Comfort Food for Cal

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what comforts cal

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what comforts wendy

comfort food: n. food that is simply prepared, enjoyable to eat, and makes one feel better emotionally. [Collins English Dictionary, HarperCollins Publishers]

My father was the fourth born of six children, but the only boy. His oldest sister made him an uncle, for the first time, when he was ten years old. That nephew, my cousin Cal, is 84 this month. He doesn’t see so well anymore, yet still spends several hours a day at his law practice, serving clients he continues to outlive. His wife of more than 60 years, Joan, is one of my favorite people. She says that Cal has never been motivated by food, or by his appetites.

Shortly after my first story was published, she wrote to say, “I am actually doing a bit of cooking. Going out to eat has lost some of its charm. My efforts are very basic, as Cal doesn’t like anything fancy. His favorite dish from Bess [his mother] is creamed tuna and peas on saltine crackers. The bar is not high. Cal also enjoys canned baked beans on buttered white bread. I use the vegetarian beans, but he thinks they are “pork”. I prefer my tuna and peas on toast points, thank you. We look forward to new ideas from your blog.”

I have no desire to eat creamed tuna and canned peas on crackers, toast points or anything. But Cal’s preferences started me thinking about the notion of “comfort food”. There is no single explanation for how our taste preferences arise or even change. It must be tied to our senses, our experiences, and certainly to our emotions. Thoughts of home, family, love, hate, sickness, allergic reactions, holidays, sadness, grief, punishment, or contentment can trigger a taste memory–by longing or loathing.

Cousin Cal is truly a comfort food creature, formed by his mother’s cooking, honed by childhood tastes that matured into strong adult preferences. His eating experiences are limited to the USA Midwest, highlighted by cuisine of a certain generation.

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Joan says he is obsessed with Jell-O. th Jell-O with crushed pineapple and nuts, Jell-O with strawberries, bananas and nuts, and, at Christmastime, Jell-O made by rolling cream cheese into balls covered with nuts somehow meant to resemble snow balls in red gelatin. I’m trying to visualize what this looks like. Less certain I could eat it.

Cal also loves sweets. Chocolate pudding, cupcakes, or butter cookies like Aunt Bess used to make. Joan wrote, “Tapioca pudding is his favorite dessert. His mother made it from scratch, separating the eggs, beating the whites stiff, and folding them in after it had cooled somewhat. I make this from scratch when I see pigs fly by the window.”

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In similar Midwest fashion, I was raised on meat, potatoes, and over-processed vegetables from cans. Uncountable family meals spent spitting vegetables into a paper napkin and then [hopefully] into the garbage without being caught. Now, thankfully, my food preferences cut a wider swath simply because we moved overseas in the 1980s. Spices, particularly fresh chilies, in ethnic cuisine from India, Malaysia, Thailand, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia and Singapore happily reformed my taste buds, and more.

Life became an eating adventure that changed my definition of comfort food forever. It should awaken my senses with spicy flavors, stirring memories of literally sweating my way through an Asian food stall.

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fresh or dried, equally good

Cal and I are as opposite as any two people could be in what excites us at the table. He eats his vegetables “well cooked”, his fried egg sandwich only on white toast, and of course the Jell-O thing.

As Joan and I talked about Cal’s food likes and dislikes, other family eating lore tumbled out. She told of my father’s second sister, Dorothy [Aunt Dot], who suffered from a “nervous condition”, outlived two husbands, and never had children. She had some peculiar phobias and was not much of a cook either.  To family potluck gatherings she always brought her signature Pork and Bean dish. This was prepared by opening several cans of baked beans containing cubes of pork fat.  Then she added raw onions, catsup and molasses. The whole mess was baked for awhile in the oven. The onions were always “crunchy” and hated by small children. Perhaps everyone else too.

We lost track of time as I took notes and enjoyed being with cousins I don’t see very often. Cal called Joan’s phone to ask if she had forgotten about him and his lunch. Later that day she sent an email with a few more thoughts ending with, “Cal is such a Prussian! The trains must run on time even if they have nowhere to go. However, upon seeing the glorious cupcakes you sent home to him, he was easily placated.” You have to love a man who softens when favorite sweets are offered.

I asked extended family members to talk of their comfort foods when we were at a reunion last summer. Choices ran the gamut of American food tastes. Friends from other cultures, including my daughter-in-law who is Russian/Latvian, offered a more varied palate. But it is this quote, from an overseas American friend, that provided the most surprisingly unique definition:

“My comfort IS food. I love to have my mouth FULL. A bite that causes the cheeks to protrude like two small Buddha bellies is a sign of bliss. I am comforted by eating with my hands…likely linked to Neanderthal kin who subdued dinner with their bare hands. There is nothing more satisfying than having a chokehold on a stuffed burrito or pinning the buns of a burger into submission before taking an oversized bite. Wrestling with my food gives both the victor [me] and the vanquished a sense of exhausted satisfaction, after the battle.”

It seems unlikely that Cal and I will ever share similar food tastes, but that doesn’t really matter. The important thing is that we are linked by the way our choices make us feel. Satisfyingly nourished, emotionally content, warmly loved.

Two recipes; one sweetly bland and one very well seasoned.

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lineup of opposing food ingredients, cousin versus cousin

CAL’S TAPIOCA PUDDING

  • 1/3 c. granulated white sugar
  • 3 T. minute tapioca
  • 2 ¾ C. milk
  • 1 egg beaten
  • 1 t. vanilla extract

Mix first 4 ingredients in saucepan and let sit 5 minutes. Cook on medium heat. Stir constantly until it reaches a full boil. Remove from heat. Stir in vanilla. Cool 20 minutes and stir. Makes 4 servings. Eat warm or cold. Top with seasonal fruit if desired.

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tapioca undressed

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casually dressed

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well dressed

WENDY’S SPICY EGGS-ON-RICE

  • 1 serving rice, any flavor, placed in a bowl. Leftover rice works well.
  • 1 or 2 eggs cooked in butter, turned over easy for a few seconds at the end.
  • Sprinkle eggs liberally with red pepper flakes or fresh chopped chilies. Salt and pepper to taste.
  • Slide eggs and any remaining oil from cooking on top of rice. Take two knives and cut eggs into pieces so yolks run into the rice.
  • Garnish copiously with chopped cherry tomatoes.
  • Eat with a Chinese ceramic spoon.
  • Optional garnish: equal parts chopped garlic and ginger, browned in olive oil.
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ginger and garlic garnish, optional but deliciously optimal

For a blander, easy to digest version, simply leave out the chilies, garlic and ginger. Just eggs on rice. Very nice.

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A Mountain Gem for 70 Years

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Allenspark, Colorado lies in a curvy bend off Highway 7, between Estes Park and the valley below. It is situated within the Roosevelt National Forest and surrounded by mountains of the Front Range Colorado Rockies. As you drive past the majestic scenery of Wild Basin and the backside of Long’s Peak, it would be easy to bypass the business spur and keep descending the mountain.

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looking back on Long’s Peak from Hwy 7

But if you do make the right hand turn into Allenspark, it’s probably because you know about an historic hillside landmark halfway through town–Meadow Mountain Café.

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On the outside, it is painted green with purple trim. There is always a line up of cars parked below. An assortment of buttons are mixed into the cement and stone steps that you climb to the front porch.

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Inside, the main room has original knotty pine walls and a working potbelly stove for heat. Hand colored photographs by a local artist are displayed for sale.

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An eccentric collection of salt-and-pepper shakers line the walls.

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Behind this quirky façade, there is a long history of food and relationships that began in 1946, with a local character named Lil Lavicka.

Lil was known as the “pie lady”. As part of a divorce settlement, her husband hastily built a small two-room café where she could sell her baked goods. On this hilly spot, in tiny Allenspark, her pie house flourished for twenty summer seasons. It was just a stone’s throw across the street from a teeny house, where she lived into her 90’s.

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where Lil lived

Several changes of ownership and some 30 years later, Lil’s place was renamed Meadow Mountain Café. The menu became daily breakfast and lunch fare. Food was fresh and home-cooked to order, the coffee hot, with a hint of cinnamon. Consistently delicious food, friendly servers and reasonable pricing enhanced its reputation within the small community and radiated beyond. Locals and tourists began lining up for a table inside, or on the covered porch with hummingbird feeders, flowers and an overhanging pine tree. Lil’s seasonal pie house evolved into an Allenspark landmark with regularly returning customers, who eventually became friends.

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Roxanne [Rocky] St. John began waiting tables at Meadow Mountain in the late 1970s. Almost right away she was moved into the kitchen and continued to work the grill after two other women purchased it in the 1980s. Rocky finally took over solo ownership in 2007. It was time to put her personal stamp on the place.

Rocky is responsible for introducing the veggie burger and the incredible green chili sauce for huevos rancheros. Both became specialties of the house. Cinnamon spiked coffee remains standard, of course.

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a delectably fine lunch: veggie burger and sweet potato fries

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breakfast specialty: huevos rancheros with green chili sauce

She chose the current paint colors, including easy-on-the-eye peach walls in the kitchen and built the button inlaid steps for safer access in all weather conditions. The funky array of coffee mugs and salt-and-pepper shakers were always part of her style. The music that blasts from the kitchen is pure country western or rock-n-roll oldies. Son Joe mans the grill, daughter Alicia works the front, and husband, Danny, does whatever needs doing. It’s a full family operation, year round, with added help in summer. On Tuesdays, they take one day of rest.

We have been driving from our cabin in Estes Park to Meadow Mountain Cafe for more than 15 years. I go by myself, with family, or with friends, usually for breakfast, sometimes lunch. It never disappoints. It’s not meant to be fast food.

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You wait patiently and sip good coffee, talk leisurely. Perhaps you warm your back sitting at the counter by the antique stove, muse over the salt-and-pepper collection, read a book, or eavesdrop quietly on another conversation. You watch regulars walk into the kitchen looking for Rocky and to say hello. A table of friends play cards in the corner after their meal. At the other counter, a man leans his chin into one hand, and dozes, holding his coffee cup with the other.

Orders parade out of the kitchen. Coffee mugs are refilled. Homemade brown bread is sliced thickly for toast or sandwiches. Summer requires twice-a-day baking to keep up with demand. The scene is homey and multi-dimensional–from the diversity of people stepping through the front door to the din of kitchen music, mingled conversations and laughter, and the clatter of clearing plates as another table empties and fills. It always feels just right. You are glad to be hungry and in Allenspark.

What sustains 70 years of successful continuity in a community of just over 500 people? Rocky, and the female owners before her, perfected a simple yet timeless formula. Starting with an old-fashioned hard work ethic, they stay passionate about what they do and consistently do it very well. Quality is always high, service friendly, and customer relationships strong. And then, just maybe, a little hint of cinnamon in the coffee doesn’t hurt either.

I hope you have your own gem of a hometown café–a place with honest food, ambience, and feeling of community–where you seek to be nurtured over and over again.

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St. Catherine of Siena Chapel [Chapel on the Rock], St. Malo Conference Center, Allenspark, CO

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hand colored black and white photo of St. Catherine chapel, before the flood of 2013, purchased at Meadow Mountain

More Than Just an Egg Sandwich

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In Colorado, the holiday season was snow-white and the fireplace blazed night and day. There were deer and elk on the hillside, daily hikes into the National Park, a miniature snow-woman laboriously constructed from barely packable “dry” snow, and, of course, there were egg sandwiches.

IMG_0936A multi-layered, made-to-order egg sandwich is staple breakfast fare when we are at home in the mountains. It is nourishment spiced with location, now entwined in longstanding tradition. The ritual evolved, as things often do, from something I read.

Some 20 years ago, I was immersed in the writings of MFK [Mary Frances Kennedy] Fisher. In sensually descriptive prose, she weaves autobiographical stories of people, place and food. Her mythologizing of Aunt Gwen’s fried egg sandwiches particularly captured my imagination. It is the tale of a child’s realization that food and life’s lessons are often inseparable from a strong, loving mentor.

When Fisher was a young girl, several influential summers were spent with Aunt Gwen in Laguna Beach, California. As Mary Frances explained, “…she taught us a thousand things too intangible to report, as well as how to roast kelp leaves, steam mussels, tease a rattlesnake away from a frightened horse, skin an eel after sundown, and stay quiet while a night-blooming cereus [cactus flower] unfolds…”

With Aunt Gwen leading the way, Mary Frances and her younger sister  hiked the hills and cliffs above the beach, singing hymns and marching songs at the top of their lungs. And always, there was an egg sandwich, or two, carefully tucked into their pockets.

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the hills above laguna beach

“In the good Laguna days, it was an exciting promise, to warm up the pan, ready the ingredients, and make fried-egg sandwiches. Aunt Gwen insisted that we have at least two pockets somewhere on us, one for shells, stones, small fish, or lizards, and one big enough to hold these greasily wrapped, limp, steamy monsters. Then we would race the sunset to a high hill. The sandwiches stayed warm against our bodies, and when we panted to a stop, and fell against a good rock or an old eucalyptus trunk, the packets sent out damp insistent invitations… We each had two sandwiches. The first we gnashed at like fairly well mannered puppies. The second was for contemplation, as we watched all of the quiet empty slopes down to the cliff edge, and the great ocean with the sun sliding into it.” —MFK Fisher, Among Friends, Alfred A. Knopf Inc. 1970

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sunset at laguna

I love this description because it encompasses much more than satisfying simple physical hunger. Fisher was learning, at a young age, that the right combination of food, company, and spiritual nourishment were a metaphor for living well. The spiritual ingredients of those egg sandwiches included “equal parts of hunger and happiness”, a hillside sunset, and companions she loved.

There are no cliffs overlooking the ocean where our cabin is located, but cool summer mornings and darkly cold winter ones stimulate good appetites. Mountain views, towering ponderosa pines and native wildlife provide our spiritual geography. When we are in residence in Colorado, family and friends are often with us. With Fisher’s story in mind, a tradition was born around the kitchen table in winter and the front porch in summer—our mountain version of the fried egg sandwich.

Aunt Gwen’s original recipe was well documented. It started with heating the grease from whatever was cooked the day before in a large flat-bottomed skillet. When the fragrant drippings reached a smoking hot temperature, an egg was dropped in, the yolk broken, and quickly fried so that the edges were crisply brown and barely digestible. Next, two slices of good bread were added to the pan and browned on one side only. The cooked egg was slapped into the middle of the bread slices and pressed together. Finally, the whole thing was wrapped in wax paper that partially melted into the sandwich, small pieces of which were consumed when bit into with hunger and a happy heart. An ocean hillside sunset and good companionship completed satisfaction of body and soul.

As an aid to digestion and modern taste preferences, this is our contemporary version.

ROCKY MOUNTAIN EGG SANDWICH  

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basic ingredients, before adding options

Ingredients [physical]

  • Thick sliced smoked bacon, cooked crisply                                                          
  • Eggs, preferably brown and free range
  • Jalapeño jack cheese [or cheese of choice]
  • Toasted English muffins [or good brown bread]
  • Salsa or fresh tomato slices
  • Fresh spinach [or some kind of leafy green]
  • Avocado slices or guacamole [optional]
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Additional red pepper flakes, as desired

Ingredients [spiritual]

Family and/or friends gathered on a sun-warmed front porch in summer, around the kitchen table or fireplace in winter. Laughter and conversation flowing easily, with a cooked-to-order egg sandwich in hand. Appetites satisfied. Love and camaraderie shared. A new day begins…

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on the front porch in summer

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or around the fireplace in winter

Method

Assemble ingredients. Cook bacon in a well-seasoned cast iron skillet. Using the bacon drippings, crack an egg into round metal form and break the yolk. Season if desired with S&P or red pepper flakes. When egg is set, remove the form and gently turn the egg over for just a few seconds. On toasted English muffin, layer a thin slice of cheese, tomato, bacon and optional ingredients [avocado, salsa, etc.]. Add cooked egg and fresh spinach leaves or other greens. Press the whole thing down to a manageable biting size. Eat immediately while hot, using both hands. A mug of strong coffee or tea makes a desirable accompaniment.

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crack an egg into a round egg form

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break the yolk, season with red pepper, if desired

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constructing sandwich in layers

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completed, before pressing down

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added guacamole option

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with a mug of strong coffee

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the option of good bread instead of english muffin, coffee still mandatory

Traditions are specific to individuals or families, but the ritual and meaning behind Aunt Gwen’s egg sandwiches is as important to me today as it was to a young girl a century ago.

“All I could now say about Aunt Gwen will never be said, but it is sure that much of my enjoyment of the art of living, as well as of eating, comes from her…as well as my certainty that the two are, or can be, synonymous.” —MFK Fisher, Among Friends  

It is fortunate, indeed, at whatever age we learn this to be true.

Kindle Some Candlelight

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I’m obsessed with flames. Growing up in a family with fire-making and fire-tending rituals, I come by this naturally. Wherever we lived, when the outside temperature dropped, it was time to lay wood in the fireplace and watch it burn. Now I live in a Parisian apartment with seven fireplaces. All of them literally sealed shut. In the dark winter months, there is only one alternative. Between four and five in the afternoon, as the sun is waning, I start lighting candles, room by room.

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or group impact

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single

Recently, it became apparent that this is not a tradition others follow as consistently as I do. On a late December afternoon, earlier this month, my friend Lesli invited a group of women for “wine and unwind” time. This is when we gather in someone’s home, open a bottle of something and see what conversational banter arises.

On this occasion, we met at her apartment. Which happens to be furnished with a spectacular crystal chandelier from another century. While studying it admiringly, I noticed it was not electrified. It was outfitted with white candles. They had never been lit since Lesli moved in, three years before. She needed little encouragement to change this. With partially burned candles already in place, I climbed on a chair and broke off the blackened wicks before re-lighting them. Once in full glow, this antique beauty became a Versailles-worthy candelabra. Although no “ugly duckling” before, it transformed into a stunning swan.

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candelabra transformation, chez Lesli

She also had six or eight candles in heavy glass jars from the crème de la crème candle store, Cire Trudon. This is the oldest and most prestigious wax manufacturer, since 1643. The wicks were deeply buried in hardened wax having not been lit in a long time. It took some digging and trimming, but those, too, were put into active use. Soon the living room was ablaze with candlelight, bubbling “coupes de champagne”, and good conversation among friends.

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trimmed and untrimmed wick lengths

It’s one thing to describe creating ambient light and warmth with candles. The truth is, for many people they are messy and off putting except on special occasions. This is easily remedied by a bit of maintenance know-how. For anyone inclined to light up the night with candlelight, here is the most basic tutorial, as requested by a few friends in France.

  • ALWAYS trim the wick before relighting a candle. It will break off in your fingers at the perfect starting point. Otherwise, over time, the smoke from a too-long wick blackens walls, ceilings and pollutes the room.
  • Prevent excessive dripping messes by keeping lit candles out of drafts. This seems obvious, but it’s really important to be aware of changing air currents wherever candles are burning. For safety reasons as well as dripping.
  • If you light a LOT of candles, it’s better to use a candlesnuffer for extinguishing rather than blowing them out. This dramatically reduces smoke pollution and spraying wax on walls and horizontal surfaces.
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    use candlesnuffer by

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    covering and holding 5-8 seconds

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    voilà! no smoking candle

    Whether you engage in regular candle usage or not, there is other interesting etiquette to know.

  • Never display new candles [taper or column] in their holders with white wicks. If you leave them unburned, it looks like they belong in a store rather than in your home. All wicks should be blackened, by lighting them briefly, even if not using the candle right away. [I make an exception with votive candles because they are small and often in containers that don’t show their wicks. I also have a lot of them. A purist would say to blacken those too.]

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    a pair of votive monks

  • Don’t burn candles during the daylight. Candles are for darkness only—morning or evening. Breakfast before sun-up with candlelight is a mellow way to start the day. Evening is natural timing. A candle lit bath can be a regular luxury.

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    breakfast candles with flea market match holder

  • When a drippy mess occurs, as it will, consider it part of the experience. A spatula easily scrapes wax from hard surfaces. Hot water does the rest, melting it away.
  • As column-shaped candles burn, empty the wax pool [while it is still liquid] right after extinguishing. As it burns deeper into the column, occasionally trim off the top to make it even with the wick. Use a cutting board and a large knife. This prolongs a natural burning life until it becomes a stump, ready to discard.
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living room candelabra, paris

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best of both, electricity and candlepower, colorado cabin

I can’t explain how fire and candle lore came to be so second nature to me. But, I do believe that our “indoor lives” are  enhanced with strategic candlelight. It’s a personal and creative choice as to the selection of candle holders, shapes, and colors. Almost any non-flammable container will hold some type of candle. Oil lamp candlelight is a good low maintenance option.

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mixing regular and oil burning candlelight

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colorado coffee table

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shadow play

So light a candle or two at home tonight. Enjoy a few flickering flames with family or friends. After all, ‘tis the season.

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santa says ho ho ho & hippobirdday dar

For premier candles: http://www.ciretrudon.com

Cire Trudon USA, Inc. 358 Fifth Ave., Suite 901 NY, NY 10001

In France: 78, rue de Seine 75006 Paris

Taiwan Green-Marble Pesto

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fine-looking pesto ingredients

Our family lived in Taipei, Taiwan for twelve years, from 1993-2005. If you look for symbolism in numbers, like I do, it was a complete 12-year cycle of the Chinese Zodiac calendar. Twelve Chinese New Years celebrated traditionally with red envelopes and NT [New Taiwan] dollars, deafening strings of firecrackers, and an annual assortment of snacks from the market on Dihua Jie.

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lara and friends, dihua jie, early 2000s

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dihua jie market, every chinese new year

In our Tien Mu neighborhood,  we ate in local restaurants that served delicious, and always freshly made, Chinese food.  Still, you signed off on ambience while dining out for taste. Formica tables, plastic stools, plates and bowls, disposable chopsticks with splintery ends, napkins the size of a piece of toilet paper, and strong fluorescent lighting were standard dining décor. It was a good way to get the eating chore done, which we often did in our favorite haunts. But it was far from cozy.

Desire breeds creativity so we found another way of eating with excellent menus in ambient surroundings. Familiar friends in conversation around a candlelit table set with pottery plates, gleaming silverware and tall stemmed wine glasses became an almost-every-weekend pleasure. It was regular “dining-out” that happened to be in each other’s homes. Sourcing ingredients was an adventure in foraging. There was one grocery store with more than two aisles, which we fondly referred to it as “Two L Wellcome”, as that was the spelling. Otherwise, there were tiny mom-and-pop shops, where the nuances of supply, demand, and restocking necessitated flexible planning.

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tien mu grocer, of the mom and pop variety

There were several men among our group of friends who enjoyed preparing party meals. One of them was Alec. He inspired my husband to start cooking and our own dinner parties became more elaborate over the years. Fortunately, Mark adopted Alec’s kitchen-to-table outcomes rather than his in the kitchen methodology. Which tended towards the euphemistic “bull in a china shop”.

It’s a fact that Alec operates on a very high metabolism. He prowls the kitchen after midnight to down a bowl [or two] of cereal for hunger pangs in the wee hours. He bikes up mountains and through forests, he jogs, he talks quickly, and moves fast, always. He makes us laugh when he pours coffee into his shirt pocket instead of his mouth or re-arranges pictures by knocking them off the wall. Luckily for his wife, he is the designated chef for their family by mutual choice. He nurtures both family and friends this way—with delicious home-cooked food. He not only cooks and bakes, he makes his own jams and condiments. For several years, he brewed fruity varieties of brandied liqueur and tried very hard to make us love them. There were annual gifts of syrupy sweet alcohol and floating fruit. Our appreciation never really ripened. We finally had to tell him we didn’t know what to do with the growing collection of unopened bottles.

At times, Alec and Mark teamed up for a special celebratory dinner in our home. We had a good-sized kitchen, but I learned to stay out of it during prep time. Unpleasant noises mixed with exclamations of “Oh no!” were the norm. When Alec was sous chef, things shattered on the floor and crunched underfoot. Over the years, the kitchen table was reworked with a series of distressing gouges and missing wedges of wood. Guests were mostly unaware and always charmed by the cuisine. The table was designated firewood by the time we left Taiwan.

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alec and mark, chez ulfers’ cuisine, late 1990s

When Alec is wrestling with ingredients in a kitchen, mishaps happen. The first dinner party in their apartment foreshadowed the eventual doom of our table. We just didn’t know it at the time. Six or eight of us were chatting amiably while final preparations were underway behind the kitchen door. A loud metallic crash followed by a muffled wail stopped conversation. Splayed out on the green marble tiles was an enormous kettle of just combined spaghetti and basil pesto. It was a vivid image of green and white on green and white, with a touch of barely repressed laughter. Using the well-known culinary 10-second rule, there was hurried scooping, wiping and reheating. Flustered nervous systems settled. Table-side, we murmured gratefully over the best pesto-pasta that ever shined a Hualien-marble floor.

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Hualien marble floor, made in Taiwan

My all-time favorite recipe of Alec’s, and certainly the most memorable, is his version of homemade pesto. Served immediately on hot pasta, it is a garlicky, basil-y, olive oily sensation. Each time we were invited to dinner, I secretly hoped it was on the menu. Because basil was inexpensive and available year round in Taiwan, it often was.

There are several advantages to making your own pesto. It’s super easy and very versatile. Aside from pasta, it can be stuffed into chicken breasts or sandwiches, used as a dip, or as an incredible base sauce for homemade pizza.

It’s only optional whether you use it to polish the kitchen floor.

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toast pine nuts in un-oiled pan

ALEC’S GREEN-MARBLE PESTO

  • 2 C. tightly packed fresh basil leaves
  • 6 large cloves garlic
  • ¾ C. extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 C. freshly grated parmesan cheese
  • ½ C. pine nuts or walnuts [or both]
  • ¼ to ½ tsp. salt and pepper [start light and adjust upward]
  • red pepper flakes [optional] for those who need some heat

Blend ingredients in food processor until smooth. Taste and adjust S&P.  Dilute with a bit of hot water to mix easily with prepared pasta. Delicious on it’s own or add cooked chicken, sun dried tomatoes, artichoke hearts, black olives, even roasted butternut squash! Chopped cherry tomatoes make a colorful garnish.

Recipe is sufficient for up to two pounds [1000 gm] of pasta. Adjust pesto amount to your taste. I tend to go on the lighter side when adding other ingredients. Store any extra in airtight container, with a thin film of oil.

have also made pesto à la Alice Waters [Chez Panisse] using only a mortar and pestle. This is a labor of love, and meditation, with a uniquely wonderful result. For pesto purists. Or those without food processors.

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line-up of the usual raw ingredients

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prepared for food processor or mortar and pestle: oil, garlic, pine nuts, basil, parmesan

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out of food processor—the color of green marble

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dilute with hot water before adding pasta

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stir into pasta and reheat slightly

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garnish with chopped tomatoes, sprinkle of parmesan

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a glass of champagne makes anything better

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our local tien mu buddhist temple, taipei, taiwan

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temple dragons

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taroko gorge, taiwan, source of hualien marble

Hellenic Halloumi

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For three years, in the early 1990s, we lived on the island of Cyprus in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. The capital, Nicosia, was divided in half by the Turkish invasion of 1974. After the conflict, U.N. troops kept peace along a border called The Green Line. This line divided the entire island between the Turkish occupied northern section and the Greek populated land to the south. We lived on the Greek Cypriot side of Nicosia. Although you could still see bullet holes in certain places, the old part of the city was very charming—vine covered walls, stone terraced tavernas, shops of pottery, pewter, and hand made lace, narrow cobbled lanes with flowers spilling out of pots.

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Nicosia, old town

We lived on the ground floor of a small apartment building adjacent to the International School of Cyprus [ISC], as it was called in those years. The kitchen and living room had glass doors that opened onto a large terrazzo-tiled terrace bordered by a white railing. It was overhung with willow branches from an enormous tree growing out of the garden of the Greek restaurant on the hillside just below. In warm weather, sounds of clinking glassware and cutlery drifted upward as tables were set for dinner on the outdoor patio. We befriended the owner, and sometimes he would invite us to join him for a late night glass of wine. After the last diners departed, we tiptoed down the stone stairs between our terrace and his restaurant to share a drink under lanterns hanging from the willow tree.

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old town nicosia

I met Janmarie during the first year because her four children attended ISC. After dropping them off in the mornings, she was at my kitchen table by 8:30AM for coffee. Every day. We became good friends over those visits, talking easily  about many things. She was also my cooking mentor, and I learned to prepare a few Lebanese specialties that became supper-time staples. Those are stories for another time. Once in a while, morning conversations segued into lunchtime hungers. When this happened, particularly in the wintertime, Janmarie would say, “Let’s go for some Halloumi.” We headed downtown to the old city in her car.

Halloumi is a cheese that originated in Cyprus centuries ago. Traditionally it came from sheep’s milk, is pure white, shaped in semi-solid blocks and packed in salty brine. Once relieved of it’s packaging and drained, it looks rather ghostly, anemic, and unappetizing.  The power of this cheese is that it is transformed into something exquisitely different by adding heat and grilling it to a golden color. At that moment you should eat it right away, if possible. It’s also delicious at room temperature, but the texture becomes chewier and sort of squeaks in your mouth.

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unwrapped, pre-transformation

On the streets of old-town Nicosia, hot off the griddle, layered on a kind of panini bread with tomato and cucumber slices, then grilled again in a sandwich press, halloumi was more than a hand held snack. It was the taste of salt from the ancient sea mixed with creamy chewiness and warmth, in direct contrast to the coldish air in which we sat. On a wintery day in a Cypriot taverna, the smell and taste of that sandwich was reminiscent of the cobblestoned history under our feet. It symbolized, for me, 9000 years of island invasions and conquerors, Greek mythology, Roman ruins, archeological digs, picnics in poppy fields, smooth-stoned beaches, and red-tile roofed stone houses overlooking the sea. I never forgot the feeling created by time and place, nourishing food, and my friend.

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Kourion Roman Amphitheater overlooking the Mediterranean used annually for ISC graduation

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smooth stones of Pissouri beach, Cyprus

When we lived there, you could not buy halloumi anywhere else in the world. It was strictly a local product, made and consumed in Cyprus. We moved on to live in Taiwan, and, later, Germany and France. Halloumi was relegated to a memory of a life that we left. Then one day, in a Greek delicatessen on our Parisian market street, I spied bricks of that briny cheese for sale. The global marketplace had caught up. Taste and memory were about to be rekindled 20 years later.

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1/4 inch slices

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brown over medium heat

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add spinach, tomatoes, cucumbers, red onion

There are different ways to prepare and enjoy halloumi. The easiest way is to slice it about ¼ inch thick and fry in a little bit of good olive oil. When nicely browned on both sides, it is the start of a great sandwich using pita bread or a tortilla wrap. Layer in tomatoes, cucumbers, red onions, or whatever you have on hand.

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It’s also good for breakfast on hot toast, with or without eggs on the side. As a snack or hors d’oeuvre, halloumi can be prepared a little differently. Cut into cubes and brown on all sides in a small amount of good oil. When golden, place in a bowl, drizzle with a bit more olive oil and sprinkle with red pepper flakes. Pass out the toothpicks and eat it right away, with olives, fresh veggies, or simply enjoy the warm salty creaminess on its own.

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preparing as an appetizer

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sprinkle with olive oil & red pepper flakes

Although the world is indeed an international marketplace and I can now eat halloumi again, in my own sensory landscape I cherish most these three together: an ancient Mediterranean island, the laughter and camaraderie of a great friend, and a hot halloumi sandwich on a cold day.

In the USA you can find Halloumi online, if not locally:

http://www.igourmet.com/halloumi_cheese.asp

http://www.halloumicheese.com

My Market Street

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When our son made his first trip to Paris in 2008, he wryly observed that the city seems to be founded on the notion to stop, have a drink, and TALK with someone every 50-100 feet. It certainly is a place that fuels unlimited possibilities for café crawling. Within almost any radius of where you stop walking, a viable opportunity presents itself. Locals readily establish a favorite café in which to hangout in their neighborhood or “quartier”. Here you take a load off your feet, eat, drink, talk, or muse. It’s also the best entertainment to be found.

In telling one of my French neighbors about the ritual I have at a particular café, she informed me that I had simply established “un poste d’observation”. Now that is what I say to my husband when he calls wondering where I am. It’s an activity of high importance, assessing the cast of characters who walk by on any given day. And when he can, he hurries home to join me.

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invisible sign says “sit here”

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Of course, there are market streets all over Paris—open markets, covered markets, farmers’ markets, daily markets, bi-weekly markets, organic markets. But the most important is the one closest to where you live. I never know exactly what we will eat until I venture out in the late afternoon to see what looks delectable on our market street. And if there is, by chance, an open café table on the sidewalk, I take it as a sign that I must sit there for a moment or two. In nice weather I can count 11 businesses with sidewalk tables on this narrow street. For my habitual musings and entertainment, I have pledged allegiance to only one. It’s on the corner, as you enter “market street”.

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On Market Street by Arnold Lobel, HarperCollins 1981

There is a children’s book by Arnold Lobel that goes by the title, On Market Street. It tells the story of a little boy enticed by shopping on a particular street. He buys everything from A to Z, then trudges home carrying it all. This reflects my own experience because on this small pedestrian street is just about everything I could want or need.

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chickens roast, flowers bloom

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Butchers, boulangeries, patisseries, florists, cheese purveyors, dry cleaners, books, jewelry, fruit and vegetable vendors, grocery stores, crepes, sushi, caviar, oysters, Italian-made pizza, middle eastern food, tiny cafés and restaurants, coffee, tea and chocolate shop, wine, champagne and liquor, Italian and Greek delicatessens, kitchen and household products, candles and decorations, and a pharmacy. The only things missing are clothing and shoes. Which happen to be around the corner on a very long shopping street of boutiques.

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Before emptying my wallet for the day’s necessities, I sometimes settle into a beckoning chair at my favored poste d’observation. Greetings are exchanged with the server. Usually I order a glass of wine. This varies by the season or time of day. On a warm day, Côtes de Provence rosé or a Loire Valley white wine is standard. In cooler temperatures, a burgundy or Bordeaux is cozier under the overhead heaters. Every apéro beverage comes with a savory nibble on the side. Something salty and always slightly stale. Homemade potato chips are the standard limp offerings. Sometimes a tiny glass of pretzels fills in. It’s what I expect and is always perfect.

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this or that, ça dépend

On either side of me the tables are full. To the left—a kissing, smoking couple, drinking French beer and sparkling water. To the right—two women of a certain age sharing a crepe sucré. One drinks coffee, the other sips a beer. I give them only a cursory glance because my gaze is focused on the cobbled pathway in front of me. This is where the rest of the world enters or exits “market street”.

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crutches plus cool shoes

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the ubiquitous chariot

The favored times at my café are weekdays during the late afternoon/early evening hours. Or, around noon any Sunday morning. The parade of passersby is constant and unrelenting during either of the preferred times. It requires my full attention. It’s never disappointing. Sometimes I’m absorbed by the range of footwear—spiky heels, stylish boots, flip flops, sandals, platform shoes, sneakers, orthopedic shoes, chic Italian shoes. Other times it might be a whirl of transportation modes to ponder–bicycles, scooters, strollers, prams, wheelchairs, motorbikes, crutches, canes. Shoppers stroll by rolling carts or “chariots” to haul heavy purchases. They carry armfuls of baguettes [always!],

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flowers, wine, fruits and vegetables, roasted chickens, oysters or prepared food from the delis. On Sundays, a cacophony of sound permeates the air. Crowds of Parisians are acquiring ingredients for afternoon lunch “en famille”. IMG_3724Vendors hawk produce, servers rattle glasses and silverware, babies cry, friends greet each other with kisses, dogs bark and fight, children laugh and run around, music plays, and always people talk, talk, talk over everything.

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The sweetest sights drifting by are small children and dogs, completely comfortable in the hubbub. Once in a while I observe someone watching me watching them. The ritual is recognized. Smiles are exchanged. The parade moves on.

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cute

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cuter

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the cutest

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the cutest encore

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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almost time to move on…

As the wine and stale chips dwindle, I move toward the shops and my own errands. Trudging homeward with arms laden, I pass “le poste d’observation”. Someone is already sitting in the chair I recently occupied. They are watching me walk by. Fait accompli.

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Excerpt from On Market Street by Arnold Lobel, illustrations by Anita Lobel

“The merchants down on Market Street

Were opening their doors.

I stepped along that Market Street,

I stopped at all the stores.

Such wonders there on Market Street!

So much to catch my eye!

I strolled the length of Market Street

To see what I might buy…

My arms were full on Market Street,

I could not carry more.

As darkness fell on Market Street,

My feet were tired and sore.

But I was glad on Market Street,

These coins I brought to spend,

I spent them all on Market Street…

On presents for a friend.”

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