Travel

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A Virtual Dinner: Viva Cuba!

I have always wanted to go to Cuba: the music, the food, the art, not to mention the very mysterious tradition of Santeria that involves spirits and gods that were brought to the island by the Africans on their way to being slaves on the grand plantations of the American south.

I always thought it would have been very interesting to go when Fidel Castro was still alive. But unfortunately, I couldn’t.

Although, I met Fidel once: it was at CBS News in the early 2000’s. It was September and he was in town to give a speech at the UN General Assembly. So, he popped in, as one does, to say hello to Dan Rather who had interviewed him on many an occasion.

The whole building was on tenterhooks.

Dan went down to the lobby to meet him and took him for a little tour around the building at 524 West 57th Street that used to be a dairy a very long time ago.

I stood in a corner at the Evening News Desk and waited for him to appear: a man who had been such a major player in the history of the 20th century.

And then he came through the doors. Fidel Castro, who I had imagined would come in his camouflage guerilla fatigues, his combat boots and cap, chewing a cigar, walked onto the anchor desk, dressed in a grey, bespoke double-breasted suit, white shirt and a dark red tie. His beard was perfectly combed and his grey hair slicked back. I later found out the suit, shirt and tie were all Valentino.

I smiled politely when I was introduced, and it was a moment I won’t soon forget. Think what you may of Fidel and his history in Cuba, the man was charming and charismatic, one felt his presence even when he had left.

My other favourite Cuban is a musician: not Tito Puente or Celia Cruz or even Gloria Estefan. It’s Bebo Valdés, a superb pianist who was a major influence on the Cuban music scene all the way until 2013 when he died at the age of 94. A founder of Latin jazz and one who pioneered the incorporation of Afro-Cuban rhythms into dance music, Bebo was a genius.

Living in New York, I’ve always kept an eye out for real Cuban food. Victor’s on 52nd Street came close, but it wasn’t like some of the dishes I sampled during a brief stint in Miami in 2010.

I recently talked to a colleague of mine in the wine world, a Cuban, and we began talking about Cuban food and what wines would be interesting to pair with it.

At the end of the chat, he had handed over his mother’s receipe for pork chops, rice and beans and the girls and I made it for our virtual dinner party on Friday.

Mint, lime, cumin and garlic were the predominant flavours: a perfect mix of all the cultures that have come through the island in the past 500 years: Spanish, French, English, Asian, African…

Wine-wise, I decided on an all-natural cabernet franc from the Loire, K had a rose from the Provence and L a sauvignon blanc from South Africa.

Here’s the recipe:

Serves 2:

Ingredients:

Olive oil

4 thinly sliced pork chops

4 limes

2 teaspoons ginger powder

2 teaspoons garlic powder

1 teaspoon paprika

2 teaspoons cumin powder

Salt & pepper to taste

1 cup flour

14 cloves chopped garlic

1 cup rice (Basmati is a good option)

2 cups cupped red onion

2 red or green Serrano chillies

2 cans Goya red or black beans

0.5 cup chopped fresh mint or cilantro

2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

1 teaspoon honey

Method:

  • Pork chops:

Marinate chops in marinade of lime juice, salt and spices and set aside.

  • Beans:
    Heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil, enough to coat the pot. When hot, 1 cup of the red onion. Stir. When soft, add about 8 cloves of garlic. Stir. When soft, add chopped chilies. Stir. Add beans. Cover and cook on a slow fire
  • Rice:

Heat a couple of tablespoons of olive oil. Brown 6 cloves of garlic. Add 1 cup of rice, stirring frequently, coating the rice with the oil and garlic. When the grains start to look toasty, add salt to taste. Cover, lower the fire and let cook. When the rice is al dente, drain the excess water in a colander. (You’ll be getting rid of the excess carbs this way). Return to the pot. Cover and let the rice finish cooking in its own steam
Whilst the rice is cooking, put the cup of flour in a shallow bowl. Season with salt and half a teaspoon of cumin.

Heat a couple of tablespoons of olive oil in a saute pan. Whilst oil is heating, take chops out of marinade and coat in flour. When oil is hot, add chops. Cook 3 – 4 minutes per side. Drizzle with honey and keep aside.

In the same pan, add remaining chopped red onion and 2 cloves garlic. When soft, add 2 tablespoons good balsamic vinegar and some fresh mint. If too dry, add water. Let cook a few minutes. Top off the chops with the mixture.

Serve with rice and beans.

 

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A Virtual Dinner Party: Lamb Ragù

About a quarter of a century ago, I went to Sardegna…the one and only time I’ve visited this island in the Mediterranean, but one that I swore I wanted to go back to…and I will.

One summer, a few years after we both graduated, my best friend from college, a Roman girl told me she had rented a small cottage on the West Coast of Sardegna.

“It’s the un-chic side of Sardegna,” she said. “Not the Costa Smeralda…” which is an obligatory pit-stop for the jet set and their magnificent yachts as they cruise the Mediterranean in the summer.

“Why don’t you come visit?” she suggested. “You’ll have to fly into Caligari and take a taxi.”

Why not? I thought and booked myself on a flight to Rome and onwards.

As the taxi trundled north to the address that was not much more than the name of a farm and a general area rather than a ‘street address,’ I was amazed at the scenery. It wasn’t anything like what I’d imagined. It was wild.

Along the coasts, gigantic cliffs plunged into a sea so blue that it redefined ‘turquoise,’ and inland, when the road took us there, the hills were craggy and rugged and the valleys green and rich with local vegetation, the air redolent of the scent of herbs that was reminiscent of the Languedoc region of Southern France.

Shepherds snoozed under the heavy foliage of trees as their flocks foraged for fresh, sweet grass, whilst a strong wind swept through, cooling the effects of the hot summer sun. As we got closer to the house, a flock of flamingos rose up into the sky in a perfectly choreographed formation that took my breath away.

I honestly can’t remember exactly where the cottage was, but it was charming and the view and place made up in spades for what it didn’t have in the more modern comforts of life.

Besides the scenery, what has stayed with me from that trip were some of the meals we had: one a pasta dish made by the farmer’s wife when I arrived, mallerodus, a local pasta, in a simple sauce and lots of pecorino cheese; two, the lunch on the boat that we took to see the coast, was another simple pasta in a red sauce, made by one of the crew. Why is it that pasta in Italy just tastes better?

But the third meal was at an agriturismo, an Italian table d’hote, the dinner table of a local farmer.

At this agriturismo, the table was outside under the star-filled, inky sky of a summer night. I remember it was hot and humid and the air was quite still. Candles lit the area and the smell of wax mingled with the scent of wildflowers.

The table was laden with platters of antipasti and cheese and hot, homemade bread. There were pitchers of cold water and bottles of a homemade rose wine. The pièce de résistance was the incredibly beautiful sucking pig that everyone thought was the star of the show.

But for me, it was the pasta, the primo piatto that came before the pig that I have never been able to forget, the layered flavours of the lamb ragù creating an indelible memory of a dish that I recreated years after the trip, re-building it step by step from the flavours I remembered and the few pointers given to me by the farmer’s wife.

Three years ago, I was in East Hampton for some much-needed time off and my very close friend, K, came to visit. And as we sat drinking a Sicilian rosé by the pool enjoying the August sun, talking about places we’d visited and hoped to go back to, Sardegna was one that came to my mind and I told her about that meal at the agriturismo.

Inspired, I conjured up the dish, feeling a little bit like a witch stirring her cauldron, relying on my palate and olfactory memories from so many years ago. We had it that night, sitting outside, the table lit by candles, a couple of bottles of wine to keep us going and crickets chirping in the bushes. And…I have to say, it was pretty darned good and came very close to being exactly what I had eaten twenty-five years prior.

Last week, following the success of our first FaceTime virtual dinner party, my friends, K and L, suggested we do the lamb ragù next. Problem was that I had never written down the receipe in East Hampton, but, unbeknownst to me, K had taken notes as I cooked. So, we decided to go for it…K, L and I cooked on FaceTime, took a break to take our respective dogs out as the ragù simmered in three kitchens across Manhattan, and came back to it, served it and sat down and ate it…alone, yet together.

Wine was copiously consumed, L decided on a Marsanne from Yves Cuilleron, K a greco di tufo from Campania and I had a monica from Sardegna.

We ate too much and we drank too much and talked far too much, but this time, we didn’t have to get in cabs to go home. We were home.

Not yet sure what we will do next week, but there was some talk of Mongolian steak…

Stay tuned!

 

Meantime, the ragù receipe is below.

Ingredients:

Olive oil

4 cinnamon sticks
10 cloves
10 whole black pepper

2 bay leaves

8 cloves garlic minced
2 red onions chopped
4 pepperoncini or 3 fresh serrano chilies chopped or 4 dried
2 pounds minced lamb
2 of each sweet and hot sausage, without the casing

Salt

4 fresh tomatoes

Pinch of sugar

3 – 4 sweet potatoes, cut in chunks

A palmful of finely chopped parsley

1 box of a short pasta, rigatoni, fusilli, cavatappi or celentani
Pecorino cheese to taste

 

Method:
Heat a good glug of olive oil, enough to coat the bottom of a pot
Add whole spices to perfume the oil
Add garlic

Add red onion and chili
Add a pinch of salt to make the onion sweat
Once onion is soft, add meats and brown

Salt to taste
Peel the tomatoes, puree, and add to mixture
Add a teaspoon of sugar
Cover and cook on low fire, about an hour.

Pre-heat oven to 375 degrees
Toss chunks of sweet potato in olive oil and salt and roast, about 25 to 30 minutes until soft.
About 5 minutes before ragù is ready, add roasted sweet potato to the pot.
Top with parsley.

Boil pasta in salted water until al dente.

Drain and return to the pot and add the ragù to the pasta and allow it to mix.

Top with pecorino cheese and serve.

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The Quality of Life

Of late, I’ve been quite preoccupied with the idea of quality of life and what it really means to me.

I’ve always been a hard worker, whether it was in school or later when I started working…somehow, I was happy to put in long hours, trying to go the extra mile, keeping ahead of the 8 ball.

All through my 20s, 30s and 40s, I was convinced that if I could do better, my quality of life would improve, and so I worked feverishly, constantly striving, achieving, getting ahead, climbing the ladder, call what you will, but I felt that I needed to be the best I could be at whatever I turned my mind to.

For example, I took up flamenco dancing, first as a hobby and became so obsessed with it that I decided to move to Sevilla, the mecca of the artform. And not just that, I took it all the way to the top, dancing professionally, touring Europe and the like.

I turned my hand to cooking and would run home every evening to cook a rather grand meal for my then hubby, who affectionately told me that I probably wouldn’t stop until I ended up on Iron Chef facing off with Alain Ducasse.

I came up with an idea as to how to make the most of a small closet in a one-bedroom apartment in New York City and turned it into a business known as Garde Robe.

I love wine and drink it, copiously…but I turned that into a sommelier certificate.

Over achiever? Yes, probably.

But that was then.

Today, I am more concerned about happiness and being content and I realize that the smallest things bring one the greatest pleasure, if one slows down and stops for just moment to notice them.

I was at a friend’s house in Sag Harbour recently and she had the most beautiful, vibrant watermelon pink peonies on her front table. Something about the flowers got to me and later that evening as I walked on the beach enjoying the sunset, I realized how little it takes to make me happy: the sight of a flower, the feel of sand between my toes, a kind word, a stranger’s smile, a melody of a song that reminds me someone I once loved…

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not about to pack up and go off and live La Dolce Vita in a villa in Tuscany…as much as I would love to, I can’t afford it!

I still work hard and I love being busy. But my most precious moments are when I am deep into a manuscript and the words are flowing off my fingers appearing magically on the computer screen, or a walk in Central Park with the dog when the cherry blossoms are in bloom or when I have friends over for dinner and the food and wine and laughter make for indelible memories, or even something as simple as a walk along the River Seine in Paris on a bright, sunny Spring day.

What all this means is that balance is key to a harmonious life.

Work…of course, we all have to. But time for oneself and time for those in our lives will only enrich us even more. And time is honestly the greatest gift one can offer.

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A Writer’s Mecca

On a recent visit to Paris, I went on a pilgrimage to what I think is the mecca for writers…: the Bar Hemingway in the Ritz Hotel on the Place Vendome.

It’s a small bar all the way in the back of the hotel, a bit of a walk through the long, luxurious corridors lined with vitrines filled with the wares of luxury brands catering to the wallets of the rich and famous.

The dark and manly bar, all wood and leather, is small, cozy and filled with Hemingway paraphernalia that includes an old typewriter, which I believe may have been a Royal, but I’m not entirely sure…and a large bottle of Tabasco sauce next to it.

I smiled as I looked at it, running my fingers over the keys. I love typewriters (I had one in college). This one was very similar to the Royal, my old boss, Dan Rather, had in his office and just as in the bar, alongside it, a bottle of Tabasco. Indeed, Rather always traveled with a bottle of Tabasco, telling me that it killed every germ imaginable, and now I wonder if Ernest Hemingway did too?

I sat next to the typewriter and ordered a glass of champagne. I thought about ordering a sidecar or a martini, which I believe was Hemingway’s drink of choice, or certainly the drink he ordered when on August 26th, 1945, the day Paris was liberated, he stormed the bar with a group of fighters from the French Resistance, picking up a tab for 51 martinis…but champagne is more my thing.

As I sat, sipping my bubbles and munching on olives and cashews, I somehow felt transported in time. One glass turned into two or perhaps more and on my umpteenth drink, I strangely felt as though I was part of that very elite crowd that frequented the bar…Marcel Proust, Coco Chanel, F. Scott Fitzgerald…at a time when they were not part of history, when they were, like me, literary or creative figures trying to make ends meet…and the Bar Hemingway was their local.

As I sat looking around at the letters, photographs, animal skull, boxing gloves…oh and the shotgun above the bar, I was so reminded that Hemingway was first a tough, unapologetic son of a bitch, a hardened journalist and a man who broke the mold. I was reminded then just how much he had in common with Dan Rather.

I remembered the four words Rather told me the day I started working for him: “Tell Me A Story.”

And I never forgot.