The light in Liz’s window

My cousin Liz holds a huge piece of my heart. Because hundreds of miles separated us in childhood, we did not become close until we were well into adulthood. I will be eternally grateful for that, and I just hate it when a year goes by without seeing her. She lives up north, and one of the most beautiful sights in my personal universe is the view from her window—all trees, mountains, sky, and birds at the feeders (or maybe a moose, though with our luck, probably not). Needless to say, in autumn, when the light hits just right, the view from Liz’s window is nothing short of a gift from heaven.

P.S. Credit where it’s due… We love you, too, Buddy, without whom that view would probably not be possible!

Once, under the Tuscan sun…

I am in an almost perennial state of longing for Italy. Hubby has Italy on his mind as well. The fervor is fueled constantly as we watch our current favorite Italian TV series.  Una pallottola nel cuoro—the English title,  Bulletproof Heart. We watch Euro TV almost every night, thanks to MHZ Choice, which we began streaming several years ago. Every time we do, we are transported. In the case of Bulletproof Heart, it’s to Rome. Tonight, however, I’m recalling a trip from Florence through the Tuscan countryside. And if you haven’t read Frances Mayes’ Under the Tuscan Sun, please do. It’s a delight—and SO much better than the movie!

Chips of choice

We have a friend who is fond of saying, “You’re all that and a bag of chips.” When it comes to out-of-the-box ( bag??) compliments, one could do worse. A good potato chip, after all, is in a class all by itself.

I grew up about an hour from Hanover, PA, Utz’s ancestral home, which bills itself as the “snack capital of the world.” Driving through Hanover on a full-tilt day, even with the car windows up, you can smell chips frying. Utz has resisted all attempts at buy-outs, instead acquiring a number of other snack food brands and proudly claiming the title of “the largest independent, privately held snack food brand in the United States.” When I was a kid, on the other hand, you couldn’t buy a bag of Utz’s two hours north. That’s quite a success story! You can read about the history of the Utz brand here.

All efforts at healthful eating habits aside, and even given that my taste for salt is not what it used to be, Utz potato chips are still hard for me to resist. The golden crunch of Utz in the “chipped” ham sandwich of my childhood (yes, in it) is one of my favorite food memories.

Not, of course, in the same category as ravioli, but still…

My father, who did all our grocery shopping, was exceptionally fond of our local farmer’s market, a huge, barn-like building on the crest of Market Street Hill in Harrisburg, PA. On Saturday mornings, when Mom was working, he took me with him to do the weekly shopping. I remember those happy jaunts in minute detail. Daddy would circumnavigate the market first, assessing quality and comparing prices. For most of his regular purchases, however, he would end up at the same vendors—the egg lady, the celery lady, the butcher who cut to order the round steak that Daddy ground himself, the chicken vendor, and the man with thick-rimmed glasses, always in a plaid flannel shirt and wide suspenders, who with a deft flick of the wrist—and more than a little panache—spent the day slicing baked ham at the very back of the market.

And then —drum roll, please—there was the Utz lady. She was the first vendor to smile at us when we walked in the door, but she was always the last stop on our rounds. After all, you wouldn’t want to put the Utz’s at the bottom of the shopping bag. She’d gently scoop those fresh chips into a plain white bag, ask if we were having a good day, and thank us sweetly for stopping. That bag would tempt this chip-loving kid all the way home.

Many years later, when Mom was well into her 80s, I took her shoe shopping. The Hill market had closed years before and been succeeded by a smaller version near an older shopping center. Mom wasn’t getting around as facilely then, but she asked to stop at the market. I asked if there was anything particular that she needed. She mumbled “just a few things,” but by the time we got inside, it was clear that there was only one thing on her mind: the Utz’s lady.

We headed back to the car, that single important purchase in hand. Before I could turn the key, Mom tore the bag open and dove in, blood pressure be damned.

“There’s nothing like a good potato chip,” she said, the smile on her face as big as a kid’s on Christmas morning.

 

 

 

 

Back in the [bread-baking] groove

Summer is looking a bit care-worn by now, even though this year, for the first in many, the grass has stayed a bright Irish-green throughout, and our little patch of herbs is so abundant that it looks downright provençal. I can see a few leaves starting to turn here and there, and, although I will keep the sun-loving geraniums to their last bloom, I know it’s soon time to trade them for mums.

Heat-averse, I stayed away from the oven most of the summer. In the last week, I realized how much I’ve missed making bread. Time to get my groove back. Partly to use up what I had on hand, I started with a no-knead semolina. I mixed the dough in my bread bucket, using my trusty dough whisk (there’s the King, back in my kitchen again!), on Friday morning and refrigerated the dough. Earlier today—Sunday—I formed the loaves, brushed them with a slurry of corn starch and water, slashed, sprinkled them with sesame seeds, and set them to rise while the oven heated up.

I’m accustomed to letting loaves rise on a parchment-coated peel, then sliding them, parchment and all, onto the pre-heated stone. Alas, I remembered too late that I was out of the pre-cut parchment that comes in so handy for making bread and baking cookies. I coated the peel with corn meal, but because some bread dough is wetter than others, and this one was, I still had a hard time maneuvering the loaves onto the pre-heated stone.

However, as Shakespeare so wisely advised, “All’s well that ends well.” Is there anything more luscious than the scent of baking bread? The crust browned and crisped nicely. I could hardly wait to try it. Five minutes after taking the loaves out of the oven—a bit too soon, I concede—I sliced off the heel. The crumb was decent. Slathered with butter, it was good, as only fresh-baked bread can be. Not my best effort, but not bad for a three-month lapse. We’ll enjoy it toasted for breakfast, with cheese for lunch, and with soup tonight. I’ll stash the second and third loaves in the freezer for another day.

Three loaves to the good, and I’m back in the groove.

Routines like this are as comforting, and comfortable, as a pair of mukluks in a November chill. We’re not quite there yet, but I’m gearing up.

This time, last year…

Because so many of us are feeling the need for respite right now, it seems a good time to share photos from our last visit to New England. It appears that 2017 will be one of those rare years that we don’t go north. So much the better to have beautiful images to rely on when skies are gray, literally or figuratively. 

 

 

 

St. Martin… a love affair

We have been fortunate enough to have made many trips to Sint Maarten/St. Martin, so much so that over the years, it became more like a second home than a vacation spot. The exotic became the sweetly familiar as we got to know the people of that remarkable little island—half Dutch, half French, all heart.

Although the Dutch side has more trappings, it was the French, St. Martin, that captivated us.

It is where we both had our first taste of French culture, of being immersed. Marigot—on the French side—is where my classroom French took the leap to real conversation, thanks to my dear, dear friend Dolly, who always knew how to reframe a story for me when she could see I wasn’t getting it. It’s where I learned everyday words you don’t find in textbooks. Like tapissier, traiteur, and impasse—upholsterer, caterer, and alley!

It’s where we would sit early in the morning, at the Croissanterie, watching the marina come to life.

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Where our friend Asha’s son, Dino Jagtiani, become one of the most celebrated chefs in the Caribbean—but never lost his sense of what matters.

Where lovely Elisa—and her assistants over the years, especially Vera and Fanny—taught me how Italians dress. And where Serge sold me those gorgeous shoes.

It’s where Mercedes and Mona would greet us in the little store, introducing us to their families, chatting about school and clothes and how to make peas and rice. And Eva grinned from ear to ear as she shared her son’s affinity for soccer and math.

It’s where Christophe, that perennial fixture, always found us a good table at lunch. And John, his moto buddy, regaled us with stories of his native Denmark and the time his daughter saw the queen.

And it’s Grand Case, Baie Rouge, and Cupecoy, Pic Paradis, Fort Louis, and the butterfly farm, and horses on Galleon Beach. It’s the old Match—not the fancy new one—and the store near the bridge with the poulet rôti.

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It’s “Mrs. Mario” feeding leftover gnocchi to the tarpons leaping out of the water next to the terrace. It’s the flamboyant tree and hibiscus and plumbago—everywhere—and the mongoose we saw in the Terres Basses one Sunday.

It’s everyone dressed up in their Easter best, headed to church. And the neatly uniformed  kids, walking happily along the road to school. It’s the woman whose tiny Yorkie, Madison, kept watch in her children’s store; the pharmacie, where we found French remedies you can’t buy in the US; and Maison La Presse, where we bought stationery and Paris Match. It’s slipping into the skin of a place you grow, very quickly, to love.

So much more, so very much more, than lying on a beach.

We have heard that St. Martin is “95% destroyed,” that lives have been lost. At this writing, we believe that many of our friends are well and safe but… Jose is en route.

The French say, “Bon courage!” when someone is facing a hard patch. I can’t even imagine the trauma of living through and after this terrible storm, with a second on its heels.

Bon courage, nos amis. Nous les aimons bien.

Cover photo: Fort Louis, standing tall over Marigot.