Monday, October 28, 2013


Civilization has taught us to eat with a fork, but even now if nobody is around we use our fingers. – Will Rogers

 One’s first meal in Paris, one’s first steak frites (for, of course, that’s what it has to be) sitting in a café in the summer heat, huddled around a table much too small for three what with the white ceramic plates, all of the cutlery and heavy, mismatched water glasses pressed together, jostling for space, on nubbly white paper placemats with une carafe d’eau, s’il vous plaît and the ubiquitous trio of sel-poivre-moutarde, three tiny jars clutched in their metallic frame, balanced in the center of it all, salt-pepper-mustard. Out on the sidewalk (for where else would one dine in Paris in July?), I chatter with my lunch companions, two Americans visiting for the summer that I met as only Americans do while in a foreign land: randomly, happily, outside standing in a line for some museum or other. Three steak frites and something to drink and we wait for our first meal while a trio of chic young men at the next table stare at us, feeling absolutely no embarrassment or even mildly apologetic for the intense visual intrusion.

 Finally, our food comes and we dig in: fork in left hand, knife in right, cut off a slice of steak and, as if on cue, in perfect synchronization, we all three switch over fork to right hand, knife to left and scoop up that bit of meat on the fork and roaring laughter ensues and high fives and Voilà je t’avais dit! Américains! rings out from the young Frenchmen at the next table! That dreaded cultural cutlery switchover gave us away!

There was an immense fondue, to which the prelate paid great attention; to the surprise of all he ate it with a spoon, instead of a fork, as people and been used to do. - The Physiology of Taste, Brillat-Savarin

 Every culture has its food traditions, its culinary superstitions.

 My husband makes cheese fondue. He adores making cheese fondue and his sons love nothing more than eating cheese fondue. When we lived in the suburbs of Paris, we were a stone’s throw from a tiny little restaurant shaped and decorated like a storybook Swiss chalet; when one opened the door to enter or exit the restaurant a blast of faux snow showered over whomsoever stood on the sill. We would take the boys a Friday evening and pull up chairs around a heavy rustic wooden table and order a big pot of bubbling cheese fondue. Little bowls of cubed baguette and long thin two-tined fondue forks were set at each place.

 This is when my husband informed us quite solemnly of the tradition of the fondue fork. One spears a bite-sized chunk of bread on the tines of the fondue fork especially designed for the purpose. And an art it is: dunk the chunk of bread into the thick, gooey fondue and with a slow but firm twist of the wrist one at once coats the entire bread cube, scoops up extra and carries it to one’s mouth in one quick and fluid movement. But fondue eater beware! The first of the party to lose his or her chunk of bread in the cheese fondue, whoever dips and dunks and comes up bare, bread submerged in the cheesy quicksand, the prongs of the fork forlornly naked and embarrassingly breadless must perform a gage, a forfeit, a penalty. Whatever the other decides.

 He now makes cheese fondue at home regularly every winter. We purchased a set of six fondue forks and huddle around the terra cotta pot set in the center of the coffee table in front of the television, good blockbuster on. Bowls of roughly cubed baguette sit between the dinner plates. Fondue forks poised, the eating begins, each one carefully pressing the bread onto the fork prongs, verifying that it is well secured and begins dunking, scooping, rushing the cheesy bread to one’s mouth, eyes darting from one fork to the next, vigilant to spy the first to lose his (or her!) bread from the fork.

The young King Louis X offers a long shiny object with two points, two delicate speared prongs, to his bride Queen Clémence. 'Look, dearest,' he said, 'look at the surprise I've brought you. Oh, it's not a jewel, but a curiosity,’ cried Louis, laughing, 'don't be frightened, this is no weapon for wounding; it's a little fork to eat pears with.” – Les Rois Maudits, The Accursed Kings, Maurice Druon

 My mother bought up collectibles, now stored away in curio cabinets around the house. She didn’t have much to spend when she wandered up and down the aisles of the antique fair that came through town once a year, but she discovered the most wonderful objects. She looked for pretty little odds and ends, garnet rings and cameo brooches, tiny little pins that had Baby etched in delicate little script. And silver. Forks and spoons with handles blooming with roses. Decorative forks and spoons etched prettily, long and slender or short and stubby. Forks and spoons for dessert or fruit, puddings or coffee. 

 On one trip back home, I took all of those pretty forks and spoons, wrapped them in sweaters and socks, tucked them into my suitcase and bought them back home with me. I have two favorites, both with my mother’s special rose handle pattern, each stem twining like slender branches ending in a perfect rose. One is a beautiful fork reminiscent of old Morocco, three curved and tapered tines etched with curlicues, a rose sitting at the space where the three tines form one. The other a two-pronged pear fork just like the one, I imagine, Louis offered to Clémence. Both forks are rubbed and tarnished, the patterns faded with time, yet so beautiful.

The man to whom the order for the oysters had been sent, had not been told to open them; it is a very difficult thing to open an oyster with a limp knife and a two-pronged fork; and very little was done in this way. – The Pickwick Papers, Charles Dickens

 I have come to many forks in the road of my life.

 A fork in the road. Left or right, which road to take. There have been so many, a string of them and I more often than not took the wrong fork in the road. Stay at home or go away, this job or that, this career or the other? Why are we not handed a road map at the beginning of our journey? Why not a compass as we are let loose in this labyrinthine maze of winding roads, paths that split and bifurcate, each pointing in an opposite direction. At each fork in the road I would pause to think. Stopped in my tracks, I would squint towards the future, stare hard, try and make out the hazy forms in the distance, yet the signs were blurred or half-hidden by objects. People lined each fork, just out of speaking distance. They seemed to be waving their arms and calling, urging me to come this way or that, follow them, make a decision or a series of choices without ever letting me in on the secrets to what lies further up the road. Some quiet yet urgent voice inside guided me like a puppet on invisible strings, dancing towards the future. At each fork in the road, something or other inexplicably convinced me that this path was the best. Only much later did I realize that I had been trumped, hoodwinked, lied to.

 I have come to so many forks in the road of my life and have chosen the wrong fork each time (except for one), directed my steps in the wrong direction, towards the wrong branch of that fork. Yet, somehow or other, all roads must lead here for where I am is just where I should be.

Fork: An instrument used chiefly for the purpose of putting dead animals into the mouth. – Ambrose Bierce 

 Forks short and stubby, three tines that scrape along the shell like fingernails on a chalkboard. Scoop the slippery oyster up and tug the flesh away from the shimmering iridescent shell. Carry the fork to your mouth very carefully or the beast will slither off the tines.

 Cake and coffee, spoon or fork? Fork is the ideal tool for eating cake. Slice off a chunk, spear it with the tines and carry it to the mouth. Any crumbs left on the plate are easily collected, pressing the back of the fork into the bits until they stick and clump in between the tines and to the silver, licking them off the curved back of the utensil. So much more efficient than a spoon which requires the use of the fingers.

 Though stirring one’s coffee with a fork is absolutely forbidden. Stirring coffee with a fork is bad luck.

 On the other hand, placing a slice of toast in the fork of the biggest tree in an apple orchard ensures a good crop. Drop a fork on the ground and you will receive an unexpected visit from a woman. Or maybe a man. I long ago learned that how one places one’s cutlery on an empty dinner plate when one finishes the meal is cultural. Fork on top of knife or lying next to it? Tines up or tines down?

I'm very fond of finger food, such wonderful small morsels of flavour and perfect snacks to sweep off the table in passing. I especially like to use larger pasta shapes like conchiglioni or paccheri like in this recipe, they are the perfect mouthful. For months I have been circling round carrots, wanting to use them in a recipe but never having the time or even been able to decide what to do but today it was crystal clear to me, paccheri and carrots-a perfect combination.

15 pieces

15 paccheri tubes or conchiglioni
6 carrots on the large side
sprig of fresh thyme
2 Tbs chopped parsley
3-4 tbs pine nuts
extra-virgin olive oil

   Cook the pasta al dente. Drain and drizzle a little olive oil over to prevent the tubes from sticking together.

   While the pasta cools, grate the carrots coarsely and cook them gently in a skillet with olive oil, thyme and salt until soft and golden. 

   Toast the pine nuts in a non-stick pan until they have lightly coloured; add them and the chopped parsley to the carrots and mix.

   Use a small spoon to fill all the pasta tubes, put them on a platter and serve with small forks stuck into each. 

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Monday, October 21, 2013


 Sage grows like weeds in Europe. Plant a pot of sage in a terra cotta pot on a sunny balcony or tucked into the dirt just one step outside the kitchen door, the plants take root, and flourish. Wild sage clings to roadsides and makes country paths its home, swelling and sweeping like the skirt of a bridesmaid’s gown.

 A terrace in Milan overflowing with decorative pots, a stretch of green field sidling up to sliding glass doors in Nerviano, at the bottom of the steps in a Parisian backyard, a narrow strip of balcony in stone and ironwork in Nantes; tiny plants cupped between two hands and enormous brushes of sage flowing; leaves tiny and delicate, leaves vast and plump. Thriving.

 Just a step outside, a hand stretched out a window, no exertion at all, I pluck a leave or three from the plant, pinch just at the base of the willowy stem. I cradle a handful of leaves in my palm delicately or drop them one by one into my apron gathered up into a makeshift basket. Rosemary, hardier, unyielding, more resistant to my touch, must be snipped off with scissors before joining the sage. Sage being so much more willing to follow me into the kitchen and become some divine creation. Feathery soft to rosemary’s spiky, prickly personality.

 I knew nothing of sage in my Florida youth. No sage grew in the dry, arid, swelteringly hot land of lemons, watermelon and mangoes. Flecks of dark colored the packs of breadcrumb dressing opened, soaked in broth and used to stuff the yearly Thanksgiving bird. A pinch of dried, faded and crisp, tossed into an omelet, always paired with rosemary and thyme, a college girl’s automatic reflex, jars lined up on the shelf near the stove.

 It was a tussle, a battle of wills to choose the colors for those walls. Our first home and we could do anything we liked, paint it a riot of color if we wanted to and we did, finally reaching compromise. Raspberry for the dining room, charcoal and moss green for the family room, red and white in the kitchen. The living room boasted a shockingly wide expanse of wall and another of window, the one greedily soaking in the brilliant sunlight that flowed in from the other. Even when the days were grey, the skies pewter, even when the windows were spattered with rain and the wind howled, that room seemed joyous and bright.

 We paired a deep, emotionally wrought, wildly vibrant burnt orange with a softly opulent, quietly subdued sage. When the sun swept through the room, those orange walls cried out in fury or flaunted a pumpkin enthusiasm, yet retained its holy orangeness through thick and thin. The sage walls, as opposite in personality as in position, glowed like a bashful schoolgirl winning a prize. Suffused with light, the walls flushed a golden warmth. When the sun moved across the room, as the day waned, the walls were permeated with muted sage.

 The philosophical sages told us that sage is good for a plethora of diseases. “Three spoonfuls of the Juice of Sage” is a cure-all or Sage boiled in water or honey makes an efficient gargle. “Decoctions” made with sage and wine and “fomented” on the body will take away every pain. Entrepreneurial sages brewed pots of sage for tea and sold it to the Chinese. Governmental sages ordered the planting of sage in royal gardens for cooking, medicinal uses and lucrative trade. Culinary sages discovered how well sage flavored meats and stews and brought it into the kitchen forever.

“There lived a sage in days of yore,
 And he a handsome pigtail wore;
 But wondered much and sorrowed more
 Because it hung behind him.”
- William Makepeace Thackeray

 Soyez sages, les enfants! French grandmothers urge little French grandchildren everywhere. With the sharp shake of a finger and a nod of the head, an amused grin playing on the lips. Little heads bobbing, eyes wide, innocence spread across faces.

 Sois sage! Fait pas de bêtises! This lighthearted warning from parent to child to behave, be a good child, not to get into mischief can be heard morning, noon and night in every French home. The expectation, the admonition, the warning lies smoldering just underneath the surface: “Study hard, behave in school, follow the rules and listen to your elders” swathed in humor and kind words.

 Sois sage! From lover to lover, wife to husband, husband to wife, a peck on the cheek as the one shows the other out the door. Sois sage! Behave! The phrase hangs between the two of them, part recommendation, part sage counsel, part warning, half playful teasing, half implied judgment. Eyes meet, daring the other to lean in the wrong direction, forcing an innocent grin. Sois sage! 

 Sage comme une image! As good as gold. Or maybe just a dot too good… is the innocence exuded for real or simply a front, a painted face? Sage comme une image! Seen and not heard. The picture of innocence. As still and quiet as a photograph.

Warm and tender, scones are best known as teatime snacks slathered with butter, jam and clotted cream. Added a flavorful smoked cheese and pairing it with sage and spring onions, creates a wonderful treat to accompany a soup or salad lunch, a grilled meat dinner or a cheese and salumi platter for a scrumptious late afternoon wine party. Sage scones will work wonderfully with any full-flavored hard cheese such as cheddar, smoked cheeses or nutty gruyère, comté or similar.


3 cups (380 g) all purpose flour or 3 ¼ cups (390 g) pastry/cake flour
1 tsp sugar
¼ cup (45 g) non-fat dry milk powder or buttermilk powder
¾ tsp salt
1 Tbs baking powder
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
½ cup (150 ml) milk, buttermilk or water *
8 Tbs (120 g) cold butter
3-4 tsp sage leaves, chopped
9-10 tbs grated smoked cheese
1-2 trimmed and thinly sliced spring onion/scallions, optional

1 egg beaten with 1 tsp cold water for egg wash
More grated smoked cheese or grated Parmesan cheese for topping

* Milk gives slightly richer scone, buttermilk a slightly more tender, higher-rising scone with a touch of tang.

Preheat the oven to 450°F (230°C). Line one or two baking sheets with parchment.

In a mixing bowl, whisk together all of the dry ingredients, including the chopped sage, grated cheese and sliced spring onion. In a separate bowl, whisk together the eggs, milk and vanilla until well blended.

Cut the cold butter into cubes. Rub the butter into the dry ingredients using only the tips of your fingers, or cut the butter in using a pastry cutter – this fat between the thin layers of flour is what gives the light, tender, flaky texture to the scone. Work quickly and rub until the mixture resembles course sand, but making sure you stop before the butter is completely rubbed in (there should still be tiny pieces of butter).

Add the lightly beaten eggs and gently blend into the flour/butter mixture, avoiding over mixing or kneading; stir just until all the dry ingredients are moistened. Over working this dough will give you tough scones.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and fold and gather it together just until it homogeneous. Cut the dough into two pieces and push each into a roundish shape. Place each piece of dough onto a parchment-lined baking sheet and gently and lightly press or roll into a disk about 7” (about 18 cm) and ½” (1 cm) thick – no thinner.

With a sharp knife, slice each disk into 8 wedges, gently pushing the wedges apart to separate. Alternately, use a round biscuit cutter to cut out thick rounds of dough.

Brush each scone with the egg wash, then sprinkle with grated cheese. Place in the preheated oven and bake for 7 minutes. At the end of the 7 minutes, turn the oven off and, without opening the oven door, leave the scones in the oven for an additional 8 – 10 minutes until golden brown.

The scones are best hot from the oven or warm.

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Monday, October 14, 2013


Boxed in.

 I grew up on boxed. Boxed everything, or nearly. Boxed sugary cereals lined up in the pantry. I loved the faint tick as I flicked the tab back into the slit before placing the box back in position, slipped into the vacancy it had left in the cupboard nestled among the other boxed goods. Boxed meals-in-one, just add canned tuna or ground beef. Boxed ice cream in gallon rectangles in chocolate, strawberry and vanilla; split open the carton and lay it flat on the kitchen floor, one foot on each end to allow the dog to lick the sweet cream off of the empty box. Boxed cookies stacked up easily on the countertop, boxed cake mix my father’s playground. Boxed pudding, boxed powder to be made into pancakes or muffins, bright blue and yellow boxes of macaroni and cheese. Boxes of Saltines and oyster crackers, boxes of slim packets to be transformed into oatmeal for a quick morning meal.

 The variety of treats that could be whipped up in a matter of minutes or just a few more from something boxed was beyond our wildest dreams and we loved it all.

 Shake n’Bake, Rice a Roni, Kraft and Hamburger Helper, I was a boxed child.

Pandora’s box.

 4th grade. And 5th. And 6th. Decorated boxes sitting on the corner of each desk, a school assignment in the guise of holiday tradition. Out came the scissors and paste, the crepe and tissue papers in pristine white and delicate shades of pink or bright blood red, frilly paper doilies and shiny sparkly hearts and handfuls of glitter. From old worn shoebox to special Valentine box filled with a schoolgirl’s longing and desires.

 With each tiny colored heart glued, each shake of silver glitter, my heart would pound as my mind flitted from boy to boy, from schoolgirl crush to schoolgirl crush, wondering who would slip a plain white envelope carefully inscribed with my name into my Valentine box, which classmate was, at this very moment, agonizing over a pile of store-bought Valentine’s Day cards, choosing just the right one for me as I was for him. I would finger the pile of tiny sweet candy hearts, each etched with a message of love, and debate whether or not to slip a few into this envelope or that and wonder if he – one or the other - would do the same for me and what words would he choose?

 A week before that most emotional, angst-ridden of holidays, we would carry our boxes to school, walk the walk into the classroom and gently, lovingly but oh-so self-consciously place it on the corner of our desk for all the world to see, glancing jealously from desk to desk, box to box. The more self-assured of us, the popular ones, would bring in bigger boxes, knowing that the pile of Valentines that would be pushed through the slit would necessitate the space of an adult’s shoebox. The rest of us, grade school ugly ducklings, could pray all we wanted but knew in our heart of hearts that our own box would be stuffed with the minimum, the Valentine’s cards declaring faithful and long-lasting friendship, the “have a great day” cards, and our own beating hearts would sink in our chest as we gently pulled each card out of its envelope and glanced at the signature.

 A Pandora’s box of truths, evil and hope.


Boxed candy.

 Boxed chocolates, the sweetest gift. He once told me that he would never offer me chocolates, as chocolate was a vice and he would feed no vice. Yet each and every Valentine’s Day, I find a small box of chocolates on my lunch plate, a smile playing upon his lips.

 Trips back home mean spending afternoons with my mother at the shopping mall, stopping at Grimaldi’s on the way home for boxes of chocolate coconut patties or chocolate dipped potato chips. Boxed gluttony and glee shared. Mother and daughter.

 Boys barely out of their teens wooed me with red roses and boxes of Godiva chocolates, romantic dinners and sentimental words. Heart-shaped boxes of hand-dipped chocolates or tiny truffles delicately rolled between the palms of the hands, dusted with snowy powdery sugar or bitter cocoa, dark and wild and lovingly handed out on Valentine’s Day.

Boxed seats.

 A collection of boxes sit on the marble top of my dresser in no particular order, no preference, no front row. Each box holds something precious to me. I shift the boxes around like the walnut game, a gem hidden under one shell, a sleight of hand whisking it away. Peep into the smooth wooden box that fits into the palm of my hand and one finds no stamps nestled inside as is promised by the elegant black script on the lid. Miniscule toys, a green pickle, a pink rat fink with one hard plastic ear showing definite signs of having been nibbled on by a young girl. Baby teeth, the first of my sons, A shell delicately coiled.

 The second box is as old as my parent’s marriage, a small square box of silky black lacquered wood embedded with tiny mother of pearl fish, a souvenir. Tip back the lid to find a jumble of jewelry; earrings from my husband, a ring that belonged to my mother, my father’s mezuzah from Israel, the sterling silver heart-in-hand pendant I had purchased for and offered to my grandmother so many years ago. Fading memories, chains intertwined, hearts and hands.

 Two lovely boxes, oh so feminine, boxes that once held the secret to womanhood, a touch of romance, the beguiling wiles of enchantment. Powder puffs atop a poof of scented dusting talc. Now these boxes hold bits and bobs of my own, flowers from my wedding bouquet, dried and preserved, brooches once belonging to my mother, a handmade bauble from my brother.

 One box more modern in chocolate brown leather, a gift from my husband holding mementos from my sons, tokens from my lover, keepsakes. It stands near the crystal box from my sister, my initials gracefully etched into the silver lid, offered to me at her wedding. And a tin box, not as beautiful yet loving and handsome in its own way. A metal box upon which is glued the invitation to my Bat Mitzvah, one like those offered to each of my siblings and I, now a catchall.

 Boxed Memories.

Sand box.

 It is somewhat odd to think how much in my cupboard is boxed. No matter how we endeavor to visit the market thrice weekly for fresh meats, seafood, fruits and vegetables, no matter how we are conscious of the good fresh will do to a body and how full of love a homemade meal is, we often rely on the boxed.

 Boxed soup snipped open, poured into a bowl, each and every tiny noodle, bean or perfectly cubed carrot scraped out with a spoon, is warm comfort indeed of a lazy, chilly evening. Boxed pasta in every shape known to man has a shelf to itself, the boxes fit into the space like a puzzle; spaghetti, angel hair, tubes, squiggles, bowties, macaroni and teensy weensy shells, our favorite. Boxed meals of the faux-Mexican style, our son’s passion; burritos and tacos, just add ground meat!

 Tiny boxes from far away. Pop open the box and find the can – a tin box, you could say! Sardines and tuna belly, mussels and squid. Keep the colorful box as a souvenir. Boxed risotto, aux champignons, asparagus or saffron, stands next to boxed tomato purée bright red; boxed coffee filters elbow for space among the boxed polenta, crackers and cookies.

 But boxed wine? Never! A slippery slope.

 Quicksand box.

 My little son always preferred the box to the gift.

 Catching images in a little square box, the old black plastic Brownie camera. Black and white images in boxy little squares, frilly edges, grainy moments in time, boxed in.

 Boxed into a character, the nice one, the quiet one, the shy one. Ensnared, trapped in a cartoon image, a persona I never wanted hung on my shoulders, wrapped around me like a cloak. How does one break out…put on the boxing gloves and pummeling, pounding one’s way out of the box. Boxed up on dreams and expectations.

 Boxes piled up on top of the cheese counter; boxes for eggs stacked up, tipping perilously, askew. Ask for six of those or half a dozen of the other, organic or free range, medium, large or extra large, boxed up to go. Boxes of mushrooms, figs and grapes and jostle for space on the fruitmonger’s stall. Boxed stinco di maiale, a favorite, from the Italian stand. Throw in the hand-ravioli filled with ricotta and pesto, boxed pretty as you please.

Finding a recipe for this post meant, and excuse the obvious pun, thinking out of the box because what boxed food can you make apart from the meals that are either already made or of the type open the box, add water and mix? The answered stared me in the face when I opened my fridge: eggs! Not only do they come boxed when we buy them, but they are also naturally boxed in by their shells. So frittata it was, I would have preferred to have used the combination potatoes and spinach which is my favourite but broccoli is just as good.

2 servings

3 eggs
4 tbs freshly grated parmesan cheese
2 potatoes
1 small broccoli
1 small chili pepper
extra-virgin olive oil

  Peel and dice the potatoes, divide the broccoli into smaller florets and braise them in olive oil with a little water in a skillet until they are soft. Add the chilli pepper if you want the frittata to have some sting to it.

   Meanwhile, whisk eggs, parmesan and salt with a few strokes, don't mix too much. When the vegetables are ready, pour the eggs over and fry on both sides

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Monday, October 7, 2013


 Cooking in Italy.

 Packets of polenta, rice and legumes were stuffed into my cupboard like never before. Grains are a poor man’s food, a poor man’s feast, I learned. Hardy, healthy, filling, grains to feed and nourish in thick times and thin, the fat and the lean. A shower of yellow grains into a pot of water; just watch how they cook, watch how they melt into a thick mass, popping and bubbling like quicksand in an old black and white horror flick. Thick and creamy, blended with butter and Parmesan and I can still feel, taste the individual grains.

 Grains of rice, arborio, carnaroli, vialone nano, baldo where to begin ? Nonna Anna taught me that the secret to the perfect risotto was stirring, stirring, cooking and adding liquid until the grains of rice melt together creamy and unctuous. Handfuls of Parmesan or the golden color of zafferano, a hint of wine or a chopping block of fresh garden herbs. But choose your rice well.

 Contadina di legumi e cereali. We discovered these packets of a colorful array of tiny beans and grains, split green peas, red beans and white beans, lentils and broad beans, faro and barley. Simmered in water or broth with sautéed onion and garlic, a carrot or two finely chopped, salt, pepper and fresh thyme, rosemary and sage… and toss in the rind of a wedge or two of Parmesan…until all the beans and grains are soft and tender. Top with grated cheese and bowls of Contadina di legumi e cereali got us through many a winter.

 My mother made kasha varnishkas with a box of kasha, good old-fashioned buckwheat groats, and bowtie pasta. Kasha and bowties! we would scream! We adored them! The nutty, woodsy flavor of the kasha against the simple taste of the pasta, was heightened by being simmered in chicken stock, or maybe she’d stir in a bit of schmaltz, chicken fat. Or she simply simmered the groats in water then topped the whole with butter or gravy. But kasha varnishkas how I loved kasha varnishkas. The brown, earthy foods of my Eastern European ancestors – like the meat-filled noodle kreplach and heavy, rather bland matzah balls floating in chicken soup, potato knishes and cabbage soup, kasha varnishkas are a part of my culinary heritage, foods from the shtetl. So misunderstood by many who turn up their noses at this odd array of dishes, so brown, so unadorned and unattractive.

 Spoonfuls of kasha on the plate, the creamy brown and beige grains, once cooked, remain separate, singular yet soften as if looking through a Vaseline-coated lens. Chewy with a gentle give, soft yet resistant, like my people. The pale yellow bowties, clearly defined, gay and cheerful, pop out like colored sea shells on the beach. An odd paradox, a funny contrast, but just the right balance for the perfect, comforting dish of my childhood.

 Grains of sand squished between my toes, searing hot and dry or cool and damp. Scoop up a remembrance of this beach, this desert and push the grains of sand deep into a little plastic vial. Snap on the cap and tuck it into my pocket and carry it home. Little plastic vials like a pharmacy shelf all lined up one two three four the Negev Desert, the beach in Cape May, the sands of a Brittany coastline on a honeymoon weekend, memories in each microscopic grain. 

 Grainy photographs lie scattered across the table, fall out of photo albums, the edges curled or frayed. Faces grainy with time and distance, smiling faces in black and white or kodachrome bright, laughter and noise frozen with the click of a button, the pop of a flashbulb.

 How easily we snap pictures now one two three, scroll through the images one after the next as we stand on the spot, immediate gratification. Transfer the images to a laptop or computer, send them around the world with a click of button, shared by one and all, family, friends and strangers. Click and look, click and delete.

 But my grainy old photographs I pick up off of the table, brush the dust that has gathered on the shiny surface with my fingers, softly so as not to muss the memory, are like the rings gathered in a box in my drawer, rings given to me by my mother or my husband, precious gifts one pulls out and shifts through lovingly, holding each one and squinting into the glittering gems, the glittering eyes of those laughing up from the picture. Snapshots rare, carefully preserved, shared one by one only with someone special sitting next to me, elbow to elbow, bringing back and brushing off each memory now grainy with time and distance.

 Grains of semolina, couscous, steamed gently, tossed and fluffed with a fork to separate the grains so they don’t clump. Light and delicate, add butter or olive oil and serve. Ladlefuls of vegetable broth, chunks of bright carrots, pale turnips and zucchini that falls apart with the merest gentle prod. The give of chickpeas, the sweetness of raisins plumped and warmed before serving, the bite of harissa, the freshness of handfuls of chopped coriander leaves each give depth and meaning to this comforting meal. The spicy, rich broth, the tender vegetables, herbed grilled lamb against the delicate, wheaty backdrop of the grains. Exotic as it is, as complex as the flavors, couscous is comforting, reassuring, convivial.

 Grains of semolina softened in lemon juice tossed and fluffed with a fork, stirred up with a wooden spoon as the grains swell and soak in the flavors of lemon, ripe tomato and onion, overnight in the refrigerator. The smoky sweetness of roasted red peppers and strips of charred zucchini, crispy kernels of corn, mint or fresh coriander, the saltiness of feta. Taboulé a summer treat, colorful and bright. 

 Grains of semolina cooked in milk, warm and comforting as porridge. Add raisins and dried apricots or berries, sweeten with sugar and flavor with a dusting of cinnamon, a drizzle of maple syrup or the crunch of chopped nuts. Healing, plumping, a child’s delight.

 These multi-grain muffins are surprisingly light and tender, almost cakelike. The flavor of the blend of grains makes this perfect bread to accompany a savory meal, yet the hint of honey makes these muffins perfect as a snack, slathered with butter and jam or the perfect foil for a spicy dish such as chili. This recipe comes from one of my favorite cookbooks, Vegetarian Epicure book two, a delightful book I have been cooking and baking from for thirty years. 


¾ cup (90 g) wholewheat flour 
¾ cup (125 g) yellow corn meal (I used semolina for Polenta) 
½ cup (50 g) rye flour 
2 tsps baking powder 
½ tsp salt 
½ cup (45 g) rolled oats 
1 ½ cups (375 ml) milk 
1 large egg 
¼ cup (62 ½ ml) vegetable oil 
¼ cup (85 g) honey 
2 Tbs light sesame seeds or poppy seeds 

Preheat the oven to 400°F (200°C). Butter or line with paper cups a 12-cup muffin tin. 

In a large mixing bowl, sift or stir together the wheat flour, corn meal, rye flour, baking powder and salt. Stir in the rolled oats and a heaping teaspoon of sesame or poppy seeds. 

In a separate bowl, whisk together the milk, egg, oil and honey. Stir the wet ingredients into the dry vigorously until well blended. 

Spoon the batter into the prepared muffin tins. Sprinkle a generous amount of sesame seeds on top of each muffin. Bake for 20 minutes until risen, golden and set in the center. 

Remove from the oven and lift the muffins from the tins onto a cooling rack. These muffins are best eaten fresh, warm or just room temperature. If you have leftover, gently reheat them in an oven or slice and toast before eating.

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Thursday, October 3, 2013


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