June 10, 2015 § Leave a comment
It was in Budapest, Hungary where I ate my first sandwich for breakfast. It was not a breakfast sandwich, which is an important distinction. It consisted of ham, cheese and these deliciously sweet white peppers on a fresh bun. At the time I remember it being a paradigm shift. A sandwich for breakfast?! Brilliant! And yet when I returned stateside I carried on with my bowl-of-cereal-ways.
Culture is a beautiful thing. It’s especially beautiful when you can look at and experience many – holding them up side-by-side with that of your own examining the differences and similarities. How better to see your own culture than to look at it within the family of cultures on this earth?
How better to learn the questions you need to ask. Why am I not eating sandwiches for breakfast? Why am I doing all of the things “successful people” do and still feel miserable?
See the thing is that cultures have signposts. Some are innocent. Some wreak havoc. If not checked against personal well-being they have the power to hinder. At twelve years old eating my first sandwich for breakfast in Hungary I didn’t realize I was learning an extremely important lesson – I live in a constructed reality that can be challenged. I can question everything. And from those questions I can build a life that is wholly mine.
I’ve never heard anyone describe it as eloquently as Maria Popova did in her interview with Krista Tippett:
“We orient ourselves in the darkness of the unknown by grasping kind of blindly for familiar points of reference. And we seek to construct out of them a kind of compass, out of similarities and contrasts relative to our familiar world and our existing knowledge. And I think it’s especially true about such nebulous subjects as art or philosophy or really how to think where there is no true north. So we seek tangibles like the market to orient ourselves in this maze of merit and meaning. And it takes something, but I really believe most people, all people have that capacity in them to do what he says, basically — to not orient ourselves to what’s been done, what’s been thought, to the market, to the familiar, and try ever so gently to expand our private locus of the possible.”
Expand the private locus of the possible. I love that. In my own life I’ve found this to be true – whether it’s questioning the space I want to live in and how I want to decorate it, to the clothes I want to wear, to the things I want to read or talk about. I’ve also found that the locus of the possible is an elixir. Each taste of what is possible – a way of life or a choice I make that brings me joy but goes against habit or rule book – keeps me going back for more. To keep seeing what else is possible beyond the familiar sign posts. It’s almost like finding new worlds.
I’m currently reading “The Third Plate” by Dan Barber. In it he says: “In the rush to industrialize farming, we’ve lost the understanding, implicit since the beginning of agriculture, that food is a process, a web of relationships, not an individual ingredient or commodity.” I’ve written about this before. Nutrition is pandora’s box. Throughout time, over and over again we’ve been told to eat and not eat the same exact thing – i.e. eggs. In our uncomfortability with uncertainty and complexity we’ve taken marketed panaceas to our health problems as gospel like certain vitamins or foods. We’ve looked at food (and nature in general) as commodities. Left unquestioned, we miss the world between the signposts. We miss the intricate web, the connections, the causes and effects.
We miss the mystery. And even though we are all wired to love certainty I can’t help but think we would feel lost in a world without mystery.
In the spirit of sandwiches for breakfast, how about some crepes for dinner? These spinach crepes are delicious and filling, not to mention beautiful. They’re a great way to mix up a week of vegetarian meals that all start to look the same.
Spinach Crepes with Herbed Ricotta Filling, adapted from Vegetarian Suppers by Deborah Madison
For the crepes:
1 bunch of spinach well washed
1 1/2 cups of milk
3 tablespoons of melted butter
1 tablespoon of tarragon
1 cup all-purpose flour
For the ricotta filling:
2 cups whole-milk ricotta cheese
1 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
For the tomato sauce:
1 whole onion, sliced thinly
2 tablespoon of tomato paste
1/2 cup of water
1 teaspoon of cumin
1 teaspoon of coriander
splash of fish sauce
red pepper flakes
- Sautee the spinach for a couple of minutes. Add cooked spinach to blender along with the milk, eggs, and butter and pulse a few times. Add the flour and 1 teaspoon of salt and puree until smooth. Set aside while you make the ricotta mixture and tomato sauce.
- Mix all of the ingredients for the ricotta filling together and season to taste with salt.
- Sautee onions in butter for two minutes and add the balance of the sauce ingredients. Sautee for another 8-10 minutes. Salt to taste.
- Heat a little butter in an 8-inch skillet pan. Give the batter a stir and then pour 1/4 to 1/3 cup and swirl it around the pan Cook over medium heat until set and golden on the bottom, 2-3 minutes. Pry up the edges, turn the crepe over with your fingers, and briefly cook the other side until it becomes dry enough to slide in the pan, about 30 seconds.
- Fill crepes with ricotta filling and top with tomato sauce and enjoy.
January 20, 2015 § Leave a comment
The rain was incessant; hell bent on hanging around for our entire three-night stay in the Guatemalan rainforest, and completely apathetic to our need to cross the river to continue with our next phase of the trip to Antigua.
So it kept going with the consistency and voracity of a percussion line.
One might think that after 48 straight hours of rain that it becomes white noise, retreating into the vast spaces of the forest. It was, rather, the opposite. Amplified by the innumerable and dense vegetation, the sound of the rain reverberated in our ears and bones. It was unhinging, save for a couple of hours on our last night.
My sister’s friend, who was also serving in the Peace Corp., had set up a dinner with one of the families that lived in the rainforest. We had to walk down a narrow path through the forest to get to their home – a one-room piecemeal wood structure. The host family welcomed us in with smiles as big as the rainforest trees. Sans electricity, the room was lit solely by candles, allowing only bits and pieces to come alive, the rest fell away into blackness. Our feet made imprints on the dirt floor as we settled into our seats, and the sound of the rain on the tin roof melted away like the dark corners of the house, as if it wasn’t there.
They served us eggs, beans, tortillas and coffee; simple and exquisite. We ate by the pulsing light of the candles. Stories were told in English and Spanish, with the majority of the sentences lost in translation and laughter.
Outside the rain carried on without our attention and the river engorged itself with those drops. But inside for those couple of hours it felt as if the world could wash away and leave what we had there and everything would be ok.
December 7, 2014 § Leave a comment
That dish that you will never live down? For me it was an Asian peanut sauce for a stir fry. It comes up every time Mike refers to me as the baker in the family – implying that he is the cook. It’s the only dish I remember cooking during my college years possibly because it was the only dish I cooked during my college years, but most likely because I totally botched it. It probably wouldn’t have been as memorable if I had made an ordinary portion of it but I managed to not only not measure the peanut butter in my sauce, but also not measure the noodles, carrots, baby corn, and snap peas because there was enough to feed my apartment floor, and their friends and pets.
Let’s just say I got ahead of myself. Recipe? Precise measurements? Who needs that, especially someone who has never really cooked so much as eggs and grilled cheese? But I had watched my mom and dad cook thousands of meals growing up! One of my favorite dishes my dad cooked regularly was his stir-fry. Baby corn always made an appearance in his stir-fry and I adopted it fully into my definition of what stir-fry was (and probably subconsciously figured if it was present all was good).
No amount of baby corn could rescue an Asian sauce that was 80% peanut butter. Also, apparently no amount of water and soy sauce could rescue it either. At the end of the day, the first step in my dad’s culinary shoes was a failure.
I botched two cookie recipes this weekend. Too salty. Too peanut buttery (the damn peanut butter again!). Both direct results of not measuring. There is a method to my madness, though. I see a future where I hardly measure things. I’ll still use those helpful vessels called measuring cups and spoons but I don’t want to rely on them. And I’m not talking tried and true recipes. I’m talking anything I want to make. What’s the quote? Shoot for the moon and if even if you miss you’ll land among the somewhat edible. Or something like that?
I’ve always felt that adhering to strict measurements warps the senses and strips away intuitive inklings on balance and proportions and what feels right. It leaves no room for mistakes, which are those little guys that are clothed in disappointment but underneath their seemingly cruel facade are really those kind but stern teachers that nudge you to be better and try harder so you can fine-tune your senses and build your intuition. And sometimes they’re comedians that follow you around and remind you how hilariously stupid it was to make an Asian peanut sauce that was 80% peanut butter.
“The things that used to make us feel safe are, in fact, now risky.”: A mighty eloquent On Being interview with Seth Godin on not being a cog – might we extend this line of thinking to the kitchen? Hmmm?
Pastry Chef and Restaurateur Zoe Nathan Loeb embodying everything I feel and love about baking in 1 minute and 28 second video
The Ovenly cookbook that I recently purchased is 1) so fantastic – the flourless chocolate cake with salted caramel sauce is THE BEST 2) such a great reminder to grow some balls (see Zoe Nathan Loeb’s video) and try different flavor combinations, a.k.a PLAY, HAVE FUN, and add salt.
July 14, 2014 § Leave a comment
Have you ever noticed that “Runaway Train” is always playing when you go to the doctor? Please tell me it’s not just me.
Sterile gauze smell, check. Wallpaper borders, check. “Runaway Train” playing softly in the background, check.
I used to love that song. The consistent, low-grade whine of it matched perfectly my disposition of my pre-teen years. Then at some point – probably around 16 or 17 – the song took a turn for me. It was old and played out and I was more of a Fleetwood Mac/Jock Jams/random one-hit-wonder song I heard a million times in Sweden, girl (my schizophrenia in music was also developing at this time).
At 16 I traveled to Europe for three weeks with my soccer team. One week in Denmark. One week in Sweden and one week in Paris and Amsterdam. That trip was everything. And the crepes I ate in Paris were everything. Cliché, it may be. Care, I do not. There is a reason Paris crepes have the esteem they do. People don’t just say they love Paris crepes because they heard someone else say it, or because they think it sounds cool. It’s because they ate a crepe in Paris and their life was changed forever.
Ever since that trip when I hear the word crepe my mouth becomes a swimming pool. Mostly, I refrain from eating them. Last night I wasn’t strong enough. It was a Bastille Days celebration and crepes not only felt appropriate but it had been at least two years since I had indulged. So I indulged. And, per usual, was disappointed.
Some things should be left in certain times and places. Trying to recreate such special moments and tastes is treacherous because if it’s off, it’s a tease. If it’s way off, it mucks up the beauty and purity of the original. Not all food and not all moments. Just the ones. For me it’s pisco sour in the mountains of Peru, zilvás gombóc (plumb dumplings) in my aunt’s snug dining room in Hungary, and street crepes at twilight in Paris.
It’s hard to resist. I can’t. Every once in a while I trip up and order that crepe/pisco sour/not a zilvás gombóc because, nonexistence. And then I learn that lesson I’ve learned so many times – these magical moments with these treasured dishes, much like treasured musical moments, cannot be recreated. And if I’m going to try, I must do so sparingly, choosing carefully.
You hear that people-who-choose-the-music-for-doctor’s-offices? Sparingly. Soul Asylum’s power lies in being played in 1995 to moribund pre-teens alongside a smoldering incense burner. Otherwise, it just loses that magic.