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Posts Tagged ‘life’


Homemade pumpkin pie!

 Thanksgiving: my favorite holiday

In my invitation, this is how I described Thanksgiving to my Israeli friends:

For those not especially familiar, Thanksgiving is a secular American holiday celebrated on the 4th Thursday of November.  We take a moment out of our lives and give thanks for all we have – and eat massive amounts of American food (hope you like green bean casserole and pumpkin-marshmallow bake).  In theory, we mark the date of the “first Thanksgiving” the Pilgrims shared with the Indians in Massachusetts in 1621 after having survived the first difficult year in the New World.  For a good overview of the history of Thanksgiving see: http://history1900s.about.com/od/1930s/a/thanksgiving.htm.  It’s like Passover, but for everyone and anyone.  I think it should be an international holiday.

They don’t quite get it, but it’s still important for me to do.  As for the meal, I never cease to be amazed at how disgusted everyday Israelis are of pumpkin pie.  I basically made a quintuple recipe – two double-stuff pies (one pictured above) and 2 dozen pie-cupcakes.  Three-quarters of one pie got eaten, along with a small handful of mini-pies.  Half of our twenty or so guests were American, so you can see how little and unadventurous the palates were.  The apple pie went over a bit better – the prettiest apple pie I’ve ever made, actually – and most people don’t seem to know it’s easy to make.  Well, almost all pies are easy, depending on the filling.  Just mix up whatever you want to cook and pour into the crust.  Apple pie, being made entirely of apple, is usually just made up of apple slices, a bit of sugar, and cinnamon.  Pumpkin pie, so easy to make in the US with canned pumpkin, is infinitely more difficult when you have to go out and buy your own pumpkin, core it, cut off the rind, boil large chunks, and then press and blend the cooked meat – all before mixing in the actual pie ingredients.  I will use the word homemade here quite frequently, because it truly was – nothing canned.

Surprisingly enough, my homemade sweet potato marshmallow casserole was a big hit, although they did not understand why it wasn’t in the dessert category.  I suppose nobody can say no to a dish covered in marshmallows.  The child in us all simply jumps out of our skins.  My family’s recipe calls for the sweet potato mash to be mixed with a large can of pineapple chunks (syrup removed first) and sprinkled heavily with cinnamon, before being topped by our preservative-packed confection.

The turkey was divine!  Again, Israelis are stunned and impressed at the buying and cooking of a whole turkey.  Now, Israelis, you must understand, eat a lot of turkey.  More than most countries.  But the form it takes is almost exclusively in cold cuts and schwarma, if you can believe it.  Even huge cuts of meat for roasting are pretty rare.  I’ve never seen a roast in Israel.  The closest is goulash with big chunks of meat.  So you can imagine the oddity of a whole bird.  I brined mine for about 15 hours (it was about a 16-17 pound bird) in homemade brine I improvised around an Alton Brown recipe.  My brine-broth contained crystallized ginger among other exotic things.  If you’ve never brined a bird – DO – it makes a huge difference in the juiciness, tenderness, and intensity of flavor.  Of course butter helps enormously too, and herbs under the skin along with it.  The stuffing was as usual Martha Stewart’s chestnut stuffing, a recipe my sister and I have favored for years.  Lots of butter, sage, cups and cups of chopped chestnut, and high quality bread.  I’m still eating the leftovers quite happily.

In any case, in any case.  Thanksgiving was a hit at our home – my sister and I are very proud of 2011’s feast.


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I am sometimes privileged enough to get to participate in days and evenings that many people would die to experience, or have a hidden camera along with them.  As a writer, I don’t need one.  And believe me, I’d be a fool not to use my experiences as fodder for something extraordinary one day.  I won’t disclose direct details and names are omitted (don’t worry, nothing as sordid as you’d think).  The last 3 days of my life have simply been surreal – nothing short of it at all.  Billed as a combination “giving back and coming together,” the winery created a three-day program for every single worker – yes, we shut down for three days.  Included in this adventure:

  •  Community service – I spent most of the day breathing in ungodly amounts of sawdust and varnish fumes in an enclosed greenhouse for about 6 hours for the benefit of a community center for the mentally challenged – the folks came down to help us, and I ended up getting sprayed by said varnish for several minutes.  Ah well.  All for good.  I did get to commune with donkeys, ducks, and chickens that day in their petting zoo – always a plus in my book – and it was amazing to see what 6 hours’ hard work by 100+ people actually can accomplish.  It was great – although the sawdust ring and piles of sediment in the bathtub that night (I kid you not) were a cause of some concern to me.
  • A romantic tour of the old city of Jerusalem.  Great fun.  Churches, ramparts, architecture.  I’ve done it at least half a dozen times, and even led unofficial versions of it for friends.  But I loved it.  Towards the end I got tired, and when we got to the incredible Austrian Hospice, I simply disappeared into the cafe-garden with a lovely creamy Meinl cappuccino while the group went up to the roof for another half-hour of pointing-at-buildings.  It’s a rose garden, quiet, and two foreign gentlemen smoked cigars next to me.  At that moment I was happy.  I loved my employer, my colleagues, the retreat, the weather, the location.  It was a great day.
  • Ridiculous performances — I hate using ridiculous to describe performance art, as artists try hard and need to earn a living.  There just happens to be a lot I cannot tolerate, and I was subjected to some extremely…well…difficult work.  Folksy mediocre sort of stuff — the fact that many, perhaps not most, but not a few, of my work colleagues enjoyed some if not all of the two evenings’ entertainment, puzzled me.  But let me leave it at that. To each his own.  A fantastic exercise in anthropology, one could say.
  • A scavenger hunt.  A big fat three-hour frantic massive-list hunt, 21st-century-style (all evidence photographed, video’ed, and internet research often required).  We were broken up into groups and I knew almost nobody in mine.  Running all over Jerusalem, climbing the YMCA tower (450 steps up) to count carillon bells, taking photographs while sitting inside random people’s cars, teaching tourists to speak a sentence in Hebrew about our company, archery in the park, and on and on.  It was exhausting.  We didn’t win, but now I have 7 new friends at the winery, most of whom I never would have met, approached, or sat with at a meal.  The fact that I enjoyed this is a huge credit to the HR people at the winery.  They know their stuff.  It could have been cheesy-city, but almost every group participated with gusto.  It was great.
  • Raucous late-night adventures in the shuk — my favorite part of the trip — reminded me of my adventures in Bordeaux.  A small group (12 or so) of people from almost every walk of life (department) of the winery decided to head out for some post-cheesy-art living it up on the town.  We found ourselves at the Casino de Paris – a hip new bar-eatery in the middle of Machaneh Yehuda shuk (market).  Yes, hidden among the vegetable stalls is quite a chic place, bright, friendly, excellent booze, people spilling out the door on a Monday night.  We drank, ate, drank, told stories, drank, made merry, and drank under the stars beside the covered stalls outside the warm little bar.  Then we made our way to the famous Machaneh Yehuda restaurant a couple blocks away.  We drank, ate, drank, and made merry all over again, to a much higher and stranger degree.  With stranger foods (shellfish after midnight).  Stranger objects (wearing tea towels somehow became part of this segment of the evening). Stranger liquors (we started the evening with high-end Cognac and single malt Scotch, and somehow ended up finishing it off with cheap Arak).  So it goes.  Interesting taxi-back-to-hotel arrangements.  And lots and lots of ibuprofen.  I’m quite proud of myself, really.  I can really hold my liquor, or so it seems to me.  I didn’t tell any bad sex jokes, I didn’t vomit, I didn’t fall down, and I hardly cried at all.  I think it was a well-maintained buzz through and through.  In the course of 6 hours (with food) I think I consumed 3 glasses of wine, 2 whiskys, three sips of beer (one ale, two stout – a knowledgeable person told me to try stout with whisky and it was an excellent combination), one tiny sip of Arak, and a glass of bubbly.  It was a fantastic evening.  Had it occurred at the American Colony as I’d wanted, it would have been better.  It’ll have to wait for the next adventure.  But it was very good as it was.

It doesn’t often occur to people that they live interesting lives — but on this particular occasion, it occurred to me that I do.  I don’t make wine, but I get to work with people who do.  People who make world-class amazing wine.  And that counts for something.  It’s amazing when you know you’re working with and for good people, for a good cause.  Wine is a luxury product, I suppose, but it’s far more essential than a Lexus or foie gras or an Xbox, I think.  It’s a connection to land, to history, to religion, to people, to experience.  What’s a wedding without wine?  New Years?  Anniversaries?  Birthdays? Beuf Bourgignon? Coq au Vin?  I’m back to stressed out life — and even if it doesn’t seem charmed 99% of the time — it is a charmed existence in many ways.  There’s always that after-work glass of wine waiting.

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Fabulous clothing and shoes, wine stains and crushed toes.  So the game goes.

Talking to wine writers at the Golan Heights Winery stand at Sommelier 2011

Israel and wine, newsworthy topics both, best when paired.

The Sommelier Exhibition 2011 has come and gone, and it was fast, busy, exciting, exhausting, and over as soon as it began.  We at the Golan Heights Winery featured the 2008 Vintage – including 3 new single vineyard wines that were released this week, timed with the event: the Merlot from the Kela vineyard; the Syrah from the Tel Phares vineyard; and the Cabernet Sauvignon from the famed El Rom vineyard.  We also introduced the Gamla Syrah 2009 (English),  the newest addition to the Gamla series, a long time in the works – brilliant magenta color, vibrant fruity aroma bordering on the confectionary (and I mean in the best possible way), and such a fun wine it is.   The jazzy new 2008 Yarden 2T, a blend of two Portuguese varietals Turiga Nacional and Tinta Cao, was also a huge hit – lighter bodied yet complex, something we Israelis are not used to… and should be a great pleasure to get to know.

In other fascinating wine news, I read this interesting piece on 8 Budget-Friendly Destination for Wine Lovers. Ever thought of going to Thailand for a tour of wine country?  Umm… never.  But for $50 a tour, $5 a bottle, and a hotel for $15, your plane ticket is your largest expenditure (which frankly, is not small potatoes, but we’ll ignore that).  Apparently it’s brilliant fun to see Thailand’s 3 wine-growing regions that are able to harvest twice annually because of the wet and hot climate.  All the others I’d heard of and have actually considered.  Hungary (Tokaj – now why in the world wouldn’t I?) and Cyprus (fascinated by Greek-Turkish wines – millenia-old traditions) especially.

OK – on the bizarre, awesome, I-never-would-have-thunk-it, front, a Japanese comic book (the genre is known as Manga), all about wine – “Drops of God.”  First published in 2004, it’s been translated into English, and it’s brilliant and fascinating.  Wine Manga.  Wow.  It was a smash hit in France, a sensation in South Korea, and it introduced wine culture to large parts of Asia.  Check out the article and the Wikipedia page.  I’m buying this.

Otherwise – I’ve been working and kayaking and that’s about it.  Mostly working.  And consuming junk food, cucumbers, and tuna fish sandwiches.  Ah life.  And wine, don’t forget the wine.  My teeth turned an absurd shade of nasty smeared blackish purple over the past two days at the exhibition (not because I drank, god forbid while I work, at least not much) but because I was designated taster for most of the time – testing for oxidized and corked wines.  Thank goodness for baking soda.

And to close, a beautiful Ernest Hemingway quotation I stumbled upon today:

Wine is one of the most civilized things in the world and one of the most natural things of the world that has been brought to the greatest perfection, and it offers a greater range for enjoyment and appreciation than, possibly, any other purely sensory thing.

 

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Goodness gracious is it difficult to find a decent greasy breakfast in Israel.  As delicious and healthy as the standard Israeli breakfast fare is (eggs cooked any way, but usually as omelet or scrambled – accompanied by a large fresh salad, dips/sides – tahini, feta, cream cheese, tuna, fish roe in cream sauce, homemade jams – and fresh bread), I have been craving something more typically American or even British.  Something with animal fat, a mixture of creamy yolk, bloody juice, and spicy carbohydrates.  Oh, the agony!  My kingdom for a proper fry up!  And I’ve been coming up empty.

Not that Israelis don’t try.  But the couple times I have ordered the “Steak & Eggs,” slowly cropping up on trendier menus, I have been so sorely disappointed to the point where these eating establishments should be ashamed of themselves.   I won’t name names.  Just be wary.  I’m going to keep ordering it until I can create a more comprehensive picture.  Honestly, last week I was presented with three pitiful strips of “steak” that was as thin, tough, and stringy as boot leather (I refer to the classic Charlie Chaplin sketch below), topped with 2 overcooked “sunny side up” eggs (the yolks were almost solid), all over “hash browns” that embarrassingly consisted of what I can only describe as a giant lukewarm mound of ordinary fries cut up into smaller segments before being fried – with absolutely no seasoning.  Sadly, the best part of this dish was its name – “The Texas Hold’em.”  As you might imagine, I politely complained, and still insisted I pay for the entire meal.  I don’t believe in something for nothing.  It wasn’t the delightful waiter’s fault, after all.

Send me your recommendations for restaurants to try!

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This is a real “Rose of Sharon,” as referenced in the bible in the Song of Solomon, or Song of Songs as we know it in Hebrew – “I am the rose of Sharon, the lily of the valley.”  The real rose is, as seen, I kind of lily.  This year I saw them for the first time, or at least was introduced to them, and acknowledged them as the real deal. They bloom in the autumn on the sea coast, springing forth from the sandy rocks.  So beautiful a fragrance, such delicate thin white petals, spread out along the cliffs they blow gently in the breeze, dancing.

My name in Hebrew is Sharon – it’s what everyone calls me in Israel.  Irène is reserved for my English and French language identity.  It took me a long time to like my name. Irène Sharon – “peace” (from the Greek goddess of peace, Eirene, protector of Plenty, and revered by Athenians), and the forested plain region of Israel – often identified with this lily.  Now that I know that this unique flower blooms only in the fall, only here, and that I learned these things at a time when I was in such crisis, so tested, means all the more to me.  I love my name.  I want to work harder.  I want to be worthy of such a powerful, important, and beautiful name.

A test of survival – this last month was the most difficult one I have known in years.  It rivals studying for 5 AP exams while acting in a play while applying for college.  It rivals writing half a dozen final papers in two weeks.  It rivals the last week of sleepless nights finishing an honors thesis.  Yes, all academic references – but these were some of my roughest periods.  The task I was given did not require months and years of research in libraries.  It was kind of an opposite task – not cerebral – but practical.  A job job.  Logistics – coordinating the actions of 50+ people, scheduling 200+ wine tastings within a 2-week period, training 100+ people within a week, monitoring and assessing the success of these events, and troubleshooting at a moment’s notice – it was a kind of mad dance – the highest usage of email, telephone calls, text messages, and meetings – long drives, rushed taxi hops, running to train stations, and constantly being called, always fixing problems.  It might seem like I’m exaggerating, but I’m not.  10-16 hour days for a month, playing Sudoku with the largest spreadsheet I’ve known (as my bosses refer to it), moving people around like chess pieces, around the country, from day to day, hour to hour.  All this to sell wine, aggressively, on a large scale, during the holiday rush.  Now that I think about it, it really was like chess – strategic moves in a sales war.  It’s no wonder my bosses refer to this mad task as “hunkering down in the bunker.”

And I survived.  And I’m so happy.  And I love my job.  And I’m a sappy sappy sod, but I don’t care.  It feels good to work hard.  It feels good to have finished an arduous task.  How did I survive?  Sadly, or not so much, with a lot of single malt, chocolate, club soda (I love club soda), coffee and early morning news (BBC or France 24 at 6 am – not kidding) to feel connected to the world like a real grown up with a routine, and KAYAKING.  I kept at it.  Yes I did.  6:30 am once or twice per week, dragging myself to the beach for the greatest physically exhausting high – paddling kilometers during lessons with a professional, learning the techniques of the craft, to master control of the vessel.  Me versus the sea and wind.

And it was my kayak instructor, a typical gruff wiry leathery sort of sportsman, who pointed out the lilies, the delicate חבצלת חשרון, and bent one down from a high cliff for me to smell.  It a special sort of thing – that this flower blooms at the end of the Jewish new year.  Well, it actually crosses over – end of the year is also the beginning of the next.  It ushers out the old and brings in the new.  Kind of like my life.  A very new and different phase.  It’s much more like physical labor than mental labor.  Maybe it’s good for me.  For now.  It may make reading books and relaxing with friends more – more – fun?  Thinking for pleasure?

What is certain is that wine goes with food, and food will never leave my life.

Shana tova. שנה טובה ומתוקה.  A sweet and good new year to you all.

Second-to-last day of madness. Yes, that's a bottle of Gamla Sangiovese.

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I have just returned to Israel more tired than I can remember in a long time.  Due to Ms. Irene, the hurricane, not me, my flights were all canceled.  No, I was not stranded in paradise.  I was stranded in Chicago.  Three days were spent in alternating phases of work-absence-anxiety-and-catch-up AND having a lovely time seeing friends with whom I didn’t otherwise have time to spend.  Now home.  To a scary and very exciting month of work.  I took a moment today to look up some favorite poems.  Calm before the storm.

For Laughs:

You’ll Drink Your Orange Juice and Like It, Comrade

By Ogden Nash
There’s a Cyprus citrus surplus
Citrus surplus Cypriotic.
No Sicilian citrus surplus
But a Cyprus citrus surplus
Not a Cyprus citron surplus
But a Cyprus citrus surplus
Not a Cyprus citrus circus
But a Cyprus citrus surplus.
It’s a special citrus surplus
“Just a surface citrus surfeit,”
Says a cryptic Coptic skeptic.
But the bishop in his surplice
Certifies the surfeit citrus –
In his surplus Sunday surplice
Certifies the cirtus surfeit
Who’ll assimilate the surplus
Siphon off the Cyprus citrus?
Sipping at the citrus cistern
Who’ll suppress the Cyprus surplus?
Says the Soviet to Cyprus,
“Send us all your surplus citrus;
This is just a simple sample
Of Socialist assistance.
Should you show a similar surplus
In the simmering summer solstice
Send a summons to the Soviet
For surplus citrus solace.

Now on Cyprus they’re all reading
Victory by Joseph Comrade.

One of my all time favorites is “Lanyard” by Billy Collins

A fantastic montage made to the recording of “Man in Space,” by Billy Collins

 

On a more tender note:
The following poem is by A.E. Housman, a fascinating person – revered classics scholar and popular poet. A dear friend once inscribed a book to me with this poem, and I’ve never forgotten it.

It is no gift I tender,
A loan is all I can;
But do not scorn the lender;
Man gets no more from man.

Oh, mortal man may borrow
What mortal man can lend;
And ’twill not end to-morrow,
Though sure enough ’twill end.

If death and time are stronger,
A love may yet be strong;
The world will last for longer,
But this will last for long.

Alas, I really have to go to bed. 2 am. Jet lag has to be beaten somehow. And so I bid you adieu with these words of Robert Frost‘s:

But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

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Kauai’s NaPali Coast – no roads or inhabitants on the entire western third of the island – the rugged breathtaking region can only be viewed in its entirety from the ocean

I kayaked the entire Na Pali Coast – 18 miles of rough open ocean with no “bail out” spots.  After rafting the Colorado river, National Geographic ranked kayaking the NaPali the #2 adventure in America.  And I did it.  And I survived, rather, I thrived, with flying colors.

Now – I am not an adrenaline junkie.  I hate “adventure sports” for their own sake.  You will never find me attached to a bungee or a parachute.  Hiking is cool, even difficult hiking, but I won’t ever veer from the path.  So why oh why did I sign up for what seemed like a suicide mission?  I’m not quite sure.  It’s not like anyone helped me out psychologically there — everyone I spoke to said it was really difficult, an event that would push you to the limit, and one woman even compared it to childbirth.  So why, again, would I do this?

I kayaked from the end of the north road to the end of the south road. Yes, that's about a third of the entire island.

Stress.  Life.  Powerlessness.  Who knows.  The feeling that I was not actually relaxing and having a vacation (see previous post), combined with somehow wanting to prove something to myself – prove…what?  Prove…I don’t know…that I’m not a weakling, that I can deal with life, control my body, tackle seemingly huge and scary tasks…all of that.  And kayaking in the ocean takes all of that.  You cannot think or worry or stress out about anything else because you have to be right there and only there.  In fact, if your mind wanders, you can flip your kayak or crash into cliffs or both.

Of course, being on one of the most beautiful, unique islands in the world helps — nobody can see this beautiful coastline in its entirety — except on a kayak.  Even a motorboat isn’t enough – they cannot enter the caves and nooks and crannies or land on the tiny beaches that are only accessible to small small boats like kayaks.

Miloli‘i Beach - accessible only by water - a favorite spot for monk seals, which I saw from a distance

I wish I could report that I was scared.  Before or after.  Or during.  But I wasn’t.  I think beforehand I had resigned myself to the “fate” of it all — it would be hard or easy or somewhere in between…I would survive fine or I wouldn’t and it would be a disaster.  Whatever, it would be what it would be and there was no point in worrying about it.  What I didn’t expect was that it would be as fun and smooth and effortless as it was.  Well, not effortless – the paddling was brutal – but I didn’t tire out in the first hour like I thought I would.  In fact, I was among the best.  I was paired with another single woman (what they were thinking, I don’t know – the guide could have taken one of us, and there was a single guy, too — even out the men/women ratio — but no).  We had the most solid consistent rhythmic stroke of anyone.  We NEVER flipped over.  One friendly couple, who wasn’t even fighting, flipped over 7 times!  We almost always led the pack – next to the lead guide.  Crazy.  Every other kayak had a strong man in it, strong men with decent upper body strength — I was shocked myself at how good we were doing — I had expected to be the trailing kayak who needed help flipping over every few minutes.

In any case – I have never felt my body so entirely.  It was like a full day’s meditation.  18 miles is no small feat – whether you’re walking or running or swimming or whatever.  My arms did a lot of that work.  The ocean, the cliffs, the caves, the sky, all so beautiful.  We also saw a group of small dolphins close up (I believe they were called bottle dolphins).    And talk about beating the stress out of yourself physically — there is nothing like such an intense challenge to shove all of the “everyday life” out of you.  Perspective.  I’ll be remembering this for a long, long time.

All in all – if you’re even on Kauai and you’re not a 90 pound weakling, I would highly recommend kayaking the coast.  You can only do this in the summer, though, and I wouldn’t recommend it to people with bad motion sickness issues (I usually do, but I took some new pills the night before and morning of, and had no trouble – the ginger I took with me also helped).  That said, this isn’t an airplane or a sheer drop into a valley.  People have been traveling the world in small vessels since prehistoric times.  It’s how we got to where we got.  Ancient Hawaiians lived on these remote cliffs and valleys.  It’s only natural we see these places in the way they would have.

 

The forbidden island Niʻihau seen in the distance

The kayak company I chose was Kayak Kauai — nicer more professional folks I’ve not met in ages.

The Na Pali National Park website — for permits on camping and hiking, as well as kayaking info.

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