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).

30 November 2013

What day it is

I open up my eyes, thick with sleep, to the half-moon in my window. Abruptly it seemed, it took the place of a crescent, thinner than a clipped thumb nail, overnight. I spend the next minute struggling to remember where I am, what day it is, and if I have to hurry to be somewhere. It's like waiting for a Polaroid picture to develop, unimprovable blankness at first, followed by thin traces of objects captured -- a stack of books on the floor, blue unblinking stare of the TV screen on Anthony's face, he is deep asleep on the couch, his head nestled in his folded arms, his lips parted, unaware. It's quiet, except the clacking of the clock in the other room. I reach for my phone. 6.43 am. Then it hits me: I have overslept for work by an hour. 

I cut up an apple, its skin crisp and alert, and scoop a spoon of peanut butter out of the glass jar. No time left for anything else. A carton box of oatmeal and a measuring cup I set next to the stove the night before to make myself porridge for breakfast remain untouched, later they will be a reminder of the morning's haste. I stifle my cough not to wake Anthony. The skin under my nose feels raw, scalded by a cold. 

The air grips the skin on my face the moment I start off on my bike, the temperature out looks to be close to zero. It will take another hour before the day gets lighted, but the darkness is starting to kneel as the strip of dawn on the horizon unweaves itself forward. 

Later that day I'm in a chiropractor's office, on the table that looks like a gym apparatus for back extension, only this one is flat.

"Breathe out," he says. My arms crossed, I feel his weight on my chest.

"You have to breathe out," he pushes down. I hear cracks in my spine, but they seem so muffled that it feels we both eavesdrop on what occurs behind the closed doors. I breathe out again, my face, sticky from the day's work, is close to his muscled neck. I forgot to put on deodorant, and I'm convinced I smell of leeks. Another twist and push, and then another one in the opposite direction. I stand up and walk around -- my back still hurts. 

"Is it a burning pain?"

"Not quite. It feels simililar to when a dentist's drill brushes against a nerve ending, you know."

"I've never had a cavity, but I now what you mean," and then he adds, "You probably wouldn't tell I'm forty-five, would you?"

I'm on the table again. It's as if I'm receiving cardio-resuscitation, but on my back. I hear more cracks. Also, my stomach growls. I realize I haven't had much else since breakfast, except for two boiled eggs for lunch at work. 

"You should be straight now. Give it a few days to heal. You want to hear something funny? I had this patient the other day, gay, he had complaints about his back. So I said, "Alright, let's make you straight", and he turned around and said, "I don't think so, it aint gonna happen."

On my way back home it starts to drizzle, but soon wind pulverizes it into the cold spray. It feels clean; the air smells of fresh pencil shavings. Sea gulls in the canals look like crumpled sheets of white paper scattered about the water that's under the cement of the clouds turned into the undiluated ink.

I step through the doorway, and the half-moon is already in my window again.

Mujadara (moo-jha-dra)
Adapted from Orangette
Yield: 4-6 servings

Officially this is an ancient dish of green lentils, rice and caramelized onions highly regarded throughout the Arab world, unofficially -- one-pot miracle. It's such low maintanence to make, and it pays back tenfold. One, it's not costly to assemble; two, it gets better as it sits (so make it the day before if you can); three, it's nourishing to no end. It may not please the eye, but it will please the mouth. It absolutely will. You just really need to caramelize the life out of those onions; the flavor of the dish hinges on them and them alone. It's a slow process -- the time may vary depending on your stove and the pan's size -- but at least thirty minutes, ideally an hour, should pass until the onions are ready, amber and sweet. 

60 ml (1/4 cup) olive oil
500 g (1 pound) onions, peeled and sliced lengthwise
200 g (1 cup) green lentils (such as de Puy), picked over for debris
100 g (1/2 cup) basmati rice
1 tsp salt, or more to taste
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper, or to taste

In a large skillet or sauté pan warm the oil over medium heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until they are caramelized through and through (once they start taking on color, scale the heat down to lowest to avoid scorching). This process should take from 30 to 60 minutes.

Meanwhile, place the lentils in a medium pot, cover with plenty of water and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Lower the heat to a simmer and cook, undisturbed, for twenty minutes. Then drain the lentils and set them aside. 

Once the onions are ready, stir in the rice, along with the cooked lentils, the salt and pepper, and two cups of water. Mix very well and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a lazy simmer, cover, and cook. Depending on the size and shape of your pan, this step can take from 20 to 40 minutes. 

After 20 minutes, remove the lid and give the lot a careful stir. If there is still liquid visible, replace the lid, and cook more until it's fully absorbed. If there is no visible liquid, check the rice for doneness. If it's tender, the dish is ready. If it's not, add a splash of water, cover, and cook until the rice is done and the liquid is absorbed. Add more salt and pepper, if needed. Garnish with fresh flat-leaf parsley (optional).

31 October 2013

October 28th

October 28th: the scene on my balcony begs a description. Two wooden chairs and a table lie overturned, a plate with a bottle oil lamp on it are smashed into smithereens, an unused metal ashtray with LAS VEGAS and the four kings molded around the rim is thrown on the floor, face down among the glass shards. It's easy to think it's been a scene of a seething brawl, this. Perhaps, even, a fight of a kind where deadly threats eschew, and veins in the throat get swollen with anguish and anger and look like electric cords.

A single pigeon is trying its hardest to cross the gusts of wind, his wings flapping faster than a heart on speed. A determined bird, gone now. One minute tree leaves, frail dots of rust and amber, are kicked skywards, the other they are slapped against the rattling windows, a sudden place of rest. The trees below, many are still fully clad in leaf, shake and kneel in trance, an act of exorcism. The bathroom door, left ajar, sways back and forth; the window curtains are apprehensive of the draft. A storm has come, its force is non-negotiable. The wind regurgitates and an occasional wall of rain suddenly looks like a screen of smoke.

Coffee has grown cold in my mug, a thin layer of silt formed on the bottom. A few hours before, rather naively I got on my bike to get groceries, but I could't keep the wheel. Dislodged branches crackled under my feet like aging vertebra and knuckles as I walked to the store. Ambulance screamed past, and after it a police car.

The sun comes out on and off, but amidst the roars of the wind there is no comfort in its glow. In fact, it looks rather menacing, like that waiter whose white-teethed smile makes one of his eyebrows arch and his washed-blue eyes harden somehow.

Dusk. Lights come on. Trapped in the sky for hours, one plane after another bores its way forth out of the heavy clouds and down for landing. The smell of heated metal fills up the kitchen -- the oven is ready. I'm roasting chicken with two lemons for dinner.

Roast Chicken with Two Lemons
Adapted from The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, by Marcella Hazan, via The New York Times
Yield: 4 servings

Storm or no storm, this one is the easiest and certainly one of the tastiest ways to roasted chicken.There is nothing more to it than a chicken that gets seasoned with salt and pepper inside and out, fortified with two lemons, and then sent into the oven for an hour and a half. The way different cooking times for dark and white meat are reconciled here is so simple it's genius: lemons. It's all good that they subtly perfume the chicken breast, but the best is their moisture that wafts from them and into the meat keeping the breast from drying out while the legs are roasted through and through. And then there is the skin; at the end it browns and crisps up like a layer of goldel, lacquered filo pastry. A genius recipe.

1 * 1.2 to 1.5 kg (3 to 4 pounds) free-range chicken
Freshly ground black pepper
2 small lemons

Warm the oven to 180 C (350 F).

Rinse the chicken well inside and out. Remove any bits of fat hanging loose. Pat the bird thoroughly dry all over with paper towels.

Rub a generous amount of salt and black pepper over the chicken's body and into its cavity.
Wash the lemons and pat them dry. Puncture the lemons in at least twenty places each, using a toothpick, a trussing needle, a sharp-pointed fork, or similar tool.

Put both lemons into the bird's cavity and close up the opening loosely with a few toothpicks or a trussing needle and string. Don't make it airtight, otherwise the chicken may burst.

Place the chicken into a roasting pan, breast side down. Do not add fat of any kind. This is a self-basting bird, it won't stick to the pan. Put it on the upper third of the prepared oven. After the first 30 minutes, turn the chicken breast side up. Doing so, try not to puncture the skin. Cook for another 30 minutes. Then scale the heat up to 200 C (400 F) and cook for 20 minutes more. Allow for 20-25 minutes of cooking time for each 500 g (1 pound). There is no need to turn the chicken again. 

Bring the chicken to the table whole -- if desired, garnish it with a few sprigs of flat-leaf parsley -- and leave the lemons inside until it's carved and opened. Don't tiptoe around the juices that run out; they are delicious and ought to be spooned over the chicken slices or mopped with a chunk of good bread. The lemons may have shrunk, but they still contain juices. Don't squeeze them; they may squirt. 

30 September 2013

But it happened in Paris

Last Wednesday I ground my heels to a pulp and exhausted my hamstrings on my visit to Paris, which was my first. 

Paris intimidates me. I mean, it overwhelms me. I could have gone sooner, but I postponed because I always felt there should be a purpose for me to go to Paris for the first time, a vector that would define my direction amidst the streets laid out with millions of stories and more crumbs and keep me grounded in the constant flow of bon jour, oh la la and oui oui mixed up with the scent of yeast every other block and expensive perfume.

My good friend Morgane was going to hold her art jewelry exhibition in La Ville-Lumière.

I woke up in the depth of morning to catch the 6.34am train to Paris. The darkness seemed unfriendly. My brain and body weakened by the soft pillow and blanket, I felt against the trip. Anthony was supposed to go with me, but had gotten sick. I was at an arm's length from telling Morgane that I, too, won't be coming, but she cleared her schedule to wander with me, and her show was the main motive for my little grand tour. Still, I got out of bed at a quarter past five, half an hour later. I secretly wished to miss the train. Slowly I got ready, as if daring the clock. I poured myself a bowl of honey granola, the rustle of the grains against the porcelain, but left it undisturbed. I tucked the remnants of a chocolate bar in my handbag and made my way outside. The roads and sidewalks kept quiet, the stillness calmed me. I arrived at the train station early and gave Anthony a call. How are you feeling -- any better? I'm still not sure if I should go alone, I'll decide the last moment when I see the train. Try and get some sleep. 

The train pulled in on time, my carriage right in front of me. I stood there tormented by uncertainty when a conductor reached out to see my ticket. I stepped in. The bar carriage was next to mine, it pleasantly smelled of coffee inside. At 9.40am I was in Paris, and I had nine and a half hours till my train back.

I took few pictures and didn't see the Eiffel Tower. The famous Rose Bakery's (46 rue des Martyrs) carrot cake -- plus a carrot salad and a muffin with fresh figs and blackberries -- check. Admittedly the best falafel sandwich -- eaten on the street (L'As de Falafel, 34 rue de Rosiers); cool infrequent rain drops on our faces in contrast with the fiery sauce on our tongues -- in Paris, check. Six hours of pure walking, check. Gold, Butter & Ripe Lemons -- thoughtful and stylish -- check. I saw necklaces, brooches and penchants by six different artists, and a lemon-shaped brooch that Morgane made out of plastic and that had more bubbles in it than the most sparkling water in Paris. 

It was a hot day. Apart from a pack of stray rain clouds in the late afternoon, the sun showed confidence. Those with jackets and coats on had to take them off. Walking down the hilly roads away from Montmartre, we were about to cross over when a shuttle bus slowed down at a stop and obstructed our way. As we walked around it I felt the heat of its exhaust fumes around my bare ankles. No smell, it felt soft and pleasant, like a human breath. I thought, it could have happened anywhere, but it happened in Paris. I liked it.