Forum Holitorium

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Postcards to Myself

Toward the end of this month, I will reach a milestone and celebrate a “round” birthday, one ending with 0 and starting with 4. It has been a pivotal year full of reflection on my past, interpretation of my present in light of that past, and deliberation about the course I would like to steer from here on in. The past week has seen me cleaning out my postcard collection. I will keep those I am sharing here because I still feel closely connected to them. At too many moments in my past, I have been prone to behave like the woman in Frau auf dem Söller (Woman on the Terrace) by Carl Gustav Carus, staring intently at something of interest in the distance and remaining passively seated and perfectly composed. Perhaps it’s time to bring my chair closer to the action.

As a child, I was fascinated by the pioneer mythos, the books of Laura Ingalls Wilder, the Oregon Trail, the novels of Willa Cather. Strong, independent, optimistic people forging their way forward, doing what they needed to do, banding together and helping each other out. This painting, The Song of the Lark by Jules Breton, provided the title for Willa Cather’s wonderful coming-of-age novel about a young American woman from the west who becomes a successful singer in the east. It is one of the very few Künstlerromane, or novels that describe an artist’s development, that follows the path of a female artist. I plan on rereading it soon.

I bought this card while I was a student in Madison, Wisconsin, and it has been displayed on the wall in many of the apartments I have lived in over the years. It’s true, you know. Out with the musts and shoulds that hamper us from moving forward. Time to make up rules of my own – or better yet dispense with them entirely.


Henri Matisse has always been one of my favorite artists. I love how he uses line and color. His female subjects are always incredibly relaxed, as is this Odalisque au coffret rouge (Odalisque with a Red Box).Another painter I love for his choice of color is Marc Chagall. The fantastical depictions of dancers, musicians, lovers, circus performers, animals and other curious creatures capture my interest. This postcard is entitled La Danse (The Dance), an activity I can’t seem to stop engaging in.

The darkest period of my life was the time I spent in Moscow. On a visit to the Tretyakov Gallery, I came face to face with Zinaida Serebryakova’s painting At the Dressing Table. Self-Portrait, which jolted me out of my depression. Her eyes laughed at me and said don’t take it all that seriously, your world falling to pieces around you, take care of yourself and keep smiling and things will be OK. She was right. Thank you, Zinaida!

I used to say that by the age of forty, I wanted to have at least two sheep. Sheep seem very serene, plus I love wool and want to belong to a herd of my own. In August, however, I had an epiphany that made me realize that there is another domesticated animal that would be a more suitable ally: the animal at the center of Pablo Picasso’s La Chèvre (The Goat). Goats are inquisitive, energetic, and playful. In the next decade of my life, I aim to cultivate my inner goat and leave behind any dream of pursuing animal husbandry.

Faithful readers are well aware of my affinity for water but may not realize how much I have regrettably cultivated a dislike of fire. Like with goats, I want to become better acquainted with this element so curiously imagined by Giuseppe Arcimboldo in Feuer (Fire).

Though I have lived in and traveled to many places, there is only one that will always be Home with a capital H. I like this postcard so much because it is trying to sell my hometown as a site of tourism pre-HarborPark, when the scar of industry next to the harbor was still clearly visible. See you soon, K-town!

Enjoy listening to the stories that the postcards you have collected have to tell!

On Staples of All Kinds

This year I have done the incredible: I have bought just one book. If this were my normal rate of acquiring books, my living space would be less dusty and cluttered and dangerous. (Yes, safety would increase because there would be no danger of accidentally knocking over a stack of books and having them fall on your feet.) Said book is Vegane Köstlichkeiten – libanesisch (Lebanese Vegan Delights) by Abla Maalouf-Tarner. Since it was welcomed into the fold at the end of April, I have been discovering its charms, one by one. Since TC and I had a guest for dinner last night, it was a good opportunity to try out some new recipes. Our guest voted for the dessert pictured above as the tastiest of all: namura, a semolina cake flavored with orange juice and sesame.

The staples of Lebanese cooking are olive oil, chickpeas, lentils, bulgur, and rice. Garlic, onions, tahini, lemon juice, and pomegranate syrup flavor dishes showcasing spinach, Swiss chard, tomatoes, zucchini, potatoes, dandelion greens, and eggplant. I enjoy eating all of these foods, and so far there are no duds among the recipes. About the only change I have made is to radically reduce the amount of olive oil in some cases. You really don’t need 100 ml olive oil to sauté one or two onions, do you?

Speaking of olive oil, the sour cherry birthday pie above from earlier this month had an olive oil crust. The wonder of cooking and baking is you can’t predict when something you’ve made many times will turn out beautifully – or just so-so. The crust above – my standard crust – was just incredible. In contrast, the lentil dish laced with pomegranate syrup TC and I inhaled last weekend that I tried to recreate last night was a bit lackluster. The more I cook, the more I agree with the Ayurvedic notion that the state of mind of the cook has an influence on the meal. I was very relaxed earlier in the day when I prepared the dessert; there still was lots of time before our guest arrived. The lentils, however, were prepared in tandem with potato-tomato turnovers – which tasted good but whose dough was…how should I put it…not very aesthetic in its presentation as I used my hands instead of a rolling pin to prepare the rounds and didn’t let the filling cool off adequately before putting it all together. Multitasking is extremely distracting.

It would be good to be in the right state of mind when I finally get around to hand felting this bag, which is destined to hold library books and notebooks and other staples. In dread of blue fuzz getting stuck in the washing machine, I have decided to do it long hand, so to speak, but am still hunting for the right method. One interesting one I found online requires a plastic bucket and a plunger, but since I have spent many an hour decluttering and getting rid of excess objects this year, I find it decadent to buy a second plunger just to use for felting. Have you ever felted anything by hand and if so, do you have any tips for this novice?

The faithful reader will note that the bag matches a jacket I finished knitting this spring. Since my last post, I have not only come to terms with the approaching autumn but look forward to the return of woolen wardrobe staples. On the needles now are a pullover with cables for TC and a thin cardigan for myself. Enjoy the waning summer and good luck with your preparations for fall!

Failing to See

Veggie mix

As a child, I spent a lot of time in my grandma’s kitchen. A mixture of white and that burnt orange ubiquitous in the seventies, it contained the standard kitchen appliances, a narrow pantry full of jars containing not just flour and sugar but all that great junk food I couldn’t eat at home, and a table to seat four. Behind the door were the pencil marks on the wall indicating how tall my cousin and I were at various stages of our childhood. Two windows opened up onto the long narrow lot the house was situated on, the view to the humongous garden blocked by the garage and car port. If you looked at the walls instead of gazing outside, there was a sign that read “Even my failures are edible.”

The plan Sunday night was to throw together a bunch of vegetables, ditalini (“little thimbles”) pasta, and water in a big pot and call it dinner. It was finally time do something with the carrots and leeks bought with good intentions. I also thought we could make thrifty use of the sad looking remnants of a head of Savoy cabbage, a sprouting red onion, and a wee red cabbage that was too small to play a serious role in anything, even a ferment. In the soup bowl, the vegetables looked so crowded. I had envisioned distinct leek and carrot coins in a wholesome, herby broth. The Savoy cabbage, however, had swollen up with pride, hogging all the space yet remaining maddeningly al dente. The red cabbage had slyly cast a rubious sheen on the concoction. I sipped the quite flavorful, nutritious broth and avoided the bulky mass of cabbage. Not what I had hoped to eat for dinner, this “failure” was nonetheless tasty.

After the soup had cooled down, I set out to deal with the leftovers. Most of the broth had been absorbed by the vegetables and the red cabbage had turned a bluish-purple thanks to its anthocyanins. The blue hue was stronger in person than in the picture above. Though I was really impressed that such a color could come from real food and not artificial food coloring, the leftovers still looked unappetizing. I was a bit worried about how to salvage the soup. It didn’t seem right to throw away something that healthy and of such great volume. The handy thing about soups is that they can be puréed, so the next incarnation of the soup looked like this:

Biowaste

TC commented on how it reminded him of the biowaste used to make biogas for power generation. I thought it just looked like bean soup or refried beans. Picky me opted for polenta Monday night, but TC ate the biosoup and said it was delicious.

To what extent is it meaningful to attach the word “failure” to something we have cooked? It makes sense to talk about failure if we burn something beyond repair, rendering it inedible, but do we fail if we attempt to create a dish that tastes just like our memory of it or that matches an ideal or projection and don’t arrive at this goal? I don’t think so. Our society has conditioned us to see so much in dualistic terms. It’s either black or white, a success or a failure. Something is judged to be a success when specific expectations are met and a failure when they are not.

What if we take a more experimental approach to creating in the kitchen? What if we throw some ingredients together and see what happens, observing the results and our sensations in response to them? What if we even set out to cook without any expectations beyond producing something edible? Perhaps the real issue is an inability to look at a situation from several different angles and respond creatively to whatever lands on your plate.

The Festivals of Februarius

Ash Wednesday. I remember going to mass, the priest’s thumb smudging my forehead with grey. “…unto dust you shall return,” he droned over and over. I have no strong memories of how I felt about this ritual at the beginning of Lent. What was more salient was the feast of St. Blaise on February 3, when my class trudged through the cold from the school building past the convent to the church. It was time to get our throats blessed. That seemed much more sensible – after all, whenever I got sick, it was something throat-related. Though I can’t say that the crossing of the candles in front of my throat ever helped much. To this day, when I get sick, it always involves a malady of the respiratory tract.

February has been a month of celebrations for a long time. Februarius was the last month of the year in the Roman calendar. Starting on February 13, the nine-day Parentalia festival honored a family’s ancestors. Thoughts turned to those deceased at the same time that winter gave way to spring, death leading to rebirth. February 15 was the Roman holiday Februa devoted to purification. It was time to wash, clean, and prepare for spring and the new year.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? The Chinese just welcomed in the Year of the Snake on Sunday, the second new moon after the winter solstice. It is also customary to remember ancestors that have died. Preparations for the new year involve cleaning your house and sweeping out any bad luck from the previous year.

Yesterday was the last day of Fasching, or Carnival. Normally there is a big parade through the center of town, but much to my surprise it was called off this year due to the World Ski Championships. I imagine there must have been a lot of disappointed little kids since this is kind of the Austrian equivalent of Halloween, when (not just) children dress up and party. Well, I’m sure they dressed up and partied anyways, just without the highlight of the parade. In fact, the dressing up and partying has been going on in Austria since November 11 at 11:11 A.M., when Fasching officially started. The height of the ball season – including the famous Opernball at the Vienna State Opera last Thursday – coincides with Fasching.

The last day of Carnival is called Mardi Gras in the Francophone world and parts of the Americas. I remember making crepes in French class in high school, learning to hold a coin in one hand for good luck while flipping the crepe in the other. I often make crepes for Fat Tuesday, but yesterday a steaming bowl of chickpea, Swiss chard, and ditalini soup was more inviting.

So here we are on the first day of Lent. Though it is supposed to be a dreary time of renunciation and penance and mortification, at some point I started to see Lent as a time where you can start over again, break a bad habit, change your life for the better, or simply experiment and do something new. Lent provides a framework for a new beginning. Kind of like a second stab at a New Year’s resolution. That said, I won’t be giving anything up for Lent this year because I have already given up alcohol and caffeine for 2013. Just to see if I can. Well, for health reasons too.

Though I have been thinking about deceased ancestors (the whole discussion surrounding Ratzinger’s resignation brings me back to the death of my grandma several days after the death of Pope John Paul II), my focus has been more on the cleaning and purification aspects of February festivals. For the past month, I have been sorting, decluttering, and organizing absolutely everything in my possession. Friday and Saturday, for example, I tackled my collection of recipes. I tossed a bunch and then put the ones I still want to try in a separate folder. I organized them by the season in which the ingredients can be sourced locally. Finally, I made a list so I can see quickly what recipes are in the folder. If I haven’t tried a recipe within one year, I will throw it away next February. Last night’s soup was the result of this fit of organization. The next step: going through all the recipes I have saved on my computer.

Hope you too get bit by the organization bug and enjoy preparing for the coming explosion of spring!

Consider the Dormant Medlar

Rosenschnee

Like clockwork, the snow arrived with the new month. Just a dusting on the first, a reminder that the cycle of the seasons keeps on spinning, ready or not. That was the warm-up for the second, when snowfall instead of light greeted my eyes. Big wet fluffy flakes kept coming down and sticking.

Follow the road

What else could I do but take a walk? There was a freshness and stillness in the air that excited me terribly. Enter winter! I enjoy letting myself fall into a state of modified hibernation. Sleep is to be encouraged and savored, plans for the weekend kept to a minimum, quiet indoor pursuits preferred. It is time to pause, to listen, to find my own rhythm again.

Medlar in white

On the walk, I paid my regards to the medlar tree whose fruits we had gathered throughout November. There were still a few medlars dangling from the top branches, out of reach for short wingless beings like myself. A little over a week ago, TC had shook the tree and I had lunged to gather the fallen fruit. With bottles of medlar jam and chutney now keeping the other preserves on the shelves company, our harvesting work is done for this year.

The Medlars 5, up close and personal

Mespilus germanica originated in southwest Asia and southeast Europe. Once again, we have the Romans to thank for introducing it to points further north. Charlemagne includes the medlar in his list of plants to be grown on his estates. Like certain persimmon varieties, medlars need to undergo a fermentation process called bletting before they are comestible. As fermentation releases sugars, the hard fruit softens and sweetens. Medlars will do this on their own as temperatures drop, turning mushy inside after a hard frost.

Tenacious medlars against the sky

If you are an impatient forager, medlars can be picked while still hard and then stored until they ripen. Traditionally they were laid on beds of straw. The medlars in the bowl above were ready to eat after a little over a week at room temperature. We paired ours with slices of smoked scamorza, an Italian cow’s milk cheese similar to mozzarella, remembering too late that port wine is also supposed to go well with medlars. We’ve also been adding stewed medlars to oatmeal.

Weathered medlar tree

The slow-growing medlar tree with her hard wood has kept her promise to blossom, bear fruit, and shed her leaves; she can now enjoy the rest that winter imposes upon her. I, on the other hand, still have miles to go today before I can devote myself to quiet indoor pursuits. How I envy the orchard.

Orchard in repose

Pie in the Sky Before you Die

To paraphrase Joe Hill:

You will eat, bye and bye,

When you learn how to cook and how to fry,

Make it all from scratch, yes, every batch,

So you’ll eat delicious pie before you die, that’s no lie.

Here is the recipe for this year’s 10-ingredient, 10-step pumpkin pie from scratch:

1. Roast a pumpkin or squash in a 200° C / 400° F oven about 40 minutes until soft. Save 1 1/2 cups for the filling. Enjoy the rest however you like.

2. Use a fork to mix 190 g / 1 1/2 cups flour together with 80 g / 6 Tbs melted butter until crumbly and dry.

3. Press the crust into a buttered pie or tart pan, making sure that the crust goes up the sides as high as possible.

4. Bake the crust at 170° C / 350° C for about ten minutes until slightly brown. Remove and place on a rack to cool down slightly, leaving the oven on.

5. In the same bowl you used for the crust, beat 3 eggs with 1/2 cup sugar (not pictured above).

6. Add the pumpkin, 1/2 tsp cinnamon, 1/4 tsp ground ginger, 1/8 tsp nutmeg, 1/8 tsp cloves, and a pinch of salt.

7. Add 170 ml / 3/4 cups heavy cream to the filling mixture.

8. Pour in the pre-baked pie crust.

9. Bake in the oven for 30 minutes until the top is set and slightly browned.

10. Let it cool as long as you like, then eat.

Queijo, Tejo, Azulejo

A wedding, a honeymoon, a near miss by a falling window and the demise of a household appliance hindered the Forum Holitorium from opening the past month, but things are back to normal now. A lot of good food was prepared and consumed in the meantime, and there are a series of posts waiting to be set free.

Little did we know on our wedding day when we received an agapanthus, or Liebesblume (love flower), that we would see blooming specimens every day of our honeymoon. Native to South Africa, they are easily spotted in gardens and public parks in Lisbon and Sintra-Cascais Natural Park. The flowers below were spotted in Cascais.

I love points of geographical significance. In May, I spent one night in Passau and was excited to find out it was the point where three rivers (Ilz, Inn and Danube) meet up. The city is a pleasant and sleepy place, yet there is an energy coursing through it thanks to its position at a watery crossroads. In today’s world of air travel and cars, we often forget to acknowledge the importance of waterways and how they have shaped our destiny. So it will come as no surprise that I was really looking forward to reaching the end of the continent, what the Romans called the Promontorium Magnum and which is now known as Cabo da Roca, to hear the pounding surf, gaze out onto the blue expanse, and contemplatively face the winds that blew the intrepid discoverers in their caravels to points unknown.

Before I started preparing for the trip, I knew nearly nothing about Portuguese cuisine. My only associations were Port wine, which has a Proustian effect on me, and cod, the famous bacalhau. In fact, Portugal has made a very important contribution to the culinary vocabulary of several European languages via the word marmelo, the Portuguese word for quince. While the English word marmalade designates jam made of oranges or lemons (and reminds me of Paddington Bear), the term refers to jam in general in most other languages that have borrowed the word (including the Austrian German Marmelade). These quinces were still ripening.

You may remember from a previous post that cabbage arose along the European seaboard. In the beginning, the plant did not form a head but grew like kale with leaves growing off of a stem. I like to think that the Galician cabbage pictured below is a direct descendant of what the Romans grew in Lusitania. Couve galega, as it is called in Portuguese, is used to prepare the national dish caldo verde, a cabbage soup that I regret to say I did not sample. I imagine fishermen returning home on a cold winter’s night and warming their bones with a huge bowl of caldo verde into which they dunked crusty bread.

So what were the food highlights? Our daily routine included the much anticipated stop at a cafe for a bica, the Portuguese version of espresso, and a pastel de nata, a puff pastry shell filled with egg yolk custard. In Lisbon, our landlord showered us with culinary gifts: fresh cherries and peaches, homemade peach ice cream, and queijo curado. Queijo means cheese, curado means aged, and the kind of aged cheese we sampled was made of sheep’s milk using a kind of thistle as the curdling agent. TC got his fill of coentros, or cilantro, a favorite fresh herb, while I will always remember a particularly scrumptious peach chutney paired with sheep’s cheese. With the exception of the exquisite meal at the B+B we stayed at near the coast, satisfying vegetarian food was not in the cards for this vacation. But you know what? The point of a honeymoon is not to eat yourself silly.

What the Romans Ate (According to Langenscheidt)

Today’s Latin review involved putting syllables together to make eight words that describe what the Romans ate. Let’s start with what I don’t eat:

1. piscis – fish

2. garum – fermented fish sauce

3. caro – meat

Now for what I DO consume:

4. vinum – wine

5. pomum – fruit

6. holus – vegetables or pot-herbs

7. panis – bread

8. frumentum – grains

The final two foods did not figure in the mosaics in Cologne and Aquileia that I visited this spring; I find this quite interesting because they were probably the most important sources of energy. The boundaries of Rome did not expand because the soldiers ate meat but because they ate gruel made from cereals. Perhaps it was too quotidian – would any of us make a mosaic of toast and jam?

As a bonus, here are two more pictures of what the Romans ate:

fungi – mushrooms

cocleae – snails

June Blooms Mostly Yellow and White

The calendula seed had hid herself well. The gardener had no idea that she was so hardy, had such endurance. Last year she did not sprout and grow but lay in wait as the other plants reach toward the heavens. Gathering her strength, she let others hog the limelight, waiting patiently for her time in the sun.

We’re enjoying the direct sunlight and soundtrack of birds as best we can because our days of freedom are numbered. Soon enough we’ll be dried on a rack in the warm oven then deposited in a glass jar in the dark pantry. Some dreary winter day, we’ll be scalded by boiling water and our essence will leach out. But what can you do? Such is the lot of chamomile.

Such juicy, tender chili blossoms. This is a great place for an aphid to be fruitful and multiply. Oh no, here comes a finger! The party’s over…

Ground cherries galore, ground cherries galore, we want more, we want more!

Yellow will give way to a green that brightens to orange then cherry Roma red.

Ruta, my rue: this is the first time you’ve bloomed!

Not everything blooms yellow and white, but my timing was poor and I missed capturing the dramatic red of the poppies.

Enjoy the ephemeral in the green near you!

The Cupboard That Wasn’t Really Bare

Whenever I go away for more than two nights, I try to use up what’s in the fridge. On Wednesday evening, I was to leave for a trip of over 4 days to Cologne. Since the milk would expire while I was away, a head of red cabbage was still lounging around in the veggie drawer after at least ten days, and the onions on the counter were sprouting, I got to work Wednesday afternoon, inadvertently preparing 2/3 of today’s lunch:

My first task was to whisk together a buckwheat crepe batter so it could rest for thirty minutes. Next, I chopped the red cabbage and readied it for fermentation. Then it was time to prepare an onion confit. Inspired by 3 different recipes that I had lying around, I came up with the following version.

Ingredients:

Nearly 4 cups sliced onions

1 Tbs water

1/2 ts mixture of dried savory and thyme

1/2 ts salt

1 ts balsamic vinegar

1 Tbs white port wine or another wine

In a medium-sized pot, combine all ingredients and cook over medium-low heat for 30-45 minutes, stirring frequently.

That’s it. In retrospect, I could have let the onions darken and caramelize more, but I’m happy with the flavor. The confit actually looks a little bit like sauerkraut (see below right). I was pleased with how well the buckwheat crepes turned out because I always have issues when frying. There were even two left to take along on my journey as a snack.

I had hoped to sample regional specialties in Cologne, but my exposure to local foodways was limited to drinking Kölsch, the local ale, and eating thick white asparagus spears that had been boiled to death and put to rest in melted butter (the former a pleasant and the latter an unpleasant experience). Even my intent to tour a mustard mill dating back to 1810 was thwarted. Oh well, next time. It was still a good trip.

As you might expect, when you use up perishables before you leave, the cupboard appears to be awfully bare when you return. Yet there are often enough raw materials  to spin straw into gold. I scanned the pantry and found a bag of chickpea flour (the only food we had brought back from Friuli that hadn’t been opened yet) and whipped up some socca, a pancake made of chickpea flour. It requires a scant four ingredients: chickpea flour, olive oil, salt, and water.

I first experienced the bliss of eating piping hot socca at the Christmas market in Nice and most recently enjoyed it at the Tuscan seaside under its aliases cecina or calda, calda. It can also be encountered in the wild along the Ligurian coast under the name of farinata.

Ingredients:

125 g / 1 heaping cup chickpea flour

1/2 ts salt

250 ml/ 2 cups warm water

3 Tbs olive oil

In a mixing bowl, mix the flour and salt, then add the warm water and whisk until thoroughly combined (no lumps). Add 1 Tbs oil. Let the batter rest at least 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 250°C / 480°F . Heat the rest of the oil in a 25 cm / 10″ cast-iron skillet for five minutes. Remove the skillet from the oven carefully. Pour the batter into the skillet and return to the oven. Bake 3-4 minutes, then turn on the grill or set the oven to just use top heat and bake for another 5-7 minutes. The socca should brown nicely, but pay attention that it doesn’t burn.

Serve hot with lots of ground black pepper.

I cut the socca into triangular slices using a pizza cutter and scarfed it down with a bit of the 6-day old red cabbage sauerkraut and the onion confit – yum! Readers, have you any stories to share of creative cooking with a nearly bare pantry, tales of successful experiments with what’s left in the fridge or on the counter?