Monday, January 26, 2015

Scales


On a Small Scale.

 It’s time for our first jam session! he cried, clapping his hands together. I had never made a jar of confiture in my life yet he had such faith in me and my skills. He had been making jars and jars of the stuff, more than anyone would ever be able to count, in the dozen years he had owned and run the hotel, creating and building a reputation on those jams, upwards of sixty different flavors over the course of a year. On a scale of one to ten? His jams were a definite twelve.

 As I followed him up the stairs, climbing one step at a time, slowly, nervously, it was as if I was scaling a mountain, the summit of which was beyond my visual field, up in the clouds. Dizzying. I slipped into the apartment, the kitchen piled with cartons ready for their move, the kitchen a smoky color of yellow, a brown the color of dead leaves. He pulled me towards a big, old white plastic bucket filled with misshapen clumps of fruit salad, saved and frozen from the dining room. Not only does it not go to waste, he explained, but it makes a delicious jam, flavored with a bit of finely chopped candied ginger and a splash of rum! But first, as it thawed, that fruit would macerate overnight in sugar, measured out to scale.

 His sister hefted the huge white bucket filled with frozen fruit across the kitchen, sidestepping stacks of moving cartons, and placed it on one platform of a rusty old scale. This old set of scales of wood and cast iron, was the biggest I had ever seen, big enough to support a big, white plastic bucket on one of its pans, and the blackest I had ever seen, black with age, black with time and use. She hefted the bucket onto one side and the scale dipped, clunking down as the other plateau swung up. She placed a selection of weights, large and small, on the free side, the scales swinging this way and that, up and down like a seesaw, a teeter-totter. Until the right balance. She then removed the bucket and adjusted the weights for 650 grams. She then placed a bowl on the other side and began pouring in sugar until the pans were more or less even, then adding the sugar to the fruit, pushing the bucket to the back of the kitchen counter to work its magic overnight.

 I’ll leave the bucket, the copper pot – he pointed to the battered old, otherwise gleaming copper basin hooked to the wall – and the scales for you until you have the time to purchase your own. And my jam-making profession had officially begun.

 My husband has one small but heavy weight – brass or cast iron? – that he uses for a paper weight, the only thing remaining from the old scales his parents once used in their shop, scales used for weighing fruit and vegetables, butter and cheese.




Of the things that are in the waters, you may eat anything that has fins and scales. - Lev. 11:9; Deut. 14:9 

 Although I grew up on the ocean coast of Florida, a few minutes’ walk from the beach, minutes to the river, a stone’s throw from so many fishing piers, I did not learn how to choose and purchase fish until I moved to Europe. Fishmongers group together at one end of the market space hawking their wares; stalls groaning under mountains of ice, whole fish and slabs of filets lined up, piled up, glistening silver, blue, white, pink and red.

 The flesh should be supple, I was taught, shiny and elastic, the eyes bright, l’oeil vif, as my husband says, in French. The gills, when poked at, your fingertips brushing over them, then pulled apart and peered at, the gills, should be clear and pink. The fish should have no smell, like three-day old guests. And the scales. Tight, firm, glistening scales. Like gemstones, diamonds, those scales.

 Scales. Thin, flat and horny, like slender, transparent bone, like fingernails shiny with silvery, pink-tinted polish, they are lovely things, a wonder of nature, yet awful in the mouth, like bits of minuscule plastic tiddlywinks.

 Ask the fishmonger to clean and prepare the fish. A sharp snap as the fins are clipped off. The knife slides effortlessly up the front, the head is lopped off, the bones removed in the twinkling of an eye. The fish is gutted, a brutal word for a brutal action, over before you have the time to recoil in horror. Eviscerated. But before this ceremony, the fish is scaled. A special tool, a scaler, is rubbed, scrubbed back and forth, back and forth, almost violently, the tiny scales scattering, spitting across wet, slimy work surface, then brushed quickly away. Scaled. 

 Swimmingly. To scale.



Tip the Scales

 I see the bathroom scale hiding under the sink cabinet, a fine coating of dust and dirt witness to our abandonment of this bathroom accessory. Alone except for the company of dust bunnies and flip-flops or slippers that occasionally, thoughtlessly get kicked underneath the cabinet into the dark wasteland where the bathroom scale lives.

 The last I stepped onto a scale was at the doctor’s office, naked as a jaybird, naked as the day I was born, the doctor sitting behind her desk in the adjoining room demanding I yell out to her my weight, the numbers on the scale, hearing my own voice admitting my own caloric downfall, my lack of self-control. She then compares to last year’s numbers. Thus revealing the reason that my own bathroom scale lies disregarded, jilted and forsaken, victim of its own candor and impartiality, like a husband saying, in the midst of a warm embrace, “you have put on a touch of weight, haven’t you?”

 That bathroom scale is proof of my gluttony, witness of my tendency to the gourmand. A beholder of my hedonism in the kitchen, is that scale. While my kitchen scale rejoices in being laden with flour, heaped with butter, weighted with sugar, lavished with cocoa powder, chunks of chocolate, recipients of cream, my bathroom scale seems to groan under the burden, its numbers sliding up and up, those numbers jeering their displeasure.

 As I slide open the bathroom door and go to leave, head off (most likely) to the kitchen, I give a firm, contemptuous kick to that scale with my foot, pushing it further under the cabinet, hidden just a bit more from view. No reminder of all the baking I do, no admonition for the weight I have put on for all the eating.



Musical Scales

 How did I come to have three digital kitchen scales, I find it difficult to remember. Did we think that the first was broken, only to discover that it was no such thing once the second was purchased, removed from the box, battery inserted, the top already speckled with flour and sugar, the on/off button just slightly sticky with whatever batter was on my fingertip when last used? One, I know was a gift, points collected from our bank, points used towards the purchase of something within the pages of a catalogue, a way to snag clients.

 My husband, flipping through the catalogue, weighing this gift against that, saw the kitchen scale and stabbed a finger at it. Never one to collect useless gadgets or knickknacks, constantly trying to scale back our belongings, eliminating the useless, scaling down our lifestyle to the bare necessities, he, nonetheless, paused at the image of the kitchen scales. Would you like this? Do you need a scale? he asked. And lovely scale it was, the base in shiny stainless steel, the plateau in clear glass. Ah, I replied, having a second scale on hand is very useful in case the battery of the first one dies in the middle of measuring ingredients for a cake or macarons! A second scale would be wonderful! I exclaimed, puffing up with joy!

 And as the second scale arrived at the house, I realized that I already had not one but two digital kitchen scales, and baby made three. And I love my scales. Oh, I hadn’t always weighed my baking ingredients on a scale, but rather measured in cups and tablespoons, scoop and level. Chocolate measured in squares, butter in sticks, yeast by the packet. Yet once I moved to France, I realized that this wasn’t practical; when I began following recipes from French magazines, or when my mother- or sister-in-law, or a friend offered me one of their recipes, I realized that I had to acclimate to a new culinary culture. And once I began weighing ingredients, in grams, mind you, I realized the accuracy, the magic, the ease, the precision.

 Scales worth their weight in gold. As smooth and harmonious as musical scales.

 What is art but life upon the larger scale, the higher. – Elizabeth Barrett Browning



Fish and herbs, the perfect marriage in my book. I really don't know what say more to than this, it is just so simple: you take a fish, stuff it with herbs, a few slices of lemon, salt, and drizzle white wine and a good olive oil over it all and push it into the oven. The fresh bay leaves give a wonderful sweet flavour to the meat.

ILVA'S HYPER HERBY OVEN FISH (a recipe sketch)

fish
fresh herbs (I used bay leaves, thyme and sage)
lemon
salt
white wine
extra-virgin olive oil

   Take the whole fish, scaled and gutted, and put them in a baking tray. If you like, you can line it with non-stick baking paper or you can trickle a little oil in it before you place the fish in the tray. 

   Stuff the fish with some salt, lemon slices and a few sprigs of thyme and put the sage leaves around it.  Now salt the fish and then cover it with bay leaves and lemon slices, drizzle white wine and olive oil over the fish and put it in a pre-heated oven (200°C/390°F) for about 35 - 40 minutes but that depends on how big the fish is; check if the meat is cooked before taking it out.

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Monday, January 19, 2015

Plated Stories Food Photography & Writing Workshop/Retreat 'Inspiration'



When: 16 - 18 April 2015
Where: Chinon, France
Venue: Hôtel Diderot
Intensive Hands-On Food Photography/Styling & Food Writing Workshop/Retreat focusing on Inspiration & Creativity

  The Plated Stories Workshop/Retreat 'Inspiration' will be held the weekend of 16 - 18 April 2015 (Thursday 16 April lunch through Saturday night with departure Sunday 19 April after breakfast) at Hôtel Diderot, an enchanting 26-room auberge de charme dating from the 15th and 18th Centuries in the center of the medieval French town of Chinon on the banks of the Vienne River. We are excited to host our first Plated Stories France Workshop/Retreat at the Hôtel Diderot, the new adventure of Jamie and her French husband Jean-Pierre!


    The hotel is situated in the heart of old Chinon, a stone’s throw from the Château de Chinon, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and in the heart of the Loire Valley and the Chinon vineyards. Chinon has inspired such great writers as native son François Rabelais, author of the tales of Gargantua & Pantagruel and Honoré de Balzac, author of La Comédie Humaine, who sojourned just outside the city for many years. The newly renovated château perched above the hotel and the city’s center, once a royal fort, was where Joan of Arc first met Charles VII.


   The cost for the 3-day workshop is € 975 (euros) for double room occupancy and €1040 (euros) for single room occupancy and includes intensive, hands-on exercises in both writing and styling/photography, as well as understanding how text and images can work together to create a more powerful story. Cost also includes 3 days, 3 nights accommodation at Hotel Diderot and all meals (3 lunches, 3 dinners, 3 breakfasts and snacks and refreshments during the workshop) as well as one excursion. Workshop cost will not include airfare or transportation to or from the venue or insurance.
   This Plated Stories workshop/retreat is based on the theme “Inspiration” - we plan to really delve into how inspiration works for the two of us, showing how we think and what we do when we’re in a rut, as well as how to to find inspiration in life and with what is around us - and how we each channel that inspiration into a project (a photo or a text); there will be plenty of demonstrations and personal insight alongside discussions and exercises designed to get you to think creatively and out of the box. You will be inspired to take that step beyond and you will learn how to channel your own creativity in new ways for your own purpose. The workshop is limited to a maximum 8 participants, creating a more intimate group, allowing for hands-on work and exercises, more individual analysis and coaching, roundtable discussions and lively exchange.
    The workshop is ideal for experienced food or travel bloggers as well as food photographers and writers - aspiring or more experienced. Whether you combine photography and writing or concentrate on one or the other, the workshop will help you to build up your portfolio, hone your skills and find new creative energy.
    This is not a workshop for beginners; an understanding of the basic elements of photography such as aperture, exposure and shutter speed, white balance and ISO is necessary along with laptop and post processing software (Photoshop, Paint, Lightroom or iPhoto etc.). A DSLR camera is a plus as is a tripod.

 Register here!

Further questions? Or simply want to be on our mailing list and be the first to learn of all upcoming events and workshops? Email us at platedstories AT gmail DOT com


Monday, January 12, 2015

Ladle


‘He scream'd out--'
Take the soup away!
O take the nasty soup away!
I won't have any soup to-day.'
- Heinrich Hoffmann, Der Struwwelpeter

 Ladle as noun: a long-handled utensil with a cup-shaped bowl for dipping, conveying and serving liquids.

 Ladle as verb: to dip, convey or serve with or as if with a ladle; to lift out or serve with a long-handled spoon.

 Potage, bisque, broth, soup, consommé ladled carefully into bowls or cups or mugs cradled between hands for warmth against a bone-chilling day. Soup, liquid clear, thick and creamy, smooth or chunks of vegetables and meat floating carefully in a sea of soup. Soup, yes, even chilled, even sweet. Dip, scoop, convey, leaving trails of drips and drops across the stovetop, the countertop, soup plopping and splattering from the curved bottom, the bowl of the ladle, in an annoying, self-proclaiming trajectory. Impossible to do otherwise, to ladle soup into bowls cleanly and efficiently without that telltale trace of soup.

 Goulash, stew, not quite a soup but more a liquid meal, a mishmash of ingredients sliced and chunked and chopped and simmered together in a big Dutch oven, a meal for a winter’s day. Not a soup but a ladle is definitely called for, required under the circumstances. Much better than a serving spoon, a ladle will scoop up what we used to call a he-man portion, one ladle, two into the bowl, onto the plate, always accompanied by a hunk of bread for dipping, sopping up the sauce which must come with the meat and veg. Thus the need for the ladle.

 Sangria. Punch (is it spiked?). From college parties to office parties, from weddings to fancy do’s at the house, punch bowls and ladles, somehow more elegant than a soup ladle but a ladle all the same, for dipping, conveying, pouring quantities of ruby red sangria, floating slices of oranges like islands in the sea, or punch, pale and watery, sugary sweet but oh what a punch! An elegant crystal ladle to match the cut glass bowl, or sterling silver shined until one can see one’s reflection, delicately ladling shimmering, jewel-like iridescence, of something sweet and boozy into delicate, tiny cups. Pinkies out, pretty paper napkins dabbing discreetly at lips. Or clumsy ladles, jerry-rigged, makeshift ladles, big plastic cups, dipping scooping up, sloshing something sweet and boozy, something wild and spirited across the table, dumping great quantities of punch into more plastic cups. Hootch dribbled as gulped, splatted as guzzled, wiped sloppily off of chins with the sleeve.



“Soup of the evening, beautiful soup!
Soup of the evening, beautiful soup!”
- Lewis Carroll

 Runny cake batter, pancake batter, cupcake batter scooped up and ladled out. My father made us pancakes for breakfast on the occasional Sunday. Giddily, we would run to the kitchen, scootching chairs up to the table happily, leaving games behind, leaving our age-old bickering behind. He would have the old griddle set up on the work surface in the corner of the L of the countertop. Plates and forks at the ready, we would sit at the table, jiggling and wriggling in impatient anticipation, and watch him carefully, precisely measure up a ladle of pancake batter and meticulously pour it onto the hot griddle, a sizzle and a perfect circle, a row of perfect rounds of batter. Bubbling, browning, flipping and passed around. And a second series of ladles of batter on that hot griddle.

 So many years later, sitting at a different table, children lined up and down the two sides, parallel, jiggling and wiggling in their chairs in impatient anticipation while we adults, the parents, smiled and waited no less impatiently. My father-in-law sat at one end of the long table, hot crêpe griddle on the table in front of him, a swirl of butter would sizzle and steam and he would carefully, precisely measure up a ladle of crêpe batter and pour it into the center of the circle, the round, crêpe-sized, crêpe-shaped griddle. One ladle of batter, one crêpe for one person, one at a time, rather than six or eight pancakes in two rows on my own dad’s griddle. Sizzle, brown and flip and passed around the table to one lucky person. And another ladle of batter on the hot griddle for another child.


“Only the pure in heart can make a good soup.”
– Ludwig van Beethoven

 Rainwater, river water, remember those old cowboy movies? There always seemed to be a ladle handy, sometimes that ladle was attached by a long string to the well, the rain barrel. Sometimes that ladle seemed to appear out of nowhere, riverside, around the campfire. A fire built in a pit, a big pot, a kettle set atop a frame, stew ladled out and slopped onto battered metal plates. That ladle used as a cup when the horses were stopped at some body of water. Refreshment.

 Scoop and dish out.

"Please, sir," replied Oliver, "I want some more."
The master aimed a blow at Oliver's head with the ladle; pinioned him in his arms; and shrieked aloud for the beadle.
- Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist 

 Gruel ladled out, slopped onto the plate, into a bowl, grudgingly.

 Mussels, clams, a big pot of seafood steaming in a slug of wine, a handful of shallots chopped and minced. Parsley. Huge, hearty ladles of seafood in their shells, ticking against each other as they are ladled up, claws and antennae poking out and hanging over the edges of the ladle willy-nilly. Add a ladle of the broth.



 "I live on good soup, not on fine words."
- Moliere

 Runny cake batter, pancake batter, cupcake batter scooped up and ladled out. I love my ladle. That’s an odd thing to say, I know, but my whisk, my wooden spoon and my ladle are practically fetish items, one or the other always in my hand when I am in the kitchen. It is one of my necessary baking tools. A ladle? you ask, a ladle for baking? A ladle for pastry?

 When I find myself before a bowl of cake batter, thick and unctuous, yes, but runny, gooey, loose to the point of incivility and misbehavior, with a set of cupcake tins, I can’t imagine decanting, transferring this batter into those numerous, tiny cupcake indentations, or mini little bundt forms each with a tiny tube in the center that must not be covered, without my ladle. Lift up the bowl and pour and I invariably lose control, batter running out every which way, too much too soon as if that batter was rushing to get out of the bowl no matter what and I suddenly find myself with batter dribbled and dripped all over the tin, in between the cups, heading out and onto the counter with no way to get it back into the bowl, cups overfloweth.

 This is when I turn to my ladle, baking tool extraordinaire! Dip, scoop, let the excess drip back into the bowl, scrape the bottom across the bowl’s edge, and pour, slowly, regularly into those indentations.

 Big Dipper, Small Dipper, ladles in the sky. Do we make a wish?

 Ladling custard into custard cups, panna cotta into glasses, pudding into ramekins.


  Before we met, my husband spent two years living and working in Morocco, spending much of his free time hanging around the kitchens of the houses where he roomed and observing the women cooking. He brought back what he had learned and mastered of this exotic, spice-filled cuisine and has been sharing his knowledge and recipes with me since. Harira is a rich, fragrant, spicy soup of chickpeas, tomato and lamb, spiced up and then flavored with lemon and fresh coriander, traditionally eaten during the month of Ramadan each night to break the day’s fast. JP explained that vendors ladle out bowls of this soup from huge vats in the marketplaces around the city. It is a rather easy soup to put together, then simply simmered, lemon and coriander added just before serving. It has long been a family favorite, a meal in itself and perfect to warm and spice these chilly winter months.

JAMIE’S MOROCCAN HARIRA: SPICY LAMB & CHICKPEA SOUP

Vegetable oil
13 oz (400 g) lean lamb, shoulder or leg, cubed
1 onion, cut in half or quarters and thinly sliced
2 tsps ground coriander
½ tsp ground turmeric
¼ tsp cayenne
½ tsp ground ginger
½ tsp ground cumin
8 oz (250 g) ripe tomatoes (about 3), peeled and chopped
1 clove garlic, crushed
1 – 14 oz (440 g) can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Juice of 1 lemon
Handful chopped fresh coriander

 To peel tomatoes, make a cross in the bottom of each with a sharp knife, dunk for just one minute or so in simmering water, scoop out and peel. Measure out the spices, slice the onion, crush the garlic, drain, rinse and mash the chickpeas.

 Heat a few tablespoons of vegetable oil in a large pot and add the cubed lamb. Fry very quickly over high heat until evenly browned all over. Add the sliced onions, lower the heat and continue cooking, stirring continuously, for 5 minutes until the onions are soft. Stir in the spices and toss, making sure that the lamb cubes are coated and the spices blended in well, and cook for 1 minute.

 Add the chopped tomatoes, the crushed garlic and the mashed chickpeas. Add 2 ½ cups (625 ml) water. Bring just to the boil, cover, lower heat and allow to simmer for 40 minutes. If you would like to thicken the soup up a bit, uncover the pot for the last 10 minutes of cooking.

 Chop the fresh coriander and squeeze the lemon and add to the Harira, stir, and allow to simmer for 2 minutes before serving. Serve hot.

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Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Zest


"True happiness comes from the joy of deeds well done, the zest of creating things new."
Antoine de Saint-Exupery

 Spices lend zest to a dish, a mad dash of chipotle, a defiant dusting of cumin and coriander, a generous helping of harissa, an assertive grinding of pepper, a brazen dollop of wasabi, a determined squirt of lemon juice. A shaving of zest. North African, Thai, Chinese, Cajun, zestful cuisines that hurry the taste buds, titillate the tongue, entertain the palate all incorporate something zesty or two to each recipe, never a dull dish, be it savory or sweet. Spiced, seasoned, flavored with a bite. A dish spiced, seasoned and zested like life.


 A café corretto, an already zesty shot of espresso, dark, rich, almost thick, dizzy with energy-giving force, and a heady splash of something strong, something zesty be it grappa, brandy, cognac or sambuca. Men dressed in expensive suits or market-vendor whites, lined up and standing at the counter of an Italian café or bar for their morning coffee and brioche, each one in front of a steaming café corretto in a tiny demitasse for a morning kick. Something zesty to start the day. A helping of liquor added to give the coffee a bit of a bang, or a slug of espresso added to the cup to help along the booze. Like a shot of whiskey to chase down the beer, a shot of grappa to add a burst of heat followed by a lingering warmth to coffee. A bit of zest to start the day.

 Joy in the chase, zest in the pursuit.


 Zest as verb, zest as noun, zest the act of scraping, peeling the outer skin, the colorful bits, the zest, from a lemon, a lime, an orange, spitting out from the tiny holes of the zester. Beware the pith, soft, spongy, white and bitter. A very light but sure hand will guarantee that only the outer flavorful skin is flicked off, leaving random scratches across the surface of the fruit, giving it rather the appearance of a balding old man. Zesty.

 Find a small heap of zest on the tabletop, cutting board, bits stuck to your fingertips or spattered willy-nilly all over the counter. The zest pinched up and stirred into soup, a sauce, or blended into batter, folded into pastry, whizzed into sugar, the zest adding flavor and zest to your food. More zest than juice if one wants a bit of zest.

 Tiny specks of zest like freckles, like grains come shooting out a microplane zester or clump together damply, or long, slender strips curl up and over the claw-like zester with a single row of five small holes, a rather old-fashioned zester these days that no one except I seems to use anymore but don’t I love to watch it slide over the peel leaving five parallel scratches along the fruit like claw marks, like racetracks, like rake marks in soil, the zest curling up and drooping over in great ringlets like Rapunzel's hair? A knife will yield wide swathes of zest, thick bands of zest, the better for steeping in creams or simmering in sugar syrup for candied peel. A zesty snack.

 It has never ceased to amaze me the force of zest. Scrape the zester down and over the outside of a citrus fruit and out pops a wet clump of bright color, somehow brighter, more neon than when on the fruit, zest spitting citrus oil, heady with the scent of a hundred such fruit, more than just the one can possibly produce. Whack the long, narrow blade of a thousand tiny holes, each hiding a sharp blade, against the side of the mixing bowl to dislodge the clump, the damp zest, push off what adamantly clings to the steel careful not to zest the skin off of the tips of your fingers. Fold into the batter, cream, sauce, dough, to add lovely flecks, lively fragrance, a bit of zest.

 Be ever so careful not to zest your fingers at the risk of changing the color of the batter.


"Zest is the secret of all beauty. There is no beauty that is attractive without zest."
- Christian Dior

 I have always dreamed of being a great beauty, a vibrancy and zest that drives men wild, an exotic charm and intrigue that has men throwing themselves at my feet, begging to follow me to the ends of the earth. But, alas, I am not. I do not. No striking beauty am I, and I am too often self-doubting and shy to be zestful, exuberant and spirited. Alas, I must squirrel down into the dark corners of my soul and dig up that thing they call inner beauty, I must bring to light my zest for life, unearth a piquancy of personality, concoct a very heady mix of zip and zing. Sigh. This is hard work, but the challenge does inspire a certain zest.

 A little zest goes a long way. A dash of spice that lends zest to the sauce; heat. Piquancy that adds zest to life, bite.

 But although not a great beauty, and despite not always shining like a brilliant star, I do try and capture that zest for life in the way I do things, the way I dress or speak. For two years or so, I taught English at the private school my sons attended and I would sweep through the heavy front doors and clatter down the hallway towards my classroom, waltzing in wearing a stark black and white large-patterned houndstooth wool coat, a hat dipping rakishly over one eye, or a Chinese kimono-cut mustard yellow coat that billowed around me as I walked. My older son would beg me, plead with me, chide me to be less spirited, less conspicuous, more discreet. Less zestful. My younger son has always requested I be a bit more restrained in my chattering to teachers, to strangers, on social media, sharing secrets, telling jokes, asking too many questions and nosing out private confidences. A bit less zest, a bit less spice, a bit more conservative, is all that they have ever asked. But where is the fun in that? I had no desire to blend into the crowd.

 These days, that zestful appearance, wild clothing, bright colors has more often than not been replaced by colorful language, cheeky idioms and spicy double entendres, zestful language to add zest to any conversation or piece of writing. I sometimes draw a blank stare, leaving my listener muddled. Or a roll of the eyes, discreet or not, when I have added a bit too much zest to the batter. It has always amused me to play with language, kick it up with words and expressions, tossing in interesting quotes or abstruse references, like a good shake or three of hot Tabasco to a sauce or a generous dose of chipotle to the scrambled eggs, lemon juice or something boozy to almost anything. A fanciful, zestful rhythm, a playful cacophony of sounds, joyful, zesty verbal acrobatics, language as music, conversation as a game.

 "Zest. Gusto. How rarely one hears these words used. How rarely do we see people living, or for that matter, creating, by them. Yet if I were asked to name the most important items in a writer's make-up, the things that shape his material and rush him along the road he wants to go. I would only warn him to look to his zest, see to his gusto."
- Ray Bradbury 



Almost like a Mojito, this frittata with mint and lime is a refreshing little bite that you can easily make as a quick lunch when you need a moment of comfort. One day I will add a little rum just to see what it tastes like but for now this way is more than enough for me!

ILVA'S LIME AND MINT FRITTATA
Serves 1

2 eggs
zest of one lime, if you want you can add a little lime juice as well
1 scant tbsp chopped fresh mint leaves
2 tbsp freshly grated parmesan cheese
black pepper
salt

   Mix all the ingredients in a small bowl and whisk until blended. Heat up a little olive oil in a small skillet and then pour in the batter. Fry on both sides before serving, I suggest with a little crisp salad. 


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Monday, December 22, 2014

Bubbles


 Cheers!

 Baubles are hung on the Christmas tree, pretty glass orbs reflecting the lights filtering in through the windows shooting colors across the room like prisms, baubles buried into the green among the drapes of shimmering tinsel and popcorn garlands. Baubles and trinkets tucked into tissue paper, wrapped and beribboned, rings to be slipped on my finger; baubles offered, he waiting, watching expectantly as I open the bag, push back the tissue paper, a ring placed on my plate in a restaurant, hidden by my menu, or pulled out as the Hanukkah candles are lit or the Christmas dinner finished, dishes cleared, a ring of champagne crystals and silver bubbles.

 Chilled Champagne and sparkling wines, festive for the holidays. Bubbles are always reserved, always essential on these special occasions. I wonder why? I have a dirty little secret I keep hidden, one I never admit to anyone especially he who joyfully proffers flutes of bubbles on each and every celebration. I prefer flat to bubbly. Effervescent, petillant, bubbly is splendid in a personality but in a glass I prefer sans. Bubbles in water, bubbles in wine, Champagne, is so sophisticated, so adult, so desired, yet I prefer without.

 An infinite abundance of minuscule, microscopic bubbles like a mouthful of air or big, fat bubbles that burst on the tongue, shooting straight to the brain, light and fizzy, ethereal or robust, energetic bubbles. Which do you prefer? Champagne glass shaped upon, or so legend has it, the lovely assets of Marie Antoinette or a flute, tall, slender, elegant, sending the bubbles straight up your nose? The floor strewn with wrapping paper and curls of ribbon, the little children are offered glasses of sparkling cider, fizzy apple juice, joining in the fun, feeling so adult with the bubbles but without the alcoholic kick, simply drunk on excitement. 

 A spray of foam on a circle of golden-crusted scallop in a Michelin-starred restaurant, reminiscent of the ocean in wild, angry weather. A froth of bubbles modernizing an old-fashioned pudding, a classic île flottante. A mouthful of bubbles slurped up then rapidly disappearing, foam melting into an afterthought of flavor, a hint of basil, a memory of citrus, an intimation of oyster, an impression of vanilla. Bubbles of food, bubbles savory or sweet, nothing to sink one’s teeth into, nothing to chew, no satisfaction, all the rage. Like the tiny bubbles, spheres, orbs of molecular gastronomy, shimmering beauty yet unrecognizable but for the burst of flavor, pearlescent bubbles popping like caviar. Bubbles evaporating into nothingness.


Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn, and cauldron bubble. - William Shakespeare

 Steamy water, near scalding. Sink down into the tub, bubbles circling my neck like an ermine stole, a landscape of winter white spread out before me. Listen carefully, the sizzle, sputtering, crackle of the popping of those tiny bubbles as if an invisible being, an angel, pinpricks each minuscule bubble one by one. A glass of bubbly close by on the rim of the tub, a book in hand, quiet time, girl time, alone time in bubbles. Alone time in my own bubble.

 We had a bubblegum pink bathtub big enough for two and would fill that tub with bubbles and slip below the surface, neck deep in bubbles, and talk oh-so quietly.

 A luxury hotel in the heart of Paris in the dead of winter a bathroom all in black and white with touches of gold. A bathtub big enough for two and a bottle of Champagne. Bubbles in white, bubbles in pink. Bubbles frothing over the edge onto the black and white floor.

 Adult bubbles romantic. Effervescent.



A child’s laughter bubbling up and spilling over.

 Bubbles were such a part of my childhood, the magic and fascination of bubbles being such a childish thing. My brother and I would blow hard into straws pushed down into the dregs of cups of chocolate milk, blow and blow until bubbles churned up, blow and blow until blue in the face, until those bubbles of chocolate milk haze arrived up to the cup’s rim. A contest.

 Blowing bubbles from liquid soap, that tiny little wand sunk deep into the colorful plastic tube then bubbles blown, over and over again, the dog jumping up to snatch at each bubble snap snap, the taste of soap, my brothers and I laughing and laughing and teasing that dog by blowing more and more soapy bubbles. Blowing bubblegum bubbles the size of my head until that tremendous pop and pink, sticky stuff all over my face. Bubble baths on Sundays, bubbles scented of lavender or strawberry or bubble gum, bubbles scooped up and stuck on my chin and on top of wet hair, beards and weird hairdos just for a laugh. That swirl of white bubbles could turn me into a movie star just like mashed potatoes or chocolate pudding painted on puckered lips.

 Soda pop drunken too fast, soda pop sucked up through a straw, the bubbles blowing straight up into my nose causing a coughing fit, an itchy nose and a sneeze. As long as the soda didn’t squirt out of my nose I was okay.

 Scooping up handfuls of bubbles at the beach as I ran along the water’s edge, collecting shells and sea glass or blowing bubbles, head underwater, at the swimming pool. We would then stop at the ice cream parlor for chocolate milkshakes on the way home and nothing more fun than sitting in a booth blowing air through a straw, blowing thick, drowsy bubbles in a chocolate milkshake.


I’m forever blowing bubbles, 
Pretty bubbles in the air

 I cook, you wash up. Our marriage is one of trade offs and compromise and since we both cook, this has been our deal since the very first meal we prepared together in that tiny little doll’s house in the Paris Suburbs. (Although I clean as I go and leave behind me very little to do while he, yes, he leaves behind a tornado of a mess.)

 Plunging my hands into a sink full of bubbles, I think of all the years we never had a dishwasher. My mother never owned one, refusing the installation of a dishwasher in 1962 when the house was built, explaining that extra cabinet space would be more useful. Every single evening until I left home eighteen years later, it was I who was selected to help with the dishes. Can I wash? Please? I would beg, night after night. No, she would invariably answer, I wash you dry. And I would watch longingly as she plunged her hands into the hot water and bubbles, scrubbing each plate, rinse and stack. That was what I wanted to do. Grudgingly, under threat of punishment, I would stand next to her wiping dishes, glasses and silverware with a towel growing gradually damper and damper, and my mood growing damper and damper. Hands in a sink full of warm bubbles, the rhythmic, hypnotic movement of cleaning is soothing, therapeutic, a time to let my mind wander and dream.

 Kitchen bubbles. The slow motion movement of a bubble rising to the surface of thick, creamy cake batter, a bubble growing then bursting, popping with a tiny pop revealing a pocket of air hiding a bit of flour, batter flopping over and melting into the quicksand of batter. The slow rise and fall of bubbles on the surface of soup, simmering, rise and fall, the easy, sluggish rise and fall of bubbles like lava in slow motion or the quick, violent succession of bubbles and when a bubble bursts it sends a fine spray of soup spattering on the stovetop. Glug glug spit or rat-a-tat-tat spatter. Yeasty bubbles forming a hilly landscape along the surface of bread dough, languid and sticky, bubbles just begging to be poked. Bubbles baked onto the top of a cake like blisters.


We would like to wish each and everyone a joyous Holiday Season. 
We will see you in the New Year! Cheers!


Monday, December 15, 2014

Date


Dates and Figs

 Long, narrow boats of Styrofoam holding dates packed in like sardines, head to toe, back to back, side by side squished into place leaving nary a breath between them. Plastic pulled tightly over them all, stuffed in. There was always a boatful of pretty little dates in my parents’ refrigerator. Dates and dried figs. While the figs, dried and withered, the color of caramel, of autumn leaves, of baseball bats, were tough old things and stuffed with tiny little seeds that crunched, that stuck between teeth, dates were soft and tender, sweet as candy.

 Peel back the plastic and pick off a date, sticky as glue. Packed in as they were, wedged into that boat, and pasted together, tacky, the dates had to be pulled apart, fingers wedged in and around, picked at, tugged out one by one. Sugary sweet candy coating, something syrupy, those dates stuck to fingers, the caramel coating remaining long after the date had been eaten. But how I loved those tender, sweet dates.


Date Night

 We instilled the tradition of Date Night early on when the first baby was born and tiny. And have continued it through the years. Now that the boys are grown, Date Night needs no planning, no organization, the search for babysitter is happily dispensed with. And Date Night now comes more often.

 Date Night. The chance to dress up, slip into a something nice, something rarely worn (what with feeding babies, chasing after toddlers, catering to teens, walking dogs and cleaning house) and high heels, a dab of perfume and slip out into the night. Date night always means a choice restaurant, somewhere ethnic or Michelin-starred, a meal eaten while holding hands, listening to soft words rather than children’s babble or teens’ complaints. Or a movie and a box of popcorn.

 Although Date Night meant working out dates, comparing agendas and calendars, scratching down dates on a bit of paper and taping it to the refrigerator door, nowadays Date Night needs no specific date. Would you like to go out tonight? he asks. Want to do something special? A walk? Cinema? Restaurant? And we put on our shoes, our coats and, hand in hand, head out for our date. An escapade, a weekend away, restaurant and hotel, these dates have been an important part of our marriage these twenty-some years. Keeping our marriage sweet, tender, tasty, as sweet, tender and tasty as dates.


Double Date

 Date: My mother always had a date nut bread, more cake than bread, in the refrigerator. And we knew that it was off limits, only for her, like those single serving fried egg sandwiches, cold canned creamed corn loosened with a bit of milk, frozen Oh Henry candy bars tucked way back in the freezer, and iced coffee. Her private pleasures, what separated her from the kids. Date nut bread from a can; popped out, it kept the shape of the can as she whittled it away, slice by slice. Or date nut bread homemade slathered with cream cheese frosting, white against the deep brown, the color of chocolate cake but tasting of molasses. And dates.

 Double date: What’s this? he asked, holding up a jar he had removed from my sack, scrutinizing its odd, sepia-colored contents suspiciously. Curiously. Oh! That’s Date Mustard! I explained, silently scolding myself for not packing it into my suitcase that I had checked before heading to airport security. You can’t take this in your carry on, he returned. It’s more than the permitted three grams.

 Earlier that morning, before my voyage home, I had accompanied two friends to a shop in the heart of an upscale London shopping district, a shop devoted to dates. But not just any dates, not the dates of my youth. These were exceptional dates, choice dates. Expensive dates. Like rare diamonds, precious gems, exquisite jewels, artisan chocolates, these dates were beautifully arranged, laid out behind glass in a specially crafted display case in the luxuriously appointed boutique. As my friends were offered tastings of each kind of date, I roamed around the shop looking at the other products, condiments, mustards, chutneys, sauces and jams, each made with dates, many blended with other choice ingredients. Each as expensive as the dates themselves. I decided to purchase a jar of date mustard, intrigued by the flavor, knowing that my husband would love it.

 And so I found myself confronted by a man in uniform threatening to take that jar of date mustard from me. But, I tried to reason, to keep my calm, smile pasted onto my face, it isn’t a liquid, is it? And it’s a gift for my husband! You wouldn’t take away this gift to my husband? Desperation had begun to creep into my voice and I found myself perilously close to begging. The haggling went back and forth, he explaining that a paste was the same as a liquid, that rules were rules, that exceptions could not be made, I pointing out again and again that it was a gift, that it was extremely expensive, that I hadn’t been aware, apologizing for anything that crossed my mind. Time was rushing by and my flight would soon be boarding, I was running out of time and he wasn’t budging. He felt sorry for me, apologizing in his turn, even asking his higher-up to weigh in. I was near tears by the time I realized that I couldn’t stand there any longer, my pleading, my innocence only making his own eyes well up. Ah well, I finally, conceded, then you keep it, take it home. If my husband can’t enjoy it, then you do. It’s my gift to you, don't let it go to waste, as I dashed off to my gate, keeping my date to fly home.


Hot Date 

 Our very first date, if date one could call it, happened when I was dating another. The one, the other was away, far away in Africa, and there I was, nose to nose with him, dancing.

 And then there was a second date which melted into a third and a forth and where one date ended and the next began is a blur. Sticky sweet like a box of dates. Simmered and heated up, heated through. Hot date. 

 He introduced me to North African cuisine, soups and stews and gelatinous, chewy loukoum, which left a trail of powdered sugar down my chin and shirt, the sweet stickiness of rose and orange on my front teeth. We would wander through the streets of Paris, the neighborhood of shops overflowing with North African goods, shiny gold hookahs, stacks of colorful baboush slippers and leather poofs, footstools of skins smelling like camels. Traditional filagree lamps, intricate and feminine, that would throw delicate ethereal shapes on the walls in hazy pinks, blues and yellows, the colors of the glass panes. And food shops filled with traditional terra cotta tagine pots in rich gorgeous jade, blue, orange, red next to ingredients and canned foods, spices and boxes of couscous grains.

 And dates. Yes, we could find the small, slender dates sticky with sugar, but not only. I discovered long branches of dull dates, matte brown rather than shiny, dates not candied, withered not slick and glossy. And fat dates, plumper and more tender than even those I knew. Red dates, Chinese dates the color of sundried tomatoes, like odd little olives more than dates. And Medjool dates, the queen of dates, tremendously, astonishingly large. Astonishingly melt-in-your-mouth tender and sweet, sweet as cake. Dates not only to be eaten just like that, like candy, but dates to be cooked, simmered into stews, dates and apricots, prunes and raisins, walnuts and almonds. Simmered and stewed.

 Hot dates.


Well before our first date, my husband spent two years living and working in Morocco; he spent much of his spare time hanging out in the kitchen of the house in which he boarded watching the women cook. Since we married, couscous and tagines have been a part of our repertoire, cooked and eaten at least once a week. Personally, I prefer tagines, lamb, beef, chicken or fish, with some kind of fresh or dried fruit adding sweetness to the dish. Dates, widely used in Moroccan cuisine and commonly found in tagines, pair beautifully with lamb. The sweet potatoes give added sweetness and depth to the dish while the mint perfumes it gently and intriguingly. 

JAMIE’S LAMB TAGINE WITH DATES, SWEET POTATOES & MINT
Serves 2 – 4

 The sweet potatoes can be replaced by large chunks of pumpkin and the Medjool dates can be replaced with any tender, sweet date. If using pumpkin, feel free to add fingerling potatoes or serve the dish over couscous grains.

21 oz (600 g) lamb shoulder cut in large cubes
1 onion, chopped
1 clove garlic peeled and sliced in half
About ¼ tsp turmeric or saffron powder
1 Tbs ras el hanout or more to taste
Salt and freshly ground pepper
8 large Medjool dates
2 medium sweet potatoes (about 21 oz / 600 g), peeled and cut into thick wedges
1 small juice orange
1 Tbs chopped or snipped fresh mint

 In a large, heavy-bottom pot, heat 2 tablespoons margarine or butter and 2 tablespoons olive or vegetable oil over medium-high heat. Cook the chopped onion and the garlic clove in the hot oil until the onion is tender and translucent then add the lamb, tossing to coat with the oil and onion bits, and cook until the lamb is browned on all sides. Salt and pepper, add the ras el hanout and saffron powder and toss the lamb to coat. Pour about ½ cup water in the pot and stir up to dissolve the spices and deglaze the bottom of the pot. Add the sweet potato wedges and the juice of the orange, add more water to cover the lamb and potatoes about ¾ the way up. Bring the liquid to a boil, lower to a simmer, cover the pot and cook until the potatoes are fork tender, about 30 minutes or a bit more. The lamb should be cooked through and tender. Add the dates, simmer an additional 10 to 15 minutes, stir the chopped mint into the tagine and add a couple tablespoons of slivered almonds if you like. Serve hot.

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Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Black

Black caviar

Little Black Dress

 My friend once dreamed of a black garden, black velvet woven through the green foliage. She planted roses and tulips, irises and dahlias in shades of black the color of eggplants, aubergines of a violet so deep and dark they shimmer like caviar, the color of licorice whips and black pudding, boudin noir. Spring, summer and well into autumn, she waded in black until black flowers turned the color of rust, drooped and scattered black petals in the dirt.

 Black oreos twisted between palms to reveal pristine white cream, sugary sweet, teeth scraped across the surface, licked clean leaving only the black, black cookies to eat. Leaving clumps of black stuck to one's teeth. Black radishes, the surface much like the soil in which they grow, a dusty, rough black, thinly sliced to reveal white, pure creamy white. Black and white like panda bears or Boston Terriers. Sushi, maki rolls dressed in elegant, slick black sliced through to reveal white. Rice. Black encasing white hiding glistening pink and velvety green. Licorice whips; my father loved the black while I would only eat the red, strawberry red, the black much too bitter for me. Good & Plenty fooled me, played a dirty trick over and over again, pretty pink and white candy shells but once bitten through revealing bitter black. Spit it out.

 Black is for death, for farewell, dress in black for a funeral. Black is elegance and sophistication, little black dress for a party. Black beans, rough and ready; black chocolate sinful, the devil (devil's food cake) sparring with our angelic self. Black Forest. Black eye; I'd rather fight than switch.

Black eggplant

Black as Coal

 Early morning. I force myself out of bed, pushing back a jumble of sheets and blankets, loath to leave a cocoon of warmth, feeling blindly around in the dark for clothing, struggling into my robe and slippers. It is pitch dark outside, pitch black, black as sin.

 I stumble into the kitchen and put the water on, scooping coffee into the filter, setting two places for breakfast. I pull back the white curtains and peer out into the starless black. Tree branches stretch their naked ebony arms across the sky like black pencil drawings on black construction paper, deepening the black. What time is it? It seems like the middle of the night, the wee hours of the morning, the witching hour, the sky the color of ink, shoe polish, licorice. A winter morning.

 Black coffee. Espresso.

Black olives

Four and Twenty Blackbirds Baked in a Pie

 It was a splendid September day, certainly not a day for sitting inside, even with the windows thrown open to the blue skies and warm breeze. This was not a day for work, for burying oneself under a pile of papers and a heap of ideas. This was a day for heading out of town, into the country for a walk and a bit of sunshine and fresh air, for liberating body and soul. Black moods cleared, black moods scattered to the winds.

 We drove out of town, circled around and around, somewhat lost, finding ourselves in a secluded spot. The car pulled over to the side of the road, we hiked along the shoulder until we found a dirt path pushing into the trees and we, sense of adventure in hand, followed where it led. Trees and wild turned into farmland, cows grazing placidly behind crude wooden fences and on we pushed. An unexpected hot wind was blowing against us as we found ourselves deep in pastureland, wading ankle deep in dry, prickly grass and sharp, angry flora. And still we walked on. And were rewarded for our effort.

 Coming to the edge of the fields, as far as we could go, discovering a narrow, deep stream edged with thorny bushes thick with leaves. Suddenly he yelped with pleasure and called to me, pointing at great, fat blackberries clinging to the branches in bunches, blackberries ripe and sweet from the heat and sun. Wild blackberries larger, plumper, less savage somehow than those we would find growing along the paths that splayed out from the village where my in-laws, his parents lived, stumpy, hard littles blackberries they were. These were beauties, black pearls flashing in the light.

 Blackberries nestled in the branches as far as the eye could see, miles, it seemed, of blackberry bushes lining the pasture on three sides. But, he chided as I ogled the beautiful berries hungrily, we have nothing to collect them in. Ah, but we do! I exclaimed laughingly as I dug in my backpack, pulling out a large plastic bag and dumping out the snacks I had carried along for the trek and waving it at him triumphantly. And we spent the rest of the afternoon deep in those blackberry bushes, oblivious to the thorns, pulling off blackberries and filling the sack. Fingers and tongue long stained black.

 Blackberries for a pie.

Black squid and ink

Black & White

 Who sees the world in black and white? Bright as day, white light. Dark as night. Stars speckling the inky black, the furtive movement of trees, rustling of leaves in the night wind, black on black.

 Black and white, scattered photographs, black dissolving to grey, white smudged like a blur of pencil lead on paper, newsprint on fingertips. Black and white, images of my childhood, shadowy memories, clouded souvenirs. A dusting of ashes on white sheets. A vain attempt to remember yet conflicting recollections, confused interpretations, nothing is black and white.

 Black coffee and dark chocolate cookies leave stains on white paper, a notebook in which I record my thoughts, capture ideas in black and white, scribble down recipes, measurements jotted down in black. Or blue. Splotches of coffee leaving puckered spots of black. Intertwining, interlocking rings of black like Spirograph shapes done by a kid in pencil, round and round. Crumbs dabbled across the page, black on white, snow in reverse. Trudging black footprints across white carpets, patterned on white tiles.

Black recipe-2

One of my projects that never really takes off is to recreate the octopus meatballs, polpettine di polpo, that we had years ago in a seafood restaurant in Galipoli in Apulia. The whole family remembers them and maybe that is why I haven't gotten around to make a serious attempt; I know that the memory and the expectations will never forgive my efforts. So I have to content myself with spaghetti with squid ragu but I have no problems with that because it is such a nice treat! 

ILVA'S PASTA WITH SQUID RAGÚ
4 servings

400 g/ 0,9 lb pasta, I used black squid ink pasta
400 g/0,9 lb fresh or frozen squid, cleaned
2 ripe tomatoes
1 clove of garlic
1+1 tbs finely chopped parsley
pinch of chili pepper flakes
salt
extra-virgin olive oil

   Chop the tomatoes finely; I often use a mandolin with the julienne part which is a very quick and easy way to chop them. Heat up some olive oil with chili flakes and parsley in a wide pan or a skillet and simmer it for a minute or two before you add the tomatoes. Leave to cook for about 5 minutes.

    Meanwhile, finely slice and then chop the squid, reserving all liquid you can then adding it to the tomatoes; do not throw it away because it adds to the flavour. When the tomatoes have been reduced a bit, add the squid, taste for salt and leave it to simmer for another 10-15 minutes.

   You have obviously cooked the pasta simultaneously so when the squid ragú is ready you drain the pasta and toss it in the pan and serve it straight away!