Monday, January 27, 2014


Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none. - William Shakespeare

 We get the itch every few years. It is uncontrollable, really. Like the Seven Year Itch except closer to four or five. We quit our jobs, take the boys out of school, pack up the house and leave. For a new life, a new adventure. Discover and rediscover.

 We have gotten in the habit of moving every few years. Maybe it isn’t good for the pocketbook but it is certainly good for the soul. Maybe it isn’t the wisest thing for the kids but it certainly is an adventure, a learning experience.

 But we have been here, in this city, for a few more years than we usually are. Quite a few. It feels unnatural, abnormal, a bit horrifying, as if our life plans have gone awry. Just as the boys grow up and independent, we can’t quite make the decision to leave this town, this time. Now. Maybe we’ll decide in a few months’ time.

 I’ve been known to raise a few eyebrows in my time.

 My son used to beg me not to dress this way, wear that coat, make a scene when I come to his school. I was, just for the very fact that I was l’américaine, different and noticeable. I stuck out like a sore thumb. And I didn’t have to make it worse by actually making the choice to call attention to myself.

 Ah, my son. Yes, I admit I raised a few eyebrows. I didn’t do it on purpose (which he simply refused to believe), but how could I not? Crazy American lady who dressed the way I did, acted the way I did among the very restrained French, spoke my mind in an environment in which one did not.

 I think the French may have, at one time or another, considered that I was a few bricks short of a load, or wondered if I wasn’t a few cards shy of a full deck.

 Win a few, lose a few.

A few good men.

 Just a few ingredients is all one needs for a great meal. Warm, tender potatoes, cool frisée salad, shredded cooked beef. Or mussels, shallot, parsley and white wine. Delicate choux puffs, scoops of vanilla ice cream, warm chocolate sauce. Lamb, a few carrots, mushrooms and tomato sauce. Pasta, lardons and cream.

 A few spices to kick up a dish, more and it would be criminal. Cumin, coriander and turmeric. Adobo, paprika and pepper. Cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger.

 A few extras tossed into the mixture to give a dish personality, flavor and culture. Prunes, almonds and honey. Shallots, onions and parsley. Chickpeas, garam masala and coriander. Garlic, celery and carrots. Raisins, hazelnuts and vanilla. Or chocolate chips, pecans and cinnamon. Ketchup, mustard, relish!

Every day we should hear at least one little song,
read one good poem,
see one exquisite picture, and, if possible,
speak a few sensible words.
- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

 I have a persnickety one. Finicky doesn’t begin to describe him, my angel, my son. The repertoire of what he will eat is a short one at best, a few items only, the bare minimum to survive. Pizza, grilled fish or chicken breast, grilled cheese or tuna sandwiches, tacos. No sweet tooth, he deigns nibble on only the few baked goods I now make specifically for him, chocolate cake, chocolate chip cookies, profiteroles. He was barely a few years old when he clamped his rosebud lips together and began to refuse anything other than a few chosen items.

 He apparently can live on only a few foods. Every few days I, his mother, runs screaming from the kitchen in desperation.

A Man of Few Words

 A few minutes, a few days, a few weeks, how long does it take? To fall in love.

 Éperdument, follement perdue… madly head-over-heels in love.

 A few minutes, I spotted him in the garden behind the big old house and something niggled deep in my brain, something ages old and familiar yet foreign and obscure. A few days of watching, listening and I knew it had to be him. A few weeks and we spoke, if ever so distantly, dancing slowly, gently around each other, unsure, doubting. A few months, the longest few months of my life, and we came together, somehow, inexplicable.

 A few sparing words, a few dance steps, a few glances and I was his. And he was mine.

 A few short months and we were married. Toujours.

A few ingredients can make a great dish. My natural inclination is to go for dishes without ingredient lists that are too long (maybe that is why I love Italian cooking so much) and this Fried Banana and Bread Dessert with Maple Syrup is a great example of how you can cook with just three ingredients (not counting the butter) and have a wonderful dessert in very little time!


a few bananas
a few slices of stale bread
a few spoonfuls of maple syrup
butter (I prefer salted)

   Cut away the crust of the bread and then cut it into cubes. Heat up some butter in a skillet and fry the bread cubes until golden. Take out of the skillet and let them drip off the excess butter on some kitchen towel paper.

   Slice the bananas and fry them gently in the remaining butter until golden.

   Plate the banana slices together with the bred and drizzle maple syrup over before serving.

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Monday, January 20, 2014


Nuts to you.

 My husband is convinced that he is allergic to walnuts. He has never cooked with nuts and as he does not bake, he had never considered how often nuts can be used in cakes, cookies, pies. Hazelnuts and pecans, macadamias and almonds, cashews and, yes, walnuts. Whole, chopped or ground. In the batter or for decoration. Walnuts, that most American of baking nut… loved by his nutty American baking wife.

 Walnuts have always found their innocent way into my confections. Fruited quick breads, chocolate chip cookies and brownies are always so much better with the crunch and bite, the earthy flavor of a good, coarsely chopped walnut. Roll chocolate truffles in chopped walnuts or press them into the frosting of a layer cake, round and round, and you’ve dressed it up for a party.

 And what better partner for chocolate, orange, vanilla, cranberry than a walnut? What better to add crunch to a salad than a walnut? What pairs so much more beautifully with gorgonzola, pears, comté, goat cheese and apples than walnuts? But no, husband has decided that he is allergic. To walnuts.

 He drives me nuts.

 And so I have given up on, abandoned walnuts. Replaced with pecans. Which somehow work.

 My husband is a hard nut to crack, indeed.


 Dig through the slender box of Crackerjacks, licking the sticky caramel off of your fingers, or pour out a pile into the palm of your hand, popped corn sliding off, bouncing onto your lap, and pick out the peanuts, salty-sweet, slightly bitter, a rare treat. Snap the shell and toss on the ground, slide and rub the meat of the nut in between your fingers until loose and pop into your mouth; circus, bar, bbq joint, goodtime peanuts!

 Peanut butter was a thing of my American childhood, peanut butter sandwich after peanut butter sandwich. Soft white slices glued together with peanut butter, sometimes smooth, sometimes crunchy, but always peanut butter. Peanut butter sandwich in a brown bag lunch or peanut butter sandwich in one hand, book in another, sitting wedged in the forked branches of the tree in our front yard. Or on toast, when another mood struck, a smear of peanut butter on the hot, fresh-from-the-toaster slice, melting and warm as soon as it touched the surface. I never really liked peanut butter and jelly. But during my adventurous years, I loved nothing more than blending peanut butter with sweet and salty and smoky. Anything goes! Peanut butter and banana slices, peanut butter and salty potato chips, peanut butter and salami or bologna or all of the above in one. I felt so cosmopolitan.

 Give the dog a spoonful of peanut butter and watch her tongue stick to the roof of her mouth. A wildly good joke among us kids.


 My mother teased my father incessantly. More often than not, it was good-hearted teasing, meant to pull this kind, gentle, quiet man out of his shell. Make him chuckle. Sometimes it was like pinching him, pressure just enough to nip without seriously hurting, just a tweak to rile him up, make him nuts, when he did something that just annoyed her. She would taunt him by calling him Morty instead of Mort, or by placing objects where he didn’t like them to be. There were times, according to her stories, when she had been reduced to throwing dishes on the floor, shattering them at his feet to get even the slightest reaction out of this man who did not like confrontation, who was the most peaceful human being we knew.

 But her favorite jibe was a chant which never ever failed to make him smile, make him chuckle in its pure silliness. And love.

 "Your father is a nut. Your father is a nut."

 Sung to the tune of The Farmer in the Dell.

 In my father’s last year when he was sinking further and further into dementia, that no man’s land of darkness and decay, my mother took care of him on her own. In order to keep him focused, in order to connect with him and make sure he knew who she was, she would chatter to him, sing to him, attempt to stir up memories, links to his past. I would often peep into their bedroom as she was waking him up in the morning or tucking him in at night and I would hear her chanting “Your father is a nut…your father is a nut!” and my father, his eyes locked on hers, would be grinning ear to ear.

Nuts and Bolts.

 Pine nuts. Pecans. Almonds.

 Pine nuts. Pesto. Biscotti. Pan dei Morti. Pinolata. Torta della Nonna. Pignoli.

 Pecans. Pecan Pie. Brownies. German Chocolate layer Cake. Praline. Turtles. Pecan Fish. Apple Pecan Dressing. Pecans.

 Almonds. Macarons. Tuiles. Financiers. Truite aux Amandes. Nougat. Frangipane. Amandes.

 I have long associated certain nuts with certain countries. Nuts a hearty staple of a cuisine, of the pastry, of a culinary heritage. Dining on my first Truite aux Amandes in that huge, bustling, gorgeous Art Nouveau brasserie in the center of Paris, a whole trout lying placidly on the plate, staring off into the distance, elegantly dressed in a cloak of slivered almonds. Coquette. A shower of finely ground almonds like damp sand on a beach, the color of wheat, folded into meringue. Paper-thin flakes of almonds, gently toasted around the edges, the crispiness, the nuttiness of a tuile, perched architecturally atop a crème or a boule de glace. So very French. Receive one’s slice of galette des rois, flakey crisp puff pastry artistically embellished and hope to be the one to find the tiny ceramic charm tucked inside the dense, moist frangipane, almond cream filling. Smoked almonds in a tiny little bowl, elegant apératif with a glass of white wine. Amandes.

 The crunch of pine nuts in a spicy pan dei morti, Dead Man's Bread, so light against the deep deep reddish brown of the cookies like the bones they represent, eaten on Festa dei Morti e dei Santi, All Saint's and All Soul's Day. Thick, creamy pesto, handfuls of fragrant basil, fresh from the garden, a generous dusting of Parmesan, pine nuts. The nutty frangipane nip of a Torta della Nonna or a sweet Pinolata. Homey. Lightly toasted pine nuts scattered atop a plate of pasta or salad, the nubbly landscape of a cookie. Pignoli.

 Pecans, smooth, hard, chocolate brown shell cracked and crunched open, picked apart to reveal a tender, gnarly meat. Not the prettiest, maybe, but certainly the tastiest. Their heady flavor perfectly matched for stronger flavors like caramel, chocolate, buttery, rummy, spicy coatings. Or standing on their own in delicate, vanilla-scented cookies, dusted with cinnamon sugar. The centerpiece, folksy, rustic, of the Thanksgiving meal; although dessert, who doesn’t wait for a wedge of pecan pie? All American. Pecans.

The perfect blend of sweet, savory, salty and earthy, this pear salad is wonderful in winter when a variety of pears are available and at their best. This elegant dish can be served as a starter or to finish a meal. 

Ilva and Jamie’s Winter Pear Salad
Serves 2

 Slice one pear lengthwise (top to bottom) and fry them gently in salted butter until golden and soft without being mushy or falling apart.

 Divide the buttery slices between two plates, top with several leaves of rocket, cubes of gorgonzola and roughly chopped walnuts. Serve immediately while the pears are still warm.

Monday, January 13, 2014


 Orange, the cool color of winter, the warm color of summer.

 Orange Creamsicles, orange sherbet, orange Kool-Aid, orange soda icy cold, a kid’s survival kit for the searing, scorching heat of the summer months. Apricots and peaches in pastel shades, tinged with pink of the morning sky, orange juices dripping down chins, onto the sidewalk, pits spit across the lawn.

 Knock knock who’s there? Orange? Orange you glad I didn’t say banana?

 Candy corns, pumpkin pie, roasted sweet potatoes, the orange that heralds the change of season, rings in an autumn of orange and gold. Halloween and Thanksgiving, hallmarks of fall, filled with orange fading to brown, deepened with yellow, the colors of fallen leaves.

 Citrus. Winter is welcomed with orange, darker, richer orange, nubbly skins and sweet insides, orange fragrance, spurts of juice. Navals and tangelos, tangerines and clementines, a slew of orange that brightens my winter days, a little bit of sunshine with each orange reminder of my youth.

 Candied orange peel dazzling in crystals of sugar or hiding wickedly beneath a dark cloak of chocolate. Christmas.

 Holidays were always punctuated with orange. My mother’s sweet potato casserole, sweetened with a splash of orange juice and a thick layer of mini marshmallows cooked until a gooey, sugary mess with a fine crust of blackened crunch was perfect with the bland turkey. Later, I would whip up a pumpkin pie, replacing dad’s canned filling and frozen crust with homemade, a splotch of whipped topping breaking up the monotonous orange landscape of the surface. Some years later, pumpkin would be alternated with sweet potato pie of a glossier orange speckled with faints flecks of a brighter orange against the duller tone.

 Pumpkin bread in a deep gamboge dotted with dark chocolate chips or cranberry walnut bread moistened with a glass of orange juice, perfect against the tart berries, the earthy nuts, an orange barely visible to the naked eye but for the blurred pinpoints of zest against white.

 Older, more sophisticated with a dash of daring, the orange now comes in astonishing scintilla, a heady whiff of Grand Marnier or Cointreau. No flaming, no amber, no golden color needed, this orange bursts forth on the tastebuds against a backdrop of chocolate of the deepest brown. Grand Marnier or Cointreau, orange hidden among the innocent white of a panna cotta or a delicate vanilla sponge, secretive in appearance, very adult, provocative, sexy when discovered.

 I awoke each African morning to a blaze of sunshine, a blast of heat and a tall, slim glass of freshly squeezed orange juice with which to swallow down two bitter quinine tablets.

 Thin, shiny, impossibly plastic version of cheese, an ode to cheddar, enveloped snuggly in plastic. Peel back the wrapper and pull up the orange square like a postage stamp and place in squarely in the center of a slice of white bread and then another and cover with a second slice of bread. Slather just the right amount of butter or margarine on that bread, flip and repeat. Slip onto a hot griddle, into a smoking skillet, fingers sticky, slippery with fat, and cook, flip, cook, flip until more than simply golden, close to burnt. Scoop out of the pan and onto a plate and slice on the angle creating two perfect, perfectly even triangles (never rectangles, never squares!), the bright orange goo stuck to spatula, stuck to plate, stuck to teeth.

 You added vegetables to my cake! His accusation stunned me. How did he know? This little boy, my angelic little son was a demon when it came to vegetables, could discover them, spy them, sense the merest presence in the wink of an eye, by simply standing in the same room as a cake, cookie or loaf. His accusation put me on the spot. How could I lie? He noticed the flecks of orange in the golden cake, claimed to be able to taste carrot in the sweet, cinnamon loaf. With his absolute abhorrence of vegetables, he acted as if I added finely grated carrot by design, to pull the wool over his eyes, to trick him into eating vegetables.

 We had a basketball. My dad screwed in the headboard and basket against the house above the garage (do not bang the basketball into the garage door, please). That basketball offered us kids hours, days, months and years of entertainment. Oh, the games we made up with simply one orange basketball and a basket, playing on that cement driveway, my brothers and I. Friendly competition in orange.

 The kitchen was a given: red, deep cherry red cabinets, gray countertops, white walls. Husband absolutely had to cook surrounded by red. The diningroom was a gift to me: heavenly raspberry walls edged in brick; edgy, indeed. The family room, one of two huge spaces lined on two walls with picture windows allowing for a flood of light all year round, was our common dream, white balanced with charcoal gray, half and half sensual, voluptuous, evocative charcoal, as moody as the photographs of the blackened faces of Chinese miners lining one wall. Charcoal and white with the merest touch of humor, a mod touch of Kelly green reminiscent of our youth.

 The argument came in the living room. The source of the disagreement, the bone of contention, was orange. An expanse of wall all in orange. Yes! He said. Noooo! She parried. There is nothing worse than orange (accept maybe green). Back and forth, the argument heated orange. Orange will suffuse the space with warmth, infuse it with energy, he affirmed. Orange, oh no, not orange! She begged.

 Of course, he won out. He dragged her to the paint store where samples of orange fanned out in front of them. He urged, she moaned, they argued. Until a color orange was decided upon. Burnt Orange. And that wall, concealed under an opaque coating of burnt orange radiated an energy, strength, something hot and positive, something that would lean towards bawdy, lusty, sizzling.

 And together they basked in that burnt orange. And orange invigorating, stimulating. Orange.

 Your food is all brown, she scoffed with distaste. Brown. From one end of the table to the other, from appetizer to dessert, brown. I am the granddaughter of immigrants, hearty Russian stock coming from a cold land where bodies were sustained with potatoes, cabbage, beets, onions and chicken. The dinner table was filled with hot cabbage soup, kasha varnitchkes and carrot tzimmis, potato kugel and carrot kugel, the Holidays found us sitting in front of plates laden with smoked fish and chopped chicken livers, chicken soup with matzoh balls and golden, sweet loaves of Challah. Making an exception for a ruby red bowl of borscht or the bright orange lox tinged with pink, our food, I have to admit that our food is decidedly brown.

 She was the daughter of Moroccan immigrants. Her own parents came from a land not of cold and grey, but one of sunshine and fertile land. Her culinary heritage is filled to overflowing with violet eggplants, golden orange pumpkin and carrots, deep green zucchini and bright yellow lemons. Dishes are spiced with saffron and cinnamon, drizzled with honey and flavored with dried fruits and nuts. Though I defended my culinary inheritance with the pride of a scrappy but out-weighed boxer, I could definitely see her point.

 Bright orange chunks of fork-tender carrots and wedges of pumpkin nestled against the zucchini and chickpeas in a fragrant broth; dazzling carrots neon orange glazed with a slick of oil, a gloss of honey, stained with a hint of saffron. Our dull brown carrot kugel is no comparison to the gleaming brilliance of a North African carrot salad dappled with deep green mint and coriander. Our beets may be rosy, but an orange salad, sweet, juicy, gorgeous and glistening, shiny with sunny slices of orange with the added brightness of slippery olives or pomegranate seeds like jewels against the dessert sand.

This orange and olive salad is a true Sicilian classic, there are other versions of it with fennel or onions but I choose to give you the original! I also present it in a different way than I would actually make it normally but for the sake of visual interest, I didn't peel the orange before slicing it. I suggest you do that. 

4 servings

3 oranges
a large handful of olives
salt extra-virgin olive oil 

   Slice the oranges and distribute them on a plate. Top with olives, salt and pepper lightly and then drizzle some extra-virgin olive oil over it all. Leave to marinate for a while before serving.