30 November 2015

It didn't feel ordinary at all

My hands are cold, the feet shuffle, the wait for the elevator feels long. I reach in my overcoat pocket and there is a whole tangerine, forgotten since morning, still fragrant, still carefree. I focus on its optimistic, arresting orange and the unblemished, glossy skin when the elevator finally arrives. I pause to look back outside the glass entrance door then step in. I think I heard hastened heels behind me.

Respirez, vous êtes sur FIP.” I lean against the wall as the elevator starts to ascend. A French music radio station is streaming on my phone. “Breathe, you are on FIP.” 
It was a warm September day, two years ago. My friend and I walked down the hilly roads away from Montmartre. We were about to cross over when a bus slowed down in front of us at a stop. We made our way around it, and I felt the heat of its exhaust fumes on my bare ankles. It felt soft and pleasant, like a human breath. I thought then that it could have happened anywhere, but in Paris it felt less ordinary. Or rather in Paris it didn't feel ordinary at all.

Third floor. A neat arrangement of red gardenias in the hallway, in matching pots.

Fifth floor. I had to stop, stand still. I'd seen the Eiffel Tower countless times before, all through the eyes of others. Now I was looking at it. Here you are.

Sixth floor. I squeeze the tangerine a little, look into the dull elevator mirror. I'll buy a train ticket to Paris, yes, that's what I'll do. 
Eighth floor. I step out of the elevator to hear the roof rattling. I turn the key in the door: inside the apartment the windows rattle too, and the curtains are unsettled. I connect my phone to the soundbar. Respirez, vous êtes sur FIP” fills the rooms -- jazz, classical, world, film music in smooth succession. 

I turn on the stove to make a pot of simmered black beans for dinner, a wonderful, powerful, flavorsome thing. I'll finish the tangerine, too.

Simmered Black Beans 

Adapted from The New York Times
Serves 6 

Pardon my bossiness, but make this dish, really. To soak the beans overnight, to remember to do it, is the hardest step, which is another way to say it's an easy recipe. I'd even take it further and say it's the easiest way to the best pot of beans, which to me means soft, well-seasoned, meaty beans suspended in a thick fragrant broth, which is achieved by languidly simmering them in their soaking water with plenty of garlic, onion and cilantro. I like them plain, with a hunk of good sourdough bread, or with cubed avocado, a ring or two of jalapeno, and a few shreds of roast chicken. But enough with lengthy sentences.

450 g black beans, washed and picked over for stones
2 L water
2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
4 large cloves of garlic, minced
15 g (a good handful) chopped cilantro (coriander), plus more for garnish
Salt to taste

Soak the beans in the water for at least six hours or overnight.

Heat the oil over medium-low heat in a large, heavy soup pot or Dutch oven, and add the onion. Cook, stirring, until it starts to soften, about three minutes. Add half the garlic. Cook, stirring, until fragrant, about one minute. Pour in the beans and soaking water. The beans should be covered by at least two cm of water. Add more if necessary, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, cover, and simmer one hour.

Add the remaining garlic, cilantro and salt. Continue to simmer another hour, until the beans are soft and the broth is thick. Taste. Add more salt or garlic if necessary. Let sit overnight in the fridge for the best flavor.

31 October 2015

Younger than he thought

The night falls. With it a softness -- the last indulgent lukewarm air -- permeates what's underneath the skin -- no skin. The light (vintage gold) exhales, makes me want to hold my breath. In darkness the water in canals seems motionless, unfeeling. Unlike the streetlights -- those dance. 
The morning started with a mist, thin, unsure. I woke up first -- it was still dark out. The street glistened, was absolutely silent. A car floated past the strong beam of a streetlight, a science-fiction scene. I closed the balcony door, picked up a DVD from the floor by the TV -- The Sopranos, season 3, disc 4 -- poured water in the kettle, switched it on, click.
I write down a list of groceries -- aubergines, basil, cherry tomatoes, wine -- then mindlessly place a cup of hot coffee on it. Instantaneously 'aubergines' grow fuzzy. I draw an exclamation mark next to 'wine'.
The day was rising, a pale, unhurried dawn, it reveals, catches clouds wandering off at the top of the sky. It should be a glorious day. Leaves are falling, gliding downwards of their own accord, like theater curtains at the end of a brilliant show. Goodbye to all that; encore, encore!
-- Happy birthday! Coffee?
Someone calls. 
-- Much too, much too close to forty. I gotta go pick a fight, Anthony says and laughs.
-- Thirty-six isn't close to forty, I say and extend a cup.
-- I'm thirty-seven -- am I not? 
-- Two thousand fifteen minus nineteen seventy-nine...
-- That's right -- thirty-six.
He goes on to say it's a great gift, to be younger than he thought. A homemade birthday lunch is a bonus.

In darkness the water in canals seems motionless, unfeeling. Like the streetlights, we'll dance too.
Pasta with Roasted Aubergines and Tomatoes
Adapted from Nigel Slater
Serves 2

This is a pasta dish unmasked by any sauce, and is what it is: a sum of its three key ingredients -- aubergine, tomatoes, garlic. The sweet juices from the roasted vegetables and a generous quantity of olive oil will take care that the lips glisten here. Crush the tomatoes with a fork as they roast to syphon their bright juices into the oil. As pasta, I used conchiglie (shells) to catch an odd bite here and there, and to lock in some of that mushroom flavour that appears when roasted aubergine meets caramelized garlic. Originally, it's penne.

1 large aubergine
250 g cherry tomatoes
3 cloves garlic
8 Tbsp olive oil
Salt and pepper
250 g dried conchiglie (shells)
A scarce handful of basil leaves

Set the oven to 200C.

Wipe the aubergine and slice it into thin rounds. Place the slices in a single layer in a large roasting tin. Peel and crush the garlic and scatter over the aubergines. Throw in the tomatoes, whole, and trickle the olive oil. Season well, then bake for 25-30 minutes.

Dump the pasta in a deep pan of salted boiling water. Cook for 9 minutes until al dente. Drain in a colander.

Add the drained pasta to the aubergines and toss gently together. Adjust the seasoning if needed. Tear the basil leaves and add to the lot. 

30 September 2015

Tomorrow and until

September. The air is well-supplied, redolent at dusk of ripe, ruby-fleshed figs -- and often after rain, of matured brie and cider. But the flats of rain have stopped, and for a few days now. A godsend. I ran out of shoes that weren't soaked.
The dusted-up, off-white trams are a contrast to young men's and women's tanned arms and faces, the remnants of a sea tan, the hue of unrefined cane sugar. I wonder if they can still feel the swell of sea waves, cool and constant, around their ankles, and how their lips must have tasted of salt after a swim.

Day by day the light changes. There is a new intense quality to it that completes the summer's expiration. It's done, gone, but I reject, still, the idea of a coat. I'm being stubborn, might pay for it with a cold later. 
"How do you find my new lipstick?", I ask Anthony as I make myself up in front of the bathroom mirror. I talk loudly -- he's in another room and the TV is on.
"I like it. Looks natural."  
I lean forward to consider my lips closer in the mirror, turn my head right, left, then wipe a little from the corners. 
It's almost dusk outside, a crisp evening, the atmospheric version of a cotton shirt freshly starched. We have dinner in town. It's our wedding anniversary -- three years. The restaurant is filled with joyous clatter of plates and cutlery, and recurring pops of corks. I feel curious, order the only Hungarian on the wine list, red. Could we have it by the glass, I wonder. Yes, that can be arranged. The full bottle appears on the table. No obligation to finish it, but it is a very good wine, sophisticated and masculine, and eventually we do. The fried fresh parsley, crisp, earthy, that comes with the venison, our main, is an expected surprise, it steals the show. It's a long dinner, there is comfort in eating in silence.
The wine has made my head spin. We skip the dessert and after cheese order coffee. It comes with bonbons made with particularly peaty Scotch, another surprise for the palette. On the calendar it's already another day and my alarm clock will go off at five in the morning. But why hurry a celebration? 

Tomorrow I'll have a simple dinner alone: paella rice cooked together with caramelized onions and sautéed mushrooms, and two, three, possibly more ripest figs, the last of the season, for dessert. I'll eat them out on the balcony while watching the skyline catch fire at sunset, and until the rain returns. September.

31 August 2015

A sentimental thing

It feels like I'm being watched.

I woke in darkness, too early, dissected the night in half with the sudden motion of my tired eyelids. Have I heard something? The windows and balcony door are open -- the likelihood is high. For a moment I lay there motionless in the heat. A stifled breeze makes the trees rustle beneath the windows like a stream. The bed spring gives out a nervous creak as I turn. I let a few minutes pass before I get up and go to the kitchen for a glass of water.

The fume extractor is still on, a constant industrious drone. I must have left it on after preparing dinner: spicy potatoes, pan-fried with onions, madras curry powder, and cumin and coriander seeds (a deviation, barely, from this recipe). On the table there remained a couple crumpled napkins, half a watermelon, its vermillion flesh ripe enough to resemble candy floss,  and cups with coffee remnants in them. I cover the watermelon with cling film and put it in the fridge. A sweet, exceptionally juicy late-August watermelon is for me a sentimental thing. A delight for the mouth but the particular sadness for the heart: another summer is gone.

I finish the glass of water and get out onto the balcony for fresh air. It's humid, smells of swamp, grassy and strong. In the distance lightning bolts flash and spread across the night sky like vericose veins. I look up, the stars are hidden. I lean against the balcony railing, my eyes travelling from window to window, all unlit, impenetrable, in the building across. It's still around me, I'm no longer sure if I heard anything at all. 

I go back to bed only to wake up again shortly, again from the feeling of being watched. I look out of the bedroom window -- and it's the full moon's metallic uncomfortable stare, has been all along.

31 July 2015

Between espressos and apricots

I think I'm dreaming. I'm alone in my bed, sunk in sleep between the indented pillows and twisted sheets, but I feel a soft touch on my bare wrist. It's like a tickle and a brushstroke of a breeze combined; one moment it's here, the other it goes. Through the window the sunlight amplifies, my eyelids fail to screen it, I wake up. It must be close to midday: the sun is brighter than itself. I squint at it and in my eyes it looks like a ripe apricot in mid-July, rich orange and intense. The light has gotten iridescent, too.
The summer in the city is at its most lustrous these days, it sparkles like champagne, especially after a bout of unruly rain blown around by wind. The storms have somewhat blemished the scyscape recently, but it's only temporary, of course it is. On my birthday it was very hot, it seemed the air had entirely evaporated. I drank champagne that day, brut, it tasted like freshly baked puff pastry and vanilla cream. It felt enthusiastic on my tongue.

I slept through breakfast, but that's ok. I'll have breakfast for lunch. I'm thinking to roast some apricots with a little honey and lemon juice. It won't take long, about twenty minutes in a moderate oven. I'll only have to rinse and halve them, and then wait for the gentle heat to metamorphose them into soft edible suns. 
The warm fruit, relaxed, mellow, half honey, half almond in taste, will be a fine match -- and contrast -- to a bowl of fromage blanc, tangy and satisfying. My favourite part is when the juice from the apricots, perfumed and sharp, seeps into the fromage blanc and the two make the tip of my tongue curl upward and lips go smack smack. But first I want to get out for an espresso. I need it to shoot down my limbs, to diffuse like ink in my bloodstream.
The rest of the day finds its way between espressos and apricots, an unworried midsummer afternoon.
The touch on my wrist in the late morning -- it was my own breath.

31 May 2015

Thousands of miles, away

A round ceramic plate with sashimi is placed before me, and for the next week, month, until I might forget I'll feel the firm fresh flesh of the sea on my restless tongue, and how it melts. The plate is smooth, like marble, and grey, like smoke, and on it the slices of raw tuna, salmon and sea bream look like colour extracts -- ruby, muted pink and cream -- from a Japanese art print. There is a little square dish with soy sauce on the side, and a puff of shredded daikon, but these remain unstirred, undisturbed.

It started to rain before the plate arrived at the table, soft, calm flow of raindrops dissolving in the garden pond outside. In anticipation, amidst the conversation -- but about what? -- my eye wandered off, got fixated on a random ripple, watched it expand and disappear over the heads of the oxygen-hungry quartet of carps. I imagined, if I could walk out through the glass door in the concrete modern frame I'd find myself thousands of miles away, on a bamboo walkway waving through a green garden towards a century-old, at least a century-old, wooden teahouse. I'd bow under the low entrance door, sit on a tatami floor, the rice paper window screen open to the same garden pond. I'd perhaps rest my eye on a hanging scroll depicting a cherry tree in bloom on the wall, and on an origami crane on a lacquered tray, and I will hear out the rustling rain, and each rustling word.

When the food is served, I lean over the plate, awed. 
I, too, could be a figure in a Japanese print.

30 April 2015

It feels like I could

The night enters the day at gunpoint, shoots into the bloodstream like an intravenous injection, no objection, mainlines it with dim windows and street lights, and somewhere with smears of dark lipstick around the wrists.

The jet wash and the bass of engines dissolve on my face as I stand near a highway and watch planes descend into the liquid dark. I look up, veins strained, neck craned -- I could touch this plane if I reach out and stretch my arms, it feels like I could. Adrenaline gushes into the heart, turns it into a bass drum. The thrill becomes the drill. The plane levels with the runway, the air is pinned down to the fresh innocent grass, shredded by the engine turbines.

The ground is cold, the chill slowly snakes around my legs, seeps through under my jeans, into the skin. Another plane is zooming in, and after it, in a greater distance, one more.

My phone buzzes in my coat pockets, an incoming text. Let me treat you to a glass of ice champagne with strawberries and mint. The bitter, sharp smell of jet fuel weighs down the air, I gasp for breath. I pull a pack of chewing gum, peppermint, out of my jeans pocket. I take three pieces, the mouth is instantly awash with xylitol.

In the morning, from the bed unmade still, I'll watch other planes knife through the non-resistant light.