28 February 2015

Perhaps for emphasis

February the twenty-eighth, worn out, small-bodied, and unseeing. A day that in the confines of the apartment makes no effort to excite, that promises nothing. Lit in late-winter light, half milk, half gold, it means well, to pass quickly, to leave no trace. The lungs, unaccustomed, inexperienced, still burn a little from last night's smoking, and a faint taste of sodium chloride from the salt-encrusted margaritas continues to tingle the lips. 

"I don't always win, but I never get knocked down", said a male voice behind my back. I reluctantly peeled my eyes off the tropic green of Mekhong River Thai Bar signage and turned around to see a short man, barrel-chested, baby-faced. He was talking to me, asked me if I smoke. I said sorry, I don't -- and started to unlock my bike off the bridge railing. He went on to tell me these two guys, dipshits, just robbed him, took all his money, not much, and cigarettes. 

 "They approached me from behind, hit me on the head. If I saw them coming, it just wouldn't go down.

"I like to fight, collect scars and bruises.

"This one" -- he pointed to the knuckles on his right hand and lifted it to his lips -- "this one is my favorite." He elongated the first syllable, almost sang it out, feeeey-vorite, perhaps for emphasis. 

He suggested we maybe have a beer, nodding towards Mekhong River. It's open till 4 a.m, he said. "Everything else is closing down as I speak." 

I said thank you, but I'd had enough for the night already. I smiled and rode off as fast as I could, the bike lights still in my coat pocket.

February the twenty-eighth. Smoke grey before the night sky and all thoughts are on dinner. And what dinner!

Soba Noodles with Peanut-Citrus Sauce
Adapted from Orangette
Yield: 2-3 servings

This is my new go-to dish. A delicious, filling, slurpy, no-brainer meal, with enough kick, crunch and smoothness to please everybody's tastes. And by everybody I really mean every one who likes peanut butter and noodles, and now please tell me who does not?

For the sauce:
½ cup natural crunchy peanut butter
½ cup fresh lemon juice
1 ½ tsp soy sauce
¼  tsp pressed garlic
½ tsp sriracha or similar hot sauce, or more to taste
½ tsp sambal oelek or similar chili garlic paste, or more to taste
2 tsp olive oil
1 tsp water

For the noodles:
250 g soba noodles
3 red radishes, very thinly sliced
2 small carrots, very thinly sliced
1 celery stalk, thinly sliced
Fresh cilantro (coriander) or chives, for serving

Make the sauce. Combine all the ingredients in a large bowl, and whisk with a fork to blend well. It will look clumpy at first, but keep whisking. It will come together into a smooth, fragrant sauce. Taste, and tweak to your liking. Set aside.

Next, bring a large pot of water to a boil, and place a colander in the sink. When the water boils, add the soba noodles, and cook at a gentle simmer until they are al dente, about four minutes. Don't overcook. 

Drain the noodles into the colander in the sink. Immediately wash them in cold water. Turn on the faucet and, with your hands, take small handfuls of soba and separate them between your fingers, taking care each noodle is rinsed. This helps to remove any starchy residues and keeps the noodles from clumping.

Shake any excess water from the noodles, and pour them into the bowl of sauce. Manually or with forks, gently toss until the noodles are evenly coated. Add the carrots, radishes, and celery, and serve, topped with fresh cilantro (coriander) or chives.

31 January 2015

Hypnotized by it

A rich and modest square of François Pralus Cuba is starting to melt under the impatient tongue. I had to get out and pedal thirty minutes each way to get a bar. The day is tormented by rain and snow, they alternate first, then merge, land angrily on the skin. But I don't mind, have grown used to this. 

I gather speed -- I'll lose it in a minute to the next gust of wind. I only passed four or five blocks and I already feel my shirt slowly starting to dissolve in sweat on my back. I cross a traffic-laden road, the green light disappears quickly in the thick spew of hail. I wear mittens, but the skin on my hands feels raw, it burns. 

Neat, elegant stacks of chocolate bars, thin as ballerina's ribs. The eye stops at each, sends the mind reeling, wanting, in a free fall. I pull a Cuba off the shelf, my favourite. I habitually run my fingers across its wrapper, the paper feels grainier under the wet skin. But I know well what's underneath it: a taste of cigar smoke and rum, not direct, but rather plucked from somebody's lips. Before going back I decide to have a cup of coffee, an espresso. It comes thick as crude oil. The woman across the counter compliments the colour of my lipstick, she would like to know the name of the hue. I say it's dark wine, Merlot. I reach into my coat pocket for change to find a crumpled piece of writing paper, both damp from rain. 

I looked up, it was dark. The night was through, over, down to the last note in my pockets, each spent on wine. I alone must have had a bottle of young red, French, too. It knowingly blazed through the blood and softened the limbs. The phone buzzed and buzzed. I took a piece of paper out of my handbag, still blank but already folded, straightened it and wrote: Remember how you spilled wine over my dress (good it was black) as we stumbled in a dance and we laughed at it and at our ourselves louder than everybody else combined. Then I looked down at it and crumpled it up. The arthritic tree tops span overhead as I was unlocking my bike. I looked up, my head started to spin too, the stomach feeling dangerously close to the throat.

The tongue gives in to the slow dark buttery melt, becomes sedated, hypnotized by it. 

30 November 2014

I look away

"I'm sitting down to write. I'll call you back later, I don't exist for now, only in my head." 

The bedroom window is chilled, a thin line between the post-sleep warmth and a day as grey as smoke. I've been at my desk since morning, in front of the blank page. Sentences circle in front of my mind's eye, but they are like an empty baggage belt. I'm thinking back to my trip to Russia in October. It was 4 a.m. when I landed, one of the few flights to touch down at such hour. I flew through Istanbul, it was a soft day, sunny. No one aboard expected to step into the rain. I found myself wondering if coming down from a high feels like this, dark and cutting. Someone joked it was for us to get a cold faster.

A man in front of me in line to passport control sneezes, then coughs -- I roll my coat collar up, as if this would protect me. Somebody hasn't filled out the migration form correctly, the line stops moving. I pull a pack of mints out from my pocket. The cool on my tongue distracts me from joining in the angry groans and hissing whispers. I'd been up for twenty hours, my stomach growls. Except for the two in-flight meals, I didn't eat much that day. I take another mint, and one more. I look forward to my grandmother's crepes, thin and delicate, as if made of lace. 

Another hold-up, now with the luggage. The waiting's turned my thoughts inconsequential. I'm thinking about why I often now prefer a splash of bourbon or gin to a glass of wine. Maybe because I'm getting older. The gin they offered on the flight tasted of ethanol and burnt my tongue, I couldn't finish it. It must have been over half an hour, but the baggage carousel still moves around unladen. 

I look away from my computer screen to find the daylight darker. My stomach growls again.  I go and toast a slice of sourdough bread. The warm crust, crisp and yielding, a layer of almond butter and honey on top, a winter mouthfeel. I toast a second slice. South Park is on TV. I end up watching a few episodes. "I'm cereal, I'm super duper cereal!"

It wasn't a long trip, only a week and a half, but a third day into my stay I was habitually counting down the time until my flight back. It's a terrible thing, it once more felt like a betrayal. 

The daylight's gone, the windows face the night again. A distant row of road lights line the horizon. I pick up the phone to call my parents.

"How have you been? Kak u vas dela? Skuchayu."

30 September 2014

Most likely, perhaps

It was the beginning of a luminous day; September is well-known for them. Everything is going to look crystal once the sun is up. Low, deep, golden light will polish the hours, make them precious, more than they already are. The night was bothersome though, mainlined with the monotonous pitch of a single mosquito. I kept waking up to brush it off me. At the end I got it in the groove of my elbow, squarely on the vein. I wonder how it knew, or was it a coincedence? Most likely, perhaps.

"You smell of knives", I want to say to a man next to me on the train. 

It's light out, and gauging by my dress it must be summer, I don't know, I think it is. But I'm cold. It washes over me every time his cell phone rings, and that's often. The rings are muted, coming from within his denim jacket. His eyes are closed, but he is not asleep. I look at his wristwatch -- the single hand is at a millimetre past ten. A wiff of his perfume brushes past me as he turns in his seat. It smells bright like citrus and ginger and deep like incense smoke. It matches his face very well, the sharp jawline, high cheeckbones, broad forehead. A birthmark on his neck looks like a merlot stain, and it's close to the pulsing artery. My eye keeps falling to it. It makes me feel unsafe.

The phone rings again and I quickly look away. "I'll call you back in seven minutes", he says and hangs up. The train groans and starts to move.

"You smell of knives -- unsafe, expensive", I want to say, but wake up instead.

The morning is in its double digits now and I'm ravenous. I brush my teeth, then go to the kitchen to make breakfast. It's going to be the very best oatmeal.

It will take seven minutes.

The Very Best Oatmeal
Adapted from Whole-Grain Mornings, by Megan Gordon
Yield: 2 servings

I don't like gummy, gluey, slurpy oatmeal. I like oatmeal where oats keep their shape, are perfectly cooked but still chewy. I'm not a big supporter of superlatives, but this one is indeed the very best oatmeal: equally perfect right off the stove as it is cold. (I often take it with me to work for lunch.)

Toast the oats to bring out their nutty flavor, add the oats only when the water is at a boil, don't stir. Once you add the oats to the pot, turn off the heat, cover said pot and step aside.

Here we go.

120 g (4 oz) rolled oats
60 ml  (1/4 cup) milk or oat/nut milk
195 ml (3/4 cup plus 1 Tbs) water
A pinch of salt
A pinch of cinnamon (optional)

Warm up a large skillet over medium heat. Add the oats and toast over low heat, stirring occasionally, until they begin to smell fragrant and nutty and take on a light golden hue, 5-7 minutes. Just so you know, if you skip this step (I often do) the oatmeal is still going to be at its very best.

In a medium heavy-bottomed pot, bring the milk, water, salt and cinnamon (if using) to a slow boil over medium heat. Add the toasted oats and gently stir once or twice. Cover the pot and turn off the heat. Allow the oats to sit on the burner for 7 minutes. Don't stir, don't peek. After 7 minutes, remove the lid and check the oats. If they are a little wetter than you'd like, let them sit in the pot, covered, for another few minutes.

Serve with your favorite toppings. I like mine with a little honey, cashews and blueberries for now. Store the leftovers in an airtight container, refrigerated, for up to 5 days. To reheat, you'll probably want to add a bit more liquid since the oatmeal tends to dry out with time.

31 August 2014

We laughed too loud

I'm standing in a thick pool of paint. Morgane advised we wear (old) socks to protect the skin, but this one is water-based, it should wash off easily. We've diluted it a little with tap water, so it's also cold, not much but enough for a slight cringe (from me) or a surprised oh! (from Nathalie). It's been more than half an hour since Morgane poured a martini glass filled with it over our neckline, but the paint keeps dripping and coating our feet. I stand still. 

Drip. I move my toes to let the paint seep through. Drip. It feels soft like silt, and similarly slippery. Drip. I'm remembering how my school friend and I had gone fishing with the local boys, at dusk. We caught a few common carps, but the night had settled sooner and we were far off from our dacha. My grandmother was going to be beside herself. To cut corners we hastened back down a sandless strip of the river bank. It was all silt and we were barefoot. We both knew there could have been grass snakes or glass shards in it and winced every step of the way. Drip. We laughed too loud when my grandmother swatted at my back with a towel for making her so worried.

The four of us are in Morgane's studio. We are making a movie to illustrate the necklaces she made out of melded cocktail straws. The color of the paint matches a necklace we each are given; mine is blue, red, and white. To cover our legs we cut through the bottom of a garbage bag and wrap the resulting strip around our waist. Morgane irons and pins to the wall behind a matching piece of fabric for the background. I ask her how my hair looks. We mustn't move to let the paint take its course down our crisp white longsleeves. These are going to be one-of-a-kind pieces. Now smile but don't move! Don't move now! Gwen calls from behind her camera. 

The paint needs to dry before I can remove this T-shirt. It's settled just enough for me to move around, so we climb onto the roof to dry it in the sun. Morgane says it will take less time than using a hairdryer. I shuffle from one foot to the other -- the asphalt roof shingles have heated up. The paint on my feet dries out first. 

It's deep into the afternoon and we realize we didn't have lunch. I brought a hefty bunch of white grapes with me, crisp and fresh, and by now the naked stem is what remains of it. We are thinking of going to KOKO, it's two minutes away from here, for coffee and a slice of our favourite banana bread afterwards, but Gwen says she can't wait till then. She goes and gets a falafel sandwich first. Nothing spectacular, she says. 

There is only a patch of paint on my right shoulder left to dry.

31 July 2014


It feels like the air is melting on the skin, soft, sticky, trapped in heat. It's been like this since morning, a little after eight. I set a kettle on the stove. It's perhaps best to stay away from coffee now, but the craving is strong. The ceiling fan is on, the balcony door is open. I turn the kitchen faucet on to wash a bowl of cherries. Summer mornings with nowhere to go require the buzz of a radio set for company. My grandmother used to have an antique one in her dacha. From it I first heard the BBC, the rolling, elegant, distant English sounds. They seemed especially comforting on a choppy day, before a storm, the sky dark, about to deliver, the surface of the river Don like tree bark, the imminent downpour a conversation topic. Vovremya my pomidory podvyazali. Na samom dele! A okna naverkhu zakryty? 

You are listening to the BBC radio services in the background.

The water in the kettle starts to hiss. I quickly measure out coffee beans and pour them in my new hand grinder, Japan Porlex and Co., Osaka. I got it from Anthony for my birthday earlier this month. It was a good day, we went out for dinner. I had a roll of guinea fowl stuffed with truffles and pancetta to start with, and an Anjou pigeon with roast vegetables as a main, and half a bottle of Barbaresco 2006 ($$$),  and from our table watched the windows of Hotel De L'Europe across the road turn vermilion at sunset, but I'll remember the meal most by the pistachio gelato I had for dessert, a clean, unmistakable taste of well toasted pistachio nuts in every bite, cool, silky. I never tasted pistachio ice-cream as good as this before. I'm glad I did on the day I turned thirty.

Crack crack crack, my right arm starts to burn from rotating the grinder's handle. After the dinner we went to a bar, an underground rock/metal club actually; Anthony wanted me to try a vodka-coffee shot the bartender had designed for him before. I took a sip. Heavy metal tearing up the room, I shouted that mine was too strong, needed more coffee liqueur. Anthony downed his, placed the glass back on a Heineken coaster, then reached into his messenger bag. This is for you, and it's the filthiest gift you ever received. The wrapper was deep scarlet, matching roses and horns. It looked like something you'd get from an erotic shop. I tore into it -- and it was the manual coffee grinder I'd been eyeing the day before. You could hear my laughter over the music.

The kettle is about to boil.

30 June 2014

This is it

I write this on June 29th. It's eleven in the morning, although the wall clock's hands rest unanimously at 6, and for a couple of days already. I keep forgetting to get new batteries. On the other hand, it may be an omen. If you are into soccer and, by extension, the currently unfolding 2014 World Cup, you probably know it's the second round and today it's Netherlands v Mexico. If you are not into soccer and, by extension, the currently unfolding 2014 World Cup, you should know nonetheless that it's Netherlands v Mexico today. At 6 p.m. Amsterdam time, to be exact. Later tonight it's also Costa Rica v Greece, but let's not go any further.

What I wanted to say is: this city is electrified. Being outside right now feels like being near a high voltage transmission line. On my way to a supermarket to pick up fresh fruit for breakfast I ran into a neighbour and his toddler. Nine hours away from the match, both already had their faces stencilled with miniature Dutch flags, and the father admitted he was nervous and couldn't eat since yesterday.  

It's not unimagined that come 6 p.m. the TV screen will be the evening's focal point. In my estimation, this should leave the streets and most of the eating establishments temporarily empty. I'm thinking of using that to my advantage and get a pizza, a Salami Picante, at Anthony's restaurant, otherwise packed to the brim on a Sunday evening. I'm not the biggest soccer aficionado, as if it needed any pointing out. Besides, I don't even need to see the match to know how it develops. When Netherlands played against Spain, I heard it: car horns went off and lung-fuls of screams spilled out from each and every bar and home at every goal. When Netherlands took on Australia, I heard it. Actually, when Netherlands took on Australia I first nearly got kicked off my bike in the rush-hour traffic, and not once. Too much testosterone on the road that day. 

In the supermarket, besides me there are three or four shoppers, it's early still. I fill up my basket with punnets of local strawberries, blueberries, cherries, and (non-local) apricots -- as usual I go to town with the summer fruit. A stocky man in an orange T-shirt, "7" on the back, stocks up on beer (three crates) and soft drinks (one crate). At the check-out he exchanges a few words with a cashier, I can't hear what he says to her, the cashier smiles back politely. He looks excited. Maybe a little jumpy. I get jumpy like this when a pair of Phillip Lim shoes I ordered online finally arrive and I'm seconds away from finding out if they are a good fit, and thus, if the money I splurged isn't a waste, and similarly excited after two double espressos consumed at work, at dawn, within an hour.

By the way, that reminds me of one more subject I meant to talk about: cold-brewed coffee. How does it sound? I bet you think it's complicated to make, I bet you think you shouldn't even bother. But you should (assuming you like coffee)! If you've got a handful of good coffee beans, a grinder, a glass jar, a sieve and a few paper filters, you are set to make your own. Grind your beans coarsely (coarsely as in resembling salt crystals), mix them in the jar with cold water and leave the assembly alone, covered, at room temperature overnight or twelve hours. Done. This is it. This is a cold brew in the making.

Next morning strain the grounds through a sieve, run the brew through a paper filter to pick up any silt, and dilute it one-to-one with cold water. That's really it. Be sure to notice how much clearer than a hot brew it is, a lighter fit for the summer. Take a sip. There is no bitterness about it, no harshness, you'll probably forget about sugar, no need for it. You may want to add ice to the lot. I don't. I refrigerate it instead for an hour or longer. Take one more sip. You'll probably pick up on chocolate and caramel -- and even cream notes. There may also be hints of citrus or red fruit, and even pineapple. That depends on your beans. My recent cold brew tasted very much like Baileys, minus 17.0 % alcohol.

Hup hup!

Cold-Brewed Iced Coffee
Adapted from The New York Times
Yield: two or three drinks

30 g (1/3 cup) coffee beans, coarsely ground
375 ml (1 1/2 cups) cold water

In a glass jar, stir together the coffee and water. Cover and let sit at room temperature overnight or twelve hours.

Strain first through a fine-mesh sieve, and then once again through a paper filter. What you've got is coffee concentrate. Dilute it one-to-one with water. Refrigerate (covered) or add ice cubes, if desired.