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Tag Archives | cooking

mixer, memento: finding roots in a rootless life

I have a new coffee table. Big and square, it’s exactly the right height to rest my feet on while I sit on the couch.  I have a new dining table, too, and in the kitchen cabinet there’s a new mixer—one of those fancy standing mixers with an attachment for mixing bread dough. Of course, in the two years I’ve lived in Abu Dhabi, I’ve made bread exactly three times, so I don’t know if I’ll ever use that mixer.

I bought the mixer as a memento, actually, from friends who are leaving Abu Dhabi permanently. They’re going back to the States after eight years abroad and the mixer won’t work on a US electrical current. The dining table and coffee table are also mementos, purchased from another set of friends also moving away.

Most major metropolitan areas have expat communities, whether the high-end corner office types or the unskilled workers who clean those offices, but in Abu Dhabi, the population seems more fluid than it is in other places. Sometimes, in fact, living here seems like living in Chile under Pinochet: one day you’re nodding and smiling at the nice couple with the little dog who live down the street, and then it’s two weeks gone and you realize their house has been vacant for days.

Where did they go with that little dog? Across town? Across the globe? Back “home,” wherever that might be? Did someone get sick, lose a job, get a job, have a baby, split up?  I feel like I live in a city of unfinished stories and loose ends. Sometimes you get the full story: you say good-bye and all those other farewell things that you mean when you say them: “come visit,” and “we’ll visit,” and “there’s always facebook.” But more often than not, people just disappear; we notice for  a minute and then life swirls on.

I suppose on the one hand, the optimistic view of these transient relationships would be to see a web of friendships spreading across the globe and to imagine that children who grow up in expat cultures will always have a friend’s couch to sleep on, no matter where they find themselves.

But on the pessimistic other hand, this fluid community creates a kind of tentativeness: why invest in a new friendship if that friendship will soon become long distance instead of down the street? This question seems particularly pressing at my age, which is to say no longer in the first bloom (or even the second bloom) of youth: I’m middle-aged, frequently crabby, often tired, all of which makes making friends really hard. All that small talk and getting-to-know-you chitchat? Really, who has time?

Except, of course, as Simone Weil once said, “being rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul.” Without friends and the sense of community that friends provide, can we feel rooted anywhere? Are we supposed to carry our roots with us, like trees at a garden store, each with its root-ball tenderly wrapped in burlap to make it easier to transport—and transplant?

I have just moved to a new house, with every expectation of putting down our own roots, and as if to literalize the metaphor, there’s a little garden, where come September, I’m imagining frangipangi and jasmine, maybe a pot of herbs in a shady corner.  I will cook for new friends in the neighborhood and try not to be crabby. Maybe I’ll even bake bread for these as yet unmet friends. After all, I have a mixer with just the right attachment.

 

 

 

for the first time in a long time, i’m joining the writers at yeahwrite: click the badge, read the work you’ll see on the grid: it’s good! yeah writer writers are like broccoli for your brain, but broccoli that sort of tastes like chocolate. Vote for your faves on the grid starting Thursday…


Continue Reading · on July 11, 2013 in Abu Dhabi, environment, expat, Travel

if this is how a twelve year old gives compliments, how will he do insults?

Yesterday around dinner time, I asked Liam if he wanted chicken in a tortilla or just plain chicken with rice (I know, what a dazzling array of options. Don’t tell Ina Garten; she’d just feel threatened).

Liam, sprawled on his bed in his fuzzy bathrobe, surfaced out of the book he’s reading (The Name of the Wind, which is apparently the Best Book Ever in the History of Words).

“You know, mommy,” he said, bleary eyed from reading, “lots of families get take-out, like, all the time. But you…You just…take a little of this and a little of that and then the next thing you know you’ve made chicken tacos like from Dos Toros. I mean, I never could’ve imagined, Dos Toros tacos, here, in Abu Dhabi. You’re amazing.”

Dos Toros, for those of you not lucky enough to live in Manhattan, is a stupendously good taqueria that used to be around the corner from our apartment.  They do real cooking.  Me? I put chicken in a pan with some magic dust (Blue Smoke’s magic dust), slap the chicken bits into a corn tortilla with some Mexican rice from the marvelous Maria. No cheese, no sauce, no guac, no tomato, no beans. Dry as hell but the kid thinks it’s some kind of haute gourment special, so who I am to disabuse him?

Perhaps fueled by his love for chicken tacos, the twelve-year old flung his arms around me. “You’re just so great and nice and helpful, and you find me great books–or your students suggest great books–and you help me with thinking and ideas and everything and I just love you! You’re such a helper! You’re so good at so much and help me with everything.”

I am basking. My pre-teen son, gushing about how much he loves me? Oh be still my beating heart.

There is a long pause. Liam keeps his arms around me, then looks up.

“I mean, except in math. You can’t really do anything in math that’s useful to me. I mean, in math you just really have to, you know, how to do it. And you just, I mean, you just don’t.  When will dinner be ready?”  He picks up his book and dives back into the story.

From the heights of glory, I am cast down to the valleys.

I shuffle into the kitchen to make the tacos, wondering who will help me count out how many tortillas I need.

 

 

 

Continue Reading · on March 3, 2013 in Books, family, food, growing up, Kids, Parenting

Monday Listicle: Food

Mid-December and the madness is upon us: students trapped in end-of-semester zombie-state, with circles under their eyes down to their jawlines; piles of (as yet ungraded) papers; emails from Grandma asking what the boys want for Christmas presents; a round of holiday parties (some a pleasure, some an obligation); and of course the requisite dementia-inducing Christmas music being piped into all the malls.  The cognitive dissonance of standing in the grocery checkout line at the Australian-owned grocery store next to a woman swathed in black abaya and sheyla as my groceries are rung up by the lovely Filipina at the register … and Bruce Springsteen howls “Santa Claus is comin’ to town…”  Sometimes the world seems much flatter than other times.

But. Holidays. Holidays in almost any culture means sharing and eating food. Cookies, cakes, pastries, soup…all the recipes come out at holiday time.  So Stasha’s listicle this week–suggested by Bridget at the always funny Twinisms— asks us to think about food, and I thought that maybe I’d list my favorite recipes or favorite holiday treats, but let’s face it: I am a competent cook and only a so-so baker, so my recipes aren’t going to be that much fun.

Better, I thought, to offer you all a list bounteous with schadenfreude: you can read my list of food fails and feel better by comparison. Consider it my holiday gift to you.

You’re welcome.

1. My new favorite cocktail, the French 75.  A delicate drink that packs a whammy: gin, simple syrup, fresh lemon juice, champagne. I read the recipe, thought “hey, that’s easy,” and mixed up a cocktail for myself and Husband.  Who knew you weren’t supposed to put the champagne in the cocktail shaker with the other ingredients? Do you know what happens when you put champagne in a jar and shake it? Yes. Expensive French fizz pretty much all over.  Expensive French sticky fizz. The drinks looked pretty (although a tad foamy), but apparently you’re only supposed to top off the glass with champagne. Who knew?

2. Baked brie. Who doesn’t love a baked brie? Gooey warm cheese wrapped in flaky pastry (courtesy of Pillsbury, natch) that gets spread on yet more bread. Dee-vine.

Now I’d like you to imagine the top of that delicious-looking treat completely charred. Yep, blackened, as if the instructions read “cook Cajun style.”  In case you’re wondering, blackened baked brie is not a taste treat. Not even if you try to slice off the burned top and flip the thing over. Then you get something that resembles smushed bread floating in goo. Unappetizing in the extreme.

3. Pizza with goat cheese, spinach, and carmelized onions. Yum. You can serve this for supper or cut it into small pieces and use it as an appetizer. Use pizza crust, or boboli, or flatbread, then spread goat cheese, sauteed spinach, and carmelized onions on top. Heat the pizza a bit so the goat cheese gets warm and melty.  Do not flip it over onto the bottom of the oven as you try to take it out of the oven. If, perchance, you should flip the entire goddamn thing onto the bottom of the oven, make sure no one sees you scoop the toppings off the oven floor and attempt to re-arrange them on the pizza crust.  Should someone see you do that, you can assure them that it’s okay because you never clean the oven, so it’s not like they’re going to be tasting any chemicals along with their goat cheese.

4. Very Important Realization (VIR): checking the expiration date on the package of yeast is always a good idea. Otherwise, your pizza crust dough might look something like this:

We went out for dinner instead.

5. Birthday cakes. Ah, birthday cakes. I want so badly to be that parent, the one who lovingly crafts perfect confections for the little darlings. Erin, over at the Sisterhood of the Sensible Momsshe is that parent:

If she weren’t so funny and kind, you’d sort of have to hate her.

My birthday cakes don’t look like that. They’re more…um….let’s say they exhibit a charming DIY sensibility, shall we?

Another VIR?  Frosting is the spanx of baking. It can make anything look good. Or at least okay.

6.  And yet a third VIR?  Find friends who cook, and cook well.  Their recipes and advice (and samples!) are invaluable. I’m lucky to know Sean over at Big Poppa Eats, with his cobbler, and Lily, Abu Dhabi’s very own Queen of Tarts. And of course, the Sisterhood of Sensible Moms (when I’m not feeling intimidated, cakely speaking)…

7.  My foodie talent might run in the family. During our growing-up years, when we asked my mom what was for dinner, she’d say “chicken glop” or “hamburger glop” or, basically, whatever form of protein she’d purchased mixed with some cans of tomatoes and spices. Usually it tasted good but the concept of “glop” remains in my head, whenever I confront the dinner hour, with one kid who does not like sauces, another kid who loves sauces, a husband who will eat pretty much anything, and me, who would happily be a vegetarian but lives in a house of carnivores.  That’s why I often find myself in what I call three-way chicken hell, even though I vow (pretty much monthly) that I will not cave in to all these separate preferences.

8. Shopping for food in a country not your own always presents challenges. For the most part, I can find food we’re used to here, or at least versions of what we’re used to. There is bacon, for instance, although it’s hideously expensive and requires doing the walk of shame into the pork room at the grocery store. But then there are those jarring moments when you realize, as you browse the shelves, that you’re in a country that caters to a palate very different than your own:

9.  This:

Would someone please explain A) what is a “malt loaf” and B) what it means to have “squidgy energy”?

10. Okay. I will make one gesture towards recouping my culinary sense of self.  I have learned how to make a pretty kick-ass cinnamon roll. And the smell of baking cinnamon rolls is like a holiday all in itself.

Continue Reading · on December 12, 2012 in Abu Dhabi, food, Monday Listicle, UAE

food for memory

I left most of my cookbooks in New York when we moved out here. With epicurious and all the other food websites (dinnerdujour, anyone? or the fantastically named ezrapoundcake?)  I figured I could use that space to pack more of Caleb’s important Sticks and Rocks. I did, however, bring my binder.  A binder with recipes in it, not women (thanks Mitt, for an image that will never, ever die).

At some point before we moved, in a fit of organizational madness, I got tired of all the random bits of paper floating around the cabinet where I kept my cookbooks, so I bought a binder and got all Martha Stewart, with little dividers and thematic details (all the tomato recipes clustered together, for instance). I even had a section for “wine,” a hopeless thought if ever there were one. Mostly I buy “that stuff I had that one time at the place with that tapas.”  And that selection process is a significant step up from purchases made on the basis of whether or not I liked the design on the label.

So I had this binder, jammed full of random bits (because the Martha-method of organization didn’t last more than about six months), and I brought it with me. Before we moved, I weeded out the recipes (was I ever really going to make a seven-layer cake? Not if my life depended on it. Ditto fondant. Ditto anything that involves large quantities of anchovies), and so when I arrived in my new dun-colored Abu Dhabi kitchen, the binder had become a collection of greatest hits, tried-and-true, and the occasional Pulling Out All The Stops (beet napoleons from Cooks Best Illustrated).  I still get recipes off the internet but more often than not, I turn to the binder.

Thanksgiving, of course, requires a lot of binder-time. Thanksgiving, more so than Christmas or birthdays or any other holiday, is when I feel furthest away from my regularly scheduled life in New York. The reassuring – and rather bizarre — idea that everyone (or most everyone) is sitting down to eat some version of the same food, for the same reasons…it’s not easily translated to other countries, most of which lack a parallel holiday. Luckily, we once again this year were invited to a Thanksgiving feast by the friends who took us in last year – and once again, I offer up hosannas in praise of colleagues and friends who are also excellent cooks. It wasn’t my good china on the table and the babies clambering around weren’t related to me, but nevertheless it felt good to be cradled in the comfort of ritual.

As I puttered around my kitchen making my mother’s dill bread, Suzanne’s carmelitas, my aunt’s vinaigrette – all recipes from the binder – Liam wandered into the kitchen and begin to flip through the binder pages, which are transparent sleeves into which I’ve slipped emails with recipes, clippings, jotted recipes gathered from friends.

“This isn’t really recipes,” he said. “It’s like a whole book of memories.”

Maybe that’s the real reason I left the cookbooks in New York but brought along the binder. The cookbooks are just recipes but the binder is history.

As my special Thanksgiving present, the recipe for Suzanne’s oatmeal carmelitas (which for all I know, came from the back of a package somewhere, but in our house, they come from Suzanne):

14 oz bag of light caramels (your basic Kraft are fine); 1/2 cup evaporated milk or light cream; 2 cups each of flour & quick cooking rolled oats; 1 1/2 cup packed brown sugar; 1 t baking soda; 1/2 tsp salt; 1 cup melted butter; 1 cup semisweet chocolate bits; 1 cup chopped pecans (optional)

Heat caramels in heavy-bottomed pot with cream, then let it cool slightly

Combine rest of the ingredients, except for chocolate chips (and nuts if you’re using nuts) in a large bowl to make a crumbly mixture.

Press 2/3 of mixture into greased 13×9 pan. Bake at 350 for about 10 minutes (slightly browned at edges); remove pan from oven

Sprinkle with chips and nuts, pour caramel over top of chocolate chips, then sprinkle top with the remaining oats mixture. Bake 15-20 minutes.  Let cool on a rack for 10-15 minutes, then chill for 1-2 hours before serving (do not attempt to cut these into slices until they’re really cool, or they will ooze into a gooey (but delicious) mess.

If you can’t find caramels, which is weirdly hard to find in the UAE, you can make your own caramel sauce or use dulce de leche sauce from a jar.

 

 

as you sit there, still reeling from tryptophan, why don’t you click over and see what’s cooking in the yeahwrite kitchens? 

Continue Reading · on November 25, 2012 in Abu Dhabi, expat, family, food, lost in translation, NaBloPoMo, UAE

Sometimes chili is chili. Sometimes it’s a metaphor.

I cook at lot in the fall. Something about that first chill in the air that makes me want to get all Ma Ingalls and make big pots of rib-sticking food, much of which I freeze for the winter months. Of course Ma Ingalls didn’t have a freezer but you take my point.

So. I decided to make chili. And also a squash-apple-curry soup. Because even though it’s 85F and sunny outside, it’s November, dammit, and in November, a person makes soup. Like Maurice Sendak said, “In November’s gusty gale,  I will flop my flippy tail and spout hot soup – I’ll be a whale! Spouting once, spouting twice, spouting chicken soup with rice!”

We invited some friends to dinner as a cooking incentive; I did the walk of shame through the pork room at the grocery store, bought vegetables (I put vegetables in my chili), entered the dark warren of my kitchen, and set to chopping.  Maybe it’s a good thing that there aren’t any windows in my kitchen: it makes it easier to feel fall-ish.  Of course, when I emerged from the kitchen, I’d stand in the hall blinking for a few seconds at the brilliant sunshine streaming in the windows.

Into my chili went: chorizo from Spain, carrots from Jordan, eggplant from Iran, peppers from Holland, kidney beans from the French chain store Carrefour, canned tomatoes from Waitrose in the UK.  The chili powder – well, the chilly powder – and other spices came from the UAE.

On top of each bowl of chili went a blob of labneh (like a cross between sour cream and yogurt, and made locally); a sprinkle of grated Kraft cheddar; and a handful of chopped cilantro from Abu Dhabi.  (And no I didn’t have any cheddar cheese on my chili; I’m on day two of being cheese-free, and while life no longer seems worth living, at least I’ve stuck to my pact for two entire days.)

A global chili, that’s what I made.  A metaphor in a pot,  a cosmopolitan stew.

Plus? It was delicious.  Fall is definitely in the air.

 

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Continue Reading · on November 2, 2012 in Abu Dhabi, food, NaBloPoMo

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