I sit down at my favorite Ristorante Il Panino (FYI – you order panini only if you want 2 or more), which has undergone an impressive renovation since my last spaghetti alle cozze e vongole (spaghetti with clams and mussels), and say, “Hit me.”
When the waiter asked why he hadn’t seen me “in awhile” (note, not even in a long while), I explained I was living in Jordan (leaving out the countries in between). He waited to hear no more and brought me un quarto del vino rosso and asked me what he could get me – although he already knew what I would say – from the seafood menu.
(When I told him it was Ramadan, during which I thought I might have to write posts entitled “Cool Clear Water” and “Killing Me Softly” until friends in Rome rescued me with a house-sitting offer, he brought me an unnecessary basket of bread.)
Even the 20-minute drive from the Trieste airport is calming: surrounded by lush fields of green, along the marshes of the bird sanctuary, where le zanzare (the mosquitos) welcome me like I’ve never been away.
Much of what I’ve written about Italy is about this far NE region, Friuli Venezia-Giulia (F.V. Giulia to friends), where I’ve spent many happy summer days along the Adriatic Sea during, after, and long after Le Cordon Bleu in Paris.
Proof positive: my 2-part series Prosecco Paradiso.
Prosecco notwithstanding, I would travel all this way just to see all 3 generations of the Tomaselli/dall’Oglio hotel family holding court on via Giuseppe Verdi.
Nonna doesn’t recognize me anymore; she’s getting up in her years now. But she hasn’t lost a bit of her charm, saying that even though she doesn’t remember my face, she knows I’m as beautiful as ever, to which I reply (truthfully in her case), “As are you.”
The family knows all about my humanitarian work over the years and would like me to consider, they said humorously, coming back for 2 months – basically the remainder of the tourist season – as they’re in need of some “humanitarian assistance” themselves. The European recession has hit them hard, although having been through the wars, literally, they’ve weathered the economic storm a bit better than their island peers.
Grado is far from its heyday in 2004, my first summer here. The good ol’ days when the Saturday night dinner rush began like clockwork, church bells + 15 minutes, and continued long into the night.
Ilene e Giorgio, nota bene: THE pre-dinner gelato place (for heathens) is BACK. Different owners, same great pesca e basilico!
Historically, the vast majority of the island’s clientele has been German and Austrian, exactly who’s been cutting back on beach holidays in recent years. But I see a new marketing strategy paying off: selling Friuli and its neighboring Slovenian province as one contiguous tourist destination, to – judging from languages heard on the street – French, British, Russian, even Arab travelers.
But the Tomasellis/dall’Oglios have been in the hotel business since the 1920s and despite its founder’s passing have, on balance, flourished through the generations, the 4th of which are are entertaining themselves in the children’s playroom: French-speaking preschoolers who call Bruxelles home.
This morning, Signore, after making sure I’d already had breakfast (proving that Italian fathers can be as bad as Italian mothers), suggests taking the early ferry to Isola di Barbana. (My café owner friends, subject of Our Lady dei Bambini, sadly were victims of the economic downturn.) He further suggests saying a “substantial” prayer to the Madonna before heading straight to the beach.
Which is exactly my plan. Except for the prayer part.
This is a real quote from a real person who, when she got hungry in the middle of the night, got up to fix herself a “little plate,” and was a little proud of it, too.
Ask my dad. It was his mother.
My Grandma Bel loved to cook (as I do) and loved to eat (as I do). Too much of either of these 2 hobbies ‒ let alone both together ‒ can get you into too much trouble.
(Don’t try this at home, but she also smoked for 50 years, never exercised a day in her life, typical of women of her generation, and lived to be 87.)
Flax, fiber, and all those other ffffffffoods just make me sad. Same with those grassy drinks that taste like I fell face-down in a putting green.
Then someone sent around this photo and commentary and suddenly I felt a whole lot better.
Now, it’ll be awhile before I’m 51, but who do I want to look like when that time comes? The woman who recommends colonic irrigation, or the woman who recommends passion-fruit mousse?
Everyone in the UK knows Nigella Lawson, but she’s a different kind of food celebrity than the pompous Gordon Ramsay or the breezy Jamie Oliver or the mama’s boy ‒ in his case, that’s a compliment ‒ Raymond Blanc.
(If you don’t think you have the time or the skills to cook a French meal on a weeknight, try Chef Blanc’s Bresse Chicken with Red Wine Vinegar.)
This quote is from the forward to one of Nigella’s books: “I am not a chef. I am not even a trained or professional cook. My qualification is as an eater. I cook what I want to eat – within limits.”
Now, there are some people for whom limits, however loosely defined, work fine. How lucky is that. Then there are others (of us) who best put our formal training to use mostly by feeding other enthusiastic eaters.
Which I don’t mind at all, so come on over, prepared to eat your peas.
We don’t need to be told by President Obama to eat our peas. It’s all about how they’re prepared. Only in the UK does the waiter give you a choice between “garden peas” and “mushy peas” and people actually order the latter on purpose.
Personally, I like all vegetables, including lima beans, collard greens, and ‒ wait for it ‒ rutabagas. Okra any way but stewed. Cauliflower minus the cheese, cheese sauce, or cheese-flavored bread crumbs. (One chef friend, formerly of the Four Seasons New York, oven-roasts cauliflower and broccoli flowers with olive oil, salt, pepper, and lemon slices.)
But the world doesn’t come to an end when you eat that hamburger at the summer barbeque. As long as it’s only one ‒ hint: if you’re the BBQ operator, you’re too busy to eat ‒ and you skip the mayonnaise.
The world will, however, come to an end the moment you put one of those egg-less, cheese-less, why-bother meat impersonators on the grill. They sell a scarily similar product in the tile repair department at ACE Hardware.
I completely respect people who avoid meat for religious or health reasons, or out of social conviction. However, even if a veggie burger is labeled “healthy,” please read the ingredients carefully. In addition to vegetables and grains, you may get methylcellulose, also known as food additive E461, a non-digestible chemical emulsifier used in shampoo, toothpaste, and paint.
You may also get evaporated cane juice, which is just sugar. Actually a little sweeter than sugar, but at least it’s a real food…and thus perfectly legal for prepared foods labeled “organic” to contain it.
So, your choice is not only meat vs. vegetables, it’s also meat vs. sugar.
(Aside: I think a great solution to prison overcrowding would be to sentence convicts to being Lifetime Vegans with No Possibility of Parole. Ugh. Send me to a real jail.)
The “all my skinny friends are dead” quote was born when my grandmother was diagnosed with cancer. The treatment caused her to lose a lot of weight…and her trademark fiery red hair, too, which was actually worse. Her theory was that if you have some extra weight to lose, chemotherapy or radiation doesn’t leave you looking like the emaciated woman in the photo above, Scottish TV health guru Gillian McKeith, whose best-selling strategies have been repeatedly debunked by clinical nutritionists and food scientists as phony and dangerous.
On the other hand, if you run ultra-marathons and have 8% body fat, you don’t have much leeway. (My grandma would be ultra-proud of my sister, then, who claims to run only when chased.)
Now, the possibility of getting cancer does NOT excuse any of us from being height-weight proportionate, no matter how much it hurts (and you have no idea). But in Grandma Bel’s case, diverging from the mean hurt less than usual.
And it was incredibly interesting how true her comment was, thinking back on her close circle of friends and what happened to them, versus to her, who had not only beaten back cancer, but also, despite admittedly a few too many of those “little plates…”
…lived for 20 more years afterwards.
“Your church is back that way.”
Istanbul, like San Francisco, is a city where you often can see exactly where you need to go, but can’t figure out how to get there. A city where every street is Lombard Street and road construction is epic (and traffic has its own TV station, channel 21).
I wasn’t asking for directions because I planned to attend the Blue Mosque (although I did visit it later); I just needed to know whether the road went all the way through to the palm trees and the viewing benches in the distance.
Because that’s where I needed to turn left then left then left again, then right, to get to my guest house at 6, Akbiyik Street.
It was pure coincidence that I asked this question at the same time as the afternoon call to prayer, and they knew it. Just a little welcoming joke.
“My church” they were referring to is Ayasofya (in Turkish) or Haghia Sophia (in English). An icon of the Christian faith in these parts for the past thousand and a half years, it became a museum in the 1930s under Atatürk.
(Atatürk wasn’t his given name; it means “Father of the Turks.” Mustafa Kemal Paşa led the Turkish army to victory in Gallipoli in 1915, then after World War I got rid of the sultanate and created the modern ‒ and secular ‒ Turkish state, including women’s rights and mandatory public education, and famously not including derviç magic! Nearly every important building and institution in Istanbul is named after Atatürk.)
Ayasofya is across Sultanahmet Parki from the Blue Mosque, a bit like the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial are on opposite ends of the National Mall in Washington, DC, all 4 monuments magically illuminated at night.
Having just come from the Christmas-crazy capital of majority Catholic Bavaria, suddenly seeing no immediate signs of Noël, except little leprechaun-green plastic trees at Starbucks, was oddly calming. In 16C weather, a ferry ride ‒ rather than a sleigh ride ‒ seemed in order.
(But, as in Munich, suddenly out of nowhere it’s 6C and pouring rain.)
Ayasofya, the Church of Holy Wisdom, dates back to the year 360 AD. Unfortunately, the church that Roman Emperor Konstantinos lovingly built was burned down by an angry public. Emperor Theodosios II tried again in the 5th century, with the same result.
Third time’s the charm, thought Emperor Justinanus (Justinian), who in less than 5 years built one of the architectural wonders of the world, religious or not.
And there Ayasofya has stood since 537 AD, unchanged, despite countless wars, famines, natural disasters, and changes in government. Which, said Justinian, was exactly the point.
In Constantinople, as Istanbul was called back then, Christmas was a relatively new concept ‒ 150 years new. But Christians living in those precarious times made pilgrimages to Ayasofya ‒ to its Weeping Pillar, if healing was required ‒ and, in the spirit of the season, all seemed light and right after all.
Which even among the poor, who were much poorer than most people who consider themselves poor in December 2011, inspired acts of charity, rather than inspiring overwrought decorations and competitive gift exchanges that seem to have hijacked Christmas holidays in our era.
But since Ayasofya is going to be around for another thousand years anyway, no-one will mind if I duck across the street to the Pudding Shop for some aşure (Noah’s Pudding) while the line dies down.
The story goes that Noah’s wife made this pudding with all the food left over in the Ark, after the waters of the Great Flood receded and the Ark came to rest on Mount Ararat, located east of here (near the borders of Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Iran).
Aşure is a chef’s dream menu item: how else could you clean out the restaurant fridge, put all kinds of aging, random fruit into the same pudding, and legitimately sell it to customers for full price?
Don’t be put off by the idea, though. Noah’s Pudding tastes really good…and I bet it did to Noah’s post-Flood family, too.
Anyway, the Pudding Shop used to be a place where, if you were a hippy backpacker, you could eat cheaply but well and leave messages for friends, lovers, or fellow travelers. After 15 tram stops on the T1 from the airport, being squeezed in like…the Pudding Shops’s lamb and green hot-pepper kebaps (the Turkish spelling)…but thankful it’s December and not July, right in front of the Sultanahmet station appears that oasis of fresh squeezed pomegranate juice.
And who needs TV when you can people-watch on Divanyolu Caddesi over a white bean salad? Or fries with ketçap and mayonez?
Scooters veering on and off the sidewalk, giving a whole new meaning to “texting while driving.” Tourists from the Gulf veiled head-to-toe in black walking alongside nightclub-bound locals in stiletto heels and leather boleros. Crowds of football fans in red and yellow singing boisterously on their way to the Galatasaray (“Cim Bom”) vs. Barça match.
Today I’m wearing red and green, colors of Team North Pole.
“It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas…” blares Starbucks, although bowing to local preference sells carrot cake without the rooftop snow-like cream cheese frosting. “Sleigh bells ring, are you listening?”
That’s my cue.
It’s 5:00am when urban roosters start calling us to prayer, but God waits until 5:08am. Even though “my church” lets me go back to sleep for another hour or so, I decide not to.
Watching the sunrise over the Sea of Marmara, I’m starting to see the wisdom in that.
So, after getting some great gift ideas at Oyuncak Müzesi, the Toy Museum on the Asian side of Istanbul, but being very disappointed to find out that I just missed their kids wooden toy-making and -painting class…
Like I tell all my genius friends: don’t be an idiot.
In Germany in December, it tends to snow. At a minimum, wind or rain or both. Pretty much count on it. What you shouldn’t count on is the freak 13C forecast you saw on weather.com lasting for your whole trip.
(Definitely don’t take any guidance from what I’m wearing, since anything above freezing feels like summer to me, compared to -20F at the North Pole last week.)
So, it’s not terribly insightful to check all your cold weather and rain gear ‒ in fact, all your gear, period ‒ in your suitcase, only to have the airline send it to Chicago. I know it’s inconvenient, but go ahead and use 4 bins at the security checkpoint and you’ll thank me later.
In Alaska, we call it “dressing to walk home.”
That’s how I end up sharing a late-night cab from the Munich airport with some guys from a global IT consulting firm, who actually travel quite a bit, but in parts of the world where leaving your swim trunks behind is the more pressing problem.
So, in this taxi we have a combined IQ of 550 and not one suit jacket for the keynote speech.
Lufthansa gave them each a few hundred Euros as compensation for the untimely Chicago reroute, one of many great reasons to fly Lufthansa (raves this uncompensated spokesperson), so they needed to do some impromptu Christmas shopping.
Legitimately buying gifts for themselves, unlike what you get caught doing every year.
Knowing Munich pretty well, I can help, but not literally. My generous holiday spirit doesn’t extend to sitting outside dressing rooms at department stores. But I’d be happy to meet you later.
And there’s only one place to meet in December in Munich and that’s under the Glockenspiel.
There are fabulous Christmas markets all around Europe, but it doesn’t get much better than Münchner Christkindlmarkt at sundown. Losing your luggage on an international trip is one way to turn into the Grinch, but starting out my Christmas-spirit-promoting job in Marienplatz feels almost like cheating.
So, after a few hours of speed shopping ‒ something like speed dating, but a lot more expensive and you’re stuck with the results for longer ‒ they drop their combined 550 bags at the hotel and we head out again into the brisk wind.
With slightly less complaining this time.
“Hot chocolate?” asked one guy, hopefully. Oh, Señor: we can do so much better than that.
Glūhwein is hot mulled wine, usually red, although you can use fruit wines, white wine, or even beer.
The classic German glūhwein spices are cinnamon, cloves, vanilla, and citrus, optionally “mit Schuss” (with a shot of hard liquor). Elsewhere ‒ in Scandinavia, Russia, the UK, throughout Europe ‒ you’ll find a host of other flavors, including apple, nutmeg, honey, currant, even black pepper!
Whether you’ve been calling it vin chaud, grzane wino, glögg, vin fiert, Глинтвейн, sıcak şarap, or karstvīns for the past 600 years, glūhwein puts the cheer back in “Holiday Cheer” and beats back colder Decembers than this, all for a mere 3€ a glass.
Although it might take quite a few glasses to test that theory.
There are lots of good glūhwein recipes on the Web, but I have one objection to almost all of them: never use cheap red wine! Use the same quality red wine as you would to drink at room temperature in a wine glass.
When I mentioned this, we happen to be sharing a table with the one demographic that couldn’t care less: rowdy football fans excited about a match between 2 teams we’d never heard of.
My paternal ancestors immigrated from Nordrhein-Westfalen, Germany and undoubtedly brought a glūhwein recipe with them to South Dakota. One of the great-grandmas was apparently known to store bottles under the bed and, look-y here: we have a nice fermented beverage for…medicinal purposes!
Favorite glūhwein of the day? “Glūhwein nach Oma’s Rezept.”
Grandma’s Special Recipe.
So, with a wave to good friends on the Italian/Slovenian border, who are really disappointed we don’t have time to stop by for dinner and the night (in their 4-star hotel), we continue flying SE to…
“I moved to Alaska for the sweets. The weather was a bonus.”
There’s this ever-cheerful, ever-helpful Pakistani taxi driver in Anchorage. Our whole family knows him, and his whole life story.
He practiced for the taxi license exam by driving around the city in a borrowed car, but his first fare asked to go to a city 1 hour away, to the one destination he’d never heard of. He has a bunch of kids, all of whom are fulfilling the American Dream by being brilliant students with promising careers.
He’s unfailing honest. This summer, a family friend, although he never knew that, left her expensive camera in his cab. A camera worth a couple months’ salary for him.
Of course he turned it in at the office.
But today is all about desserts and where to find them and I think he would’ve been thrilled to drive me around all day…paid in sugar!
I want to visit the best bakeries, candy stores, and ice cream establishments in downtown Anchorage, I said, so I can write about them for people who think Alaskans survive all winter on whale blubber.
He drove me immediately to 4th and G, where I started my field trip at the Modern Dwellers Chocolate Lounge. Which was almost a huge mistake because I almost didn’t finish this post.
(Which, if you’ve been following this blog for awhile, is borderline inexplicable because sweets don’t thrill me, especially chocolate. Go on, tempt me with a white-hot yellow curry with potatoes and fresh squid…)
The only way to shop for gifts at the Chocolate Lounge, I immediately realized, is to have a Mayan spicy hot chocolate and sit in one of those luxurious leather chairs and think about it for awhile.
A long while, depending on the weather: +8F/-13C and windy. (This can make a life-or-death difference. For example, today is -2F/-19C, but -26F/-32C wind chill.)
Which is what I did, sending my super-sweet sister a text that she could just pick me up at the Chocolate Lounge when her flight came in at 7:30pm.
Keep in mind it was only 1:30pm at the time.
As the owner is telling me they do chocolate and beer pairings for buyers of Anchorage Symphony season tickets, I’m trying to decide between the Murray salt/chai/orange/caramel, the 3-chili blend, the mulberry/goji berry/goldenberry, or the smoked salmon.
Alaska Wild Smoked Salmon 65% Cacao!
I ended up buying them all. So, those of you I’ll be seeing within the next month, sorry: your gifts are no longer a surprise.
It’s one block from the Chocolate Lounge to the Cake Studio, where they’ve painted a Julia Child quote on the wall: “If you’re afraid of butter, use cream.”
Julia and I graduated from Le Cordon Bleu 54 years apart, but some philosophies are burned into your brain with a crème brûlée torch and that’s one of them.
The Cake Studio at 4th and F caters to a much different constituency. In contrast to the Chocolate Lounge, where I was the sole customer for the first hour and subsequent customers sank into leather chairs beside me and settled in for the afternoon, too, the Cake Studio had a long line of people buying tea pots and frilly aprons for gifts and ordering custom cakes for upcoming events.
Based on the samples in the cold case, if you want a description-defying wedding cake that people would still be talking about at your 25th anniversary party, the Cake Studio is your mother ship.
You might’ve seen pastry Chef Will on the Food Network demonstrating some exotic dessert ‒ the Marsala mousse caught my eye ‒ but at heart he seems like a new classics kind of guy: carrot coconut cake, butter pecan croissants, and chocolate berry savarin, which amounts to a castle of berries on chocolate shortbread surrounded by this moat of chocolate ganache.
Hint: they’re open for breakfast and there’s no rule that says how breakfast is defined.
My last stop of the day, Moose à la Mode, is what you might think that you’d think when you thought about Alaska, but then you’d be wrong.
While it’s true you can order a scoop of your basic chocolate, peanut butter, and strawberry ice cream, or buy a greeting card that says “salmon: the fish that dies for love,” the real reason to go Moose à la Mode is to sit by the fireplace and buy or sell art.
Let’s say you’re an Alaskan painter, photographer, or wood/metal sculptor who sells works in the $300-$1,200 range and is looking to consign. Let’s also say your work is in demand as peace offerings, taken home by guilt-ridden fishermen who just spent $10,000 USD on a vacation they took without their wives or girlfriends.
Don’t think that cooler full of salmon is the gift!
Not needing any art bribes on this trip, I buy a hot green tea for the road and continue up 4th Street to Nane’s Pelmenis, where the smallest beef or potato Russian dumpling easily serves 2 people (and the owners are totally unapologetic about this), so you need to bring either a huge appetite or a friend. This comfort food immigrated to Alaska eons ago, providing some Native families with surnames like Pelisoff and Shurygin.
The hardest decision at Nane’s is between the rice vinegar and the red-hot pepper sauce, since you don’t have a choice about the avalanche of sour cream.
The only way to keep from falling asleep after a meal like that is to get back out in the cold. At Sourdough ‒ the people, not the bread ‒ Tobacco & Internet, my heart goes out to a group of young guys wearing business suits, dress shoes, and flimsy raincoats. They’re clearly not missionaries, so they must be interviewing for jobs at ConocoPhillips/BP.
Give ‘em a couple more days and they’ll be wearing mukluks at the Pioneer Bar next door, like people who know better.
The painting sitting to the left of the chocolate bars is a print of “Catch of the Day,” by the Alaskan artist (and my sister) Rebecca Hamon, 2005.
Because she’s Henrietta the Eighth, my great-niece’s great great great…niece.
Who lives in rural Alaska, where there aren’t many roads, and even fewer chickens.
At first, I wanted nothing to do with Henrietta the First. It’s no secret that I dislike birds anyway and no fowl related to me was going to be wearing diapers in the house. But to prove that you can find absolutely anything on YouTube, try searching on videos with step-by-step instructions on how to make diapers for chickens.
But once Henrietta the First started proving her worth ‒ in a reproductive sort of way ‒ I started to change my mind. Although admittedly my mind was going more toward Chicken Cordon Bleu, one recipe I can confirm is not taught at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris.
Henrietta the First started out as my niece’s school science project. Hatch the egg and watch it grow from a chick to a hen (or rooster). Learn responsibility by caring for the chicken: feeding it, watering it, providing shelter for it.
Which in Alaska is no small task, for any pet.
The chicken’s water freezes overnight. The chicken house insulation proves insufficient. Teenage chickens try to sneak out of the house after dark when the chicken house door freezes just slightly ajar and are held without bail under the kitchen counter while the deputy chef calls their parents.
So, Henrietta was Chicken Zero, from whom came chicken children and grandchildren, to the nth generation.
Being the family matriarch, a position of importance in bush Alaska society ‒ elders of both genders often receive gifts from the community for no particular occasion, but especially around this time of year ‒ saved Henrietta the First, who eventually died of natural causes, from ever “volunteering” for the chicken and dumplings, the chicken noodle soup, and the chicken fried steak (or is that steak fried chicken?)
But recently one of Henrietta’s offspring ‒ a rooster, not surprisingly ‒ went a bit too far and made a huge scratch down the side of my niece’s face (but luckily not poking her eye out), proving that little chickens, just like little people, hate going to bed and will fight you every step of the way.
My sister posted a photo of this injury on Facebook with the title “Revenge of the Chicken,” quickly comment by someone else: “Guess who’s for dinner!”
Who everyone did eat for dinner, except my niece, who refuses to eat anyone she knows.
Except for dogs, which besides companionship and tradition are essential for safety and sometimes transportation, Alaskans are pretty practical about animals. They’re on this earth for us to respect ‒ and in the wild are very much a part of Native religious beliefs ‒ but also to consume.
So, you look up from the king salmon fillet on your plate to the king salmon sculpture on your wall and don’t find this at all incongruous.
Everyone in Alaska admires moose and there’s endless art, literature, and song by Natives and non-Natives alike about these magnificent, intimidating, and ‒ make no mistake ‒ dangerous animals.
Moose basically own the place and go wherever they want, whenever they want. Click here for the Anchorage Moose Cam and see the “Moose of the Moment!”
Don’t be surprised if you walk out of baggage claim at ANC and while you’re waiting for your hotel shuttle see a moose on the island road divider right across from you, munching on grass. Some family friends were making breakfast one morning, only to look over and see a moose trying to stick his head through the kitchen window.
And finding his antlers weren’t a good fit, which was too bad, because breakfast was smelling really good. It’s no accident that the most popular children’s book in Alaska is called If You Give a Moose a Muffin…
Or, check out a photo taken on my Blackberry last night, of a moose knocking on a neighbor’s door where we’re staying (while my niece and nephew are in town to compete in the state swim meet). Guess he didn’t read the sign that says “No Solicitations.”
Anyway, those very same moose-loving Alaskans will spend days trekking and flying in unpleasant weather ‒ although my brother-in-law insists there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes ‒ looking for moose and, if they’re lucky and find one, won’t hesitate to shoot him (by law, it’s always a male), bring him home, and put every bit to a useful purpose.
You’ll hear more from, and about, Mr. Moose another day. Right now, let’s talk about Halibut Quiche with Garlic-Citrus Garnish.
Henrietta 1, Halibut 0.
This post was originally about apples. The fruit.
I had it all written, including the title, and was just about to publish it when I read that Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple, had died.
When you live in Palo Alto, California, where every apple is an Apple, many of your neighbors are famous people who have bank accounts with lots of zeros.
Who also have cars that break down at inopportune times, toddlers with loud and public tantrums, and historic homes with decks that rot clear through and anybody know a good contractor?
Sometimes I’d see Steve Jobs and his wife walking in the neighborhood, along the boulevard under the canopy of trees. Steve, who had the astounding talent and vision to co-found a billion-dollar technology company named after his favorite fruit, was a husband and father of 4.
Whose family could use some comfort food today of all days.
If I were a Jobs family friend, I’d bring what I brought another grieving family on another rainy October day: pumpkin curry apple soup topped with a swirl of sour cream and grated nutmeg, and cheddar cheese soup topped with grated apple and fresh ground pepper.
Loaves of bread, still warm from the oven.
(I use grated apple in fall in the same places I use grated cucumber in summer: as a soup garnish, sandwich filler, and salad and salad dressing staple.)
Following comfort with comfort: baked apples.
Baked apples are also very useful if your house is for sale and you haven’t had many interested buyers in this recession. Chocolate chip cookies say you’re desperate, fish fillets say you secretly don’t want to move at all, but baked apples remind people of holidays at grandma’s house.
Or, as in my case, grandma’s dockside studio apartment.
Choose apples that are slightly to very tart, with firm flesh, and flat on the bottom so they stand up by themselves. Core, but don’t peel. My auto-pilot, über-comfort filling is a syrup made of salted butter, brown sugar, chopped nuts (walnuts, pecans, hazelnuts), dried fruit (raisins, cherries, cranberries), and spices (cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice).
Then spoon the leftover syrup over the tops of the apples and let it drizzle down the sides.
If opening the oven door during your open house makes buyers swoon, imagine if you just happened to have picnic ware and whipped cream on hand!
You can also core and fill tart apples with wedges of sharp cheddar cheese, or put the cheese underneath the crust of your apple pie. (The secret to that illusive flaky pie crust? Ice water.) While your pie is baking, ponder apple butter, caramelized apples and sweet onion sauté, and North Carolina-style apple crisp, with walnuts and bourbon.
I hope Jobs family friends are bringing over comfort foods like this today, mourning a man who accomplished so much in 56 years, yet still had decades of brilliant ideas left to show us.
Had Steve grown up with his American birth mother and Syrian birth father, university students who gave him up for adoption, he might’ve been called Steve Jandali. Thus, Syrians are proud of him today, and as in awe of his talent as we all are, but posted this sobering reflection on social media from their iPhones:
How many Syrian children have died, or will die, in our quest for freedom and democracy, who could’ve grown up to be another Steve Jobs?
Somewhere there’s a kid who will bring his or her inventions to life for us, creating products that change our daily lives in ways we haven’t even thought of yet. No-one ‒ not repressive governments, not well-meaning naysayers ‒ can halt technological progress.
And that, my dear Apples, is a comfort.
“What a healthy out-of-door appetite it takes to relish the apple of life, the apple of the world, then!” Henry David Thoreau, from Wild Apples.
You know what they say about crap flowing downstream.
They must be talking about Moammar Qaddafi and his “invitation” to “relocate” to “Three Rivers”: Burkina Faso, where the Black Volta (Mouhoun), White Volta (Nakambé), and Red Volta (Nazinon) literally meet.
Honestly, I prefer the Lower Volta, on the Ghanaian coast toward Togo. Where farmers raise shrimp and shallots. Where learning the language, Ewe, is easy and fun, and comes with this finger-snapping handshake that’s like dancing: you can do it only if the other person does it at the same time. Where the same people invite you to (Christian) churches for weddings and (animist) shrines for funerals.
But enough about Ghana for today. We’re headed to the Upper Volta, getting the 411 on a country that not many people outside of the African Union have opinions about, or could even find on a map.
Now, if it were me, I’d fly to Accra and travel 250 kilometers/155 miles ‒ a mere 7 hours by bus ‒ north to Kumasi. Spend the night at a guest house on a dirt road, run by 2 widows who cook suspicious fish, questionable porridge, and untouchable tomatoes. The next morning, I’d take another bus north…until people started speaking French.
(But, Moammar, since you’re you and you’re driving, point your Mercedes caravan south-west through Niger for 4,800 kilometers/3,000 miles to Burkina Faso’s capitol city, Ouagadougou. I hope you have AC; it’ll be 35C/95F and 90% humidity. At least.)
I can tell you right now, learning French will be a major challenge. I’ve been to French school and French teachers don’t mess around. I doubt you have much of a gift for languages because when you speak on Arab TV, you’re subtitled in Arabic. (Qaddafi speaks a Libyan dialect, so even Arabs from other countries can’t really understand him.)
First up, new lodgings for you. Remember that seaside villa previously owned by your son Saif al-Islam, with the infinity pool like you see in Architectural Digest? Nothing like that.
Something modest, overlooking the savannah.
Take heart. Eventually, you’ll be looking out at the Mediterranean Sea again…through prison bars. Better yet, looking out at the North Sea from the Cour Pénale Internationale in The Hague.
Meanwhile, lose the brocade robes and get some chickens, for brochettes de poulet later. Nobody in Burkina Faso will look at you twice. If you’re living large in Ouagadougou with all that gold and cash you smuggled out of Libya over the decades, especially in a 4-star hotel that until recently had a portrait of you hanging in the lobby, you might as well wear an “Escaped Dictator” sign on your back because some average guy earning $1 a day is going to take the Libyan opposition up on its generous finder’s fee.
Since the Burkina Faso government recognized Libya’s National Transitional Council last month and Interpol has a Red Notice out on you, staying inconspicuous might mean doing some of your own cooking. I know you’ll be homesick for Sharba Libiya (because I am, too): a spicy lamb soup so easy I recommend it to helpless dictators.
Start with vegetable ghee, “samn” in Arabic. You could use oil, so why ghee? Simple food chemistry. You can fry at a much higher temperature without setting off all your smoke alarms.
Sear pieces of lamb ‒ good color outside, still raw inside. (Properly cooked lamb is PINK, people, not brown). Add parsley, onion, and tomatoes. Just enough water to cover ‒ no need for veal stock ‒ and bring to a boil. When you add the orzo, ajoute aussi un peu de persil et des feuilles de coriandre.
Season generously with cayenne pepper, salt, and cinnamon. Or hararat, this great Libyan spice mix you can make yourself, or buy at an ethnic grocery store….by the kilo.
Literally as the soup bowls leave the kitchen, and not a moment sooner, add mint ‒ crushed dry is fine, shredded fresh is best ‒ and a splash of fresh-squeezed lemon juice.
For anybody but you, Moammar, I’d make mhalbiya (rice pudding) for dessert. Libyans flavor it with ‘atr (geranium extract), but orange blossom water will do.
Then I’d make some ka’k hilu (Libyan pretzels with sesame and fennel seeds) for myself.
At Le Cordon Bleu, we learned to drink while we cooked and, compared to the fundamentals of Islam and humanity you’ve already obliterated, this sin hardly even registers. Try the Burkinabè specialty banji, palm wine (fermented palm sap), partaken liberally by the 40% non-Muslims in this secular country. Or, if you’re still on the wagon, there’s always zoomkoom, a non-alcoholic “soft drink” made with millet flour.
Think really watery pancake batter flavored with lemon, ginger, and sometimes tamarind.
You might be in Burkina Faso for awhile and, for all the wrong reasons, you’ll give thanks for every meal. Just imagine if you’d sought exile in Russia!
There’s great Burkinabè cuisine in Paris, if you know where to look, and I do.
La Goutte d’Or is a gritty neighborhood in 18ème. At the famous Marché Barbès, in daylight and with local African friends, I buy more than I can realistically carry on the Métro of colorfully exotic, embarrassingly cheap ingredients you can’t find anywhere else in Paris.
Since it’s just as risky to shop when you’re hungry, we’re at the restaurant Etoile de Burkina near Place Hébert. On August 4.
Accidentally celebrating the anniversary of the Burkina Faso revolution. Learning why Burkinabè cuisine is called “l’émotion par les sens.” Sharing food with people who aren’t even at our table.
Riz gras, Burkina Faso’s national dish: rice cooked in fat with tomatoes and spices. Tô, bitter millet dough, with gombo (okra sauce) and yams on the side. Pan-fried fish, their beady eyes staring up at me from the plate.
Foufou, which in East Africa we call ugali: grits without butter or salt, formed into pasty polenta-like cakes. Brochettes upon towers of brochettes beside bowls upon bowls of delicious sauces.
Then a Burkinabè spin on a Sénégalese classic: Poulet Yassa.
Chicken stew with garlic, generous lemon, super generous onion, and any orphan vegetables you find hanging around. Mustard, if you can believe that. Red Hot Chili Peppers, which isn’t just a band.
Served with a Mòoré garnish, to celebrate: “Laafi bala!” (Peace! Health!)
Women cause earthquakes.
Normally you’d hear something like that in court, a spontaneous utterance by a certifiable crazy like Charles Manson. But, no: this was an officially sanctioned policy statement from Iran, reported by the international media, from the lips of Hojatoleslam Kazim Sediqi.
(Dear Mr. Sediqi, inquiring minds want to know just what criteria you’re using to identify “loose” women with these particular powers and how they operate under the radar of your eternally vigilant Purity Police, not to mention what calamities “loose men” might cause. Just curious.)
Sediqi isn’t the key player on all matters “loose” (he’s the “substitute prayer leader” in Tehran), but he does report to the Supreme Leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Hoseyni Khamenei, who nominally reports to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
If anybody ever needed a better marketing strategy, it’s Ahmadinejad. The guy’s a train wreck.
Now, while women couldn’t care less if he and his pals attribute acts of God to us (although God might care), we think it’s a gender-neutral concern that THIS is the nutcase to whom Syrian President-for-Life (in his dreams) Bashar al-Assad turns for comfort in his time of need.
Although for someone who claims that Islamist fundamentalists are taking over Syria, it’s puzzling that Bashar would ally himself with Islamist fundamentalists from somewhere else, his BFF just gave him $5.9 billion to fund his desperate attempt to remain what will be the very last dictator in the history of Syria, insha’llah.
But while we’re waiting for these windbags to exit stage right, with Ahmadinejad regretting his most famous line, that he approved of the Arab Spring as a perfect way to get rid of those Western tools in Egypt and Tunisia, let’s remind ourselves that while Iran is an Islamic republic, it’s not an Arab country. (Iranians are Persian and they speak Farsi.) Syria and Iran have a history that goes back to the 600s AD and Parvez, “Ever Victorious” King of Persia.
Which we learned not in history class, but from a certain Mlle Parvez, many centuries years later ‒ and thousands of kilometers away ‒ at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris.
I went to culinary school with this Iranian chef named Anar, which means “pomegranate,” proving once again that great chefs are born, not made. We were always glad to see her at the beginning of the new term…with a fresh supply of pistachios, saffron, and CAVIAR.
Move over, Russia. Iranian caviar is the best caviar on earth. Although I felt a little guilty about partaking, I was living in France and the French wouldn’t embargo spectacular food like that if it came from the devil himself.
Which it might well have.
Anar explained how she brought all those delicacies to Paris and never once had them confiscated: she hid the packages under her dirty laundry. No Iranian customs inspector in his right mind paws through lingerie in a woman’s suitcase.
There’s nothing illegal about bringing food products out of Iran, even in bulk; they just want you to buy them at exorbitant prices from duty free at the airport. Which, if you live in a house in suburban Tehran and have pistachio trees in your back yard, and buy saffron at your local market, there’s no way you’re doing.
But Customs never questioned her, in France either, so as a result she was the only student in our graduating class whose grand entrance on the first day of school was met with kisses, catcalls, and loud applause…especially from our professors, whose budgets didn’t include line items for caviar, which is an outrage because it’s so obvious that I’m so worth it.
Present day: Salaam, Anar! Haalet chetore? I’m making some eslamboli polow (Persian tomato rice) just like you taught me 8 ‒ already? ‒ years ago.
The rice cooks in the juice of the tomatoes, flavored with garlic and turmeric and lamb…which gets me warmed up to make the mirza ghassemi, which is typical of northern Iran, on the Caspian Sea. That’s where Anar’s family is from, so she comes by her caviar expertise honestly.
Mirza ghassemi is a lot the same as what you’ve just made, only more: more tomatoes, more garlic, more turmeric, but this time in a “stew” made with eggs and roasted aubergine (eggplant).
If, after all this time, you’re still wondering why this blog is called mlleaubergine.com, there’s not much I can do for you.
Another dish I love that’s typical of Anar’s home area is kebab “torsh,” which means “sour.” Sour as in marinating your beef sirloin with pomegranate juice and finely ground walnuts. Use a food processor, or even a nut butter-making machine, if you want a walnut paste you can save for later. Add a little crushed garlic, olive oil, and chopped parsley and you’re good to go.
Problem is, I’m making a discouragingly small dent in the tomato population, so let’s move on to the Syrian tomato salad, which seems pretty basic at first…tomatoes, red onions, cilantro, lemon juice…until you get to the allspice and the red hot pepper flakes!
I buy those fresh red chili peppers from Mexico and cut them into teeny tiny triangles with my kitchen shears.
It’s high summer gardening season and I’m probably going to get fired from my job as Chief Tomato Controller. When you have 22 plants producing 9 different varieties of tomatoes, you pick $100 worth of heirloom tomatoes every day.
Contrary to popular belief, you can only make so much salsa, gazpacho, and pizza pomodoro.
Tomato Control requires a neighborhood effort, which in turn requires a Swimming Pool Tax. You’re welcome to use the pool, but in exchange you must pick 1 bag of tomatoes and at least 1 zucchini. Until then, we’re holding your bicycle hostage.
While you’re here, please also check the trees in the back yard for lemons, oranges, and avocados.
Come late summer/early fall, garden fresh tomatoes will be especially good for barter…with the neighbor down the street with the magnificent persimmon tree, for example, since persimmons are magnificent for Middle Eastern cooking.
(Until then, Anar, would it be OK to re-hydrate my persimmons from last year…with sweet tea vodka?)
There’s no such thing as a couple of persimmons, any more than there’s any such thing as a couple of pistachios, and inevitably they all get ripe at exactly the same time. Martha Stewart insists you make endless variations on honey, coconut, and white chocolate, but I’d rather quarter the persimmons ‒ leaving the skin on ‒ and put them in a super spicy curry. Or, make a chutney with diced cucumber, mixed green herbs, and those aforementioned tomatoes. (Try your chutney on pork loin, or less-oily white fish, like halibut or sole).
Unusual Thanksgiving dessert? Persimmon basil gelato!
For the Middle Eastern Dictators Cook-off, Bashar gets his last remaining home advantage before he gets eliminated and sent home crying to Maman. The recipe is so easy it’s criminal. Ataiyef is Syrian deep-fried pancakes stuffed with ricotta and smothered in “shira,” lemon syrup flavored with either orange blossom or rose water, then sprinkled with finely chopped pistachios.
Judges, wait until Ahmadinejad raves about his creation ‒ and relishes every bite ‒ before you tell him this particular recipe originated in Aleppo…in the Syrian Jewish community.
Chère Madame Asma al-Assad, First Lady of Syria:
Meet Hajar Al-Khateeb, age 10, from Homs, where, had life turned out differently, you might’ve grown up. Actually, you’ll never meet her now…
On May 29, Hajar and 12 other children ‒ including her brothers, sisters, and cousins ‒ were riding the school bus on their way to Al-Wafd school when their bus was attacked out of nowhere by Syrian security forces. Hajar died and 5 other children were injured.
The authorities then tried to force Hajar’s father Tayseer and brother Nayef to say she was killed by “terrorists.”
What possible justification could there be for this, except to terrorize these children’s families into submission? …or to foretell the current military escalation in Homs, which locals suspect will “justify” a bloodbath after Friday prayers?
But last time Bashar attempted to intimidate Homs, his plan backfired. Completely.
Witness the turnout at last Friday’s peaceful protests, both mourning and honoring Hajar, Hamza Al-Khateeb (no relation) from Dara’a, and the over 70 children who have died so far in Syria’s quest for freedom, democracy, and human rights.
“Why does freedom bother them so much?” is the $1 million rhetorical question. Freedom for us means accountability for them, so they’ll do whatever it takes to stop it.
That ship sailed back in March and isn’t coming home, ever.
By now you’ve read the first 3 posts in my series about you, Syria’s Mother-in-Chief, and you’re probably frustrated at how bad I’m making you look.
You, who were a blatant no-show at Wednesday’s 1 minute of silence for Hamza and the other Syrian children who loved freedom.
But anyone who’s gone on and on in public as much as you have about how we’re really all the same and we all want the same things for our children blah blah blah deserves to be called to account for your hypocrisy.
Unlike Vogue, I’m not in the pandering business.
Since your parents emigrated from Homs to the United Kingdom in the 1950s, they missed out on 60 years of ugly political and military history in Syria. You have little context at all, growing up in London and moving to Syria for the first time as the President’s wife.
For readers who’d never heard of Homs until they started looking up Google maps of Syrian pro-democracy demonstrations (and subsequent massacres), let’s get a quick sense of Asma’s ancestral city, حمص in Arabic, and imagine what it could be like, peaceful and free.
Homs the 3rd largest city in Syria, with a population of 1.5 million. Originally, Homs was called “Emesa,” its Greek name derived from an ancient sun god. Besides being conveniently located halfway between Damascus to the south and Aleppo to the north, Homs is strategic for another reason: it’s situated right on the Orontes River, which leads to the Mediterranean Sea.
Poor Homs. It’s difficult being a city that’s so desirable, everybody’s always fighting over you. For centuries on end. After being raked over by the Bedouins more than once, Homs might’ve initially felt relieved be folded into the Ottoman Empire in 1516.
For 2,000 years now, Homs has been a major agricultural center. Which means food. Which gets my attention fast.
Taking a welcome summer break from la cuisine française, lately I’ve been making those stuffed vegetables so popular in the Middle East: filfel (peppers), betinjan (eggplant), kabocha (a type of squash), and malfouf (cabbage).
Even batata mahshi (new potatoes stuffed with ground lamb, pine nuts, and a dash of pomegranate molasses), which apparently Homs claims as its native dish…but, remember what I wrote in The National Cookie of Iraq: it’s a risky move, saying you invented one of everybody’s favorite foods. I expect indignant emails from all over the region about why I’m enabling Homs in this pointless endeavor.
Regardless, it always helps to know the Arabic verb “to stuff,” ya7shu (7 stands for ح “ha”). So, fellow Le Cordon Bleu alums, “ma7shi” in Arabic means “farci” in French.
The right kitchen utensil to hollow out vegetables before you stuff them is called a مقورة (maqwara). No, an ice cream scoop will not yield the desired effect!
Switching gears from culinary to historical, Homs is also home to the UNESCO World Heritage site Krak des Chevaliers, a medieval military castle I’ve always wanted to visit.
Like that’s ever going to happen, the way I’ve been blogging about Syria lately.
Anyway, Asma, you must’ve heard about Homs from your parents. Maybe even visited with your family a time or two on holidays.
But that’s not the same thing as being too afraid to go out of your house to Homs’ famous produce markets because there’s a sniper posted on top of the government building across the street, aiming right at your front door.
For those of us who do volunteer work in international human rights and children’s health and education, our problem with you is not with your wealth, your beauty, your academic achievements, or your success in the business world. On all those things we heartily congratulate you.
Just understand that we have colleagues like you worldwide, people of achievement and privilege…who act nothing like you do.
Because they realize that with great privilege comes great power, and with great power comes great responsibility.
You seem to think, Asma, that with great privilege comes great power to run away as far and as fast as possible from situations in which you have a moral obligation as First Lady of Syria to speak out for what’s right, and for people who are doing what’s right.
Calling out, “We Are All Hamza.” Because they are, and we are.
If you don’t believe the urgency of this, go to We Are All Hamza Al-Khateeb and find out what horrific things your husband’s and brother-in-law Maher’s killers are up to in Homs today.
Need I keep repeating myself, Asma? STEP UP. Because of your silence, you have too much blood of Syrian innocents on your hands already.
Although I know there’s no love lost between you and your mother-in-law, who stood by her man Hafez throughout his reign of terror, you and Bashar were ‒ as we were so often reminded back in the day, meaning up until 3 months ago ‒ part of the new generation of young, modern leaders in the Middle East.
(Just like your fellow Vogue “Rose in the Desert” Queen Rania of Jordan, for whom your experience should be a cautionary tale.)
Should you suddenly develop a conscience, you could get time on BBC, CNN, or Al Jazeera with 5 minutes’ notice. I’m begging you: take advantage of this.
Lives hang in the balance.
Yesterday, we learned about another tortured and murdered child, Thamer Mohamad Al-Sahri, a 15-year-old friend of Hamza Ali Al-Khateeb, who was arrested in Dara’a on the same day…and suffered much the same cruel-beyond-belief fate. (WARNING: this video is VERY GRAPHIC.)
Before his death, Syrian security forces pulled out his teeth, burned his body with cigarettes, and shot him several times in the hands and knee. Then they broke his neck and pulled his eyes out of their sockets.
Thamer and Hamza were with a group of friends, some still missing. In our hearts, we know what happened to all of them. It’s just a matter of time before their bodies ‒ what’s left of them ‒ are unceremoniously returned to their families, too.
Thamer’s mother recognized him only because of a scar from a previous injury.
The biggest irony, Asma: you’re a Sunni Muslim, part of the very majority sect in Syria ‒ in addition to Alawites, other Shi’as, Christians, and Druze ‒ making up the civilian population, which your Alawite husband is trying to crush! Had you been born into an average Syrian Sunni family, rather than an elite expatriate family friendly with the Assads, you might well have been part of those very Friday demonstrations and been the target of those very bullets.
You could’ve been Hajar, or Thamer, or Hamza…
…and they could’ve been you.
Hillary Clinton, the ministers of France and Britain, and some UN members (but unfortunately not make-or-break Russia) agree: your husband’s legitimacy as President of Syria has “nearly run out.” As a diplomat, the best Hillary can do on Al Arabiya TV is to say that Syria “has been a source of problems” while Bashar has been in power.
If she wasn’t a diplomat, she might say, “Not being President anymore is the least of Bashar’s worries because his next stop is The Hague, if we have anything to say about it, which we don’t.”
It’s early Friday morning Syria time and the seiges of Duma and Harasta continue unabated. Military tanks and troops are quietly moving into position around Homs, as well as around Jisr al-Shughour, Dara’a, and Deir Ez Zur, in preparation for post-prayer demonstrations. (Check this map for latest status by city.)
For you, there remains the tiniest window of opportunity, perhaps mere hours, to break with the Assad family terror campaign and demand an immediate halt to the violence against Syrian civilians, defenseless Syrian children in particular.
Lest you go down with your husband and his murderous regime, on the wrong side of history.
What a tragic waste that would be: a President’s wife, a gifted communicator, a Syrian mother.
Who could’ve made a difference.