Rinse the vegetables under cool running water. Pat dry. Add water to the pot to just cover the meat. Bring to the boil. Flick water from your fingertips into the oil in the skillet to discover if it is hot enough. Wait for the sizzle. Add just enough water to thin. Add just enough water to bring the flour mixture together into a scraggly dough and scrape together.
Earth, air, fire, and, of course, water. The Four Elements essential to life, essential in the kitchen. They say that fire is what differentiates man from beast, elevates man as he rubs sticks together, lights his world, warms his body, his soul, but it is fire used for cooking that differentiates man, elevates man to a higher place as he spears meat on a stick or tosses it into a pot with vegetables and places it over a flame. But water? Water and flour to make bread, water in my favorite sponge cake, water and sugar to make syrup (rum or Grand Marnier, of course), water for poaching, braising, simmering. What is fire in the kitchen without water? Water for making coffee and tea, drip drip drip. Water for tea or coffee, heated to the boil or to the simmer?
He brings me a bouquet of tulips, unwraps them from the crisp brown paper, snips off the tips of the stems and slides them into water. He brings me a bag full of mussels and dumps them into the sink, rinsing them under cold running water, pulling off beards. He brings me oysters and cracks them open, arranging them on a platter, tucking wedges of cold lemons in between the shells. Bits of ice puddling into water. Oyster water tasting of the ocean, do I slurp it up with the meat, the oyster or do I pour it out? A chef once served us sorbet made from the oyster water, oyster liqueur and it tasted like frozen seawater. To wash chicken under running water or not? Well, fill a pot with water and dump in the chicken, add the onion and carrot and celery, salt and pepper for good old chicken soup or poule au pot. The water magically transforms into broth.
Un Carafe d’eau, s’il vous plaît! Sitting at a fine restaurant, one is offered the choice of water. Flat or sparkling. Water can be so fancy. Pretty bottle, elegant label, the crack of the top as the waiter twists it off, twists off the cap in front of you with all the aplomb, all the ceremony of opening the best bottle of wine in the cellar. I would never have the nerve, the composure, to ask for a simple carafe d’eau, s’il vous plait. Tap water. How absolutely gauche.
My husband claims that the Italians always order sparkling water, fizzy water, water with bubbles when in restaurants so they can be assured, reassured, to be served bottled water rather than tap slipped into a fancy label, tap water all dressed up for dinner.
In any other restaurant, bistro, brasserie, pizzeria, it is invariably un carafe d’eau, s’il vous plait. And a bottle of wine, of course, water of the gods.
I never drink sparkling water, effervescent. Not because the bubbles tickle my nose. No. Because it tastes like seawater. And when I tell my husband that I prefer this bottled water to that because of the flavor he calls me crazy. Water is water, but is it?
We drink tap water brought to the table in an old, rough terra cotta pitcher, crudely made by hand, found on a sidewalk in Cyprus among a jumble of terra cotta bowls and pots the color of the earth, red. Pour water into the dog's bowl from the pitcher on the way to the table. He leaves a trail of splotches of water on the kitchen floor from bowl to doorway.
When I was a child, maybe six or eight years old, we drove down to Miami Beach to visit my father’s elderly aunt who was living in a retirement complex, a towering apartment building standing in the blazing Florida sun. Shy and very young, I was more than just a bit terrified. Little old ladies, little old men shuffled across the lobby, zimmer frames and wheelchairs and Yiddish accents so thick one could cut them with a knife. Our parents herded us, their little flock, into the massive lobby where we were met by Great Aunt Mary, and we were wrapped in a warm, soft, talcum-scented hug, the fug of old Jewish grandma. We were led into the great dining room where dozens of large, round tables, Catskills resort-style, were dressed. Like a gargantuan Miami Beach deli, the tables, for eight or ten, contained bowls of pickles, pickled onions and cabbage, baskets of rye bread. And lunch was served by waiters in black trousers, white shirts and black bowties, obsequious and brisk. Borscht and brisket and I just don’t remember much else but I remember hating the food. Old people food. It tasted bad to my six- or eight-year-old self, bad and dry and how would I get through the meal? And I was thirsty, so thirsty after the heat of a Florida summer morning. The waiter came and poured water for each of us and I grabbed the glass and drank deeply. But what was this? Surely not water! It was seltzer, salty, fizzy water like drinking seawater and I wanted to wail, to cry it was horrid. But I was too shy, too young to ask for water, regular water, real water. Why does this memory stick with me after all of these years?
Hot tears course down my cheeks, waterworks. Gently brush them away. Weeping. Trying to keep my head above water.
Water rubbing, gnawing into the sand, grinding down the dunes of the beach where I grew up. Erosion. Like wearing down one’s nerves, one’s energy, back and forth, back and forth, day in and day out, incessant, insistent. Water lapping gently, warm, rhythmic, against my legs. I used to think that if I stared out into the distance and looked hard enough, squinting, I could see China. All I saw were the shrimpers like little tugboats bobbing up and down up and down on the water, on the horizon.
Water dissolving the sand day in and day out, water dissolving the sand like sugar spooned into, stirred into iced tea, the sugar dissolving into the liquid. Water can be so gracious, so comforting, so invigorating (running into the water, into the waves, jumping into the pool, cannonball, jumping into puddles like a kid, the warm water soaking through the canvas of your sneakers, muddy water flicking up the back of your jeans leaving a speckled trail). Water can be so harsh, so destructive (torrential rains pounding against the windowpanes, threatening, seeping under the woodwork edging the bedroom floor, pushing over the massive climbing tree in the front yard, destroying the dunes).
Drip drip drip the noise of the drip of the kitchen faucet into the sink, louder and louder, keeping me awake at night. Tick tick tick onto the porcelain, slow and regular, driving me mad. The eddy of the water rushing down the drain, clockwise or counterclockwise and why? A drink of water and I think of my mother calling my son "a long, tall drink of water"?
Little boys, little babies, pink and squiggly, wiggly, in inches of warm water, little pink bodies against the white of the tub. Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water! A muddy dog hosed off, standing stunned and wide-eyed in the water, then dashing off and shaking from head to tail, water all over us. Hands plunging into a sink of hot water, underneath the suds, the bubbles, dishes, bodies slipping into a bath of hot water, underneath the suds, the bubbles. Bain Marie, a water bath. Two rows of ramekins sitting neck deep in hot water, pudding gently poaching in a baking pan, in a bain marie.
I'm dreaming of warmer days. I envision myself in a deckchair sipping this refreshing drink after having mowed the damned lawn, feeling that immense satisfaction of having beaten it yet another time! The cucumber gives it freshness and the ginger adds a nice peppery hint, and when the time comes, I think I will snip some leaves from the mint growing in that lawn and add it to crown it all.
ILVA'S REFRESHING CUCUMBER AND GINGER WATER
1,5 l/6.3 cups water (still or bubbly)
2-2,5 cm/ about an inch fresh ginger
fresh mint (optional)
honey (optional but a little does make it better)
Slice the cucumber and the peeled ginger finely and put them in a pitcher. Pour in the the water and add honey to taste. Stir and let it rest 5-10 minutes before adding a lot of ice and then serve!