Thursday, September 27, 2012

New Feature: Where I am Now

Fall has arrived and so have the last of the homegrown tomatoes we’ve nurtured all summer.  Where I am this week– approximately 7000 ft. altitude in the Northern Rocky Mountains, summers are short-lived, very short as in 6 – 8 weeks. This translates to very short growing seasons.  

If you reside anywhere in the Northern hemisphere, fall officially began at 10:49 a.m. EDT. Also known as the autumnal equinox (equinox is Latin for "equal night"), it’s one of the two equinoxes in which the Sun crosses the celestial equator so, as a result, the number of night hours and day hours are equal.

So what does this have to do with tomatoes? Simple – as the growing season shuts down in cooler agricultural zones, grab the last of your harvest before frost does. Besides, the threat of frost – already a nightly event here at higher elevations, the decreased daylight hours means your edible bounty probably won’t ripen much more outside.

My solution: 
Create a “mini-greenhouse” of sorts using 2 clear glass baking pans to nudge along any potential ripening. I placed mine on the kitchen counter moving it, mid-day, to a coffee table near a sunny window.  I rotate the tomatoes a bit for an even “suntan.” But that noted, smaller green tomatoes may not ripen at all. Those are the ones I’ve committed to the pickling jar and the soup pot.  My mini-greenhouse solution works well for green-peppers that will morph into red after being exposed to extra sunlight.  Enjoy your crop and future pickles!

Monday, September 24, 2012

Just What Is a Curveball?
As in baseball, people talk about a curve ball in real life. Usually, they’re referring to situations in which they’ve guessed incorrectly about upcoming events or in which they may have been fooled by a clever opponent. For instance, a company may have priced their products based upon their competitors’ current prices only to discover that the other company had a new, less expensive product being developed. That could be regarded, by the first company, as a “curve ball” from a strategic perspective. The term suggests an element of being caught unprepared or prepared for the wrong kind of event.

Today is a curveball day – the kind of day on which I must contemplate an interesting, age-old philosophical question:  If I knew the day on which I’d take my last breath, the one that was to be my last on earth, would I do something special? What, if anything, would I do differently? With whom would I spend that last day and where?

I’ve read volumes and volumes about writing techniques: where and how to find writing prompts, how important it is to write regularly – that magic 1000 words a day every day. It’s an activity both serious and worthwhile – the practice of making a regular date with ourselves to write, the importance of keeping that date just as we‘d schedule a lunch with a friend or a meeting with a colleague and would never consider canceling. One writer’s manual I consult regularly even advises, “Write as though it was your last day on earth.”

And so, today is what I’ve come to refer to as “a curveball day,” one on which I challenge the conventional wisdom delivered to writers by writers.  So really,  if today was  my very last day on earth,  honestly - would I spend any part of it writing? Probably not!
 Today I’ve accomplished nothing tangible or at least, nothing that looks productive. When life throws me a “curve ball,” I must summon every ounce of stored knowledge about what it means to be a compassionate friend - supportive when I myself have a tremendous need to be both understood and supported.
A long-time friend (let’s call her Marsha) who’s ten years older than I, phoned me this morning to relay shocking news. Her husband of 35 years just died. The “just” is as in “just,” – like a few hours ago.” He didn’t fade away. He didn’t suffer. He wasn’t ill or elderly, and surely wasn’t taken from planet Earth in an accident. Nope, not at all! Literally he simply just died, dropped right there in his tracks, just stopped. Most likely his were hiking tracks, a trail in the wilderness area. My friends live in the mountains of Idaho and after a full day of hiking, a day filled with sunshine and majestic scenery, Robert packed their day packs and hiking poles in through the SUV’s hatch. “My feet hurt.”  Robert  said followed by a thud. And, that was it. He was gone as in dead.
Well traveled, vigorous and adventuresome, these two friends had braved remote regions of Rwanda where they observed gorillas; the Yukon Territory of Canada where they made camp among the disappearing polar bears, and to Patagonia to live among gauchos crossing mountains by day on horseback along terrifying ridges and staggering terrain. When Marsha described their approaching challenging trips, I pondered the inherent dangers. It wasn’t out of the question that Marsha and Robert were risking bear mauling, possible murder by rebels, or death resulting from a fall off horseback as in a tumble over rocky cliffs? Why at their ages, I wondered, do they pursue such craziness – the stuff I would have considered only when I was in my 20’s?

Today I’ll obsess about life’s tenuous nature as I will tomorrow and the day after and many days after that. Today, I’ll consider the extent to which we take for granted that we’ll be here next week, next month, tomorrow!  We’ll take care of ourselves beginning on Monday, beginning next week or on our birthdays. Today we’re too busy.  We’ll call that close friend of ours who lives overseas, the one we’ve been neglecting for months. We’ll hug our spouses, our children (grandchildren if we have any) and our parents if they’re still alive.

Tonight my husband and I are going to a movie. It’s one we’ve been meaning to see for quite some time. If our friend had known today was to be his last day on earth, I have to believe that he wouldn’t have chosen to spend it any other way!

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Why Do I Cook?

My mother’s culinary creations evolved in concert with the progression of her life. She never owned a cookbook. She carried nothing tangible forward from the destruction of her past into her life in the present. In many ways, the obliteration wrought by the Holocaust she survived deleted my history as well. Foods she cooked were grounded in her recollections of life in Romania before World War II, not in recipes scribbled on yellowing or stained note-cards handed down from grandmother to mother to daughter or from aunts to nieces and beyond. 

When I’m in my kitchen, I reminisce about the meals entirely unique to my mother – ones my brother and I still challenge each other to reproduce. My mother’s cooking spanned the range of our economic status - poverty to plenty and all that lies between. Those memories weave the responses I proffer to friends and strangers alike, who ask, “Why do you cook?” or “Who taught you to cook?” I cook a great deal, blog about cooking, watch shows about cooking when the world news is replete with tales of destruction. 

I write articles about cooking that occasionally are published. I’ve even taught cooking! Can I answer these seemingly straight-forward questions but not ruminate about women passing their recipes and cooking secrets on to their progeny? At times I’m compelled to ask: who did teach my mother to cook? My mother – the smart young woman from an Orthodox Jewish family growing up in a remote Romanian village; my rebellious mother who pursued education in lieu of culinary skills during the era, historically, when Jewish girls married young and rarely ventured beyond their garden gates. 

My mother couldn’t learn from her mother - one of millions of mothers and “would-be” mothers killed in places bearing names like Dachau or Auschwitz or Ravensbruck. So what is my answer? It’s not one but a complex web of answers! I cook to create what reminds me of the scent of home and the security of family. I cook because cooking distracts me from life’s problems as I become absorbed by the ingredients’ sensory elements. 

I cook because going to a restaurant when I’m tired or harried does the chef a disservice and deprives my taste buds of due appreciation. I cook because it’s the consummate way I can show family and guests that I care about them - a hug around our most basic senses and with the power to unite strangers. Cooking, tasting and memory become inseparable. I cook to celebrate spring’s intense colors; newly ripened berries, crisp baby greens, and delicate young vegetables picked before they’ve grown large and tough. I cook as an adieu to vestiges of summer, to welcome fall’s heartiness with pumpkins, apples, peaches and squash. 

I’ll reconfigure fall’s bounty into spreads and soups and pies. They’ll become the flavors of summer that live on in my kitchen to help brace me for winter ahead, a winter of short days and cold, early evenings. I cook to boost my self-esteem of which a part depends upon being better at one thing than anyone else in my family is - a family comprised of men who know everything about most things yet vastly less about cooking than I do. I cook as my avenue to creativity like the many short stories I write and books I savor. 

I cook to progress in life. Cooking is progressive. And, as I progress, I know that all those meals I’ve cooked over the years will help my sons remember me when they’re far away or I’m no longer here. I cook to invent and to be creative. Then, I reinvent, edit and test again - exactly as I reinvent myself each morning and with each edit of my stories. I cook as a way to challenge myself to grow, to travel the world, and to befriend it by meeting the foods and flavors of unfamiliar lands and cultures. And when I do, I inhale their scents, touch the delicate and coarse and if ever the opportunity to visit arrives – well, then their familiarity will welcome me in like a friend inviting me to a meal. 

I cook because it provides an exceptional avenue into understanding others – observing what they will or won’t eat, like and dislike. Not to cook would render me incomplete; not cooking would deprive my senses of one of life’s crucial components. I cook to nurture myself and those around me, to calm and sooth, to make merry and celebrate.

Cooking legitimates my sporadic excursions into ethnic neighborhoods and out-of-the way markets where I become a student of foreign spices, herbs and aromas, a discoverer of sauces and pastes, cookies and cakes. The vendors’ sounds are simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar. In their tones, I recall childhood’s long forgotten memories; the French farmers coming to sell their goods in my Montreal old French Quarter neighborhood. Mine are the memories of Polish butchers selling homemade sausages, Jewish immigrants hawking kosher pickles and apple strudels and Greeks
peddling aromatic herbs and unfamiliar cheeses.

When my table is cleared and all who’ve graced it are content, I know that every reason I cook is intertwined with me understanding who I am, what I’m capable of, and discovering not what I can do with ingredients at hand but, most important, all I can do without yet still being satiated and whole, continuing to impart what I’ve learned to those for whom I’ll cook.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

So just what is a toque blanche?

Le Chef de l'Hôtel Chatham, Paris
 oil on canvas by William Orpen

1921 Royal Academy of Arts, London, England.

A “toque blanche” is the French term for "white hat" usually just referred to as a  “toque.” It’s a tall, round, pleated white hat worn by chefs, the folds on a toque are supposed to symbolize the numerous ways in which the humble egg can be cooked by a top chef.

Most likely, this type of hat evolved from head coverings cooks wore throughout the centuries. They include the “casque a meche” - the stocking cap worn in the 18th-century by French chefs. The color of the “casque” represented the wearer’s rank, white or “blanche” as the highest .  Talleyrand, the French statesman, insisted that white toques be worn by his chefs for sanitary reasons. I suppose knowing now what we do about questionable hygiene including the common presence of head lice, it’s no surprise that the toque had an important practical function!  The modern toque is believed to have originated with Auguste Escoffier

Friday, September 7, 2012

Back On the Shelves!

Great News, I found copies of my book
The Seamstress: A Memoir of Survival at a Large Retail  chain  this week. Which means they've gone back to print!

Now you can purchase the paperback or the Audiobook in big box Stores and these things
called book stores!