26 May, 2011

Going south.

Oh, life's so hard: this was the view from the breakfast table over the weekend.  A friend's house, on the Catalonian Costa Brava, due south of the border (three hours drive from Montpellier), well north of Barcelona.  Intensely restful, transparent waters, good times.  I won't even get into how juicy sweet this melon was.
I will say that now, while it's still spring, is really truly the best of times to visit this rugged bit of Spain.  Now, before you're crushed under the collective weight of the relentless sun--and summer visitors.  This said, even in the sardine can that Spanish tourist season often becomes, the northern end of the Costa Brava remains appealingly full of simple pleasures.  As the budget flight-enabling Girona airport was relatively recently built, the coast was never ruinously over-developed--nor was it converted into a teenage rendezvous for disco trance and debauchery.  That bit of extra distance between the northern bit and Barcelona helped as well...  
You can come to the Costa Brava to follow in the traces of Chagall, Picasso and native son Dali.  You can come for for the kiting, kayaking and golfing.  You can come for the secluded coves and nude beaches. Or you can come for the history.  
Minutiously restored, medieval Pals is an inland village that was once a port town, this before silting permanently altered the coastline, as also occurred in France's Aigues-Mortes.  While worth wandering in the off-season, I've been warned by the locals that Pals becomes tour-bus central come summertime.  It's not hard to see why.
I found this little shop in Pals, a brief paean to Spanish foods.  And don't even get me started on that bellota ham.
In the Gothic church, if you should so desire, you can get your prayer candle...from an automated dispenser. 
That was the first time I'd seen that anywhere, let alone someplace with medieval origins.
The cobblestone paths and steps are ideal for casual strolling, and the inhabitants make it look less mineral with heaps of plants, their flowers tumbleing from balconies and hanging deep and long from windows.
The zoning laws here are thankfully strict.  It remains all sunsoaked, golden and ageless as result.  If I had more than a weekend (darn educational system with its rules!), we would have done more exploring--at the very least in the nearby walled village of Peretallada, apparently just as exquisitely medieval and also built on and of stone.
But, really, a family weekend at a beach house on the coast really must involve a bit of beach, yes?
The summer sun seemed to have set up shop.
We wandered, we ate, the adults drank too many cortados, potent Spanish version of a noisette, or expresso with just a bit of milk. In my over-caffeinated, near ecstatic state, I decided my favorite beach (we explored three) was definitely ultra-cosy little Tamariu.
You come to Spain not only for nature or history or even food, but for the people themselves, who in some ways differ markedly from their (often cynical) French neighbors.  They are certainly distinct from the reticent, modest Protestant Cevenols.  This too was a breath of fresh air.
The rest of the weekend we played.
And there might have been some crema catalana-flavored ice cream at the farmer's market, too. What, you say you've never tried to make this flan, custard cousin to crème brulée?  Do something about this, pronto.  It'll help bring sunny Catalunya to your own table.
Traditional Crema Catalana

Serves four.

6 egg yolks
200g sugar
3/4 liter milk
1 cinnamon stick
1 large strip of fresh, organic lemon peel
3 tablespoons cornstarch

Beat egg yolks until light and smooth, then whisk in three-fourths of the sugar. Bring milk--with cinnamon stick and lemon peel--just to a boil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Remove and strain into a bowl. Whisk most of the milk into egg mixture. Dissolve the cornflour in the remaining cold milk and add to egg mixture.  Pour the mixture back into the saucepan and return the pan to low heat, stirring constantly until it comes to a boil.  Remove from heat and pour equal measures into four small heat-proof dishes (ideally ceramic cazuelas) and allow to come to room temperature before refrigerating. Just before serving, preheat the broiler.  Sprinkle a bit of sugar on top each serving and caramelize by placing the dishes first in a ice and water-filled shallow pan and then briefly under a hot broiler.  Remove as soon as the sugar has browned nicely.  Enjoy...

20 May, 2011

There are flies in paradise.

I can't get my heart to stay put. 

I'm very much here, in my garden (update to follow, bien sur), but theres a shadow part of me off revisiting things, six time zones away.  Because after the pleasures of Washington, D.C., you see, came a few truly big-city thrills: we took the train to New York City.

And I promise, New York City--for my purposes Manhattan--is an awful lot of fun with young-ish children.  You too, can bring your tykes, have a reasonably cultural experience, and not lose your mind.  Ladies and gentlemen, mothers and fathers, here are eight winning strategies:

1. Ride the Staten Island Ferry.  Yes, Virginia, some things in NYC are still free.  The kids have room to move, things to see--like a certain famous lady that was an outsized gift from France.  And, hey, the kids're on a big boat.  Each ride is a half-hour long, leaves from Battery Park (so the view of Lower Manhattan's top-notch).  Once you get to Staten Island, you walk off, and then get back on again.  Windbreakers are a pretty good idea.
2. Enjoy the view from the Empire State Building's 86th floor observatory.  Having been before, I didn't actually go up; my daughter took the panoramic photo.  Buy tickets ahead of time online (even day-of is fine), it'll reduce your time in queues.  Prepare your children for time in queues.  Bring pencil and paper to play tic-tac-toe while in queues.  But do it in spite of the queues, because it's just plain cool to be up that high--metaphorically and in fact: again, bring a windbreaker.
3. Go native, take a break. If the weather's fine, grab some picnic fixings and head to a nearby park, where the tots can let off some steam and won't have to look both ways before springing forward.  As of this printing, parks are still free.  And there's a lot more on offer than 'just' Central Park if you find that too far away or too full.  Some of them, like Fort Tryon Park (which contains the lovely Cloisters Museum) in upper Manhattan or Hudson River Park (midtown to lower), are a day's outing in and of themselves.  These are parks with some jaw-droppingly gorgeous views.
4. Alright, I am so not a zoo kind of girl, so it feels odd to suggest this, but spend some time at the zoo.  Not necessarily the well-regarded Bronx Zoo, but the (perhaps) more conveniently situated Central Park Zoo.  Stroll through the park to reach the zoo if you have the time. 
It's a small zoo (a plus for little ones and parents with limited patience), well-curated, with poetry and science sprinkled liberally throughout, and the animals still have room enough to hid away in their spaces. The polar bears and (reclusive) snow leopard were a particular hit, as were the exhibitionist seals... 
5. Go to the MOMA.  Yes, there is the Children's Museum of Manhattan and the Children's Museum of the Arts, but this is an art museum that will knock the socks off both the big and little people in your bunch.  At the MOMA, there are made-for-kids gallery talks.  There are workshops for four to eleven year olds that explore art techniques and ideas through hands-on practice.  Remember to register in advance. And don't skip a browsing kind of wander through the museum shop, where kids can see and touch sublime (sometimes sublimely funny) design objects.  Doing so was one of our highlights and prompted an interesting discussion about how objects are used and how they can be better designed...

6. Take them to an afternoon show. If you're ready and willing to splurge, a Broadway musical is a truly thrilling way to introduce them to live theater.

7. Take the subway.  If you've the time and they're not too tired yet, take that (subway) train to Coney Island.  Quick, before they tear down all the good old tat in the name of bland-ification. If you don't have the time, take that train to to the High Line instead.  Section Two's nearly ready to open...

8. Stay with family.  See, this makes everything else easy-peasy.  If you've neither friend nor family in Manhattan, consider an apartment rental (they come in different price brackets!) for a decidedly more cosy, relaxed experience.  Shopping at the local grocery, you'll get to pretend you're actually a local, and the kids can feel more grounded.
Just writing all those possibilities out makes me feel giddy, but the garden here in France is doing everything it can to seduce me.  Balmy breezes, saturated color, birds all a'twitter (and woodpeckers a'knocking), the bullfrogs in chorus, the works.
With every year, I'm loving roses more (and resenting them less for their high-maintenance aphid and disease magnet tendencies).  Aren't these ones lovely?  They're now blossoming in the garden of my 78 year old friend and fellow choir member, an unreconstructed bundle of sass, wit and wisdom.  She has a lovely little space she putters in every day, kept company by her donkey...I'll put up some pictures of my own roses in the coming days.
And--news flash--this just in at our place: strawberries.  In bloom.
And in fruit.  Sweet Jesus, are these good.  Little, and all the more succulent for it.
We're already eating garden salads.
And the tomatoes are under construction.
A certain kind of heaven, yes?  But there's always something, and in our case right now it's flies.  An unreasonable, crazy-making amount of the buggers.  Glomming onto any warm surface--window, car seat et al. They are everywhere, and it embarasses me.  It makes me do ugly desperate things, like hang sticky tape in my otherwise pleasant kitchen, where I stand around with friends and pretend I don't hear the periodic buzzing from stuck-fast flies.
Lacking a definitive solution, the most effective distraction technique/escape for me is to mull over recipes.  And I have just the one in mind for if you have unsolvable issues of your own, because while in Manhattan, we happened to have a most delicious Venezuelan meal while staying with family...

According to my brother-in-law, absolutely everybody knows how to make arepas in Venezuela.  He learned how from his grandmother. Photo caveat: Venezuelans normally only use HAN brand fine-ground white cornflour, but he had to use a blend of white and yellow, which resulted in somewhat denser cakes. He sliced the finished hot little corn cakes like a pita and stuffed them with shredded beef which had been slow-cooking much of the day, then blended with chopped red peppers, onions and super-secret spices. So. Good. 

Almost makes me forget about the flies.

Venezuelan-style Arepas
 Makes six arepas, to be filled with shredded meats, scrambled eggs and cheese, black beans...

2 cups white, fine-ground corn flour (Harina PAN brand flour if possible)
2 cups of water
pinch of salt

Pour flour and pinch salt into a medium sized bowl and mix with hands. Add water and combine with your hands until mixture is thoroughly and evenly blended, adding more flour or water as necessary. The dough should form a ball easily, with no major cracks.

Take a small handful of dough and form a ball. Patting and turning it, like a kid busy with Playdough. The smooth, finished disk should be about one centimeter (half an inch) thick and about six to eight centimeters in diameter (3-4 inches).  Continue to make disks with the remaining dough until there is none left.

You can keep any leftover dough wrapped in plastic and refrigerated for three to four days.

Preheat oven 110C (225F). Heat  a teaspoon of oil in a heavy frying pan over medium heat. Place several arepas in the pan. For the desired crunchy crust, keep the heat at medium. Once browned, about five minutes, turn them over and cook the other side until browned as well.

Once arepas are nicely browned,  slide them into the oven, near the top, for about 15-20 minutes, depending on the oven. You'll know they're ready by tapping them with a knife: they should sound hollow.

Best when eaten right from the oven, the arepas should be sliced and filled with the toppings of your choice.

14 May, 2011


My Dutch husband loves a lot of things about the US.

He loves the existence of newspaper dispensers, and their honor system. He loves that people, out on the street, open the machine's door--and take only one paper. This would be completely unworkable in Europe, according to him. Way too many Europeans would head off with the whole stack of papers, just for laughs. Or to sell. Or the dispensers themselves might be more or less artfully dispensed with.
There are a lot of things to love about America--one of them being how much more feasible it is to have decent Mexican food. For my first lunch stateside, a friend and I made our way to a little mom and pop place in Washington, D.C., that serves up made-from-scratch yumminess. Under those unassuming slices of radish topping the tortilla on the left are chunks of unbelievably tender, stewed lengua. To date, this is the only way I'll eat beef tongue, because it is so darn good.
We dawdled in the serene, oddly compelling courtyard at the National Portait Gallery, designed by Norman Foster. The courtyard made the annual list of Conde Nast Traveler's Seven Architectural Wonders of the World. Additional big plus: because the Gallery is located in Chinatown instead of on the Mall, it is a far more uncrowded place than one has a right to expect for a free, world-class museum. I loved the Edward Hopper paintings, and this portrait of poet Walt Whitman. 'Sing a song of myself' indeed. This younger museum-goer seemed more taken by the iconic photograph of Michael Jordan, though.
Raising American children overseas, I am sometimes struck by how little they know of American history, or of America period. I don't know why this startles me: I experienced that same expat distance myself as a child. So while this trip was primarily about spending time with family, it was also an excellent opportunity to explore America's past and present. With this in mind, we were off to the Museum of the American Indian. This, one of Washington's newest buildings, is a very cool space. And conveniently located next to the Air and Space Museum, wildly popular when I was a kid and, I can now confirm, still crazy-busy today.
To try something a bit more sedate, head sixteen miles hike due south of D.C. past Old Town Alexandria, and you can find yourself walking through the entrance of Mount Vernon, George Washington's well-loved home.
The guides are sweetly enthusiastic, and relate all those details you never stop to consider about daily life in the mid to late 1700s. Cooking was a different kettle of fish. There seemed to be a lot of roasting on the spit. There was a separate room for hanging meat (i.e. letting a fresh kill bleed out). And, by the way, I will never complain about doing the laundry again.
But, to be honest, within sight of the lazy Potomac River, ensconced in a porch chair, the less pleasant stuff (like, say, the fact that George was one of several slave-holding Founding Fathers, despite his rhetoric) can't help but recede. And you're left with contemplative admiration for the particularly fine-looking pecan trees in his back yard.
We missed Mount Vernon's Spring Wine Festival which starts this week, but the kids enjoyed seeing the farm anyway. I tried to avoid boasting that I could identify the beef breed and could artificially inseminate the females if I had to...Respect.
You may get a notion that I'm more carnivore than omnivore, but I had a number of cravings to answer to while stateside. And yes, one of them just happened to be BBQ. So I headed further south, dragging my family along with me.
Thanks to tips from the food-savvy, I knew where to head for hickory-smoked pork, superlative coleslaw and hand-sliced fries. If you're dubious about 'cue, its shady past (or my passion), you can learn more about it here. Or you can sample the all-American tastiness at Post 401 in Fredericksburg, Virginia, as I did.
There's more to do in Fredericksburg than scarf down slow-smoked meat, though. For starters, it's a college town (home to the University of Mary Washington) so there are the obligatory scads of quirky coffee shops.
Fredericksburg's Old Town is above quota as far as antiquing goes, and you can indulge your own passion for funky vinyl, charming (and over-priced) bait buckets, Civil War memorabilia...or the very American art of scrimshaw.
If you are feeling inexplicably peckish after that BBQ sandwich, you can sidle up to the lunch counter at Goolrick's Pharmacy, claimed to be the oldest continuously running soda fountain in America, with a 1912 start date. Get a strawberry malt for the kid in me...I mean, you.
You'll need to walk off that oversized malt shake, but there's more than enough charm to distract you.
A second walkabout may be in order after having a Goolrick's BLT sandwich. Fact: I cannot make myself a BLT in France without special ordering sliced bacon from a butcher. In France, lardons are the pork currency of the realm. Don't get me wrong. Lardons are wonderful, yes, but you simply cannot make a BLT with them. You can make a BLT salad with them though, and this goes a long way.
In fact, I think that recipe will have to fill in as today's recipe, because I haven't yet gotten the exact proportions on my mom's laborious and crab-intensive soup. While it's too early in the season and the crab traps are still on land, she pulled out some superb broth she'd frozen from last summer, when it was actually ho-hum to pull out a trap loaded with a dozen crabs after just a couple of hours sitting in the brackish baywater. Frankly, I don't think most of us can afford the amount of crab it takes to make such a rich soup. I will say there are tomatoes, celery, cilantro and Vietnamese noodles involved.

I miss my mom.
To be clear: I can heartily recommend escaping the bumper-to-bumper traffic of Northern Virginia for the splendid, Sunday-drive kind of countryside due south.

You could find yourself chatting up a bluegrass musician who's played in a band since 1951, including one performance for Elizabeth Taylor, back when she was married to former Virginia Senator John Warner. Said musician might just serenade you, warbling hillbilly gospel and Patsy Cline on the Appalachian dulcimer he made himself. That's when you'll learn that this instrument is the only one invented in the United States; the banjo's from Africa, or at least that's what the banjo-player told me.
After that, you'll follow the signs...
...and be back in time to taste dad's catch of the day: twenty-plus pounds of striped bass.

For dessert: watermelon flavored Hubba Bubba. Because the French don't have that, either.
* My apologies to those who wrote comments on this post.  This post, along with all the original comments, managed to disappear completely AFTER being published.  Unfortunately, Blogger (my blog publisher) was having problems and they removed people's posts to resolve it.  Only they didn't restore mine or its comments.  I had to reconstruct this all over again...

P.S. To taste more of Virginia's sounds, click here.
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