Monday, May 31, 2010

Making Dinner Fast

I know that a lot of you are concerned with getting dinner on the table as quickly as you can. I applaud your desire to prepare food for your family or your sweet self and to sit down to eat it. You’ve already had a full day of work, and now there is yet another task to be done. Dinner. Yikes. Years ago when I was working full-time (or more) at Duke University, I too felt the pressure to fix food fast. Getting home a little after 6:30, I learned to move quickly. I wanted to have dinner on the table within an hour. Being organized was the only way to do it.

Three things helped me out:
(1) On the weekend I would plan what we would eat for the week. I would choose three or four main dishes, doubling the recipes so there would be plenty for leftover dinners. I would prepare two of the dishes on the weekend—usually the two that took longer to prep or to cook. The other two dishes I chose were super speedy, like a stir-fry or sauté, easy to do within an hour. I would write down my plan on the store list and then shop so I would have everything I needed on hand.

(2) I had a couple of go-to recipes which could always be hauled out in emergencies. Most of them called for ingredients I usually had in my cupboard or fridge. Remember Cheese Soufflé (November 25, 2009) and Tuesday Pancakes (February 16, 2010)? Speed was uppermost in my mind; clearly cholesterol wasn’t.

(3) The boys learned to fix themselves something to eat after school so they weren’t “starving” by the time I got home. Popcorn, instant ramen, macaroni and cheese from a box, and the old stand-by, cereal. It wasn’t exactly health food. But the experience gave them some independence and confidence that they could fend for themselves in the kitchen.

All these strategies worked for me. But they required planning, shopping and cooking on the weekends. And it required a husband and kids who didn’t mind waiting to eat until 7:30 or so. That sort of a schedule doesn’t work for everyone. Because I value eating home-cooked meals as a family at a table, I was willing to do whatever it took. And going out to dinner every night wasn’t a viable financial option.

In the past few years a million cookbooks have come out with some combination of quick, fast, or simple in the title. Rachel Ray is making a fortune whipping up her 30-minute meals on the Food Channel and selling her books. I’ve tried more than 30 of these cookbooks and find them infuriating, disappointing and surprisingly helpful. Infuriating because they lead you to believe that you’ll have your dinner done in a blink but then the author says “Oh yes, the time assumes that you will have done all the prep ahead.” Like you have a sous chef chopping for you in your kitchen. And they always underestimate the amount of time it takes to prepare a dish for the first time. Disappointing because in 30 minutes you can’t make a stew or bake a meatloaf, or anything which requires long slow cooking which I love. Helpful because there are an astonishing number of really good recipes which can be put together pretty quickly.

Recently I have had good luck with these books:
The Illustrated Quick Cook by Heather Whinney. Check out Beef with Soy and Lime with Grapefruit and Ginger Salsa or Chicken with Cinnamon and Peppers. Over 700 recipes.
Nigella Express by Nigella Lawson. Check out the Red Shrimp and Mango Curry. She is a pleasure to have in your kitchen.
Great Food Fast by Martha Stewart Living. Check out Thai-Style Steak Salad. A really pretty cookbook.
And thank God for canned diced tomatoes, frozen spinach, fish, shrimp, steak, red or brown lentils, canned black beans or chickpeas—all of which help you cook really quickly. I’m not much of a fan of the pre-chopped veggies available in the supermarket. But they can help in a pinch.

If you are looking for speedy dishes on this blog, check out the following:
Picadillo (Mexican Meat Hash) (September 26, 2009), pictured
Thai Chicken Coconut Soup (February 2, 2010), pictured
Spicy Soba with Tofu (March 7, 2010)
Bistro-Style Steak with Sauce Marchand (March 13, 2010)
Catfish with Cherry Tomatoes and Lemon Sauce (March 21, 2010)
Grilled Cheese (November 11, 2009)
as well as the delicious recipes given below.

Menu 17: Fast Pasta Dinner

Linguine with Lemon Sauce

4 tablespoons butter, at room temperature
1½ cups heavy cream
Grated zest from 3 lemons
Lemon juice from 3 lemons
1 pound fresh linguine
9 ounces dried thin spaghetti
3 tablespoons salt for the pasta water
1 teaspoon salt for the sauce or to taste
3 tablespoons fresh flat leaf parsley, coarsely chopped
Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese or other hard cheese, freshly grated at the table

1. Put 6 quarts of water in a large pot and bring it to a boil.
2. While the water is coming to a boil, combine the butter, cream, and lemon juice over low heat in a skillet large enough to hold the pasta later on. As soon as the butter is melted, remove the skillet from the heat, cover, and set aside.
3. When the water is boiling, add 3 tablespoons salt and the pasta, stirring to prevent the pasta from sticking. Cook until tender (fresh pasta won’t take long). Drain, leaving a few drops of water clinging to the pasta so that the sauce will adhere.

4. Transfer the pasta to the skillet, off the heat, and toss to blend. Add the salt, lemon zest, and toss once more. Cover and let rest for 1 to 2 minutes to allow the pasta to absorb the sauce. Transfer to warmed shallow bowls, sprinkle with parsley, and serve immediately. Pass the hunk of cheese with a microplane or a cheese grater for you and your guests to grate as desired.

3-4 servings as a main dish
Adapted from Patricia Wells’ Trattoria

Simple Sautéed Fresh Spinach or Swiss Chard

Spinach for as many as you are serving, about ¼ pound per person, depending on the serving size
Swiss chard, about 1 bunch for 2 servings, stems removed, washed well, cut into ½-inch strips
Olive oil, about 1 tablespoon per serving

1. Place your spinach or chard in a non-aluminum pot big enough to hold your quantity of greens. Add 2 tablespoons of water and up to 3 tablespoons of olive oil.
2. Cover the pan and cook on low heat. The spinach will begin to wilt and give up its water. The chard will have the washing water still clinging to it; it will also begin to wilt but more slowly than the spinach. Stir to turn the uncooked spinach or chard toward the bottom surface of the pan. Keep stirring and cooking until all the spinach is cooked. With the chard, turn the heat to low, cover the pan and simmer for about 10 minutes until tender.
3. Serve immediately. You can also hold it for a short while after cooking. Rewarm gently before serving.
I never find it necessary to add salt because of the high oxalic acid in the spinach.
To add garlic, mince or press several garlic cloves into the spinach or chard at the same time as you add the water and oil.

Makes as much as you desire or your pot will hold
My own devising

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Food and Wine: Making Choices with Ease

You may have noticed that I haven’t talked much about wine on this blog. Time to remedy that situation. I am not a wine expert, as will be abundantly clear. But I love to pick wines I think will go with the food I’ve fixed and I don’t break a sweat over it. Honestly. And, of course, I love to drink them.

I’m not strict about whites with this and reds with that. It’s more intuitive with me than scientific. I believe it all depends on the flavors of the food I’m preparing and my own personal preferences. So let me tell you how I go about it.

First, a nice label. You may think I’m kidding. But I believe that if a winery has a good aesthetic when it comes to designing a wine label, it is more likely to have a good aesthetic when it comes to the wine. Of course there are exceptions. French labels are some of the most confusing and least attractive of any around and yet the wine in the bottles can be spectacular. Living close to and in the wine country of California, I’m willing to stand by my attractive label theory.

Second, parity. I want the food and the wine to have a reciprocal relationship, with a nice balance and complementarity. Light with light, spicy hot with cooling, complex with complex. I usually start with the food. Let me give you a couple of examples.

Grilled steak, I’d choose a merlot. I might mention at this point that I am not a big Cabernet Sauvignon fan—the so-called flavor bombs that are too high in alcohol for my taste and pretty much dominate any conversation.
Poached salmon, rosé. I think a really tasty pink wine is so pretty during the summer. It is the perfect brunch wine with eggs and cheese. A slow roasted salmon with a lot of flavor would work nicely with a light or medium red, as well as a good white.

If I’m cooking an Italian tomato sauce, even if it’s vegetarian, I’d choose a Sangiovese, the Italian Chianti grape. My rule of thumb: Whatever grape is grown on the land where the food originates is probably going to work with the food.

If my beef short ribs are perfumed with cinnamon and orange, I would choose a red wine that has some of the same spiciness, like a zinfandel or a syrah. For those who can’t drink red with this dish, an oaked chardonnay would work especially if it had some vanilla overtones.

If I’m cooking a spicy chicken curry or a bean thread noodles and pork with hot peppers, I might want to temper the heat with a nice riesling, the slight sweetness and the chill working well with the heat. A floral viognier is also lovely to balance heat.

Pork dishes can go either white or red or even pink depending on how it is prepared. Same with chicken. Tomatoes and mushrooms in the preparation almost always mean that a red might be drunk with the dish. I would choose a white if a cream sauce is involved.

Third, personal preference. I consistently love to drink a couple of different wines and will choose them again and again, whether or not they are in fashion or necessarily “go” with the food. Then pretty regularly I give myself a little tasting adventure and try something new and exotic, just for the fun of it. I try to avoid ruts.

Katherine and I drank and still love to drink oaky, creamy, bake-house-scented chardonnays. They are just so yummy, even though they have fallen from grace. I also love the unoaked crisp stainless steel chardonnays but the oaky ones are my wine version of “comfort food.” A glass before dinner, catching up on each other’s day, couldn’t be better.

I love pinot noirs, not because of the movie Sideways, but because they are often such great food wines. I’m not talking about the wimpy pinots that can’t stand up to anything, but the rich juicy kind that taste like plush velvet.

I stay away from anything called grassy, like some sauvignon blancs. And I don’t go out of my way to drink whites described as flinty or high in minerals. I am occasionally rewarded by a wonderful wine that has been so described and hope this means my palate is expanding.

Fourth, I try to trust myself, my taste, judgment, and intuition. I like to have a good time making the choices. I will ask a wine person for suggestions but it’s my money, my dinner, and my choice. The most expensive bottle isn’t necessarily the best.

How do you make your decisions?

Menu 16: A Lemon and Herb Extravaganza

If I were to choose a wine to go with the lemon and herbs in all three dishes, I might try a gewurztraminer or a riesling with a little residual sweetness to balance all the sour herbiness. What do you think would work nicely?

John’s Roasted Chicken with Herbs and Lemon

1 (3½ pound) free-range chicken
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons butter, softened (in the microwave for 1 minute)
2 tablespoons finely chopped flat leaf parsley
2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh thyme or rosemary
¾ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon pepper
Lemon wedges, for serving
Chopped parsley to garnish, optional

1. Position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 400ºF. Line a low-sided roasting pan with parchment paper. If you are using a pottery dish, there is no need to line it with parchment.
2. Remove the giblets and the neck from inside the chicken.
3. Set the chicken on its tail with the backbone facing you. Cut down along one side of the backbone from the neck to the tail. Cut down along the other side.
4. Open the chicken and split the chicken between the breasts from neck to tail. You now have two halves of a chicken, without the backbone. Remove the center breastbone if you want.
5. In a small bowl, mix the olive oil, butter, parsley, salt, and thyme or rosemary. Massage the mixture all over the chicken halves, slipping some underneath the skin. Season with salt and pepper, especially the inside without the skin.
6. Set the chicken halves, skin side up, on the prepared pan and roast until the juices run clear when the thickest part of the thigh is pricked, about 40 minutes. (A 4-pound chicken will take 50-55 minutes; a 5-pound chicken will take 50-60 minutes.)
7. Serve hot or warm, with lemon wedges and the optional parsley.

4-5 servings
Adapted from Carrie Brown’s The Jimtown Store Cookbook

Lemon Barley Pilaf

2¾ cups water
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup uncooked quick-cooking pearl barley
1 cup de-hulled barley
2 tablespoons canola oil
1 large onion, chopped
1 tablespoon chopped fresh sage or 1 teaspoon dried sage
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme or 1 teaspoon dried thyme
Grated zest from 1 lemon
2 tablespoons lemon juice
Salt and pepper to taste

1. Bring water and salt to a boil and stir in the barley. When the water returns to a boil, reduce the heat, cover and simmer for 10 minutes for the quick-cooking and 25 for the de-hulled. Drain if necessary.
2. Heat oil in a nonstick skillet and sauté the onion until transparent and golden, about 10 minutes. Add the drained barley, herbs, lemon zest, lemon juice, salt and pepper to taste, and toss together. Serve warm or hot.

Note: You can make the whole dish ahead of time. When it is time to serve, reheat it in the skillet and taste for seasonings, especially salt.

4 servings
Adapted from Linda Gassenheimer’s Dinner in Minutes

Indian-Style Broccoli with Spiced Yogurt

2 large heads of broccoli, broken into florets
2 teaspoons cumin seeds
2 teaspoons fennel seeds
5 cardamom pods, seeds removed and pods discarded
¼ teaspoon sweet smoky paprika
1 cup natural plain yogurt, medium consistency (not too thick or too thin)
Zest from 1 large lemon
Juice from 1 large lemon or less if your yogurt is pretty thin
Salt and pepper to taste

1. Blanch the broccoli in boiling salted water for 4 minutes or less, until bright green.
Steam the broccoli over boiling water until tender and bright green.
Drain in a colander.
2. Toast all the spices (except the paprika) in a hot pan for 2 minutes or until they become fragrant. Let them cool slightly. Grind them in a spice or converted coffee mill. Add the paprika to the mixture. Store any leftover spice mixture in a labeled jar to use the next time you make the dish.
3. Stir about half of the spices into the yogurt. Taste the result, adding more of the spice mixture to your taste, along with the lemon zest, juice, salt and pepper. Save a bit of the spice mixture for the garnish. The yogurt mixture improves if allowed to sit for an hour or more.
4. Place the broccoli in a serving bowl. Just before serving, pour out any accumulated water from the bottom of the bowl and then spoon part of the yogurt mixture over the top. Sprinkle with some of the reserved spice mix. Serve warm or at room temperature with the remaining yogurt mixture in a small bowl on the side.

4-5 servings
Adapted from Jamie Oliver’s Cook with Jamie: My Guide to Making You a Better Cook

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Coming Home

There is so much to do after being away for 18 days. Besides all the normal things like going through the mail, paying the bills, watering the plants, doing laundry, I need to finish my travel journal. I try to write in a journal nearly every day I’m away, leaving plenty of blank pages to incorporate the ephemera: train tickets, playbills, menus, blogs, mini-photos, drawings of chairs. The trip journal takes on a life of its own as an art project, memory booster, and scrapbook. I revisit the country in choosing photos and pasting them into the book; in the process I move the memories and learning into my brain’s long-term storage compartment. I love the process. Even more I love having it done.

My very first trip journal was a small green faux leather book that I took with me to Europe in the summer of 1965. Writing with a very fine-pointed rapidograph pen, I crammed more information into this little book than I ever thought possible. The ephemera and photos went into scrapbooks and a box that for years have been tucked away. My current journals combine it all.

I also get to start cooking again. And how about this: I continue to have a hankering for Middle Eastern food—even though I spent six days eating it twice or three times a day. So I’ve made a Bulgur Salad with Roasted Peppers, Meatballs with Sour Cherries from The Book of Middle Eastern Food, trying to reconstruct the dish we had our first night in Damascus (see photo), Lebneh with Za’atar, Red Pepper Walnut and Pomegranate Dip, Zucchini Mint Fritters, and Cinnamon Chicken with Orzo. So good. Still hungry for those flavors.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Day 18: London to San Francisco - Coming Home

Summing up the trip. We arrived in London on Monday, April 12. Initially everything proceeded as planned: a couple of days in London, Oxford for Katherine’s conference on Wednesday, the 14th, and then back to London on Friday, the 16th, for our Saturday flight to Syria. We knew that British airspace had closed for an indefinite period on Thursday, the 15th, due to the ash from the Icelandic volcano which had erupted on April 14. We hoped against hope that our Saturday flight would take off as planned.

It was not to be. That flight was canceled; our rescheduled Monday flight was also canceled. Uncertainty reigned supreme for about five days. Waiting to see what would happen with the ash plume. Waiting to see if the airports would open. Waiting on the phone to reschedule our flight yet again. But unexpected pleasures as well: lunch with Susan Ware and dinner with Chris Kuelling, stranded like us.

Finally we were able to fly to Syria on Thursday, April 22. Turns out we made the right decision to stay and wait for the skies to open. From then on, everything worked even better than we had dared to hope. Touring with our guide, exploring Damascus, Katherine’s business meetings and the extremely capable Monitor team she joined, gorgeous food, lovely people. Rather than 12 nights abroad (UK for 6; Syria for 5; 1 flying), we had 18 nights abroad (UK for 11, Syria for 6; 1 flying).

Our stay in Syria was memorable for many different reasons; three or four stand out.
Because I was traveling with Katherine who was here on business, many of our travel arrangements were made for us, thanks to Emad, Silvia, and Rebecca. The comfortable hotel, great dinners around the city, our escorts to and from the airport, our tours of Palmyra and Damascus had all been arranged ahead of time. Without having to worry about or plan for these basic necessities and helpful amenities, we had more time and energy to let this place sink into our spirits, to breath it in, to appreciate its ancient splendor and current dreams.

This was my second trip to Syria. The first time in 2003 I was part of a very interesting Christian/Muslim delegation. Our group leader, Imam Bashar Arafat, who is from Damascus and now lives in Baltimore, wanted us to speak with as many Muslims (religious leaders, government officials, academics, etc.) and Christians as we could. I saw one side of the city in great detail but I didn’t have time to explore, visit shops, or walk on my own. This time I did and I established a heart connection that feels very precious indeed. I look forward to the next visit to explore the art scene more fully, find a cooking teacher, and visit the National Museum again. Each time moving a little deeper.

The warmth and graciousness of the Syrians we met seemed genuine. Some of the friendliness was perhaps prompted by commercial interests. But there seemed to be an underlying gratitude that we, as Americans, were here in Syria, learning about it, traveling about, having a great time, and a hope that we would return to the US to tell their stories, to show our snapshots (such as this one), to make this country real to our friends and family.

Our tour guide, Ghiath Abdallah, in his early 40s we would guess, was superb: knowledgeable, funny, wise, and organized. His family has lived in the same house in the Christian Quarter for 150 years. He lives there still. The youngest of four kids, his one sister lives down the street from the family home and his other brother and sister live in Athens. When Ghiath vacations, he goes to Athens or San Francisco. We hope we can repay his kindness the next time he come to SF.

In the market, merchants who wanted me to visit their shops responded when I said “No” as graciously as I could: “You are welcome here. Please come back tomorrow.”

In our hotel lobby, we were standing with a young hotel employee watching a Syrian wedding party gather in front of us. He asked, “Where are you from?” We responded, “California.” He said, “You have a beautiful country.” We responded, “You do too.” He said, “My country is not yet beautiful but it is getting there.” Wistful, hopeful, honest.

And the kids, oh the kids. The pictures say it all.
Boys from Tartous at Palmyra practicing their English.

Boys in the market in Damascus, trying to tell me something about my pistachios.

The shop of Bashar's father in the market, tended by a lovely young fellow. A relative of Bashar's perhaps?

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Day 17: Damascus to London

I started the first of two days of travel with a typical Syrian breakfast, hotel buffet style: foule (beans served with fresh tomatoes, diced onions, and herbs), a milky sweet bread pudding, a sweet cream of wheat-type warm cereal, chicken with tomatoes, hummus, and bread.

A very pleasant fellow, wearing a suit, met us at 8:30am in our hotel lobby to return us to the airport in the customary black Honda. Both he and the driver rode without their seat belts. Warning beeps accompanied most of our ride. You’ll recall our experience in coming into the country which I talked about on Day 12. In leaving the country, we only had one suit and a driver rather than three men tending to us. But the seat belt experience was the same. What is this?

He dropped us off at the VIP lounge, took our passports and luggage, and disappeared. He returned quite promptly with our boarding passes, luggage slips, and passports. We never saw an airline person or a customs or security official or any one else for that matter, except the fellow in the lounge who offered us tea. The boarding process started, we could tell from the lounge’s monitor, and we sat while our fellow talked with his friends or disappeared into the fray outside the VIP lounge. Suddenly realizing that we were minutes away from departure, he bundled us quickly into the car and raced across the tarmac to the plane. We were the last to board.

Just in case you are wondering about this VIP treatment, Katherine was working on a special project as part of the Monitor team in Syria and was being escorted by “protocol.” I was simply along for the ride.

The plane ride to London took about five hours and we began the process of setting our watches back, this time two hours. We spent the night at a hotel close to Heathrow, had Chinese food for dinner in the hotel (surprisingly good), and enjoyed drinking water from the tap. I didn’t have time to draw a chair.

Day 16: Drawing Chairs/Preparing to Leave

I try to draw a hotel chair in every room I occupy during the course of a trip. It all started with a trip to Syria, Jordan and Egypt in 2003 and I’ve been doing it ever since. I can’t tell you why I thought it would be fun to do. I had been drawing chairs in Berkeley and Sonoma for a while before 2003, had drawn nearly every chair in the house and was getting bored with the process and my chairs. I knew that I would never get bored drawing on trips and thought there would be an endless variety of chairs. It is true that I have never gotten bored but it is also true that there is not an endless variety.

I believe somewhere in the world there is a ware house filled with five or six styles of chairs which are purchased and show up in various guises in most any hotel room. Anywhere. The warehouses may be divided into the high class, middle class, and cheap varieties but within each class the chairs are remarkably the same.
So today on my last day, I drew the chair in our Damascus hotel room. I have one more chair to draw in our airport hotel in London—but just in case I don’t have time, I want you to see the chairs I have drawn so far on this trip. London, Oxford, and Damascus.

The entire Monitor team working on projects in Syria (about eight of them plus me) gathered for dinner on our last night in Damascus at a new restaurant called The Pearl of the Orient. The food was the best we’ve had in Syria—and that’s saying something. I can’t begin to name what was in all the little bowls of dips and relishes which preceded the salads, main course dishes, and desserts. So I’ll just show you the pictures. A perfect meal to end our stay.

Mezze selections.

Salads. This one is tabbouleh. Others included fattoush.
Main dishes, served with nut-studded rice.

Desserts. This one is angel-hair pasta wrapped in a nest, filled with a creamy sweet cheese, and soaked with a sweet syrup. The other dessert was two kinds of rose-scented rice pudding, one with an orange custard on top, the other plain.
Following dinner Emad took us to the Old City to see the Mosque at night. It was about 10:30pm and he said it was still too early to get the full effect. But I thought it was pretty magical, especially with the full moon shining.

Day 15: Sauntering through Damascus on My Own

I started walking toward the Old City with only a couple of things in mind: to see whatever appeared in front of me, to move very slowly, and to buy a roll of Scotch tape to paste ephemera in my journal. I really wanted to move at the same pace as other folks on the sidewalks. It was surprisingly easy to slow down, to notice the goods spread out on cloths: remote controls, books, sunglasses. A young boy tended a scale, waiting for customers who might pay a small amount to be weighed—or so I suppose.

Half way to the Old City I found myself in a group of what I think were Iranian tourists—although pilgrims might be a better term. They were following their leader who held a sign up high for all to see. Dressed in black or printed chadors, most of them were older women with brown weathered faces. I suspect they were country folk. Although it was clear that they had their sights set on the Umayyad Mosque, they were moving slowly, some encumbered by the packages and bags held underneath their chadors. I stayed in their midst until we reached the market, feeling strangely safe and protected. No one noticed my presence.

My sights were set on the most famous ice cream store in Damascus, Bakdash. Through the front window of the busy shop, I could see a fellow adroitly forming an ice cream ball in his glove-covered hands and gently lobbing it into a plastic box of nuts.
Another fellow removed the balls from the nuts and placed them in glass bowls which a server carried off to the waiting tables of customers. One of the servers noticed that I was taking pictures and waved to me.
I asked these young men to line up for a group shot. They, in turn, asked to see the photo. I moved into the shop to show them. After gesturing their thanks, one popped a small glob of ice cream into my mouth with his gloved hand. The ice cream was cool and sweet and just delicious; the encounter which lasted no more than three or four minutes was sweeter still.

I stumbled across a lovely old man and his son selling nuts and dried fruits on a small street close to the mosque. As soon as I tarried, looking at the food, I knew that I would end up buying something. I chose a small plastic bag of pistachios in the shell, salty and so good.
There were a couple of fellows demonstrating kitchen tools, spread out on a cloth in the street. They used the tools with a confidence that can only come from lots and lots of practice. They cored zucchini, made cucumber flowers and baskets, and shredded carrots with the greatest of ease. I was tempted to buy a gadget or two until I realized they were probably like the kitchen gadgets advertised on television in the 50s: they looked good but lasted about two seconds before breaking. I came home gadget-free. But a little regretful.

Walking back to the hotel, I followed the path past the old train station that is becoming increasingly familiar, moving at a saunter, noticing the shwarma shop, the Syrian equivalent of a pizza place, and the shop were I had successfully purchased my tape (not Scotch). I waved to the fellow who had sold me the tape; he waved back. I was surrounded by people traveling the same route at the same pace as I. It was lovely.

Dinner was at Naranj, a beautiful restaurant in the Old City. The five of us (our numbers are growing) had, among other things, fantastic kibbeh (meatballs mixed with spices and bulgur) in a yogurt sauce which was creamy, warm, and so comforting. Apparently you can heat yogurt and prevent curdling by adding some cornstarch mixed with water and slowly heating the yogurt, stirring it constantly. Sounds like a lot of work but the effort was so worth it.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Day 14: Exploring Damascus on Our Own

Because of the excellent tour yesterday and a pretty good map of the city, we felt comfortable setting out on our own. Our first stop was the scarf shop, The Silk Road, in the handicraft market we had visited briefly yesterday. We were charmed by the young fellow selling such beautiful fabrics and demonstrating his weaving skills on an old Jacquard loom for which he had more than 150 key-card patterns. We looked through his gorgeous selection of scarves and decided that we were going to incorporate more style and pizzazz into our pretty conventional attires by wrapping beautifully soft and vibrantly colored pieces of cloth around our necks. We ended up buying some beauties. And then we set off toward the Old City.

On our way we found that walking across busy streets can be quite a challenge. While there are traffic lights and even some pedestrian crossing lights and way more traffic cops swinging batons than you would see in most countries, the traffic is chaotic. We developed a strategy: we position ourselves behind or next to two or more people crossing the busy street and stay behind them, without looking at the oncoming traffic, until we reach the other side. It seems to work. We are still alive to tell the tale.

The Christian Quarter was our destination. We had both found it so calm and quieting yesterday and wanted to have a little taste of it again. What we hadn’t realized that being Sunday many of the shops were shuttered. But it really didn’t matter. We found the Hotel Talisman where Sam Barnes and our dear friend Rivka stayed on their trip last fall. We wish we could have stayed in the Jewish or Christian quarters of the old city but Katherine’s work here didn’t allow us that choice. We had lunch, wandered around at a leisurely pace, poking our heads into deserted ateliers, and ultimately headed back to our hotel, feeling quite proud of ourselves for negotiating the crowds, the traffic, and a new city.

We ate dinner at a fish restaurant called Al Yam, close to the hotel. It was splendid. Four of us started out with the usual hummus, eggplant dip, fattoush, pickles, and the rest. But then the show began. Silvia chose our fish: a beautiful large red snapper.
It was whisked to the kitchen, cooked encrusted in salt, and returned to the table for our inspection. We applauded.
I followed the crew into the kitchen and watched as the chef broke the crust with the side of his knife, gradually revealing the beautiful fish underneath.
The fish, without its salt robe, was presented to our table and again whisked away to be deboned.
The taste of the fish was so subtle and fresh, with just a touch of tahini with lemon and herbs and a lovely rice pilaf. The staff was justifiably proud and we were delighted.