Friday, May 26, 2006

Hungry for Life

I think my mother and I used to make bread together. I imagine her, sifting and measuring and wiping everything down, me sinking my hands into various “wet” or “dry” mixtures and squishing the contents through my fingers. I don’t remember the actual act of making bread, but to this day the sight, smell and feel of flour remind me of her and the efficient, full fledged production that was her cooking.

I do remember my mother used to make Christmas bread for her friends. Obstinately believing holiday gifts should not be bought but made, she’d spend five days and nights in the kitchen, baking over 500 loaves of bread that would then be individually wrapped. Afterwards, she’d resentfully swear she’d never do it again and, still covered in flour and smears of yummy smelling goo, she’s slip her stained oven mitts on one more time and yank a loaf fresh out of the oven, bang on the bottom of it and shake the contents onto a rack on the counter. She’d cut thick slices of it, and we’d eat it with our fingers, without even sitting at the table. A few minutes later she’d take a gulp of coffee, declare the ordeal officially over and go to bed.

Paris. My father took me there for the first time when I was seven. I know we went with a lot of other people, but I see only him and me at that tiny, candlelit table for two. He taught me how to take a mini-pancake from the basket, set it on the plate, put caviar on it, and slowly place it in my mouth. Soon, the pancake basket- plate- caviar bowl-pancake-mouth process became a two step caviar bowl – mouth frenzy while he pretended not to notice. I haven’t had caviar since. Why interfere with that perfect marine memory?

Early morning. Bread and fruit in Naxos. I’d leave the room we were staying at, go to the market before anyone else was up, order bread and fruit in Greek (between you and me, I mostly just pointed), pay, count the coins, say efharisto and take everything back to the room. It was my first taste of independence (I can go downstairs, up the street and into the market, alone) and empowerment (I can make myself understood, anywhere. Ergo, I can do anything.) I’d return, triumphant, generously spreading out the goods on the bed and giving back the correct amount of change. Making our parents proud fulfills the most basic, most insatiable of needs. (Go ahead. Psychoanalyze that.)

Pepper steak, somewhere on the coast of France. I didn’t know pepper could be not pepper, not a pungent, dark dust but a buttery, wood colored sauce. And so….well, peppery. I don’t like meat that much anymore, but pepper steak has a place in my heart. When I see it on a menu, I pause and greet it before moving on.

When I was maybe eleven, I had a friend, Maru, who had a permanent stash of “American candy” at her disposal. Her parents would travel to the US frequently, and bring back whole suitcases of loot (And Agree shampoo). I would go over to her house and we’d set up a tent in their garden, then go through an obscene amount of sugar (Fun Dip and Milky Way remain clearest in my memory.) Junk food was sacrilege at my house. I didn’t want Maru to know I was breaking such an uncool rule, so I would tell her that I would be picked up 10 minutes before the real pick up time. I’d say goodbye, then spend that frantic moment rinsing my mouth and my fingers with the hose in her garden. I’m sure my mother noticed my purple tongue despite my efforts to conceal the evidence – besides which, I must have been bouncing off the walls. Today, I unfailingly stare at the rows and rows of candy at the supermarket. I don’t buy any – I don’t even want to. But I’m irrevocably attracted to the bright colors and delicious excess of the displays.

Panzerotto in Duvrovnik, on a small, rickety white table overlooking the Mediterranean. My husband later explained, in a mildly offended tone, that panzerotto was Italian, not from (then) Yugoslavia. He took me to a place where they make them behind Piazza del Duomo. Yup. Same gorgeous, golden, bubbly stuff. So good, it did not let down my recollection of it, which had remained untouched for more than 20 years.

Tabouleh and hummus at my Godmother’s house. She was Lebanese and everything about her radiated a sophistication I could never quite belong to. The flowing hair. The silk robes. The white fluffy rugs. The low furniture. Having a meal while sitting on the floor. And, hummus! Who knew that could be done with a chick pea? (Incidentally, there is a fabulous Armenian restaurant in Mountain View called Amanor Deli and Bakery. They make the best Tabouleh and hummus I’ve ever tasted – better than the one I remember from so many years ago. I don’t eat it without thinking of my Godmother who, somewhere in heaven, must be appalled that I still leave the house without a lick of make-up on.)

Noodles in China. I sat in a sort of stall in the streets of Xian, watching a man roll, then stretch out the dough, slice it magically into noodles against his arm, after which he’d throw it into a huge, steaming bowl. He’d proceed to serve generous portions of it, and I could barely see his slim face and straight, black hair through the clouds of steam. Those noodles were spicy, hot and worth a trip back to China, which I plan to do. Soon.

The first time I ever had pasta al aglio, oglio e peperoncino. Luca put an apron on, chopped, measured, timed, drained and put it into a serving dish, which he set with flair on the center of the table. As I ate, I thought “A man who cooks. With an apron. I must marry him”. When I looked over, he was looking at me, wide eyed. “What are you thinking?” I asked, hopefully. “You just ate nine servings of pasta” he responded. (To his credit, he wasn’t horrified. He was in awe.). I thought the power of pure, true love would make me immune to caloric consumption. (It didn’t).

Risotto alla parmigiana in a hole in the wall by the side of the road near Aosta. Pretty much everything I’ve eaten in Italy belongs on this list, but that risotto again proved to me that you don’t need much of anything to make a meal good. Food is not meant to be a snobby affair. All you’re really required to do is eat it.

Burrata. The most fresh, most creamy dish ever created. “Fresh” is usually used to describe vegetables, leafy greens, fruit. “Creamy” is rich. It’s mouth feel and often heavy. This is fresh and creamy and light, with a clean aftertaste, not greasy. I seem to have a natural affection towards any dish that comes from Puglia. I’m afraid to visit.

Cremini FIAT. The best chocolate. Ever. This from someone who likes to try new things and who consumes chocolate regularly. When in Italy, I buy a box or two of Fiat “to take home and savor across several months”. The boxes have never seen the inside of my suitcase.

Chile covered mango from Trader Joe’s. I know. Not very sophisticated. But reminiscent of my childhood and adolescence. In Mexico, you eat tamarind covered in chile, lollipops covered in chile, gum covered in chile and even just chile with sugar. I’d found nothing like it here, until I came across this chile encrusted dried mango I can’t open without feeling my mouth water.

John Lennon was right. Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans. If you’re very lucky, though, you’re eating something while making them.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

No More Than a Beast

The book currently on my night stand is “Shakespeare, the invention of the human” written by Harold Bloom. Bloom sustains that Shakespeare not only “invented the English language, but created human nature as we know it today.”

Which, of course, begs the question – what did Shakespeare like to eat?

Preliminary research swiftly led me to my first conclusion: I am not an original. There is so much information about food in Elizabethan times that I barely knew what to do with it (I love the Internet. Whatever did we do before it?)

To clarify, my question was not “what was food like when he was alive?” nor was it “what food was available?” but rather “what did he himself like?” When he got up, did he crave eggs with butter and thyme for breakfast? Did he like tea? Did he snack on figs and almonds while he wrote? Did he think to crush berries into his milk, cook his lamb with rosemary? Did he have a drink with dinner? I’m sure he was so engrossed with his writing that he’d forget to eat. But, when he resurfaced, what did he hunger for?

My second and subsequent conclusions require a disclaimer. Harold Bloom wrote a 745 page book that was a “culmination of a lifetime or reading, writing about, and teaching Shakespeare”. This is a three page blog, the result of an idle question followed by a few days of tentative research. In other words: it’s not authoritative.

Familiar phrases, such as someone eating us “out of house and home”, “the apple of my eye”, “the milk of human kindness”, and “the world is my oyster” are all taken from Shakespeare’s plays. But, does any character ever mention what exactly was on that menu when he was “eaten out of house and home”? Was it a feast, exuberant, exotic, or plain abundant, like an all-you-can-eat buffet? And, that apple, what color was it? Was it sweet? Did he try it with hard cheese? Did he mention milk was the first thing he ever tasted? Was that oyster of his still in its shell, or was it smoked, or salted?

“Sweets to the sweet” would come close to relishing a dessert if it hadn’t been used to describe flowers being thrown into a grave.

Without further ado, my second conclusion: Shakespeare’s passion was human nature, not food. His pen, not his fork. Betrayal, not creamy consistency. I arrive at this because I couldn’t find a character who rapturously described a meal anywhere. (I would love to be proved wrong, Mr. Bloom.)

Love inspired “…love is not love which alters when it alteration finds, or bends with the remover to remove. O, no! It is an ever-fixed mark, that looks on tempests and is never shaken. It is the star to every wandering bark, whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.”

The meaning of life inspired “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Beauty inspired "I have seen a medicine that's able to breathe life into a stone".

Yet cabbage inspired “Good worts! good cabbage.”

If Shakespeare attributes to his characters his own inclinations, then he probably liked hazelnuts, walnuts and almonds "Sweet meats, messengers of strong prevailment in an unhardened youth" and perhaps, like my father, ate less during a meal to leave room for cheese "I will make an end of my dinner, there's pippins and cheese to come."

Shakespeare – the pity of it! - never knew potatoes, tomatoes or chocolate, but strawberries were the pattern that adorned Desdemona’s handkerchief (oh, that handkerchief.)

Herbs and spices are mentioned frequently throughout his plays and sonnets. (“Tis in ourselves that we are thus or thus. Our bodies are our gardens, to the which our wills are gardeners; so that if we will plant Nettles or sow Lettuce, set Hyssop, and weed up Thyme, supply it with one gender of herbs or distract it with many, either to have it sterile with idleness, or manured with industry, why, the power and corrigible authority of this lies in our wills.”) The Brooklyn Botanic Garden, in fact, has a Shakespeare Garden, which depicts all herbs mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays.

Among those he mentions are basil, laurel, rosemary (There's rosemary, that's for remembrance; pray you, love, remember) chamomile (for though the chamomile, the more it is trodden on the faster it grows, yet youth, the more it is wasted the sooner it wears) fennel, mint, lavender, marjoram, mustard, parsley, and leeks. He mentions peppercorn, saffron and nutmeg too.

Fruit is given its place, although less in the context of food and more as example, comparison or circumstance of behavior. Berries, oranges, apples - often followed by the word “rotten” - (“There's small choice in rotten apples") Cherries (“So we grew together, like to a double cherry, seeming parted, But yet an union in partition.”), mulberries. Perhaps he loved figs, but not more than he loved life (“O excellent! I love long life better than figs.”) Raisins, currants, prunes, olives, dates, even mushrooms, which it sounds like he regarded with suspicion ("...And you, whose pastime is to make midnight mushrooms...")

He mentions legumes and cereals – mostly beans, barley and rice. Eggs, meat, fish and seafood abound – veal, venison, lamb, beef, hare, duck, quail, herring, trout, mussels. Butter (“I will rather trust a fleming with my butter...than my wife with herself.”) Garlic and onion (“and, most dear actors, eat no onions nor garlic, for we are to utter sweet breath”) and, pansies (“and there is pansies, that's for thoughts.”)

Although I found many recipes made with food that existed in his time, I only found one recipe written by Shakespeare himself. And it wasn’t exactly for soup.

Round about the cauldron go.
In the poisoned entrails throw.
Toad, that under cold stone
Days and nights has thirty-one
Sweltered venom sleeping got
Boil thou first i' the charmed pot.

Double, double toil and trouble,
Fire burn and caldron bubble.

Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the caldron boil and bake.
Eye of net and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder's fork and blindworm's sting,
Lizard's leg and howlet's wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Fire burn and caldron bubble.

Double, double toil and trouble,
Fire burn and caldron bubble.

Scale of dragon, tooth of wolf,
Witches' mummy, maw and gulf
of the ravined salt-sea shark,
Root of hemlock digged i' the dark,
Liver of blaspheming Jew,
Gall of goat and slips of yew
Slivered in the moon's eclipse,
Nose of Turk and Tatar's lips,
Finger of birth-strangled babe
Ditch-delivered by a drab,
Make the gruel thick and slab.
Add thereto a tiger's chaudron,
For the ingredients of our caldron.

Double, double toil and trouble,
Fire burn and caldron bubble.

Cool it with a baboon's blood,
Then the charm is firm and good.

--Macbeth, IV, 1

And then there is, I fear conclusively “What is a man, if his chief good and market of his time be but to sleep and feed? A beast; no more.”


Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Matters of the Heart

Luca, my husband - my healthy eating, soccer playing, good natured, no history of heart disease in his family husband - had a heart attack on January 15, 2006. Before the incident, we used to exercise regularly and eat fairly well, but now, his cholesterol levels need to be below the recommended number to keep his blood flowing through the stent holding his artery open.

Curiously, (and somehow, predictably) Luca took the whole episode in stride. It was people around him who struggled with the news. My mother said to me recently that she "might never recover". The nurse practitioner at our cardiologist's office confided she went home that night and held her husband close. As for me, I still don't know what to make of it. I felt my life had been thrown in a blender.

Scott and Erin were always there. Figuratively, because they're excellent friends, but literally too, since they live right across the street. When I called to explain why they hadn't seen our car, Erin asked if I needed anything. She realized I was alone keeping Luca company in the Cardiac Care Unit around the clock and came right over, despite my (admittedly weak) protests. They visited, brought me food that had not been cooked in a hospital kitchen, kept an eye on our house, and later picked me up almost every evening so I wouldn't have to drive back home in the dark and exhausted.

In a weird twist of fate, Erin's brother in law, Ron, had to go to the hospital for heart related symptoms three days after Luca got back home. Ron required open heart surgery.

We had been trying hard to get together since then, but between conflicting work schedules, business related travel and a snarled commute due to the shutting down of Highway 1 at Devil's Slide, we had only seen each other in passing. We usually talked on the phone while one of us was sitting in traffic too, since the other was the most appropriate person to commiserate with. We finally got together for dinner last weekend.

Scott, in typical Scott fashion, called me Saturday morning to run the menu by me. "Grilled wild salmon with ginger, steamed broccoli served with a light finishing sauce, asparagus and maybe other vegetables, is that OK? And, for dessert we're having fresh strawberry shortcake. Erin brought mascarpone to spoon on top but we won't put any on Luca's. What do you think?"

"That sounds fine, thank you so much, Scott" I said. What I really wanted to say was "How soon can we move in?"

When we arrived, everything was set out on the porch. There was a beautiful juniper bonsai tree as centerpiece. We sat around the table, drank wine and talked while Scott lined things up on the grill.

The thing I heard most often from people calling to ask how Luca was doing was that "things happen for a reason". I don't buy it. Things happen for no reason, so you better be clear on what matters to you. Family. A job you're into. Strawberries. A red recliner you can read on. Someone who thinks about feeding you the one time you're not thinking about food. And a friend who is handy with the grill.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

You Are What You Eat, Not What You Think You Eat

I confess that I’m an obsessive nutrition label reader. I despise being misled by packaging. How are people supposed to know what “eating healthy” means when they’re being actively deceived? I believe that a central factor in the obesity epidemic in this country is due to lack of information. Take peanut butter. It varies so much from one brand to the next. In one, ingredients read “peanuts”. In others “sugar, partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, peanuts, salt.” And don’t even get me started on cereal.

The general rule is to try to avoid eating anything with an ingredient you wouldn’t have in your pantry. Corn syrup, or, even worse, high fructose corn syrup is a good example. Or, fractioned palm kernel oil. (Did you know its fat is twice as saturated as lard? No wonder you’ve been eating “healthy” and still aren’t losing weight!) Stay away too from any hydrogenated oil.

Eating well is hard. You have to plan ahead. The most convenient food, one you can throw in your purse or gym bag, is the nutrition bar. But upon a bit more inspection, most are nothing more than candy bars, sometimes higher in sugar, calories and saturated fat.

I won’t bore you with this. If you’re interested in reading more about nutrition bars, check out

And then there are Lara bars Yum. (No, I don’t represent this company in any way, and yes, you’ve just got to try these bars.)

My favorite flavors are:
Cashew cookie. Ingredients? Cashews, dates. (Yes. That’s it.)
Pecan pie. Ingredients: dates, pecans, almonds.
Chocolate coconut chew. Ingredients: dates, almonds, walnuts, unsweetened coconut, unsweetened cocoa.

Bottom line? Read nutrition labels.

And throw a Lara bar in your gym bag.

A Sacred Place

We just got back from a trip to Sedona, in Arizona's high desert. Sedona is red rock country, and it is one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen. It’s dramatic scenery and wide open space.

A lady who was lovingly showing us around at the Sedona Heritage Museum ( pointed to a sign on the door, bumper sticker style, that read "when God needs a vacation, he goes to Sedona". I wouldn't blame him.

People in Sedona talk about crystals, things you can only see with your mind's eye, vortexes, portals and other dimensions. I read somewhere that a high percentage of the population claims to have seen spaceships, or has had strange things happen to them here. Many look at the red rocks and feel a strong emotional rush and start to cry. I'm not so sure about all of this, but I can say it has an energy I haven’t felt anywhere else. Sedona is sacred.

Upon arrival, looking for a quick bite to eat after a long drive (and preferring to go hungry over stopping for fast food), we discovered a recently opened cafe, D'Lish ( ). It was so good we went back for lunch almost every day we were there. Everything on the menu is Vegan (I'm a frequent vegan wannabe), but please, don't let that stop you. It's worth a trip to Sedona just to eat their grilled seitan sandwich - make sure you order it with avocado.

O.K. I didn’t know what seitan was before this visit. I was eating a grilled tofu sandwich – equally delicious – when the owner sat down at the table next to ours. Naturally, I looked over to scrutinize his lunch. “Grilled seitan sandwich” he explained. Seitan is made from wheat gluten, is high in protein and low in fat.

A word about seitan, tofu and tempeh here: I don’t like substitutes. I don’t think food should pretend to be something it’s not. Like tofu and tempeh, seitan is delicious in its own right, juicy and with a consistency that has character. (If you can’t get to D’Lish, you can get seitan at Whole Foods They sell it in small packages, already sliced. You can grill it on a dry frying pan and put it in a sandwich. Add leafy vegetables and avocado.)

The other restaurant I’d recommend was the one at Mii Amo. It used to be that spa food was restrictive, depriving and bland (celery sticks, anyone?), but now it’s one of the most creative and surprising. The menu at Mii Amo changes daily and everything we tried throughout several visits – vegetable strudel, spring rolls, ceviche, crusted tuna, cabbage roulades – was fabulous. We even attended two cooking demonstrations, to learn how to make coulis and sauces, as well as vegetarian dishes. (I didn’t take notes because I’m notoriously bad at following recipes. I’ll let you know how that goes.)

On the morning before our departure, we took a long, steep hike that zigzagged up onto Doe mesa. We sauntered along the rim, surprised at how incredibly flat it was up above. The view was so expansive it took my breath away. I couldn’t help it. I started to cry. I sat down on the floor, between two huge prickly pear cacti. And then I saw it: a gray eagle flying by, wings fully extended, with a snake in its mouth at least three feet long. I followed it in disbelief. An eagle sitting on a cactus eating a snake is the symbol of Mexico. “We have to move here” I told my husband in a rapture. “Immediately”.

“Do you want to live on the mesa?” he responded “or would downtown Sedona work too?”

The End of the Road

Montara, where I live, is a lovely, quiet coastal town in Northern California. It used to be a blip on the way to San Francisco. Now it's the end of the road.

A stretch of Highway 1 known as Devil's Slide fell into the ocean, severing Montara from the rest of the world. Of course, repairs are under way, but there is too much conspiring against life as we knew it: record rains, long, scraggly cracks on the road, potholes, and even boulders falling from the bluff above.

(I'm not making this up:

On a hike up in Montara Mountain, you can see the scenario stretched out below you. Not one but three fences, as road blocks. The whipping wind and sand that have covered most of what used to be pavement, giving the eerie feeling that the road - the very one we drove on to get to work every day - was never there.

Driving towards Montara from Half Moon Bay would be funny if it wasn't so inconvenient - all signs that read "Montara 8 Miles, San Francisco 14 miles" have been boarded up. Someone (whoever you are, I love you) wrote on the wooden boards "The edge of the known world: 8 miles."

Caffe Lucca, Montara's only local coffee shop, used to be "the last latte for eight miles" and is now minutes away from a dead end. I imagine most of their business used to be people driving towards San Francisco. We've put away our coffee press and go there instead.

My favorite fruit stand, Sweet Peas, who sells only organic fruit and vegetables (and packets of dried mango I eat in one sitting) and always gives you samples, now depends on locals. No one "passes by" anymore. If someone sees that fruit stand, they're local.

Cafe Gibraltar, my favorite restaurant on the coast, must be suffering the consequences too. (feast your eyes on their mouthwatering menu at When I go, I try to mix things up but once I find something I like, it's really hard to. To start, I order the Avocat Farci (avocado stuffed with crab and fresh artichokes) and the Burdqan Salata (orange sections tossed with fennel bulb, red onion, cumin, mint, olives and watercress.)

I'm hoping you'll read this and be tempted to go. Food like that is worth a trip to the end of the world.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Why "Epazote and Saffron"?

I am Mexican, and am married to an Italian. We live in California. Needless to say, food is important in this family.

Epazote is an herb used in Mexican dishes. The name comes from the Aztec "epazotl" (by the way, the same language "chocolatl" comes from. More on that later.) Many consider epazote an acquired taste: it has a strong smell and distinct flavor. I can't imagine eating black beans or quesadillas without it. Fortunately, it's easy to grow. We have some in our back yard.

Saffron is used in Mediterranean cuisine. Its claim to fame is that it's the world's most expensive spice (rumor has it it's worth more than its weight in gold.) That's because "it takes 225,000 hand picked stigmas to make a pound of saffron" (I found this fact at Saffron is used to color Buddhist robes, Indian clothes and is the ingredient that gives risotto alla milanese its flavor and color.

Both epazote and saffron have medicinal qualities. They are both carminative and both said to be calming. In both cases, large doses can be fatal. There is a lot to be said for moderation. I'll try to remember that.