Sunday, March 31, 2013

Puff Pastry for Dinner

Sometimes food is so much more for me, I almost hate that – because I eat more of it then! It’s not just nutrition. It’s emotion, and memories, and love to myself after a crazy day, or week. And most of all, when I cook it, the whole cooking process is peace at the end of a busy life.

Today, I had some weird cravings for not necessarily food, but just memories. I wanted to bring back my childhood and especially my maia, my mom’s mother. Not sure why. Maybe it’s just looking at the daffodils in my yard which she used to give me for my birthday every year – which is just around the corner. Maybe it’s because she died in April. Maybe because I have been dreaming of her so much… and that makes me miss her so.

So, I reconnected with her, through food …

I made sautéed mushrooms in garlic gravy, wrapped in phyllo dough, and sweet vanilla ricotta cheese  wrapped in puff pastry. She used to make the latter as well as apple strudel almost every weekend. The house smelled so good, and we would always ask: “grandma, which one is which?!”. She used to say: “the lighter one is the cheese”. But they were both light golden in color, and we could never tell till the first bite. 

Sweet, vanilla, ricotta cheese wrapped in puff pastry

The mushroom concoction is a popular street food in my home town – and that also brings me home. I used to just walk outside maia’s condo and just buy these in the street we lived on.  

Garlic gravy mushrooms wrapped in phyllo dough
They both turned out delicious and my house smells like many Sundays long and gone. I will probably dream of days past and my happy childhood all night.
Rest in peace, sweet angel! And, as always, thank you for the memories. 

Monday, March 18, 2013

The Road

My relationship with the road has evolved over years, just like any relationship does – it transforms to become the vague remembrance of what it used to be, despite our helpless and awkward denials and trying to fight it. I think it started before I was alive, all those many years ago, with my gypsy ancestors whose very home was the road …

For me, it started out back in the days of my school years and later, through college, learning the road and loving it in the only way you can learn it and love it – by walking it. I used to walk miles and miles, either with a purpose (to school, to my relatives in the mountains, from the train station towards their remote abodes), or without – just to get to a park, where I would walk some more …

Then, I started taking transportation (train and bus mainly) to get to other cities and countries. All this time, no matter what the means of transport was,  I noted the sights my eyes saw, the color of the sky, mostly, and the shape of the roads – winding, or straight, climbing or flat, potholes or just pristinely even …

Once I moved to America, the road was mine, ‘cause I could drive just about everywhere. That was after years and building up courage to test the interstate system. I would sometimes pick a spot in remote places with skinny, tiny roads that lead to it, just to see if I could make it. That could take up a lonely girl’s whole weekend.

Through it all, I kept a picture of the perfect trip in my head. Although I had never seen it, to me, the perfect trip would be somewhere in Arizona or New Mexico, in the desert, where the road looks endless and it touches the sky at all times. And where there is nothing, not a soul around, not a vague and lying promise of a settling in sight!

Today, I have the chance to drive the desert of Utah every day, if I chose to! It’s not Arizona or New Mexico, but it’s close. Today, my dream has come true, I could say.

I took these shots on my recent trip to Vegas, while driving. I hope you get a taste of the lonely, and yet very alive feeling you get by chasing that horizon, right here, in the desert. 

I love, love, love this beautiful big sky!

The colors of the desert against the sky are surprising and breathtaking ...

Sunrise in the desert ...

“Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.”
― Jack Kerouac, On the Road 

Sunset on the road ... 

Away ...
And till recently, I never knew what my road song was: it was this beautiful reading from Arizona Dream. When I first heard it, while driving, of course, it felt just like coming home. When I get sad or lonely, I play it over and over in my head, and it makes me smile with possibilities … 

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Why I’ll Never Be My Dad

Whether they buy a fridge, or someone turns 50, my dad believes a party is on order for just about any occasion. I was really lucky to grow up with a man that really knew how to celebrate. Not just special events, but just life, in general. Just life, Sundays, a new car, sunny days when you can grill out, or just a new recipe that he found and wanted to share with people.Because partying always means food. Plenty and plenty of homemade food.

This continuous partying (and cooking) drives mom crazy, as she has to do all the cleaning. You see, in dad’s house, you make everything from scratch, and he does, but he (‘the man of the house’) doesn’t do dishes. So, mom is in a 3-4 day marathon of washing and cleaning while he uses every pot and utensil in the house making his masterpieces. The man has his rules!

To her, food is work. To him, food is love, joy, happiness, relaxing, beauty, pure pleasure. It's Bacchanalia! 

I love food, and I love cooking, and I love sharing food with my friends, over a good cup of gossip. But I don’t have the talent, the patience and the attention my dad has when it comes to putting a party together.

And for those of you who think I cook too much and that my food looks or is delicious … well, take a peek at my dad’s latest makings from this weekend and reevaluate, please. He threw a party for his sister’s birthday and these are just a few of the appetizers he served. Warm appetizers will follow, and then the main courses (yes, as in multiple courses), several desserts and a birthday cake, too. 

As I have said: I grew up with this. But it boggles my mind how creative my dad is, and how he makes new dishes with every new occasion, and how his repertoire never runs dry. It also amazes me, still, how much work goes into every detail and fold of the lettuce. We whine about how difficult Thanksgiving dinner is to cook! My dad cooks this every month, at the very least. If not every other week.

My own parties, in turn, apart from being rare, are also boring gatherings of culinary dullness compared to this. A far cry from all this plentifulness and beauty. If only pictures could satisfy hunger or at least, smell.

I will never be able to make as much food as he does, as pretty as he makes it look, as delicious, and as detailed in presentation and flavor alike. I am fortunate to have had the example and to always want to strive, but it will never happen …  In other words - I will never be my dad.

 The "meat" tray, as my husband calls it: a wide variety of smoked meats and sausages that he makes himself. He cooks them, then smokes them in his own in-ground smoker, that he built from scratch. 

 From left to right: mushrooms and onion in aioli; slices of veggie and meat roulade; corn salad

 From left to right: a tray of crudites and fruit; a brined fish tray, with  lettuce, and fresh green onions (on the glass)

 Seafood salad three ways: shrimp, calamari and mussels, with salmon and lettuce "decor" 

 The crudite plate, again, and 2 fish sashimi and raisins on orange slices

 Seafood in aspic (on either sides) and meatloaf slices (middle)

100% homemade, Romanian sushi - of various fishes, topped with roe. Morimoto would be proud to be challenged to this! 

Saturday, March 02, 2013

Leave No Trace


They say religions are born in the desert. And you have to walk the desert to understand exactly why.

There is so much, amidst the so little out there. It’s vast, and dead silent. Scary. You’re constantly waiting for something to happen. To erupt. And make it all noisy. And you wait. And the vast of the desert answers – with yet another day (or night) of silence. It’s almost despair, this wait, in vain. But after a while you get it. You take everything in, and not only you start to hear the very life of it, the tumultuous-ness of it, but you also know that, in the end, that is the ultimate truth: “the rest is silence”.

After a while, you learn to listen to every small, needle-y leaf swish in the dry air; you hear the howl of the wind through the canyons, you watch the rocks fall, ever so slightly, into the sharp valleys. You hear the wolves. You see how the clouds and the sun change the shades of red on the rocks – almost with a “ta-da” noise, each time. And see the deer and the free range cows jump and perk up their ears. In the summer, you’ll hear the lizards busy body-ing through the boulders. It’s alive.

But the world wraps everything in a blanket of hush. And just for a minute you might have the illusion that you’re alone. With Him.

We drove down in the heart of the Utah desert (where that is, exactly, don’t ask me – the whole state is a diverse, colorful, immense sea of wasteland) the other week, to spend a couple of days in this small town, population cca 300, of Bluff. I found it quite by accident, while trying to see where we could stay overnight if I were to go visit Goosenecks State Park. Their site was mentioning that it’s closest to the town of Bluff – of which I have never heard. But if it has a hotel and a gas station, I am typically OK! Minus the constant scare that I might be shot and buried in the middle of nothing, of course!

I was a bit nervous to go that big of a distance away from any civilization (about an hour and a half from Moab), but I was hungry for silence, and hungry for beauty. And boy, did we get both!

On Saturday, when we got there, there were only two restaurants open in town: Bluff City Café – a very small, Native American owned diner, and Twin Rocks Café. Since our hotel lady told us that Twin City Café will be the only food place open on Sunday, we decided to have some variety and ate at Bluff City Café the first night.

I got the Navajo taco (of course), and it was delicious. It was cool to watch how they make the fry bread, from scratch, right there. No frozen nothing from a huge Sam’s Club freezer bag dipped in the fryer. I am not sure what will stick with me from this place: the enormous (think The Green Mile giant) Navajo owner, who towered over us, yet was so helpful and nice and gentle tempered?, the delicious beef and bean chili on the fresh fry bread?, the cute water jugs they had, in the shape of Indian boots?, or the fact that on a Saturday night we were the only people in the whole joint. Us, the Indian man and his cook – who looked more like a Turkish immigrant than an Indian, in the middle of the dead silent world. No, it was not scary. Just very, very welcoming and cozy! 

The cute bootie water jugs at Bluff City Cafe 

Sunday, we ate both the breakfast and the dinner at Twin City Café- as there was no other choice other than the beef jerky at the gas station! Everything we had was again, delicious. It all tasted homemade. I know my husband will say that the brisket he had there for dinner will be something he’ll remember, but I loved the chicken noodle soup. I have not had homemade noodles since before I moved to the US, 15 years ago!

Between the only hotel that seemed open (ours – Desert Rose Inn and Cabins), the only gas station and the only restaurant open, we just about acquainted the whole town and all of its handful of visitors in 48 hours – just about. It was that small, and that intimate. 

 Goosenecks State Park

On Sunday, we drove around, looking for photo opps, of course and just getting lost in the wild . We saw Goosenecks Park, first, this beautiful canyon where the San Juan River twists and turns and forms these “S” shaped valleys, really close to each other. We visited the Natural Bridges National Monument . We drove around The Valley of the Gods – which is so appropriately named it’s not even funny! It’s huge, overwhelmingly so, and it has beautiful rock formations scattered all around it  that change their color in the moving sun, during the span on one day, with every cloud that shades them – it’s breathtaking. You just know all this cannot be at random!

The Valley of the Gods vista

We then drove by the Sand Island Park, and saw the thousands of petroglyphs carved in the side of the rocky mountains – a living testimony of times past. And that’s another thing about these parts: you feel and hear the steps of what used to be: the Old West, head-full-of-dreams cowboys trekking across the land, in search of  their fortune: gold? Cattle? Land? Who remembers?! Just searching. You hear the screams of the Indians defending and losing their own. The cooing of babies in the wagons. The barks of the dogs sensing the coyotes in the distance, and the screech of the wood wheels against the hard rocky, yet un-carved paths through the mountains. I always feel so small and so humble to be walking the same trails as all that civilization. The petroglyphs bring that all back to your mind. And you shiver.

Sand Island Park Petroglyphs

On the way down, we noticed lots of places called “port of entry” – just a  reminder of where one county stopped and another began, back when boundaries were sacred. The stores are called “trading posts” to this day, and they still have the wooden railings in front, where you can tie your horse.

Outside this fairy land, we also visited The Hole in the Rock house and grounds – a freak in architecture, as these folks in 1950’s carved their 5000 sq. ft. home in the side of a rocky mountain, right outside Moab. Their yard and store is just a vivid testimony of everything Americana stands for.

We also drove the 14 miles on Hwy 128 in the same area, to go visit The Red Cliffs Lodge and Castle Valley Winery, along the Colorado river – a place where hundreds of movies have been shot; so many, in fact, it beckoned the place to host a movie museum on its premises. The Red Cliffs Lodge will probably be on our short list of places to stay when we drive down to Moab, again. What a beautiful, serene, forgotten, hidden place! The Moab red mountains around turn the grounds into just a cathedral under the skies, complete with a beautiful, sunken in pasture, horses and cozy small cabins strung like beads along the river. 

Nearing The Red Cliffs Lodge - Moab

It was a visual as much as it was a spiritual journey, all in all! We got closer to nature, God, our land, our past, ourselves and each other, just in the span of 2 days! The desert wind will cover our footsteps, but the vivid red rocks will forever be imprinted in our brains and hearts, as forever as they are in the wild. 

Click on this picture to see the whole album that captures this trip