Applesauce

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I pick apples, out of the trees, with a ladder now because the lower fruit is long gone, and off the ground, which is a treacherous carpet of drops that roll under my feet like ball bearings.

I fill an old woven reed basket my youngest sister Meg gave me years ago, a foot and a half across with a sturdy wooden handle and more than enough room to hold a sauce batch worth of apples.  This basket has held vegetables and fruit from my yard for decades. Lucky me.

I think about staying home for more than a few days in a row, or a week even, and I think I want to, but then don’t.  But when I am home for more than a day or two I find myself gathering apples and running them through the corer-peeler-slicer gadget that Melia brought home the weekend of Chris’s service and I’ve kept since. With an apple loaded on the pronged shaft, I turn the crank and magic happens — the apple comes out the other side of ingeniously arranged blades peeled, cored and sliced into thin rings.  The peel makes one long, looping coil.  I could dry the strings of peel, I could make jewelry or braided snacks.

I don’t.  I make sauce.  The slices go into my biggest pot then sit over a low flame for hours. The apples release their juice and then puff up into mushy versions of themselves before collapsing into a blendable pulp.  Northern Spy, Cortland, Macoun, Yellow Delicious — the different combinations create different flavors and levels of sweetness.  David and I taste the batches, like tasting wine. “This sauce isn’t quite as complex as the last.” “Yeah, it’s a little more flat.”  It’s all delicious.

I wondered, when I  came home in mid-September, how I was going to transition back into my own life, my own pace and schedule.  Applesauce never crossed my mind as the path that would lead me back, but I should have suspected, given how much of the little free time I had this summer I spent freezing local fruit — strawberries, peaches, blueberries.

As I clamp the peeler-corer-slicer to the counter with its vacuum base, I feel like I’m securing myself, grounded, my feet on my kitchen floor, looking out the windows at the now brown oak leaves that keep falling.  There are ten quarts of applesauce in the freezer and always at least a pint in the refrigerator.  Tomorrow I’ll probably make more.

Then go away again.

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City Week

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A year ago I was in New York, picking up my number for the NYC Marathon on a rainy Saturday, then running the windy streets the next day.  It was glorious.  Earlier this week there were trucks along Central Park West unloading and connecting massive coils of cable, wiring the park for the end of the race on Sunday.  This year I’ll be watching rather than running (Matt is all trained and ready to do it again) and I’m not sad about that.  In fact, I’m excited.  This wasn’t a year for marathon training, but it’s still a year to enjoy the city.

“You’re four for four,” David said to me Wednesday night as we walked back up town after seeing “An American in Paris.”  I didn’t know what he meant at first, then he pointed out I’d chosen two plays and two restaurants over the previous two days and each had been excellent. We were both surprised by the skilled mix of classical, modern and show dancing (with a heavy emphasis on ballet) in “An American in Paris,” all of it smart and sharp, set against back drops that danced across the stage too, the streets of Paris and the Seine coming in and out of view as panels whisked across the stage on free rolling wheels swirled by dancers, a dazzling art show in motion.

“A View From the Bridge,” directed by Ivo van Hove (excellent profile of him in last week’s New Yorker), with a set as stripped and modern as Paris was 50’s and lush, was gripping on Monday night.  This revival of Arther Miller’s 1953 play had the unmistakable stamp of van Hove, wringing the heart out of a play.  David and I had started the morning packing the car in New Hampshire, and by 11:00 p.m. we were walking up Broadway to our AirBnB on the Upper West Side, stunned.

We had dinner at ABC Kitchen on Tuesday night and lunch at Gabriel Kreuther on Wednesday — fantastic foodie experiences that we were hungry to enjoy, having walked 20 miles over two days by then.  We walk when we come to NYC — into and around Central Park, up and down Broadway, back uptown from the 9/11 Memorial, through Soho and Noho and Union Square and Herald Square and in and out of the overload of Times Square multiple times on this trip, with tickets to three plays.

Yesterday we walked another 7 miles on a day when we’d planned not to move around too much.  But between a morning stroll through Central Park marvelling at the massive sycamore trees, a visit to the American Museum of Natural History and a walk back down Broadway for the play “Hand to God,” we logged a lot of miles again.

Walking back up Broadway last night we were still talking about “Hand to God,” an outrageously funny play that stars Tyrone, a sock puppet brilliantly played as an alter ego by Steven Boyer.  With its irreverent take on religion and incisive portrayal of the pain that can arise from mistaking emotional silence for morality, it’s a deeply affecting play that cuts much deeper than the laughs foul-mouthed Tyrone draws with his dark monologues on religion’s failure to truly lift the human spirit.

Our spirits are certainly higher after a very full week in the city, a much needed mini-vacation when David and I only focused on what we wanted to do.  A week for us.  And we’re not sad about the week coming to an end, because now we have a weekend with Emilio and Ava, and we’ll be back in the city on Sunday, watching Matt, and tens of thousands of others, run.

 

What Comes and Goes

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Garlic is small this year, each bulb I pull half the size of last year’s.  It’s not from the dry summer — I irrigate my garden with timed soaker hoses, and my onions are their usual hearty balls of tang.  Was it the harsh winter?  The many cold nights this summer?

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Apples are outrageous, my trees dotted with fruit, branches hanging lower and lower as the apples plump and pull with their weight.  Last year there was hardly an apple, the two previous years were like this one, an apple bonanza.

My potato plants were hearty and healthy with no pests.  Yet when I dug under the mulching hay last weekend to find potatoes for dinner there were hardly any spuds.  Are there more further down the bed?

Wild blueberries are sparse, lakeside bushes mostly bare.

I have two eggplants on the four I planted — one is two inches long, one an inch.  Two years ago my plants were dripping with eggplant, we had grilled eggplant for dinner every night, I filled my freezer with eggplant.

The farm where I’ve picked peaches the last two summers has none this year.  No peaches. The buds froze in a late cold snap, a whole orchard empty.  But the area where Chris lives is full of orchards and I’ve brought home two big boxes of peaches for a ridiculously low price and filled my freezer and now a friend is filling hers.

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Strawberry picking in June was the best I’ve ever done — the low plants bent with the sweetest and cleanest berries I’ve ever picked.  More in my freezer.

 

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Today it’s blueberries.  There may be few wild berries, but Berrybogg Farm is loaded, bushes so laden you can pick pounds in minutes.  Which I did yesterday.

Bounty comes and goes and the reasons are mostly a mystery.  I’ll be making applesauce in a few weeks and loading apples into my friend’s truck for his cider mill. My onions will last well in to the winter and I’ll run out of garlic.  I’ll be making smoothies with peaches and Emilio will eat frozen strawberries for breakfast when he comes to visit. I doubt my potatoes will last until Thanksgiving, which is my goal every year, to mash my own potatoes.

But I’ll have what I need to make blueberry pie, which has always been Chris’s job, superb pie maker that she’s been.  This year I’ll be rolling the dough and concentrating on gratitude for the bounty that is, while honoring what has passed.

What else can I do?

 

Cooked

Gratuitous Mimi Love Photo of Ava Having Little To Do With the Blog Post
Gratuitous Mimi Love Photo of Ava Having Little To Do With the Blog Post

“You need to find a sucker who’ll cook for you,” Isabella said.  There was the usual assortment of painters and sculptors and mixed media artists and writers sitting around a long wooden table in the dining hall of Vermont Studio Center, and we were all wondering how we were going to manage returning to our every day lives after almost four weeks of a residency, and specifically, how were we going to manage making meals again?  All we had to do to get fed at VSC was show up at meal time, fill our plates, and bus them when we were done.  We were all doing a residency in order to focus on our creative expressions without the distractions and chores of every day life.  That’s what residencies are for.

“I’m the sucker in my house,” I said.  “I do the cooking.”

Isabella didn’t really mean that someone who cooks is a sucker, what she meant is how much time attending to the daily tasks of life can suck out of a creative focus. How could we recreate the freedom from every day tasks once we got home and continue to concentrate on our creative goals for what felt like almost unlimited hours every day?

We couldn’t, and in powerful ways, that’s okay.  In the spirit of the Zen saying, “Chop the wood, carry the water,” there’s a balance that attention and absorption in every day tasks brings to life.  If I had unlimited time for creative expression every day I’d undoubtedly freak out, as I did for close to the first week at Vermont Studio Center last March.  Not that the residency wasn’t fantastic and that I didn’t get a lot done, because it was and I did.  But that kind of unlimited time for creation, ungrounded in the details of life, wouldn’t work for me forever.  My creativity needs to sit in the center of a life attentive to dailiness if it’s going to be connected to life in a grander sense.  Yes, there’s an ongoing need to value my writing and make space and time for it, to believe it matters, but there’s also a need to take care of daily chores and believe that matters too.

Which is exactly what Michael Pollan talks about in his book Cooked.  Cooking matters. Preparing our own food, from real ingredients we’ve grown or chosen ourselves, connects us to our bodies and our place in the world.  We nourish ourselves and those we feed in ways that go beyond the nutritional elements of the food we prepare.  If we can chop an onion with presence and attention and allow ourselves to value and be patient with the entire process of creating a meal, we can then bring that nourishment, attention and patience to the task of writing a novel (though right now it’s editing a novel I’m trying to get a handle on) or painting a picture or playing the guitar or spinning clay into a bowl.

David read Cooked also and is now joining me in the kitchen more, chopping onions and frying eggs and stirring the pot of chili.  Are we both suckers?  No, we’re feeding ourselves.

The Waldhaus Balance

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Our trip to the Swiss Alps was inspired by my sister Jeanne and her husband John. They’ve been coming here for over 10 years to hike, most years staying at the Waldhaus Sils, a grand and historic hotel in the Engadin Valley.  An independently owned hotel, it’s been operated by the same family for five generations.  It’s comfortable and gracious, without being too luxurious (though it is an incredible luxury to be able to stay here) and the stellar location is matched by the bountiful and delicious food.  We’re so happy we finally got here to spend time with Jeanne and John and understand why it’s a place they come back to again and again.

But there needs to be a balance when staying in a hotel with an enormous breakfast buffet (including plenty of food to take back to your room and pack for your hiking lunch) and a five course dinner every night.  That balance for us is hiking — working off some of the excess eating while relishing the grandeur of the Alps.

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Today’s hike was to an alpine lake, a direct 2,000 foot climb up from Maloja to Lunghinsee, then a long walk back along the descending ridge to the Waldhaus.  Much of today’s hike looked like England, with open slopes colored by heather and other wildflowers.  I enjoyed asking the hiking guide Cecile and Uda, a woman from Germany, what the German names were for the many flowers I recognized.

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The valley where the movie Heidi was filmed.

So hopefully today’s walk helped worked off some of what I ate for dinner, all delicious.

Iberico ham with preserved fig and crisp bread
Iberico ham with preserved fig and crisp bread
Fillet of pike perch with chervil crust, vegetable creams and kohlrabi
Fillet of pike perch with chervil crust, vegetable creams and kohlrabi
Poppy seed parfait and berry compote with rum
Poppy seed parfait and berry compote with rum

 

“So Much Paris Everywhere”

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Our walk up to Montmartre on Friday was beautiful.  By looking for back streets to walk, David found Rue Montorgueil, a delightful, pedestrian street full of markets of all kinds — fruit, vegetables, pastries, and wine — and many cafes.  When we got to the top of the hill, the view of the white dome of Sacre Couer, against the only brilliantly blue sky we’ve seen while here, was stunning.  We sat on a bench and I pulled out my notebook to write.  I noticed the young woman beside me was also writing.

We walked the narrow, cobbled lanes that wind around the hilltop, only briefly passing through the throngs of tourists at the Place du Tertre, which Lonely Planet calls “the pinnacle of touristy Paris,” then headed down the hill, on many “streets” that were stairs, to Le Progres cafe, which I’d found in two guidebooks that claim this is a cafe where Parisians, not tourists eat (a bit hard to believe entirely, since we ourselves are tourists and found it in a guidebook).  It was a lovely cafe, with huge windows looking out on the city, and some of the best food we’ve had (David had an endive and roquefort cheese salad, topped with a heap of arugula, followed by salmon with white wine foam and a top grilled to a caramel perfection, piled on vegetables, while I had the vegetable soup followed by an appetizer plate of arugula and tapenade, on a plate drizzled with pesto).  As with every meal, there was plenty of fresh baguette to sponge up all the sauces and flavors.  As we were about halfway into our meal at Le Progres cafe, the same young woman from the bench at the top of Montmartre came in and sat by the window.  She took our her small notebook and started to write.

We then headed to a small museum with the wonderful name Musee de la vie Romantique — the Museum of the Romantic Life.  Down a cobbled lane is a lovely, small house devoted to the life and work of Amandine Aurore Lucile Dupin Baronne, better known as George Sand.  Full of paintings and furniture, and featuring a sweet garden with flowers still in bloom, it was a wonderful, and free, treat.

Walking back to the Marais and our apartment, crossing yet more boulevards and squares and streets, all lined with gorgeous old buildings of stone, David looked up at one point and said, “There’s so much Paris everywhere!”

 

Tastes of Paris

In Adam Gopnik’s new book, The Table Comes First: Family, France and the Meaning of Food, Gopnik has an interesting and thoughtful (though at times over-written for my “taste”) discussion of taste.  Obviously, taste is more than just what we experience in our mouths, it’s also what is considered good, what is “tasteful,” what’s the best, what’s the most popular or current or noteworthy.

Of the numerous people who sent us recommendations for sights and restaurants in Paris, two suggested Chez Dumonet for dinner.  So I made a reservation and we went on Wednesday night.  When I called the restaurant last week, from the U.S, and asked for an 8:00 p.m. reservation, I was told, “Non, 7:30.”  I suspected we were being told to come when the tourists are seated, and I was right.  We arrived to an empty restaurant and were seated in the front room.  Soon other English-speaking customers arrived, all seated in the front room with us.

The food was very, very good, but not any better than the very, very good food we had at an unknown and empty restaurant on Monday night, which we found by asking someone leaving his shop for a good place to eat and try wine.  At Ma Salle de Manger the sommelier/waiter gave us numerous wines to try, talked with us about the food choices, and even drew us pictures of what he meant by the “eyes” of the grape vines.

At Chez Dumonet the sommelier was a happy and helpful man, but the waiter was gruff and clearly not interested in how we experienced the service.  We left with bellies full of fine food and light-hearted from all the wine, but immediately began talking about the impermanence and trickiness of taste.  With food, like with poetry or fashion or art, what is considered the current, or even next, best thing changes, often quite rapidly.  With food it’s especially hard to pin down exactly what is good, because once the meal is done, there is no object left to judge, only the memory of your mouth and your other sensory experiences of the meal.

“There were three restaurants there,” David said as we started walking back to the apartment.  “The front was for tourists drawn by the name they’ve established.  The next room was for French diners, then the inner room was for those closest to the chef.”  That led to a long discussion about taste, how a restaurant or poet or fashion designer or artist gets a “name” and then can get caught only working to serve that name, rather than working to keep truly creating.  The discussion took the entire 3 km walk back to the apartment.  As we walked we passed storefront after storefront, filled with high fashion, and knock offs of high fashion.

Paris is the perfect city to ponder the delights and mysteries of taste.  We spent yesterday at the Musee D’Orsy (more on that in a later post), where what was considered great art changed over the course of French artists introducing bold new ways of painting, art for which there was no “taste” when first shown, but which permanently changed the whole landscape of what happens with paint on canvas.  Today we’re walking up to Montmartre, a part of Paris that has always challenged the city’s concept of what is fashionable and acceptable and correct.  I’ll let you know how it tastes.

Hunting in Paris

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We hunted bread, cheese, wine and art yesterday.  As soon as I got up yesterday morning, I went to the closest boulangerie I could find and got croissants for breakfast, because the night before as we were falling to sleep I realized we had yet to have a croissant.  The croissants were excellent.

As we set out for the day, we headed for a boulangerie that a website a friend sent us identified as having among the top 10 best baguettes in Paris, then headed towards a cheese shop another website had identified as the best, in Arrondissement 7.  On the way,  as we crossed the Seine, a weak sun showed through the grey sky and I hoped for some fair weather for a picnic in Le Jardin Luxembourg, before going to the Musee Bourdelle.  Antoine Bourdelle was a sculptor and a contemporary of Rodin, though obviously never achieved anywhere near the same level of fame.  Another friend had told us about the museum (I made a list this morning of all the sights and restaurants friends have sent as recommendations, and there is no way we have time for it all, even with 9 days in Paris).

We got to the cheese shop and it was closed for lunch — from 1:00 — 4:30.  And it had started to rain.  So we stopped at a cafe for lunch, one of the hundreds of cafes across the city where people stop in for coffee or wine or a salad or burgers, like the two young women who came in behind us ordered.  We walked down rainy streets, lined with lovely shops, to the museum, and along with the usual massive sculptures and plaster casts for sculptures, there was an exhibition of Bourdelle’s drawings, which was advertised as Que du Dessin.

I know enough French to get the sense of something I read, and catch a word or phrase here and there when listening to someone speak.  But there is much I don’t know, and I didn’t know what “dessin,” means, so I asked one of the museum staff if he knew English, which he did a little, which led to a confused conversation about what the word “dessin” meant until I finally figured out it means “drawing”.  Ah, yes, there was an exhibition of Bourdelle’s drawings along with the sculptures.

A kind French woman, who knew a bit more English than I know French came up to us in the middle of the conversation and asked if she could help.  That led to a 5 minute exchange in which she tried to understand what I wanted.  The woman thought I was asking where the drawings were, which struck me as funny, as we were in a room full of drawings, surrounded by other rooms full of drawings.  She must have thought I was even more lost than I seemed.

The cheese shop was open on our way back to the apartment we’re renting, and so was the wine shop I’d read about.  We bought enough cheese for 8 people, a red pepper, a zucchini and a few potatoes.  When we got back to the apartment, wet from the rain and chilled from a long walk through the damp city, we opened the Bourgogne Pinot to let it breath (“If you can get yourself to wait a half hour after you open it, to drink it, that would be best,” the wine shop proprietor had said, “though I usually can’t wait myself.”) and I cooked the potatoes, pepper and zucchini in a big skillet, then scooped the creamy cheese on top to melt into the vegetables.

We drank the wine and ate the vegetables and melted cheese, along with three different varieties of goat cheese we’d bought, along with the baguette.  It was a successful hunt.

Haiku LIII

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Valentine’s Day cake
Blood orange and olive oil
Rich sweet moist heart red.

Olive oil cake? With blood oranges, red as a Valentine heart? Perfect. As nuanced and complex as a cake gets. From Smitten Kitchen, one of the great cooking blogs.

Mining the Ricotta Vein

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The guests were gone and there was a lot of cake left.  The baby shower was lovely, but it was a lot — a lot of food, a lot of people, a lot of set up and clean up, a lot of cute onesies and receiving blankets and stuffed monkeys. 

Once people had left, a few of us stayed and picked up used paper plates and cups half full of wine or juice, broke down tables and did the dishes.  I collected all the big lavender balloons and popped them, before Kate, Adrienne’s good friend who hosted the shower at her house, went to get her dogs and bring them home.  As the tight balloons popped, shreds of lavender stuck to the walls and my dress.  Carrie, Adrienne’s mother-in-law who’d organized the shower, ordered the food, helped develop the guest list and planned the decorations and activities with Kate, finished packaging up all the leftovers, and left.

Finally, it was quiet.  Adrienne, Kate and I looked at the big slab of cake still sitting on the kitchen table. 

“I’m not going to eat that cake,” Kate said.  Adrienne has gotten more gluten intolerant with her pregnancy, and hadn’t even tasted the cake.  I eat very few sweets, generally avoid refined wheat products, and had already had some of the cake, which made me feel sick.  Kate had eaten a piece earlier too, and we agreed the highlight was the cannoli filling  — sweetened ricotta, laced with cinnamon, running through the cake between the top and middle layers.

“Let’s mine the ricotta vein,” I said.  Kate and Adrienne and I looked at each other, grabbed forks, and got to it.  I cut big pieces off the slab with the cake knife, the handle smeared with frosting which then coated my hand.  Adrienne, Kate and I all broke apart the layers of cake and scooped out the ricotta filling.  I sliced off another big piece, and we again ate the ricotta.  And another.  Once again.  We laughed and ate and felt like we were breaking some rule, but all we were doing was not eating cake, piling discarded pastry into a miniature dessert dump. 

We were eating our delight, and forgetting about the rest.