Monday, October 27, 2014


Six of one, half a dozen of the other.

 I never knew that eggs could, would be sold by quantity of six rather than a dozen until I moved to France. Who would even have ever thought about it? A dozen eggs rolls off the tongue with ease and recognition, an automatic reflex when speaking of eggs, a dozen eggs in a pastel green, blue, pink or pearlescent white Styrofoam container that would then, once empty, be carried to grade school or a Girl Scouts to be transformed into Christmas decorations, nose masks, Easter egg holders or the petals of flowers for Mother's Day.

 And then I moved to France and found egg cartons with spaces for six. And no more Styrofoam now in carton or pressed paper. In unattractive gray or watery brown or sometimes a dull green. A visit to the cheesemonger at the market where farm fresh eggs were sold à la pièce, sold one by one, revealed a towering display of egg cartons, open and stacked, one nestled comfortably into the other. "Six eggs please" (one always seemed to order eggs by six or multiples of six) and as the cheesemonger lifted off an egg carton from the top of the pile he or she would ask for specifics, size, élevées en pleine air ou au sol, free range or not, enriched or organic. And six eggs would be selected from a basket or a large tray and plopped one by one into the six indentations in the carton. Lid snapped shut and handed over the counter.

 Their shells were no longer immaculate, chemistry-set white but brown with a neon yellow yolk hidden inside.

It was fashionable and recommended to do as our grandmothers did before us, save those six-egg cartons, recycle them, if you will, stack them on top of the refrigerator and carry them back empty to the market for the cheeseman to refill with eggs.

 Six egg omelet for three.

 There were six of us around the dinner table, father at one end, mother at the other, teams of two on each long side of the rectangle. My older brother and I would sit side-by-side facing the other two, a stern-faced sister, often grumpy, rarely happy to be one of six. And baby brother who, for lack of another choice, was sided with our sister. Six means even numbers, always two by two.

 Dinner at six sharp each and every evening. Six sharp meant the evening news, six sharp meant the end of the working day and the beginning of evening, time to wind down. Six expected at the table every night at six. And quietly. Seen but not heard.

 And let the games begin. Dad demanded absolute silence. Mom wanted a happy, quiet dinner but really never minded what we did. So the trick was, could my older brother and I make my sister explode into a noisy outburst without breaking our own silence, thus making her the cause of dad's sharp "shut up! I am trying to listen to the news!" Grimaces, ogled-eyed stares, sticking out the tongue displaying a mouthful of chewed food. Even (dare I?) touching her leg with my foot under the table.

 Deep-six. Dinner for six.

Six Foot Under.

 From six to five to now we are four. A father and a brother buried. Neighbors carry in trays of food, cold cuts and fruit salads, hot steaming pans of kugel. To soothe and relieve the shrinking family after the funeral. Six to five now four.

Five six, pick up sticks

 We treated ourselves to a trip to Basque Country, husband and I. It was merely a six-hour drive from Nantes to San Sebastien with a lunch stop in Bègles halfway there. A lunch planned, a restaurant reserved. Six hours to Spain; the world feels awfully, wonderfully small when one lives in Europe.

 San Seb (if I may) boasted wonderful restaurants, the best being the family-run joints, the tables nestled in a back room behind the bar, along with the kitchen hidden from the street so only locals know that meals are served. Homemade fish soup, a plateful of salty roasted Pimientos de Padrón, local flan for dessert. Tapas bars offered us late afternoon meals of finger foods to discover and glasses of white wine (we would sidle up to the bar trying for all the world to look like we belonged). When not eating, and my husband is strictly a three-meal-a-day man, no snacks or nibbling needed, we wandered the streets, popped into shops, saw the monuments and museums. But several times we passed the same little bakery strolling to or from our hotel, barebones really, simply an undecorated glass case behind which an older woman, plainly dressed, served clients, evidently the local residents who needed nothing chichi that screamed Basque loud and clear, like the tourists enjoyed. We would slow down and ogle the offerings laid out in the front window, rather large, homey, unadorned pastries and individual cakes, yet the best things we had ever seen. Until finally husband pulled me in, saying "it looks so good and it is obviously authentic pastries from the region. Let's get a snack!" Be still my heart. He loves me.

 Now, under ordinary circumstances, husband would have selected a single pastry and asked me to choose one as well. We would then go home and he would eat his and I mine. But as I was hesitating, not able to decide which to try, he stuttered out in his broken Spanish that he would like six, one of each of their specialties. The kind woman placed six different pastries in a box, closed the lid and tucked in the flaps, tied it up with string and handed the box to my husband. Back in the hotel room, he sliced each of the six pastries in two and we had a feast. Six pastries for two.

Six pack

 Why do sets of dishes, packs of cutlery come in six? Table service for six. And if you are four? Do you rotate? Or if you are more? Eight? And when you hold a dinner party of ten or twelve? Thanksgiving or Christmas when the table is groaning under platters of marshmallow-topped yams and turkeys the size of small ponies, pies enough for the Founding Fathers and the Boston Tea Party? Husband has actually dashed out to the biggest housewares store in the neighborhood just minutes before the guests arrived to a luncheon when we realized we did not have enough dishes to go round. 

 Twice six for a dozen roses.

 Cans of soda, cans of beer, single-serve puddings and little boxes of cereal. Packs of six. A six pack. Did you ever wonder why hot dogs come in packs of 8 yet buns in packs of 10? Hamburger buns come in six.

 Big crayons for little hands in primary colors. Six geese a-laying. Six days to create the world. 666 the sign of the Devil. Do six bananas make a bunch?

 But now I am six,
 I'm as clever as clever.
 So I think I'll be six
 now and forever.
 - A.A. Milne

There are actually a few positive aspects about this dark time of the year even though they aren't many and one of them is the wonderful choice of vegetables, usually green, that are in season from now onwards. When I had the choice to create a recipe this week with the theme of Six, it wasn't a difficult choice once I gave it some serious thought; it had to be a vegetable pie. This pie is as genuinely vegetable it can be; well, I cheated and used ready-made puff pastry but the filling is made with vegetables, a little parmesan and pine nuts, nothing else because I usually like my pies clean, without unnecessary fillers like cream etc. I hope you can excuse me for being so approximative but this kind of pie is made this way, you take what vegetables you have at hand and that marry well and just hope for the best. 

ILVA'S PIE WITH SIX VEGETABLES (If anyone can come up with a better name, please leave a comment!)

1 onion
broccoli florets, maybe two handfuls
1/4 head of Romanesco broccoli
2-3 small potatoes
1/4 head of a Savoy cabbage
the leaves (and stems if you want) of three red beetroots
2-3 tbsp pine nuts
2-3 tbsp freshly grated Parmesan cheese
black pepper
extra-virgin olive oil

   Slice the onion and start cooking in a skillet with some olive oil. Cut the broccoli and the Romanesco into smaller pieces and add to the skillet. Peel and dice the potatoes and add these as well. Cook over medium heat for 10 minutes, add a little water and stir often.

   When the vegetables are half soft you add the shredded Savoy cabbage and the beetroot leaves. Season with salt and pepper and keep on cooking and stirring for another five minutes. When ready, add the grated Parmesan and the pine nuts and mix well.

   Line a pie dish with dough, be it handmade or bought ready-made, and fill it with the vegetables. Bake in a pre-heated oven (200°C/390°F) for 20 minutes or until golden.

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Monday, October 20, 2014


bananas mashed

  When we were very young, our mother showed us how to eat a ripe banana. She carefully peeled the thick skin, yellow splotched with brown, and dropped it onto her empty dinner plate. She placed the banana lengthwise in the palm of her hand and wrapped her fingers around the fruit, clasping it in her fist. Seriously? We couldn't believe our eyes, knowing what was about to come yet doubting it, as it was so unlike our mother. But she calmly pushed on, pursued her little demonstration. As expected, she tightened her grasp on the fruit and closed her hand tighter and tighter, almost in slow motion, around that ripe banana until it squished into purée and oozed out from between her fingers. She then proceeded to eat the squished banana from off the backs of her fingers. Much to our astonishment and joy!

 She once also squished mashed potatoes through her teeth.

bananas plants

 We were pretty happy, well-behaved kids. Yes, we were. We didn't often get into mischief nor did we disobey. There was simply enough to keep us entertained and active without the caprice. And to tell you the truth, pranks weren't really our thing. But. We did find odd enjoyment in almost, not quite but almost, bringing our kid brother (the spoiled one) to tears. Or if not bringing him to tears, driving our mother crazy thinking that we would. Like dressing him up in our elder sister's dance costumes and telling him that, with his head full of curls, he looked like Shirley Temple. When he was a toddler and still eating his meals perched in the high chair, my brother and I set up the science kit that he had recently received for a birthday gift in the garage. And mixed together a concoction that looked like milk. We slipped into the kitchen as our mother slipped outside, phone tucked under her chin, to chat for a minute or two. We placed the glass on the tray in front of baby brother and urged him to drink. He, being totally oblivious, much to young to understand anything we were doing, picked up the glass and carried it to his lips. And as he was about to drink what we imagined was a deadly poison, we yanked the glass out of his hands and yelled "No! Don't drink it!" We felt oddly humored and pleased with ourselves.

 And another time in similar circumstances – kid brother in high chair, mom on the phone – we convinced him to wash his hair with ripe banana. And he did. The trouble we undoubtedly got into was well worth the laugh.


Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana. - Groucho Marx

 I never really cared for the banana split. It could have been the strawberry ice cream which I never liked. But I think it was the bananas. Who would want to sully the pure pleasure of chocolate and vanilla ice cream (and whipped cream and chocolate sauce) with a banana. It makes no sense to me. 

 And I have a horror of those yellow candies shaped like bananas. What?

 I believe that I ate a chocolate-covered frozen banana at Disney World once. Eating a frozen banana is an impossible feat, even in the depth of a sweltering Florida August afternoon. The teeth do not sink easily into a frozen banana as they do ice cream or a popsicle, one must press into the icy rock as the pain shoots up and into one's roots, frozen teeth, brain freeze. And gnaw away, attempting to deflect the pain as one hacks through what seems to be a banana-flavored tree branch. Its saving grace is the thin coating of chocolate and really the only reason to make the effort.

bananas slices

 Why is slipping on a banana peel so funny? A universal funnyman joke.

"I 'm Chiquita banana and I've come to say - Bananas have to ripen in a certain way…" Although my father was the baker, my mother did make her famed Banana Cream Pie. Loads of vanilla pudding layered with perfect banana coins and the whole edged with crisp 'nilla wafer cookies. Topped with whipped cream. Classic. Heavenly. Diner fare.

 Carmen Miranda, her turban piled high with apples and oranges and always bananas. A tropical getup, an exotic dream, The Lady in the Tutti Frutti Hat. Josephine Baker and her flirty banana skirt. And not much more. Risqué.

you say havana and i say havana
you eat banana and i eat banana
havana, havana, banana, banana
let's call the whole thing off

bananas cake

 Some fruits come and go with the season, oranges and pears, peaches and grapes, but bananas can always be found in the fruit bowl on my kitchen counter year round. But once in a while, we just don't eat them fast enough and end up with two or three overripe bananas (although husband will eat a brown, ripe banana, sons and will not). That's when I whip up a banana bread or snack cake, chock full of mini chocolate chips and chopped pecans, or topped with slivered almonds. I think it must be my family's absolute favorite breakfast and snack cake. This recipe is so simple to make and so delicious, light and fluffy to eat.


1 ¼ cups (165 g) flour
½ tsp baking powder
¼ tsp baking soda
¼ tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp salt
10 Tbs (150 g) unsalted butter
Scant 2/3 (120 g) packed brown sugar, I used half light + half dark
1 large egg
¼ tsp vanilla
About 1 ½ cups mashed bananas (about 3 smallish)
½ - ¾ cups each chocolate chips (or chopped chocolate) and chopped pecans or walnuts

 Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C) and butter a 9-inch (22-cm) square pan.

 Stir together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon and salt and set aside.

 Melt the butter over very low heat, removing from the heat before all of the butter is completely melted; allow the butter to finish melting off of the heat. Whisk the melted butter vigorously with the dark and light sugars until smooth and slightly thickened. Whisk in the egg and the vanilla well. Whisk in the mashed banana, the dry ingredients and the chocolate chips and chopped nuts. Spread in the buttered pan.

 Bake in the preheated oven for 25 minutes or until set in the center and just barely beginning to pull away from the sides of the pan. Allow to cool in the pan on a rack.

bananas piece of cake

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Monday, October 13, 2014


In a Jiffy

 Instant foods, how I loved them as a child. Popcorn oiled, salted and buttered, heated on the stovetop in its own pot and bowl. Pop open the foil and peel it back to reveal instant treat. Poptarts of cherry and chocolate, frosted or unfrosted, slipped out of the foil pocket and eat! TV dinners already prepared just to be heated and eaten in front of instant, prepackaged entertainment. Mac & cheese or o's of pasta in red sauce straight from the can. Anything instant, anything that smacked of gimmick!

 Instant oatmeal, a childhood favorite, tiny pearl white packets, so light and ethereal revealing earthily fragrant flakes. Dried and powdery, desiccated, some would call it, reminding one of deserts and bones and coconut flakes, yet dried and powdery though it was, packets of instant oatmeal promised warm, creamy bowls of comfort. Plain or apples and cinnamon or maple and brown sugar, a bowl of instant oatmeal once brought to life with boiling water would be topped with a pat of salted butter, a drizzle of cold milk, a dusting of brown sugar and a sprinkling of moist raisins.

 Instant, quick-cooking convenience foods. Fulfilling, satisfying an instant need.

 Instant mashed potatoes, purée mousline, in its familiar red and yellow box. My husband swears by them. Shocked me, it did. Instant mashed potatoes. Flocons de pommes de terre like frites-scented snowflakes. "Quand je fais de la purée Mousline, je suis sûre que tout le monde en reprend." When I make Mousline mashed potatoes, sings the jingle, I'm sure that everyone will ask for seconds! Well, everyone but the American wife.

 Instant intimacy. In the blink of an eye. I did fall in love with him the instant I saw him.

 Oh, the prejudice against instant foods yet we all keep them cloistered away in the darkest corners of our cupboards like a dirty little secret. For emergencies only, we proclaim if caught in our smug, self-righteous lie scoffing of anything instant, anything pre-packaged. Or for our kids. Wink, wink, nudge, nudge. Packets of soups and mixes for muffins. Instant ready-made risotto or cans of sausages and beans (cassoulet for the francophile). Brownies and cookies with the addition of one egg and a cup of milk. Oh, the innocence of instant food when we were kids, the excitement with each discovery of each something new. Do I? Don't I? Tell. Make. Eat. A carton or envelope of something eaten in front of the cheesiest chick flick or most melodramatic cop show, bowl nestled between our knees. Instant nostalgia. Oh yeah.

 Now instant meals are pasta thrown into a pot and rapidly drained, vegetables local and seasonal chopped and minced and quickly sautéed in extra virgin, tossed together and strewn with a layer of freshly grated Parmesan cheese. Or baguette picked up warm from the boulangerie, a platter of charcuterie and a bowl of fruit. À l'instant.

Instant Pick-Me-Up

 My father was the king of instant desserts. Box upon box of instant cake mix, classic vanilla and devil's food, lined up in the cupboard like well-behaved school children waiting their turn. Box upon box of instant pudding, vanilla and chocolate, pistachio and caramel, lined up in the cupboard not far behind. With the concentration of the engineer that he was, he would whip up batter, thick and voluptuous, one yellow, one dark. With attentive precision, he would pour each batter in alternating splotches of dark and light into great sheet pans and run a sharp blade through the two, back and forth, swirling one into the other. With deliberate, thoughtful care, he would pour steaming pudding in its still-liquid form over the baked marble cake, allowing it to soak into the sponge. Once cooled, he would pop open a can of ready-made instant frosting and spread across the top. Instant delight. 

 Pies in an instant, cherry, apple or pumpkin from a can piled into a ready-made pie crust kept handy in the freezer. Instant celebration.

Instant Gratification

Photography takes an instant out of time, altering life by holding it still. - Dorothea Lange

 A pocket instamatic, a gift from my parents, accompanied me on weekends away, vacations and all. Slip in the roll of film, snap on the back, point and shoot. How many images of smiling friends and their teenage antics did I capture, how many single instances in times? Yet not so instant. Travel home, drop off the roll of film at the drugstore counter and. Wait. Count the days. Collect the packet of photographs excitedly and shuffle through the stack one by one, try and recapture each moment. Drop the blurried shots and the fleshy fingers that skipped in front of the lens and how many left? Rolls and rolls of film, piles of snapshots flipped through over and over again: camp and school parades, holidays and family vacations and one exciting trip to Israel now fill envelopes and the sticky, yellowed pages of albums in glorious Technicolor dimming to yellow.

 A black Polaroid camera, a gift from my parents, accompanied me to Europe where we pointed and shot images of newborn sons. Instant gratification, indeed. Snap – thunk – kkksssshhhhh and out popped a fuzzy gray square of silence. Patience and anticipation and an image like magic burnished onto paper slowly revealed itself like an exotic striptease, baring its soul.

 What used to be a telephone, dial and instant connections to friends far and wide, has become a camera, replacing the others. Point and shoot, snatch at a memory, appropriate the moment, share in an instant with friends and strangers around the world in a moment. An instant. Instagram.

Instant Illumination

 A lifetime of watching my parents prepare instant coffee; a tablespoon or two scooped from a jar and into a mug, boiling water and stir. Leaving that fine layer of mocha-hued foam atop the bitter, steaming liquid the black of bitter chocolate. Milk and sugar made it palatable. Nose turned up at the smell, I prepared myself instant chocolate milk, a tablespoon or three of powdery something the scent of Necco wafers scooped from a box, ice cold milk poured into the tall glass and stirred, leaving pimples and clumps of dark, wet chocolate floating on the surface.

 All grown up and acclimated to the taste of coffee – no instant liking – and a jar of instant stood on my shelf. Ah, the fine taste of freshly brewed coffee picked up on the way to work, instant relief. Instant jolt of life.

 Only in Paris did I learn to make pots of coffee from ground beans. Three scoops into the filter, boiling water, once filled then twice, and wait as it takes its own sweet time drip drip drip. Heavens what was my surprise when, in the land of marvelous coffee, café au lait and espresso, did I learn that the French drink instant at home! Jars of Nescafé in even the most bourgeois of domiciles. Tiny porcelain demitasse set in front of me, a tablespoon or two scooped from a jar, boiling water and stirred with a tiny, elegant, designer teaspoon. Instant coffee, nonetheless.

 And I began buying boxes of instant chocolate powder for my very French sons.

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Monday, October 6, 2014



 Flip through a cookbook from the 1950's, those dark, hazy images in muddy shades of brown and autumn golds, or brash primary colors, or the 1960's brightening into gaudy lemon, turquoise and bubble gum pink, food arrayed out in glorious Technicolor on coordinating cloths, silver perfectly aligned, crazy collections of centerpieces. Whole turkeys and roasts on imposing platters, crowns of jello garnished with glistening lipstick-colored maraschino cherries, miles of brown foodstuff that are often impossible to define.

 Garnishes of red and white radish slices, twists of orange and limes, chunky flowers carved from carrots and whole tomatoes dress each dish offering a defining landscape, color to an otherwise flat expanse of brown or beige (ah the glamorous food of our childhood). Rings of pineapple and whole strawberries, and tiny shapes cut out from bright red and green peppers provide a certain swashbuckling gaiety, a sign of the times

 But the herbs took pride of place, great clumps and sprays of curly-leafed parsley, seemingly whole nosegays of mint or sage, branches of rosemary filled every empty space. Herbs festooned in garlands and wreaths, draped around whole lobsters and woven in and among the shrimp. Chicken legs and lamb chops topped in tiny paper hats are held up by bundles of herbs, clusters of herbs in all their deep jade and forest greenery are tossed around serving platters, main courses and appetizers, soups and sides as if dozens of elfin bridesmaids had paused in that dining room and tossed bouquets of herbs across the table.

Condiment, Seasoning, Garnish, Décor

 Tiny, delicate herbs tossed elegantly, sparingly across the tabletop. Single branches of feminine chervil and feathery dill dance across single servings, ramekins and demitasses, miniature tarts and cakes, as if blown around the room unexpectedly, placed by fairy hands. Tiny stems with tiny drops of thyme repose atop creamy concoctions, sweet or savory, a hint at what is inside, or so we are led to believe.

 The very essence of herbal decor has changed. No longer placed in grand leafage, vegetation in great bunches cluttering the serving platter, aggressively announcing their presence. An unnecessary bundle of green, imposing shrubs. Now exquisite affectation, gracefully dropped in some ethereal, delightful display of sensibility. As if an afterthought. Tender shoots, a scattering of baby leafs in unexpected, mystifying arrangement.

 Garish color schemes have given way to pretty pastels, bold statements to feminine composition. Hearty dishes to pretty little confections. But herbs ever present, their presence ever mysterious.

Basil, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme

 Don't forget to use the herbs I have planted for you, mom. You just need to open the kitchen window and there they are, son exclaims as he shows me the herb garden he has placed on the balcony. And don't forget to water those herbs, this gift from your son, my husband adds, just a tiny wedge of sarcasm edging his voice.

 Tiny sachets of lavender fill my drawer, miniscule pearls of lavender from my wedding bouquet. 

 Tarragon, sorrel, watercress, the proud trio of French herbs. Tarragon stirred into sauces, stuffed under chicken skin, floating in jars of pickles in brine. Fines herbes, sauce béarnaise. Sorrel, his favorite, chopped and turned into soup or sauce à l'oseille, his favorites, reminiscent of happy childhood moments. I broke his heart when I told him that I didn't like it, that it was too bitter for my unaccustomed taste. Watercress, peppery, a faint hint of mustard, like rocket, a favorite, yet so very French.

Ah me! Love cannot be cured by herbs. - Ovid

 Herbal remedies. My mother-in-law was a great believer in the healing powers of herbal teas. Infusions of chamomile and mint, lime and verbena could cure most anything. She would brew a pot each night, an infusion, passing around tiny white ceramic cups once used to serve coffee in some little French café, urging the steaming hot brew upon us just before bed. Une tisane.

 An herbal tea for a good night's sleep, Nuit Calme. One for an oncoming cold or to soothe stress. Elder against that nightmarish coup de froid, a chill, always on her mind, her windows always shut tight, her home sealed against the weather. Une tisane, an herbal infusion, was the perfect cure-all and do not refuse her offer of one as a nightcap. A magic potion.

 She rarely used herbs in her cooking, possibly a thick branch or three of thyme or rosemary, un bouquet garni, would find its way into a broth in which a chicken or chunks of veal would poach, aromatic. But her pantry was overflowing with boxes and sachets of herbs for steeping, herbs for curing, herbs for healing. Herbs for a good night's sleep.