My Brief Stint With the CIA

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

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

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

It helps to have an active imagination.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My tactic was to zero in on one or two people for meaningful conversation. Time flew by in a satisfying way and felt better spent without idle mingling and wishing to kick off high-heeled shoes. Thus, my brief interrogation stint with the CIA had a positive afterlife.

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

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

However, I still wonder about one sliding door, many years ago, which briefly opened for me personally. Riding horses in my 20’s, I was offered a job as an exercise rider for thoroughbreds. It required travel flexibility and hinted of excitement, risk, adventure.

Now there’s another story ending to imagine…

SPAGHETTI AGLIO, OLIO E PEPERONCINO

Ingredients:

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

Preparation:

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

Addendum:

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

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

Fabio Meets Brownies Cocaine

Hellenic Halloumi

Hellenic Halloumi

cyprus-map

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 iron 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 patio. We befriended the owner and sometimes he beckoned us to join him for a late night glass of wine. When the last diners departed, we tiptoed down the stone stairs between our terrace and his restaurant to have a drink, sitting under candle lanterns in the willow tree.

I met Janmarie during our first year in Cyprus. Her four children attended ISC. After dropping them off in the morning, she was at my kitchen table for coffee by 8:30AM. 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 several Lebanese recipes that became supper-time staples in our family.

Sometimes morning coffee conversations merged into lunchtime hunger. 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 anemic and unappetizing.  The subtlety of this cheese is that it transforms into something different by grilling it to a golden color.

On the streets of old-town Nicosia, hot off the grill, layered on 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 sea mixed with creamy chewiness and warmth, in sharp contrast to the cold air in which we sat.

On a wintery day in a Cypriot taverna, that sandwich reminded me of ancient history beneath the cobblestones under our feet–9000 years of island invasions and conquerors, Greek mythology, Roman ruins, and archeological digs. In our own time, it was a reminder of picnics in open fields of red poppies, smooth-stoned beaches, and red-tile roofed houses of old stone overlooking the sea. All together, it is a remembrance about a specific time and place, nourishing food, and my friend.

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Kourion Roman Amphitheater used for ISC graduation
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stones of Pissouri beach, Cyprus

When we lived in Cyprus, halloumi was only a local product–made and consumed on the island. We moved on to live in Taiwan, Germany and France and halloumi was forgotten.

Then one day, in a Greek delicatessen on our Parisian market street, I spied bricks of that briny cheese for sale. The global market had caught up. Taste and memory were about to be rekindled twenty 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. 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. You can make tapas with olives and fresh crudités, or enjoy the warm, salty creaminess of halloumi 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

Since the world is an international marketplace, I can eat halloumi cheese whenever I want now. But I cherish most these three things–a Mediterranean island steeped in ancient history, the camaraderie of a great friend, and a hot-off-the-grill halloumi sandwich on a cold winter day.

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. Reported problems readying venues for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro seem a minor glitch. These things usually work themselves out. Even if, at the deadline, there is little hot water in the hotels, as Sochi 2014. The Games must go on!

My interest in Brazil comes not from sports. It begins with a recipe that solved my first-dinner-party-dilemma when we lived in Singapore. An overseas friend recently reminded me of this. She was there, and it saved her too.

Mary was present in 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. She lived in the apartment above us and was our son’s third grade teacher.

When Mary wanted to make a plan with me, an empty coffee can was lowered from her balcony, above our terrace, on a piece of string. When I saw a tin can swaying in the breeze, I knew there would be a folded piece of paper inside with a note: “Meet after school for a brisk walk” or “Come up for a wee dram of scotch”. Often it was both. Later, in Taiwan, we were part of a group of women who bonded in weekly TGIF afternoons in each other’s homes. Our “Wine and Unwind” parties solved most of the world’s problems during those years.

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adam and mary, International School Cyprus, 1991

During our first year in Singapore we accepted many invitations to dinners, parties, and holiday events. By the second year, we were past due in repaying friends for their kindness. At the time, I barely cooked and had nothing dinner party worthy in my repertoire. I consulted cookbooks and fretted about what to make.

For the family I stuck to one-dish meals, everything mixed together without the fuss of separate courses. In planning a party, I took M.F.K. Fisher’s advice to heart. She said an in-home dinner party is best when served to no more than six invited guests. Since that required several weekend party paybacks, I needed a menu that was repeatable, too.

Singapore is awash in fresh seafood and world-class cuisine. The spicy mix of Chinese, Indian and Malaysian food cultures always made eating out an adventure. In the late 1980s, we frequently dined at a seaside restaurant on Punggol Point. The specialty was chili crab that made our lips and faces sting. It was served with thick white bread to mop up the sauce. No one stopped eating until the table was a littered mess of shells, claws and sauce. We ate with our hands, wearing a paper bib. When finished, chili sauce covered both hands, went up the arms, and was smeared across cheeks and chin. Hoses were conveniently available.

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singaporean chili crab, courtesy of serena foxon
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peranakan place, earlier days
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peranakan place, now

The other Singaporean dish I fell for was Nonya Laksa. This is from the Peranakan culture, a combination of Chinese and Malaysian cuisine. 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 Emerald Hill Road to the restaurant at Peranakan Place on Orchard Road is where I learned to eat this national treasure. It’s a double whammy to sweat from the heat and humidity of tropical temperatures while sweating from spicy food in an un-air-conditioned cafe. We adapted. And loved it all.

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nyonya laksa, courtesy of fiona foxon

It was a different friend who solved the dinner party menu dilemma. Knowing that I needed simple and foolproof, she suggested Brazilian Shrimp Stew–a one-dish wonder. Finding fresh shrimp and produce was easy. Cooking everything all together in a large pan, even easier. 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 repeatable result, I couldn’t ask for more.

Mary and her husband were invited to one of the dinners. Like me, she was [and is] uninspired by daily cooking. This easy-to-make stew not only caught her attention with its’ spicy coconut shrimp tastiness, she carried it forward to her own in-house entertaining. Mary reminded me of eating shrimp stew first under our roof, then making it her own success story.

We both thank the Brazilians for saving two non-cooks from dinner party angst many years ago.

Preparing and enjoying Shrimp Stew is for everyone who loves Brazil, her fanatic football fans, and the simplicity of a guest-worthy one-dish meal. Just add dessert.

Bon appétit.

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 best, cut with scissors]
  • 6-7 crushed garlic cloves [or more]
  • fresh red or green hot peppers, 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 coconut 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 fresh lime juice over the stew, table side. Serve with good bread to soak up the sauce.

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basic raw ingredients
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ready to cook
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cook only 15 minutes
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dinner party worthy shrimp stew

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.

I made this recipe amount recently and it easily serves six people.

Fabio Meets Brownies Cocaine

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 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 an insatiable 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 only 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 freshly baked 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 his village home for a couple of days. “Yes!” was the only response. I planned an overnight getaway for a few hours of peace.

villages-architecture

The house was built in old-Cypriot style. A high stonewall with a wooden door opened onto an open-air cobblestoned courtyard. The rooms of the house were not connected to each other. Instead, they faced 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 translucent eggs. There were decorations in the form of blue glass “eye” amulets to ward off bad spirits. I settled in and went exploring.

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.

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foraged baskets

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

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A big thank-you was in order. I wanted to bake 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 decadence.

A day or so later, I brewed some strong coffee and placed six squares of Brownies Cocaine on a small serving plate. Fabio came to my apartment and listened as I told about grooming the courtyard garden, re-arranging windowsills, scavenging the rubble next door. He silently ate brownies until the plate was empty. That day was a rule breaker. Fabio returned to the stony village with extra brownies for other coffee breaks.

And I returned to family life with fond memories of a quaint stone courtyard that offered me more than five blessed minutes of peace.

BROWNIES COCAINE

French baking ingredients, except vanilla extract from USA
  • 3/4 C. butter
  • 1 1/8 C. unsweetened cocoa [good European brand rather than “Hersheys”]
  • 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 all great baking]
  • Beat the eggs, salt, sugar and vanilla together.
  • 1 1/2 C. flour
  • Add flour by folding in.
  • Stir in cooled chocolate mixture quickly using only a few strokes.
  • 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