City Leaves, Country Leaves
The falling leaves
Drift by my window
The falling leaves
Of red and gold
But I miss you most of all
When autumn leaves
Start to fall
- Johnny Mercer
Country leaves. I have a handful of polaroids of the two boys surrounded by autumn leaves. Lying on their backs in piles of crisp gold and brown with hints of the last green of the summer, arms spread out like angels in the snow. Or tossing armloads of leaves high in the air, at each other, their big dog in camouflage, her gold and brown coat dissimulated in the autumn wallpaper. The spread of meadow stretching away from and around the house in the middle of the woods and the cornfields welcomed a stunning carpet of leaves every autumn. The boys would snuggle into down coats or layers of sweaters, tug caps or plop pirate hats atop their heads, knot cowboy bandanas around their necks, carefully draw elegant curlicues of a moustache or thin cat whiskers between lips and nose and bounce excitedly out of the house and knee deep into the leaves.
Wheelbarrows pushed through the piles of autumn leaves, raking into mountains and tossing armloads into the cart. When the two little boys weren’t jumping feet first, joyfully, ecstatically into the mountains of leaves splashing them everywhere, their screeches of delight frozen in midair, captured in time with the snap of the camera.
City leaves, years later, the same beautiful golds and browns, splashes of red and subtly tinged with blue, lie in gutters, murky and wet, plastered up against the fences surrounding forbidden plots of ground in the grand cement squares that dot the city. Clumps of matted leaves collected atop the metal grills of drains, the dog delicately, deliberately stepping around them. Memories of kicking through heaps of leaves fade into sadness as our shoes now slosh through the dampness, pulling off sticky leaves from our shoes like peeling price stickers off the backs of books. No joy in the city autumn leaves.
Cook, Cook, drink your tea,
But save some in the pot for me.
We’ll watch the tea leaves in our cup
When our drink is all sipped up.
Happiness or fortune great,
What will our future be?
- Afternoon Tea at Pittock Mansion
A friend once offered to read my tea leaves, the same friend who believed in the healing powers of massage and proved it to my doubting mind. She did. We sipped tea from flea market cups, delicate and feminine, in the quiet of the house. When the tea had been drunk and the leaves settled into the bottom black and moist, she wiggled the cup back and forth before peering into the leaves where she saw my future.
I learned to wash spinach leaves from my brother. He purchased large sacks of dark green leaves, their huge thick stalks poking through the plastic. He would carry them home and dump them into the sink. He would yank up the faucet and let a powerful rush of water wash over the leaves, filling up the plugged sink. He would push the leaves, which had the stubborn tendency of floating back up to the top, bouncing up above the water level like excited children in the ocean, he would push them back down into the ice cold water. Up and down, up and down even as his fingers numbed. Swishing the leaves around in the sink, he would loosen the clumps of black earth clinging to the spinach. Grabbing bunches of leaves with both hands, he would lift the spinach out of the water and give a hearty shake. Drain the sink and start all over again, once, twice, thrice, until the dirt was gone, giving each single leave a final quick dash under running water just in case.
Without patting the leaves dry, he would toss them one by one into a large pot, pinching and snapping off the stems on their way. Fitting the lid tightly atop the pot, he would cook the spinach simply in the water left clinging to the leaves until they were shrunken to a mere shadow of themselves. He would lift the lid off the pot and we would peer through the steam to the heap of bright jade shimmering in the bottom. He would scoop out the leaves and put them aside in a bowl and pour off the liquid tinged with green, a lightly metallic scent curling up on the heat, and drink it like tea. “We don’t want to dump all the vitamins down the sink!” he would laugh.
It was almost a ritual, done with a bit of reverence.
Spinach leaves steamed and squeezed dry or at times sautéed in olive oil and finely chopped would be turned into spanikopita or turnovers; raw layered between cheeses and pasta and tomato sauce becoming lasagna; cooked into spinach soup with a splash of cream.
Sunday walks in the vineyards well outside the city, the vines lush with leaves. The end of the summer when it is still warm, the sun high in the sky, we pack a picnic of cold roasted chicken that we pull apart with greasy fingers, bags of potato chips, fruit and a bottle of chilled white wine (the glass slippery with condensation). We sit half in the sun, half in the shade on a red and white checked cloth and listen to the leaves flutter in the breeze, breaking the perfect silence. In the autumn, as the days grow shorter, the breeze just a bit cooler, the ground a bit damper and the leaves darker, gathered together into a dense wall through which the deep purple clumps of grapes peep, we walk briskly side by side as the dog trots back and forth. Hands pushed deep into pockets, we listen to the rustle of the leaves in the wind.
Husband had planted pots of grape vines on our terrace in Milan. He draped them up and over, in and out the wires he laced from one edge of terrace to the other. Each year as the summer arrived in the city, the leaves would appear and reappear pushing themselves along the wires determined to reach the other side. Each year the leaves would grow in thicker, more lush, a deeper color of verdant. The third year, the first small bunches of grapes appeared, at once silly in their meagerness and fabulous in the magic of fruit created out of these city vines. And all summer long we lived out on that terrace under a canopy of leaves.
She had a mess of pretty little pale green leaves in a basket. The leaves were covered with a fine down, matching the feathery soft mauve-hued blooms dotted throughout. I asked her what it was and she said “borage” and explained how it is cooked. She scooped up a handful of the herbs and I saw that her nail polish, chipped in places, was the same vivid blue as the flowers.
There were piles of raw beets dressed in dusty deep magenta, which threaded its bright, colorful way up into the leaves creating an intriguing contrast against the grass green of the leaves.
There were piles and piles, mountains of lettuces, a jumble of leaves. Tough and tender, curly, frizzy, straight or gently curved, gently curled. Some frilly as a princess' gown. In all shades of green.
A jumble of leaves in a box, bundles of fresh leafy herbs knotted with thin rubber bands. Pretty feminine little leaves of chervil; voluptuously plump basil, the leaves as smooth as a woman’s skin; a fan of chives, more stalks than leaves but how I love the burst of long, thin twig-like greenery and I am urged to bring it to my face and brush it across my cheek. Sprays of parsley, the leaves dancing much more gaily than the others. The fresh coriander, my favorite, its leaves teasing me, fooling me into thinking just maybe it is plain, ordinary parsley except when pinched, the leaves emit an exciting citrusy odor, something exotic, inviting me to cook. The poor leaves of sage are shoved willy-nilly in a plastic sack, their beautiful silvery shimmer, their soft downy veil smothered in plastic, forbidden to charm.
Black and white photographs found in a cabinet hidden away for so many years, so many decades. Black and white photographs, some pale grey and grainy, others so inky black they become hard to decipher. My father in the navy, in the Pacific, on board his ship with his flying buddies. His lanky body, a “long tall drink of water” my mom would say, so like my brother’s, so like my son’s, his grin boyish and innocent even in a time of war.
Photographs of a gathering of men in sailor’s whites under a tremendous pagoda, a gate in some Asian city. My father on leave.
I first tasted the marvelous combination that is a spinach and feta when my brother made me a Spanikopita when I was in college. I fell in love. Over the years, I began making this filled pastry for my own family, yet in a burst of ingenuity I decided one day that it would make individual packets rather than one large pie. I prepare them when we have company as part of an apératif served with glasses of white wine or as a great lunch served with a salad. This, I must point out, is the only way my younger, most persnickety son will eat spinach, which is no small feat and certainly proof of how delicious it is. My original recipe calls for the filling to be wrapped in filo dough but Ilva turned it into something even more special by wrapping this tasty filling in puff pastry.
JAMIE’S SPINACH AND FETA-FILLED PUFF PASTRY LEAVES
25 – 27 oz (700 - 750 g) fresh spinach, well-cleaned and coarsely chopped
3.5 - 7 oz (100 – 200 g) feta cheese, drained and crumbled *
1/2 cup (60 g) grated parmesan cheese, fresh when possible
2 large eggs, lightly beaten (if you make this in pie form, use 3 eggs)
2 Tbs chopped fresh mint leaves
¼ tsp ground nutmeg freshly ground pepper and a salt to taste
1 lb (500 g) excellent quality ready-made or homemade puff pastry
1 – 2 egg whites only to brush the outside of the pastry leaves
* the amount of feta added is quite variable and depends upon how much you want - we like more, Ilva's family less; do not forget that it is a salty cheese so you may want to adjust the amount of salt in the recipe in correlation with how much feta you use.
Wash the spinach leaves, shake off excess water and put into a large pot with a tight-fitting lid. Steam the spinach until wilted, then pour into a colander to drain. Allow to cool until easy to handle. Press out all the excess water you can with your hands, then gather up the cooked spinach and place in the center of a clean but old cloth dishtowel. Wrap or roll up the spinach in the towel and squeeze for all you are worth, squeezing out as much water as possible. Place the spinach on a cutting board and chop.
Put the chopped spinach in a mixing bowl; add the crumbled feta and parmesan cheese, the chopped mint, nutmeg, salt and a good grinding of pepper (when adding salt, do so sparingly; remember that the feta is salty). Blend well. Now beat the eggs until well blended and stir them into the spinach-cheese mixture.
Preheat the oven to 400°F (200°C).
Cut out an even number of shapes from the puff pastry, in single serving sizes (we came up with about 12 leave shapes to make 6 pastries). Divide the spinach-feta mixture evenly between half of the shapes – the bottom piece of puff pastry – and carefully spread it evenly allowing at least ½ inch to ¾ - inch all around the filling free for sealing the top to the bottom. One by one, place a top puff pastry shape on top of a bottom piece with the filling, gently pulling so the edges meet all the way around. Press and pinch to seal well. Continue until all 6 are done and sealed. Brush the top of each pastry with egg white. Using a sharp knife, carefully create a leaf design in the top without cutting all through the layer of puff pastry.
Place the Puff Pastry Leaves on a baking sheet (this can be lined with ovenproof parchment paper) and bake in the preheated oven until puffed and the top is a nice golden brown, about 15 – 20 minutes.
Remove from the oven and serve.