The Wren's Nest

A space for inspiration, creativity, & discovery

Have you seen Still Breathing (1998) with Brendan Fraser and Joanna Going?

Last weekend, Will and I curled up in bed and enjoyed a sweet movie from 1998 titled Still Breathing.  This beautifully strange and whimsical film follows a puppeteer played by Brendan Fraser as he seeks the woman of his dreams (literally, he has visions).  The woman of his dreams, played by Joanna Going, just so happens to be a jaded con artist who is weary of love after many failed relationships.  The movie captivates from the start, as the opening scenes portray a quirky, long-haired Fraser cutting out picture after picture of vintage looking women from different magazines, trying to piece together a representation of the woman he sees in his fleeting visions.  What! We were drawn into this bizarre plot, where a puppeteer could be hulking, and his aging mother could still play the tuba in a canoe on the river, and where it was not that strange after all to create a collage of different eyes, lips, ears, etc.,  just to conjure up the true image of his soul mate (it was his soul mate, after all).  I have always been a fan of somewhat awkward romances — Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Amelie, The Science of Sleep, Untamed Heart are just a few that come to mind.  Still Breathing is one I’ll have to add to the list, because in its awkwardness it too was touching.  The main character, Fletcher McBracken, reminds me of my husband in a lot of different ways.  He is artistic and strong, unafraid to believe in the seemingly impossible, a follower of dreams and of love.  In one scene, Fletcher stacks stones in the palm of Roz’s (Going’s character’s) hand to form this beautiful petite monument.  I can remember when Will and I first started dating, he sculpted a Swallow-tailed Kite for me, attached by fishing lines to a hook so that I could hang it and watch it fly whenever and however I’d like.  As our 3rd anniversary approaches, I feel truly grateful to have met my own soul mate and my very own quirky man of my dreams.

A still from Still Breathing (1998), directed by James F. Robinson.

Cookbook reads

Last night, Will and I devoured a pot of chickpea and leek soup intended to serve 6 people.  I found the recipe in Jamie Oliver’s book The Naked Chef.  Published almost 15 years ago, the book offers a glimpse into the humble beginnings of one of today’s most successful and loved chefs.  Several pages are dedicated to thanks, most notably to his then fiancée (now wife and mother of his four children), and to one of his early cooking tutors, Gennaro Contaldo, whom Jamie still features on many of his shows.  While I don’t know him personally, I can’t help but feel there is a genuine kindness and earthiness about him, and I definitely appreciate his efforts to bring simple, healthy, home-cooked meals back into our lives, particularly us Americans (see Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution).  All that aside, I have never chopped so many leeks in my life! I’m happy to report, though, that the meal was warming and oh-so satisfying (as you can tell from our 3 portions each).

I have also been exploring Deb Perelman’s The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook and David Lebovitz’s My Paris Kitchen.  The last two are so wonderful in their celebration of food in general.  I can also appreciate both writers’ shared experience cooking in small kitchens, one in NYC and the other in Paris.  I love that David Lebovitz dedicates a page to his quest to find the perfect farmhouse sink — deep and wide enough for even his baking trays.  A picture of the sink loaded with dishes makes me feel somewhat better about my own escapades in the kitchen — the mess comes with the territory, and so does the backbreaking work of washing up after!  I completely understand his desire for such a beautiful sink, given the amount of time he spends before it.

As if all these were not enough already to satisfy my literary cravings, I’m anxious to crack open Alice Waters’ The Art of Simple Food.  We picked it up at the market not too long ago, and I know she is a legend in the food world, so I am very excited and curious to see what the book is all about.

Before I finish here for today, I must share with you that I enjoyed a wonderful morning with my family last weekend as we were invited to bake sourdough bread with a local baker (and new friend).  I am amazed at the technique, timing, and effort that goes into producing these beautiful artisan loaves.  I hope to have the opportunity to bake alongside her again.

Enjoy your week!

 

Inspiration

I find a trip to the library always time well spent.  The quiet calms me, while the productive energy of study and exploration fosters my own feelings of inspiration.  I returned two books this weekend, only to bring home yet one more book, two movies, and two CDS.  Our days feel even more enriching and stimulating when we take regular trips to the library and make good use of what we find there.

After finishing The Count of Monte Cristo, I found myself seeking an altogether different experience.  Chocolat by Joanne Harris provides just that, while still gratifying my current curiosity with all things abroad (which at the moment happens to be all things French, it seems).  The story centers upon a woman named Vianne Rocher and her daughter Anouk as they begin to create a life of their own in a small French village.  Several townspeople are quick to ostracize the little family, as they view the colorful young woman, her imaginative daughter, and their chocolaterie as particularly decadent, if not immoral.  Though Harris creates an obvious tension between forces in her book, she explores meaningful themes with a lighthearted wit that is pleasurably thought provoking.  I’m going to have to watch the film again once I’m through with the novel.

As for the movies, Will and I have already watched one of the two that I took out.  On one of his nights off, we watched a former favorite of mine — a Lebanese film by Nadine Labaki titled Caramel (or Sekkar Banat in Arabic).  I really enjoy foreign films, and watching Caramel again after many years reminded why.  The cinematography remains convincingly real while at the same time lending artistic expression to critical moments in the film.  There is also such a lively humor present that highlights well the themes explored and crosses cultural boundaries in a reminder that we all experience essentially similar things in life.  The other movie we have yet to watch together is none other than Marie Antoinette — what did I tell you just now about my current fixation?

These days while cooking breakfast, though more often while cooking dinner, I’ll pop in one of the two CDS I took out, a compilation of Billie Holiday’s music titled From the Heart, and an awesome jazz album featuring Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, titled The Great Summit/The Master Takes.  Words cannot do justice to this last work, you just have to hear it for yourself.  The music is so uplifting, playful, soulful, that I feel entirely inspired just listening to it.  The music seems to accentuate whatever it is we happen to be doing at the moment, for me most of the time that means cooking — though Piper and I have enjoyed a few memorable and ecstatic dance sessions already.

We have been eating so well, that even our food seems soulful.  I guess that it has been infused with this general feeling of inspiration as well as with all that jazz.  Though simple meals, we just seem to be enjoying the experience more — candle lit and seated extra close together.  Some meals we have enjoyed recently are: artichokes with millet and Israeli salad, roasted sweet potatoes and peaches with quinoa and leftover kale salad, pancakes for breakfast one morning and cottage potatoes for breakfast another, Cuban black bean soup, peanut noodles, and more – but you can see how we love to eat!

Wishing you a day filled with joy and inspiration — and maybe a bit of jazz and chocolate, too.

W.

 

More thoughts on The Count of Monte Cristo

I have been quite under the weather recently, suffering through a dreary head cold and an awfully runny nose.  However, while recovering in bed during the last several days I have had the opportunity to drink plenty of hot tea and read none other than The Count of Monte Cristo.  Actually, I have finished the book only two nights ago and I’m still processing my thoughts and feelings regarding the book.  I feel like I haven’t been on such an adventure since I read The Lord of the Rings trilogy a few years ago.  Despite the differences between these books, they share a common depth so often present in the works that move and touch us the most.  Themes of suffering, sacrifice, and the limits of human (or hobbit) character are as thoughtfully explored as those of redemption, true happiness, and purpose. 

There are many memorable chapters and passages within the pages of The Count of Monte Cristo, and yet a few stand out at the moment.  Eventually, the reader comes to Mercédès’ ball, whereupon she notices The Count (whom she alone recognizes as her Edmond of so long ago) refusing to eat any food that is offered to him.  She takes him to her greenhouse, where she offers him grapes and I believe a peach as well, urging him to enjoy himself.  When Edmond refuses, she feels crushed.  The plot here is really of less significance than the feeling Dumas seems to conjure up so well with his writing.  The reader feels the ache, the loss, the tension between the two former loves, and truly the food becomes a symbol for something much greater, that is perhaps of forgiveness, acceptance, and the bond between the two characters.  I just thought Dumas so cleverly used cultural conceptions regarding the sharing of food to subtly articulate the deeper occurrence taking place.

Additionally, the whole evolution of Edmond’s character is just fascinating.  As I have before mentioned, his character begins as a naïve sailor on the cusp of all the success and happiness he could possibly wish for, but through his disillusionment he becomes hardened, and years of surviving false imprisonment and betrayal shape his perception of himself into that of Providence (and consequently, menacing angel), where he believes his role is one of punishing those who so wronged him.  Later, Edmond is once again disillusioned, though finally redeemed, as he comes to terms with his own wrongdoings, emptiness, and longing, all while the possibilities of true love and loyalty unfold before him.  A powerful book all around — check it out from your library if you haven’t already read it.

Indulgences

This evening, feeling rather sentimental, I perused some of our old photographs taken last year.  Amidst photos of our daughter grinning a proud, gummy smile as she braced herself against the refrigerator in an effort to stand on her own, were delicious shots of family meals we enjoyed together.  I look back at these moments of captured joy with a deep sense of gratitude.  We have grown so much in the past year (some of us quite literally)!  Though we cannot truly relive those sweetest of moments, we can cherish them and watch with wonderment as new ones unfold before us.

All sentimentality aside, though, I thought you would enjoy a glimpse of some of the meals we shared last year.  I seem to remember finding a copy of Yotam Ottolenghi’s cookbook Jerusalem at the library, and delving straight in to several of his vegetarian recipes.  Later that year, Will would gift me Ottolenghi’s Plenty, though it was with Jerusalem that I first truly experienced Ottolenghi’s food.  His recipes seem fresh, colorful, and infused with a unique cultural perspective.  That year we made our own Za’atar and paired unlikely foods like prunes with potatoes (roasted, with caramel sauce).  We roasted butternut squash and ate the crispy skin, too.  We filled our bellies with chickpeas and our eyes with a gorgeous display of wild and basmati rice pilaf.

I also found a few irresistible photos of some sweets we shared — fudgy vegan brownies with walnuts and one particular recipe for lemon and olive oil banana bread with chunks of chocolate by Heidi Swanson seemed to stand out the most.

What has changed for you in the past year?

July notes during a rainstorm.

July brings afternoon thunderstorms, fresh puddles for jumping, and shiny little galoshes for toddler feet. The 2nd of July brings joy and Shepherd’s pie and double chocolate birthday cake for my beloved. Cousins play on the 4th, tossing toys and drawing pictures and sneaking a rigorous tap or two on piano keys, while adults speak over plates of sweet green bean salad, corn on the cob, and a few convincing veggie-dogs. Some days bring bubbles and water for splashing in the backyard, while other days bring air conditioned visits to the children’s museum where we pin-the-tail of a hen on an interactive Chagall reproduction. Today, the dark and booming sky brings time for writing while the rest of the house sleeps. I think about our evening jogs and our morning jokes – I point to my husband’s long hair and beard and he smiles and says questioningly, “Café d’If?” Chateâu! Chateâu! We laugh with playful innocence. Days to come will inevitably bring strawberry popsicles to soothe two year molars, the making of long missed play-dough, and hopefully the resumption of story time at the library. For now, I will leave as the lightning flashing across the sky and loud claps of thunder show me a strong storm is nearing. However, I will leave you on a “sunny” note — our sunflowers are all in bloom, with bees buried in yellow pollen. That’s all! That’s all! I have got to go!

Reading notes, June

I sure feel as though a lot of time has passed since I last blogged here, though in reality it has only been just over a week.  Lately, I spend the bulk of my free time absorbed in Alexandre Dumas’ classic The Count of Monte Cristo.  I’m about 500 pages in, and the plot seems to have plateaued, though more likely my interest is tapering after so many nights spent in bed reading chapter after chapter of the same book until I fall asleep.  As strange as this sounds, I have enjoyed watching the character development in Edmond Dantès — from his initial naiveté to later disillusionment and cunning.  The chapters where Edmond endures solitary confinement in the Chateâu d’If are particularly moving, as Dumas depicts Dantès’ mental strife and longing in such realistic terms.  When he finally meets Abbé Faria, Edmond finds a temporary solace as he takes great comfort in the monk’s companionship and wisdom, though he still feels the dark stirrings of loss, grief, and a desire for vengeance within, which become heightened upon Faria’s death.  The amplification of Dantès’ personal strengths and weaknesses, along with an awesome hidden treasure now his own, gives Edmond’s character a truly fantastic air (see Byronic references in book for further detail). 

On another note, all of the sea and treasure imagery within the book have been giving me exciting dreams.  One night I dreamed about a ship sailing into a blue horizon, that later dissipated into a flock of white birds that flew toward and melded into the sky.  Last night, I dreamed I was wading in clear sea water when I picked up a beautiful blue clamshell that floated toward me.  Seeing a clam still inside, I let it go, though soon found numerous other shells as striking and colorful.  The dream took a strange turn when a decorative orange and white Chinese soup spoon washed ashore, and I puzzled myself in wondering if it was ceramic or plastic, and in what era it was created.  Ha!

Speaking of spoons, and of food in general, I cracked open my copy of Alicia Silverstone’s The Kind Diet this week.  I bought my copy at a lucky garage sale many months ago, but haven’t really used it much since.  For one reason or another I felt inspired to cook from it this week, and I’m really happy that I gave it a chance.  The vegan and macrobiotic inspired recipes seem to be just what I need recently.  So far, I have cooked a Moroccan couscous recipe with butternut squash and saffron, a couple of casseroles from different grains such as barley and polenta, and a pressed fresh vegetable salad.  The latter is interesting and new to me:  first, I thinly sliced various vegetables such as cabbage, fennel, carrot, and radicchio, and then proceeded to bruise them a bit with my hands, to promote enzyme activity.  Piling the veg up in a bowl, I then took a small plate and pressed the whole mixture down, weighting it with a full teakettle for about an hour.  The result is really unique and palatable.  The massaged vegetables are easier to eat as well as to digest.

Outside, our garden continues to grow, whether or not we have much time to play in it.  Sunflowers stand five feet tall and about to bloom, chili peppers turn a ripe red on the plant, and a tight, purple skinned eggplant grows larger each day.  The days feel so hot, that we do not venture outside for too long unless we are near some shade or water.  In some ways, I’m more enthralled with the grottoes of Monte Cristo, and the scenes and costumes of the Roman Carnival portrayed in Dumas’ book.  In these pages, I find respite and a different adventure from my own busy days, as sweet as they are.

 

 

 

Pomegranate Soup and Torta di mele

After a trip to the library last week, I took home a novel titled Pomegranate Soup by Marsha Mehran, as well as Nigella Lawson’s Italian inspired cookbook Nigellissima.

Pomegranate Soup tells the story of three sisters that fled revolutionary Iran, and found themselves in County Mayo, Ireland.  There, they open The Babylon Café in honor of their Persian culture.  The women come to terms with their troubled past while they simultaneously face prejudice and adversity in their present.  Eventually, though, the sisters find family and love in the small village community of Ballinacroagh.  The novel shares similarities with Laura Esquivel’s novel Like Water for Chocolate, in that each chapter begins with a recipe and both books are rich with colorful prose and cultural significance.  Whenever I opened Pomegranate Soup, I escaped for a time to The Babylon Café, where descriptions of one particular golden samovar, herbed pancakes, the scent of cinnamon and rose, and fried dough elephants’ ears enticed me.  I thoroughly enjoyed the read.

Nigellissima proved enticing as well.  Flipping through pages of sweet, Italian inspired desserts in full color had me dreaming of Struffoli and Semifreddo for days, not to mention Panna cotta, chocolate olive oil cake, and a particular Torta di mele (affectionately called Italian apple pie) that I just had to bake.  So, as usual, all too late last night I stood at the counter pouring ingredients into the food processor to mix up a creamy cake batter.  As I have mentioned before, Nigella is quite effortless in the kitchen and isn’t ashamed to take shortcuts from time to time.  At nearly 9 at night, I decided to save the hand stirring for another day in favor of having a sweet bite to eat that much sooner.  Will and I shared our own Golden Girls moment later that night; the two of us sat together in the dark at the dining room table, indulging in our still warm dessert.  What I love about this recipe is how easy it is to throw together, without compromising taste or elegance.  The crumb is very moist and not cloyingly sweet, and the beautiful apple slices spiraling around the top turn crisp and brown with a bit of cinnamon and brown sugar.  The cake (because it is more of a cake than a pie) can, as Nigella mentions, double as a teatime snack– so it is quite versatile.

Italian Apple Pie

Forgive the color, there was nothing but artificial light left when we photographed this.

Since this trip to the library I have since made another, and now I am buried in the adventures and romance of Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo.  We have recently watched the movie, and I am already discovering how much the film and book differ (of course).  Still, I am enjoying myself as I find nothing quite as comforting as a good book — and recently, I have been lucky to find several.

Summer in a bowl

Recently I came across a wonderfully colorful recipe for Rainbow Bowls on the Yummy Mummy Kitchen blog.  The meal is an attempt to get as much fresh produce plated as possible.  Vibrant, healthy, and the perfect light meal for a summer evening, Rainbow Bowls are also highly customizable and are as much a reflection of the seasons as they are your personal tastes.  A pot of quinoa cooked quickly while I prepped radishes, red onions, Roma tomatoes, carrots, cucumbers, lettuce and avocado.  I echoed the serving suggestion from the blog and nestled a bowl of quinoa within a larger serving bowl.  I had a bit of fun arranging the various cut vegetables around the quinoa.  In some ways this meal reminds me of Taco night as a kid, which we only enjoyed every once in a while but always looked forward to because we got the privilege of picking and choosing our various fresh toppings to pile into our taco shells.  The same idea exists here, where people can serve themselves and layer ingredients as they please.  I also mixed a quick tahini dressing for drizzling, and put some extra bowls out filled with beans, hempseeds, and pepitas.  I feel so full and content after this dinner, that I wonder if it has anything to do with such a diverse and wholesome mix of protein (the quinoa in itself is a great vegetarian source of protein, though the beans and seeds just seemed to take the meal to another level).  I imagine this meal would go over well at a summer picnic, as both the color and freshness of it are a bit irresistible.

Enjoy!

A first attempt at baking Challah

Another quiet Sunday found me in the kitchen proofing yeast and flouring countertops while the little one slept.  My heart has been set on baking Challah for some time now, and today seemed as good a day as ever to try something new.  The sight of rainclouds kept me inside, where I could nestle up and watch the sky change colors and the wind blow from the comforts of our warm kitchen.  I think about Challah and I remember the many celebratory Rosh Hashanah dinners from my youth.  Aside from the crisp white apple slices that we would dunk lavishly in a pool of sticky-sweet honey, there was always a round loaf of store bought Challah set on the dinner table for all to enjoy.  The dark brown exterior encases an ever soft, light, and moist crumb.  Sometimes the loaves are even flecked with raisins.

The recipe I used called for three rises.  I anticipated some challenges, since this would be my first time baking such a bread.  I struggled a bit to form long strands of dough for braiding.  The light dough was so filled with air that the strands kept springing back rather than stretching very easily.  However, I eventually succumbed to the imperfections and to the best of my ability completed a 6 strand braid on each loaf.  I felt somehow initiated.  Beautiful bread has always felt like somewhat of a mystery, with Challah seeming impossible to figure out on my own.  Yet here it is, and from my own hands.  I loved sprinkling sesame and poppy seeds over each loaf.  The finishing touches made everything feel that much more authentic.

I am excited to have another go at the recipe soon, since I can only get better with practice.

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