Rice

How is it already the end of June? I took a break. For most of the winter and all of spring it seems. I’m not sure where the time went. I have a vague memory of doing things. Writing, reading, researching, playing tennis… I know I planted flowers on the terrace at one point, too early, and then watched as the cold devoured them whole. The rest is hazy.

I remember Menorca in crystal clarity, though, as I always do, where I watched the sun set over the giant hay bales dotting the countryside as I drove across the island. I love the way they blend into the dry grass, a monochromatic palette of brushed gold that gives me certain peace. “Isn’t it beautiful?” I asked over and over again. I raced my horse through the open valleys and down onto empty beaches each evening just before the sun sank below the horizon, before it carpeted the sand and sea in shadow. I sat on white sand beaches, listening to the water lap against the shore, and shaded my eyes against the shrapnel of light thrown up from the water in sharp relief. I watched the clear-bodied jellyfish skate under the surface of water too aquamarine to be true, tiny dangers that caused more alarm than delight. I never grew tired of the trill of a tiny voice calling medusa from the water’s edge.

I thought about all of the photographs I wanted to take but didn’t. I thought about how easy it is to want and how hard it is to do. I thought about discipline, how difficult it is to cultivate it. The back of a horse is a good place to reflect in silence on one’s state of being.

This year, like all of them for an ex-pat, is filled with adeus. Today, I have to say goodbye to a friend who has enriched my life over the last years in ways I can’t describe. I will miss the way she squints when she listens to my stories, the honesty she brings to the table, and the tireless support and motivation she’s given me. I will miss, too, her homemade Thai dishes she feeds me when I need comfort food, her giant crispy spring rolls, her perfect pad thai, her too-hot soup that makes both of our noses run. Today she is throwing her last rooftop barbecue and all the talk of leaving will finally become reality. I made this salad for my friend Heather, who always inspires me to be better.

Ginger Garlic Pork Summer Salad

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  • 1/2 pound pork neck, ground
  • 1 bag vermicelli rice noodles*
  • 1/2 purple onion, sliced
  • 2 teaspoons five spice powder
  • 1 teaspoon sesame oil
  • 1 teaspoon fish sauce
  • 2 teaspoons dark soy sauce
  • 2 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 1/4 cup mirin wine
  • 1/4 cup rice wine vinegar
  • 2 large garlic cloves, sliced
  • 1-inch piece of ginger, cut into short matchsticks
  • 1 lime
  • handful basil leaves, torn

*The kind that I buy has two separate dried noodle cakes in it. I only needed one for this recipe. Cook all if you want and save the rest for another meal, or use just one.

Heat the sesame oil over medium heat. Add the onions and stir for 30 seconds. Add the fish sauce, the pork, and the five spice powder and cook for 5-7 minutes. Add the garlic and the ginger and then continue cooking, stirring constantly, until pork is no longer pink in the middle and the garlic is cooked through. Remove from heat and set aside to cool.

Meanwhile, heat 3 cups of water to just to boiling, add the rice noodles, making sure they’re thoroughly submerged, and turn heat to low. Let sit until noodles are cooked through. Drain and set aside.

In a bowl, add the mirin, rice wine vinegar, and both types of soy sauce, and stir until blended. If needed, adjust to taste at this point. Add more mirin for sweetness, vinegar for tang, or soy sauce for salt. When it’s as you like it, add the sauce to the pork, and then combine with the noodles until well mixed. Add the basil aMs a healthy squeeze of lime and serve slightly warm.

Chard

IMG_8652I love breakfast. For that reason, I’ll never make a perfect Catalan. I don’t love fuet. I’m not a fan of a morning sandwich, except for the kind you find at the delis in New York. I will admit to gobbling down a half a loaf of pa amb tomaquet–that famous Catalan breakfast (or anytime) item made by spreading tomato pulp, olive oil, and salt on a soft loaf of good breadbefore snowboarding or when the cupboards are growing bare, but I’ll never love it like I love a good savory egg dish. This morning, I collected a variety of foods in the refrigerator that needed immediate attention: the swiss chard that was supposed to become the side dish to a Chinese fish dish, several slightly wrinkled cherry tomatoes, half a forlorn onion. Out of desperation and hunger, It became this.

Swiss Chard Strata

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Here, we often use what are called cintas in place of normal bacon. They are small, pre-sliced pieces of pancetta that are smoky and perfect for an egg dish like this one. You can use pancetta, ham, or even American-style bacon as a substitute, if need be. Everything else should be easily accessible in your local market. Continue reading

Panses

A flashback. Ten minutes. Car horns blare in the distance. The flash of a firecracker flickers off the building. The night dissolves into a flurry of clanking, tinny chimes, as neighbors beat on pots and pans with spoons. It’s the caceroladahashtagged as cassolada in reference to cassola, the Catalan word for pan, their weapon of choice. Six minutes. Someone begins to beat a statacco rhythm that reminds me a calypso beat. Silhouettes shadow forth from the recesses of dimly lit apartments. Only the flickering blue of a television screen lights many of the apartments across the courtyard. Four minutes. A crowd of people have gathered in the apartment upstairs and their voices carry through the floor. Cheering and yelling float out from somewhere in the distance, but mostly the night is filled with the sound of metal on metal. One minute. The moon is almost full. At exactly 10:15, the world goes silent. It’s three days until 9-N–November 9th–the day the Catalans will vote for independence. It’s not technically a legal vote, mired down in political bureaucracy, punctuated by aggressive moves and countermoves on the part of both the Spanish and the Catalan governments. It’s complicated for those both on the inside and the outside, and tensions are running high behind the scenes. Other than the bright yellow and red posters across the city and the occasional voter information booth in the central plaza, it would be hard for an outsider to tell there was anything amiss. But each night at ten, the people make their way to their windows and beat their pans to show the world what they want. It is a protest, albeit the strangest one I’ve seen here yet. Instead of shattered storefronts, upturned trash bins, and fires burning in the streets, this is a peaceful call. As I sit listening to the strange sounds of the cassolada from my apartment windows, I’m also writing an essay about food for my university magazine. I search through my memories and am taken back to a small village on the coast south of Barcelona where I discovered my favorite seafood dish. I write about the evolution of my understanding of cooking in a foreign place, of Catalan predilections in the kitchen, of the nuances between their home and mine. I wish, while I’m writing it, that it could still be summer, that I could still sit in the sun on a wide terrace overlooking the sea and eat a paella made from fideua, the Catalan noodle-based version of the dish. But sadly, it’s already growing crisp outside, the seasons are already shifting. I have to dig through my repertoire for a recipe to include with my essay that is more seasonally appropriate. I choose, instead, to write about canelons, like the Italian cannelloni, because they are a perfect fall food and also associated with Christmas which feels just around the bend. Not long from now, when the air grows truly cold and the ice rink is constructed in the main plaza, giant ceramic noodles called galets will begin to appear on the street corners, in homage to the Christmas soup called escudella that is eaten each Christmas day. They are  lit from within, like a glowing reminder of your impending Christmas meal. It’s my favorite time to walk the streets in Barcelona, when people are happy, restaurants are warm, and food is the glue that draws people together. I will miss the galets this Christmas, my approved visa status finally drawing me home early, in time for Thanksgiving at that, to meet my seven-month-old nephew for the very first time. I won’t regret it.

Cannelloni with Spinach, Pine Nuts and Raisins

Canelons amb espinacs, pinyons i panses

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Brought by the Italians in the early eighteenth century, canelons are now one of the most traditional dishes in Catalan cuisine. This is a typical Christmas dish usually made on the holiday of Sant Esteve which falls on the 26th of December, although it is eaten throughout the year. Canelons are made with a variety of fillings–roasted chicken, veal, or lamb–which are often left over from Christmas dinner. This vegetarian version is quite common, and the filling is often made as a side dish. Continue reading

Jasmine

In Shanghai, I don’t have time to drink tea because I’m too busy looking at rubble. In the oldest part of the city, it seems that everything is falling apart. Like a letter, the neighborhood of “Old Shanghai” unfolds before me: a series of dilapidated homes, chunks of concrete sprouting rebar, dust upon dust upon dust.

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Most of this oldest part of the city is slowly being disassembled, to put it nicely, as many neighborhoods in China commonly are, displaced for something newer, flashier, better. Nothing is safe from renovation in China, where the concept of architectural preservation is not a part of the common parlance. Peter Hessler writes about this phenomenon of wanton destruction in several essays of his, about the dismantling of the old hutongs in Beijing, about the very personal loss for the families whose homes are eradicated, about the larger loss of an era. Standing on the street corner where a fancy new high rise is being born across the street from the old wooden homes of an earlier decade, I am struck by the reality of a modern China, one where old new rarely coexist with ease. It is a little like looking through a picture window into a past too far gone to see it clearly.

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I am equally sad to see the hive of activity that keeps the old neighborhood vital displaced by the sterile granite and glass monstrosity that shadows it. I know that in a kind of parody of China itself, the contemporary facade hides a network of hastily constructed walls, soon to be laced with cracks and filled to the brim with a new generation of Chinese, the ones who are hastily scaling the hierarchal walls of the modern workforce, the ones who value the sea-tide of change and over tradition and longevity. I know some of them will be living in the levels underground, a secret sect of workers who can’t afford windows nor who particularly want them.

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Pecan

Every year, when I’m home for Christmas, my stepmother makes delicious spiced pecans. This year was no different. I woke up one morning to find the kitchen lined with hefty 2-pound bags of pecans, giant bags of Publix sugar, and a jar of cinnamon. The eggs of course were in the refrigerator where every self-respecting American keeps their eggs. Odd to me now, but I accept that it’s probably safer that way. In America, at least. For two days straight, she made batch after batch of them on our largest cookie sheet, filling the entire kitchen with the fragrant smell of cinnamon that makes vacation at home feel like a holiday. They’re impossible to keep your hands off of, trust me on that. For that reason, it would probably a good idea to make only as many as would be kosher to eat in one sitting. Luckily, she was making them to give away as gifts in small, handmade bags, to all of the people who help us year after year.

Pecans are incredibly expensive here, since they are imported and rarely eaten in Spain, but I buy them anyway from Casa Gispert, a tiny little coffee roastery and market on Carrer dels Sombrerers in the Born neighborhood near the famous Santa Maria del Mar church. I always threaten to make a pecan pie with them, but that usually involves a trip to the basement supermarket of El Corte Ingles, our giant department store chain or to any one of several overpriced American food stores to stock up on corn syrup, because I am yet confused as to how it is possible to make a good pecan pie without it. It usually happens that before I can do anything with them, I’ve eaten the entire kilo bag, pecan by raw pecan. Once, some of them were lucky enough to make it into this couscous salad that I posted this past fall. What I can manage to do with them, however, is to make this wonderfully simple version of my stepmother’s recipe, because there is never a time when I don’t have all the ingredients on hand.

Cinnamon Spiced Pecans 

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The recipe below belongs to my stepmother, although to be sure she took it from somewhere else, many moons ago. If I knew the original source, I would gladly give credit where credit is due. If I were to make these again, it would be with the smoked cinnamon from Atomic Spices cold-smoked by Carol Tarr*, a fellow Chicagoan who has set up shop in Amsterdam where I ran into her at a pop-up store one chilly November afternoon. After I ate my way through most of her samples, I went home and ordered one of everything she had. I would recommend you do the same.

*Listed in the Dutch ELLE Food magazine (ELLE Eten) as one of their “100 Favorites” for 2014

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Sesame

It’s winter, but it doesn’t feel like it. In Florida, it rarely does. The temperature is in the 70s, the sun is shining. I am sweating beneath the shade of an old oak tree. I’m craving a reason to put socks on or perhaps even for a patch of snow on the ground. I think of the gray days I left behind in Maine, where I stopped over to visit two dear friends of mine. The long expanses of white, the leaden purple sky tinged with a peach that was meant to count as daylight. I wear my sweatshirt stubbornly, as if the clouds might roll in and save me.

The days are filled with simple tasks, the way vacation days should be. I drink tall cups of extra strong coffee, read the newspaper while our Dachshunds lace themselves around my feet in figure eights, and watch the neighborhood boys (no longer boys I suppose, most of them married with kids of their own) play round after round of half-court basketball. The squeak of their shoes against the slab concrete feels unerringly familiar.

When heat subsides a bit, I pull my tiny nephew around in the red Radio-Flyer wagon he got for Christmas, listening to the acorns crunching underneath the wheels. He sits up straight and grips the sides tightly with plump dimpled fingers. Most of the time, his seven-month-old face is masked in what could be wonder. I think he’s having fun, but it’s hard to tell. My father waves to him from his seat on the small terrace outside the kitchen. At one point, my nephew lifts his arm in what might be a wave, but his body flags in a way that makes me think of the drunken dance of a charmed cobra, and he grabs the rail again, his tiny fingernails white with the effort. He can’t sit up for long though, and as he loses energy, he begins to slowly slide down into the wagon until he’s a slightly crumpled heap. My sister picks him up again and repositions him. We roll on.

As we walk, I recount the items I have in the fridge to use before I leave: a tube of lemongrass paste (because I couldn’t find it fresh); a brick of red miso that made one meal and many dressings and still I couldn’t use it all; an unreasonably giant tub of tahini (because everything in America is extra large). I sift through memories of meals made and meals eaten, considering all the possibilities. I think of Israel.

Israel is a complicated place; there’s no doubt about it. But when it comes to mind, I try to leave politics behind and think not of its complexities but of its simplicities. I remember the endless stretch of white sand beach in Tel Aviv, a heart-wrenching view out over the water in Jaffa.

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I think of the food that we had throughout our journey: the smoky eggplant dish my friend had in Nazareth; the crunchy warm balls of felafel we ate in Bethlehem; the best labne I’ve ever tasted from a perch overlooking the sea.

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Pomegranate

Guest post by Tasha Graff

When I lived in Barcelona, I would wake up as early as non-alarm-clock possible every Saturday morning and make myself coffee, toast and a soft-boiled egg. I would sit for half an hour with my toes poking out onto my tiny balcony and read. When I was fully awake, I would get dressed, dab on a bit of sunscreen and head across the street and down the block to a Bicing stand full of bicycles from the citywide program. I’d swipe my card and ride the 15-20 minutes to the Mercat de la Concepció to buy flowers and fresh herbs. It took about seven months worth of Saturdays before my favorite curmudgeonly flower seller smiled at me, and a year and a half before he had a bouquet ready for me when I walked in. Both days felt like victories akin to the elation others might feel getting a job offer or graduating from college. My days are often about small triumphs.

My generous friends described my fifth-floor walk-up apartment in the residential neighborhood of l’Eixample Esquerra as “quirky” or “spacious,” but really it was a pre-furnished relic that, despite my obsessive dusting and mopping and penchant for cooking with fresh ginger, still smelled like stale cigarette smoke from the seventies. I didn’t bring many possessions with me when I moved to Barcelona, and so the only real items that made the place feel like home were the books I accumulated, the food I would cook in the kitchen and the fresh flowers I acquired weekly.

I live in Maine now. It’s cold. There aren’t any flower markets in January. I have to buy daffodils at a grocery store. This winter has been particularly bitter, with little snow upon which to ski and lots of ice upon which to slip. My Saturday mornings here involve emerging from flannel sheets, pulling on thick wool socks, slippers, a sweater and sometimes a hat. I make a pot of coffee, clutch a cup of it and get back under my down comforter to read, all the while resisting the urge to check the temperature in Portland (-2°F/-22°C) and Barcelona (54°F/12°C). When the caffeine and heat kick in, I turn on NPR’s Weekend Edition and head back to the kitchen. Cooking has become a ritual for me, and Saturday mornings have become times to bake.

This morning, I looked around my kitchen and saw a few oranges and a pomegranate but was too cold to eat either of them fresh.

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Oranges always make me think of my friend Melissa, Chicago-born Floridian turned Catalan who once announced she didn’t like fruit (it was a bit of hyperbole) and who made the best salad dressing I have ever had while we were cooking a market-fresh dinner together on vacation in western France. Continue reading

Cream

Encara. 

Encara as in still. As in not yet.

Encara as in no.

The light creases in geometric angles across the building. It moves slowly with the hours, a sundial of sorts that tells me it is not yet my turn. The comisaría is full of other immigrants waiting for their chance to register for their national identity card. There are not enough chairs, so we sit on the ground. No one talks. We watch the red numbers click over, the sharp lines of light move across the building. We study our hands, our feet. We close our eyes and tilt our faces to the sun. The air is filled with the sharp silence of expectation.

Encara, I wait.

I am two years into a process to renew my identity card that has been marked by meetings, appointments, documents–paper after paper–and the inevitable no. I am always waiting.

At least today I wait outside, under a warm Spanish sun that takes the edge off of the imposing structure of the Comisaría de Policía Nacional, an unlikely marriage of blue tile and white cement. In another world, it would be almost pretty. Here, the weather is still warm, an Indian summer to make up for all the days of rain when the sky soaked the earth, stole the platja, tamped the dust, and made the world fervently green, for a moment.

When I am finally called inside, I am tense with expectation, of what I know will happen, what always happens. Two seconds, a shake of the head, and it is over. I am refused. Again. I come easily undone. There are tears, quiet gulping sobs, a chair pushed back, whispered negotiation, a line on the forehead softened, if only for a second. There is nothing she can do. She pauses for a moment. Puedes regresar el martes? I nod my head. Si. Never say no. Come back on Tuesday she tells me. She bends over and hurriedly scribbles a date and time on the piece of paper I have brought her, stamps it in official blue ink and passes it over to me. It is a second chance. She pulls it away again. Si quieres, puedes pasar por aqui a las 13:45. She writes the new time below it, giving me an extra hour, when I can return to see her. It is a small circumvention, but one I savor. It is a victory. I leave, head bowed, conscious of my tears, of the sound of my quick breath breaking the stillness, of my easy defeat.

It is maddening this process, this puzzle of bureaucracy, of lost communications and contradictions, of one way–the only way–of two languages, both of which say no. I feel helpless. I can do nothing for myself, so I lose myself in language instead, in a place where there are rules that make sense, an intricate syntax of delineated boundaries, clarity in self-expression. I find gratification in a lesson learned, and each one feels like a step forward, feels like belonging in a world still just barely known.

In English, the meaning of encara–still–holds two meanings inside of it, another intention. It has a sense of stillness built into it, a pause. A breath taken and held. There is silence but also possibility. I want that for myself.

Back at home, the seagulls scream constantly now that it is finally grey, the sound echoing off the walls of the inner courtyard as they chase each other in agitated circles around and around, untiring. Eventually they disappear, and only the sound of traffic cuts through.

I want something that comes in a pretty package. I want something made by hand. I want something made with intention, something far from the irregularities of Spanish law, the arbitrary and redundant rules, far from the ubiquitous no. Something neatly wrapped, easily unwrapped, something mine. Here, I belong to a world that is not mine, where I feel half American, where I am still half citizen, where I am still half whole.

Burrata with Figs and Pancetta

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Sea Salt

I am eating words. I start at the beginning: acàsser, arrebossar, arrissar, assor, assutzena, carrossa, cassota, cassussa, drassana, genísser, gessamí, hissar, massapà, massís, mosso, palissada, pissarra, pòlissa, regalèssia, rossí, tassa, tossut. I fill myself with the sustaining sibilance of the double ‘s’.

In Catalan class, we practice the softly aspirated ‘z’ of casa, the sweet coo of the ‘o’ in comenceu. The ‘s’ sorda I find hidden in different forms in every almost word. The ‘s’ sonora. Like sonorous but quiet, the soft and repetitious buzzing ‘z’, the quiet thrum of a bee, the sound of a soft snore.

I love the ‘c’ trencat–that broken ‘c’–that makes sounds softer like the ‘c’ of Barça and Moçambic, of França, of Niça. I am somewhere else.

I watch the windows, looking for raindrops. The sky folds in on us, slate gray, tired. Eventually we are released.

I go home and read long lists of words: llaç, llençol, lliçó, lluç–that pulling ‘y’ of the double ‘ll’ that stretches my mouth into places it does not know.

The fighting verbs–esquinçar, llençar, llançar, traçar–whose soft hiss hides their agency. Tear, throw, launch, draw.

The primitives from whence they came: amenaça, avenç, caça, encalç, esquinç, llança, traç. Threat, advancement, hunting, pursuit, sprain, spear, stroke. Words that sound too gentle for what they say.

I think about the words of making and of makers: falç, maça, peça, pedaç, pinça–sickle, hammer, piece, patch, clamp.

I think about being: capaç, audaç, veraç, feliç.

Començ.

I think about beginning.

. . .

It was Christmas, the sky was grey, the sea an aqua blue irradiated. We drove from Barcelona to Italy for a pizza. The trees along the highway were dressed in deep red and ochre, hurling their leaves, deeply-hued, into the winds that shook the car and pushed it violently across the road. The view of the molting trees, of the flat winter sky a tarnished spoon stung, a memory too close to home. We stopped in Monte Carlo and in the hilltop town of Eze. Somewhere in the high passes above Monaco the fog rolled in thick and fast, a sludge of white, an eerie, silent envelope. Continue reading

Rose

The light was wrong already. I could tell. Light is a fickle thing.

I wake up before sunrise and pedal myself around the neighborhood, listening to the quick click of the spokes coming around, the familiar clink of a loose sidewalk tile, the continuous drone of cars, even at this early morning hour. Each day is a guess as to when the light will fall just right, how it might settle into its morning overtures. I look up as often as possible to see how the light presses itself against the buildings, pouring itself over the open faces of the cut corners, its arrival a sort of conclusion. I like when the light is pale and makes the facades of the buildings feel like cardboard, a pop-up, something soft and one-dimensional. But today the light does strange things. The summer sun is already waning, my timetable is off. I’ve missed my hour.

I finally give up and focus on the inside of things instead, watching the way the light from a single bare bulb wraps itself delicately around a wrought iron banister.

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I think of the hours I’ve spent watching the light move across the sky from my balcony, the color shifting with the imminent rain, a palette of dusky lavender, electric. Continue reading