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Thursday, June 23, 2011

Italian Travel Tales: One Gitane Lady from Pistoia

Is a photo of someone the same as their soul? If so, my fingers burned when, as I was rummaging through some old photos in my office, they touched this photo of what seems to be a nice quiet lady, a Gitane, from Pistoia, Italy.  

Gitanes, gypsy women, are part of my novel City of Ladies, and as I looked over the photo I sighed and remembered the lengths I went to in order to obtain her portrait. Alas, on that quiet cloudy day in Pistoia she was not the least bit interested in me taking her photo. In fact, she stood up and screamed and waved her hands when I tried.  My friends laughed and told me that she was part of the Roma, a gypsy clan, who believed that if she saw you take her photo she would levy a curse on you. 

Well, then, clearly I had no choice but to pursue this feat of impossibility. I could outwit her.  I had to. But I wanted to protect her too. I didn't want her to go to the trouble of putting a curse on me. Heavens no.

So, I reasoned with myself, what if she didn't know I was taking a photo? Wouldn't that be an okay situation for both her and me?

When I hid behind the mushrooms, she screamed.

A few minutes slid by while I meandered over by the curtain of formaggi, of cheese. Aha! She pointed at me. 

But now I had a perfect plan! I would stand behind her at the stand of beautiful apples. 

She turned, ranting and raving. 

A less stalwart (or stubborn?) individual would have given up. Perhaps she had already cursed me. So I stood among these pans, reasoning that the reflections would confuse her.  

It didn't matter where I went, she KNEW! It was rather eerie. 

I decided to give up, momentarily, to walk around the corner and go to lunch. Sustenance is de rigeur when you need to regroup and recoup. 

One lamprodotto sandwich and a few chestnuts later I came back full circle 
to the market square where I had left her.

She was still there plain as day. But this time I enlisted the help of my luncheon wine-swilling friend to take her photo. I stood over to the right, just out of view of the camera, but within full sight of her, so that when she did look at me I wouldn't appear to be a threat to her. 

And since she would be focused on me, she wouldn't see my friend with the camera. Would this be enough to keep us both free of her curse?

Fait accompli! 

I think. 

To the best of my knowledge my friend and I are both still free of any curse. 

I'm curious what you think, was this tactic okay to employ? 

Is a photo of someone the same as their soul? 

These necci crepes, made of chestnut flour, will however steal your soul, they are so delicious! 

In our Chapel Hill area you can find an excellent chestnut flour at Capri Flavors in Morrisville near the Raleigh Durham International Airport. 

Necci: Chestnut-Flour Crêpes

 1½ cups italian chestnut flour
 1 cup cold water
 pinch of salt
 1 t. olive oil
 all-fruit preserves or ricotta cheese

Sift the flour to remove any and all lumps. 
Place the flour in a bowl and make a small well in the center. 
Start adding water little by little, mixing with a wooden spoon. When the water is all used up, add salt and mix again. Be sure that there are no lumps in the batter. The consistency should be that of heavy cream. Adjust with more water or more flour as needed. 

Cover and let the batter sit for 20 minutes in the refrigerator. 

For the next step, making the crepes, you can use a conventional crepe pan or a seasoned cast-iron griddle heated over medium-high heat. When the pan is hot, brush it with 1 tsp. of oil. Pour ½ cup of batter in the center of the griddle and roll it around to disperse it evenly and thinly. Allow the batter to cook for 30 to 40 seconds, or until bubbles appear on the surface. Flip, carefully, using an offset spatula and cook for 1 more minute or until the crepe is golden brown and slides easily off of the hot pan.

As they are made place the prepared necci on a platter, cover with fruit preserves and soft goat cheese, and roll them up. Repeat this procedure until the batter is used, you may need about a teaspoon of oil for every 3 necci.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Italy Travel Tales: Going Away to Write is Dicey

Have you ever written in a faraway locale? Hemingway once said "To write about Paris I had to go to Michigan," or something to that effect. Now, I am not Hemingway but I think ol' Ern Papa means that often you can't see a place clearly while you are in it. Do you think that's true?

Going away to write can be dicey. More than dicey, sometimes. You've looked forward to it. To break with your life and write, and then, well. what?

Unseen, the place might be stuffy. Bug-ridden (one friend was attacked by hornets in her retreat place) Falling-down rotten and in a bad location. You'll NEVER be able to work. In fact, this place is so bad, you'll never be able to write again, period.

But if it is not this awful doom it can get you out of the rugged emotional furrows where obligations and daily responsibilities fester and wear down your Muse. On retreat your Muse gets to wander about. Try on new hats and sandals. Make up for lost time. In the best circumstances you can even get some real work done, deep work that leads you somewhere else entirely. A few years ago after leading one of our adult tours to Tuscany I stopped back to Corniglia in the Cinque Terra to do some revising with a capital R. Though two days is not a long time- time extended once I sank into the village and the City of Ladies.

Here's the tale of two fires and a Muse!

Yesterday my knees and legs and feet, were so bone-tired especially after the walk up the hill from the train station in the late evening light. I didn't think I would ever walk or want to walk again.
But it is already morning on my first real day in Corniglia. I slept so soundly and dreamed of Great Winds screaming across the Mediterranean. And when I woke, the shutters I thought were closed, were open.
            And what a view! From my little portico I can see almost everything. The streets of Corniglia, bustle with people and as then just as suddenly curl up and become steep terraced slopes of vineyards. A funny little roller coaster track drops into the vineyards, and a cart chugs by heavy with grapes. At the end of the portico I can just spot the narrow ally way that must lead to the sea. On the hill across from me a garden steps out and down. White chickens and ducks flurry among the tomatoes.

When writing; cooking entices the world of the muse. So, here's a little menu of eating with the Muse in Corniglia.

            For Saturday lunch – I wandered in the village. To get familiar and to get my bearings. I wanted to set my mouth on something delicious and easy. But no one seemed to want to seat me, a woman alone. Was I misunderstanding? It's been done before I wanted to say. Its okay, I enjoy eating alone and jotting things down on paper. But I shrug and answer their question. No, I do not have a reservation.

So out one door and into another. At a small mercato down the street I seized lettuce, coffee, sugar, milk, pasta, tomato sauce, olives, eggplant, focaccia, pecorino cheese, yellow pepper, fresh basil, and then with my arms loaded to the gills the scent of olive and tomato pizza stopped me. So woth one balanced on the top of my provisions I headed up the hill to La Terrazze. A glass of chianti later, ok, maybe two found me sharing lunch on the portico with my two good friends; pizza and eggplant. Then clouds rolled across the sea and sent me into a luxurious nap. Open doors. No cares and settling in. Rain. Blissful drops anointed my transitional slumber.

I woke and turned the pages of the manuscript, welcoming the Muse to join me.

            Soon the Muse instructed me to put a pot on the stove to hum with a soup while I wrote. But the Muse failed to tell me there was some secret to the stove, perhaps the same secret that prevented me from getting a lunch table in the village. Nope, couldn't light it. I slipped on my sandals and ran down the steps to the village street. Asked at the now familiar small mercato how to get a hold of Mary Angela, the owner of La Terraze. There was a problem. Big Problemo.

Gone for the night.
The night?
Si, senora.

I looked from his face to the baskets of squash, and my Muse spied and decided more basilica would help this dilemma. I suppose my Muse was enjoying that the Italian word basilica meant both basil and church. Anyway, my Muse decided that basil would help unlock the stove and entice fire for my soup; eggs, whatever else I thought I would cook. Next door at the bar, I bought matches. With the basil in one hand, and matches in the other I followed the crowd.  The little alley way opened up into a porchway. Everyone had gathered at the wall overlooking the sea. The hot apricot sun sat silent hovering above the blue green and slate Mediterranean. Steep rocks jutted into the sea; similar to how the sea meets Taormina and how Taormina leads to Mt. Etna, the marvelous mountain of fire in Sicily. And in the moment of that memory I had an idea that sealed the ending of City of Ladies. And when I got back to La Terrazze, I lit the stove and made soup. 

            Stove-top tomato soup contained olives, crushed tomatoes in the style of arrabiatta, garlic, fresh basil (lots) and peppers, with farro pasta.

            Evening descended; cloaking some sounds but releasing others. With the shutters closed and the key removed from the inside door, that would have been easy to reach through the window. Another hour passed and I shut the window. It was goodbye to the day, and I worked till 12:30 am. Closing in, distilling and concentrating. Still a bit of rain, and the Great Wind made a return engagement outside.

Near morning I woke on and off. At 6 am, 7 :15 and then 8 and every few minutes till 8:30. 
Made coffee, opened the cantucci cookies and sat a pear on my plate to watch. I ate on the portico asking, Pear, what’s next? I watched the couple on the patio below have breakfast. Was it wrong to spy on them? While she was smelling the flowers his fingers picked up the last cantucci cookie. 

For lunch I stewed thick slices of porcini, garlic, yellow pepper, more stems of basil – sweated in olive oil – then ladled them over cannelloni, ceci beans and leftover focaccia with cubes of fresh pecorino. Wine. Wine not?
On my last stroll to watch the sunset the sea glowed, absolutely glowed at the line of the horizon. Looking to the west, the light blinded me at the moment when the red blaze hissed into the sea.

I must, one day, live by the sea. The two fires. And a muse.

Monday, June 6, 2011

French Travel Tales: La Belle Gasconne, 2006: A Story Part 2

Picking up from Part 1, our shopping journey began at the millhouse, La Belle Gasconne, in Poudenas in Southwest France. I was on board with the business of stick-shift driving. Hadn't I learned to drive stick in the "hills" of Colorado Springs? The first obstacle presented itself immediately: our car was parked on an incline that tilted into the Gelise River. As I attempted to put it in reverse and back up, I realized it was possible, and even likely, to plunge over the edge into the steep embankment. While I love the river Gelise, it didn't seem right to risk all my passengers, my son, his girlfriend and my friend, taking a swim so early in the morning, so unproperly caffeinated as we were.

The Pond at La Belle Gasconne

Unaware of my difficulties, the other two cars - housing Marie-Claude, Christian, Cathy, Mary, Glen and Jon - sped off. With nothing but duck, lettuce, foie gras and cafe au lait on their mind, they might have no idea that we were lost to them. My friend Constance offered to drive her car instead.

Constance, it turned out, was a race car driver and sped along the D656. We found the other two cars pulled over, puzzling over our absence. We pulled in behind them and gave the thumbs up, then we all pulled out again. Three tiny cars humped together on the road. Like ducks to market. We chugged up the hill, past the tiny village of Mezin, then hauled our patoots down the remaining 15 kilometers to Nerac.

Our first stop was on the road as you first pull into Nerac: a little unassuming épicerie. We walked in and Marie-Claude was greeted warmly by the owners. She calmly went to the lettuces with Erick. Samantha was busy taking photographs of the whole outing. Mary and I spied the zucchini we needed for the courgettes a la creme. Marie-Claude picked them out carefully and I was reminded of the times I had worked as a food stylist, when you must look every zucchini in the eye to see if he is hero material or not. Marie-Claude preferred them small and tender sweet. It was a bit past the season but she knew we would enjoy this particular preparation of zucchini.

But there was a host other ingredients besides courgettes to procure. Marie-Claude seemed pleased in general about the lettuce and picked a number of heads of green leaf, batavia and escarole, and mache for a mix. Then she conferenced with Erick about his preference: Would he like apples or pears to caramelize and garnish the foie gras? He and she nodded over the piles of fragrant fruit.

An Assortment of September Salad Lettuces

I had to laugh. Because, would it matter? Anything Marie-Claude made would be stupendous. And so it was decided finally between the three of us: pomme (apples) would play faux pas to the foie gras tonight.

Now, Wine.

Marie-Claude divided the rest of our list into four categories: shallots, garlic, and pomme de terre; creme, eggs, and butter; foie graspoulet, and saucisse; and bread. We occupied ourselves with diligent squeezing, pressing and smelling of legumes et fruits. They must be perfect. Picture perfect. With solemnity, we approached the register. Marie-Claude drew a deep sigh of disappointment, no cream on these shelves that sufficed and so we would need to move on and purchase them elsewhere. We pushed out into the sunshine of the warming September sun and loaded the boxes of lettuce and zucchini in Constance's trunk.

Next on the list, Poulet! Come back next Monday, June 13th for Part 3 of La Belle Gasconne, 2006.

Just Plucked Pigeon in Nerac

Friday, June 3, 2011

Write With Me: Making Scents of Butter and Onions

What do your favorite scents call to mind? Home, hearth, kith and kin? (Turns out both my kith and kin have uh, a decidedly Cilantro-esque thing going on.)

Have you ever been taken away from the everyday world by a mere whiff of something delicious?

I'm meandering down the street in Carrboro, perfectly, I mean perfectly, content - minding my P's and Q's and suddenly find my nose wandering off. Fragrances flounce wildly all around. Where are they? What are they? I stop. But my husband, Rich, if he is with me just keeps on walking.  He has a blind nose, as I call it.  Except where wine is concerned. Who knew?

Scent does take you back, and we've heard it time and time again. Marcel Proust made Madeleine's his calling card cookie. I think the reptilian brain is at work here. Scents cut through all the layers of protection standing guard and brings us right down to our knees; face to face with our strongest primal emotions.

Here are a few of my touch-stone aromas - what are yours?

Hot white vinegar recalls my childhood kitchen table covered with newspaper. Coffee cups are full to the brim with wild colors - and my brother, Jeremy and I are using those ridiculous wire holders to dip hot hard boiled eggs for Easter while Nana tells us to try dipping them in two different colors.
The minute I smell sauteing onions I am late to class, holding my toque in place as I run up to Roth Hall at the CIA. And hickory smoke means Charcuterie Block and Chef Jacques de Chanteloup. The world of Pates, Gallantines, and Balantines!
Frying seafood means I am filling the seafood buffet line at the Sea Pines Inn on Hilton Head Island, my externship days.
Asian scents on the street with traffic exhaust means walking in Chinatown NYC with my oldest son, Erick, in the backpack, while Jaryd, our youngest, snoozes in the frontpack. Bamboo steamers and Woks sizzle in the windows.
And Gardenias (Okay I know this isn't exactly a food smell, but) always call up having an exotic tropical dinner with Rich at the Kona Kai Restaurant which back in the 70's was in the Marriott Hotel on City Line Avenue in Philadelphia, as well as being in the garden with Nana on my wedding day.

But back to the Carrboro walk. I run to catch up with Rich, who is turning the next corner. I bump into him, and he turns holding a gardenia and a handful of just picked mulberries. Awww.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Cook With Me: Voila!

They're here already. Those oh so hot days are upon us like so many noisy cicadas. And because you know there's still more to come. I give you, ta da! the salads of summer. Now, perhaps you think a salad is not as appealing as the boys of summer but alas a salad is heckuva lot more dependable. 

Fish Market in Nice's Cours Saleya

So in the bank of summer memories preparing food in the cooler early morning include one when my oldest son, Erick, was born in mid-July. He had boundless energy -- from hour one and he was content in his little baby seat on the counter when we lived in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He watched the kitchen action like a hawk; water filling pots, stirring, and the sounds of sauteing - but soon enough his little eyes would close as I chopped and diced. It was a magical time. I should have known he would be a chef. 

Erick and Jonas, Arles 2003

As Erick watches Jonas, the Vedel's youngest son, might he be smiling and remembering what it was like to be little and often in deep trouble? And its really not too hard to see, is it, how the summer circumstance to visit another Erick in Arles, France, a chef too, captured young Erick's imagination and held it well. 

Dorette, Rich, Madeleine, and Erick Vedel, Arles 2003

Riz au Gingembre – Ginger Rice

This fabulous summertime salad comes from my colleagues Madeleine and Erick Vedel in Arles, France. Many was the time we toted it on one of C'est si Bon!'s Teen-Chef picnics to visit either Van Gogh’s Sanitarium, an olive oil mill, or kayaking under the Pont du Gard with the Vedel's beautiful culinary tours. The salad travels well and is quite refreshing in the intense cicada/lavender heat of summer in Provence.

Hiking near Forcalquier

300 g. rice, 1 ½ cups (uncooked)
300 g. chick peas, 2 cups (cooked)
15 g fresh grated ginger, 1 tablespoon
2 shallots, minced
3 cloves of garlic, minced to a paste
pinches of hot paprika and cayenne pepper
olive oil
pinch of salt

Kayaking Under the Pont du Gard

Cook your rice French style in extra water, then drain.

Next, in a heavy bottomed casserole, sweat your shallots in olive oil. Add in the grated ginger and stir over a medium flame for 5 minutes. Add the rice, and the chick peas. Stir and warm up together for 10 minutes over a medium flame. Salt and taste. Add your pureed garlic, your paprika and your hot pepper, blend them all in. Taste for hotness. If you’d like more garlic or pepper, by all means, add them in.

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