Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Crossing Cultures in Marrakech

“Hello, you remember me?” the man asked, with a wide smile. “I carry your bags this morning, remember?”

Chris and I nodded blankly and smiled back at the man as we walked out the front gate of La Mamounia in Marrakech. We weren’t, in truth, staying at this renowned hotel. We had simply wanted to stroll its magnificent gardens, usually reserved for guests. But we were dressed for dinner at a nearby restaurant and thought we’d try to sneak in, striding past the uniformed doormen just thirty minutes earlier like we owned the place.




Now as we left the grounds, this man appeared smiling. “I look different now,” he said. “No hat.” He pointed to his head, referring to the traditional flat-topped fez often worn by porters in upscale Moroccan hotels.

We nodded and smiled again, embarrassed to reveal we weren’t rich Westerners, at least not rich enough to afford La Mamounia, and had just slipped in for a glimpse of its gardens.

“Where are you from?” he asked, walking along beside us.




“The United States,” I replied, watching his face to discern its reaction. It was hard to read, but appeared benign as he launched into a story about a relative who lives in Boston. Every now and then he pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket and consulted it for vocabulary. He explained that he was trying to improve his English. We told him we were on our way to dinner, and he offered to lead us to the restaurant.




Chris and I glanced at each other, not sure where this conversation was heading. Was he just being friendly, or was he like the young men who routinely approached us in the labyrinthine medina offering to give us directions? They were known to lead gullible tourists the wrong way and then help them find their way back for a few coins. But this man seemed different. He prattled on about his twin daughters as he stepped into the chaotic avenue with his arms outstretched to stop traffic so we could safely cross. At some point he told us his name, Omar*, and we told him ours. When he asked our last name, I made one up.




Omar asked if we had been to the Berber rug market held earlier that day. We hadn’t, but had encountered numerous rug merchants in the souk, eager to show us their selections. He had a friend, he said, who would give us a good price, a special price for guests at La Mamounia.

“No thanks,” we said. “We don’t want to be late for dinner.”




Before we knew what was happening, we were seated in a showroom being served mint tea as the merchant unrolled his wares. They were beautiful rugs, and an excellent price considering the labor involved in hand-weaving. The cost was not much more than one night’s stay at La Mamounia. But we weren’t interested in buying a rug. We just wanted to politely escape. It would be rude not to drink the tea, though, and we weren’t quite sure where we were.




Finally, when it was clear we wouldn’t be making a purchase, Omar said goodbye to his friend and led us to the door of our restaurant. He wasn’t as friendly as he had been earlier, although he said he’d look for us at the hotel the next day.




A few minutes later, a waiter served us wine at a table strewn with rose petals. Chris and I toasted, with relief and bemusement, dodging our disingenuous predicament. It then occurred to me that maybe Omar was pulling one over on us too. Did he even work at La Mamounia, or did he wait outside its gate to lead unsuspecting guests to his family’s rug shop? Were we both misreading each other due to stereotypes and cultural assumptions? Nearly a year since our visit there I still couldn’t say, but I do wonder if the reason we were skeptical of his story is because we had concocted one of our own.




I’ve been thinking about this encounter a lot lately, in the wake of the tragic events in Paris. And I’ve wondered if we can ever truly know, or understand, another person’s motives—whether it’s someone we’ve never met, or someone we’ve had a brief exchange with, or someone we know well. Or even ourselves. I’m sad for the people of Paris, all of them, and hope that the better side of human nature will prevail.





Chicken Tagine with Apricots and Almonds (adapted from La Maison Arabe)
This warming, iconic Moroccan dish is perfect for a winter evening. The melt-in-your-mouth chicken is redolent with spices, and the apricots add a touch of sweetness.

Serves 4

3 tablespoons olive oil
1 whole chicken (2 pounds), cut into large pieces
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 cinnamon stick
2 teaspoons ground ginger
2 teaspoons ground turmeric
¼ teaspoon saffron threads
1½ cups water
parsley and cilantro bouquet
16 dried apricots
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
3 cloves
2 tablespoons honey
1 tablespoon butter
½ cup whole almonds, blanched and lightly fried in olive oil

In a tagine or large heavy pot, drizzle the olive oil. Add the meat, onion, salt, pepper, cinnamon stick, ginger, turmeric, and saffron. Mix well so the meat is coated with the spices. On medium heat, sear the chicken for about 15 minutes, covered, turning it occasionally and adding a bit of water if necessary. Watch the chicken closely so it doesn’t stick and so the spices don’t burn.

Add the water to the pot, along with the parsley and cilantro bouquet. Increase the heat to medium-high, cover, and cook for about 50 minutes, or until the meat is falling from the bone and the sauce has thickened.

While the meat is cooking, caramelize the apricots. Rinse the apricots and put them in a small saucepan. Add the cinnamon and cloves and mix well. Cover the apricots with water and cook them on medium heat, covered, for 10 minutes. Lower the heat and continue cooking for 15 more minutes. Add the honey and cook for another 10 minutes until the sauce becomes syrupy.

Before serving, remove the herb bouquet and cinnamon sticks from the tagine. Transfer the chicken from the pot to a serving dish. Add the apricot syrup and butter to the sauce and stir until the butter is melted. Season with salt and pepper and pour the sauce over the meat. Arrange the caramelized apricots and fried almonds evenly over the meat. Serve hot with crusty bread.




*name has been changed

Monday, January 5, 2015

On Montreal, Music, and Memory

It’s a new year, not only in the larger sense but, since Chris and I got married on December 29th, we’re also beginning a new year of marriage. We celebrated our anniversary in Montreal this year, taking in the Francophone culture, the art scene, and some excellent food, bien sûr.




Since the city is less than an hour from the Vermont border, we’ve been to Montreal many times, but never for our anniversary. So on this particular trip I was often reminded of moments from our first visit back 1988. In some ways, you could call it our first date. 




Let me back up. Chris and I met that year at the August wedding of my college roommate Sonja and his grad school roommate Craige. Since we were both in the wedding party, we spent a fair amount of time together that weekend. I discovered he was fun to dance with, we had similar taste in books, and he made me laugh. As the weekend came to a close, I wanted to get to know him better but, at the same time, we were both in the process of moving—I was relocating to the Boston area from Virginia and Chris was moving from Minneapolis to Burlington. We talked about getting together in our new locales and exchanged contact information, but I admit I was skeptical about whether I would hear from him again. 

A couple weeks later, as I was unpacking boxes in my new apartment, I received a delivery of flowers. They were gorgeous lavender roses—with no card. I assumed they were from someone I had been involved with in Virginia, but I knew that relationship was going nowhere. Then the mail arrived, and with it a small package containing a cassette tape (remember those?). There was a song on each side, and one of them was Frank Sinatra’s Moonlight in Vermont. This got my attention and made me rethink the roses. When we spoke on the phone, Chris invited me up to Vermont for Labor Day weekend, a couple days away. 

It’s important to note that driving three hours to spend a weekend with someone I barely knew was completely out of character for me. Plus I had been in a long distance relationship before and wasn’t looking to jump into one again. Not to mention, I was still unpacking and due to start my new job the Tuesday after Labor Day. But I went.




When I pulled up outside Chris’s building that Friday evening, I could hear Dire Straits’ Expresso Love drifting out of the second floor window. I remember that moment vividly, pausing to listen to a few bars of that song and feeling like my life was about to change. For me, like many people, music has a way of crystallizing a moment in time, fixing it in memory. Years later a song can play on the radio or in a shop and instantly transport me back to that moment. Food has a way of doing this also.

Not all of Chris’s furniture had arrived yet from Minnesota, but he did have some of the more crucial items, including his stereo. He also had a bottle of champagne at the ready. Eventually we went out for something to eat, pizza at Ken’s, which is still there. Sometimes when I walk past this pizzeria/pub now and smell the pizzas baking, I’m brought back to a moment when we sat at one of the outdoor tables and I thought, I could drive back tomorrow morning and start my life in Massachusetts. Or I could stay and there would be no turning back. For some reason it felt like there was nothing in between.




I stayed, of course, and on Sunday Chris suggested we drive up to Montreal for dinner. This sounded like a good idea, and mostly it was. A warm summer rain fell much of the afternoon, so after we tired of wandering around the city, exploring the Old Town and Latin Quarter, we found a restaurant. I don’t remember what I ate, in part because I wasn’t focusing on my meal, but I do remember sitting at that table across from Chris in the rustic coziness of the dining room. When the time came to pay the bill, though, he realized he’d been pickpocketed. Not a problem, I covered it. Fortunately this was prior to the strict border controls that would now prevent him from returning to the US without an official ID. On the way home we somehow breezed through the border, but ended up lost in upstate New York and got home around 1 am.

To the surprise of some, 14 months later we got engaged, and 14 months after that I had moved to Vermont and we were married. 




At our wedding, our first song was the one that was on the second side of the cassette, one we had danced to at Craige and Sonja’s wedding—Can’t Help Falling in Love. Now here we are, 24 years later, with two daughters who are not far from the age I was when Chris and I first met.




On this recent visit to Montreal, instead of warm summer rain, we walked around in the bracing cold. 




Despite the biting wind, though, the city’s old world architecture and cosmopolitan vibe still charm. 




The restaurant we went to that first weekend is still there, although we’ve never been back. We’ve discovered other favorites over the years with excellent food. For lunch—Restaurant l’Express, a Parisian-style bistro where they make a classic Salade de Chèvre Chaud, a salad of lightly dressed  mesclun with warmed goat cheese on toasts,




and Pot au Feu, a beef stew complete with marrowbone.




For dinner we went to Au Petit Extra, which has one of the best chalkboard menus I’ve ever seen.




My Rabbit Braised in Mustard Sauce was exquis,




and Chris relished his Steak Frites. 




We talked about that first weekend together and not surprisingly remembered some of the moments differently. Was Expresso Love still playing when Chris opened the door or had the song changed to Hand in Hand? Did we drink the champagne before or after we went out for pizza? We’ve now shared thousands of moments since those early ones—mostly happy, some mundane. Some where we were lost again on a dark road, and some we breezed through under questionable circumstances. Our taste in books has diverged a bit since the late ‘80s, but he’s still fun to dance with and he still makes me laugh. And even after all these years I want to know more about him.   




Thursday, December 4, 2014

Essential Ingredients

Now that the dust has settled in my kitchen after the Thanksgiving frenzy, and the leftovers have dwindled to a pot of soup in the fridge, it’s time to think about December cooking and baking. I’ve written about some holiday favorites before, but lately I’ve been thinking about essential ingredients—what goes into those favorites, what I cannot do without. They break down naturally into the five sensations our tongue’s taste receptors respond to: salty, sweet, bitter, sour, and umami. For those not familiar with umami, a more recent addition, it’s the Japanese word for “savory deliciousness” and is associated with foods high in glutamate, such as fish, meat, specific vegetables, and fermented and aged foods. Although difficult to define, it’s glaringly obvious when umami is missing. I found it challenging to come up with a list of just ten essentials, but have narrowed it down by limiting it to ingredients I never eat on their own.

Sea salt, preferably coarse: Salt of the earth, grain of salt, worth one’s salt—there’s a reason so many common expressions involve salt and that “salary” is derived from the word. It’s a necessary mineral in the human body, not just an ingredient, and offers sensual satisfaction as well. Unfortunately it’s often applied with an indiscriminate hand, but a judicious amount of salt enhances the flavor of just about anything, and can even be transformative. Think of the difference between plain potatoes and potatoes with a sprinkling of salt…no comparison. 




Thursday, November 6, 2014

What I'm Thankful For

Every year at Thanksgiving we begin the meal by going around the table and saying what we’re all thankful for. We’ve been doing this since our girls were little and were first starting to talk (a popular contribution at that age was “Pie!”). Our guests are always invited to join in, and they always do, bringing their personalities and varying levels of comfort to this family tradition. What I’m thankful for each year hasn’t really changed over time, although in an effort to not allow the food on our plates to grow cold, I usually compress it into a sentence or two. But here on my blog, I have ample room to elaborate. So elaborate I shall, in the spirit of the upcoming holiday. Here goes.

I’m thankful for my family. That’s always first. For Chris—and nearly 25 years of marriage to my best friend. Who, notwithstanding some challenges along the way, loves and accepts me—weaknesses, flaws, and all. He’s still my dreamboat, and life is rarely dull. 




Monday, September 22, 2014

Inconstant Gardener (or Life Lessons I’ve Learned from Gardening)

First official day of fall today, although we had our first hard frost a few nights ago, always a more definitive marker for the end of summer than a date on the calendar. It’s felt like fall for a few weeks now, though, with Isabel back at college and Faye absorbed in her busy high school life. Chris is back to teaching, and I’m trying to buckle down to a more productive work schedule myself. At the same time, September weather is usually the best of the year, with clear skies, crisp air, and a gentle sun. It drifts through the skylight above my desk, pulling me away from my computer and outside for a hike, bike, kayak or, so I can reassure myself I’m still being productive, to the garden.





Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Island Time

When most people think of Vermont, one of the first things that comes to mind is the Green Mountains, thanks to their popular ski slopes and hiking trails. But an equally notable natural resource, and a highlight of the state for me, is Lake Champlain. Friends from out of state are often surprised to hear that it’s the sixth largest freshwater lake in the country, after the five Great Lakes. Spanning 120 miles along Vermont’s western side, it’s flanked by New York’s Adirondack Mountains and also offers spectacular views of the Greens.