Sunday, January 31, 2010

Warning: this is cheesy

Every cook has a favourite ingredient always kept on hand and in good supply. This is mine - a wedge of good parmigiano reggiano. It keeps for weeks in the fridge, and can be enjoyed in countless ways: in pasta, risotto, and salads; biscuits, savoury scones and cheese bread; or simply by itself, in small chunks, broken off and nibbled slowly, perhaps with a glass of red wine.

I broke open a new wedge of parmigiano reggiano today and served it at Sunday lunch, in shavings over this arugula and prosciutto salad, with lemon juice and cracked black pepper to finish it off. Delicious. I first had this salad while having dinner with friends of my brother-in-law's in Florence, and every time I have it, my taste buds and I go back in time to the meal Auntie Gretchen served us...this salad, followed by a heavenly mushroom and cheese lasagne which I have never been able to duplicate, and for dessert, lemon pie made with freshly squeezed Italian lemons and heaped with snowy piles of meringue. I remember the alabaster lamp hanging over the table in the dining room, and myself walking in to find the cat helping himself to the prosciutto. No matter - there was enough for everybody.


Saturday, January 30, 2010

The way to a person's heart

Saturday evening is the time I usually get to talk to my sister, who lives in a predominantly Caucasian neighbourhood in the American Midwest. In the middle of our conversation tonight, my nearly-six-year-old nephew comes on the phone to say goodnight, and I send a noisy kiss down the wire. When he’s gone to bed, my sister tells me that on the way home from school yesterday, she asked him how he had liked the lunch she packed for him that day. “It was really good, Mommy,” he said. There was a pause, then he added in a small voice, “But Jeremy (not his real name) said it was gross. He always asks what I have for lunch, and he always says it’s gross.” My sister twisted around in the driver’s seat to see tears rolling down his cheeks.

When told this story, my mother asked, “What did you give him for lunch anyway?”

Just leftovers, my sister told her. Sliced sirloin steak with a balsamic vinegar reduction, and roasted broccoli with pine nuts and parmesan cheese.

“Well, that explains it,” my mom said. “This Jeremy kid is just jealous.”

There is one thing you have to understand about my family. We are Filipinos, which means we enjoy our food more than most people. Two Japanese friends of mine had lunch at Cucina Manila recently. They arrived at one thirty and lingered over their meal for over two hours, pleasantly surprised that the restaurant did not close down for the afternoon lull, because there was none. Even way past lunch-time, there was still a constant flow of customers, they reported to me with some astonishment. I explained to them that for Filipinos, any time is a good time to eat.

Not only do we enjoy our food…for us Filipinos, and especially in my family, cooking a meal, and consuming it with appreciation, is the highest expression of love. This is why the first question you’re asked when you walk in the door of any Filipino household is, “Kumain ka na?” (Have you eaten yet?) This is why my siblings and I were never packed off to school with nothing more than a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. (“That’s not lunch,” my mother would have said in horrified tones.) And this is why my nephew, bless his dear heart, cries when some kid tells him his lunch is gross. Little as he is, he knows that a lot of love goes into the food his mommy prepares for him.

And besides, he genuinely likes his steak and broccoli. To the Filipino, you truly are what you eat. So if you tell us our food is gross, we’ll take that as a personal insult to ourselves and to the person who made the food in the first place.

But let’s be fair. Maybe Jeremy comes from the kind of family that thinks PBJs are a good enough lunch. Maybe my mom is right and Jeremy is jealous. Which means that maybe the best solution to this conflict would be for my nephew to offer him a bite next time. Filipinos do love to share their food after all. And then maybe Jeremy will learn what my nephew seems to know by instinct: that the way to a person’s heart really does pass through the stomach. 


Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Thoughts on The Bridge of San Luis Rey

I've just finished reading Thornton Wilder's The Bridge of San Luis Rey. In a thoughtful essay on the Haiti earthquake, Michael Cook refers to the book's disaster, which took the lives of five people, and concludes that suffering is not meaningless if we consider that every life - even if suddenly and tragically ended - can be considered "a perfect whole."

Intrigued and moved by these musings, and never having read The Bridge of San Luis Rey before, I went to the public library in search of it. It took me about three days to finish. Once I got to the end, I went back to the beginning and read it again. It is one of those many-layered books that will surprise you with new meaning each time you read it.

Wilder's writing style reminds me of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, except that it is not quite as confusing or ambiguous. (Nor does Wilder ramble on for hundreds of tedious pages. When I found The Bridge, I was surprised by its slimness, less than 150 pages in all.) The story reads like a fable, replete with hyperbole and irony, and crowded with whimsical and colourful characters: an eccentric old woman penning endless letters to her daughter; not one but two scornful and beautiful women; not one but two handsome young men; a poor and lonely little girl; a poor and lonely little boy; a wise and mysterious old man; an Abbess who goes about tirelessly doing good; a sea captain who roams the world; and the saintly and simple monk who serves as their biographer. However, in their passions and affections they are all too human. Each one hungers for a love that for some reason or another is beyond reach.

Five of these characters are plunged to their deaths with the breaking of the bridge. Most of the book deals with the paths each of these characters took that led him or her to the bridge at that precise moment in time when it collapsed. But to me, the most beautiful part of the book comes at the end, where we see how those left behind try and come to terms with love and chances lost forever, and discover to their astonishment that in spite of everything, they still get a second shot at redeeming grace.

"In love," the Abbess tells the remorseful Condesa, "our very mistakes don't seem to be able to last long." This is the very heart of the book. At face value, each life researched by Brother Juniper was a long string of mistakes: greed, pride, selfishness, the folly of yearning for the impossible. But in the end, it can truly be said that every person is more than just the sum of his mistakes; we are all made "perfect wholes" by love. 


Friday, January 22, 2010

The best things in life take time

A friend of mine is fond of reminding me that "good things come to those who wait." I'm realizing anew that this is oh, so true as I make pomodori al forno - plum tomatoes roasted ever so slowly in barely bubbling, golden olive oil until they're tender and a rich, dark red, then packed in garlic and herbs and left to sit overnight. When finally ready to eat, they truly are a heavenly reward.

Make these when you have a good chunk of time: an entire morning, afternoon, or evening. The procedure requires about forty-five minutes to an hour at the beginning, to slice and seed the tomatoes. Once they start roasting and the rest of the ingredients are prepped, you can putter around, do other chores, read a book or watch a DVD - whatever you're doing, just be prepared to hit pause at least twice to turn the tomatoes.

Warning: don't get too attached to your tomatoes as they will magically disappear once you serve them. My sister served these as an appy for Christmas lunch, and now I can appreciate the time and effort that she put it into what took us only minutes to devour. These pommes d'amour are aptly named - they truly are a labour of love.

adapted from a recipe published in the September 2008 edition of Buon Appetit
4 large (796-ml) cans plum tomatoes, sliced in half and seeded
2 cups olive oil
1 cup minced Italian (flat-leaf) parsley
Half a head of garlic, minced
1 tablespoon dried oregano
Salt and sugar

Preheat your oven to 250 degrees.

Take two large, glass baking dishes and pour in about half a cup of olive oil into each so that the bottoms are covered. Lay a single layer of tomato halves in each, cut side up. Drizzle the remaining oil over each and place the dishes in the oven. Roast for one hour.

At the end of the first hour, gently turn the tomato halves over. Return to the oven for another hour.

At the end of the second hour, turn the tomatoes again, and continue roasting until they are tender and deep red, up to another hour.

Place the tomatoes in layers in a large glass dish. Sprinkle each layer with the parsley, garlic and oregano, and a dash of sugar and salt. Pour in the olive oil from the dish until just covered. Reserve the tomato-infused oil for use in pasta dishes.

Let the tomatoes sit at room temperature overnight. They are ready to eat the next day, and will keep in the fridge for up to two weeks - if they last that long! Just bring them back to room temperature before serving - preferably on warm baguette slices spread with goat cheese.


Thursday, January 21, 2010

"The Magic of Images": comment

Author Camille Paglia vividly describes, and makes the case for, three areas of disconnect in the modern visual environment, and the generation growing up in it: between contemporary culture and history; between image and language; and between the multiplicity of images and the ability to really see them.

“Young people today,” she says, “are flooded with disconnected images but lack a sympathetic instrument to analyze them as well as a historical frame of reference in which to situate them.”

The solution she proposes is the historical and cultural grounding of the basic education of today’s students, whom she portrays in bold strokes as “unmoored from the mother ship of culture” and “riding the tail of a comet in a media starscape of explosive but evanescent images.” Truly an artist with words, Paglia advocates the use of “exemplary images” from the canon of Western art to help students develop their visual, analytical, and verbal skills, which she says have been degraded by their usage of modern media, in particular the television and computer.

It is interesting to note that half a century ago, the German philosopher Josef Pieper already observed that “man’s ability to see is in decline.” In “Learning to See Again,” an essay he wrote in 1952, he notes, “The average person of our time loses the ability to see because there is too much to see…(the) visual noise of daily inanities makes clear perception impossible.”

Paglia's concluding paragraph, however, gives me pause - particularly her last sentence: "The only antidote to the magic of images is the magic of words." I agree with her on the importance of having solid cultural and educational formation so that we are able to analyze data, think critically, form our own ideas, and articulate them effectively. I find it ironic, though, that she devotes a good part of the article on the merits – indeed, the necessity – of educating students on Western art, then wraps up by saying that that images need an “antidote.” Why would they need an antidote? Isn’t it true that even in – especially in - today’s fragmented world, there are still some things that just cannot be expressed in words? To turn again to another of Pieper’s essays (“Thoughts on Music,” 1952) we can name certain constants of the human condition: joy, hope, yearning, grief, despair… “To articulate such intimate realities,” Pieper says, “the dynamism of human existence itself, the spoken word proves utterly inadequate. Such realities, by their very nature (and also because of the spirit’s nature) exist before as well as beyond all speech.” These intimate and inexpressible realities are precisely why we can and do find pleasure and catharsis in music and visual art. A logical argument, a well-organized essay, a finely crafted piece of literature – all of these of have their own undeniable value. But there are moments when a picture is still worth a thousand words. 


Sunday, January 17, 2010

Embracing the Seasons

In 2009 I reconnected with a friend who, living in a tropical country, is fascinated by everything that has to do with the changing seasons. Fortuitously, at around the same time I also acquired a good camera. Seeing my surroundings through my friend's eyes, as well as through the camera lens, opened my own eyes to so many beautiful things that I had never noticed before. I would stand for long moments gazing fixedly at nothing, but actually I was watching leaves turn, snow melt, and skies change colour.

I started out thinking I was showing my friend something, but the past few months I've spent watching the seasons taught me a lot too, mostly about learning when to wait, and when to capture the moment, and never never to take little things for granted.

Related Posts with Thumbnails