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.

31 May 2014

May 26th

A raindrop has appeared on the window. In a brief while it will be replaced, drowned, by the galaxies of others. For the time being it remains motionless and lone. The weather forecast foretells showers with thunderstorms. I should close the windows, a common act. I recall I feared summer thunderstorms (and stray dogs) the most. Were I to find myself home alone when a thunderstorm was looming, I would unplug every electrical device in my parents' apartment: the fridge, washing machine, TV, radio, phone, no exceptions. I would also shut the balcony door and each of the six windows, and then I would check if I'd shut the balcony door and each of the six windows well enough. I had heard horror stories about lightning bolts, and worse, ball lightnings passing through doors and windows, even through closed doors and windows, and so, regardless of the preventive measures taken, each thunderstroke punctured my nerves like a nail punctures a tire. I got hot, too. 

The rain drop inches downward, reluctantly, and then it stops. I hear a plane taking off. I can't see it -- the sky looks spent, seems like somebody has poured over it a massive quantity of bleach and then grey -- but the roaring of the engines is close. Humidity weighs the air down; the clouds are to burst open any time now. I was planning to go and pick elderflowers for the eponymous cordial, but their desired fragrance is in their pollen and rain is going to wash it off. I'll have to wait two or three days, perhaps longer, it needs to be dry out. Good that I have a little bit, a quarter of a bottle, of last summer's batch left.



Wild towering elderberry trees, the fixtures of the northwest, start to bloom around here in the second half of May, and the lacy parasols that are the elderflowers, creamy-white and delicate, are what I'm after again. Right from the tree the elderflowers smell of fresh yeast, tea roses, lemons stripped of their zest, and tomcats, but steeped in lemon juice and syrup, they turn sunny, ethereal. They have become for me, a foreigner, a southerner, the equivalent of the first cherries of the season. The shoes are to get damp from morning dew as I'll tread on the spiky grass towards the elderberry bushes, and perhaps a few stray bugs will, until disclosed, call my jacket home, but I don't mind. That's to me the equivalent of the teeth and clothes streaked maroon by the fruit of the cherry tree. There is a large park close to my home, not even five minutes away by bike. When the rains subside, I'll aim to scout it for fresh elderflowers early on, in solitude, before the first joggers and dog owners are wakeful.

The raindrop is gone. In its place is a curtain of rainwater.



Eldeflower Cordial (Syrup)
Adapted from My Berlin Kitchen, by Luisa Weiss

I'm a big fan of Luisa Weiss's writing and recipes. I started reading her blog, The Wednesday Chef, soon after I got to know what a blog was. Her first book, My Berlin Kitchen, is about Luisa's journey away from and back to Berlin, her hometown, via New York, her other hometown, through heartbreak to bliss and three cultures and cuisines. It came out a few weeks before Anthony and I got married, and I remember thinking of it as a perfect pre-wedding treat. It's truly a beautiful thing, heartfelt and honest. Read it if you haven't yet. And if there is a flowering elderberry bush near you, make this cordial. 

Snip elderflower sprays with care. Do so over a basket or a large plastic bag lined at the bottom with paper towels; you don't want to lose any of that fragrant pollen. Which is why the elderflower sprays should not be washed (or rained upon), and that is why they should be exhaust-free.

Mix with tap or sparkling water (about a tablespoon per glass, or to taste), or with Champagne or Prosecco, what have you. Add a slice of lemon or cucumber, and that's what summer in the northwestern Europe may taste like.

Here in Amsterdam I found citric acid at The Vitamin Store. Labeled as "sour salt" or "lemon salt", it can also be found in Indian grocery stores.

Yield: about two 1-liter bottles

20-25 large elderflower sprays
3 organic lemons, washed and thinly sliced (seeds removed)
3 1/2 Tablespoons citric acid
1.5 kg sugar
1.5 liters of water

Wash and dry a big earthenware crock.

Hold each elderflower spray over the crock, snip the tiny blossoms and let them fall into the crock, making sure not to lose too much of the pale yellow pollen. Shake whatever pollen gathered on the paper towels into the crock as well. Add the sliced lemons to the crock and sprinkle in the citric acid.

Combine the sugar and water in a medium pot. Stir the mixture to dissolve the sugar and bring to a boil. Then remove it from the heat and let cool slightly. 

Carefully pour the hot syrup over the elderflowers and lemons, and mix well. Cover the crock with plastic wrap and let it stand in a cool place of your kitchen for 3 days, stirring it once a day.

On the final day, uncover the crock and pour the liquid through a strainer lined with a double layer of cheese cloth into clean glass bottles. Discard the elderflowers and lemon slices. Store in the fridge or in a cool, dark cellar for up to a year.

30 April 2014

Here you are

I'm in front of an Henri Cartier-Bresson's black-and-white picture of a street in Italy. The title says it had been taken in Salerno. In it, a boy, maybe eight, maybe ten years of age, stands in the rectangular shadow from the wall to his right, behind him another wall and the carcass of a cart, both whitewashed in summer sunlight. One knows, sees, it's summer, the boy wears the dark shorts and white tank-top, and the light is bright, high, blinding. There is a distance between the boy and the camera, his face and the nature of the object in his left hand are kept unseen. His right hand cupped to the chin, he appears to be intrigued. Involuntarily I mimic the boy's gesture, I can't take my eyes off the picture. I probably take too long, soft words and rich perfumes steadily gather around me, mix in one, seep into my ears and nose. Someone steps on someone else's foot, "Pardon, pardon!" promptly ensues. I move on.

Outside are a fresh night and Paris. 



***
It was January when we started planning our trip. The four of us, girlfriends. We decided on the early April, a couple weekdays. Fewer people on the streets, more space for us. We rented out an apartment in Montmartre, on rue Lepic, curving and steep. To get inside is to walk through a courtyard, enclosed, unavailable for everyone else but the insiders and an occasional (and privileged) guest. A home for somebody's flower beds and herb pots, its other purpose, a more important one it seemed, was to collect, to contain, the evidence of everyday life. Piano sounds; a child's voice singing along with a song on TV; a plate breaking; even our loud and foreign exclamations about the light in the apartment as we stood by the elegant windows (two), and our "We have arrived!". Even those, perhaps. 

***
Ask my mother and she'll tell you I've been to Paris many a time.
In my early teens I dreamed of travelling like there was no tomorrow, and of all places I wished to see Paris was, somehow, the most important. I didn't have the means to go, so I was looking for a chance. 1998 FIFA World Cup was to be held in France, and Snickers® promised a free trip for the winner of their raffle. To participate I collected five (or was it ten) of the limited-edition Snickers® chocolate bar wrappers. I so hastened to send them in that I completely forgot I had to include an inspired letter about why I loved football, or was it why I loved Snickers®?  

I didn't get to be in Paris in 1998. 

Later one evening over tea I pleaded my allegiance with another city. It surprised my mother. 

"What happened with Paris?", she asked. 

"Nothing happened, but in my mind I've already been there more than a dozen of times." 

***
There are moments that attach themselves to one so strongly that no amount of time is enough to overwrite them. 

On our first night we strolled around the Sacre-Coeur, dignified, in no need of superlatives. We ascended the hill (by foot -- I refused to take the cable car) and our breath wasn't ours anymore. It was of Paris, among the breath of that homeless man who laid asleep by a metro entrance, and that of Hemingway who might have stood on the same spot and looked up the way we did. Silently and awed. Until someone threw an empty bottle at a taxi car and shattered the repose. We walked on, stumbled over the uneven cobbles. The night was fresh and clear, and in the distance were the Eiffel Tower's golden lights. 

I had to stop, stand still. I'd seen it countless times before, all through the eyes of others. From afar, through the bars of a fence, now I was looking at it. Here you are.



"I feel you've had quite an emotional moment there", said Morgane. She was referring to a heart-to-heart conversation we'd had earlier in the evening, over wine and dinner haute vitalité (Cafe Pinson), but I took it to mean this very instant.

   ***

A sight of worship for hundreds, thousands, millions. With each photograph I took I was stealing you from others. You are mine. You are everyone else's.

                     ***

We were at The Broken Arm, in pursuits of caffeine (without a doubt one of the finest filters I had) and sartorial splendor (the best top in color blocks I almost bought), when I saw a familiar face. "This man'' -- I nodded towards the entrance --  "was on the train to Paris with us. Doesn't he look like somebody we might know?" Correct. The father of a good acquaintance, in Paris briefly for a meeting, he will snap (iPhone) the only picture of the four of us together.

                                                ***
I have this image in my head from years ago, maybe even since I was fourteen. I forget what brought it about, a movie, perhaps, or a book. A moody day, soaked in autumn, the color of the sky matches the buildings'. I stand at the traffic lights, waiting for its permission to cross over. Barren trees flank the road, cars swoosh through the pools of rainwater gathering by the curbstones. Parisian houses, a story in each window, up and down the street for as long as the eye can see. Not so picturesque, this image. But it's not why it has stayed with me. It has because in it I had felt very accomplished, the way one does after nudging their dream into the outside world.

                                                  ***

I can't wait to go back to have more breakfast (pancakes strewn with crushed pistachio nuts and elegant pieces of fruit, in a pool of maple syrup, served with vanilla whipped cream; "Jesus!" escaped my lips when the plates touched down on the table), coffee, and lunch at Holybelly. A must! As is dinner at Septime, they say. And more of THE falafel sandwich (from L'As Du Fallafel).

La Fin



31 March 2014

A soft morning

Every morning comes with a different face. 

The front door of a stately home on the canal opens and out comes a man with a dog, a boxer. The last of stars have melted into the pale, bleached morning sky not long ago. March, a winter's disciple, has faded, but at dawn breath could still turn into thin smoke. The man is wearing an olive-green corduroy hat, shoulders stooped under the weight of the early hour, and a hat, black, wide-rimmed, it eclipses his broad forehead. He leaves the lights on; the naked windows hide little. There are yellow roses on the wooden table and a shawl draped over a chair in the kitchen. 

Together they cross the narrow road, the dog strains the leash. He stops by the bridge and let's the animal roam around on its own, sniff at the cobblestones, the bycicles. There is a pack of cigarettes in his coat's chest pocket, he takes one out. He lights it, leans over the side of the bridge, his foot perched on the railing -- and disappears in his thoughts. Across the bridge two American girls, white teeth, wide smiles, are taking pictures of one another, sleepy, still canals and tilted houses a charming, European backdrop. A soft morning. 

The cigarette glows in the man's hand. He looks at it, long, as if he hasn't seen it before, as if he isn't even sure what it is. Suddenly he throws it on the ground, an act he doesn't expect himself. "Time for breakfast, pal," he says looking at the dog and adjusts his awkward hat.

He crosses the bridge and goes to a cafe around the corner, the dog by his side. 

Back on the bridge, a tendril of cigarette smoke stretches up.

Speaking of breakfasts, I need to tell you about this.



Hazelnut Cacao Nib Granola

Adapted from Whole-Grain Mornings, by Megan Gordon

Chances aren't slim you may have already found your favorite granola recipe (if you are into granola, that is), but if you haven't, not yet, let me recommend you try this one. Chances are big you'll stop searching. I did. I'm thinking of the best way to describe it and nothing more fitting than 'elegant' comes to mind. That or superlatives. I suppose 'elegant' is better. 

There is something viscerally right about the composition of oats, coconut flakes and oil, hazelnuts, salt, and maple syrup, united together by gentle heat and, once cool, fortified by cacao nibs. Cacao nibs! The precursor of chocolate! Of chocolate! Thank you, Megan Gordon!

I tweaked the recipe a little to find a point where, to me, it's at its most. In the end, walnuts were replaced by sunflower seeds, cinnamon, cardamom and vanilla completely left out, cashew nuts brought in, the amount of coconut oil halved, and the oven temperature lowered by a few degrees. 

A pure way to start the morning.

300 g rolled oats
60 g raw sesame seeds
50 g raw sunflower seeds
1/2 teaspoon fleur de sel
120 ml maple syrup
60 g coconut oil, melted
35 g unsweetened coconut flakes
60 g raw hazelnuts
50 g raw cashew nuts
30 g cacao nibs

Warm the oven up to 150 C (300 F). Line a large rimmed baking sheet with baking paper.

In a large bowl, combine the oats, sesame and sunflower seeds, and salt. Add the maple syrup and coconut oil and using your hands mix the wet and dry ingredients evenly together. Tip the mixture out onto the prepared baking sheet and spread in an even layer.

Bake for 15 minutes. Remove the baking sheet from the oven and stir in the coconut flakes, hazelnuts, and cashew nuts. Send back into the oven and bake until the granola is fragrant and golden brown, for another 15 minutes. Stir once halfway through to make sure it bakes evenly. Let cool completely. At this point the granola may not look as toasty as you'd like it to be, but it will firm up as it cools. Stir in the cacao nibs. Store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 4 weeks.

28 February 2014

Spicy and wonderful

"Martha, wait! Wait! Martha!"

To go through the city on a Sunday morning as the hands on the clock tremble towards 5 a.m. is to hear its drunken breath, loud and erratic. Like fish to bait, partygoers gather for refreshments around the lighted stand of a hot-dog vendor. Soiled napkins and empty plastic bottles are strewn across the street, a whiff of mustard floats around. I zigzag to dodge swaying figures ahead. Past them the streets are motionless again.

Canal houses, tall and thin, 'anorexic', loom over the night's last hours. Inside, their inhabitants are embedded in delicious sleep. Outside, a couple is tangled in a difficult moment. The girl crosses a road, stumbling over a curbstone. No coat on, it looks like she has exited from wherever she was unexpectedly, on an impulse. The guy is half-a-minute behind her. He starts to run, but stumbles every other step, cries her name, wants her to wait. In response, she will only take off her heels and charge forward, away, feet getting pounded by wet, uneven cobbles, hair loose, an easy target for the wind. She must be cold. I am. 

"Martha, Martha! Wait!"

I turn left and go over a bridge. My bike starts to creak like a rusty swing set. A man -- he must be in his mid-fifties -- gets out from a house with red-lighted windows. He shuts the door behind but doesn't walk off right away. I can make out his grin -- he has a golden front tooth -- as he adjusts his pants, zips the flyer. I wonder if he feels emboldened by the carnal act he just bought or by night itself. 

Wind continues to tousle the surface of the canals, but its grip is softer, like that of a lover who, in an argument, shakes you by your arms but doesn't mean to hurt. These are the last days of winter.

I arrive at work. I switch on the lights, then the ovens. I tore myself out of bed more than an hour ago, but my brain remains awash with 'toxic' slumber. I make myself an espresso, the buzz of the coffee machine carries a promise of a pleasant rush. Languidly it pours in a cup. Behind the glass wall window and door shouts erupt: a group of teenagers passes by, one of them staggers and falls, the rest laugh. The espresso is ready, it looks velvety and smooth. I'll have it with a piece of ontbijtkoek, spicy and wonderful. 

For a minute it's quiet. I can hear my own breath. 



Ontbijtkoek (ont-bite-cook)

Ontbijtkoek ('breakfast cake'), alias kruidkoek ('spice cake'), is the Dutch honey spice bread, or pain d'épices. As the name implies, it's largely a breakfast material around here, but in no way should it be limited to the morning consumption only. In no way! 

There are numberless variations of ontbijtkoek, as to be expected from any national staple. Some use eggs, some others butter or oil, sugar can often be involved. The one I'd like to share with you today is, to me, the purest of the form, made mainly of rye flour, honey, and spices. Mainly because there are also water and baking powder going in the assemblage, but that's it.

I got the recipe in question from my coworker Gino (21), whom I like to call Ginger, who in turn got it from our ex-coworker Tim (29), whom both Ginger and I used to call Angry Baker or Diva (depending on his disposition on a given day). (Hi Tim! You are missed.) 

Having mixed the rye flour, honey and water first, you, then, should leave the resulting mass that will very much resemble a ball of Play-Doh, only stickier and better smelling, for at least a day before working in the spices, baking powder, and more honey. The dough is going to be stiff and gummy, and to mix it well all spoons, whisks and spatulas should be forsaken in favor of your hands.

As far as spices are concerned, I'm apprehensive that a requisite ontbijtkoek or speculaas spice mix, on the Dutch ground available at any supermarket, isn't quite obtainable elsewhere. If you have it, you need 10 grams of it. Below I'll write down the equivalent in the constituent spices. Play around with the quantities. Maybe you like it slightly more aniseed-y or cardamom-y, you know? Another idea: five-spice powder. I think it works well in ontbijtkoek. Note, though, that it's considerably more peppery than speculaas spice mix, there maybe a mild tickling of the black pepper on your tongue in the aftertaste. 

I don't know where Tim, a baker extraordinaire, had gotten this recipe, but I'll stick with it for good. Chewy, moist, sweet just so, dense, dark and spicy. Gets better by the day, too. Wrapped in foil, it keeps well for at least a week, maybe even longer, but I can't tell, it never lasts as much with me.

P.S. Ontbijtkoek lends itself to butter, no question. But I like it plain and with coffee, always coffee.

P.P.S. A word on honey: you need runny honey for this -- and the darker the type, the deeper the flavor, the better. So far I've been saturating my ontbijtkoek with wild flowers honey. My next target is buckwheat honey. In other words, suit yourself.

Yield: one 24-cm (9-inch) loaf 

490 grams runny honey (see headnotes), divided use
180 grams water
420 grams rye flour
16 grams baking powder
3 1/4 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
a good pinch of ground aniseed (optional)

Sift the rye flour into a large mixing bowl, pouring back into the bowl any bits of grain that may remain in the sieve.

In a medium saucepan, combine the water and the first 330 grams of honey, and bring to a rolling boil. Immediately take the saucepan off the fire and pour its contents into the rye flour. Start mixing with a wooden spoon but finish by hand. Note: the mixture is very hot, so you need to wet your hands in cold water before you start 'the kneading' and one time or two during. At the end you should have a homogeneous ball of honey and rye flour. 
Place it in a small bowl, cover with plastic and keep at room temperature for 1-2 days.

When ready to bake, warm up the oven to 175 degrees Celsius (350 degrees Fahrenheit). Line a standard 24-cm (9-inch) baking tin with baking paper, leaving a little overhang throughout. 

In a large mixing bowl, combine the baking powder and spices. Add the remaining 160 grams of honey together with the rye flour ball. Mix well by hand, making sure there are no flour lumps or any unmixed elements lurking around. At this point the mixture is very sticky, almost like industrial glue; keep a small bowl of water handy to dip your hands in as you meld the stuff together. 

Manually, force the mixture into the prepared baking tin. Lightly wet your hands, push the mixture into the corners of the tin and smooth out the surface. Bake for 45-50 minutes. After the first 20-minute mark, turn the tin and cover it loosely with baking paper. Check for doneness after the 40-minute mark. Usually it needs another 5-10 minutes. When a toothpick or a skewer comes out clean, remove the loaf from the oven. Let it cool for another 10 minutes, then remove from the tin by lifting the edges of the baking paper up. When cool enough to handle, peel off the paper. Good luck fighting off the urge to cut right in!

31 January 2014

Synonyms or related words

January, noun. The first month of the year.

Synonyms or related words: 

1. Grey. It's my sixth successive January in Amsterdam, and although none of it, as far and wide as my memory can stretch, appealed greatly to the golden glow, this January I shall remember as a Sun-forsaken month. True, there have been five or six days, alone, unaccompanied by one another, to draw the window curtains open and let the daring, crisp, arousing light in, but the hours were still short and impotent, unable to keep it from drowning too early in the evenings. The rest of January stayed hiding behind the blinds, eyes rolled up, veins swollen, overdosed on rain.

2. Unhurried. Days-off are home-bound. They start with the drone of the street sweepers slowly percolating through an open window (to air the room) and diluting the post-sleep quiet the way milk thins out a confident coffee. The voices on the TV often announce blizzards and whiteouts elsewhere. A space heater in the living room is on, its warmth is mellowing. One step away into the unheated and the skin starts to crawl. Coffee, not unlike an IV solution, drips through a filter into the mug. As always, I'll have it uncut by sugar or milk. In a few hours, despite the caffeine, I'll fall asleep. The brain is just too droopy.

3. Quiet. Some days, a mere couple, looked like they were made of rice pudding, comforting and milky. Their softness could absorb every drdrdrdrdr of a drill on the rooftop and each yowl of the neighbor's beagle. It filled up the air and in the evenings cut the eye off from the lit kitchens and living rooms of the house across. On days like this I'm drawn to go over the list of things I'd like to do and goals I need to reach. I think of a light-room photography course I'd like to take this year, and a trip to Paris with my girlfriends and another one to Russia to visit my family and then to NY to see Anthony's, and that I want to find a writing job, and that I want to read more and start writing short stories again, and those ideas I've been nursing for a while now, I should finally pitch them to magazines. And not to forget to renew my passport, and to keep bringing my own lunches to work, and to be more patient and accepting, and to collaborate with my friend Morgane on a jewellery project, and to be better at keeping in touch with people I care about, and, above all, to be brave.

4. Moroccan carrots. Long sunsets the color orange; Bedouins sailing through the nebulous and incandescent Sahara on their haughty camels; coffee cooked in the seething sand; spices, more vibrant than the vision of an oasis; whispers of the fountains in the marble courtyards; the magic of the foreign eyes. Woot woot, doesn't it sound just right for January? 



Moroccan Carrots
Adapted from One Good Dish, by David Tanis
Yield: 4-6 servings

I never cook(ed) carrots for a salad, which is why the recipe caught my eye in the first place. (On a side note: every recipe written by David Tanis is guaranteed to bewitch me, and his latest book, One Good Dish, is a feast on all fronts, eyes, plates, mind, etc.) This one happens to be a common Moroccan dish, as Tanis writes, but for me it's anything but. It's an exciting little salad -- soft, yielding carrots are very much on first name terms with fragrant, toasted spices and zingy ginger, garlic, and lemon juice -- full of go and zest. It's new to me and yet it feels very familiar -- familiar despite being born centuries ago, in a faraway land.

A dish to stay.

1 kg (2 pounds) carrots, peeled
Salt and pepper
1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
1/2 teaspoon coriander seeds
3 tablespoons lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon pressed garlic
1 teaspoon grated ginger
Large pinch of cayenne
1/4 cup olive oil
60 to 90 g (2 to 3 ounces) feta cheese, crumbled (I usually skip it)
A handful of olives
1 small preserved lemon, rinsed, pulp removed and discarded, rind diced (optional, but recommended)
3 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley

Cut the carrots up in half, or in quarters if they are too large. Place them in a large pot of well-salted water, bring to a simmer, and cook until soft, about 15 minutes. Drain and let cool to room temperature.

In a small dry pan and over a medium-low fire toast the cumin and coriander seeds until fragrant, about 1 minute. Coarsely grind the seeds in a spice mill (or a clean coffee grinder) or with a a mortar and pestle.

To make the vinaigrette, in a small bowl combine the lemon juice with the cumin and coriander seeds, garlic, ginger, preserved lemon (if using), and cayenne. Whisk in the olive oil. Season with salt and pepper.

Put the carrots in a large bowl and, using a potato masher, crush them slightly. They should be fairly chunky. Dress with the vinaigrette then mix in the olives and parsley. When ready to serve, garnish with the crumbled cheese.

19 December 2013

That we are all excited


Last Friday I had a little chat with Olivia the Cat Lady -- remember her? I was locking my bike in front of my work when she appeared from around the corner, her pink hat and sweat pants tucked into the knee-length off-white socks all in place, as ever.

"Be aware", she said putting her two tightly-packed supermarket plastic bags on the ground, "there will be a lot of cats on the streets today. It's Friday the thirteenth and it's twelve days before Christmas."

The dawn hadn't even broken out yet.

When I asked her, naively, which cats and how many of them to expect, she wasn't economical with her truth of how she feels about me. "I've been in Amsterdam for twenty years now, and I've had enough of you," said Olivia, wagging her swollen finger at me, in a pitch that sounded like a mosquito drone. I wanted to object, but her round face was already starting to deform into a frown, and may I remind you that Olivia can frown. So instead I nodded and affirmed that yes, it was Friday the thirteenth and it was twelve days before Christmas. "Exciting," I rounded my cadence off. 

The moment the word slipped off my lips the gloom on Olivia's face started to melt -- not unlike a knob of butter on a heated pan -- into a toothless but knowing smile. I was bewildered, even thought that maybe exciting was a code word for a change of heart. But then she leaned forward, encircled her mouth with her hands, and whispered: "It is internationally understood not to mention this."

"Mention what?", I whispered back.

"That we are all excited."

Merry Christmas, dear Reader!



Christmas Cake
Adapted from The Kitchen Diaries, by Nigel Slater
Yield: 12 generous servings

To make this Christmas cake has become my new annual tradition, and although it's new to me, I feel I've known it since long ago. Ideally it's a project for the start of December when there is still plenty of room to weekly nourish the cake with brandy, but this time, my second, I left it till exactly twelve days before Christmas. I'm not worried, though. Nigel Slater writes it will be almost as good, and his word has never failed me before. Which brings me to say if you haven't yet decided on your Christmas sweets, make this one, perhaps? Or bookmark it for next year?

It's a big-hearted cake - one kilo of dried fruits alone goes into making the lot -- so enjoy it by a thin wedge over the next few weeks, those empty, silent weeks after holidays. Or invite twelve people for dinner to tackle it on the spot. By the way, it's not cloying as it may seem, it's sweet just enough. Besides that, it doesn't reek of booze, it's moist, chewy and crunchy in all the right places, and above all, it's moreish. You have been warned.

600 g in total of prunes, apricots and figs
50 g candied citrus peel, roughly chopped
250 g butter, slightly softened
125 g light brown (or muscovado) sugar
125 g dark brown (or muscovado) sugar
3 large eggs, ideally free-range
65 g ground almonds
100 g shelled hazelnuts
350 g in total of raisins, sultanas, currants and cranberries
3 Tbsp brandy, plus more to 'feed' the cake
zest and juice of 1 medium orange
zest of 1 medium lemon
1/2 tsp baking powder
250 g flour

Set the oven to 160 C (320 F). Line a 20-cm (8-inch) cake tin with a double layer of lightly buttered greaseproof paper or baking parchment, which should come at least 5 cm (2 inches) above the top of the tin.

Cut the the prunes, apricots and figs into small pieces, removing the hard stalks from the figs.

In a large bowl, beat the butter and sugars to a cappuccino--coloured fluff, pushing the mixture down the sides of the bowl from time to time with a spoon or a spatula. Add the eggs, one at a time. Then slowly mix in the ground almonds, hazelnuts, all the dried fruit, the brandy and the citrus zest and juice. 

In a separate bowl, sieve the flour and baking powder together. Fold them lightly into the mix. Scrape the mixture into the prepared tin, smooth the top gently, and send it in the oven. Bake for an hour, then, without opening the oven door, turn the heat down to 150 C (300 F) and bake for one and a half hours before.

Check the cake for doneness by inserting a skewer or a toothpick into the centre. It should come out with just a few crumbs attached but no trace of raw cake mixture. Take the cake out of the oven and leave to cool before removing it from the tin.

Spike the cake with a skewer or a toothpick and drizzle in from two to three tablespoons of brandy. Continue feeding the cake by pouring brandy into it every week before Christmas. Cover tightly and leave in a cake tin till needed. It will keep for several weeks. When ready to serve, powder with some icing sugar (optional).