Monday, April 27, 2015
How does one find inspiration in the ho hum of everyday? Cooking, creating, living, I often find my brain as blank as the slate in front of me, the white sheet of paper, the expanse of kitchen counter, the depths of the refrigerator. I search for what will motivate me to write. Or cook. Something to ignite a spark, an idea like the flash of a bulb over my head aha! Eureka!
Oooh how easy to flop onto the sofa with a book or the television control in my grip. Or slip into the kitchen not to cook or bake but rather to indulge, a slice of cake, a cup of coffee and just my thoughts. Or lack of them. I luxuriate too often (don’t we all?) in the lack of inspiration, a mixture of self-pity and procrastination. It gives me the excuse not to try. Frozen pizza? Dinner. A writing project? Facebook.
Finding new ideas in a world inundated with extraordinary visions and a dizzying plethora of images; finding new ways to express myself when the same memories keep popping up in my head, the comfort and ease of returning over and over again to the same words, the same stories. Trying to be unique, to stand out while retaining my own voice, trying to be original in spite of the sameness of my days. Simply looking for inspiration to move ahead.
I flip through magazines, reading bylines, looking at pictures. I read books, the wit of Dickens, the wisdom of Austen, the whimsy of another, the magical language of many. And something ticks something off in my head. An idea. A word. A thought, ever so flimsy and insubstantial, sometimes solid and tangible. Even something bad, whether experience or writing, a book I have read that is mediocre, a magazine article filled with everything that I tell my students to avoid, a really bad morning, does inspire, gives me an anecdote, or provokes me to work harder, try harder, to sit down and write dammit!
I surround myself with inspiration. I surround myself with people who inspire me, quietly, subtly, without meaning to, without knowing what effect they are having on me. They share their schedules and their projects, we kick ideas back and forth. What are you working on? Where can I take this idea? I don’t know where to start. Inspiration is found in the tiniest detail, ever so tenuous at first, until ideas are batted around, words knocked out and scratched into a notebook, bathed in inspiration. I watch, I listen, I ask questions.
A workshop. Women around a table looking at me for inspiration (yet do they know that they themselves, each one of them is a shining light?). Women troubled by their writing, not good enough, not strong enough, not individual enough, not personal enough. Women who have boxed themselves in by their own expectations and imagined constraints. Women under the influence. Of my own words and process. A Plated Stories Workshop is meant to kick start creativity, open doors to new ideas and provoke unaccustomed ways of approaching one’s writing. Instill confidence, which is the first step to finding inspiration. They are more talented than they have yet to realize.
Chairs are dragged from one room to the next, from meal to work and back to meal. Stepping around a small black and white dog determined to snatch edible props. All the while chattering about writing, about photography, about inspiration. I explain that one person’s cumbersome busywork is another person’s creative process, that it is all how you look at it, how you define it. She pushes them to try new ways of setting up and styling a shot, daring to shoot in the dark, challenging each with a different theme, a different style imposed. Tiny speckled quail eggs, bright green peas, turnips the color of the peonies in the garden, a splay of green shooting from their tops. I send them into medieval Chinon to capture their impressions in words rather than with a camera, we head to Château de Rivau where she instructs them to find something that inspires the perfect shot. Anything goes, from the swaggering, splendid peacock to the garden gnomes. Open your imagination to the unexpected and to the often-overlooked.
And we are inspired. Emotional, intelligent exchange and discussion and seeing what each is truly able to do on her own, on our own, their incredible work, has inspired the two of us and we are energized. Plated Stories has always existed as a place where we can do as we feel, as we please with neither rules nor constraints, be inspired by whatever the theme provokes while using our work here as a way to inspire us in our other projects, a place to play when everything else seems like work. After being so inspired and motivated after this creatively enriching Plated Stories Workshop, we might just kick it up a bit and take it in a new direction.
Thank you to our magnificent workshop participants Paola Thomas, Michaela Brandl, Renee Iseson, Stacey Wickman, Cornelia Valthe, Lora Wiley. Thank you to D’Arcy and Sebastien Du Petit Thouars of Château du Petit Thouars winery for generously supplying us with a selection of their wonderful award-winning wines. Thank you to Caroline and Patricia Laigneau for inviting us for an astonishing morning at Château du Rivau.
Monday, April 6, 2015
No, not Saint Patrick’s Day, although that is what you are thinking. I have never been one to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, no green beer, no green food, no parades for me. Although when I was in fourth grade I wore my Girl Scout’s uniform to school, green head to toe, on March 17 simply because it was the only green clothing I owned, simply to avoid spending the day being pinched for not wearing that most Irish of colors.
Think green. Easter and Passover, the herald of spring. Trees sprout green finery, green bijoux, the garden overflows with green. A multitude, a brood of tiny yellow chicks stand knee deep in bright green grass, neon yellow fluff, prickly green plastic. Tiny baskets bursting with clouds of shiny green cellophane, a bundle of glossy green strips redolent of spring, art imitating life, in which multicolored aluminum-wrapped eggs snuggle, the colors of spring. Eggs nestled in green, painted like jewels, like candy, gaudy eggs hidden in the green grass, subterfuge, camouflage. Like picking strawberries ensconced in green. Passover greens, bitter and sweet, celery, parsley or lettuce to be dipped into salt water representing the tears of the slaves that we once were, yet the dipping process symbolizing hope and redemption. Rebirth. Green.
Winter green, hale and hardy, kale and chard and spinach, makes way for spring green, delicate and tender, lettuces speckled with drops of water, bouquets of feathery herbs, fennel and chervil, plump, meaty basil just begging to be turned into fragrant pesto, parsley, both flat leaf and curly like a frizzy afro. Long slender shafts of chive tasting of onion and garlic but not quite; gathered in delicate, flimsy bunches they droop elegantly and wave back and forth. Great sea green artichoke bulbs and smaller, more elliptical artichokes in forest green edged in deep violet, both so aggressive with their tough green skins and prickly, thorny tips yet are so tender when eaten, cooked a paler shade of green. We shift our tastes, our ideas, our recipes, from winter to spring, and now brighten the green with salty feta and sweet tomatoes, bits of pretty violet shallots so sharp, spring green.
Winter green, huge heads of green cabbage that we turn into pot au feu, long, slow simmering with meat and root vegetables until the bright green dulls to greenish-gray, sage green. There is nothing more comforting, more satisfying, than dipping my spoon into well-boiled green cabbage, scoop it up and slip it into my mouth where it melts on my tongue. A dull grayish-green that is warming. And spring green? Mouthfuls of lamb’s lettuce, long thin fingers of just-boiled green asparagus, buttered, under a shower of Parmesan, leeks served barely warm, white and green, in a puddle of chilled, tart vinaigrette. Now bright French green peas, so sweet, color tagine and risotto with green polka dots. Dusted with flecks of bright green coriander.
The Wearing of the Green
My father used to make us great big bowls of pistachio pudding to be eaten stuffed into great fat choux or topped with dollops of whipped cream. That pistachio pudding was the color of leprechaun coats and the Jolly Green Giant. The color of store-bought pistachios. Mint chocolate chip ice cream was such an unbelievable color of green but I never liked the flavor anyway. I would honestly have rather eaten spinach.
We were, in fact, happy eaters all four of us. Seated around the dinner table two by two we would gobble down whatever vegetable was put in front of us (my mother’s liver and onions and cabbage soup was another story). Canned spinach or broccoli would incite games and we’d be off, piling our plates high with green! Who could eat the most spinach would be Popeye for the day! Broccoli spears would become tiny little trees gobbled up by giants! Peas would be picked out of the pile of mushy canned peas and carrots, those carrots cut in perfect cubes pushed to the side of the plate. So not green. The peas pushed onto the tines of the fork for eating. Fried green tomatoes. Long stalks of celery, the hollow pale green trench filled with cream cheese or peanut butter and even if the celery had an odd, far-away bitter taste, flat and watery, the flavor of green, it was an excellent recipient for the stronger flavor of either cream cheese or peanut butter and how adult, bite into the celery (filament catching in between teeth) with a loud, satisfying crunch and I always felt so adult, pretending that I was at a cocktail party nibbling on hors d’oeuvres. A stalk of celery green against the deep orange red of a Bloody Mary, a single green olive glistening in a martini.
But I hated the color green. As much as I loved to eat green I loathed it as a color. My hatred of the Girl Scouts may have had as much to do with the color of the uniform (or being forced to wear any uniform at all) as the activities. But every Tuesday I would don that green uniform – after school. I would never wear it to school as my sister did, proud as she was to be a Scout, I was embarrassed to be seen wearing the green. And head off to the weekly Girl Scout meeting, despondently. And one day, I must have been in junior high school (as my sister was off to college and I no longer had to share the bedroom with her) and my brother and mother decided to redecorate my bedroom without me. And they dressed it all in green. And not a lovely green the color of oceans or jade, not the faded, mysterious color of sea glass (perfectly rubbed to a smooth smoky green), not evergreen or turquoise green or moss green or emerald green. No. A flat, ugly Kelly green. Green and white gingham curtains, lampshades and pillows. An ugly green bedspread. Ugly it was and I could never understand why they decided on green.
I married into a family that spent afternoons discussing trees and plants, their language littered with the correct plant names, both common and scientific. Greenery, verdure, their passion. Those discussion would last hours. What they had planted and what they will plant. What’s growing in the neighbor’s garden, what is sprouting in their own, what they spied along the pathway through the village during a morning walk. They read books on plants, encyclopedias and dictionaries; they have collections of old botany tomes and almanacs, piles of copies of Rustica magazine. I, on the other hand, don’t know from green. A walk through the garden or down a country path and I’m looking for something to eat, berries or mushrooms or cherries on the tree; a stroll through the woods and I’m simply on a search for the perfect picnic spot. As far as greenery goes, if it isn’t greens – chard and kale, spinach and cabbage, romaine and lamb’s lettuce – I am rather a greenhorn. Although husband teases me for being green where greenery is concerned, I can indeed name some beyond the rose bush. I love gardenias and my parents had two beautiful bushes bordering our tiny strip of Florida front porch. Fat, succulent leaves a deep forest green surrounding lush white petals, heady with perfume. Gorgeous hibiscus flowers framed every doorway on the block, their luscious petals in all of their magnificent, ostentatious glory strutting and tumbling down paths in bright yellows, pinks and oranges against a background of green. Bougainvillea and rhododendron, all of those hardy, brilliant, colorful plants, green dotted with magenta, violet, red, or green palm fronds fanning lazily in the ocean breeze, or fat jumbo watermelons sitting placidly, green among the green, beauties basking in the hot Florida sun.
But ask me to think green, hand me a trowel and turn me in the direction of the dirt and all is lost. I walk into a room and just look at a potted plant and it withers and wilts. Green to brown. Vases of flowers curl up in the fetal position to protect themselves, petals strewn across the tabletop, green leaves drooping pitifully. No green thumb, I am quite the contraire, a Plant Serial Killer. If it is green it will run screaming from me, grab onto my husband’s pant leg and beg for help, drag themselves towards the door trailing green leaves and bits of dirt, every man – or plant – for himself. My thumb, for all intents and purposes, is black.
Yet my charming, talented better half is all green thumbs. He is a magician when it comes to growing things green, like an elf out of a fairy tale leaping from mushroom to fern to daffodil to mound of moss through the lush, green forest or dancing through some hidden garden at night, watering can in hand, leaving behind him a trail of silvery leaves and dew-kissed buds. All is green at his touch. Darling husband, keeper of all things green, created a magnificent veil of ivy green, a forest of green plants, on our terrace in Italy, recreated gardens around houses we have rented that had been disregarded and abandoned, has more than once swept me off to a nursery after settling into a new home and bought what to create a lovely little kitchen garden. Basil and rosemary, chives and mint and throw in a pot of thyme. Once home, spade in hand, digging down into the rich, dark, earthy soil, lovingly patting it down around each tiny green plant, he hangs them outside my kitchen window where I simply need to turn the handle and pull, touch the delicate, tender green leaves and choose. For, after all, green to me is for snipping, chopping, stirring, simmering, cooking.
And when the basil leaves are plump and flavorful, when the rosemary is fragrant, the tiny moss green thyme leaves are tender, my fingers dance through their soft summer field of green, feeling like a little garden gnome, and pinch off leaf after luxurious leaf, heaping them up on my kitchen table, knowing just what they were destined for.
Ah, yes, I have mentioned my finicky, persnickety son Simon before, haven’t I? When speaking of food it is difficult to avoid speaking about Simon. Simple Simon he was and still is where it comes to food. My son’s mortal enemy, his nemesis where food is concerned is green. Flecks of green in a tender, moist, sweet, cake-like zucchini bread. He pushes it away, face crumpled into the worst kind of grimace, and he accuses me of treachery, trickery, dishonesty, cheating him like a conman luring him to play the shell game on some street corner, slipping him something green. He leans over the counter and peers into whatever is simmering on the stovetop as I am stirring and asks what weird things I have put into it. Read green. Zucchini, green beans, green pepper, peas, no matter how minuscule the mince or dice, all constitute weird things that I have slipped purposely into the food, secreted them in to force him to eat green unwittingly. He makes me livid green.
Yet he loves green olives. He eats green olives like other kids eat candy. Any kind of green olives, salty or spicy, stuffed with dots of red pepper, sliced into pasta sauce, scattered across pizza. The only form in which Simon eats green.
When he was small, I would place a scoop of bright-green steamed broccoli on his plate and before he could complain, before he could protest and say that he doesn’t eat green, I would shower down freshly grated Parmesan cheese, his favorite thing, and beg him to try. And he would suffer through the green in order to eat the cheese. Older, I discovered that spanikopita, layers of filo dough, crisp and tender and buttery, stuffed with loads of spinach, a dark field of green, would be eaten for the feta, salty, tangy, white as white feta, his other favorite thing, and I smiled to myself that I had indeed gotten him to eat green.
It has always annoyed me to throw away all the discarded trimmings when cleaning vegetables; it is such a waste of goodness! so now and then I keep it and use it for soups or purées. Pea pods for example, it is a perfect base for a soup although you need to make a little extra effort to get rid of all the fibrous strings but apart from that, pods are easy peasy to cook and above all eat!
ILVA'S MINTED PEA POD AND POTATO SOUP
The leftover pea pods of 1 kg/ 2,2 lb fresh green peas
1 small leek
4 medium potatoes
1 l/ 4,2 cups water or light stock
as much fresh mint as you want
a few tbs of fresh cream, optional
extra-virgin olive oil
Slice the leek and cook slowly in a little olive oil in a pot. Rinse the pea pods well and take away the hardest parts, cut into large pieces and add to the leek. Peel the potatoes, slice and add them and the liquid to the pot. If you use water, season with salt.
Leave to simmer for 15-20 minutes. When it is ready, blitz the soup and the fresh mint leaves in a mixer until smooth and then pour the soup through a sieve (not too finely meshed) into a pot or bowl and with the back of a spoon press the remaining fibers to extract as much of the soup as possible. Heat up, add fresh cream and season the soup to your taste.