My Brief Stint With the CIA

A Hollywood movie was released in 1998 called Sliding Doors. It’s a romantic comedy in which the plot alternates between story lines depending on whether the female character jumps through a closing subway door and catches the train or misses it entirely.  

The concept of “sliding doors” is life’s trajectory. Even mundane moments of decision-making can alter future outcomes. We all think about what might have been if we had chosen differently in our lives.

I wonder if we sometimes pass through sliding doors completely unaware. When what we are doing is different than what we think it is. When someone else chooses for us.

It also helps to have an active imagination.

For example, I could have been recruited as a CIA operative earlier in life, making a conscious choice to jump through that door. But it didn’t happen that way. Instead, the CIA found me.

In the early 1990’s, I was married and raising two young children with a husband working in Nicosia, Cyprus.  We had a friend I will call “John”. His job was with the “State Department” in the U.S. Embassy. We assumed he was part of the CIA desk because he made extensive trips throughout the Middle East, Europe and North Africa. Also, he never talked about his work.

John was a foodie before the term was common in popular culture. He relished good food and wine, and was knowledgeable about both. When he wasn’t out of town gathering information and following leads, he enjoyed long lunches at his favorite Italian restaurant, La Romantica. The owners knew him well. They were cued to his wine preferences and shared what was fresh on the menu. He always reserved the same corner table.

As John often entertained visitors, he began inviting me to join his lunch gatherings. I had no idea who any of the guests were, met them only once, never saw them again. It was always new people from different countries and cultures. At first, I thought I was rounding out the table for some good food and conversation with a friend and his clients.

I can talk to just about anyone in a social setting, even people I don’t know, by asking a question that leads to a further question. “Tell me about…” followed up with  “And what about…?” A slight nod and unwavering eye contact helps people go on and on with their stories. 

As a conversational skill, the focus is on the talker. Begin with one searching question, followed by the next, and then another.  Sometimes people share more than intended. Perhaps John knew I naturally asked a lot of questions. What I noticed about him was that he hardly said anything at all. He just listened. 

Oh, he ordered bottles of wine for the table, joked with the chef and his wife and made recommendations about food. Otherwise, he quietly took in what people were saying, what they were telling me.

After several lunches, I began to wonder if I was gathering info for his professional files instead of being a good guest chatting up sophisticated visitors. The thought escalated after my husband asked, “Do you ever wonder why John invites you to lunch with people you don’t know?”

Eventually the lunch crowd thinned and the restaurant emptied, but our table remained intact. There was no mention of needing to vacate the space. This should have been my cue to excuse myself so John and his guests could get down to “real business.” If non-verbals were signaled, I missed them.

Instead, I busied myself a different way. Over the course of four, and sometimes five-hour lunches, I became familiar with Romantica’s owners who invited me into the kitchen for a mini-cooking lesson. With hindsight, Signor and Signora “Romantica” were probably in on the gig, too. Allowing John some professional space in the front of the house while they tried to beef up my cooking skills at the back of the house.

I have often said that I am not a natural born cook. Eating well is important, but I love when someone else is in charge of the preparation of a good meal. Still, I learned two memorable recipes from my post-lunch lessons.

The first was how to make a fresh tomato sauce from the beautiful, deep red, Cypriot tomatoes. It begins with removing the skins by dropping them into boiling water. After de-skinning, it is basically a stir-fry for about 20 minutes with olive oil, garlic, salt and pepper, fresh basil leaves added at the end. The eye-closing-wonderful-taste of this simple sauce, with any pasta, has everything to do with tomatoes grown in ancient soil, ripened in blazing hot Mediterranean sun. I found it difficult to replicate elsewhere.

The second thing I learned was how to prepare my favorite order at Romantica; spaghetti aglio, olio e peperoncino. This became one of my comfort foods–spaghetti with garlic, oil, and red pepper flakes. It’s a fast prep made as easily for dining solo as for a crowd. 

If the afternoon wore on toward 4:00 or 5:00PM, my husband and John’s wife would show up, their working day ended. They wondered why lunch had stretched into the apéro hour, but sat down as John ordered a final round of wine before we all headed home.

What they didn’t realize was that I had completed another assignment of covert information gathering as a CIA volunteer.

Well, anyway, all imagining aside, what those lunches provided was a set of skills that served me for the rest of our years overseas. With insightful questions, I learned to navigate, and mostly enjoy, large social gatherings where I didn’t know anyone.

I’m not wild about stand-up cocktail parties, shoulder-to-shoulder receptions, huge galas, or fancy dancing balls. But we participated in all of these during 31 years overseas. Many times. Gearing up for such events was less formidable when I realized I didn’t have to talk to every person or “work the whole room” as my husband did naturally and very well.

My tactic was to zero in on one or two people for meaningful conversation. Time flew by in a satisfying way and felt better spent without as much idle mingling and wishing I could take off my shoes. Thus, my “brief interrogation stint” with the CIA had a positive afterlife.

Life’s opportunities come and go. Whether we decide to enter a door as it opens, or miss it and choose the next–there is always an experience or an unexpected something that follows.  

Overseas living was a sliding door of opportunity for us. The courage to jump [blindly] was necessary only once.  With the next international job and the next, we understood that our family unit would remain tight and our collection of good stories would continue to grow.

I still wonder about one sliding door, many years ago, which narrowly opened for me personally. When I was riding horses regularly, I was offered a job as an exercise rider for thoroughbreds. It required travel flexibility with hints of excitement, risk, and adventure.

I turned it down, but that’s another ending to imagine…

SPAGHETTI AGLIO, OLIO E PEPERONCINO

Ingredients:

  • 1 lb. spaghetti
  • 1/3 C. good olive oil
  • 8 garlic cloves, minced
  • ½-1 tsp. red pepper flakes
  • ½-1 C. flat-leaf parsley, coarsely chopped
  • 1 C. freshly grated Parmesan cheese
only 6 ingredients: red pepper, olive oil, parsley, garlic, parmesan and spaghetti

Preparation:

  • Cook spaghetti in boiling salted water until al dente. Reserve ½ C. pasta water.
  • Heat olive oil in large saucepan. 
  • Sauté red pepper flakes with garlic until garlic just begins to brown.
  • Stir in the reserved pasta water.
  • Add the cooked spaghetti and heat through, mixing all together.
  • Sprinkle with parsley and Parmesan.
  • Serve immediately.
  • Use additional parsley and Parmesan as garnish.
  • If you don’t like spice, leave out the pepper flakes and you have spaghetti aglio e olio.
comfort food garnished with extra cheese and parsley
or a whole meal with spinach salad, wine, and candles

Addendum:

Some Italian lineages say never use Parmesan on any pasta dish with an oil base. Parmesan is for tomato sauces. Signora Romantica was of that tradition. However, we love Parmesan, changed her way of doing things and made it our own.

Links to other stories of friends and tales in Cyprus [with recipes, too]:  

Fabio Meets Brownies Cocaine and Hellenic Halloumi

Hellenic Halloumi

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For three years, in the early 1990s, we lived on the island of Cyprus in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. The capital, Nicosia, was divided in half by the Turkish invasion of 1974. After the conflict, U.N. troops kept peace along a border called The Green Line. This line divided the entire island between the Turkish occupied northern section and the Greek populated land to the south. We lived on the Greek Cypriot side of Nicosia. Although you could still see bullet holes in certain places, the old part of the city was very charming—vine covered walls, stone terraced tavernas, shops of pottery, pewter, and hand made lace, narrow cobbled lanes with flowers spilling out of pots.

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nicosia, cyprus, old town

We lived on the ground floor of a small apartment building adjacent to the International School of Cyprus [ISC], as it was called in those years. The kitchen and living room had glass doors that opened onto a large terrazzo-tiled terrace bordered by a white railing. It was overhung with willow branches from an enormous tree growing out of the garden of the Greek restaurant on the hillside just below. In warm weather, sounds of clinking glassware and cutlery drifted upward as tables were set for dinner on the outdoor patio. We befriended the owner, and sometimes he would invite us to join him for a late night glass of wine. After the last diners departed, we tiptoed down the stone stairs between our terrace and his restaurant to share a drink under lanterns hanging from the willow tree.

I met Janmarie during the first year because her four children attended ISC. After dropping them off in the mornings, she was at my kitchen table by 8:30AM for coffee. Every day. We became good friends over those visits, talking easily  about many things. She was also my cooking mentor, and I learned to prepare a few Lebanese specialties that became supper-time staples. Those are stories for another time. Once in a while, morning conversations segued into lunchtime hungers. When this happened, particularly in the wintertime, Janmarie would say, “Let’s go for some Halloumi.” We headed downtown to the old part of the city.

Halloumi is a cheese that originated in Cyprus centuries ago. Traditionally it came from sheep’s milk, is pure white, shaped in semi-solid blocks and packed in salty brine. Once relieved of it’s packaging and drained, it looks rather ghostly, anemic, and unappetizing.  The power of this cheese is that it is transformed into something exquisitely different by adding heat and grilling it to a golden color. At that moment you should eat it right away, if possible. It’s also delicious at room temperature, but the texture becomes chewier and sort of squeaks in your mouth.

On the streets of old-town, hot off the griddle, layered on a kind of panini bread with tomato and cucumber slices, then grilled again in a sandwich press, halloumi was more than a hand held snack. It was the taste of salt from the ancient sea mixed with creamy chewiness and warmth, in direct contrast to the coldish air in which we sat. On a wintery day in a Cypriot taverna, the smell and taste of that sandwich was reminiscent of the cobblestoned history under our feet. It symbolized, for me, 9000 years of island invasions and conquerors, Greek mythology, Roman ruins, archeological digs, picnics in poppy fields, smooth-stoned beaches, and red-tile roofed stone houses overlooking the sea. I never forgot that feeling created by time and place, nourishing food, and my friend.

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Kourion Roman Amphitheater overlooking the Mediterranean used annually for ISC graduation
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smooth stones of Pissouri beach, Cyprus

When we lived there, you could not buy halloumi anywhere else in the world. It was strictly a local product–made and consumed in Cyprus. We moved on to live in Taiwan, and, later, Germany and France. Halloumi was relegated to a memory of a life that we left. Then one day, in a Greek delicatessen on our Parisian market street, I spied bricks of that briny cheese for sale. The global marketplace had caught up. Taste and memory were about to be rekindled 20 years later.

There are different ways to prepare and enjoy halloumi. The easiest way is to slice it about ¼ inch thick and fry in a little bit of good olive oil. When nicely browned on both sides, it is the start of a great sandwich using pita bread or a tortilla wrap. Layer in tomatoes, cucumbers, red onions, spinach or whatever you have on hand.

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1/4 inch slices
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brown over medium heat
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add spinach, tomatoes, cucumbers, red onion
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It’s also good for breakfast, on hot toast, with or without eggs on the side. As a snack or hors d’oeuvre, halloumi can be prepared a little differently. Cut into cubes and brown on all sides in a small amount of good oil. When golden, place in a bowl, drizzle with a bit more olive oil and sprinkle with red pepper flakes. Pass out the toothpicks and eat it right away, with olives, fresh veggies, or simply enjoy the warm salty creaminess on its own.

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cube
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fry in olive oil
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add red pepper flakes and serve

Although the world is now an international marketplace and I can eat halloumi whenever I choose, in my own sensory landscape what I cherish most is these three together: an ancient Mediterranean island, the laughter and camaraderie of a great friend, and a hot halloumi sandwich on a cold day.

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janmarie revisits nicosia

Two Non Cooks Saved by the Brazilians

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

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

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

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adam with his teacher, International School Cyprus, 1991

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

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

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singaporean chili crab, courtesy of serena foxon

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

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nyonya laksa, courtesy of fiona foxon

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walking down emerald hill road

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peranakan place, earlier days

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peranakan place, now

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

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

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

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

Mimi’s Brazilian Shrimp Stew

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

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

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basic raw ingredients

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ingredients ready to cook

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

Spoken like a true non-cook, who adapts.

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cooking for 15 minutes

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mimi’s stew

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

Fabio Meets Brownies Cocaine

French baking ingredients, except vanilla extract from USA

Baking can be a handy skill. There are several things to like about it. It’s mental because you measure and time things accurately. It’s physical because it involves beating, stirring, or folding ingredients together. It’s meditative because while things are in the oven you might as well read or mull something over in your mind. Or, just get busy and clean up the mess, which goes back to being physical. There are important sensory and emotional elements too. Whatever is in the oven smells great, creates memories, and tastes better than anything from the store.

My reasons for enjoying baking evolved over time. In the beginning, it satisfied a rabid teen-aged sweet tooth. At 16, I was baking cookies regularly, convinced it was “healthier” than Coca Cola and candy bars. Later, it was an expression of love for a growing family. There were no appetizing sweets when we lived in Asia. Imported Oreos or Chips Ahoy were available in the form of stale crumbs. Fig Newtons were an occasional purchase, but only after surreptitiously squeezing the package to make sure they were fresh. I kept the family in homemade cookies, muffins, and coffee cakes for years. Baking was also useful for saying thank you to friends for a kindness or favor.

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Allison & Busby Publisher, 1986

When our children were very small, there was a storybook called Five Minutes’ Peace by Jill Murphy. I’m not sure they even remember it. It was really for mothers, which is why I remember it. An elephant named Mrs. Large tries to claim five minutes of peace from her three rambunctious offspring. Of course she never does. They always want to see what she is doing. They follow her into the bathroom while she is bathing, into the kitchen while she tries to read the newspaper or drink a cup of tea. She never claims a full five minutes by herself because they want her undivided attention. At one time or another most mothers of young children fantasize about a bit of quiet solitude away from family routines.

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Once, an artist friend in Cyprus gave me such a gift. We lived in Nicosia for three years in the early 1990s. Most of that time, Fabio lived in an ancient stone house in a small Greek village. His lifestyle inspired him to paint oil canvases of Cypriot village life, or the countryside, or the sea. He was a good Italian cook and loved to talk about food, but he did not bake. He had quirky rules about portion sizes, particularly sweets. He always took “a bite” of sweet while drinking his strong Italian coffee. One bite. No more. I enjoyed strong coffee, with or without a bite of something on the side, so we got along fine. He knew I had a young family with the usual busy demands. He also understood I enjoyed being on my own. One time when he planned to be in the city for the week, he asked if I would like to stay in the village for a couple of days. “Yes!” was the only possible response. I planned an overnight getaway for five minutes of peace.

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The house was built in old-Cypriot style. A high stonewall with a wooden door opened onto an uncovered cobblestoned courtyard. The rooms of the house were not connected to each other. Instead, they opened directly onto the courtyard. On one side was the kitchen and living room. On the other side was the bathroom and two bedrooms, one atop the other. An open stone staircase led to the upper bedroom. Olive trees, cactus, succulents, herbs and flowers were in clay pots or scattered about in earthy plots of garden.

village house courtyard

courtyard as outdoor living room

The house walls were at least two feet thick. The wide stone windowsill in the kitchen held ripened tomatoes, drying herbs and smooth rocks that looked like  eggs. There were decorations in the form of blue glass “eye” amulets to ward off bad spirits. I settled in and went exploring.

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foraged baskets turn into home decor

The house nearby begged for archeological excavating. It had crumbled into abandoned ruins long before. Minor foraging produced two mud-encrusted baskets with holes in the bottom. They cleaned up nicely. I fixed a simple meal in the primitive kitchen: eggs with fresh tomatoes and herbs, village bread and wine. Before falling asleep, I stared at the stars from my bed under an open window.

Driving back to Nicosia the next day, I considered the gift of restorative time Fabio had unknowingly bestowed. In an old fashioned house in a dusty village, I had a quietly rejuvenating adventure.

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A baking thank-you was in order. Something to challenge Fabio’s portion control principles. There are brownie recipes and then there are BROWNIE recipes. BROWNIES COCAINE can sideswipe almost anyone with its dark chocolate-y decadent deliciousness.

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brownies cocaine

A day or so later, I brewed some strong coffee and placed six squares of Brownies Cocaine on a small serving plate. Fabio listened as I told about grooming the courtyard garden, re-arranging windowsills, scavenging the rubble next door. He silently ate one, two, three, four bites–until, the plate was empty. This recipe became a rule breaker that day. Fabio returned to the stony village with extra brownies for other coffee mornings.

And I returned to family life with fond memories of a quaint old courtyard that offered a whole lot more than five minutes’ peace.

BROWNIES COCAINE

  • 3/4 C. butter
  • 1 1/8 C. unsweetened cocoa [A good European brand is optimal.]
  • 2 T. oil
  • Melt these ingredients together slowly, over low heat, stirring continuously. Set aside to cool.
  • 6 eggs, at room temperature
  • 1/4 t. salt
  • 3 C. sugar
  • 1 1/2 t. vanilla extract [Good vanilla is key to great baking. Spend money on this.]
  • Beat the eggs, salt, sugar and vanilla together.
  • Stir in cooled chocolate quickly using only a few strokes.
  • 1 1/2 C. flour
  • Add flour by folding in.
  • Bake 350F. [180C.] 25 minutes in greased 9×13 pan. Cool before cutting.
  • Sprinkle with confectioner’s sugar, if desired.

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out of the oven

 

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au natural

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with confectioner’s sugar