We All Need the Eggs

This is a story about friendship. And eggs.

Many of the most rewarding relationships in my life are friendships formed when we lived in Asia, the Mediterranean, and Europe. Our family friendship with the people in this story, Nancy, Maddy, and Cabby, began in Taiwan in the 1990s. We forged relationships in the midst of howling typhoons and bed-shaking earthquakes, during Thanksgiving pig roasts, in delivery rooms birthing babies, on hillside picnics with roaming water buffalo transcendent-picnics, at uncountable dinner parties in each other’s homes, and on apartment rooftops. 

In 2018, we decided to have a reunion in Greece. Shortly before Easter, Nancy flew from New York to Paris where I was living. Together we traveled to Athens where Maddy and Cabby are now living.

In Greece, we shed our Asian history and jumped right into a mix of antiquity and contemporary adventures. As we climbed to the rooftop of their home, the Acropolis and Parthenon appeared stage center before our eyes. Hellooooooo Athina.

Acropolis and Parthenon, Athens 2018

Mornings began with breakfast carried to the roof–an image imprinted forever in my mind. Strong French-pressed coffee, a bowl of Greek yogurt with sour cherries spooned on top, a basket of buttered toast, hardboiled eggs. And that view…

streetscape on the plaka, athens
top of the acropolis
seaside, temple of Poseidon

Family and holiday traditions are often a shared experience with friends overseas. During the Taiwan years, when our children were young, Maddy and Cabby hosted an annual family-centered party at Easter time. Eggs, dyed and decorated, were hung from dried branches standing upright in a tall vase to form a colorful egg tree. Multiple families were invited. There was food and a ceremony involving candles and a song. Then the eggs were selected from the tree, one to each person, and taken home in carefully packed containers.

Twenty-five years later, Cabby was in the final phase of decorating 60 eggs hanging over the second floor balcony. I don’t mean simple-dipped-in-one-pastel-color-dyed eggs. I mean Eggs As Art.

sample of the 2018 egg line up
last step–lacquering

In the 1990s, decorating small bare tree branches as “Easter Egg Trees” became popular in the United States. In the Tennis/Hewitt family, the first egg tree was produced in Cambridge, Massachusetts when their first-born, Liza, was a toddler. It consisted of a single branch decorated with a few colored eggs taken to a party of graduate school friends.

Following graduate degrees and the birth of a second child, Maddy and Cabby moved to Taiwan. In succeeding years, their egg tree tradition was shared with international school families from Taipei, to Cairo, to Johannesburg, to Saudi Arabia. 

Watching the tradition unfold in Athens, I realized that an important annual event, merged with artistry, had created outreach and a ripple effect in international relationships. Families from different countries and cultures invited to the Egg Tree celebration often carried it forward. They began new traditions that passed on beyond the Tennis/Hewitt family.

Maddy inspires action. Cabby implements details. It’s one of the ways they complement each other. Together they prioritize the importance of nurturing the family they created with lasting traditions.

maddy inspires
cabby implements

Cab also has a knack for research and prototyping. Since crafting the first egg tree, he experimented and fine-tuned the “how to” process of taking a raw white egg and turning it into something spectacular. The steps from A to Z are not for the impatient or the faint of heart. But, the results are dazzling.

In the beginning, there was trial and error. He blew out the egg interiors as a first step only to realize that empty eggs don’t sink. There was year-by-year evolution, advancing the dyeing/waxing techniques used today. For example, randomly splattered candle wax creates only one type of pattern underneath–spots. So Cabby made small tools from toothpicks and wooden skewers that allow painting stripes, swirls, and even plaid patterns onto the shell with hot melted wax. Complexity and depth magically emerge after rounds of dyeing/waxing/dyeing/waxing on a single egg. Each egg reveals a surprise ending.

The bleaching process arose from a mistake of leaving an egg too long in one dye. Because it turned an ugly dark color, he wondered why not lighten it with bleach. A new step was added when he discovered bleaching enhanced the depth and range of dye colors.

Growing up overseas, the three Tennis children spent time around the table with their parents learning the egg dyeing craft. One Christmas, when they were older, each of them received a complete supply kit with containers, dye packets and tools to build their own egg tree and carry on the tradition after leaving home. 

Oldest son, Whiting, took on the challenge first as a university student. Now married and teaching in an international school overseas, he produces spectacularly decorated eggs and invites faculty families to participate in the Egg Tree Party. 

2020 egg tree

After Athens, I thought about the generosity of sharing this family-centered tradition all over the world and how comfortably it links people together in international communities. Cabby and Maddy exemplify a natural ability to build and create inclusiveness in every relationship.

The Tennis Family Egg Tree Tradition is one way this family has fostered love and respect in their global and personal relationships. It begins at home with a circle of people gathered around a bare branched tree covered with kaleidoscope colored eggs.

I’m reminded of the ending to the movie Annie Hall. The main character muses about the nuances of relationships, suggesting they are sometimes irrational, usually complex, and often absurd. He tries to sum up his feelings with a joke:

A guy walks into a psychiatrist’s office and says, hey doc, my brother’s crazy! He thinks he’s a chicken. The doc says why don’t you turn him in? The guy says, I would but I need the eggs. 

And, he’s right. We strive to hold onto each other in love, support and caring, because, actually, all of us…need the eggs.

 

This is the definitive “How-To” for dyeing and decorating eggs in the Tennis/Hewitt tradition. Instructions are by Cabby Tennis. There is minor editing on my part for clarity.

THE TENNIS FAMILY EGG TREE 

WHY GO TO ALL THIS TROUBLE FOR A FEW COLORED EGGS?

  1. It brings family and friends around the table working creatively together. 
  2. There is hands-on learning––coordination, art, safety, chemistry, physics, perseverance, patience and the final “wow” factor with each finished egg.
  3. There is grace and humility in overcoming a “Humpty Dumpty” moment of loss on the kitchen floor.
  4. It can become an annual family tradition.
  5. Eggs are beautiful.

GETTING STARTED

  1. Source dyes in craft shop or order online. Powdered dyes offer greater color variety. Suggested websites: Ukrainiangiftshop.com, BestPysanky.com, Ukrainianeggcessories.com
  2. Cover surface of worktable with taped together garbage bags, a vinyl tablecloth, or shower curtain liner. Layer of newspaper on top absorbs spills. Do not work over carpeting! Outside picnic table is ideal.
  3. Set up table with plastic gloves, liquid dye containers, plastic spoons, eggs, paper towels [pre-torn into a stack of single sheets], empty egg cartons, waxing tools [explained below], 3 bowls for bleach and rinse water, candles for waxing, small saucepan for hot melted wax, scissors, pen, scotch tape.
the set up

EGGS – Unstamped white eggs are best. Large [not XL] range free eggs tend to have stronger shells. Rinse under water–no soap. Eggs are dyed raw because they are heavier and will sink. Blowing them out comes later.

CONTAINERS FOR LIQUID DYES – Any glass jar [preferably with lid] such as jam jars, canning jars, etc. One plastic spoon per jar to prevent color mixing as eggs move between dyes. Leftover dye can be kept year to year, so save the jar tops. If not enough jars, use water glasses.

one spoon per jar, label with dye color, keep the lids

DYE MIXING – 1 packet powdered dye diluted with ¾-1 cup boiling water. Add 1 T. white vinegar. Apple or grape vinegar is ok. (Exception: No vinegar for orange dyes because they will curdle.] Follow package directions for diluting liquid concentrate dyes. Cut off color name from dye packet and tape on jar for reference.

WAXING METHODS 

  1. Partially used taper candles set into aluminum tea candle base for dripping or sprinkling wax over eggs.  
  2. A small saucepan with hot melted wax to use with tools [see below] or for complete immersion of egg into wax. Leftover candle remnants can be melted over low heat in saucepan on stovetop, camp stove, or hotplate. If no candles at home, purchase 2-3 thrift store pillar candles [any color] as melting base.

WAYS OF APPLYING WAX – Time to get creative. Holding a lit candle above egg, drip or shake/splatter wax onto shell. You can also use tools made from several toothpicks or split bamboo skewers bound with rubber bands to paint on wax. Repeatedly dip wooden tool into melted wax in saucepan, then touch or tap the egg with the tool. Egg color underneath the wax will be preserved and not take on next dye color. This is how you create different color patterns by waxing stripes, dots, or splatters on the dry egg. The number of colors on the egg depends how many times it goes through the cycle of 1. Wax 2. Dye 3. Dry.

candle set up for waxing, wooden tools made from toothpicks and skewers

DUNK DYEING – Place waxed egg into any dye jar, then remove and gently dry with paper towel before waxing on a new layer of stripes or splatters. Repeat sequence as many times as you wish. Each wax application retains the color underneath it. Dyeing sequence is from light colors to dark. Begin with yellow [or any light color] moving toward darker colors each time you 1. Wax 2. Dye 3. Dry. Creativity and patience are keys to this technique. 

BLEACHING as part of the dunk dyeing process – An optional but effective way to reverse the usual light to dark dyeing sequence. Bleach lets you cut through any final dye color [even black] that is un-waxed on the egg. Once the dark color is bleached, a lighter color can be dyed over it. This takes deft handling. Three bowls recommended. One with 1 part bleach to 2 parts water, and two [or 3] rinsing bowls with plain water. Dip the egg into bleach solution. Then move it through the rinse cycles, swirling thoroughly through each bowl. Egg continues to bleach with each step. Dry with paper towel. Note: The bleach will creep under some of the wax edges so be quick with the steps. You can do several rounds of 1. Bleach 2. Rinse 3. Dye 4. Wax 5. Dye and then repeat.

POWDER DYEING – This is a simple and efficient one step method to achieve beautiful eggs with the look of Monet water lilies or a ‘60s tie-dye experience. Eggs must be moist after soaking in plain water or liquid dye. Use leftover powder remnants [from envelopes used to make liquid dye] or open new ones specifically for this technique. With previously opened packets, write the color name on the outside to identify the powder inside.

METHOD FOR POWDER DYEING – Wearing clean, dry gloves lift a wet egg from bowl and hold each end between thumb and fingers. Tap the powder dye envelope against the egg to sprinkle grains onto the moist surface. Upon contact they will explode into fireworks shapes. Turn the egg and keep applying powder until it has the look you want. Use different colors, but be careful of combinations. Red, green and blue used together will turn brown. When desired color is achieved, quickly pat dry and immerse in saucepan of hot melted wax to seal. Or splatter with candle wax.

DE-WAXING EGGS – Wear gloves. Place used candle stubs or pillar candles into small saucepan over low to medium-low heat on stovetop. You need enough wax to completely immerse an egg. Have a stack of prepared paper towels nearby. With a slotted spoon, lower egg into the pan and stir gently, watching for wax coating to loosen and shed. [Stirring speeds up wax removal.] When the coating is clearly melted, add a second egg to the pan and lift first egg out. Rub loosened wax off first egg with paper towel. It should feel smooth with no rough spots and have a shiny patina. When wax in the pan starts to film over, time to re-heat on low temperature.

Safety note: Heat wax only until it liquefies. If it starts to smoke, it’s too hot and should be removed from heat. 

Economy note: Place the saucepan of wax in the refrigerator overnight. The solidified wax will pop out the next morning. Store for re-use the next year.

BLOWING OUT THE EGGS – Use a bellows type egg blower. Good source: Best Pysanky Egg Blower. With the awl that comes in the kit, make a hole in the exact bottom of egg the size of a wooden kitchen matchstick. The bellows pumps air in and forces white and yolk out the bottom hole. Be gentle. Take your time. Too much pressure and egg can explode. Use a paper clip or thin wire to break yolk or un-jam clogs as needed. Do this in rounds, about 10 eggs in a round, letting each egg sit upright between rounds so gravity can help the insides move to the bottom. Next, do a “gravity shake”. Holding egg upright in fingers, firmly and repeatedly whack your wrist against the tabletop onto a paper towel. When drips emerge from bottom of egg, blow it out again. Repeat until nothing comes out of egg and it feels light and empty. Finally, carefully use the awl to make a hole the size of a thick paperclip in the top center of egg. This is where knotted string will be attached later.

BAKING THE HOLLOW EGGS – This removes the final film of wax and bakes inside of eggs to prevent spoiling. In a preheated metal pan, place 6 eggs at a time on their sides. Make sure both ends of egg are open and unplugged or egg can explode in the oven. Bake at 350 F for 4 minutes. Watch carefully so they don’t burn. Remove from oven and cover pan with foil or kitchen towel to retain heat. Place next pan of eggs in to bake. Quickly rub each baked egg with paper towel to remove any wax residue before it cools.

STRINGING THE EGGS – Use thin string such as dental floss or embroidery thread. Tie a knot and create a loop where the size of the knot barely fits inside top hole of egg. Hold the knot against the hole, and gently push it inside the egg with a paper clip.  Expand hole with the awl if necessary. Line up strung eggs for gluing. One by one squirt a tiny dab of super glue into the hole. This affixes knot inside the egg. Let eggs rest on their sides [string parallel to table top] while glue dries. Avoid getting too much glue on the string above the egg as it will dry stiffly and can snap like a twig over time.

HANGING AND FINAL CLEANING OF EGGS – String a rope where eggs can be suspended at least 6 inches apart. Use large paper clips or loops of wire to attach eggs to rope. If inside the house, place drop cloths below to catch drips. Wear gloves and use a soft cloth to gently wipe each egg all over with paint thinner [white spirits in Europe]. Dry with another soft cloth to remove any residual wax. Let stand for 30 minutes. This step speeds up drying time of the lacquer.

LACQUERING THE EGGS – Use clear polyurethane [Varathane] or Spar Varnish to seal eggs and enhance colors with a durable finish coat.  Varnish can be satin or gloss finish. [Cabby prefers gloss.] Dip fingers into the urethane and rub each egg, coating from top to bottom. Dab off accumulated drips with paper towel. Lacquer can take 1-3 days to dry. Eggs kept year to year can be re-lacquered annually. The Tennis family has one egg, “Jungle Book”, with over 15 coats and a deep hard shine.

NAMING [Optional, but great fun] – Give each egg a creative name–something it reminds you of. Examples from the 2020 collection: The Duke of Earl, Violet Sultana, Jigsaw Cyan, Fly Like an Eagle, Calypso, Sgt. Pepper, Tetherball, Clouds of Mercury, Purple Reign, Gilly Spring

BEST EGG TREES – Made with dry sticks or branches with many limbs. Bougainvillea branches are excellent. Bind branches with string or zip ties and place in a large vase or container, preferably metal. Fill with rocks/pebbles to keep branches secured and centered. Hang eggs in a pleasing arrangement.

THE EGG GIFTING TRADITION – Invite families with young children to your home. Have an Easter reading about the historic symbolism of eggs, the season of spring and renewal, or related meaningful traditions. Light hand held candles one by one around the circle, and sing, “This Little Light of Mine”. Pass a bowl of folded bits of paper with numbers on them. Eggs are chosen from the tree in numerical order. [Parents sometimes trade numbers so children can pick earlier.] Number 1 leaves the room after pre-selecting an egg in their mind. The group tries to guess which egg will be chosen. #1 returns, removes their egg and the sequence continues. The key is to keep the pace going without dampening the enthusiasm of conjecture. 

Egg cartons are filled with selected eggs for each family to take home. 

A new egg tree tradition begins.

Cabby has additional details such as video clips of different stages of the process and a movie of the complete 2020 egg line up with names included. For more information, contact: windowtoalifeoverseas@gmail.com

metropolis sprawl, athens
still life with chop

A Guest Room Under the Porch

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

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

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

Buddy as a youngster

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

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

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

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

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

the corner room

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

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

antler growth one half inch per day

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

left home alone

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

dozing
resting
and spying the web cam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CLICK HERE to view a short video of Buddy coming home

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

Our spiritual geography in Colorado described here: Bugling Elk and Sacred Spaces

Wait Twenty Minutes Then Add Salt

Naples, Italy is the birthplace of pizza. When tomato was added to flat bread in the late 18th century, pizza, as we know it today, was born. If you go to Naples, you will certainly enjoy eating pizza on a cobblestoned street after touring the Amalfi coast and the dusty excavations in Pompeii. Then fly out the next day. Naples is not an easy city.

Pizza ranks high as a favorite food all over the world. You can order in, carry out, or enjoy at your neighborhood spot. However, I don’t eat restaurant pizza anymore, except in Italy, because my husband learned to make perfect pizza dough at home. His finesse began with a not-so-subtle suggestion and a friendship of mine.

My husband enjoys creative time in the kitchen. Not everyday. But when people come to our home he will go to finicky recipe extremes. I call it performance cooking. No one would do this on a daily basis unless highly paid. Guests love it. Each course is beautifully plated and presented with a detailed description of what goes into whatever is being served.

His foray into kitchen time began years ago when we lived in Taiwan. Home dinner parties were an almost every weekend event. This, in contrast to meeting up with friends in fluorescent lit, Formica tabled, disposable chopstick, plastic plate only restaurants circa 1990s.

We did that, too, because the food in Taiwan is freshly prepared and delicious. It was also a no-nonsense way to get the eating chore done. However, it wasn’t a place for long, conversation filled evenings with good wine and food, heavy china, linen napkins, and candles flickering down the middle of the table.

One of our family rituals while the children were growing up was to have a formal Sunday night dinner. Husband­ was in charge of menu planning, shopping and meal prep. I laid the table with the “fancier” china and flatware. Son and daughter were on cleanup and some form of “presentation” as entertainment. Those responsibilities worked some of the time.

My friend, Linda, is a Midwestern born ex-pat who moved to Taipei with her family several years after our arrival. We became fast friends with husbands and children joining in. Linda’s Sunday night family ritual was making homemade pizza. Her youngest daughter liked to participate by carefully rolling out the dough, just so. Her two teenagers would occasionally help with preparation, but often just showed up for the eating part.

When she made pizza for entertaining, I latched right onto my favorite Linda-version. It was always this: the thinnest crust, basil pesto sauce, toasted pine nuts, sliced garlic and fresh chili peppers with grated Parmesan cheese over the top.

Along the way, a quirky tweak was added to her recipe because of an Italian chef named Max, who found himself temporarily employed in a Taipei restaurant. He left Barbados for one year while the hotel where he worked was being renovated. What he loved about the Caribbean was the warm, turquoise colored water and beautiful beaches. Max found Taiwan on a world map and saw it was an island, too. He thought he could happily work and still be near sand and water. The sand and water part didn’t work out. Not much beach in Taipei.

After an evening of cooking, Max enjoyed chatting up lingering late night restaurant customers. When Linda mentioned she often made pizza from scratch at home, he told her the secret for the “best pizza dough”. It was a tip from his Italian mama.

Don’t add salt right away”. Wait at least 20 minutes to let the yeast, sugar and warm water begin their bubbly reaction. Yeast reacts better without salt added until later. It creates more pliable and elastic dough. From a mother in an Italian village, to a beach loving chef in Taiwan, to an American home cook, here was insider pizza chemistry.

Before Linda left Taiwan, I wrote down her dough recipe with Max’s tweak. I’m the basic kind of cook rather than the finicky kind, so it was filed away and several years went by. Children left home. A new job with new geography moved us out of Asia.

With only two at the table, formal Sunday dinner faded away. We ate out more often because it was Europe! Germany! Restaurant atmosphere was charming. And the food didn’t disappoint.   

Sundays in Germany are quiet. Everything closes from Saturday afternoon until Monday morning. Pulling out Linda’s recipe, I waved it in front of my husband and suggested, “We need a new Sunday ritual. I love Linda’s pizza. Why don’t you learn to make it?”

And so, my man began kneading and punching and creating homemade dough with puffs of flour in the air and a rolling pin in hand. Sunday night became Pizza Night. It worked when there was just the two of us. It worked as a night for entertaining guests. It worked as a Christmas Eve meal for a crowd.

From rustic Naples centuries ago, to an ex-pat friendship in Taiwan, to a misplaced Italian chef and his mother, to a man who found contentment in mixing flour, water, yeast and salt into elastic dough, a new family tradition was formed. Linda’s pizza became ours.

We have made it for family, and for people from cultures around the world. In whatever geography we find ourselves, and in the midst of complexity and the rush of life, we always wait twenty minutes. And then add salt.   

MARK’S PIZZA CRUSTS

Yield: 4, 15-inch or 6, 12-inch pizzas

Ingredients:

  • 2 packages active dry yeast 
  • 1 t. sugar
  • 2 C. semolina flour–mix in first [optional, but a good Italian touch]
  • 3 C. all purpose flour, plus more for kneading
  • 2 t. salt
  • Olive oil for coating bowl as dough rises and for pizza pans

Preparation:

  1. Place 2 C. warm water [110-115 degrees F.] in small mixing bowl.
  2. Stir in 1 t. sugar. Then sprinkle in yeast. Stir to combine.
  3. Set aside for at least 20 minutes, letting it expand and bubble.
  4. After 20 minutes, combine flours, salt and yeast mixture in a large bowl. If using semolina flour, stir in first, then add the rest.
  5. When dough becomes difficult to stir with a wooden spoon, turn out of bowl onto a lightly floured smooth surface.
  6. Begin kneading by hand. Add small amounts of flour, as needed, so dough is not sticking to hands and surface.
  7. Knead at least 10 minutes, squeezing and folding dough over on itself, pushing with heels of both hands. I like to pick the dough up and throw it down hard onto kneading surface several times. Husband likes punching it. 
  8. When dough becomes smooth and elastic, form into a ball.
  9. Lightly wipe a large bowl with olive oil. Place dough in bowl. Turn once to coat both sides in oil. Cover with a clean kitchen towel.
  10. Set aside to rise 45 min. to an hour or until doubled in bulk.
  11. Punch down, reshape dough, and cover. Let it rise once or twice more as you wish. It’s not necessary to do multiple risings, but time gives more structure and flavor to the dough.
  12. Preheat oven as hot as it will go. 500-550 F. Heat is crucial to good pizza. You must keep an eye on it as it can burn easily.
  13. Wipe or spray pizza pans lightly with olive oil. Optional to sprinkle pans with semolina flour.
  14. Roll out sections of dough as thinly as possible to fit prepared pans.
  15. Arrange toppings on dough. Less is more with homemade pizza. This keeps crust from becoming soggy and heavy.
  16. Bake in preheated oven to desired doneness. Start checking at 10-12 min. Watch the edges so they don’t get too brown.
  17. Remove from pans and cut into slices. Kitchen scissors work great.

Toppings:  

  • Unlimited variety 
  • Individual preferences rule 
  • Allow guests to create their own pizza topping combination

Toppings and Sauce suggestionslight brushing of red pesto, basil pesto, tomato sauce or olive oil over unbaked dough

  • Thinly sliced [or diced] garlic cloves–always
  • Red pepper flakes or sliced fresh chili peppers–optional
  • Meat–chicken, prosciutto, pepperoni, sausage
  • Or no meat 
  • Roasted vegetables such as eggplant, broccoli or cauliflower 
  • Raw veggies like sweet peppers, mushrooms, black olives, onions or shallots 
  • Toasted pine nuts
  • Anything else
prepared toppings
parmesan cheese, chicken, garlic slices, shallots, feta cheese and mushrooms

Cheese

  • I like freshly grated Parmesan, only, over top of ingredients. 
  • Husband mixes a little fresh buffalo mozzarella, or goat cheese, or mixed grated cheeses with a topping of Parmesan.

Final Flourish:

  • Fresh arugula or baby spinach strewn over cooked pizza adds a bite of salad and green. Add before serving or let people help themselves table side.
  • Champagne is our pizza beverage of choice. There is some kind of chemistry going on there too. In your home, family choice rules.
Santé, cheers, za nas [За нас]


arugula
champagne sipping for assembling and eating

Final Note:

  • Practice makes perfect. Play with proportions until you are comfortable with the sequence of steps. You won’t need a recipe if you make it regularly.
  • This makes a LOT of dough, which is efficient for later use.
  • It freezes well in zip lock bags and thaws easily. Place in refrigerator overnight or on the countertop until soft.
  • Roll out on lightly floured surface and proceed with toppings.
  • Make friends and family happy! Pizza night!
yeast bubbles begin
the next generation of pizza makers

Home Is Where You Are, Even Overseas

A new experience can be extremely pleasurable, or extremely irritating, or somewhere in between, and you never know until you try it out. Lemony Snicket, The Blank Book

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artist rendition of singapore, 1980s

There are myriad ways to experiment with life. Moving away from the known or familiar is one way to keep things interesting. Finding enriching friendships is another.

In the late 1980’s, a new job opportunity nudged our family geographically away from the comfort zone in middle class America. Our two children were young and adaptable. As the decision-making adults we took a chance–letting go of two jobs, two cars, a house in the ‘burbs of Denver, Colorado. Just for a couple of years. We moved to Southeast Asia.

From the beginning, everything we saw, smelled, ate, drank, or experienced in those first years in Singapore laid the foundation for what followed over the next three decades. We moved to four other countries. Singapore was the catalyst to keep experimenting.

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Singapore when we moved there, 1987
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shopping, late 1980s

My husband remembers pacing the aisles of the airplane as we flew there for the first time, children sleeping peacefully, worrying about what he had wrought on our family. How would we adapt a very American lifestyle to this small, tropical, island-state with three predominant cultures–Chinese, Malay, and Indian?

Actually, it was easier than we imagined. Because of the people we met, the friends we made–living a little off balance and learning to experiment became the new norm. The first important overseas experience happened after I met Jan.

Jan was an operating room nurse–we had that in common–who left her job to follow a husband to work in Germany and then Singapore. We both missed the camaraderie of our co-workers and the hospital environment. Here we were, in a foreign country, unable to work professionally. It was time to find something else to do.

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still a lot of bicycles in 1987, singapore

There was a refugee camp located in a former British barracks on Hawkins Road in the Sembawang area of Singapore. It was established after the fall of Saigon in 1975 for Vietnamese “Boat People”. Because Singapore did not accept refugees, this camp was a transit stop before deportation to countries accepting them. Volunteer nurses were needed. Jan signed us up.

We took long bus rides to the north of the island to work in the clinic. Giving immunizations, tending injuries, dressing wounds, treating minor illnesses in men, women and children who usually spoke no English, but knew how to smile in gratitude. A steady influx of refugees created long lines of those needing help. I jumped feet first into learning the risks that other people take, too.

Friendship with Sandy provided something different. She was also an American nurse who moved to Singapore with a husband and three children several years before we did. It didn’t take long for her to start a business by filling suitcases with wholesale women’s clothing made in Hong Kong and selling them out of her home. Clothing in Singapore in the ‘80s was available only in small Asian sizes and styles. Non-Asian women were an eager and ready market for her niche.

Sandy’s home was a cozy, eclectic mix of styles and textures that I loved. When I asked where she found certain pieces of furniture or funky artifacts, she said, “We should go Kampong shopping.”

The word “Kampong” is from the Malay language, meaning village. Throughout Singapore’s early history, and well into the 20thcentury, kampongs were settlements of houses and small shops where the indigenous population lived. Initially, huts were built with palm-thatched roofs designed to let the air pass through and temper the heat of tropical sun. Later, wood and zinc replaced thatch, which seemed exotic but actually leaked horribly in monsoon rains and housed centipedes and other creepy crawlies that dropped down from overhead.

The kampong communities were close-knit, doors left open, children of Chinese, Malay, Indian, and Eurasian culture played together seamlessly. Rainwater was collected. Cats, dogs and chickens roamed in co-existence. Later, generators that sometimes worked brought electricity.

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map of known singapore kampong locations

Colonial British government began addressing overcrowding and poor hygienic conditions within the kampongs in the early 1900s. Public housing began in earnest after WWII as the Singaporean population rapidly increased.

In 1960 (prior to independence in 1965), the Housing Development Board [HDB] was established to further urban renewal. Mass demolition of shop houses and kampongs began to build affordable, low cost, high-rise, housing estates for all Singaporeans. HDB flats led to the creation of “new towns” throughout the island.

Transition from kampong living to government sanctioned housing flats allowed people to easily enjoy clean water, electricity and gas. However, life changed dramatically in the sense of decreased community spirit, less neighbor interaction, and a population of children who grew up playing on concrete, not in nature.

By the time we moved to Singapore many kampongs had been partially bulldozed or completely razed as residents moved on to modern living. Tropical heat, humidity, and prolific vegetation growth from daily rains rapidly invaded and took over abandoned sites.

Sandy knew locations of deserted kampongs where, if you dared to venture into the overgrowth of tenacious weeds and jungle vines, dodge snakes and crawling things, repel dengue-fever-bearing mosquitoes, you could unearth left behind possessions with potential for renewal and use.

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in the jungle, 1988-’89

It was the Singapore equivalent of an archeological dig, with a recycling component. Here we witnessed the life of a community after the community had moved on.

Kampong shopping was always a dirty, sweaty proposition of hunting, excavation and fun. Rewards were in the discovery. We found crocks used for storing water, oil or food, incense burners, altar tables, tea pots, baskets, dragon pots, glass jars, marble lamp bases, teak tables, a wooden kitchen cabinet with rusted screens. We hauled our “treasures” home and spent hours cleaning or refinishing them. They functioned as decorative or usable artifacts, with a back-story.

Then there was my Singaporean friend, Mary, who lived in the apartment building next to ours.  She was a tiny woman who loved food–as culturally important to her as Chinese matrilineal family hierarchy. Mary would call me on the phone and say, “I’m picking you up to go eat!” The food in Singapore was, and is, phenomenal. This is the country where my taste buds learned to crave anything spicy. Mary was my guide.

We ventured all over to her favorite “Hawker Centres”–informal, open-air food stalls specializing in Chinese, Malaysian, Indonesian, or Indian food. Cooked on order, on site, eaten with chopsticks while sitting on plastic stools at plastic tables on the sidewalk.

I tasted Nonya Laksa [Laksa Lemak] for the first time at Peranakan Place on Orchard Road–a spicy noodle soup in curried coconut broth with prawns and a quail egg. Carrot cake [Chai tow kway] is not cake and not carrots, but a favorite hawker dish of mine. Steamed white radish and rice flour cut into cubes and fried with garlic, eggs, preserved radish and other spices. Whatever Mary ordered I ate, sweated through, and loved.

Singapore was the beginning of making friends who lived as we did, away from the usual, outside the familiar. People who say “yes” to living outside of the box.

I thrived in our international moves because of every friend I made. Sometimes it was hard to leave one place to rebuild relationships in the next. But the easy part was sustaining those friendships because of everything we experienced together.

Creating relationships and life lessons is really what overseas living is about. In such a nomadic lifestyle, the key is making a home where you embrace friends as family. Anywhere in the world.

A REASON, A SEASON OR A LIFETIME

When someone is in your life for a REASON, it is usually to meet a need you have expressed. They have come to assist you through a difficulty, to provide you with guidance and support, to aid you physically, emotionally, or spiritually. They are there for the reason you need them to be. Then, without any wrongdoing on your part, this person will say or do something to bring the relationship to an end. Sometimes, they die. Sometimes, they walk away. What we must realize is that our need has been met, our desire fulfilled; their work is done. The prayer you sent has been answered. Now it is time to move on.

 Then people come into your life for a SEASON, because it is your turn to share, grow, or learn. These people bring you peace or make you laugh. They may teach you something you have never done. They give you an unbelievable amount of joy. It is real, but only for a passing season.

 LIFETIME relationships teach you lifetime lessons, things you must build upon in order to have a solid emotional foundation. Your job is to accept the lesson, love the person, and put what you have learned to use in all other relationships and areas of your life.author unknown

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sandy’s teak kampong table

Leaving Paris and Hemingway

It has been several months between writing stories while we packed up our life after 31 years overseas and repatriated home. Now there are new jobs to learn and new geographies to explore on the east coast of the U.S. And while there are other overseas adventures to share, this is my farewell to eight years in Paris.

If ever a city were designed to distract us from our troubles, it would be Paris.–Thomas Jefferson

If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris…then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast. –Ernest Hemingway

When I read The Old Man and the Sea as a student, I found it dry as dust. Decades later, after devouring A Moveable Feast, Hemingway’s memoir to first wife Hadley set in 1920s Paris, our lives intersected more personally. Because I was living there.

My “earnest” infatuation with all things Hemingway began in 2010. It was more than literary interest. I walked up and down streets of the 5thand 6thArrondissements (neighborhoods) seeking addresses transcribed into my pocket-sized black moleskin notebook. I found the location of every apartment, restaurant, bar, and café where Hemingway was known to have lived, eaten, slept, talked, consumed alcohol, or written. More than 90 years later, in cafés where he nursed a single café crème for hours to keep his table and construct that “one perfect sentence”, I sat and read his books.

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The first apartment where he and Hadley lived until the birth of their son, Jack, is marked with a plaque outside the entry door on rue du Cardinal Lemoine. The studio apartment he used for writing was around the corner from Place de la Contrascarpe on rue Descartes. He carried bundles of sticks up six flights of stairs to burn in the fireplace for winter heat.

Hemingway crossed through the Luxembourg Gardens, often passing by La Fontaine de Médicis, on his way to meet Gertrude Stein at her apartment on rue de Fleurus for conversation and counsel before the unfortunate rupture of their friendship.

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la fontaine de médicis, jardin du luxembourg, paris

He borrowed books and talked with other struggling writers at the Shakespeare and Company bookstore owned by Sylvia Beach on 12, rue de l’Odeon. Sylvia lent him money, when he was hungry, along with the books. Today, the original Shakespeare is a clothing boutique.

After WWII, Shakespeare and Co. re-opened across the river from Notre Dame. The owner, George Whitman, eventually passed it on to his daughter, Sylvia, named after Sylvia Beach. Under Sylvia Whitman, Shakespeare now encompasses two storefronts plus a café.

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notre dame paris
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shakespeare and company, 37 rue de la bûcherie, 75005 paris
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george whitman passes the torch to daughter sylvia in 2004

When Hemingway began an affair with Hadley’s girlfriend, Pauline Pfeiffer, the marriage sadly ended. After marrying Pauline, they lived on rue Férou near Saint Sulpice church. In this apartment he wrote A Farewell to Arms.

I read stories of the bar at the Ritz Hotel where Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and others convened for hours on end. Since Hemingway was a regular there for 30 years, and the bar was eventually named after him, it was on my list to know.

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Actual discovery did not begin until our last year in Paris due to an extensive four-year renovation of the entire Ritz infrastructure. Toward the end, a roof fire created even more delays before the reopening.

Bar Hemingway, a very small space in the Ritz footprint, has it’s own unique history. In the early 1920s, it began as a ladies bar or “steam room”, followed by a poets’ bar, and then a writers’ bar called Bertin’s. Bertin was a friend of Hemingway’s who gave him gambling tips. And more than a few free drinks. Ernest was a man who often counted on the generosity of others.

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In 1979, Mohamed Al-Fayed (owner of Harrods, London) bought the Paris Ritz. That same year, Hemingway’s family officially named the “Hemingway Bar”. Three years later it closed for the next twelve years, 1982-1994. Two years after reopening, in 1996, the name was copyrighted as “Bar Hemingway Ritz Paris.”

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the first menu of the newly reopened bar in 2016

Located on the very backside of the hotel, it is most easily accessed from a small side street. But I like to enter via Place Vendôme, through the front door of the Ritz, where there are uniformed doormen. Walking down expansive high ceilinged hallways past splendidly decorated rooms where tea or drinks or food is served, I peek into display windows of the high-end shopping gallery. Turn another two corners, go down several steps and walk in the door of a cozy, wood-paneled room.

Minimal changes were made here during the renovation. Woodwork was stripped and refinished and new lamps were added over the bar. The Hemingway paraphernalia is all there–books, magazine portraits, photographs with wives, friends, and dead animals, a black Corona typewriter like the one he used, a long barreled hunting rifle behind the copper bar, fishing rods, a boat propeller, and a bronze bust of his head.

Sometimes I would go with a girlfriend or two when it opened at 6 PM, other times with my husband on a weekend. But if I wanted to ask questions and learn more, I went by myself–sliding onto a barstool to talk with head barman, Colin Field.

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colin behind the bar
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white bordeaux and a seat at the bar

What is it that draws crowds of people every day to this little piece of real estate tucked into the backend of a high-class hotel? Is it romanticized lore of Hemingway’s life in Paris–from marriages to Hadley and Pauline in the 1920s, to working as a WWII correspondent in the ‘40s, a short-lived third marriage, spiced with competitive friendships and raucous fights with other painters and writers of the time? Or is it because of the drinks, many of which are original and creative but, at the same time, over-the-top expensive?

I believe Bar Hemingway’s current popularity continues to be about ambience and lore and cocktails, with the added garnish of Colin Field’s 24 year history there. His amiable personality, professional bartending and management skills, and vast anecdotal knowledge of famous past patrons have kept it high on the list of iconic places to visit.

In 1994, Colin was hired to reopen the Hemingway Bar [before the name change and after the twelve-year closure]. In the beginning, as the sole employee, he did everything single-handedly. But, he added a twist–keeping the bar open until 4:00AM when all others closed at 2:00. During times when it was too busy to manage alone, he recruited regulars to help–answering the phone, greeting and seating customers, taking orders. In exchange, their drinks were free.

Opening night, August 25, 1994, happened to be the 50thAnniversary of the liberation of Paris in WWII. Jack Hemingway [son by Hadley, father of Margaux and Mariel] was invited and came for the party. It turned into a bash. People dressed in GI and MP costumes. A full line-up of army Jeeps was staged along the street outside. Chaos reigned inside. Hemingway would have loved it.

These days, there are five or six employees who serve a regular flow of clientele seven days a week from 6:00PM until 2:00AM. Colin continues to hold court behind the bar, chatting up customers and blending new drinks.

Shortly before our departure from Paris, I met friends at Bar Hemingway on a clear summer evening. They invited me for a final good-bye drink.

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kandice and sally
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“new age caipirinha”, a lime smoothie plus

Conversation flowed as we reminisced about shared experiences and future plans. We mused about hiking together in Portugal and Spain on the Santiago de Compostela trail a couple years before. And then, it was time to part ways. Walking back through the corridors of the Ritz, we stopped outside to say good-bye on Place Vendôme.

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napoleon atop column vendôme, paris
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There is never any ending to Paris and the memory of each person differs from that of any other. We always returned to it no matter who we were or how it was changed or with what difficulties or what ease could be reached. It was always worth it and we received a return for whatever we brought to it. –E. Hemingway

Like Hemingway, Paris doesn’t end for me because I no longer live there. When I return, it will be with the happiness of years of wide-eyed discoveries, friendships for life, and the realization that…I will always be coming home.

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through the bedroom window

Garlic and Girlfriends

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

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

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creative advertising, estes park market

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

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

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

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

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a sampling of TGIF friends, Taiwan, late 1990s

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Farmer’s market, Estes Park, CO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ROASTED HEADS OF GARLIC

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

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

GARLIC ARTICHOKE DIP

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

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

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ingredients for artichoke dip
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serve with a side of friendship

SPAGHETTI JOSEPHINE from Gilroy Garlic Cookbook

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

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

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

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.

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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.
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Sex in a Pan

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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  • 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.

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

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

Bags of Laughter

When laughter helps without doing harm, when laughter lightens, realigns, reorders, reasserts power and strength, this is laughter that causes health. When laughter makes people glad they are alive, happy to be here, more conscious of love…lifts sadness and severs anger…when they are made bigger, made better, more generous, more sensitive, that is sacred [laughter]. –Clarissa Pinkola Estés

Sometimes I laugh so hard the tears run down my legs. Unknown author

It is bad to suppress laughter. It goes back down to your hips. Unknown author

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Laughter is part of the universal human language. Everyone speaks laughter. Laughter exercises the diaphragm, the abdominal, respiratory, facial, leg and back muscles. It’s a workout!

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Laughter is yogic. Nothing works faster to bring the body and mind back in balance than a good laugh.

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Laughter is cathartic. When the good feeling from a big laugh remains, it lifts your mood for hours.

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Recently, some tear inducing out loud laughter took over my day. Bursts of laughter broke free for hours. It made me feel great.

The source was a story written by Alec, a friend with a gift for spinning a comedic phrase.  This time it was a personal to my experience of having lived in Germany and then making a specific request to my friend.

Alec knows there are things I miss from Germany, so he always offers to bring “a list” when he and his wife drive to Paris to visit. This time I tacked on “one more thing” to the list, but felt it needed more description:

…Oh, there is one more thing you could bring. It’s very lightweight and packable, but you have to go to the Oberursel Altstadt to find it. On the main street is the One Euro Store. Not everything there is one euro, but it’s a cheap junk store you should know about anyway.

Inside, they have these little cloth shopping bags that come wrapped in a cloth carrying case. The nameReisenthel is on the side label. They cost more than one euro, about 4.95 each. They are brilliant. I use them daily or give them away to family and friends, doing my “green best.

I only like solid benign colors. Black, blue, green, brown. No patterns or foofy florals.  6-10 bags if you find them…

I received the following email from him the day before their arrival. It was titled:

On A Mission for Wendy

I loitered outside the dollar store in the winter cold, waiting until the store emptied before I approached the owner.

Uncertain of his level of English, I said with some hesitation, “Guten Tag. I am shopping for a woman-friend who lived here six years ago. She asked me to pick up some packable lightweight shopping bags she used to buy in your store.”

He remained silent so I continued, “They’re made by Reisenthel. She gives them away to be environmentally friendly. Do you still carry them?”

He stared at me and I wasn’t sure if he was mentally translating what I said from English to German or was wondering if I was crazy enough to think a dollar store carried the same merchandise over such a long period of time.

He gestured to a box that had packable shopping bags in a floral pattern. Apologetically I said, “Um, she doesn’t really want a floral pattern.”

Again, the stare as he said, “She wants to be environmentally friendly but doesn’t like flowers?”

He had a point, but I stood my ground. “I think she wants to be fashionably friendly to the environment.”

This time his stare lasted even longer. He scratched his head. I couldn’t tell if he was thinking about whether he had other bags in the store or if he was beginning to understand why a person like Donald Trump could be elected if Americans were all like me.

He opened a cabinet and handed me a slightly larger shopping bag-inside-a-bag, this time in basic black. The tag indicated it was manufactured by “Schneider”.

Now it was my turn to hesitate. Finally I got up the nerve to say, “Um, this is a Schneider bag, but my friend really wants a Reisenthel bag.”

I felt completely stupid. I said “Reisenthel” like it was some kind of designer brand from Bloomingdales or Saks, but the shelves lined with cheap bric-a-brac reminded me I was far from Fifth Avenue.

By the look on his face, I feared he was going to hit me with one of the dozens of snow globes within easy reach. Instead he just blinked. It was one of those blinks where the eyelids remain closed long enough that I could have slipped out of the store. Maybe he was offering me an out, but I stayed. I was on a mission for Wendy.

Finally, he opened his eyes and said, in an accent heavier with each exchange, “And what, may I ask, is so special about a Reisenthel bag?”

Luckily for me I came prepared with an email from my friend. I pulled it out of my pocket and quickly read aloud what she wrote. “Um, well, she says here that, ‘They are brilliant.’

He squinted at me, considering my words. Then he repeated very slowly, as if offering me a chance to take one of the small green pills prescribed by my psychiatrist, “These bags. They are brilliant?”

Rather than hold his stare, I looked back at my friend’s email and blurted out the first words that caught my eyes. “She says here they should be benign”. Then, realizing how incredibly stupid that sounded, I tried to make a joke with a forced chuckle, “But I assume all of your bags are benign, right?”

For the first time he looked at me with something other than pity or spite and said with clear relief, “So you want nine bags?”

I looked down at my shoes. It took only a moment to realize my joke had been misunderstood. I looked up and then again at my friend’s email with the very explicit directions of what she wanted.

Drawing upon an inner strength, built from more than 20 years of living overseas, battle-tested by language and cultural barriers from Asia to Europe. I looked him straight in the eye, and said…

“No. I’ll take ten…Danke.”

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It doesn’t happen nearly often enough–this kind of mirthful laughter that tickles to my core and ripples throughout the day. I laughed until I cried. Then I laughed all over again–thanks to my friend.

…and a great family laugh too…

Other Alec antics told here: Taiwan Green-Marble Pesto

Simply Sally

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I have a problem trying to figure out what to cook for dinner. It’s silly because if you hand me a restaurant menu I know right away what will feed my hunger. My husband always asks what I am ordering before he makes up his own mind. He knows he will want it too. Especially after he orders something else and then sees the better choice in front of me.

Cooking at home is a repetitive daily hang-up. Over the years I have relied on friends whose culinary skills seem effortless, nurturing, even joyful. This kind of decision-making must be inborn. It bypassed my genetic makeup. Despite 39 years of marriage and two children, daily cooking is my predicament.

During our years overseas, friends taught me to prepare simple, delicious one-dish meals to nourish a growing, hungry family. Some of those meals became staples that over time no longer required following a recipe. Mujuddarah, People Who Pull the Magic Out of You Rancher’s Pasta, Lebanese egg-potato salad, veggie fried rice, Spaghetti Josephine Garlic and Girlfriends to name a few.

By the time we moved to France, children had grown and there were only two of us. It was also when I met my friend Sally.

Sally is an artist and teacher who moved to Bolivia for two years in the late 1980s. She became involved in running a house to support children living on the streets. A young boy in the program captured her heart and she adopted him. In 1990, they returned to the U.S. where she resumed her teaching job in the Arizona public schools.

Sally is a born nurturer who also happens to love cooking. Every day. She always has a plan.

Her picnics, in our Parisian neighborhood park, were memorable. Over colorful Bolivian blankets spread on lush grass, she arranged platters of sliced poached chicken, fragrant with spices, raisins, and sautéed onions, thyme and rosemary roasted potatoes, Mediterranean quinoa salad, cheeses and fruits, and chocolaty brownies. Flutes of champagne or a glass of wine served as accompaniment. Flowers stood in a vase. Sally made it look effortless. On many summer evenings, she and her husband charmed a revolving door of houseguests over the two years they lived here.

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One day, undecided about a cooking idea, I asked Sally what she was making for dinner. She said, “Galette.” What? I knew galette in the form of a cake [Galette de Roi] served in the early days of the New Year in France. It has a plastic toy king baked inside that is a good luck charm for the finder.

“No, no, no”, Sally said, “This is different. Galette can be savory as well.”

Traditionally, galette is a covered crust over cooked ingredients–savory [meat or veggies] or sweet [fruit]. She began to describe the process but I cut her off. “I’ll never remember, just show me.” We agreed to meet the following week in my kitchen-with-a-view for an afternoon of cooking.

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best kitchen view

That evening, on the day we met, I was to attend a potluck dinner party in the courtyard of our apartment building. All the other residents are French. At the time I didn’t know them well and felt intimidated by what to bring.

Back in the kitchen, there was a bottle of Burgundy in the counter wine rack. We opened it and got busy. From start to finish, preparing a galette couldn’t have been easier. A little glass of wine is a great buffer. –Sally Boyle

Sally brought cooked chicken breasts and potatoes, roasted red peppers, spinach, zucchini, olives, onion, and soft goat cheese. While I shredded the chicken, she sautéed chopped onion and sliced zucchini rounds in a pan with olive oil until tender. Frozen pastry circles thawed quickly at room temperature on a baking sheet.

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It was simple assembly after that–one meat galette and the other, vegetarian.

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fold crust over for half-moon galette

For the meaty one, we layered chicken, potatoes, and vegetables [zucchini, onion, red pepper and olives] over the pastry, seasoning well with salt and pepper. [Add red pepper flakes if you like more heat. Yes I do!] For vegetarian, we used a combination of cooked spinach, goat cheese, zucchini, red peppers, olives and onions.

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ready to bake
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the lovely result

Cover with the top pastry or fold over in half and seal the edges. [I have also made a one-crust version, which is even lighter.] Make holes in crust to let out steam. Bake 20 minutes at 210 Centigrade or 400 Fahrenheit. Voila–an instant main course worthy of a king, Serve warm or cooled to room temperature. Add green salad and glass of wine, as desired.

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one crust, open faced
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one-dish meal with salad and wine

Later that evening at the party, I discreetly placed my contribution on the table with other food offerings. Then moved away to meet and greet neighbors. As people began to eat, I overheard several women murmuring about something delicious on their plates. It was the galette! They wanted to know how to make it and what was inside.

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my dinner party galette

Surprised to receive notice in a foodie crowd, I said, “Oh, it was very simple…”

Simple, that is, if you have a friend like Sally.

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Transcendent Picnics

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trail to buffalo meadows, taipei, taiwan

M.F.K. Fisher [1908-1992] wrote that the best outdoor eating is on the side of a hill in the early evening. Her story of an unforgettable picnic took place in Switzerland in the 1930s. Sixty years later, in the 1990s, on a grassy meadow in Taiwan, we had a similar family experience. Continents and decades apart, the stories are interwoven because both Fisher’s memory and mine are reflections about more than the menu.

Fisher’s story went like this. She and her husband were building a small house above Lake Geneva, Switzerland, on a steep hillside surrounded by vineyards. Her parents came from California to visit. Late afternoon sun in June promised just enough warmth for an outside meal. The four of them carried baskets to the construction site, after workers had left for the day.

A table under the apple tree was covered with a checkered cloth and set with silver, ceramic plates and cloth napkins. Bottles of wine were placed in an ancient spring-fed fountain to chill. A fire was built, ringed with stones and roofing tiles, fueled with wood shavings.

The first spring peas were ready to harvest. As the men picked from the terraced garden uphill, Mary Frances ran baskets downhill to her mother who quickly shelled them into a pot. An iron casserole was set over the open fire where the peas “cooked for perhaps four or five minutes, swirling them in butter and their own steam”. Salt and pepper at the end, then table side.

On each plate lay a small roasted pullet. There was salad of delicate mountain lettuces, a basket of good bread, and fountain-chilled white wine generously poured. And those tender young peas–freshly steamed and seasoned! They shared the harvested feast and each other’s company as the surrounding hills turned rosy and the sun began to sink. Suddenly, in a neighboring field, “…a cow moved her head among the meadow flowers and shook her bell in a slow, melodious rhythm, a kind of hymn.” Fisher never forgot it.

There is more than the communion of bodies when bread is broken and wine drunk. –m.f.k. fisher

In the spring of our first year in Taiwan, we went on a picnic where the alignment of people, place, and food replicated Fisher’s kind of perfection. More importantly, our young daughter began to understand the communal spirit created when food is shared in good company.

Yangmingshan is the national park north of Taipei. It was typically crowded on weekends with cooped up city people seeking fresh air, hiking trails, flowers and greenery. Friends Maddy and Cabby knew of an area in the park where water buffalo grazed freely and people were few. They organized a picnic in Buffalo Meadows on a late afternoon. We were four adults and three young children.

From the parking area we hiked uphill in a cloud so dense it moistened our hair and skin with droplets of water. At the top of the trail the landscape turned sunny and green with views all around. The soft grass was picnic perfect. Out of a backpack came a Frisbee and the men organized play on the hillside. Lara and Liza tired of running after a frisbee they couldn’t catch. They tried to follow a slow moving water buffalo. He wandered on.

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girls thinking about things

Our nine-year-old daughter came over and sat down to watch the food preparation. There was a small camp stove along with a battered and blackened Japanese wok in which to put together the meal. Ingredients had been sliced, steamed, grated and pre-cooked at home. Once the stove was leveled, primed, and producing enough heat, assembly began. 

Olive oil was generously poured into the wok and heated. Thinly sliced cloves of fresh garlic were added to the hot oil. Shaking the pan continuously, the slices began to brown around the edges. Bite sized broccoli flowerets were stirred in with freshly ground pepper. Pre-cooked penne pasta was added along with butter. Everything was tumbled together with a large wooden spoon until thoroughly heated. Finally, freshly grated Parmesan cheese was layered on top and melted into everything. Lightly browned garlic slices gave toasted sweetness to the broccoli and pasta. A one-dish meal. Perfect.

Plates were passed. We sat side by side on blankets eating, laughing and talking. As the sun lowered over the far hills, the temperature cooled and we reached for jackets. Thimble sized portions of single malt whisky were passed among the adults. A breeze stirred and we leaned in closer, wrapping arms around children. Four-year-old Liza was zipped into the front of her father’s grey sweatshirt where she fell asleep curled into his chest, only the top of her blonde head showing. We talked quietly as darkness descended. The mist returned. It was time to go home.

Days later, our daughter asked if I could make that broccoli pasta. She had a faraway look in her eyes while she spoke of the picnic in Buffalo Meadows and how wonderful it had been. Looking at her face and listening to her speak I knew she had made a connection about more than the food. She was asking to go back to a feeling created on a tranquil hillside with close-knit family and friends. I never forgot her request. She had connected the dots that Fisher writes about so well–the communion of spirits when food and love are shared, around a table or on a hillside, with people who are important to us.

Perhaps this explains why a picnic, so many years ago, is vivid in my memory. Although I love reflecting on Fisher’s story of peas, a Swiss hillside, and a cowbell, my own recollection is this–a beat-up Japanese wok filled with pasta, a misty meadow, adults and children with arms around one another, and a water buffalo. I can’t let it go.

BROCCOLI GARLIC PENNE [from Silver Palate Cookbook]

basic ingredients except for parmesan
  • 1 lb. [500 gm] penne pasta, cooked al dente
  • 2 heads broccoli, cleaned and cut into small flowerets
  • ½ C. extra virgin olive oil
  • 10 [or more] cloves garlic, thinly sliced crosswise
  • Freshly ground pepper
  • 4 T. [1/2 stick] good butter
  • Freshly grated fresh Parmesan cheese

Assembly:

  • Boil penne, drain, rinse under cold water.
  • Simmer broccoli in boiling water 1-2 minutes, drain, rinse in cold water.
  • Heat oil ~ 1 min. Add garlic slices and cook, shaking pan until it begins to brown ~1 min.
  • Add broccoli, stir, grind pepper on top.
  • Add butter and penne, stirring continuously until well mixed and heated through.
  • Sprinkle with freshly grated Parmesan cheese.
  • Serve immediately.
  • Pass the pepper mill.
  • Add garnish and extra Parmesan.

For variety, add shredded or cubed cooked chicken, sliced black olives, or leftover veggies. Red or yellow bell peppers make a colorful addition. [Steam or stir fry before adding.] Red pepper flakes for added spice. Cherry tomatoes, cut in half, as garnish before serving.

Mussel Memory, Revisited

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Hotel de Ville on the Grand Place, Brussels, Belgium

Brussels is an important city for several reasons. Politically, it is the capital of Belgium and the European Union. Historically, it’s importance as a fortress town began in the 10th century. Architecturally, the Grand Place central square is designated a World Heritage Site of striking 17th century design and construction.

For me, the importance of Brussels is tied to memories of food I ate there while visiting a friend years ago. Now that we lived next door to Belgium, in France, it was time to revisit. We took a road trip from Paris.

In 2002, when I was living in Taiwan, my friend Nancy invited me to Brussels. She had moved there from Taipei several years before. The guest room was on the top floor of their multi-level row house. The ceiling angled sharply from the peaked roof. An over-sized skylight opened to fresh air and rooftop views. Wooden floorboards were painted white. On the bed was a puffy duvet of green and white gingham. The adjoining bathroom housed a big, white bathtub and thick towels warmed on a radiator.

I called it the Heidi-hayloft-room because it reminded me of the children’s book about the little Swiss girl who slept in a hayloft. I had flown from Asia into a fairytale.

A four-year-old boy who believed he was Batman lived in the household. It was impossible to separate costume and character from the child. So his parents lived with a masked, black-caped superhero. At pre-school, Brady acquired a perfect French accent. And, like everyone else in Brussels, he loved pommes frites.

Frites are a national snack food in Belgium. Locals and tourists eat them like popcorn at the movies. Storefronts sell paper cones filled with them. A range of sauces is offered to go on top. Each order is freshly made and just right–crispy on the outside, feathery on the inside. I believe Belgians perfected frites because they know that eating them outside on a freezing day warms you on the inside. We shared a cornet on bitingly cold February days. And stayed warm to our bones.

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side by side friteries
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sauce choices
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cornet with a dollop of spicy samourai sauce

While Nancy and I walked around the Grand Place during my visit, she said, “You must eat this. Right now.” I was handed a waffle wrapped in crisp paper from a street vendor’s cart. On the outside it looked like any waffle, except it was thicker through the middle and more irregular around the edge.

Then I bit into a surprise. Partially melted, caramelized sugar crystals crunched and then dissolved into syrup. My mouth filled with warm sweetness. Time, place, and taste blended into one moment. A winter morning on a cobblestoned square with gothic spires and a hot waffle. I never forgot it.

My food-writing mentor, M.F.K. Fisher, had a similar experience. As a young woman living in France, in the 1920s, she hiked with an Alpine club. Most of the members were much older. She was the only foreigner. On a very cold day, while catching her breath at the top of a steep hill, an old general said, “Here! Try some of this young lady!” He gave her a pale brown piece of chocolate.

In my mouth the chocolate broke at first like gravel into many separate, disagreeable bits. I began to wonder if I could swallow them. Then they grew soft and melted voluptuously into a warm stream down my throat.” m.f.k. fisher

Another hiker said, “Wait, wait! Never eat chocolate without bread, young lady!”

And in two minutes my mouth was full of fresh bread and melting chocolate, and as we sat gingerly, the three of us, on the frozen hill, looking down into the valley…we peered shyly and silently at each other and smiled and chewed at one of the most satisfying things I have ever eaten…m.f.k. fisher

MFK’s hillside bread and chocolate. My perfect waffle. Fisher calls them “peaks of gastronomic emotion”. Still, moments like these are personal and hard to describe.

In 2015, waffle vendors were no longer allowed in the Grand Place. Off the square, many shops sold waffles loaded with extras. It wasn’t what I wanted.

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waffles plus
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waffles loaded

On a side street, I spotted a parked truck painted with “Gaufres Chaudes”. A man was making waffles in his van. What he handed me was smaller and not as dense as I remembered. On the inside there was a thin layer of molten sweetness but no crunch of sugar crystals turning into syrup. The taste was fine. I was hungry. It was cold. But it wasn’t the same.

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The best food revisit turned out to be mussels. “Moules-frites” because they always come with fries. Nancy had introduced me to Aux Armes de Bruxelles. My husband and I found the restaurant and ate there three times over three days. There was no reason to go elsewhere. It’s that special. Belgians get their mussel fix there too.

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the best modules-frites in brussels

September to April is the season for jumbo mussels from Zeeland, a southwestern province in the Netherlands. It is the only region from where to obtain this particular type of mussel. So our server said. Other mussels, and those eaten throughout the year, are not the same. Smaller. Different. Not as tasty.

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They were served in a big bowl, frites on the side, and always bread to sop up the sauce and veggies at the bottom. It was trial and error to choose a favorite sauce. My husband found his on the first try–white wine and cream sauce [au vin blanc et crème]. I asked for a made-up combination that became my favorite–white wine, lots of garlic and red pepper [au vin blanc, beaucoup d’ail, et piment]. It’s not on the menu but the kitchen obliged.

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The broth is full of chopped onion, celery, fresh parsley, and once, tiny asparagus tips. It is an intoxicating combination–a bowl of jumbo Zeeland mussels, steamed heat and aroma from the sauce wafting up, crisp fries on the side. We smiled and sipped wine between morsels of mussel and bites of frites.

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two ways to eat: using shell as utensil
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or fork

The best accompanying beverage required more trial and error. Belgian beer was good for the beer drinker. A glass of Bordeaux was good for the red wine lover. But the unanimous favorite was sharing a bottle of Chablis from Burgundy. Begin sipping while you wait for the moules-frites to arrive.

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Mussel memory in Brussels will always be one of my food highlights. Sharing the adventure with a loved one means we both understand what a “Fisher moment” of gastronomic perfection smells, tastes, and feels like.

“...Everything is right. Nothing jars. There is a kind of harmony, with every sensation and emotion melted into one chord of well-being.” –mfk fisher

Fisher describes it better than anyone. Mussels in Brussels. C’était très bon.

  • Aux Armes de Bruxelles
  • Rue des bouchers 13
  • 1000 Brussels
  • Tel: +32 [0] 2 511 55 50
  • Open 7/7 from noon to 10:45PM, Monday to Friday
  • Until 11:15PM Saturday and 10:30PM Sunday
  • http://www.auxarmesdebruxelles.com

Kindle Some Candlelight

I’m enamored by flames. Growing up in a family with fire-making rituals, I come by this naturally. Wherever we lived, when the outside temperature dropped, it was time to lay wood in the fireplace and watch it burn. Now I live in a Parisian apartment with seven fireplaces. All of them sealed shut. In the dark winter months there is only one alternative. Between four and five in the afternoon, as the sun is setting, I begin lighting candles.

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Recently, I became aware this is not a tradition others follow as consistently as I do. Earlier this month, on a dark December afternoon, my friend Lesli invited a group of women for “wine and unwind” time. This is a time of bringing friends into your home, opening a bottle of something and letting conversation flow.

Lesli’s apartment happens to be furnished with a spectacular crystal chandelier from another century. Studying it admiringly, I noticed it was not electrified. It was outfitted with candles. They had never been lit since Lesli moved in three years before. She needed little encouragement from me. With partially burned candles already in place, I climbed on a chair and broke off the blackened wicks before re-lighting them. In full glow, this antique beauty became a Versailles-worthy show stopper. Although no “ugly duckling” before, it was now a stunning swan.

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candlelight transformation

She also had six or eight candles in heavy glass jars from the oldest candle making store in Paris, Cire Trudon. This is the most prestigious French wax manufacturer in existence since 1643. The wicks were deeply buried in hardened wax. It took some digging and trimming, but those, too, were put into burning use. Soon the living room was ambient with candle glow, “coupes de champagne” in everyone’s hand, and easy banter among friends.

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trimmed and untrimmed wick lengths

Everyone knows candlelight warms up any room. But for many people they are messy and off putting to use except on special occasions. If you are an infrequent candle lighter, a bit of know-how etiquette is what you need. For anyone inclined to light up the night with candles, here is a basic tutorial as requested by a few friends in France.

  • Always trim the wick before relighting a candle. It will break off in your fingers at the perfect starting point. Otherwise, smoke from a too-long wick blackens walls, ceilings and pollutes the room.
  • Prevent excessive dripping messes by keeping lit candles out of drafts. This seems obvious, but it’s really important to be aware of air currents where candles are burning. For safety reasons.
  • If you light a lot of candles, it’s good to use a candlesnuffer for extinguishing rather than blowing them out. This reduces smoke pollution and spraying wax on walls and surfaces.
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candlesnuffer
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held over wick 5-8 seconds
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voilà! no smoking candle or sprayed wax

Whether you engage in regular candle usage or not, there is other interesting etiquette to know.

  • Never display new candles [taper or column] with white, unburnt wicks. If you leave wicks un-blackened, they look like a store display rather than decorative home use. New candle wicks should be burned briefly and extinguished unless using the candle right away. [Votive candles are an exception.]
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votive monks
  • Don’t burn candles during daylight. Candles are for darkness only, morning or evening. Breakfast before sun-up with candlelight is a mellow way to start the day. Evening is natural timing. A candle lit bath can be a regular luxury.

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    breakfast candles with ceramic match holder
  • When a drippy mess occurs, as it will, consider it part of the experience. A plastic spatula easily scrapes wax from hard surfaces. Hot water does the rest, melting it away.
  • As column-shaped candles burn down, empty the wax pool [while it is still liquid] right after extinguishing. As it burns deeper into the column, occasionally trim off the top flush with the wick, using a cutting board and a large knife. This prolongs a natural burning life until it becomes a stump ready to discard.
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    wrought iron candelabra, paris
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    best of electricity and candlepower, colorado

    I can’t explain how fire and candle lore became second nature to me. But, I believe our “indoor lives” are  enhanced by strategic candlelight. It’s a personal, creative choice for the selection of candle holders, shapes, and colors. Almost any non-flammable container will hold some type of candle. Oil lamp candlelight is a no fuss no muss option.

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    mix regular and oil burning candlelight
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    coffee table candles
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    shadow play

    Light a candle or two at home tonight. Enjoy a few flickering flames with family or friends. After all, ‘tis the season.

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    santa says ho ho ho & hippobirdday dar

    Premier candles: www.ciretrudon.com

    Cire Trudon USA, Inc. 358 Fifth Ave., Suite 901 NY, NY 10001

    In France: 78, rue de Seine 75006 Paris

    Taiwan Green-Marble Pesto

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    basil pesto ingredients

    Our family lived in Taipei, Taiwan for twelve years, from 1993-2005. If you look for symbolism in numbers, like I do, it was a complete 12-year cycle of the Chinese Zodiac calendar. Twelve Chinese New Years celebrated traditionally with red envelopes and NT [New Taiwan] dollars, deafening strings of firecrackers, and an annual assortment of snacks from the market on Dihua Jie.

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    lara and friends, dihua jie, early 2000s
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    dihua jie market, every chinese new year

    In our Tien Mu neighborhood, we ate in local restaurants that served delicious and always freshly made Chinese food.  You signed off on ambience while dining out for taste. Formica tables, plastic stools, plates and bowls, disposable chopsticks with splintery ends, napkins like toilet paper, and strong fluorescent lighting–all standard dining décor. It was a good way to get the eating chore done, which we did often in favorite haunts. It was far from cozy.

    Desire bred creativity so we found another way of eating with excellent menus in ambient surroundings. Familiar friends around a candlelit table set with china or pottery plates, gleaming silverware and tall stemmed wine glasses became an almost-every-weekend event. It was regular “dining-out” that happened to be in each other’s homes.

    Sourcing ingredients was an adventure in foraging. There was one grocery store with more than two aisles, which we fondly referred to as “Two L Wellcome”, as that was the spelling. Otherwise, there were tiny mom-and-pop shops where the nuances of supply, demand, and restocking necessitated flexible planning.

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    tien mu grocer, of the mom and pop variety

    There were several men among our group of friends who enjoyed preparing party meals. One of them was Alec. He inspired my husband to start cooking. Our own dinner parties became more elaborate over the years. Fortunately, Mark adopted Alec’s kitchen-to-table results rather than his in-kitchen “bull in a china shop” methodology.

    It’s a fact that Alec operates on a high metabolism. He prowls the kitchen after midnight to down a bowl [or two] of cereal for hunger and insomnia in the wee hours. He bikes up mountains and through forests, he jogs, he talks quickly, and moves fast always. He makes us laugh when he pours coffee into his shirt pocket instead of his mouth or re-arranges pictures by knocking them off the wall. Luckily for his wife, he is the designated chef for their family by mutual choice. He nurtures both family and friends with home-cooked recipes.

    Alec not only cooks and bakes, but makes jams and condiments, too. For several years, he brewed fruity varieties of brandied liqueur and tried to persuade us to love them. There were annual gifts of syrupy sweet alcohol and floating fruit. Our appreciation never ripened. We finally had to tell him we didn’t know what to do with the growing collection of unopened bottles.

    Sometimes Alec and Mark teamed up for a special celebratory dinner in our home. We had a good-sized kitchen, but I learned to stay out of it during prep time. Unpleasant noises mixed with exclamations of “Oh no!” were normal. Things shattered on the floor and crunched underfoot when Alec was sous chef. Our kitchen table accumulated a series of distressing gouges and missing wedges of wood. By the time we left Taiwan, it was designated firewood. Guests were blissfully unaware of what went on behind the scenes and completely charmed by a three-course meal.

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    alec and mark, late 1990s

    When Alec is wrestling with ingredients in any kitchen, mishaps happen. The first dinner party in their Taipei apartment foreshadowed the future doom of our table. We just didn’t know it at the time.

    Six or eight of us were chatting amiably around the dining table while Alec’s final preparations were underway behind the kitchen door. A loud metallic crash was followed by a muffled wail. Conversation stopped. We peeked into the kitchen. Splayed like a fan on the green marble floor was an enormous spilled kettle of spaghetti and basil pesto. It was a vivid image of green and white on green and white, with a touch of barely suppressed laughter. Using the well-known 10-second rule, there was hurried scooping, wiping and reheating. Flustered nervous systems settled. Tableside, we murmured gratefully over the best pesto pasta that ever shined a Hualien-marble floor.

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    Hualien marble floor, made in Taiwan

    My favorite recipe of Alec’s, and the most memorable, is this homemade pesto. Served immediately over hot pasta, it is a garlicky, basil-y, olive oily sensation. Each time we were invited to dinner I secretly hoped it was on the menu.

    There are several advantages to making your own pesto. It’s easy and versatile and can be frozen if made in big batches. Aside from pasta, it can be stuffed into chicken breasts, spread on sandwiches, used as a dip, or an alternative base sauce for homemade pizza.

    It’s up to the cook whether to use it to polish the kitchen floor.

    ALEC’S GREEN-MARBLE PESTO

    • 2 C. tightly packed fresh basil leaves
    • 6 large cloves garlic
    • ¾ C. extra virgin olive oil
    • 1 C. freshly grated parmesan cheese
    • ½ C. pine nuts or walnuts [or both]
    • ¼ to ½ tsp. salt and pepper [start light and adjust upward]
    • red pepper flakes [optional] for those who need some heat
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    toast pine nuts in un-oiled pan

    Blend ingredients in food processor until smooth. Taste and adjust S&P.  Dilute with a bit of hot water to mix easily with prepared pasta. Delicious on it’s own or add cooked chicken, sun dried tomatoes, artichoke hearts, black olives, or cherry tomatoes.

    Recipe is sufficient for up to two pounds [1000 gm] of pasta. Adjust pesto amount to your taste. I tend to go on the lighter side when adding other ingredients. Store any extra in airtight container with a thin film of oil.

    I have also made pesto à la Alice Waters [Chez Panisse] using only a mortar and pestle. This is a labor of love, and meditation, with a uniquely wonderful result. For pesto purists. Or those without food processors.

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    the usual raw ingredients
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    prepared for food processor or mortar and pestle: oil, garlic, pine nuts, basil, parmesan
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    out of food processor—the color of green marble
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    dilute with hot water before adding pasta
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    stir into pasta and reheat slightly
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    garnish with chopped tomatoes and parmesan
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    glass of champagne always right
    Eternal+Spring+Shrine
    taroko gorge, taiwan, source of hualien marble

    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