 8×8 inch casserole.
    5. Bake 400 F. or 205 C. for 35 minutes or until golden brown on top.
    6. Cool 15 minutes.
    7. Cut into squares or diamonds.
    8. Serve room temperature or cold.

    Torta di Riso is a nourishing finger food snack. It’s great for picnics or hikes.

    IMG_6996
    mixing ingredients
    IMG_6998
    ready to bake
    IMG_6984
    bake til golden brown
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    i like it crunchy on top and with red pepper flakes throughout

    Sex in a Pan

    img_2574
    painting by gustave moreau, french symbolist, 1826-1898

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

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

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

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

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

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

    doc000

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

    img_2535
    who wrote this?

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

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

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

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

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

    img_6868
    sex in a pan parisian party

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

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

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

    SEX IN A PAN

    Ingredients:

    img_6850
    • 1 C. flour
    • ½ C. butter–best quality salted butter you can find
    • ¾ C. chopped pecans
    • 8 oz. cream cheese [let get to room temperature]
    • 1 C. icing sugar
    • 1 large pkg. instant chocolate pudding [6 ½ C. size]
    • 1 large pkg. instant vanilla pudding [6 ½ C. size]
    • 3 C. cold milk
    • 1 large container Cool Whip [or a good whipped cream]
    • 1 large dark chocolate bar

    Preparation:

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

    Serving:

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

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

    Begin With Russian Dumplings

    We might live in less divisive times if world leaders learned a few lessons from multi-cultural families.

    The intersection of New Year’s weekend in Latvia with the Russian side of our family [by marriage] with news of cyber-hacking by Russia’s government in the U.S. presidential election is one example. Cultural and political tensions between nations have always been complicated to resolve. In contrast, relationships in our dual culture family grow stronger with shared experiences, cooperation, and acceptance. People behave better than governments.

    The holiday time in Riga made me think about new ways to initiate diplomacy between Russia and the United States. It might begin with, well…making Russian dumplings.

    I have been to Latvia twice before with our daughter-in-law’s family. [Shrooming in LatviaLetting Go In Latvia] What I know about Russian generosity, from the first time and thereafter, is that it begins at the table and flows outward from the heart.

    New Year’s Eve, December 31, 2016

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    This was the evening for a small family gathering. After gifts were exchanged, we sat down at Aunt Olga and Uncle Ivar’s large dining table.

    There was food covering the entire surface. We generously helped ourselves to dishes of caviar or smoked fish and quail eggs on bread. There was a huge platter of olives, pickled tomatoes, stuffed peppers, salted cucumbers, garlic and mushrooms. There was perch salad, stuffed calamari, meat salad, and layered shrimp salad. There was sturgeon in fish jelly, herring-in-a-coat, and lamprey–a bottom feeding fish that I diplomatically declined.

    img_6679
    aubergine salad, crudités, caviar, quail eggs on smoked fish, meat salad, marinated mushrooms [from the forest]

    That was the beginning. Later, a second round of eating featured mutton, potatoes, and  more of the first courses. The finale was cousin Polina’s homemade cheesecake.

    We toasted throughout the meal, which meant raising a shot glass of icy Beluga Vodka and downing it whenever someone spoke. After the first two toasts, I strategically sipped my drink. The other women refrained from vodka and drank juice or wine. I stayed with the cold Beluga, finding it perfect with the food.

    At 11:00 PM, when it was midnight in Moscow, we toasted Russian New Year. One hour later we toasted the arrival of 2017 in Latvia. Fireworks lit up the sky. Seven-month-old granddaughter was carried to an upstairs window to see the colorful light show.

    New Year’s Day, January 1, 2017

    The day for partying with family and friends! Guests and more guests arrived throughout the afternoon. It was an open house that overflowed with adults and children of all ages. There were platters and casseroles of food, shots of vodka [yes, indeed], glasses of cognac [with tonic and lemon], prosecco, champagne, beer and wine.

    Russian music concerts played nonstop on the television. Women gossiped around the table or in the living room. Men stood at the kitchen island for manly talk and vodka. I learned that if Beluga is not available, Grey Goose or Finlandia are good choices for icy shots.

    img_9688
    manly toasting on new year’s day

    Yuri Gorbacev is the maternal grandfather of Anna, our daughter-in-law. Every year, on January first, he makes fresh dumplings from a family recipe that originated in the Ural Mountains.

    Meat stuffing had been prepared the day before. It was a mixture of ground beef and pork, eggs, salt and pepper, onions and cabbage. When it was time to make the dough, two young girls joined Yuri. A new generation was eager to learn, as there is no written recipe.

    Basic Dumpling Dough [by observation]:

    Start with a glass bowl with water in it. Break three eggs into the water. Stir yolks with a fork until broken. Throw in two unmeasured amounts of salt [like mini handfuls]. Add more water. Pour in flour straight from the bag in several batches. Keep stirring with the same fork, even when dough gets thick and sticky and hard to turn. Arm muscles helpful.

    Eventually, dump the lump of dough onto floured counter. Begin kneading.

    img_9601
    yuri’s hands, photo courtesy of kristians lipse

    The girls were fully engaged under Yuri’s guidance. The rest of us watched. Our hands-on help time was approaching. Kneading completed, the dough was rolled out flat and thin, then cut into small rounds with the open end of a glass. Each round had to be packed full of the meat mixture, pinched tightly closed, bent into a circle and laid on a floured tray.

    img_9679
    the art of cutting circles, photo courtesy of kristians lipse

    Readied dumplings were placed in boiling water. In a few minutes, they were pulled from the pot and immediately served. Latvian sour cream with or without black pepper was the dipping sauce. Vodka shot optional.

    My son, Adam, and I stood next to each other as part of the dumpling-filling team. Others continued to roll dough, cut circles, fill or boil dumplings. Volunteers rotated by choosing a part to play: production, cleanup, serving, eating, or simply enjoying the party.

    img_6768
    leila lends her helping hand

    Suddenly, the volume of voices grew very loud. Russian–spoken, shouted and sung overwhelmed the room. The cacophony turned into background “white noise” for Adam and me. We spoke of feeling “invisible” in the middle of a hubbub we couldn’t understand. It was surprisingly peaceful, even meditative. We murmured in our own language, rhythmically filling, pinching, and turning out dumplings.

    Adam said it is like this every year. The dumpling ritual gives him a purpose. Then, when he can no longer discriminate words through the tangle of sounds, he slips into his own thoughts. It’s a little quieter there, yet he remains physically present amid the chaos. He can be happy in both places at the same time.

    I had my own thoughts, too. Here I was, on New Year’s Day, in a houseful of partying Russians and Latvians who embraced me with ease. No tension. No discord. An international marriage, a dual culture grandchild and, of course, Yuri’s dumplings bound us all together in friendship, joy, and love.

    It should always be this way…

    img_6759
    the cutest dumpling

    “Not a Station, but a Place”–Paris to Avignon

    For the historical and contemporary story of Gare de Lyon and Le Train Bleu, see  “Not a Station, but a Place”–Gare de Lyon and Le Train Bleu, Paris, published October 2016.

    train-map
    railroad map: paris to avignon

    In April 2016, my husband and I headed to Provence for an early spring weekend getaway. We wanted to explore Avignon, the former Papal capital during the Middle Ages. The direct TGV train from Paris’ Gare de Lyon took us there in a little over three hours.

    img_6321
    the staircase to le train bleu

    We arrived at the station two hours before departure time and ascended the wide curving staircase to the stylish restaurant on the second floor, Le Train Bleu. It overlooks the tracks of incoming and outgoing trains on one side and the city of Paris on the other.

    The first order of business was to relax in comfortable ambience before travelling. The second was to enjoy a classic petit déjeuner à la M.F.K. Fisher who wrote stories set in this very spot from the 1930s-1960s. My mission was to replicate the experience 50+ years later, in her memory, and for mine.

    Le Train Bleu is grandly austere and mostly empty in the early mornings. A few scattered travelers may show up to drink coffee or tea, but the white tablecloth tables and red leather banquettes are unavailable until lunch. We were seated at an unadorned table near the trackside windows.

    We invited friends, Sally and John, to join us even though they were not travelling. They were first timers to Le Train Bleu, and we knew they would enjoy the historical elegance with an early breakfast.

    Fisher’s typical breakfast order was thin slices of Italian Parma ham, good bread and butter and a half bottle of brut Champagne. Parma ham is no longer a menu choice, but the whole grain brown baguettes with butter and jam are still a tradition. Cappuccino or café noir replaced champagne as the beverage of choice.

    img_3002

    We breakfasted leisurely, ordering a second round of coffees. When our friends left to return to Montmartre, we boarded the train going south.

    Exiting the station, the train picked up speed passing sooty graffiti-walled cityscape. Then came the banlieue [suburbs] with blocky cement apartment buildings and finally pastoral countryside dotted with farms and grazing animals.

    high-speed-train
    photo courtesy of SNCF [TGV trains]

    Avignon sits on the banks of the Rhône River in Provence, north of the coastal city of Marseille. When the Catholic Church moved the papacy from Rome to Avignon in the 14th century, it became the center of Christianity. The Palais de Papes [Popes’ Palace] was occupied for the next seven decades by a succession of seven popes.

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    UNESCO world heritage sites: bridge of avignon and pope’s palace, photo courtesy of meu

    Avignon was still under papal control until the time of the French revolution in 1789. Afterward, it was used as a barracks and then as a prison for many years. Today it is a UNESCO World Heritage site with a must-see museum–the Palace itself.

    The Palais de Papes is the largest Gothic palace ever built. Its’ walls are an impenetrable 17-18 feet thick. Immense proportions are filled with cavernous halls, chapels and chambers.

    The most memorable part was the “Treasure Room” where all the gold, silver and jewels owned by the Church were kept. Back then it was off limits to all, except for the Pope. Today, the room has a glass floor where you can see propped up, massive rectangular stones under which the treasures were hidden. It is impossible to fathom the volume of wealth once secreted under these stones.

    We stayed at La Mirande, an historic hotel in the shadow of the Palace museum. Originally it was a Cardinal’s palace, resurrected into a period hotel centuries later. Our room had a small, walkout walled terrace overlooking rooftops and a church steeple.

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    closeup on the steeple view
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    rooftop mosaic from terrace

    As is often the case when traveling, one of the best experiences was stumbling upon an unknown restaurant when rain-wet, tired, and hungry.

    We were lucky to slip into the last table for two in a tiny, terra cotta tile-floored café called Chez Lulu. What we ate was so simple and satisfying that I wanted to replicate it at home.

    On a piece of black slate, we were served a small round of Camembert cheese baked in its’ thin wooden container. Around the cheese box there were rolled up slices of prosciutto, tiny roasted potatoes, small green cornichons, and a lightly dressed mixed salad.

    That molten cheese into which we dipped bread, potatoes, prosciutto and pickles is as memorable now as it was at first bite. The cold dampness of all-day rain showers disappeared. Dim lighting radiated warm ambience. Provençal wine complimented the peasant-like simplicity of the meal. We ordered a second glass.

    There is perfection and enjoyment in the harmony of opposites. Early morning spring sunshine–chilly, all-afternoon rain. Breakfast in luxurious old world splendor–dinner in provincial old world simplicity.

    The day began under the splendor of Belle Époque frescoes in Le Train Bleu and ended at an unpretentious brick walled café with fogged over windows dripping rain.

    Si vous êtes chanceux, alors ça va parfois dans la vie…

    If you are lucky, so it sometimes goes in life…

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    parisian luxury, le train bleu
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    provincial simplicity, chez lulu, avignon

    BAKED CAMEMBERT A LA PROVENÇALE

    • 1 small round camembert cheese per person or 1 large round for 2 people
    • boiled or roasted potatoes, skin on
    • prosciutto or any charcuterie [optional]
    • tiny pickles, gherkins or cornichons
    • raw veggies such as sweet peppers, radishes, cherry tomatoes
    • baguette or crusty country bread
    • mixed green salad with homemade vinaigrette
    img_2289
    basic ingredients: camembert cheese, cornichons, potatoes, bread, veggies, mixed green salad
    img_2291
    remove some rind, insert garlic slices, drizzle with olive oil
    img_2293
    sprinkle with rosemary and/or chili peppers, place in an oven proof dish

    Preparation:

    1. Remove the paper covering over cheese. Line the inside of the wooden box with aluminum foil [keeps cheese from leaking out of box]. Place cheese back in box. [Box should be held together with staples, not glue!]
    2. Cut a thin layer off the top rind to expose interior. Insert several slices of fresh garlic, place a few fresh rosemary leaves on top, a sprinkle of sea salt or chili peppers, as desired.
    3. Drizzle a tiny amount of olive oil over. Place on baking sheet or in cast iron skillet then into preheated oven set at 180C or 350F.
    4. Bake no more than 10-15 minutes, until cheese is “melt-y”.
    5. Place box of oozing Camembert on serving plate arranged with prepared potatoes, crudités, pickles, meat, and salad.
    6. Recipe for best vinaigrette here: Babies and Rice So Very Nice
    7. Serve with a basket of good bread.

    A light red wine [Burgundy pinot noir], a crisp white wine [French Chablis], a rosé from Provence or Champagne as accompaniment.

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    baked camembert served with turkey, pickles, tomatoes, bell pepper, potatoes, salad and bread
    img_2305

    Winning–At What Cost?

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    American Ambassador’s Residence, Paris, France  November 8, 2016

    I am not a political pundit or an op-ed writer. I don’t wear my politics or spiritual beliefs on my shirtsleeve. I write stories. Not of war and peace, but about relationships, experiences, or simply a place–often overseas.

    Twenty-nine years ago, we chose to leave our home in the U.S. and move to a country in Asia with two very young children. The initial motivation was a job opportunity. But the multi-cultural, international lifestyle suited us. So we remained abroad as expatriates.

    From the beginning, we found ourselves experiencing stronger patriotic feelings toward our country by living outside it and looking back in. We talked about this with other Americans also living overseas. We weren’t alone in our pride.

    People from other cultures have often told us how much they love and admire the United States. They openly wept and leant support in times of national disaster, 9/11 in particular.

    They followed the details of our presidential elections. No matter what country we lived in, we have been asked to give opinions about current U.S. politics. Keen to the international importance of American leadership, people were interested in our “insider” knowledge. Which was, of course, only what we ourselves believed.

    The 2016 presidential election has been a turning point to wondering where in the world we belong. Yes, we are a generation older. Our global perspective feels very normal to us now. Yet, we are clearly outsiders looking back to a country we no longer recognize. We see a head-knocking clash of values and compromised national character.

    This has been THE most difficult election to discuss or try to explain to non-Americans. During the campaign, my husband and I were often asked by neighbors in our Paris apartment building how Donald Trump could become a candidate for the Republican Party.

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    We fumbled for words that mostly ended in head-shaking silence. Throughout the whole painful campaign we hung onto the [naïve] hope that preparation and decency and respect for the responsibility of being President of the United States would win in the end.

    Because it didn’t work out that way, we have stumbled. We feel stuck in a way that is difficult to shake. Or explain to others in our overseas world.

    My personal upset, initially “all over the map”, was honed by something I read a few days ago. A female educator, in Massachusetts, initially thought her sorrow would be about the loss of a qualified woman to lead the U.S., the loss of knowing what could have been.

    She went on to say, “…but that’s not where the disappointment is for me. The disappointment is in the values that won and what that means for lots of people.”

    In other words, our collective sorrow should be directed toward the dread of a man whose character and values make him a devastating choice of leader both at home and in the world.

    And there, in a nutshell, is my sticking point.

    Values are goals to strive for, abstract standards to live by. They are the moral fiber that makes us human. Having them defines character. We grow up. We get to choose personal values that play to our individuality, defining the path by which we live.

    img_0230
    Notre Dame, Paris at sunset

    There is also a history of values that Americans have culturally ascribed to those serving as U.S. President. Intelligence, preparation, responsibility to service and inclusion of all others, integrity on the job–these are a few.

    Living in Europe the past eleven years has solidified for us the valued role American leadership has played historically and continues to play globally. In Normandy, United States and French flags are flown side by side. At the American cemetery on Omaha beach, French school children annually adopt an individual gravesite to take care of, remembering and learning about the soldier who lies there.

    DSC_1258
    American Cemetery, Omaha Beach, Normandy

    On this windy, northern French coastline the memories of WWII remain strong. People in Normandy beam when they learn you are American. All Europeans remember that in 1948, via the Marshall Plan, the U.S. pledged to rebuild a devastated continent. It was a remarkable historical first–the victor rising to aid the vanquished. These events, including the noble Berlin airlift, occurred because of morally responsible government leadership and values that represented the best of America.

    One more story: Today, my husband went to pick up his dry cleaning. The normally reserved French woman at the counter looked directly at him and asked, “How are you doing?’ Then she said, with utter despair, “I have no words!” It was raw emotion.

    This election isn’t solely about disenfranchised voters with a myopic view of what they “think” is going to change and “the guy” who can get the job done. It isn’t solely about the inability to break a glass ceiling by a woman capable of doing so.

    This election, as all before it, is also about the recognition, reputation and stance of the United States in the world. It has unnerved people internationally that much of our “American-ness”, the compassion and cultural values exercised and upheld for 240+ years have been cast aside by so many. At what cost?

    Looking upon my country from afar, it appears that we have tossed a vital piece of national character and conscience out the window. I feel ashamed right now.

    It’s difficult to know, or predict, what this “win” will cost our country, our international standing, our global consciousness, and our future.

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    “Not a Station, but a Place”–Gare de Lyon and Le Train Bleu, Paris

    Soon after we moved to Paris I sought out this “Place” M.F.K. Fisher wrote eloquently about as being more than just a train depot for entering or exiting the city. She was referring to the Gare de Lyon in the 12th Arrondissement. I wanted to know why it was so special.

    Fisher’s experience on French trains began in 1929 when she moved from California to Dijon. She described herself in the early years as “…always one more ant scuttling for a certain track.” Then, in 1937, while waiting for guests to arrive, she sat under the enormous glass roof in a trackside café with marble tables and green trees planted in boxes. With a brandy and water in hand, absorbing her surroundings, she was suddenly overcome by a feeling that she “was not in a station, but in a Place”. From then on, she made it a habit to arrive early–with time to wait.

    In the 1960s and early ‘70s, after children and husbands and lovers were long gone, she was often sent to Provence on writing assignments. Her publishers encouraged her to fly south from Paris. Memories honed decades earlier meant she preferred the “Mistral” train from Gare de Lyon to Marseille or Aix-en-Provence.

    She developed the habit of arriving at least two hours before departure. This allowed time to ascend the wide stone staircase to the second floor restaurant–Le Train Bleu. When you spin through the revolving wood and glass door, then and now, it is like walking into a time capsule from La Belle Époque. Instinctively, you stand a little taller and walk a little more gracefully to your table.

    In 1900, Paris was hosting a second world’s fair. As part of the preparation, a new train station, Gare de Lyon, was designed to highlight the railway lines of the PLM [Paris-Lyon-Marseille] Company from Paris to destinations in Provence and the Côte d’Azur on the Mediterranean. The company also wanted a prestigious and elegant restaurant to symbolize travel, luxury and comfort.

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    gare de lyon today

    In 1901, Buffet de la Gare de Lyon first opened its’ doors amid sumptuous art nouveau décor. Ornate carvings, moldings, gilding, and imposing chandeliers highlighted frescoes and murals of cities and scenery viewed from PLM trains as they headed south and east. The restaurant offered tranquility, character, and a place for travelers to spend a refined break. In Fisher’s words, it was “all that was opulently cheerful, generously vulgar and delightful about la Belle Époque.”

    In 1963, the restaurant was renamed Le Train Bleu in reference to the French Riviera destinations.

    Fisher’s early arrival gave her the luxury of time for a leisurely breakfast or lunch. In the 1960s, she believed that the fresh bread served in Le Train Bleu was the best she had tasted since before WWII. For petit déjeuner she always had “bread and butter, Parma ham, and a half-bottle of brut champagne…”, which she thought a bit expensive, but enjoyed all the same.

    If lunchtime, she started off with a Kir and wine cocktail, followed by some kind of soufflé and fresh berries for dessert. Oh–and a half bottle of white wine–Grand-Cru Chablis. She liked her grown up drinks, having adapted easily to the French way.

    Interestingly, Fisher played a role in the longevity and preservation of Le Train Bleu. By the early 1970s, the paintings were filthy with soot and pollution, gold leaf was flaking from the ceiling, the lace curtains hung in tatters and, underfoot, the flooring creaked and sagged. She was told by a group of worried waiters that the restaurant’s survival seemed doomed. She relayed all this to an American friend, Janet Flanner, who was also her neighbor. Flanner, a longtime journalist and Paris correspondent for the New Yorker magazine, went directly to the French Minister of Culture at the time. Le Train Bleu was designated an historic monument in 1972.

    Since that time there have been many renovations, the most recent in 2014. Parquet floors were insulated and shored up, paintings re-cleaned, carved moldings refinished or repainted, brass coat and luggage racks polished, and leather banquettes refurbished. The name over the door was updated from neon lights to a chic metal plate.

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    neon sign pre 2014 renovation
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    and after renovation

    The antique Big Ben Bar from 1901 is used today as a decoration piece and stands imposingly by the swinging glass doors to the kitchen. The original cash register is there too.

    There is not one corner or wall, ceiling or chandelier, archway or window in this special Place that doesn’t grab your attention or overwhelm your senses. Every time.

    These days, the menu is priced for upper-crust travellers, tourists, or well-heeled Parisians. But because it is such a Place, truly unlike any other, it’s always worth it.

    Recently, I went for lunch by myself. Timed perfectly, I arrived near the end of the service, around 2:00 PM. On this cool, autumn day I decided to try the made-in-house foie gras served with rhubarb chutney and grainy toast, green salad and a glass of Montrachet white wine–from Burgundy.

    When I dine alone, the pleasure is subtle and personal. Not everyone feels this way. But, over time, I have fine-tuned the ability to “disappear” in public and enjoy everything around me as if I were invisibly dropped into the scene. It is an example of cultural learning from which I have benefited greatly.

    Fisher sometimes spoke of moving like “a ghost” in her travels, seemingly invisible to others, often because she was wrapped up in one of personal trials. I understand what she meant, but in a different way. For me, invisibility is a feeling of being completely content with my own company. And, at the same time, not taking anything, within the experience I am having, for granted. I observe and wonder, discreetly, without being the center of anyone else’s observations.

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    view toward kitchen and big ben bar

    On this particular day, directly in front of me was an opulent antique buffet with perfectly arranged wine glasses and the PLM [Paris-Lyon-Marseille] logo carved on the top piece. Above that, reaching up to the very high ceiling, was a colorful painting of Marseille.

    As the tables to the left and right gradually emptied, I gazed openly through the window to my left onto the tracks and boarding passengers one floor below. I wondered where they were going, how long they would stay. Was it travel for business, pleasure, something mysterious or even sad?

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    view toward the station tracks

    To the right, down a long banquette of tables reset for another meal, sat two diners leaning in towards one another. They were silhouetted against the window overlooking the square at the entrance. Why were they lingering? What was their conversation? When you are invisible, all possibilities are imagined.

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    Meal over, espresso finished, with no train to catch, I made my way home. Musing on the métro, my thoughts drifted to a weekend getaway my husband and I took from Paris to Avignon several months before–a trip that began in a place, not a station…

    That story here: Paris to Avignon

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    Judith S. Clancy drawing, exterior façades, 1979

    Shrooming in Latvia

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    photo by olga gorbacova

    In June 2015, our son, Adam, married his bride, Anna, next to a lake in the Latvian countryside. The partying went on for two days and was described in a previous story, Letting Go In Latvia.

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    the site, june 12, 2015

    The women in our daughter-in-law’s Russian family–mother, aunt, grandmother–invited me to return to Riga for mushroom hunting season in September. Foraging the forest for edible fungi is a highly anticipated annual event.

    The lack of language on both sides [no Russian-me; basically no English-them] was slightly daunting. Then I realized it would be crazy to pass up an adventure like this. Think of the advantages: 1. I would forge a new Russian/American alliance, 2. I would participate in an ancient survival skill involving tools and hunting, and 3. I would learn to avoid poisonous fungi that could upset international family relations.

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    architecture in the historic part of riga

    Arriving in Riga, I was hosted to a private tour of the old city and its’ history. My guide, a young Latvian woman, spoke fluent English. Anna’s mother, Tania, who speaks a little English but not confidently, acted as my personal photographer.

    Like many small Eastern European countries, Latvia has a complicated history. In the beginning it was purely Pagan. Then Germanic people arrived bringing Christianity to the old world mix. They set up shops and churches and a new form of civilization. There were also influxes of settlements of Poles, Finns, and Russians.

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    on the tour with tania

    After WWI, from 1918-1940, Latvia had a brief, twenty-two year period of complete independence. The Russians returned in 1940. Then, the Germans replaced the Russians until WWII ended. In 1945, the Russians ran the Germans out for the last time. The Soviet Period lasted until 1991. Finally, Latvia underwent its’ second independence with the breakup of the USSR. The post-Soviet years began.

    In 1991, a new law stated that in order for citizens of Russian heritage to receive Latvian passports they must learn both the language and history of the country. Many chose not to, as they were past school age, raising families or trying to get by working their everyday jobs. Anna’s maternal grandmother, Vera Gorbacova, is one example. She was born on the eastern edge of Latvia near the current border with Russia. She raised two daughters, Tania and Olga, and worked in a factory. She never learned to speak Latvian. The family’s mother tongue is purely Russian.

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    vera aka “babushka”

    Mushroom hunters in Latvia are a devoted cult. The day of the hunt has its’ own rituals. As foragers, the women have favorite forest areas where they return many times each season. Mushrooms are best harvested in cool, rainy weather where fungi grow plentifully in mossy groundcover, under trees, rocks, and leaves.

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    Early fall of 2015 was unseasonably warm and sunny . I didn’t need to dress traditionally in rubber boots or even wear a coat. We left Riga mid-morning and drove 45 minutes outside the city to the secret woods. My guides were Tania, her sister Olga, and their friend Edita, who acted as my translator. That day, they needed to do some serious sleuthing to find the coveted treasure.

    I was given my own set of tools–a basket holding a knife for harvesting and a purple plum for energy. I was shown how to cut mushrooms close to the ground with the special blade. Off we went, fanning out to cover maximum territory.

    The woods were not particularly dense, but if I wandered out of visual range I would hear a plaintive “Wennndeeeeey, where are you?” These women were not about to lose an American in the Latvian forest. I tried to stay within their range of comfort.

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    serene beauty in a secret forest

    Olga is particularly gifted in guiding the hunt. She would search an area alone and then call me over to do the actual picking. Or cutting. But I really liked finding some little nest of mushrooms on my own. However, when I showed them off proudly, Olga threw most of them back on the ground because they were too small. Or they were­, well…poisonous.

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    olga scouting for me

    One of the great parts of the day was when we returned to the car for lunch. A tailgating party! From the open trunk came a delicious little feast you could hold in one hand. No plates or napkins necessary. Silvery smoked fish covered small squares of sliced black bread. There was a whole hardboiled egg, and a big wedge of red tomato.  Lunch looked like a beautiful still life painting–in my hand.

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    olga and edita

    Two more hours of hunting before returning to the city, changing clothes, and meeting at Tania’s to cook dinner. My translator from that point on was the vivacious Julia, married to the very patient Juris who would not take a drink of alcohol during our time together because he was responsible for safely chauffeuring “precious cargo”–Julia and me. You have to love a man like that!

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    cleaning ‘shrooms with julia
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    the harvest pre-cleaning

    Tania was cleaning mushrooms when we arrived. Her technique was meticulous. They must be completely peeled–head to stem. [Thus, bigger means less work for the end result.] If the inside of the stem was not perfectly white, when looking at it from the bottom, it meant worms had invaded. These were immediately discarded as unacceptable. After peeling, mushrooms were rinsed and drained in a colander.

    While the cleaning is tedious, the cooking is easy. Slice and chop stems and heads into random sized pieces. Sauté diced onion in olive oil. Add mushrooms and cook on medium-high heat. Keep the water that is released and stir it around to steam them.

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    Then, drain the water. Add some butter. Add two big spoonfuls of solid cream [like crème fraîche]. Add salt. Serve immediately. [I would add a generous grind of fresh pepper or even some red pepper flakes. But this is not Russian at all.]

    While Tania was preparing our meal of roast duck, fried potatoes, sautéed mushrooms, and sliced tomatoes, Julia was introducing me to the finer points of drinking vodka Russian style. It should be consumed in shots and always with traditional food pairings.

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    fish, onion, tomato on black bread, icy cold shot vodka

    First the vodka is frozen. Pour into a shot glass. Drink the shot. Immediately eat a tiny piece of black bread covered by oily fish, onion, and tomato. Or, down a shot followed by a pinch of warm fried potatoes and some pickled cabbage. Either way–deliciously satisfying. No side effects.

    A cultural turning point occurred unexpectedly at evening’s end. For dessert we had eaten sweet watermelon chunks with our fingers. This reminded me of a story Anna had told me from her childhood. So I shared it with the others.

    When her parents, Tania and Sergei, would go out on summer evenings leaving her at home, Anna would slip out of the apartment and go to the market with saved coins. She would pick out a big ripe watermelon and lug it home. Managing to cut it in two pieces, she ate one whole half, by herself, with a spoon, down to the white rind. Seeds and all!

    As I finished telling the story, everyone glanced down at the dessert plates. On every plate there were two, maybe three watermelon seeds, idly dropped. But, on my plate, there was a mountain of black and white seeds because I had carefully picked them out before eating the sweet fruit. Every single seed.

    I quietly covered my plate with a napkin. But it was too late. The women watched, and then–they erupted into uproarious, mirthful laughter. And so did I.

    As it turned out, Glasnost prevails. Around this cross cultural table of Anglo/Russian women we laughed long and hard–and saw each other clearly.

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    my favourite tania and julia photo, june 2015

    Berry Best Summer Sangria

    A perfect summer day is when the sun is shining, the breeze is blowing, the birds are singing and the lawn mower is broken. James Dents

    Hey! It’s summer! Be free and happy and danceful and uninhibited and now-y! –Terri Guillemets

    Summer afternoon–summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language. –Henry James

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    My husband refers to me as a “late adopter”. This has been true regarding certain forms of technology. I’m not the first to run with the latest innovation when it first appears in popular culture. But when I do jump in, it’s all the way. Then, I can’t remember life as it was before.

    This summer I was surprised with a different type of “late adaptation”. It happened to be with a beverage I had never tried, even once.

    On the July 4th American Independence Day holiday weekend I was with Dietician Daughter, her husband, and his Kansas family. She served me a berry and fresh fruit topped drink in a tall glass with a straw. It was deep burgundy in color. The icy glass, sweating beads of condensation, was garnished with succulent fruit. It was her version of Sangria.

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    On a sultry summer afternoon, around a backyard table with good people, this drink captured my attention. There was thirst-quenching coolness. There was the lushness of summer berries in red wine. I drank a second glass.

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    Sangria has been around for 2000+ years. When the Roman Empire reached the Iberian Peninsula of Spain and Portugal and began mixing wine into the water to sanitize it, the beginnings of Sangria were born. Long a common, informal drink on the European continent, Sangria was not widely consumed in the U.S. until it was introduced at the New York World’s Fair in 1964.

    Twice I have been to the Iberian Peninsula in western Spain hiking the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, but I was not offered Sangria there. We drank wonderful Galician wines every evening as an accompaniment to the regional food. It was poured straight from the bottle and never mixed with anything.

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    trail marker camino de santiago

    Sangria comes from the Spanish and Portuguese word “sangre” meaning blood because of its’ dark red color. It is traditionally made with Spanish red wine, fruit, brandy, some kind of sweetener and ice. Carbonated water may or may not be added for fizz.

    That’s all there is to it. This is also where Sangria becomes much more interesting. With a rudimentary knowledge of ingredients, the end result is in the hands of the maker. Dietician Daughter was imaginative in her “berry” form of creativity. Now I can’t drink it any other way.

    For the rest of the summer, I began ordering Sangria in restaurants. Some were made with white wine, some with red. At the very most they might have one or two pieces of shredded, mangy looking citrus fruit in the bottom of the glass. Pizzazz and eye candy beauty were nonexistent. Not one was memorable. Not one reminded me of friends and family sharing stories and playing games on a summer afternoon. Not one begged to be repeated.

    My short scientific study convinced me that the only Sangria worth the calories is the one you make yourself. With ingredients you choose. The wine must be of a quality that you would drink on its own. The fruit must be plentiful. And FRESH.

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    sangria ingredients: summer fruit, wine, brandy, and a jar

    Here is the very best summer SANGRIA you will ever make. Or drink. It’s simple, it’s fruity, slightly dry and slightly sweet, a bit boozy, and refreshing like a lazy summer day. Pass the pitcher around a table in the mountains, by the sea, on the terrace, or in the backyard. Say, “yes” to a berry summer sangria. Then go lie in a hammock under the trees and muse.

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    sangria in the mountains
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    sangria on the côte d’azur, france
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    sangria on a terrace in germany
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    in full summer bloom
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    LARA’S BERRY BEST SUMMER SANGRIA

    • fresh whole berries [or pieces of fruit] for garnish
    • ice to chill
    • 750 ml bottle of Spanish Red wine, chilled [I used Ribiera de Duero. Or Rioja.]
    • ½ C. brandy
    • ¾ C. orange juice
    • 3-4 T. brown sugar
    • any seasonal combination of blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, strawberries. [Or use peaches and mangoes]
    • ½ orange, rind on, sliced thinly
    • ½ apple, skin on, chopped

    In a large glass jar or pitcher, place fruit and sugar and muddle with a wooden spoon or muddler.

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    Add OJ and brandy and muddle again. Add red wine and stir.

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    Taste and adjust flavors to your liking. [More brandy or OJ or sugar as you wish.] Stir again. Add ice to chill and serve as is in clear glasses.

    Get the fruit on. Garnish with lots of fresh berries or fruit of choice. Serve with a spoon for scooping winey fruit into your mouth between sips.

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    May be stored, covered, in refrigerator to steep and chill several hours, but then don’t add ice until serving.

    Best consumed within 1-2 days.

    Babies and Rice So Very Nice

    Babies are such a nice way to start people –Don Herold

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    leila alisa ulfers, born may 24, 2016

    It’s true what they say. Grandmother hormones materialize in much the same way maternal ones do–even 30+ years later. Babies born in one’s own family are the most miraculously perfect creations in the world. Parents [and even grandparents] check out other newborns to confirm this nuance of nature. Gradually it is understood to be a “Universal Truth”. We all simply feel this way.

    The good fortune to dust off my pediatric nursing and maternal memories arrived with the birth of our first granddaughter. I reflected on the gift of “presence” my mother gave me after our son and daughter were born. It’s a gift that gives both ways.

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    First, an [experienced] pair of hands in the early postpartum weeks gives new parents time to focus on the interplay of relationships that are suddenly right there. Baby inside, baby outside. Everything has changed. All three–mother, father, and newborn enter a timeless dance that begins with a new song.

    A distinctive aura hovers over first time parents, beginning in their own relationship. Helplessly charmed by the miracle they created, they now exist inside a bubble of enhanced love and new responsibilities. At the same time, bonds between mother and baby, father and baby unfold daily, even hourly. My presence [teaching rigorous burping techniques, offering parental napping time, having my own infant cuddling and singing time] opened a bit of space for these relationships to settle and strengthen in the first month.

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    dressed like daddy

    The second gift of being present was entirely personal. Watching my first-born baby, now a 34 year-old man, tenderly hold and croon to his tiny, perfect daughter overwhelmed me with wonder. That “circle of life”, as clichéd as the phrase may be, sideswiped my heart with a flush of love and emotion. I’m all in now.

    At night, I mulled over the randomness of dominant and recessive genes forming this beautiful baby’s eye color [murky grey to clearly blue–overnight!], the turned up button of a nose, the rosebud mouth, the one dimpled cheek, and the movable face of so many expressions–skeptical, smiling, hesitant, observant, and sometimes cross-eyed. Even though it was too early for spontaneous social smiling, we gathered expectantly, eagerly, with each facial movement, hoping to be the first to receive that important human recognition, “I’m happy to know you.”

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    sweet dimpled dream

    One day I had a flashback of maternal “déjà vu” when my daughter-in-law said, “I’m overwhelmed by how precious she is to me. I didn’t know I would feel this way.” None of us do. But almost every new mother is eventually overcome by the feelings of her own power to nurture and love her baby. That’s universal too…

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     “what’s not to love” onesie

    I observed parents and babe develop their rhythms–for communicating, comforting, handling, and, of course, feeding. The dance changed by the minute, the hour, and the day. Flexibility is key with babies. But in less than a week, my daughter-in-law blossomed from tentative new mama to an instinctively confident one. My joy was seeing this unfold.

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    mama/baby love

    Newborn nourishment is where everything begins. Breastfeeding rituals gradually establish themselves. Then, suddenly, they fall apart with a day of feeding frenzy or a night of longer sleeping intervals. It is an ebb and flow of constant change in the early weeks.

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    independent girl time–hanging out with the owls

    No less important is the nourishment of parents. Emotional swings as a result of sleep deprivation, new responsibilities, and sweetly swaddled newborn love leave not-so-much-time for meal preparation.

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    father fatigue happens

    We planned and cooked together as a team. Daughter-in-law, knowledgeable of her protein needs, prepared the meat or fish. Son stepped up to roast veggies on the grill. I offered carbohydrate rich side dishes and green leafy salads.

    Leftovers were used creatively for other meals. A big batch of brown rice became the base for protein breakfasts of eggs on rice*. Two eggs cooked over easy then cut up into a bowl of rice with freshly chopped tomato on top nourished mama with easy effort.

    *Recipe for “Eggs on Rice” found here: Comfort Food for Cal

    Grilled eggplant, peppers, onions and mushrooms from the night before became a hearty side dish the next day when combined with whole-wheat penne, sautéed garlic, fresh spinach, and a sprinkle of grated Parmesan.

    One night I made an old family favorite, Mujaddarah, a Lebanese lentil and rice casserole. The addition of chopped up bacon made it not purely vegetarian. It was smothered with slowly sautéed onions that make a delicious caramelized topping. Recipe here: People Who Pull the Magic Out of You

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    Babycakes nearing the one month mile marker

    Extra lentils [the tiny green French kind] became the basis for another day’s cold salad with green onions, carrots, cucumber, parsley, and homemade vinaigrette.

    The family food tradition I used every day and wish to pass on to my granddaughter is the simple 1-2-3 of dressing a salad. Any salad, any day, any time. With ingredients found in most kitchens.

    So, with arms opened wide to embrace Leila Alisa into our family’s love, care, and nurturance, here is my wish:

    May you grow up healthy and wise and become an interesting person. And may you always make your salad dressing from scratch.

    DEE DEE’s VINAIGRETTE DRESSING

    Ingredients: Amounts will vary according to how large the salad, so all are approximations. Taste testing necessary. Stick your finger in and adjust.

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    basic lineup of what you need, plus some options
    • Dijon mustard, if you have some [optional]
    • Good quality vinegar of choice [balsamic, wine or champagne]
    • Good quality olive oil, extra virgin
    • Salt & Pepper
    • Dried basil [optional]
    • 1 clove garlic, minced or pressed [optional]
    • Seed mixture–like sesame, poppy, sunflower, pumpkin, almond, walnut or whatever [optional]

    Preparation:

    Place a small amount of Dijon in the bottom of a bowl. [¼ to ½ tsp.]

    • Measure about 2-3 spoonfuls of vinegar over mustard. Add the garlic, seeds and basil, if using.
    • Sprinkle in S&P.
    • Then, very slowly, pour in a thin stream of olive oil, blending rapidly with a small spoon. There is no exact amount of oil. You simply taste with your finger and adjust proportions of vinegar to oil, as you prefer. Adjust salt.
    • Pour dressing over prepared greens and veggies. Toss together.
    • Grind of fresh pepper over all and serve.

    Voilà! A lifetime of salads without bottled dressing.

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    Colorado supper with a glass of white
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    the one month director’s meeting

    Spoons and Cookies

    copyright 1998 k.a.shecklerwilson

    Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful. William Morris

    No kitchen is really complete without a container of wooden spoons on the counter. Both useful and beautiful. In our Paris apartment, a wire basket holds an assortment of spoons, soup ladles, spatulas, salad servers and flat bladed stirrers. When home in Colorado, an antique stoneware pitcher and sugar bowl overflow with old and new implements. All wood.

    I come about this affection genetically. My mother had a collection of well-used wooden spoons. Some were from her mother, whom we called “Gram”.

    Before she married my grandfather, Gram was a Home Economics teacher in the local high school. That was when “Home Ec” was taught in U.S. public schools. Several of her spoons now have a flattened edge on the left side. This came about after many years of right-handed stirring by my grandmother, my mother and me.

    In Gabrielle Hamilton’s book, Blood, Bones, and Butter, her French-born mother was known to wield a wooden spoon as an extension of her arm:

    She lived in our kitchen, ruled the house with an oily wooden spoon in her hand, and forced us all to eat dark, briny, wrinkled olives, small birds we would have liked as pets, and cheeses that looked like they might well bear Legionnaire’s Disease….Her burnt orange Le Creuset pots and casseroles, scuffed and blackened, were constantly at work…cooking things with tails, claws, and marrow-filled bones–whatever she was stewing and braising and simmering to feed our family of seven.” –from Blood, Bones & Butter, Random House, 2011

    Legacy spoons are recycled pieces of history. The patina and grain are enhanced by generations of cooks stirring rich stews, thick hot chocolate, or biscuit batters.

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    Wooden spoons and implements are not meant to be purely decorative. I use them all the time for cooking or baking. The difference is, I treat them like royalty compared to other kitchenware. They don’t roll around in overstuffed kitchen drawers with metal and plastic. They aren’t abused in soapy cycles of the dishwasher. They are hand washed with a scrub brush and hot running water.

    When my spoons become noticeably dry with scratches and splinters, it’s time for a sanding, smoothing, oiling timeout.

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    rejuvenation tools: sandpaper, steel wool and mineral oil

    Fine grade sandpaper exfoliates surface problems. Smooth wood grain quickly emerges. Rinse off sanding dust under tap water. Air-dry and then apply the final finishing touch.

    No olive oil or furniture polish should condition wood used in food preparation. Ok, I have used olive oil in a pinch. But better to use an inexpensive bottle of plain mineral oil. Massage into the wood from head to handle. Buff off excess oil. Admire them briefly.

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    mineral oil rubdown
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    after-oil-sunbath

    Drawing on William Morris’ philosophy, now make them useful. Baking is a good idea. The gold standard of baking in our household is Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies.

    In my teens, I learned that the best homemade cookie batters are creamed, beaten, and stirred by hand with a sturdy, long handled wooden spoon. Also, raw cookie dough tastes better off wood than metal or plastic.

    My recipe originated from Mrs. Longhurst, the mother of a high school girlfriend. I have been making these cookies for decades–from my own adolescent cookie cravings, for a young husband in early marriage, into the children-raising years, for nieces, nephews, sisters, and countless friends overseas. The contractor and crews who built our new Colorado cabin ate “Wendy’s Cookies” throughout construction. Some say it is better built because of that mixture of oats, chocolate, and physical labor.

    Wooden spoons are like the trees from which they are honed. They are organically beautiful. They are eminently utilitarian. They can be passed through many generations of kitchens and cooks. In this way they live…maybe forever.

    WENDY’S CHOCOLATE CHIP OATIES

    Ingredient amounts have been adjusted to make big batches that are easily frozen.

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    • 2 C. butter or margarine
    • 2 C. packed brown sugar
    • 2 C. granulated sugar
    • 4 tsp. pure vanilla extract [don’t skimp, use an expensive real vanilla]
    • 5 eggs
    • 2 ¾ tsp. baking soda
    • 2 ¾ tsp. salt
    • 5 1/3 C. unbleached flour
    • 5 1/3 C. whole oats
    • 5 C. semi-sweet chocolate chips or cut up dark chocolate bars or a mixture of both

    In a large bowl, beat butter, sugars, and vanilla until light and creamy. You can melt the butter first to speed this up. Beat eggs lightly together. Add to creamed ingredients.

    Beat everything together with a sturdy wooden spoon. Stir in salt and soda. Add flour, mixing in each cup completely. Stir in oats and finally chocolate bits.

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    Drop spoonfuls of dough onto un-greased baking sheet. [or a small ice cream scoop holds the perfect amount] Bake in preheated 375 F. oven until lightly browned, 8-10 minutes. For crispy cookies, bake to a darker brown. Lighter brown results in chewy cookies.

    Remove immediately from baking sheet to cool. Store in cookie tins lined with wax paper. Or in jars as my daughter does. Keep one container out for noshing. Freeze the rest.

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    Foxglove and Oreos on the Camino

    The Road has no beginning, and the Road has no end. The towns they run together and they run apart again. Right now is the only moment, and Time is the time to go and make yourself a pilgrim on the Road to Santiago. ¡Buen Camiño! –David M. Gitlitz & Linda Kay Davidson, The Pilgrimage Road to Santiago

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    starburst scallop shell marks “the way”

    For more than 1000 years, the Camino de Santiago [the Way of St. James] has been a pilgrimage route from the foothills of the Pyrennes, in southwestern France and northwestern Spain, to the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela on the Iberian Peninsula. In ancient times it was undertaken for spiritual cleansing or “losing time in Hell”.

    Why is this pilgrimage so historically significant? Here’s the story.

    James was a fisherman on the Sea of Galilee and the 4th disciple recruited by Jesus. He was assigned to the Iberian Peninsula to spread “the word of God”. He made it as far as Galicia in northwestern Spain. Upon returning to the Holy Land he was tortured. Adding insult to injury, he was beheaded. Became a martyr. His body was secreted out of Jerusalem on a boat. Across the Mediterranean Sea, through the Straits of Gibraltar, along the Iberian coast, back to the shores of Galicia. His tomb became enshrined in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.

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    So began the third most important Christian pilgrimage in the Middle Ages, after Rome and Jerusalem. During the Renaissance and years of religious reformation [16th century] the Camino’s importance waned. It fell even more out of favor during the Age of Enlightenment [18th century]. Yet pilgrimages to Santiago de Compostela never stopped completely. Nowadays the Camino is rocking in popularity. 262,459 certificates, or Compostelas, were awarded in 2015. Pilgrims traveled by foot, bicycle, or horseback. Some in wheelchairs.

    In ancient times as well as today, travelers often carry their provisions in a backpack, camp out, or sleep in hostels, retreating from normal life for days, weeks, or months. Usually their journey ends at the cathedral in Santiago.

    There is also another “way” to experience the Camino, which is what I did.

    In May 2014, I was with a group of women who started the journey where most people end–in the courtyard of the cathedral. We walked from there to the actual “ends of the earth” [Finisterre] on the Atlantic Ocean. We carried only a daypack with water and rain gear. Our worldly goods were transported to the next charming “casa rurales” [bed and breakfast] along the route. After hiking all day we enjoyed a hot bath or shower, delicious Galician cuisine and wine, followed by restful sleep–in a bed.

    The Camiño de Fisterra-Muxía is the road less travelled these days, particularly in the off-season. On the fourth day we arrived at the lighthouse on Cape Finisterre overlooking the ocean. On the fifth day we walked up the coastline to Muxía where we received the Compostellana [Certificate of Accomplishment]. You must walk at least 100 km to receive the certificate. We walked 117.

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    route from santiago to muxía

     

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    compostela record

     

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    stamps acquired along the way

     

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    lighthouse at the cape

    Our group came together through the joint venture of two American women, Sally and Sienna, who met in Spain while Sally was producing a documentary entitled, “Walking the Camino: Six Ways to Santiago”.  In 2013 they began organizing small group trips for people to experience the Camino as a one week venture.

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    sally on the trail

    The topography of Galicia is extremely hilly. It is also very rainy which keeps the landscape lush and green. And, in May, there were fields upon fields of pink foxglove. Future heart medication [digitalis] growing wild.

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    Digitalis purpurea, common foxglove

    “Oreos” were spoken of frequently. In Spain they are tiny barns of granite or shale stone built on mushroom-like pedestals. Functioning as storage granaries in rural areas, they are mounted off the ground to deter rodents. Later, when I learned the Galician word was actually “hórreos”, I understood what they had in common with the name of a cookie. Absolutely nothing. But “oreos” is what I remember.

    Forewarned about the hilly terrain, I brought hiking sticks, which gave me a long rhythmic stride. So I was often by myself, up ahead, looking for trail markers [the yellow scallop shell or the painted yellow line] and discovering new terrain. After the first day, I realized that hiking alone was going to be my experience on the Camino.

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    yellow marks the way across water too

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    romanesque bridge and aqueduct

    Everyone goes on a journey for some reason. It’s often initiated during a moment of transition, a need to “walk through” personal issues, let go of the old, let in the new, or to simply break up routines. It might bubble up as a search for healing or forgiveness or a time to give thanks or to mark a special occasion. Perhaps the motivation is to meet new people, hear their stories, see new places, rediscover something forgotten or discover something new. Journeys can be the catalyst for creative inspiration, finding harmony in nature, exercise, penance, meditation, or delving into the spiritual.

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    My own journeys are usually discovery seeking ones. They widen my perspective, feed curiosity, and replenish me with the adventure. Those quiet hours in the hills, forests, villages, foxglove fields and countryside of Galicia brought real contentment. I was part of the changes in weather–the pouring rain, looming storm clouds and intermittent sun. I was one with the topography–the out of breath up-hills, the knee jarring down-hills and the blessed stretches of flat terrain in between. Often I was lost in thought about the history and natural beauty of this part of the world. It is impossible not to feel connected to others who walked the same trail over past millenniums.

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    Day 3, last 5k of steep downhill, long negotiation of massive boulders ahead

    Evening meals were social bonding time. We were treated to delicious regional cuisine including famous Galician wines. Arroz con calamares [rice with squid], zamburiñas [scallops in shells], and a giant fried prehistoric style fish that looked ominous but melted in the mouth.

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    dining ambience

     

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    happy pilgrims

    A uniquely Galician tradition, the queimada ceremony, was performed for our group. Queimada is made from a special Spanish liqueur distilled from grapes, flavored with spices, herbs, sugar, lemon peel and coffee beans. The ingredients are put together into a clay pot, set on fire and allowed to burn slowly. The concoction is stirred frequently by lifting a ladle of flaming liquid and pouring it back into the pot. When the flame burns blue, it is ready to serve in ceramic cups.

    There is a recitation chanted as the queimada burns–to purify the drink and to share it with the souls of family and friends not present to enjoy it. Special powers are conferred on the queimada and to those drinking it. We didn’t experience anything supernatural, but there was a lot of infectious laughter and animated conversation after a long hiking day. Sound sleep followed.

    Upon reaching the cliff at the end of the world on Cape Finisterre, we saw blackened remains of burned clothes and shoes on the rocks. It’s a tradition for those who venture all the way to give up their worldly goods. None of us were moved to burn anything. Instead we picked up a stone to throw into the sea, giving it the name of something to let go of.

    I couldn’t bring myself to throw my stone away. I kept touching it in my pocket and wondering about the hesitation. My friend Margaret suggested that I wasn’t ready to let go. There was something I needed to do with that energy. She was right. Three weeks later, in June 2014, I published my first story on this website. Later, I noticed white markings on the stone that reminded me of a face. I keep it on the bedside table for good luck.

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    everybody needs a rock

    All pilgrimages have a fixed end point. But they begin wherever you start walking.

    The going is more memorable than the getting there.”

    When you are ready, just put on your boots, and go…

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    galician coastline, iberian peninsula, spain
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    margaret, laurel, nina, sally, carole

     

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    nina, sally, carole, wendy, teresa, laurel

    Some of the photos in this story are courtesy of Nina Cooper or Teresa Goodwin.

    Other stories featuring Sally Bentley: French-splaining American Thanksgiving, Sex in a Pan, Leaving Paris and Hemingway