31 December 2012

That moment

Dear Reader, I so hope you had a loving Christmas and a lot of good food to go with it. Did you? I made a ham roast with maple syrup bacon crust, there was a lot of it, and it was nice. I didn't know a girl can eat a multi-pound ham joint practically by herself. Anthony caught a stomach bug and spent Christmas Eve squarely sick, poor thing, so I had to do all the eating. No complaints. But quick, quick, 2012 is nearly out of the door, it goes so fast, I can barely believe it, not enough time for a lengthy talk now, no way, the boom-booms of early fireworks can already be heard all over the city. And what did I do with these twelve short months? Well, yes, I finally went to see my family after a hundred, no, two and a half years of apart-ness; I put strawberries in my spaghetti; I got married. There was a crayon of every color in the box, the darkest one included. But digress shall I now not, need to keep it brief, yes sir.

I was on my bicycle pedaling hurriedly to work the other day -- I think Thursday after Christmas that was -- at an ungodly hour of 6 a.m. I dodged however little traffic there was on the roads at the time, whooshing past red-eyed traffic lights like rules are not for me. Running a light at one intersection, I noticed something that caught me in my tracks. The yellow round face of the moon hung so low it seemed to be resting in the crooked arms of the barren trees. The Rijksmuseum's spikes glistened in the inky sky in the distance, the whole building all of a sudden looking like a castle. The soft, golden lights strewn around a towering pine tree ahead of me swayed gently in the wind. I go the same route almost every day, yet I never saw anything like it before. The darkness, the moon, the lights, the trees, all seemed so out of this world for a second, as if an illustration from a fairy tale book came to life -- or I felt like I was in the book. Every year a child in me expects to see a glimpse of magic at Christmas and New Year's, and that moment, in the middle of a city, was that. It enchanted me. It's been days since then, and I'm still thinking about that view and about that feeling. Where am I driving at? Here: I wish us all for the nascent year a swath of breathtaking moments in life's everyday-ness. That and time and insight to notice them all.

Happy New Year, Dear Reader. Happy 2013.

As for today's recipe, well, it's a soup, but a very good soup, worth to be talked about on New Year's Eve. 

Roast Pumpkin Soup with Cinnamon

Adapted from Moro East, by Sam and Sam Clark
Yield: (small) 4 servings

It's a little firework of a soup, in that it's exciting and familiar at the same time. There is pumpkin that you roast first to lay upon it more flavor. Then, there are spices: cinnamon and dried chili. And then, there is a whole lot of fresh cilantro (coriander). In between, there are deeply caramelized onions and a swatch of garlic. The ingredients and flavors are all usual kitchen dwellers, but together and in the form of a soup they speak an exotic dialect.

I use much less cinnamon than prescribed in the original, because, in my humble opinion, you don't need as much as half a teaspoon of cinnamon in your soup.
I like it served plain, maybe with a sprinkling of toasted pine nuts and a scattering of more fresh cilantro, but you can up the game and drown a dollop of good-quality Greek yogurt (thinned with a bit of milk) in your bowl. Go ahead, suit yourself.

600 g (1 1/3 pounds) peeled and seeded pumpkin or squash (equivalent to about 1 kg/2 pounds unprepared pumpkin), cut into 3-cm (1-inch) cubes
6 Tbsp olive oil
1 medium onion, halved and thinly sliced
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1/8 tsp fresh ground cinnamon
a pinch of crushed dried chili
1 medium potato (about 150 g or 1/3 pound), peeled and cut into 2-cm (1-inch) cubes
1 1/4 L (5 cups) vegetable or chicken stock, preferably hot
1 medium bunch (about 30 g/1 ounce) of fresh cilantro, coarsely chopped (stems and all)
Fresh lemon juice, to taste
Salt and pepper, to taste

Warm the oven to 200 C (390 F).

Toss the pumpkin with 2 tablespoons of the olive oil, a healthy pinch of salt and some black pepper, and spread it out in a roasting tin. Roast for about 20-30 minutes, until very soft and starting to color. Remove out of the oven and set aside.

Heat the remaining 4 tablespoons of the olive oil in a large saucepan over medium-low heat. Add the onion and a pinch of salt; cook for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the onion begins to turn nice and golden. If the onion browns too fast, scale the heat down a notch. Add the garlic, cinnamon and chili, and fry for another minute to release their flavor. Add the roasted pumpkin, the potato and the stock, and bring to a gentle simmer. Cook for about 20 minutes or until the potato is soft. Remove from the heat and throw in the cilantro.

With a handheld mixer or in a food processor, blitz the soup until smooth. Check for seasoning and adjust to taste. You may want to add a tiny spritz of fresh lemon juice to the lot to brighten things up a bit.

5 December 2012

Where you may be now

Dear Grandmother Glanya, my gentle babushka --

Never in my life I wrote you a letter before, and now that it's been three months since you are gone I can't help it. I still can't accept the fact that you are no more. There are many things I want to tell you now, but nothing is more important than this: I love you. Hard to tell what's gnawing at me more now: the fact that I didn't tell you as much when you were there to hear it or that I'll never, not in this lifetime, be able to again. I was thousands of miles away when you left. You went so quickly. That time when I hugged you goodbye this May, I should have hugged you more, I should have said I love you. After my mother called to tell me you'd left, I went out onto my balcony and looked up at the sky. It was dusky and the air was smoky, fluffy clouds unhurriedly drifting across the lavender sky. I watched planes ascending, and a few bird flocks heading somewhere far. I kept thinking, looking, even, where amidst all those clouds and birds and planes you may be now, the images getting distorted and blurry from tears.

You ended but I have yet to visit your grave. And your home. It must be so empty of you there now. Before, you would be in your kitchen hunching over your flower pots or shredding cabbage for your signature sauerkraut with redcurrant berries, or in your living room reorganizing your limitless cache of medicine or reading a history book with a magnifying glass, stating loudly it's not working but turning page after page after page. Today, no one there. Your winter coat and a couple dresses must be hanging purposelessly in your wardrobe, sharing spare space with this summer's jams and jars of pickles (you and your canned goods!). I can't believe you are gone. I
know you are, yet in some sort of a haze I sometimes secretly dial your number to see that maybe, just maybe, you would pick up and ask when I would come to visit and I would loudly say that I would come soon, please wait for me.

I've told Anthony so many stories about you. His favorite is that about your two names. He finds it incredulous that when for some reason you had to renew your passport in your mid-thirties, a consulate clerk told you she didn't know of such name as Aglaya and so she typed in Alla instead. You said you didn't want to waste more time to re-new your renewed passport and carried on -- so nonchalant! -- with Aglaya, or Glanya, for us and Alla for everybody else. And everybody else it was. I recall running errands with you. It seemed that every other passer-by was somebody you knew, a former colleague, a friend, a friend of a friend, an old neighbor. You stopped for a
hello, how's life? with everyone.

It snowed here today. Winter holidays are coming up. I miss the way we used to celebrate. Annually, we would have you over at my parents' place for New Year's, and come Christmas, January 7th, we would all go to you for a flamboyant meal. Even these years when you grew weaker and weaker to cook, the table still moaned under all that food: herring, boiled potatoes, shashlik 
(cooked on an upright grill set up right on the table!), chicken tabaka, pickled wild mushrooms, salad olivier, napoleon cake, and so much more. I loved it all, except for what had mayonnaise and sour cream, but your fresh cabbage salad was the best thing in the world for me. You turned that tight-lipped cabbage so juicy, and you could cut it into paper-thin shreds even with the dullest of knives. Utterly delectable. At the table I always chose a seat closest to that glass bowl, the one with tiny spikes on the outside, you used to pile the salad into. A week later, on the eve of Old New Year, my mother and I would come over, and the three of us would spend the night forecasting our fortune. We each burnt a piece of paper on an upended saucer, and after the flame had ceased we had to make out what exactly the shadow from the paper's silhouette resembled. I remember the shadow often looked like a standing bear, but I don't recall what it meant. Or candle wax, we would hold a lit candle over a bowl of cold water to see what shape molten wax will form into. Mostly it would coil into bizarre abstractions, but occasionally we could see a tea cup, an open book or a horse. One time we tried the cards -- they said you would live to see your ninetieth. Grandma, you came only six years short.


My Grandmother's Fresh Cabbage Salad with Carrot and Apple
Yield: 4-6 servings

1/2 small to medium white cabbage, outer leaves and core removed
1/2 tsp table salt
1/2 medium carrot, coarsely grated
1 medium to large apple (such as Jonagold or Golden Delicious), peeled, cored and coarsely grated
1 tsp apple cider vinegar
2 Tbsp olive oil
freshly ground black pepper, to taste
a small handful of finely chopped fresh dill

Slice the cabbage as thin as you can. Place in a large bowl, add the salt and mix by hand for a minute, kneading and crushing the cabbage to release the juices. Add the rest of the ingredients and mix well. Adjust the seasoning, if needed, and serve.