31 January 2016

Where it's closest to sunrise

4:00 pm, Friday. 

I can't move and I'm in the middle of a busy intersection. The traffic light's changed already. I press my shoes into the asphalt, my toes, as if claws, curl down into the smooth leather soles, my hands meld into the handlebars of my bike that I had to dismount and is now hanging onto me, and for some reason I shut my eyes closed and clench my teeth. I don't see how in a distance an elderly woman falls over on the sidewalk, but I do see two men run up to lift her up.

7.30 am, Friday.

– I know you are sleeping, but you need to see this, it's Venus, Anthony nudges me on my shoulder, bends over the bed and points towards the window.

I'm looking at a pinhole in a sheet of black paper held up against a lamp – light is blazing through it. My eyes are hurting because I tore them open from sleep, but it's completely mystical and I sit up and look southeast where it's closest to sunrise and Venus shines bright. It doesn't twinkle and I don't blink.

4:01 pm, Friday.

I bend forward as if someone punched me in the stomach.

Car horns are bawling at me.

– Yes, it's reeeeeeed, I knooooooow, I shout back, to nobody in particular, the heart pumped up.

5:00 am, Thursday, one day before the storm.

– Good evening, someone says. I look around, there is a man. He is with another man, a friend, talks fast, holds a can of beer in his hand, but “good evening” is meant for me, and the smile. I wonder if he watches me ride off, and then, if my bicycle's rear light is on.

4:02 pm, Friday.

Canvas bill boards on either side of the road are flapping like trapped swans, as are my skirt and a coat. Beeeeeep in front of me, beeeeeeeep behind me. I'll run when it's green again, just another second to get out of this.

I dial Anthony.

– I got caught in a spectacular gush of wind, it almost knocked me off my feet in front of oncoming traffic. But I'm almost home, stopping for groceries now.

The heart's still pounding, the hands sweaty. I wonder what the weather is like on Venus.

Curried Lentil Soup 
Adapted very slightly from Molly Wizenberg, via Bon Appétit
Yield: 4 servings

This is a very soothing, very heartening soup. It is informed by dal maharani, a heady mix of black and brown lentils and beans, but with fewer spices, milder. Soft, silky and highly aromatic, it tastes and feels very creamy. For the most part it's because of the French lentils, they plump up and get fuzzy, sort of, in the broth. But should you not know there is is a puree of chickpeas to give the soup its richness, you would credit a stick of butter for it, or cream. It's quite ingenious, that.

4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 medium carrot, finely diced
2 large garlic cloves, finely chopped, divided 
2 tablespoons curry powder 
170 g French green lentils (de Puy) 
4 ¼ cups water, divided
1 * 450 g can chickpeas, drained, rinsed 
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
fresh cilantro or spring onions, for serving

Warm 2 tablespoons olive oil in a heavy large pot over medium heat. Add the onion and carrot; sprinkle with salt and pepper. Cook until the onion is translucent, stirring occasionally, about 4 minutes. Add half of the chopped garlic; cook for about 4 minutes longer until the vegetables are soft but not brown. Add the curry powder, stir until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the lentils and 4 cups water. Sprinkle with more salt and pepper, and bring to a boil. Bring the heat to low and simmer until the lentils are tender, about 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, puree the chickpeas, lemon juice, ¼ cup water, the remaining garlic and 2 tablespoons olive oil in a processor.

Add the chickpea puree to the soup. Season to taste with salt and pepper, and additional curry powder, if needed. Add more water by ¼ cupfuls to thin the soup to a desired consistency. To serve, sprinkle with finely chopped fresh cilantro or thinly sliced green onions.

31 December 2015

A day beyond price

It's 9:45 am, December 31. In about nine hours from now I'll be sharing the evening out with my people. We'll have delicious pizzas made by my husband. He'll take five balls of well-proofed dough, flatten each a little and pat it slightly on both sides in semolina. Then, leaning over a marbled worktop, he'll press it by hand into a symmetrical circle, he'll make it look very easy and effortless, as if it's nothing to manually press and stretch a ball of dough into a thin, smooth, promising round. In less than a quarter of an hour from then, our lips will be covered in oven-hot paprika-red juices from salami picante, which we will wipe off with the heels of our hands, which will stain our clothes, which we won't notice until tomorrow. Greasy fingerprints will cover our glasses. 

After Anthony is done with his shift, the kitchen light out, we'll head outside to light a box of fireworks from last year. The night will be brilliant, I hope it will be rainless too. Closer to midnight the two of us will race home, we'll probably make it with only a few minutes to spare before more fireworks erupt with glee, rip through the dark sky, replace oxygen with sulphur. We'll open a bottle of Benoît Lahaye Brut, pop, and cut into a fine, rich, soft panettone, the knife will only sigh through it and clink against the plate. The champagne will taste like freshly baked puff pastry and vanilla cream, the panettone, redolent with candied citrus peel and yeast, will give on the tongue. We'll watch the fireworks from our balcony.

11.45 am. I measure out butter for Yotam Ottolenghi's spice cookies. This is a fourth batch this month.

Some time before Christmas I give one of these spice cookies to Olivia the Cat Lady. She asks what's in it. "Oh, there is liqueur in it?" She sounds surprised, emphasizes 'liqueur', lifts it and stretches it like an accordion. "I shall wait till evening to have it. I don't like liqueur in the morning", she says. "But thank you very much, very nice of you!" She wraps it in a napkin, puts it in her heavy-duty bag, next to a can of cat food and a roll of wrapping paper with reindeer on it. She'll tell me in a day she loved the cookie very much.

Sounds already crackle through the air like a child playing with bubble wrap.

A day beyond price. 

Spice Cookies

Adapted from Jerusalem: A Cookbook, by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi
Yield: 16 cookies

Complex, laden with winter spices, chocolate, citrus zest, and currants soaked in liqueur, with the crumb that is like velvet, and with the top thinly coated with sharp lemon glazing, they are wonderful, mysterious, perfect winter cookies. I bet they'll remind you of Terry's Chocolate Orange. Only these are better!

Notes: You can use brandy to soak the currants as in the original recipe. I myself don't like brandy, find it abrasive, pervasive. Honey liqueur on the other hand, Jack Daniel's Tennessee Honey for example, does well by these. Next, I cut down on sugar in the glazing by one-fourth but there still was enough of it to provide for that ever so delicate snap. In the cookie dough, I replaced superfine sugar with dark brown sugar. And last, I grated zest both from a whole orange and a whole lemon for the lot, because for these cookies you don't stop grating either at half a teaspoon.

125 g currants 
2 tablespoons honey liqueur (see notes above)
240 g plain flour
7 g best-quality cocoa powder
½ teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
½ teaspoon each ground cinnamon, allspice, ginger and nutmeg
¼ teaspoon salt
150 g good-quality dark chocolate, finely ground
125 g unsalted butter, at room temperature
125 g dark brown sugar
1 tsp vanilla essence
grated zest of a medium orange
grated zest of a medium lemon
½ medium free-range egg
1 tablespoon finely diced candied citrus peel

3 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
120 g icing sugar

Soak the currants in the honey liqueur for 10 minutes. Sift together the flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda, then add the spices, salt and dark chocolate. Mix well with a whisk.

In a medium bowl, beat the butter, sugar, vanilla and lemon and orange zest to combine but not aerate too much, about a minute. Add the egg and beat for another minute. Add the dry ingredients, followed by the currants and honey liqueur. Mix until everything just comes together.

Gently knead the dough in the bowl with your hands until it is uniform. Divide the dough into 50g chunks and shape them into round balls. Place on one or two baking sheets lined with baking paper, about 2cm apart, and rest in the fridge for at least an hour.

Heat the oven to 190 degrees Celsius. Bake the cookies for 15 minutes, until the top firms up but the centre is still slightly soft. Remove from the oven. Once the cookies are out of the oven, allow to cool for 5 minutes only, and then transfer to a wire rack.

While the cookies are still warm, whisk together the glaze ingredients until a thin and smooth icing is formed. Pour a generous teaspoon of the glaze over each cookie, leaving it to drip and coat the cookie with a very thin, almost transparent film. Repeat this step for a thicker glaze. Finish each with three pieces of candied peel placed at the centre. Leave to set and serve, or store in an airtight container for up to a week.

30 November 2015

It didn't feel ordinary at all

My hands are cold, the feet shuffle, the wait for the elevator feels long. I reach in my overcoat pocket and there is a whole tangerine, forgotten since morning, still fragrant, still carefree. I focus on its optimistic, arresting orange and the unblemished, glossy skin when the elevator finally arrives. I pause to look back outside the glass entrance door then step in. I think I heard hastened heels behind me.

Respirez, vous êtes sur FIP.” I lean against the wall as the elevator starts to ascend. A French music radio station is streaming on my phone. “Breathe, you are on FIP.” 
It was a warm September day, two years ago. My friend and I walked down the hilly roads away from Montmartre. We were about to cross over when a bus slowed down in front of us at a stop. We made our way around it, and I felt the heat of its exhaust fumes on my bare ankles. It felt soft and pleasant, like a human breath. I thought then that it could have happened anywhere, but in Paris it felt less ordinary. Or rather in Paris it didn't feel ordinary at all.

Third floor. A neat arrangement of red gardenias in the hallway, in matching pots.

Fifth floor. I had to stop, stand still. I'd seen the Eiffel Tower countless times before, all through the eyes of others. Now I was looking at it. Here you are.

Sixth floor. I squeeze the tangerine a little, look into the dull elevator mirror. I'll buy a train ticket to Paris, yes, that's what I'll do. 
Eighth floor. I step out of the elevator to hear the roof rattling. I turn the key in the door: inside the apartment the windows rattle too, and the curtains are unsettled. I connect my phone to the soundbar. Respirez, vous êtes sur FIP” fills the rooms -- jazz, classical, world, film music in smooth succession. 

I turn on the stove to make a pot of simmered black beans for dinner, a wonderful, powerful, flavorsome thing. I'll finish the tangerine, too.

Simmered Black Beans 

Adapted from The New York Times
Serves 6 

Pardon my bossiness, but make this dish, really. To soak the beans overnight, to remember to do it, is the hardest step, which is another way to say it's an easy recipe. I'd even take it further and say it's the easiest way to the best pot of beans, which to me means soft, well-seasoned, meaty beans suspended in a thick fragrant broth, which is achieved by languidly simmering them in their soaking water with plenty of garlic, onion and cilantro. I like them plain, with a hunk of good sourdough bread, or with cubed avocado, a ring or two of jalapeno, and a few shreds of roast chicken. But enough with lengthy sentences.

450 g black beans, washed and picked over for stones
2 L water
2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
4 large cloves of garlic, minced
15 g (a good handful) chopped cilantro (coriander), plus more for garnish
Salt to taste

Soak the beans in the water for at least six hours or overnight.

Heat the oil over medium-low heat in a large, heavy soup pot or Dutch oven, and add the onion. Cook, stirring, until it starts to soften, about three minutes. Add half the garlic. Cook, stirring, until fragrant, about one minute. Pour in the beans and soaking water. The beans should be covered by at least two cm of water. Add more if necessary, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, cover, and simmer one hour.

Add the remaining garlic, cilantro and salt. Continue to simmer another hour, until the beans are soft and the broth is thick. Taste. Add more salt or garlic if necessary. Let sit overnight in the fridge for the best flavor.

31 October 2015

Younger than he thought

The night falls. With it a softness -- the last indulgent lukewarm air -- permeates what's underneath the skin -- no skin. The light (vintage gold) exhales, makes me want to hold my breath. In darkness the water in canals seems motionless, unfeeling. Unlike the streetlights -- those dance. 
The morning started with a mist, thin, unsure. I woke up first -- it was still dark out. The street glistened, was absolutely silent. A car floated past the strong beam of a streetlight, a science-fiction scene. I closed the balcony door, picked up a DVD from the floor by the TV -- The Sopranos, season 3, disc 4 -- poured water in the kettle, switched it on, click.
I write down a list of groceries -- aubergines, basil, cherry tomatoes, wine -- then mindlessly place a cup of hot coffee on it. Instantaneously 'aubergines' grow fuzzy. I draw an exclamation mark next to 'wine'.
The day was rising, a pale, unhurried dawn, it reveals, catches clouds wandering off at the top of the sky. It should be a glorious day. Leaves are falling, gliding downwards of their own accord, like theater curtains at the end of a brilliant show. Goodbye to all that; encore, encore!
-- Happy birthday! Coffee?
Someone calls. 
-- Much too, much too close to forty. I gotta go pick a fight, Anthony says and laughs.
-- Thirty-six isn't close to forty, I say and extend a cup.
-- I'm thirty-seven -- am I not? 
-- Two thousand fifteen minus nineteen seventy-nine...
-- That's right -- thirty-six.
He goes on to say it's a great gift, to be younger than he thought. A homemade birthday lunch is a bonus.

In darkness the water in canals seems motionless, unfeeling. Like the streetlights, we'll dance too.
Pasta with Roasted Aubergines and Tomatoes
Adapted from Nigel Slater
Serves 2

This is a pasta dish unmasked by any sauce, and is what it is: a sum of its three key ingredients -- aubergine, tomatoes, garlic. The sweet juices from the roasted vegetables and a generous quantity of olive oil will take care that the lips glisten here. Crush the tomatoes with a fork as they roast to syphon their bright juices into the oil. As pasta, I used conchiglie (shells) to catch an odd bite here and there, and to lock in some of that mushroom flavour that appears when roasted aubergine meets caramelized garlic. Originally, it's penne.

1 large aubergine
250 g cherry tomatoes
3 cloves garlic
8 Tbsp olive oil
Salt and pepper
250 g dried conchiglie (shells)
A scarce handful of basil leaves

Set the oven to 200C.

Wipe the aubergine and slice it into thin rounds. Place the slices in a single layer in a large roasting tin. Peel and crush the garlic and scatter over the aubergines. Throw in the tomatoes, whole, and trickle the olive oil. Season well, then bake for 25-30 minutes.

Dump the pasta in a deep pan of salted boiling water. Cook for 9 minutes until al dente. Drain in a colander.

Add the drained pasta to the aubergines and toss gently together. Adjust the seasoning if needed. Tear the basil leaves and add to the lot. 

30 September 2015

Tomorrow and until

September. The air is well-supplied, redolent at dusk of ripe, ruby-fleshed figs -- and often after rain, of matured brie and cider. But the flats of rain have stopped, and for a few days now. A godsend. I ran out of shoes that weren't soaked.
The dusted-up, off-white trams are a contrast to young men's and women's tanned arms and faces, the remnants of a sea tan, the hue of unrefined cane sugar. I wonder if they can still feel the swell of sea waves, cool and constant, around their ankles, and how their lips must have tasted of salt after a swim.

Day by day the light changes. There is a new intense quality to it that completes the summer's expiration. It's done, gone, but I reject, still, the idea of a coat. I'm being stubborn, might pay for it with a cold later. 
"How do you find my new lipstick?", I ask Anthony as I make myself up in front of the bathroom mirror. I talk loudly -- he's in another room and the TV is on.
"I like it. Looks natural."  
I lean forward to consider my lips closer in the mirror, turn my head right, left, then wipe a little from the corners. 
It's almost dusk outside, a crisp evening, the atmospheric version of a cotton shirt freshly starched. We have dinner in town. It's our wedding anniversary -- three years. The restaurant is filled with joyous clatter of plates and cutlery, and recurring pops of corks. I feel curious, order the only Hungarian on the wine list, red. Could we have it by the glass, I wonder. Yes, that can be arranged. The full bottle appears on the table. No obligation to finish it, but it is a very good wine, sophisticated and masculine, and eventually we do. The fried fresh parsley, crisp, earthy, that comes with the venison, our main, is an expected surprise, it steals the show. It's a long dinner, there is comfort in eating in silence.
The wine has made my head spin. We skip the dessert and after cheese order coffee. It comes with bonbons made with particularly peaty Scotch, another surprise for the palette. On the calendar it's already another day and my alarm clock will go off at five in the morning. But why hurry a celebration? 

Tomorrow I'll have a simple dinner alone: paella rice cooked together with caramelized onions and sautéed mushrooms, and two, three, possibly more ripest figs, the last of the season, for dessert. I'll eat them out on the balcony while watching the skyline catch fire at sunset, and until the rain returns. September.

31 August 2015

A sentimental thing

It feels like I'm being watched.

I woke in darkness, too early, dissected the night in half with the sudden motion of my tired eyelids. Have I heard something? The windows and balcony door are open -- the likelihood is high. For a moment I lay there motionless in the heat. A stifled breeze makes the trees rustle beneath the windows like a stream. The bed spring gives out a nervous creak as I turn. I let a few minutes pass before I get up and go to the kitchen for a glass of water.

The fume extractor is still on, a constant industrious drone. I must have left it on after preparing dinner: spicy potatoes, pan-fried with onions, madras curry powder, and cumin and coriander seeds (a deviation, barely, from this recipe). On the table there remained a couple crumpled napkins, half a watermelon, its vermillion flesh ripe enough to resemble candy floss,  and cups with coffee remnants in them. I cover the watermelon with cling film and put it in the fridge. A sweet, exceptionally juicy late-August watermelon is for me a sentimental thing. A delight for the mouth but the particular sadness for the heart: another summer is gone.

I finish the glass of water and get out onto the balcony for fresh air. It's humid, smells of swamp, grassy and strong. In the distance lightning bolts flash and spread across the night sky like vericose veins. I look up, the stars are hidden. I lean against the balcony railing, my eyes travelling from window to window, all unlit, impenetrable, in the building across. It's still around me, I'm no longer sure if I heard anything at all. 

I go back to bed only to wake up again shortly, again from the feeling of being watched. I look out of the bedroom window -- and it's the full moon's metallic uncomfortable stare, has been all along.

31 July 2015

Between espressos and apricots

I think I'm dreaming. I'm alone in my bed, sunk in sleep between the indented pillows and twisted sheets, but I feel a soft touch on my bare wrist. It's like a tickle and a brushstroke of a breeze combined; one moment it's here, the other it goes. Through the window the sunlight amplifies, my eyelids fail to screen it, I wake up. It must be close to midday: the sun is brighter than itself. I squint at it and in my eyes it looks like a ripe apricot in mid-July, rich orange and intense. The light has gotten iridescent, too.
The summer in the city is at its most lustrous these days, it sparkles like champagne, especially after a bout of unruly rain blown around by wind. The storms have somewhat blemished the scyscape recently, but it's only temporary, of course it is. On my birthday it was very hot, it seemed the air had entirely evaporated. I drank champagne that day, brut, it tasted like freshly baked puff pastry and vanilla cream. It felt enthusiastic on my tongue.

I slept through breakfast, but that's ok. I'll have breakfast for lunch. I'm thinking to roast some apricots with a little honey and lemon juice. It won't take long, about twenty minutes in a moderate oven. I'll only have to rinse and halve them, and then wait for the gentle heat to metamorphose them into soft edible suns. 
The warm fruit, relaxed, mellow, half honey, half almond in taste, will be a fine match -- and contrast -- to a bowl of fromage blanc, tangy and satisfying. My favourite part is when the juice from the apricots, perfumed and sharp, seeps into the fromage blanc and the two make the tip of my tongue curl upward and lips go smack smack. But first I want to get out for an espresso. I need it to shoot down my limbs, to diffuse like ink in my bloodstream.
The rest of the day finds its way between espressos and apricots, an unworried midsummer afternoon.
The touch on my wrist in the late morning -- it was my own breath.