Crisp and Cool, Quiet

img_7511The eiderdown of snow that had blanketed the yard and decorated the trees, the houses, and even the clothesline (much more festively than we had, with our one twinkly, light-wrapped wreath on the front door) and had lasted through New Year’s Eve, is all gone now. I was surprised by the nakedness of everything when I arrived here yesterday from the city. But the winter sun is cheery, and the air is crisp and cool.

I have missed my lunch due to the train travel, and so at 3 o’clock I stand at the kitchen counter and eat decadent slabs of the Stilton, left over from my New Year’s Eve splurging, which was waiting loyally for me in the fridge. I alternate nibbles of celery, crunchy and saline, with the Stilton, which coats my mouth with savory, mulchy richness- and round out each bite with a slice of sweet Pink Lady apple from the orchard down the road.

I am alone in this foreign quiet, this shell of a house. Just at 4:15, as dusk descends, I open the door to illuminate the wreath- and with a reflex I bend my leg to keep the puppy from running out the door. But just as quickly I remember that the dog is not here.

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Buckwheat, Apples and Ghosts

img_5857Working from home has many perks (as well as some downsides). It’s hard for me to stay out of the kitchen when I’m supposed to be at my desk. Yesterday I decided to give myself something special for elevenses, as they say in England. I had made buckwheat pancake batter earlier in the morning for Theo, but then he was late for school and in the rush we didn’t cook them.  So later on I decided to make some pancakes. They were brown and warm and slightly crisp on the outside, but inside each pancake a slice of caramelized apple added soft sweetness. I drizzled dark Vermont maple syrup over them and sat with a cup of coffee. I warmed the milk and foamed it just the way I like it, and indulged in my mid morning treat, recognizing the goodness of it all.

Moments of peace come and go- for me they usually arrive courtesy of food, flavors, and treasured objects. My coffee cup, for example, was made in Orvieto. It’s wide at the top, and not too deep- perfectly scaled so my coffee doesn’t cool down before I can drink it all up. The pottery is painted in the traditional hues that many ceramicists of Orvieto have used for centuries: greenish-blue and accents of dark brown (is this the classic burnt umber of a Crayola box)? Its patterns and stripes are simple, repetitive. This cup feels good in my hands, and each time I pick it up I think of the day I bought it.

It was Lucian’s birthday- it would have been his 11th, and we were still freshly in mourning. Orvieto was a perfect place for this occasion. It’s a dramatic but quiet town built on a huge rocky outcropping, and it’s an easy day trip from Rome. Earlier that day we’d walked the trail around the old city walls, and picked wildflowers. Orvieto’s sloping streets are filled with pretty shops. There is plenty of traditional, good, Umbrian hill town food there, like umbrichelli pasta dusted with fluffy grated cheese and truffles, braised cinghiale, and roasted pigeon, and we rested with a hearty lunch.  At the center of the town is the stunning cathedral. Its black and pink bricks create narrow stripes, so uplifting and gloriously different from all the whites and greys of Rome- while gruesomely detailed biblical scenes carved into the facade signal a warning: know these ancient stories and be fearful.

I bought this cup I now hold in my hands from another Anna, whose small pottery studio was tucked just behind the main piazza. A few steps up a stone alley, her gate was canopied by draping vines of honeysuckle. I was so enchanted by them that I paused with Theo so Greg could take a photo of us. When a woman called out from the shadows of a doorway: Buon Giorno! we realized we were actually standing in the entrance to her shop, not on a lane, as we had presumed… and though we weren’t looking to buy any ceramics, we entered her space, respectful and quiet. I came away with a cup, though I wish I’d bought six, and a simple jar for decanting olive oil. It has a slender body with a narrow top for pouring, and is made from the warmly pigmented Umbrian clay.  Anna and her little studio were engaging and humble. When we left, we walked back towards the piazza, where I stopped to look at the photos I’d taken- and I realized that instead of a lovely, honeysuckle covered archway, the photo I had taken was just one frame, and it was completely black. A little ghost had been there and is with me still.img_9043

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Finnan Haddie Chowder, or I Can See For Miles and Miles

Finnan Haddie ChowderI haven’t seen the coast for a while, and I miss it. I yearn for the kiss of salt air on my face and that unique, windy smell in my hair. I live in New York city, and when I get away it’s usually up the Hudson river, towards quaint towns and small farms. This winter has been many things: the season of majestic blizzards; walls of white snow which were soon washed away by rain- and the season of biting, crystal clear days, alternating with damp, warm, gloomier ones.  Settling into a mode is hard; however much the thermometer varies, I feel that it’s wise to hunker down for the long haul of winter- stay tough and be prepared for anything. I often wonder if warm winter getaways merely torture you and weaken your resolve; as a New Englander, I know that you need to be prepared for hardship until the first week of April is through.

Today the sky is coastal grey and I’m wishing I could see for miles. My personal mood board looks like this: Aran sweaters knit in creamy sheepswool; narrow lanes edged by stone walls. A fisherman’s hands, and ropes all faded and worn; seagulls on bleak northern beaches. It’s Ireland’s Brittas Bay, the softest scarf, and the green plaid Tam O’Shanter my grandmother brought from Nova Scotia when I was five; bare twigs and early spring grass. I dress myself in cream, greys, and pale blues and I drift away to the docks over a bowl of creamy chowder.

Finnan Haddie Chowder

I like the excellent cold-smoked haddock (Finnan Haddie) from Maine’s Stonington Seafood company: stoningtonseafood.com

1          medium leek, white and light green parts only, halved lengthwise, thinly sliced

2          tablespoons unsalted butter

1          medium bulb celeriac, trimmed and cut into large dice (about ¾ inch)

3          medium Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and cut into large dice (about ¾ inch)

coarse salt (sea salt of course!)

6          stems of fresh thyme

1          dried bay leaf

1          fillet (about 8 ounces) naturally smoked haddock (finnan haddie)

3         cups water

1          cup whole milk

Melt the butter in a medium pot over medium heat, and add leeks. Stir leeks, add a pinch of salt; cover to steam until soft, about 3 minutes. Add the potatoes and celeriac, thyme, bay leaf and water; raise heat to medium-high and bring to a boil. Stir, reduce heat until simmering gently and then cook, partially covered, until potatoes are just beginning to break down and celeriac is tender, 12-15 minutes.

Stir in the milk and gently place the haddock, whole, in the pot. Press to submerge the haddock and cover the pot. Cook just long enough to heat through, about 5 minutes. Lift haddock from the pot; pull off skin and flake it into large pieces. Fish out the thyme stems and bay leaf. Return haddock to pot, stir gently and cook for 2 minutes. Season with freshly ground pepper and serve with crisp, toasted croutons.

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Buddhist Chicken and the Star Man

buddhist chickenAccording to the label, the chicken was dressed in the Buddhist style- in the sense that its head and feet were still attached to its body. To me, having no knowledge of Buddhist death rituals, this conjured up a peaceful ceremony- one in which the chicken’s neck was twisted in some humane yet final way, while compassionate farmers took time out from their chores to stand in a circle. They quietly blessed its life while poems were read and chants were hummed.

But once out of its bag and splayed on my cutting board, this chicken was less mystical and more cartoon-like, in a rubber chicken kind of way, its funny feet in particular.  Rather than finding it gruesome, I found it riveting. I took snapshot after snapshot of it, turning it this way and that- first nude, and then sprinkled with a dark salt and spice mixture for greater, shadowy effect. Life cycle. Death is the theme this week; we all talk about David Bowie, a timeless, indefinable spirit; an artist in every sense, a man of many modes. He seemed to know all along that he was part of a greater star system, while some of us have our eyes on the ground for years, and we keep on going, earth-bound, until a shock wakes us up.

All week I felt the weight of death and childhood, and the years of life in between.

A friend’s Instagram post broke my heart Monday morning and made me cry. It was the photo of her son as a boy- a boy I only ever knew as a young man. Looking at the image, I sensed his soul immediately.  And I thought of my Lucian, the boy who I will never know as a young man. This fact slayed me. And the Bowie lyrics she quoted were from one of my favorite songs, Kooks, from the album Hunky Dory. Kooks is an ode to childhood, and parenting; a song of irreverence and familial love. The priority is joy. My heart is breaking today. For my young son, the living one, who is already the young man he will be: I wish I could catch the time in between then and now and preserve you as you are.

Ashes to Ashes Spiced Salt

This mixture is dark grey thanks to the exotic, obscure and puckery Persian Lime powder. I buy it at the wonderful Kalustyan’s market in New York. It suited my mood to use it for this chicken rub, but if you omitted it entirely, the chicken would still be delicious. In fact, if you only used salt and pepper the chicken would be delicious, as this recipe is based upon the excellent Zuni Café roasted chicken method, developed by another shooting star, the late Judy Rodgers.

1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon coarse salt

1 tablespoon ground Omani Lime (Persian Lime)

2 teaspoons cracked black pepper

1 teaspoon cumin seed

1 teaspoon coriander seed

1 teaspoon fennel seed

½ teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 small chicken, buddhist or secular

Crush cumin, coriander, and fennel seeds with a mortar and pestle or the bottom of a skillet, and mix with the salt, Omani lime, black pepper, and ground cinnamon.

Use a cleaver to chop the head from the chicken, as close to the breast as possible, and chop off the wing tips. Rotate bird and chop off its feet at the bottom leg joint. Save all parts for stock. Rinse bird inside and out, and pat dry.

Rub with salt and spice mixture and leave to sit at room temperature for at least 2 hours before roasting (or, preferably, refrigerate overnight, loosely covered, and bring to room temperature before roasting).

Preheat oven to 475º. Place a heavy pan just large enough to hold the chicken, or a sheet pan if you will add vegetables, in the oven to preheat for about 5 minutes; remove from oven, lightly drizzle pan with olive oil and place chicken on the hot pan. Roast until chicken is cooked through- you can tell this if the legs wiggle easily and the juice runs clear when the back of the thighs is pierced. For a small chicken (about 3 pounds or less) roast for 40-45 minutes. Rest 10-15 minutes before carving.

Judy’s recipe calls for roasting this way for 30 minutes, and then flipping the chicken to finish it upside down for another 15 minutes.  I am sure this method ensures the breast is very moist… but I’m inclined to put my chicken in the oven and forget it while it’s cooking, so I can do other things, and therefore I roast it breast-side up all the way through. It comes out crisp-skinned, tender and moist, even so.

To roast with vegetables, such as butternut squash: spread peeled, cubed squash on pan first, leaving a space in center for chicken. Season with salt and toss in the oil. The sweet, roasted squash plays nicely with the middle Eastern flavors of this spice mix.

With our chicken we ate the world’s longest grain basmati, according to Kalustyan’s: Golden Sella Basmati…Cook according to package instructions- requires triple washing, and a long steaming time after cooking to absorb moisture.

Ashes to Ashes Spiced Salt is pretty good on hard-boiled eggs too:

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