Monday, March 2, 2015

Fake


Be True to Oneself

 Bogus. Fake jewelry, diamonds in paste, rubies in plastic, don’t care let’s call it costume jewelry and layer it on the more the merrier! Fake nails? Nope, never… well when we were kids we faked lipstick with chocolate pudding or mashed potatoes (pucker up!) and fake teeth with corn kernels and little green peas, and fake nails? With something or other, for when we were kids what could possibly have been more fun than playing with our food? Mashed banana spit curls. Ah, fake your age (who, me?) with a little bit of fiction. Color the hair, padded bra, fake but not really. Fake boobs? Well….

 Fake friends, I’ve had a few. Fake smiles and air kisses, all flash, little substance, though little did I know. False words, false pretenses, flowers offered might just as well have been plastic. False positive. Fake friendships have done their fair share of damage to my true heart, to my faith. Fake projects among false commitment painted with false promises, all bluff and bravado. Fake gratitude where my time and energy, my belief and trust have been handed over, and I’ve received fake smiles and air kisses, false pretenses and false affection, affectation, in return. Fake me out.

 When we were young and our brother still sat in the high chair to eat his meals, my older brother received a science kit for his birthday. You can see where this is going… We who were good kids and never (or rarely) got into mischief, got into trouble, concocted a drink that looked pretty much like milk. Fake milk. We waited for our chance and when mom left the toddler alone to answer a phone call, we placed the glass of fake milk on the tray in front of baby brother. “It’s milk!” we cried. “Drink it!” And as he grabbed the glass in his chubby fists and pulled it towards his lips, oblivious to any threat, any joke, mom walked back into the room and we said “Stop! It’s poison!” so well pleased with our joke, bursting into giggles. Fake milk from a science kit. Bluff.

 Faking it.


Truer than True

 My husband threatens me often, saying “I’m going to start buying you fake plants, fake flowers. Plastic. You let all of my plants die. You don’t even notice that they dry up, wither and droop onto the floor. They drag themselves across the parquet, panting, begging for water, as if pulling themselves towards an oasis and you just walk by. And flowers! I buy you beautiful bouquets of tulips, roses, peonies and you never see that they need water. They scream for water and you don’t hear their cries! The petals curl up, brown and scatter across the table and you don’t even realize! I am going to bring you fake flowers. Plastic!”

 Because he brings me flowers.

 And he cooks for me. Faux filet. Honestly.

 I have boxes and boxes of fake flowers, lovely, blowsy things in ethereal silk, and fake fruit in paper maché. I was once a milliner, creating hats from fabric, straw and felt, embellishing hats with circles of fake flowers, jaunty arrangements of silk flowers and feathers dyed blue, magenta, turquoise, the color of no real bird. Real feathers, fake birds. I have boxes of these beautiful flowers, fruit and feathers to dress up a hat, a fabric cloche like a Twenty’s flapper, a straw top hat like an English princess, a coquette beret comme une française real or fake, or a manly Borsalino, all dressed up in fake finery.


A Dream Come True

 I loved Halloween when I was a kid. Fake teeth in strawberry-flavored wax or gum, plates of spaghetti and bowls of peeled grapes masquerading as brains and eyeballs. Fake fingers dripping fake blood.

 Hannukah gelt. A tiny mesh bag handed to each child, a tiny mesh bag filled with shimmering gold coins, thick and shiny. Excitedly I would peel back the gold foil and savor the chocolate coin that would pop out. Those fake coins so much better than real! I still love chocolate coins. And chocolate cigarettes! Sugar lips and candy necklaces.

 Grilled cheese sandwiches made with neon yellow or orange squares of something cheesy. Wrapped in plastic. Go on, admit it, you love it! Peel back the plastic, slap a couple of shiny squares in between soft white sandwich bread (bread?) and slather the outsides, top and bottom, both slices, in…. margarine. Fake butter? Yes, but how easy. Always spreadable. And grills up the charm. Mac & Cheese in a box, the cheese a beautiful deep neon orange powder. Ah, fake cheese. But Mac & Cheese in a box was this child’s dream, a special treat, and I could probably still eat a box of it, hot and creamy, all on my own.

 Sincerity - if you can fake that, you've got it made. - George Burns


Ring False

 The old joke of breaded fish sticks being made from square or rectangular fish. They were the only fish my sons would eat for a number of years. And breaded chicken bought prepackaged, under plastic. Nuggets. Fake fish fake chicken. But oh my how tasty! So yummy that we don’t even bother asking what they really are. And do bouillon cubes really taste like chicken broth, chicken stock, chicken soup? But ravioli in brodo, those tiny little cheese or potato stuffed ravioli no bigger than a postage stamp floating in a steaming bowl of broth is just the homiest, coziest comfort food imaginable and when the craving strikes, when the sky is dark and brooding, rain beating against the window panes, the trees dancing in the wind, the roof creaking, then a bowl of ravioli in brodo is the one thing that warms and soothes, chases away the boogy man. And it is simple and plain, something even the persnickety son will eat. And enjoy. But is the soup real? Freeze-dried squares that I pinch and crumble between my fingers, breaking them up with a wooden spoon in a pot of water; is it soup? I toss a square cube into simmering couscous, into a pot of chicken parts and vegetables bubbling away to reinforce the flavor. Is it real?

 Sitting at the table, we stare at the menu, and wonder if anything, anything at all is homemade, made from scratch. Such a small place, such an extensive menu. And is this dish or that really seasonal? One time a friend of ours mentioned a restaurant and explained, “His kitchen staff is a pair of scissors!” Another friend refers to this type of establishment as a “plastic restaurant,” the food served purchased already made, industrially, sealed in plastic pouches. Scratch and sniff. Fake food. It would have broken my heart to tell my darling son that the lovely little bistro where he took me out as a treat, a mother-son outing, served food purchased in plastic and simply reheated.


 Chocolate truffles may be the most famous, best-loved fake food, one food resembling another. Chocolate, cream, butter and maybe a flavoring, formed into balls and rolled in cocoa powder, chopped nuts, sprinkles… it is a rich and elegant treat offered at Valentine’s Day and Christmas, served at parties and given as gifts. These are my version of the Chocolate Truffle, flavored with earthy, nutty tahini, sesame seed paste, and a bit of sesame oil and finally rolled in black sesame seeds. These truffles with the hint of sesame, are special and so delicious. Nothing fake about that. 

Jamie’s Chocolate Sesame Black Truffles

5.3 oz (150 g) good quality chocolate, a mix of bitter (70%) and semisweet (64%)
3.34 fl oz (100 ml) heavy cream
2 Tbs tahini (sesame seed paste)
1 Tbs (15 g) unsalted butter, cut into a few pieces
1 tsp sesame oil
A few tablespoons black sesame seeds

 Coarsely chop the chocolate and place in a heatproof bowl. Bring the heavy cream to the boil and pour over the chocolate. Let sit for one minute and then whisk until all of the chocolate is melted and the mixture smooth. Whisk in the butter, the sesame oil and the sesame paste until smooth. Place the bowl in the refrigerator until firm enough to shape into small balls. Roll each ball in black sesame seeds to coat.

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Monday, February 23, 2015

Bulb


We now know a thousand ways not to build a light bulb. - Thomas Alva Edison

 The lights flicker in the kitchen, dulling the dull brown of the cabinets, muddying the muddy yellow of the tiles in the dimness. A row of bulbs above the sink, stretching from refrigerator to stove along the top edge of the wall, just under the ceiling, are inconsistent things, not a bright bulb in the lot. Like the great bulbs in the great neon signs standing high above the roadside in those classic films that shudder, flicker and pop, on off on off, these bulbs do the same, and although it is expected that one or the other bulb will flicker and dim before humming back to life, it is always a disappointing surprise. Unpredictable bulbs, so annoying. Flicker, blink, wane, darken. Then jump back to life.

 A kitchen tenebrous as I stand at the counter and handle a bowlful of bulbs, a head of garlic, a handful of shallots, long and narrow or short and plump, and onions. I shuffle and rub the onions, garlic, shallots in my hand, between my fingers, the flimsy, brittle layers of skin fall away. Slice off the ends and peel away the fresher, firmer skin, the oniony odor wafts up and tickles my nose, bites at me, threatening. I toss in handfuls, fistfuls of chopped onion, brush pinches of garlic, shallots off the blade of a knife glittering with the reflection of the bulbs overhead. Sizzle. Sizzle.

 Those damn lights, those cursed bulbs. How unpleasant it is to work in a kitchen with the lights on the lights off the lights on the lights off and one never knows when. Bright lights invigorate the cook, dim bulbs depress. My favorite kitchen was my favorite kitchen because of the lighting. Office lighting. Long, narrow neon bulbs (are they bulbs?) screwed into cream-colored metallic boxes, long and rectangular. The apartment had been offices before we moved in and renovated and I demanded those lights be preserved, not replaced by any number of bulbs, no matter how fancy the fixture. Those neon lights were bright and perfectly white, the better to shoot photos of food under, the better to stand at the counter and cook, cheered on as if listening to jazzy music.


Life is like an onion. You peel it off one layer at a time, and sometimes you weep. - Carl Sandburg 

 Fussy little buggers, bulbs are. How many ways to chop an onion so I don’t cry? I try, I do, but I blubber like a baby no matter taking precautions. All those Old Wives' Tales. A toothpick between the teeth, wearing a bandana over my nose and mouth, wearing goggles. chilling the onion before cutting. I have done it all. I breathe in and out through my mouth, tongue out. Stick a piece of bread between my lips, chill the onion in the freezer first or cut under running water. But to no avail. Up against a bulb, I burst into tears. Bulb-shaped tears.

 Occasionally, I bump into my husband as I dash out of the kitchen, tears coursing down my cheeks, nose running, arm pressed across my eyes, sobbing. What’s wrong?! he asks, “What happened?!” Ah no, I am simply cutting onions, I say as I fling open the nearest window and stick my head out. 

 Shallots have the same effect. French shallots, oniony shallots.

 For many years onions no longer made me cry. I never understood why. But now they do again.


Faith sees a beautiful blossom in a bulb, a lovely garden in a seed, and a giant oak in an acorn.
- William Arthur Ward

 We once took a trip to Holland. A road trip, we drove through tulip fields, through cities and countryside, Amsterdam and Haarlem and Leiden and The Hague. We bought packets and little mesh bags of bulbs for my mother-in-law who planted other bulbs, onions, garlic, shallots, radish bulbs and crocus and dahlia bulbs. Tiny, little brown bulbs, orbs no bigger than those big playing marbles, the shooters, my brother and I used to play with when we were kids, a jumble of pale brown bulbs dressed in crinkly skin. We bought a selection for my mother-in-law who loved gardening; tulips, a gift from Holland.

 She snipped open the packets, the tiny mesh bags, and out tumbled the bulbs no bigger than those glistening white bulbs, pearl onions, that keep cornichons company in brine, that find their way onto cocktail toothpicks among the platters of pâté. Papery skin, crinkly, like the skin on raw onions and shallots, those other bulbs, layers that slip off between one’s fingers leaving a trail of dirt and dust across the table. Bulbs huddled together in the palm of her hand, bulbs planted in pots to be kept indoors when icy weather threatened, pushed outside to be buried in a long, narrow row along the shrubs edging the garden, the tiny brown bulbs pressed into the dark, damp earth, to be loved and tended by a woman who loved her garden.

 Bulbs pushing their way above ground, first a tiny green bud, and leaves, arms waving, checking the air, checking the temperature, then bursting forth in ostentation, tulips yellow, pink, red, white, mauve. From a tiny, papery, brown bulb, this.


How Many Does it Take to Screw in a Light Bulb?

 Buxom fennel bulbs, creamy white tinged with green, springtime running through her veins. How I love fennel bulbs. Tough outer layers giving way to tender layers, superimposed, protective of the heart, layers overlapping elegantly like a cache-coeur (hide the heart) sweater that overlaps across the heart. Chop through the layers, the bulb is firm and crisp and allows the knife to slice through thinly, those thin strips almost transparent, translucid, opalescent. I rub my hands over her smooth surface, follow the curves, and breathe in her perfume.

 Feathery greens capping the bulb, waving, a brush of green, fennel fronds, chopped off and fed to Piggy the guinea pig who adored fennel bulb greens. Slender stalks likes arms raised above the head, the bulb. Pull the arms and crack off layers.

 A hefty fennel bulb somehow not hefty but voluptuous, zaftig in Yiddish, because there is something so elegant, so feminine about the fennel bulb. Slice through the bulb, take a bite of the crunchy fennel for a hint of licorice, anise, sweet yet not.

 My husband adores celeriac, that other bulb that I can easily call bulbous. Unlike the smooth, creamy, alabaster fennel, this bulb is ugly, gnarled, splotched with brown. A rustic bulb. A thick, hardy splay of green sticking out of its bulbous, knobby head, an outer skin tough and rough and earthy. Lusty to fennel’s sensuous, celery to fennel’s anise.

 I love fennel bulbs, slivered into paper thin slices and tossed in a salad, or chunked and roasted drizzled with olive oil until sweet and sexy, or simmered in a big pot of chicken soup until so tender it is falling apart, imparting a deeper, smokier flavor than any onion could.

 My husband adores celeriac as the French do, grated and smothered in mayonnaise. Or prepared like those other peasant roots, potatoes, turnips, rutabagas, grated, chopped, roasted, baked or simmered and puréed.


Radishes, small, pink and peppery. When I see radishes, I think of my father but not because he was small, pink and peppery but because he loved them. And so do I, eaten like they are; dipped in salt, in salads or on bread with fresh butter is a treat but I also like them roasted like this, milder but still crunchy.

ILVA'S BALSAMIC VINEGAR AND ROSEMARY ROASTED RADISHES

A bunch of radishes
A sprig of rosemary
Salt
Good balsamic vinegar
Extra-virgin olive oil

   Clean the dirt from the radishes and cut off the leaves. Divide in halves and put in a bowl, add salt, 1-2 tbs balsamic vinegar and 4-5 tbs olive oil and then mix it all well before pouring it all in an oven-proof form. Bake in a pre-heated oven (200°C/390°F) for 15-20 minutes.

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Monday, February 16, 2015

Fat


Kill the Fatted Calf

 Fat spitting angrily, bubbling and seething, hissing and spattering violently. No matter the fat, like a woman scorned, it begins cool, calm, and collected. Quite placid. Some fats (butter) smell oh-so sweetly, fresh as the morning dew. Cool to the touch, that fat invites tasting, allows being handled, rubbed into flour for crusts, crumbles, and biscuits. At room temperature, that fat is oh-so smooth, spreading across a slice of fresh brioche, whipping into frosting or cake batter, whisking into a sauce, adding body and shape. Luscious, velvety, a beautiful pale yellow the color of tulips or roses. Sexy fat.

 Some fats (olive oil, vegetable oil), may have a sharper smell, a bit wild, of the outdoors, some none at all, like an unknown, a mystery. Slick and slithery, shining and glittering, that fat shimmers down as a waterfall, flavoring what is bland or balancing what is too robust, binding groups of ingredients together into the perfect vinaigrette, mayonnaise, pesto, cubes of tomato for bruschette, a swirl into a bowl of soup. A drizzle, a stream, a smattering, a hint. Slick and slithery, no better beauty product, rubbed into the skin for softness and glow. Or a massage. Sensual fat.

 Other fats, pure, white shortening of the big, blue can, gooey and viscous, unctuous (a bit like Uriah Heap), glossy, like brilliantine, is so innocent, even-tempered and bland. Remember when you and your brother smeared it into your hair, shaping it into spit curls and a bouffant style. Or horns. Fat melted and stirred into batter or whipped, replacing butter when necessary. But only when necessary. Lard? Also. Fat Cat.

 Yet heat it up and beware! What was so placid and peaceful, so smooth and seductive, just put it over a flame and watch the transformation. It froths and foams (toss in the chopped onions the meat the veg the beaten eggs doughnut dough pancake batter cold liquid) and it sizzles and seethes violently! It spits and bristles, biting into skin, burning whatever it jumps onto. Fat flares up angrily like a shrew, tempestuous. Oh what a little heat will do.


To market, to market, to buy a fat pig. 
Home again, home again, jiggety-jig. 

Stuff it till Christmas and make a fat hog. 
Home again, home again, jiggety jog. 

 Low fat? Full fat? Always the dilemma. We love full fat fromage blanc, fromage frais, cheese and ice cream but as we get older the full fat of what we love to eat ends up… full fat on us. Slipping into my favorite jeans is like trying to get the toothpaste back into the tube. And so we eat low fat. Milk, cheese (we often wonder if it really is cheese), ice cream, sour cream, quark. They are each a little bit flimsy in the consistency department – add a bit more gelatin to the mix when making panna cotta with low-fat milk, and tiramisu or mousse with low-fat fromage blanc? Smile and think of the calories we are not consuming. And I readjust my halo.

 Low-fat cheese, milk, ice cream, fromage blanc makes us feel so very saintly. And, in our own peculiar reasoning, allows us to (gives us the excuse to) drink a glass or two of wine with dinner, sneak in an extra slice of bread, toss a handful of smoky lardons into the pan when preparing sautéed something or other. It allows us to (gives us the excuse to) order both a first course and dessert when dining out.


Jack Sprat could eat no fat. 
His wife could eat no lean. 

 I have a finicky son, who does not like fat. Jack Sprat. He refuses to eat veal or lamb for the fat, and he will only eat cuts of beef or pieces of chicken that contain not one iota of anything that he perceives to be fat. Gooey, sticky, stringy fat.

 He is incredibly wary when served, surveying the food on his plate like a detective whose very career is at stake if even the tiniest detail is overlooked, a clue missed no matter how insignificant, then, knife and fork in hand, picking apart each dish with the patience, concentration and skill of a surgeon.

 My culinarily persnickety son has a certain sobriety in his eating habits that, genetically, I have yet to trace. Gastronomically austere. He eats almost no vegetables, refuses soups and sauces with chunks of anything in them, he snubs cakes in which he perceives minuscule flecks of green or orange, and he dissects meat and casseroles to remove every last hint of fat or anything remotely foreign with a minutia that would make a forensic scientist proud.

 It is no wonder that he is rather like a stick figure. A long, tall drink of water, my mom calls him. Not an ounce of fat anywhere on his body. There is nothing corpulent, beefy or fleshy about him. No fat.

 Yet although he spurns fat on his food, fatty foods are his mainstay. French fries and breaded and fried anything, as long as there is no fat fat, piles of buttery chocolate chip cookies, pizza and burgers, slice after slice of cured, spicy sausages, pepperoni, chorizo, merguez, no matter the glaring presence of chunks of white fat stuck in the red, no matter the greasy fat that oozes from those meats when fried. “You should balance those fatty foods, your fatty diet with something healthy," I admonish. “Fruits and vegetables.”

 “But mom,” he reasons, “I’m not fat! You think all of this food is going to make me fat?”


It Ain’t Over Until the Fat….

 We are not a one-fat family. Butter ooh la la butter the French way, butter from Normandy cows, butter for cakes, pats of butter for creamy mashed potatoes, purée, tossed into grains for couscous, smeared across slices of toasted brioche and melted onto crêpes. Butter, the French fat, matières grasses. Gros - gras, like fat baby legs and grandmère’s arms.

 Or butter à l’américaine, sticks of butter, sticks of fat, melted onto pancakes, oatmeal, Poptarts, cornbread and for making mac & cheese oh yeah! Butter whipped into sugar for cakes and cookies galore. Eggs fried in butter.

 Olive oil, grasso mamma mia! Oil from the olives that grow across the boot, pressed and fragrant, strong and peppery or mild and sweet, green to gold. Oil, fat, for tossing into pasta, drizzling over chopped tomato bruschette; we used olive oil, of course, before moving to Italy but rather became addicted to it as a fat for cooking and eating both while living in olive oil country. Warm white cannelloni beans, a bit of salt and pepper and chopped fresh rosemary heady with olive oil. Carpaccio, topped with shaved Parmesan and thin slices of violet artichokes and rocket, rucola, all bathed in olive oil. Big fat gnocchi. Eaten simply, drizzled with olive oil. Spaghetti olio aglio peperoncino, slithery, slurped up, my husband’s favorite dish.

 But, ah, butter for risotto!

 Vegetable oil for baking. Moist and tender fat. Duck fat or chicken fat, schmaltz. Oy vey. Schmaltz and gribenes! Mmmmm rendered chicken or goose fat and the crispy chicken skin… like Bubbe used to make! A big pot of homemade chicken soup, Jewish penicillin, cooled, the fat skimmed and saved. Chicken fat and chicken skin fried up with onions and what a treat, fat from the Old Country! Better than bacon, at least for us Jews! Then schmaltz, the chicken fat, is used for traditional chopped liver or kugel, for making chicken or egg salad, dad’s way, or just spreading on bread, Challah or rye. The fat of my youth.

 Fatty Fatty two by four…


 Around my house, I’m known as the Risotto Queen. I learned the art of making risotto from our elderly Italian neighbor, matriarch of a large family, when we lived outside of Milan many years ago. I have been making it ever since and quite often, all year round. Once the basic recipe and the method for achieving a creamy, tender risotto is mastered, the variations are endless, from the traditional to the unusual, and following the seasons. When you are in the mood for something flavorful, rich and just a tad decadent, you must make this risotto with Gorgonzola, gooey, creamy and fatty, a bit salty, rather fruity, somewhat mellow and perfect when blended into a mild risotto. If you want a sweet touch, add sautéed pear! Forget the diet and enjoy. 

JAMIE'S RISOTTO WITH GORGONZOLA & PEARS
Serves 4 for a nice meal

350 g Italian rice for risotto, preferably Carnaroli or Arborio
1 small onion or 2 shallots, finely chopped
2 Tbs (30 g) butter or half butter-half olive oil
100 ml dry white wine
About 5 cups (1 ½ liters) vegetable broth or bouillon
250 g Gorgonzola cheese, cubed
1 – 2 Tbs (15 – 30 g) butter & 3 Tbs finely grated Parmesan cheese
Freshly ground pepper
1 – 2 Tbs (15 – 30 g) butter & 1 - 2 ripe pears, optional, peeled and cored, halved and in thin slices or small cubes

 Sauté the onion or shallot in the butter until tender. Add the rice and stir until coated in the fat and cook until the grains become translucent, about 2 minutes. Add the wine and cook, stirring, until it is absorbed and the alcohol evaporated. Begin adding the broth, a ladleful at a time, stirring until each ladleful has been absorbed before adding the next. Continue cooking this way for around 18-20 minutes until all the stock has been added and the rice is cooked and creamy, with a slight bite.

 Add the Gorgonzola off the heat and stir until it is melted and blended in and the risotto is very creamy. Add the butter and Parmesan; return the pan to the heat for about 2 minutes and stir well until heated through.

 In a separate skillet, heat butter and cook the pear slices or cubes for just a couple of minutes until hot through and tender. Top the Risotto with the pears and serve.

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Monday, February 9, 2015

Toast

toast toaster

My hour for tea is half-past five, and my buttered toast waits for nobody. - Wilkie Collins, The Woman in White 

 I once read that it wasn’t the discovery of fire that differentiated man from beast, elevated man to a higher, more cultivated level (if I can say) but rather it was that man used fire to transform his food. Cook it. Roast it and toast it. Man stuck it on a stick and stuck it into the fire. (And I think that this is still, in some very primitive, primal way, our favorite way to cook and eat.)

 Campfires were always an integral part of Girl Scout Camp and really the only part of Girl Scout Camp I enjoyed. Real pork sausages (verboten at home) slid onto a stick and held over the blaze until the skin grizzled and bubbled and charred, the juices drip drip dripping into the flames with a sizzle. And marshmallows! Toasted marshmallows! Toasted marshmallows of Fourth of July barbecues with the family, toasted marshmallows of summer clam bakes at the cousins’ house up north, toasted marshmallows of youth group retreats following messy Sloppy Joes, toasted marshmallows after dad was done grilling the burgers and dogs, what meal cooked around a fire is complete without toasted marshmallows? Okay, I have to admit that those roasted sausages and those toasted marshmallows were the only leverage my parents had, the only reason I agreed to go to Girl Scout Camp. Marshmallows puffing up, bubbling, charring, burning lips and tongue but dive in one must! Blow once, blow twice and bite, the gooey mess barely held together by the charred outside slips down onto your chin, slurped up as quickly as the heat allows, fingers sticky.

 Now. Why are meats and sausages thus toasted not called toasted but roasted?

 Toast at the house, in the toaster, of course, but in the oven under the grill. That’s how my husband had always done it. And toasted open-faced sandwiches bubbling merrily under the grill, or baking sheets of day-old bread, too stale to be enjoyed as is, toasted under the grill and placed at the bottom of an empty soup bowl, onion soup, ugly and rustic but oh so fragrant, ladled atop, a generous amount of grated cheese and bake under the grill. But this time not toasted but browned. Go figure; something to ponder while blowing on one’s soup. The toast now growing soggy and melting into the broth.

 Toasted almonds, toasted pine nuts, toasted pecans, toasted pumpkin seeds. Toasting adds an earthier depth to those nuts, a richer, more intense nut flavor while developing a toasty taste! Croutons, buttered or oiled, maybe rubbed with garlic, tossed and stirred in a large baking pan and toasted until crisp. Toasted whole spices for curries, the toasty, spicy aroma filling the house.

 Toast. The toast of the town.

toast rack

Warm as toast.

 How did toast become the essence of comfort food? Warm and simple, it embodies something pure and childlike, that modest slice of toast. My mother would bring me two pieces of toast when I wasn’t feeling well, toast and tea or toast and fizzy soda to settle my tummy. Just butter puddling in the center of the hot bread, a knife to smear it around, that salty butter. And a banana. Toast and banana and a drink.

 Toast. A restorative, gentle on the tummy. And warm. Somehow so reassuring in its plainness, its earthy flavor of toasted bread, a flavor of toasted nuts.

 As I got older and became an adult, toast has always and still is my comfort food, light, uncomplicated, with just a bit of butter or even peanut butter melting against the heat of the toast. And a banana when not feeling well or when a headache has me curled up in bed. Now my sons know just what to prepare for me, bring to me, warm toast on a tray.

 Or not. When I am sad or when I am frazzled, when I am savoring the sweetness of a moment or two alone, I simply crave toast. With butter or sometimes with peanut butter. A book open on the table next to me, two slices of white bread slipped into the toaster, two slices of toast being buttered quickly while the heat still has the power to melt that butter. Or peanut butter. Sometimes I’ll be lured into dusting the buttered toast with cinnamon sugar like when I was a kid, a special Saturday morning treat.

 Now my husband has brought a twist on that tradition of warm toast into our home. French Toast. Ah! Pain Perdu, they call it, lost bread. Instead of just toasting stale white bread, brioche, or wheat, otherwise lost, revivifying and giving new life, a transformation to that stale bread, he drags it through milk, through egg and tosses it into a heavily buttered skillet and… toasts? Fries. Less comforting than decadent, say I, for French Toast was always a special Sunday night treat for dinner! With maple syrup! But for a Frenchman, French Toast, pain perdu, is comfort food, plain and simple.

 And he looks at me, his smile as warm as toast.

toast jam

The privileges of the side-table included the small prerogatives of sitting next to the toast, and taking two cups of tea to other people's one. - Charles Dickens, Martin Chuzzlewit

 I’m always hungry. Since I was a kid, I rarely ate, rarely eat only three times a day. Breakfast, lunch and dinner but in between! Snack time, some call it. I call it necessary sustenance. And it usually involves toast. I’m a carb addict. Toast with cheese – melted or otherwise – toast with butter – salted or not – toast with jelly – mainly, necessarily cherry except twice a year when only bitter orange will do – toast with peanut butter – creamy or crunchy, this is my best comfort food.

 When I was a kid, toasted Poptarts was what I ate. Unfrosted, of course, usually cherry. I would toast the Poptart and, when it was still very hot, I would place a thin pat of salted butter on it and watch it melt then eat my salty-sweet treat. The next best thing was hot buttered toast with a lavish blanket of cinnamon sugar; the crusts and edges stay crisp while the center sinks, a layer of buttery wet atop a toasty underneath, giving a wonderful yet delicate crunch. Now, in a fit of nostalgia, I will toast white bread and eat it with slippery, melty peanut butter or buttered toast topped with jam. But a baguette toasted – a chunk cut off, sliced in half lengthwise and shoved sideways into the toaster – is for when I’m feeling like a grownup.

toast cincin

I propose a toast to mirth; be merry! - Victor Hugo, Les Misérables

 A glass of wine at dinner is almost a daily thing, a ritual of sorts. And more often than not, we raise our glasses in a toast. To us! These days, we have quite a bit to toast, to happiness to health to the hotel to love to success. 

 Always look into the other’s eyes while making a toast, say the French, and maintain eye contact throughout and when securing the toast with a drink from the glass. Tchin tchin! Whatever you do, never put down the glass once the toast is made until you have taken that sip. Through the teeth. Past the gums. Look out stomach, here it comes! Down the hatch!

 And we clink glasses. And drink. A room full of friends, around the table, corks are popped and we toast to friendship, luck, health, happiness. Clink clink clink everyone’s glass touches everyone else’s, a ritual, a tradition, we cannot miss one! Mess up a toast? If eye contact isn’t made, isn’t held, if one’s glass doesn’t clink against every other glass ooops that means seven year’s bad sex, say the French. You’re toast! Does the sound of the clicking clinking of glass, of crystal, drive away the evil spirits? One would hope so for when we toast we toast for love, luck, friendship, health, success.

 Cheers! Tchin tchin! Sláinte! Bottoms up! L’Chaim! Salute! À votre santé! Skål! Prost! How many ways to toast? For he’s a jolly good fellow!

 Yes, husband and I are in the habit of toasting whenever we sit down to a meal and pour a glass of wine, one for him, one for me, or when we gather together with family or friends. It is a tradition, a ritual, somewhat of a superstition, for good luck. And these days, we do need it.

 I drink to the general joy o’ the whole table. - William Shakespeare, Macbeth

toast recipe

 There are so many things you can make with toast, it is like a blank canvas invented for the creation of sweet or savoury dishes, or just honest plain toast which, at times, nothing in the world can beat as the best comfort food in the world. I'd like to propose a fresh lunch toast with shaved fennel and radishes topped with toasted pine nuts, black pepper, salt and extra-virgin olive oil. It is as simple as it looks!

ILVA'S TOAST WITH SHAVED FENNEL, RADISH AND TOASTED PINE NUT SALAD

This is so simple I have to write a recipe sketch instead of a regular recipe: Trim a fennel bulb and cut it into quarters and cut each quarter into thin slices lengthwise (because it looks nicer!). Trim some radishes and slice these thinly as well. Now you can either heap these directly on the slices of toast you have ready, rustic bread is best, sprinkle pine nuts, lots of black pepper and salt over and then a good drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil to finish it off or you can put the ingredients in a bowl and mix before you put them on the toast, the choice is yours!

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Monday, February 2, 2015

Flour


Flour Power 

 My great-grandfather milled flour. He lived in a small town in Russia where he owned two mills, one for flour, one for schnapps, both from grain, salt of the earth, manna from heaven. For who can live without flour and alcohol, bread and drink? 

 And this great-grandfather would travel from town to town, milling grain into flour, expert that he was. But he wouldn’t always keep his nose to the grindstone, so to speak, for he had a reputation as a lothario, handsome and wealthy that he was. He would dust the flour from his lapels and court the young women until, of course, he met the woman who would become my great-grandmother, a beautiful young woman close to thirty years his junior. 

 Did he woo her with, shower her in flowers? In flour? 

 My other great-grandfather made and sold ice.


 I would stand at the long, wooden kitchen table and knead dough for bread or pizza once, sometimes twice a week and the dog, a tremendously large, unusually tall boxer named Kikka, our pet, would hover around, quietly observing me work. Flour, water, salt, sugar and yeast, eggs, honey and milk when making Challah for the Friday night meal, but always flour, water, salt, sugar and yeast would be blended in a large bowl and then pushed out onto the table onto a heap of flour poof.

 And I would knead and knead, dusting, scattering a fine blanket of white across the mound of dough, scoop up the dough and fling a fine blanket of white across the wooden surface of the table like a snowy landscape. And knead.

 In a cloud of flour.

 And then I would notice the nose and the tongue. While I had been concentrated on my dough, spellbound by the rhythmic movements of my kneading only broken by the quick scattering of flour, Kikka would have noiselessly approached the table, nose up, enthralled by the scent of the flour, and, my attention elsewhere even as she was just at my feet, place the side of her snout against the edge of the table and silently begin licking the flour that had been nudged to the table’s edge. Large pink tongue would flick out and flick in, how she loved flour.

 Now I have a much smaller dog whose snout, much less his tongue, would never reach anywhere near the countertop where I now blend flour, water, salt, sugar and yeast into dough, where I scatter a find dusting of flour atop the mound of dough and across the work surface and knead and knead once, sometimes twice a week. But he, like his predecessor, adores flour, can sense when I am working with flour, can detect the odor of flour whenever I pop open the plastic box filled with the white flour, whenever I am baking. Yet scolded once too often for insinuating himself under my feet, he waits (im)patiently until I am done, dough resting or bread in the oven, the box of flour stored away, and he scurries into the kitchen just to lick, not silently as did Kikka but rather snuffling lustily, the flour from the floor in the spot where I was standing. For there is invariably, always, a fine dusting of flour on the kitchen floor in the spot where I bake.


Flowers (flours) are the sweetest things God ever made, and forgot to put a soul into. - Henry Beecher, Life Thoughts, 1858

 “Bread is the king of the table and all else is merely the court that surrounds the king.” once said the novelist Louis Bromfield and if he be right I say flour is the king of the kitchen, all else is merely the court. What can’t flour do, what magic does flour not create? From breakfast to dinnertime, from snack time to dessert. Pancakes and waffles, cinnamon toast. Or crêpes! Batter thickened, breads made, rounds sizzling on the griddle, a thin thread of steam rises from the toaster, inhale the aroma of breakfast.

 A spoonful of flour or a just a bit more and butter or milk, soup or gravy transforms into something else, thick and rich and worthy of a meal. Béchamel. Roux. Ah, the French, how did they know to add flour? Soup or gravy, from thin and watery thickens into dinner.

 Biscuits abundant with flour, and breads, muffins, scones, teatime! Sandwiches for lunch, blinis elegantly supporting a glistening mound of caviar or smoked salmon, crackers scooping up dip. 

 Pound, pestle, grind, flour from wheat, rice, chickpeas or chestnuts, each enriching whatever is made from such a simple ingredient, an innocent powder with a distinct texture, a unique flavor. Cake, what is cake? Cocoa powder, eggs, butter, milk and sugar but what without flour? Ah, a flourless cake! More a pudding, less a cake! And my clothing, my skirt, my shirt, my apron, my face and arms covered in white floury handprints. His or mine?

 Almond flour, sweet, earthy, nutty. Flour? Ground almonds, almond powder. Corn flour, so American (when not polenta and Italian), corn flour and I make him corn bread, corn pone, spoon bread, all-American. When he wears that shirt of cornflower blue it brings out the cornflower blue of his eyes. Sparkling.

 And the tenderness, light as water and as flour. – Pablo Neruda

 He offers me flowers I offer him flour, homemade with love.


Rolled in Flour

 Fish filets and chicken tenders dredged in flour, dragged back and forth, flipped and dragged back and forth again. Thick chunks of beef chucked into a shallow bowl of flour and tossed, pushed and swirled and rolled to coat. Lift out the fish filet, the chicken tender, the narrow tail end pinched between thumb and forefinger and shake off the excess flour. Scoop up the chunks of beef and, fingers slightly splayed, give a gentle shake to rid the meat of the excess of flour. Flour turned to paste clumped on the tips of my fingers, just impossible to shake, to push, to pick off. Flour turned to glue.

 Meatballs! Meatballs of beef or lamb or chicken or fish always tossed in flour before being baked or fried or simply tossed into sauce, the flour giving a golden, crispy coating and thickening the sauce at once. Some will call it alchemy, I can call it wizardry because the powers of flour, all the things flour can do never ceases to amaze me.

 Chickpeas become felafel; chickpeas ground and blended with onion and garlic, parsley and coriander, spices of Middle Eastern origin and shaped into balls in between the palms of your hands and rolled in flour. Fried chicken. I love fried chicken. Chicken rolled in flour and fried.

 Roll berries in flour, nuts in flour, chocolate chips in flour before stirring into batter will they sink or swim?

 Rouler quelqu’un dans la farine. To roll someone in flour. To trick, dupe, swindle, mislead someone and once again the French just know what to do with flour.


Crêpes are the basis of a very simple, homey and fun meal; we stir up a bowl of crêpe batter when the refrigerator is bare, no dinner plans have been made, and everyone is hungry. Everyone pulls up a stool to the kitchen counter and crêpes are made and handed out one by one. This recipe makes very tender, rich-tasting crêpes, perfect eaten with either a savory (crème fraîche & smoke salmon, ham and grated cheese…) or sweet (jam, fruit butter, sugar or Nutella) filling. But my favorite ways to eat crêpes are given below the recipe. 

JAMIE’S TENDER FRENCH CRÊPES

250 g / 8.8 oz flour
250 ml / 1 cup milk
250 ml / 1 cup cream
2 eggs
Pinch salt
1 Tbs sugar

 Whisk the eggs and the flour together until smooth, slowly pour the milk and cream into the flour and eggs, whisking continually until there are no lumps. Stir in the salt and sugar. Cover the bowl and allow to stand for at least an hour. Heat a skillet or pan (preferably nonstick) or a crêpe pan, rub butter or margarine around the entire surface (we use a paper towel rubbed across the surface of the butter or margarine then rubbed around the skillet); when the butter sizzles pour on a ladle of batter, swirl and tilt the pan until a thin coating of batter is spread evenly over the surface of the pan. Flip the crepe when the surface is bubbling and the underside of the crepe is browned. Cook until both sides are a golden brown. When making crêpes, the first crêpe is usually blond or very pale… the French say that this first crêpe is for the chef.

 I have two favorite ways to eat crêpes:
Sprinkle with sugar and squeeze on some lemon juice, fold into quarters and serve/eat.
Or smear the hot crepe quickly with salted butter, sprinkle on sugar, fold into quarters and serve/eat.


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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