Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Eyes Have It

Some evidence that the eyes get to experience exquisite food, too.
Some of my attempts to be a food artist.

If being in Spain was about tastes on the plate, then being in France is about seeing the plate. I'm at Chateau de l'Hoste, north of Agen and south of Cahors for the gentle reader who is a map freak. This is a lovely old stone mansion with about 30 guest rooms, a dining room that seats about 25 and a pool. It is in the heart of farm country where there are fields of corn and sunflowers ready forharveste; fields laying fallow, orchards of hazel nuts and figs. This area is well known for its ducks raised especially for foie gras and for its prunes; indeed there are museums dedicated both to foie gras and to prunes. I visited the former, but not the latter. There are limits!

But back to the eyes. Each meal is brought forth on white oblong plates. The color, the shape, and the size of the garnishes make the plate an artist's pallette. I almost hate to disturb it, but the aromas entice and the first taste has me oohing, aahing, moaning in delight. If I were faking it could be something from Harry Met Sally, but there is no faking this. Oh, my!!!

Yesterday, in our class a Swiss German-speaking couple, a French men, an American couple from Arizona and I worked with Chef Guy Herault in something right out of Biology 101. We disected our huge, fat duck livers for foir gras. Once it was all properly placed in a loaf pan to be steamed, drained and weighed down, we learned all about how to properly cut up a duck in such a way that every little tidbit could be used. The breasts were butterflied open, then 5 prunes placed in the crease, rolled up, tied up as in a rolled roast. Ah yes, later to be fried and sliced for a starter. Other parts of the duck were to be used for a terrine, served in cassoulet, made into soup. As the class ended we celebrated with foie gras on two kinds of bread--one white, one prune/nut--and about 6 different kinds of jam and a light Cahor white wine.

For lunch we got the duck breast starter, a entre of terrine with figs and other little tidbits. The main plate was a salmon fillet with all sorts of colorful and tasty garnishes. Dessert went over the top with homemade double chocolate ice cream on a bed of ginger confite.

Spent the afternoon recovering from all that with a visit to the museum and a nice long swim, then reading until I fell asleep for a bit of a nap in the warm fall sun.

Today our cooking class was dedicated to learning how to make all the garnishes we had seen. I learned about five ways to use a tomato for garnish and a bunch of neat things to do with cucumbers, butternut squashand lemons or oranges. The we prepared salmon tartar, salmon filets, and other garnishes for our own lunch. The Arizona couple and I were joined by two fun French women.

There was a moment in between having Chef Guy gently show me the proper way to hold the knife to achieve the proper result and completing my own garnished plate, that I was so aware how much I have enjoyed this experience. It was a little scary for me to attempt doing something that I had no idea if I would be good at or would really enjoy and finding just how much I really like learning something new; to be open to the risk of failing and then succeeding at some of it and botching up some of it and knowing that the end result was really all about the process after all.
Later in the day as I walked to a neighboring town I walked through a hazel nut orchard. I readily recalled Dame Julian of Norwich's words about the hazel nut in which God showed her that God loved it and that everything has being through the love of God. Later she writes, "What do you wish to know your Lord's meaning in this thing? Know it well, love was his meaning. Who reveals it to you? Love. What did he reveal to you? Love. Why does he reveal it to you? For love. Remain in this and you will know more of the same."

And so I felt much love, much joy, great peace/shalom, a renewing of faith and an experience of God's presence all around me. I saw it with my eyes and with the eyes of my heart and I knew that today the Eyes have it.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Picture this

Catacurian School, a former farm house in El Masroij, Spain

Salt cod with tomato sauce,
Patris, Line and Marilyn, new Catacurian graduates

Paella, does it get any better than this?

I made it to Toulouse via train today. After several attempts driving on narrow, pedestrian filled streets, I made it my my hotel. The whole day from the driver finding Catacurian (beginning his search in the wrong town and still getting me to the train in time) to finally finding the car rental at the train station to having to circle the inner city numerous times and then finding a restaurant recommended by the guide book, it all seemed like God just guiding and directing me to the right place when I really needed to be there and not before. The hotel is very nice, but it kind of gives me aesthetical whiplash. It is a lovely old building that has been renovated in a very modern style: black walls with LED lights that come on as you move down the hall; much chrome and airplane oriented things, includig a cloud mural on the walls and an espresso machine in the room. This is another beautiful city, filled with old churches and monasteries and loads of cafes, shops and specialty stores. But as you can see I mostly wanted to share some of the great photos above of the previous week in the first cooking shool in El Masroij, Spain. The finale of Paella was a great time in the making, made even more special when our chef (Alicia)'s brother and a friend/colleague stopped by to pick up a special pot for making white beans and stayed to enjoy the fruits of our efforts. They were loads of fun, sharing stories and skits. Laughter seemed to be our common language. I even did the "Babusha" story in Spanish (of a sort) Tomorrow I'm off to the next school at a chateaux a couple of hours drive away.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Catacurian: Olive oil, garlic, tomatoes, nuts, cookies

Carmelizing the "Creme de San Josep"'

Tomato sorbet with olive pate

Catacurian ("Cata" short for Catalonyan and "curian" for Epicurian) is my first cooking school. This old, totally renovated farm house on the edge of the Tarragon village, El Masroij, is where I have enjoyed a renewed sense of utter happiness. The owner/chef, Alicia, a retired ballerina and dance teacher, used to visit her abuela (granny) in this place. Now she shares her abuela's recipes (and her innovations to them) with her students. Enrollment is limited to 6, but this week, there are just 3 of us--me and a French speaking couple from Quebec. They are young, fun and well traveled.

For me this has been an experience in tasting all kinds of new foods that I have never had the opportunity to try before. And have I been missing out or what? Many of the dishes we helped create are made in one pot and will most definitely be among my new "signature dishes." Most of them include 2 basic mixtures that are added at some point in the cooking process. The first "La Picada" which means "knock, knock," the sound of a pestle in mortar, is a very finely ground mix of almonds, hazelnuts, pine nuts, garlic, cookies, friend bread; and may include chocolate and/or the meat of special peppers. This paste is used to thicken sauces, rather than flour or corn starch. The other big additive is "Sofregit," which is like the Holy Trinity in Cajun food. It is is onions, grated tomatoes, garlic, and olive oil. Maybe some parsely added; and brandy or white wine added at the end to carmelize the mix. When these two things are put together, then the other cooking really begins.

After this week, I will have to buy garlic in bulk, tomatoes by the bushel and olive oil by the gallon. Of course, chef Alicia is very biased toward the produce of "el Priorat" where we are located. This area was revitalized in the 1200's by Carthusian monks as they planted grapes vines and taught new agriculture methods to the locals. The head of the monastery, the Prior, was considered as nobility, thus the name "Priorat." Here they grow special tiny olives that give the best oil, the best nuts, the best grapes for wine. The Mediterranean is not far away, so fish figures prominenently in many dishes; as does lamb, Iberian (black) hog, wild game, rabbits and birds.

Just to make the mouths of the gentle readers water, we have made and enjoyed such delights as mussels with rosemary and garlic. Don't peel the garlic and saute it whole for a great sensation--very mild and the texture of potato. And Suquet de peix--a fish stew of hake, shrimp, clams, sofregit, picada. Another evening we had monkfish with rice, artichokes, rice, onion and garlic. Another night veal with three kinds of mushrooms in a sauce of sofregit and picada and stock. This could easily become a favorite.

Some interesting salads have included a huge white asparagus with duck breast ham, olive oil and pepper; tomato sorbet with olive pate; broiled goat cheese with a sprig of thyme on mixed greens with a mustard vinegarette. Oh, and did I mention that it is good to add olive oil to all of these? Desserts have often been simple fruits with cheese. But last night we made Creme de San Josep; traditionally a Father's Day treat, but is basically the Spanish version of creme brule. Tonight we make the requisite Paella; Alicia says that her school would be a failure if every class didn't enjoy this regional specialty.

I suppose it goes without saying, but I will say it anyway, the Priorat is a major wine producing region. So every meal is accompanied by a perfect pairing of wine(s); often beginning with the Spanish version of champagne, "Cava" available in white or stronger tasting red. Some of the white wines are very bold and hold up well with some very spicy dishes; the reds are complex--the result of interesting hybrids which love this dry, shale soil; hot days and tender care. We have sampled many varieties--even some while they were still fermenting in huge stainless steel tanks or aging in oak barrels. Nothing like going to the source, huh?

Today at a vineyard tour, near the Carthusian monastery, Jordie, the winery owner--a young, entrapeneur, with big dreams said, "What we are making in the vineyard is the most important part of the whole wine business." The technology and science of making wine can be controlled and is really pretty standard; bottling and aging can make some interesting nuances, but not so much; marketing can show off a wine and make some profits, but it is really what happens in the vineyard where it really all begins and ends. Some of it has to do with the care that someone exercises in the care of the vines--pruning, spading the soil, deciding when the grapes have reached their right sugar content, color and so on. But it also has to do with intangibles like the soil, the sun, the rain, the elevation. And maybe all of that really has to do with God and God's creation and provision. The Carthusians were silent hermits who listened for God in nature: birds singing, water flowing, wind in the trees. Being attuned to God by mindful awareness also made them enthusiastic pray-ers for the souls of others. As I think of the vineyards where we work (offices, schools, homes) and the people with whom we have contact, I wonder how we might convey that these very people in these very places are the most important part of the whole "God business." And trust that God is working in them and in us, with us and through us far more than we can ever ask or imagine.

Kind of amazing what one begins to think in the middle of siesta time after a lovely lunch of salt cod with tomato sauce and a goat cheese salad. Oh and did I mention that we added olive oil on top of it all and had a lovely white wine from El Priorat? Taste and see that the Lord is good! Salud!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Habla espanol?

Morrow de bacalla amb fons de'espinacs amb allioli suac at 4 Gats
My last day in NYC was spent with a friend I've known since kindergarten. Virginia left Rawlins to seek her fortune in New York as soon as high school ended. She is an artist and designer, master swimmer and scuba diver. What a treat it was to have someone--almost a native--show me around her part of the city. Since she has become involved in the Slow Food movement and shops most every day at the famous NY Farmer's Market, she was eager to also show me some of the speciality shops with their offering of cakes, fish, cheese. It was simply amazing to wander through Chelsea (saw General Theological Seminary), Soho, Greenwich Village, Flatiron, etc, all places I've read about, but never seen. We also walked the Highline which is a community movement to make a walking path and narrow, long park where an elevated railroad once ran. Eventually we ended up at Mari Vanna, a new Russian restaurant where I enjoyed a cold soup with an impossible name that uses rootbeer as the base. Her sorrel soup was much tastier, but not nearly so much fun.

The flight to Barcelona was easy with good films to pass the time. Then welcome to Spain! In my efforts to get adjusted quickly to the time change, I checked into the hotel and found a hop on/hop off bus tour. It was a great way to get the lay of the land and to see some of the famous spots. I particularly enjoyed seeing Sagreda Familia, the unfinished church, designed by Gaudi. It is an amazing piece of architecture with holy symbols, words and columns, chimneys, towers inspired by nature. One of the exhibits had photos of plants and animals, accompanied by his drawings, models of plaster and photos of the finished work. After seeing that, it made touring the church that much more enjoyable. The carvings dedicated to the Nativity were simply amazing.

We toured much of the Olympic (1992) Village, the stadium for the Barcellona Futbol Team which inspired some other tourists to join in singing the Barce song, and the world class harbor. The Queen Mary 2 was in port, Barcellona is the leading city for cruises.

In the evening I wandered through Las Ramblas to find the legendary Cuatro Gats (4 Cats) where Picassa and other artists used to hang out. Barcellona is famous for its salt cod and I enjoyed a wonderful cod loin sauteed spinach and alioli. Yummy and pretty, too. I got a kick out of ordering my whole meal in Espanol and having some Canadian tourists ask me if I could speak English, so they could get help ordering their meal. Too funny.

Today, I enjoyed tours of the Jean Leon winery. He was an associate of Frank Sinatra and started La Scala in Hollywood with James Dean. This winery was founded just to provide specialty wines for the restaurant. It's a big exporter around the world now since being purchased by the Torres family conglomerate. We also toured a huge exporter of Cava, the sparkling wine of Spanish origin. It is some kind of abundance to see 1.5 million bottles of wine in one cellar, just letting the yeast settle, and another couple of million in other states of production.
So, all is well, as I settle into the tasting part of this time. Tomorrow, begins a cooking class at the Catacurian School. Where do I see God? in the amazing artistry of cathedrals and churches as the special gifts of talented artists are offered? Where do I taste God? in the variety of new dishes. (and in a cup of Starbucks late in the day when my hotel's coffee maker didn't work for breakfast--as the deer panteth for the water, I was desperate for coffee) in the face of a fellow tourist who was on leave from her 2nd tour in Iraq and is headed to Afghanistan in November. She was of good humor as she enjoyed this brief leave and we toasted her rest, recuperation and hopes for peace.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

New York, New York

Kent Falls on the way back from the Dairy Farm

The last day on the farm at Melrose was highlighted with a beautiful drive through the just beginning to turn leaves to the dairy farm where the Community gets their raw milk to make yogurt and cheese. Along the way Helena Marie and I stopped to see several waterfalls and to forage for some black hickory nuts along the side of a highway. These gals truly are into being self sustaining with food as much as possible.

Though I had planned to take a train into the city, Helena Marie decided it would be fun to drive me in. It gave us some additional time to visit and an adventure. After getting caught up in traffic, the car overheated and began making an awful clunking sound. Fortunately we were able to get off the ramp and coast into a service station in Spanish Harlem. The guys standing around analyzed the problem as the fans had quit working. Another of God's graces: right across the street was a garage and auto parts store. While the car cooled down and we determined a course of action, we enjoying sitting under the trees in an alley, listening to Latin music, smelling food cooking and watching the men get off work relaxing in reject office chairs in the alley and drinking Corona's. Eventually an AAA tow truck took the car to another garage and dropped us off at a subway station so we could go on to the Convent.

Got settled into my cell before Helena Marie and I found a nearby by Indian cafe for Lamb Vindaloo. On one side was Thai, on the other Sushi and we'd passed by a Cuban cafe. It is amazing and wonderful to hear so many different languages and to see the different ethnic and cultural groups all around. Whole groups of orthodox Jews on their way to Rosh Hashana services; Indians in saris; etc.

Yesterday I got my "church fix" spending time at St. John the Divine; St. Bart's and St. Patrick's Cathedral. Later I toured some of the exhibits at the Museum of Modern Art. Oh, wow! It is so neat to see paintings and sculptures that I've heard or read about. On the way back to my subway I was momentarily disoriented and lost, but that walkabout took my by Rockefeller Center, Radio City Music Hall, the Waldorf Astoria (where Matt Damon was filming a new movie) No, I didn't see him! As the sun set I enjoyed watching boats on the Hudson River from Riverside Park. And what a small world it is, I ran into a friend from the days I read Ordination exams 6 years ago. She is a prof at Fordham University.

Later I chose the Cuban cafe for a sidewalk supper. Delightful new tastes, aromas and sights. This morning I worshiped with the sisters at their Sunday Mass and had breakfast with them. I don't care much about the silent meals, but appreciate their inviting me to join them. In a bit I will experience worship at St. John the Divine which is just a few blocks away. Oh, the gift of it all to taste and see so many wonderful things in this amazing city.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

A day in the life of "Sister" Marilyn

Helping with bees at Melrose Convent, Brewster, NY
And so after a great trip to NYC (despite sitting on the tarmac for 45 minutes) before deplaning, I was soon headed north about an hour and a half to be met by Sister Helena Marie of the Community of the Holy Spirit. After whisking me to the Melrose Convent for a quick tour of the farm and school yard, I was soon sitting at the kitchen table in what promises to be a culinary adventure. The good sisters raise almost everything they eat, selling their surplus at the local farmer's market. Their vision is to be good models of "relocating" where people are involved in raising and using food locally.

Yesterday I was invited to participate in the typical life of a nun. It started early at 6:30 with a half hour of meditation, followed by the chanted service of Lauds. Then we hit the garden where they gave me some assignments where I could do the least harm--picking cucumbers, hedge pears, windfall apples; then I advanced to beans which were in the proper stage of drying. They had all kinds of exotic names, Strike, German Butterball, Black Turtles, Red Hidatsa, Preserver. The beans will be dried, stored and used through the winter. After harvesting all I could, I "got to" weed several of the bean patches.

At noon we took a break so the nuns could have "Conference" to work out conflicts and make assignments. I cleaned up in order to preside at the daily Eucharist as their resident priest was at a clericus meeting. The culinary adventure began at the Eucharist with homemade elderberry wine and gluten free bread. Then things got even better with a home grown, free range roasted chicken, cornbread, heirloom tomatoes with fancy names, collard greens and a to-die-for apple pie. Everything was grown right there, so one truly could celebrate the taste of place.

Following lunch, Bill, a resident associate who does much of the handy man chores, got me suited up to help tend the bees. I got to run the smoke billows as we fixed the hive so the queen could rise higher into it. They produced several hundred pounds of honey with their 4 hives. Did I mention that they also have 300 maple trees, so maple syrup can be used in a variety of ways, too?

After a brief time to rest, it was back to weeding for a couple of hours before cleaning up again for a combined service of Vespers and Compline. We fixed a simple supper of salad greens, homemade bread and cheese. It seemed a little strange to eat in silence as the Grand Silence began. But eating that way certain puts one in a mindful state of appreciating what is going into the mouth.

Today the schedule was basically the same, but the lunch which was prepared by another visitor was highlighted with a Uzbekistan eggplant dish, a grated, roasted beet and rosemary dish, called Beet Rosti, and zucchini muffins. Let me assure you I'll be asking for those recipes before I leave.

Monday, September 14, 2009

And she's off

Monday morning and I am due to fly out of Denver DIA in a few hours. After yesterday's 180 mile drive to deposit the dogs with Roxanne, we assembled a gate for the completion of the dog play area. The boys will be well cared for with her and her 2 pups. That is a great relief. We had a fine steak lunch in Cheyenne before taking the shuttle to Denver. At some moment I realized that the things I could take care of, I had and what I hadn't would all be okay. I barely cleared the city limits when a great peace came over me, a welcome peace. I fell asleep and slept most of the way. A quiet evening of phone calls and reading.

During supper I think about some of the restaurants I've eaten in the last two weeks--great food and atmosphere in some well advertised chains (Red Lobster, Texas Roadhouse, Ruby Tuesday, McDonalds). They were all crowded with folks having a fine time, sure that they would have a meal just like they did the last time they were there. How does that fit in with our sense of regular liturgy--always the same food, pretty much the same atmosphere with the same crowd? How does that compare with the dinner party I went to with my parents at a local golf course where all the Mexican food was handmade by the Latino family who lease the restaurant? There was a different sense of pride in the offerings as they helped serve the food, served their own family in a corner, and joined the dancing to a 4 piece guitar/drum band playing rock oldies, country favs and Mexican folk songs. Lots more of the unexpected pleasures but with a familiar crowd to me (4 widows, 2 widowers, 4 couples all married close to 60 years; all of whom I've known all my life) Rawlins really does have some of the best Mexican food I've ever eaten and some of the nicest folks one would ever want to know or count on as friends.
I am so aware of God's grace this morning for all who have helped me come to this day of departure, wishing me well, bon appetite, bon voyage, prayers for fun, rest, renewal, the offers of assistance and places to stay. The readings of the Daily Office could not have been better, no doubt of another of God's graces. The story of Naboth's vineyard (I will soon be in a vineyard, but don't want to covet others as Ahab did); the story of Jesus' temptation in the wilderness as I begin my own journey that will require me to trust God in new ways as I experience new things traveling alone; the beginning of I Corinthians, the epistle I'd chosen to study while traveling since I will be seeing Corinth near the end of the travel.

So, here I go, ready now for the great adventure this will be.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

From Peaks to Valleys

Reflections on the Grand Mesa, Colorado

Ancient petroglyphs of Rocky Mountain Sheep in the Little Dominquez Valley, Colorado

Last Saturday I drove to Grand Junction, Colorado to visit my good friend, Laurie and her mother, Esther. It was a leisurely 4 1/2-hour drive through the desert between Rawlins and Baggs, then on through the mountains of Colorado. There was so little traffic I figured most folks had headed to the hills on the previous night for their Labor Day camp out or were at another venue for a college football game.

My first Sunday on sabbatical found me in another St. Matthew's. I helped last fall with their stewardship campaign, so enjoyed seeing old friends. Their relatively new rector preached a good sermon that dealt with the many places in which we feel fear, then bringing the Gospel of Jesus inclusive presence as an antidote and cure to fear. It helped me to acknowledge my own fears and to place them with Jesus. As I did so I felt my excitement rise for the next part of my sabbatical. Later we went to see the film, Julie and Julia. Starring Meryl Streep as Julia Child, it was the perfect film to get my mouth watering for French cuisine and to get my fingers twitching to hold a chef's knife and start slicing something. I particularly like the part where she got caught up in the competition to be the fastest onion slicer--not that I'm that competitive!!!

The next couple of days took us on two very different hikes. The first was to the Little Dominquez Valley. From the rust-colored dusty desert floor our eyes were drawn to the towering rocky cliffs silhouetted against an ever changing sky--from clear, bright blue to ominous gray swirls to billowing piles of wool fluff. The highlight was seeing the ancient petroglyphs depicting Rocky Mountain sheep and riders on horse back and various lizard-like creatures. We spotted lots of real live lizards, but no sheep. Some hikers ahead of us caught a view of a mountain lion and her cubs.

The next day we headed in the opposite direction to the Grand Mesa, the largest flat-top mountain in the USA. From below it looks dry and barren, but on top it is a huge conifer forest with numerous lakes and rivers. The temperature dropped from 90 degrees in Grand Junction to 55 on the summit. Perfect hiking weather after hiking in the 100s the day before. We had a lovely 6 miler to Cottonwood Lake. Though there was plenty of elk sign, we weren't rewarded with a sight or sound of them. The aspen are just beginning to turn, giving truth that there is "gold in them thar hills."

So we had plenty of sights of God's goodness. And the tasting was all good, too. The famous Palisade peaches are in full harvest; as is the Olathe corn. We feasted on both and found them to be so sweet that it is like eating pure sugar. Eating produce picked that morning sure makes a big difference. The grapes are almost ready to be harvested, a hopeful sign that I'll be in France or Italy when their harvest is going on, something I would really like to experience. We also tried a wonderful Chipotle salsa and found it particularly good as a substitute for seafood sauce on our cold boiled shrimp. The hint of lime and the chipotle gave the shrimp a delightful new twist.

Now back in Rawlins for a few more days with Mother and Daddy, enjoying our time together while attending to last minute packing details.

Friday, September 4, 2009

At home with my folks

The harvest is coming on in Daddy's Garden--good eatin' from our very own farmers' market

Day 4 of the sabbatical and I am enjoying the peace, quiet, cool nights, warm days and gentle family times being in my home town. Most of the info sent by previous Lilly Endowment grant recipients suggested (strongly) taking several weeks to adjust to not being at the office and on the job. Great advice as making the transition seems to take some time. I'm alternating between great peace and sheer anxiety. I've been enjoying walking Fargo and Rebel around town, looking at the homes of my grandparents and old friends, old schools--lots of fun memories there of family meals, playing on the cellar door, overnights, birthday parties, bike rides and games. Yesterday I climbed the hill near our home where my brother and I had a fort. We often would take bacon and eggs up there early in the morning and learned the fine art of cooking on a sage brush/cedar fire. Kids in those "olden days" had lots of freedom to ride bikes, go places unescorted and apparently even play with fire.

Yesterday, my sister, Joanie, asked on the phone, "What are you tasting and seeing of God this day?" Certainly the hills of Rawlins, the wide open sky with some glorious sunrises/sunsets, due to the smoke from California fires in the air. Tasting a very garlicky, herb encrusted leg of lamb that I fixed the other night; also coleslaw made from cabbage Daddy picked moments before from his beautiful garden; also tomatoes and green beans and onions. As I have been reading a book by Amy Trubek about terroir, taste of place, I think how we have always eaten well from the produce of the folks' garden. Before the popularity of farmers' markets, we had our own. As someone said, "Now is the season when you must keep your car locked; otherwise your neighbors will be filling it with surplus zucchini and tomatoes." True, but tasty! Joanie continued, "But where did you see God in the face of people?" Ah, yes, there was the cute little boy who saw his teacher from last year and greeted her with such delight when she still recognized him. There was my great neice who on the first day of nursery school emerged saying, "Look my arms and legs are longer now that I've been to school."