Writing 101 – Day #20 (With Marcella #32 & #33) I Love My Knives

At my table this evening, sat my Ambassadorial friend and her teenage son (almost not a teenager anymore, so all the more impressive that he had been happy to come along). Over dinner we got to discussing the writing prompt for today, the final day of a month of writing challenges. I was to write about a treasured possession.

I confessed to feeling a little uninspired. I had plenty to write about. I could have written a very lengthy piece about all the things that had been treasured possessions in my life and how pretty much every single one of them have either perished, faded, been destroyed, been lost, lost their significance, or gained a whole, new, painful significance. It was all a bit depressing. So I ditched that idea.

Over dessert, we briefly explored whether I could sustain a whole post on how the bar of soap that I use each day could arguably be my most treasured possession? I’d be lost without it. But then I just started worrying (thankfully inside my head, not out loud) that there may be a day in the not too distant future where they stop making bars of soap and force us all to use shower gel! I don’t want to explore that thought until I have to.

Then I thought about what is precious to me now. It could be Marcella’s cookbook? My first piece of ‘proper furniture’ that arrived last week? The string of pearls my parents gave me for my 40th? All lovely. All treasured.

But then, as I was preparing the meal for tonight, it occurred to me – that at this moment – and many moments before – and no doubt many moments after – my most treasured and most used possessions are my two kitchen knives.

I bought them just before I came to this other side of the world, 16 years ago. I had been given a voucher for a department store and I wanted to buy something that I could take with me (in my two suitcases) and that I couldn’t otherwise afford.

I had been introduced to sharp, good-quality knives while working in a cafe in Sydney’s Inner West and, having become accustomed to the joy (and paradoxical safety) of cooking with a sharp knife, I couldn’t go back.

When I think about it, those knives have been an integral part of my journey of learning how to cook simple food, Persian food, Italian food, food for crowds, food for one. I haven’t yet learnt how to sharpen them on a knife stone. But when others have kindly done it for me – well, it’s better than a bouquet of roses! Give me a bunch of well-sharpened knives any day (though flowers would be lovely too).

Tonight, I was required to thinly slice discs of carrot, strips of red pepper, and crescents of onion and celery. My knives were doing what they do best!

I’m aware that there is something a bit sharp and evoking of shivers about all this talk of knives. But when no humans or animals (live animals, that is) are harmed in the process, or no magician’s acts are to be endured, knives are part of a creative process of warmth and love.

Tonight, they played a part in the creating of a home-style Italian dish – real comfort food – for three people far from our ‘home’ and wearied by some of life’s different challenges.

After that dish was consumed, with beautiful potatoes from a nearby county, the bigger of the two knives was cleaned and used to cut through an Almond Cake.

I love my knives. They will eventually be sharpened into non-existence, but I think I’ll have a few more years of treasuring them. And as I cut, chop, slice and dice in silence – if you were to listen carefully – listen to my thoughts – you’d occasionally hear me asking for the blessing of the one who treasures me as his very own.

He’s no possession. I am possessed by him.

Tonight: #32 ‘Chicken Fricassee, Cacciatora Style’ and #33 ‘Almond Cake’ with Ruth and Jesse at my table.

Writing 101 – Day #19 (and #18) I’m Thinking…

Yesterday, on my day off, I sat at my table playing Scrabble with a friend on the other side of the world, then I did some cleaning, then I read a book, all to avoid figuring out of what to write for Day #18, about the perspective of a 12-year-old boy watching an old woman being evicted from her home across the street. I just couldn’t work out what to write. I thought of some things and then I thought ‘But maybe that’s what a 12-year-old girl would think?’ Then I thought ‘What if it’s just what I would think?’ I couldn’t work out if I was being true to the 12-year-old boy. Then I was frustrated that I even cared about being true to the 12-year-old boy. Then I just read some more of a book.

I do tend to ‘go on a bit’ about things, inside and outside my head. I’m trying to stop sharing my thoughts out loud so much – but then here I am on a blog page, sharing, typing my thoughts. But then that’s what we were asked to do today. Just sit and type for 40 minutes about whatever is on our mind – even if it’s something a little bit unusual or downright crazy.

But I don’t want to share what I’m really thinking! When I do, even with very patient friends, it comes out wrong, or it sounds pathetic (and maybe it is!) or it sounds just like the thoughts I had last time I shared with them. Then I feel the pressure to be interesting and think new things and feel new feelings – well, it can all be a bit much.

And I don’t want to type for 40 minutes. So, you know what, I just might not!! It’ll be good practice for my continued learning that rules are often only rules in my head – and that it’s OK to ‘break’ them sometimes. Like, I don’t have to do Day #18’s post about the little boy – but then he wouldn’t be little. He’d be 12. And I don’t understand teenagers very much. But then teenagers don’t always understand teenagers very much…

I don’t want to type what I’m really thinking. Because you’ll have heard it all before. Maybe not from my mouth, maybe not my story, but somebody else’s. They’re common, clichéd, old thoughts. As old as the hills. They’re thoughts full of questions and no answers – or no answers that are good answers. They’re thoughts of conversations never had. Of conflicts never resolved. Of dreams not made into reality.

Today I bought a new set of three Moleskine notebooks. My other notebooks are full. I bought the ones that I like, the ones with no lines. In my order-loving life, I like to think I can free things up a bit and give myself some space to write outside the lines – with no lines. I like to think that anyway.

Though, today I also bought my Moleskine diary for 2015. I’m a bit hopeless like that. As soon as June comes to an end, I want the diary for the following calendar year. I’m always thinking ahead. I want to plan and have boundaries. So, clearly I don’t love freedom that much.

I’ve just stopped my free-flow of writing to check the instructions for today’s prompt. I needed to check I was doing the right thing, after all. Except I discovered that I wasn’t doing the right thing. It was 400 words – not 40 minutes.

I’m at 563 words. Wait – 567. Stop that!

So, I’m just going to stop now. The sharing of my thoughts, that is. Not the thinking of them. I can’t stop the thinking.

591 words.


Writing 101 – Day #17 (Detailed) Instructions for the Unknown

Instructions for the Unknown

Congratulations! You have made your first step to conquering your overwhelming fear of the ‘Unknown’. Before reading the instructions which follow, please take a moment to prepare yourself for more detail than you would ordinarily wish for. You are likely a very imaginative, big-picture kind of girl. If followed, these instructions will help you conquer these tendencies when facing future challenges in the arena of the ‘Unknown’.

1. Stop thinking of it as the ‘Unknown’. Start breaking it down into individual episodes. We have found that fearers of unknown things have been helped by analysing a recent event. Might we suggest that you consider the Women’s Coffee Evening that occurred in your home just two hours ago? Yes? Good.

2. You likely awoke this morning with a vague feeling of dread. Yes? That was your first mistake. Upon waking, as your mind is reaching for images to make sense of the coming day, take hold of the image of your Bircher Muesli that has been soaking overnight in the fridge. It did that without any help from you. Life is like that. Good things happen without you doing much. As it is likely that you bypassed the thought of Bircher Muesli and went straight for the upcoming event of enormously unknown proportions, lets move swiftly on.

3. Eat your breakfast.

4. Take a deep breath and ask God for help. In fact, just admit that he’s the one that will make it work and hand it all over to him. You did? But then you took it back? Yes, we thought so.

5. Don’t try a new recipe from Marcella’s book. We suspect you got that bit right. Your intuitive side would have urged you to go with what you know.

6. At some point in the day, likely just after lunch, you will have considered cancelling the coffee evening. You can’t. You likely worked that out yourself.

7. Make the biscuits instead.

8. Embrace the mystery! Yes, you hate mystery, but it can be your friend. You didn’t know exactly who and how many would come and the ones you did know were coming were bringing women you didn’t know. Challenging? Yes. Exciting? No? Yes!

9. Open the door to the first guests, with a smile on your face. Muscles can be trained. Smiling muscles (we just know you won’t keep scientific detail in your head, so we won’t tell you their proper name) love to be exercised. The smiling will involuntarily continue as you see many women arrive (there were 22 – someone else had to count as you always forget to). Slightly more than comfortably fit in your living room. But not too many to have anyone complaining.

10. Sit back and watch the ‘Unknown’ unfurl in beautifully exciting patterns (Yes, we detailed-instruction-givers can be artistic too!). Was it beautiful? Yes, you say! We thought so.

We are confident that these instructions, if followed, will ensure a more pleasant experience the next time this kind of gathering occurs.

However, we have known some rare case who cannot be helped. You will know full well if you are one of these cases. If you are, might we suggest a strong coffee and a lot more prayer.

Thank you for your attention. Though we possibly lost you back at point 2.


Writing 101 – Day #16 Losing Magnolia (part 3) – Losing a Magnolia Life

At my table today sat an inspiring woman. She’s a woman who has faced a great deal of hardship, for a great many years. Recently she had the courage to say ‘Enough!’ This has caused her even more hardship, but she’s stronger for it. She has lost much, but gained so much more. She told me today that she has only been able to do this with the strength that God has given her. She has felt his empowering, loving presence in so many ways.

We were sitting at my table enjoying Marcella Hazan’s ‘Tomato and Anchovy Sauce’ with spaghetti – having a lunch break after sanding and painting my old outdoor furniture set. One of the seats also required some serious nailing to keep things in place. With irony, and perhaps good timing, one of the slats broke while we were sitting having our morning coffee break. I hasten to add (as it was my seat that broke) that the furniture has needed restoring for some years. The breakage is in no way related to any weight that may or may not have been gained during my ‘Marcellan’ cooking adventures! (In fact, my ‘Marcellan’ adventures are helping in the losing of some pounds gained during earlier ‘Nigellan’ adventures)

Today’s writing challenge was an appropriate one to reflect on this evening. My house renovations, inside and out, are coming to an end. The whole project, while necessary, has been something which I have given to God, trusting that he would use it to bring fresh life into a weary heart. He has been doing that.

Yet, in some ways I am a little nervous of the project’s completion. I have moments where I fear the silence that might ensue, the sitting and wondering ‘What now?’ But again, I trust that God will give me plenty to ‘find’ in place of that which is ‘lost’. I also know that I follow a Saviour who promises that as I lose myself, I will gain everything. That ‘everything’ may not look like I expected – but it will be an ‘everything’ that lasts evermore.

My renovations have been part of ‘Losing Magnolia’. My adventures with Marcella’s cookbook have been part of ‘Losing a Magnolia Life.’ That is, losing a life that is safe – safe in the sense that it involves no degree of risk and every degree of grasping at security.

The thing that I have found, sometimes through my choosing, sometimes through God choosing it for me, is that the greatest security comes when I give up my stubborn efforts to keep control. When I let go of control, God steps in and leads me in paths I’d never have experienced before. Some paths by still waters and green pastures. Some through dark valleys with deathly shadows.

But life with him in control is nothing like a Magnolia life!

Oh, how I’m learning to love that Magnolia-free life!

Today, at my table: #31 ‘Tomato and Anchovy Sauce’ with spaghetti and a woman who knows God’s love and leading and absolutely no trace of Magnolia!


With Marcella #29 & #30 (of 466)

At my table this evening, we marked the Summer Solstice – that high point of sunlight in the Northern Hemisphere – by eating Swordfish! I like to think we were figuratively ‘stabbing’ a point in the calendar with the sword of the fish! Marked! Celebrated! High point!

I say figuratively because we were eating Swordfish(!) steaks, with neither a sword nor recognisable fishy form in sight. Though, as my guests were leaving, they remarked that it would make for an impressive report when asked what they did on the weekend. ‘We ate Swordfish!’

The cooking of it was not impressive. Five minutes on the BBQ, then stabbed a few times with a fork, then drizzled with a mixture of lemon juice, salt, olive oil and dried oregano. Fast food indeed!

After dinner my friends who are older and wiser and like family to me, sat and listened to some things that were on my mind – my confused, round-and-round-and-round mind – and they helped me get to the point! We ‘stabbed’ right to the heart of the issue and started to ‘fish’ around for possible solutions. (Excuse the puns – I normally loathe them – but the excitement of the Swordfish(!) remains in the air). Friends who listen – even when they (or you, for that matter) can’t really arrive at a complete understanding of what it is you’re going on about – are a great blessing from God. Balm for a confused soul.

Tonight: #29 ‘Tomato Bruschetta’, #30 ‘Grilled Swordfish(!) Steaks in Sicilian Salmoriglio Style’ accompanied by a repeat of last night’s salad recipes, with Derrick and Heather at my table.


Writing 101 – Day #15 With Marcella #23, #24, #25, #26, #27 & #28 (of 466)

Today we are supposed to think of a festival or event that we would hate to see stopped or, indeed, taken over by some corporate giant.

It’s not simply that I am a little obsessed with Marcella’s cookbook at the moment. I would be genuinely upset if I had to finish this ‘festival’ that is the festival of cooking with Marcella! I would also be upset if it were somehow taken over by some corporate enterprise – not that it would be – but I like the fact that it happens in my head and in my little kitchen, quieting and soothing troubles and concerns as the recipes unfold. It’s a gift to me that I in no way wish to see stop!

Tonight, I carried on with the culinary celebration of summer in this land that sees so little of the phenomenon, and rustled up some stuffed tomatoes, grilled prawns, a couple of quick salads and some fresh fruit rather wonderfully drowned in a special beverage! All so simple! In fact the thing that took the longest was the making of the mayonnaise!

To top off the evening, when I came to record the recipes and page numbers and the people I dined with in my little book (regular readers may be starting to detect a motif of slightly obsessive behaviour) I noticed that the Mayonnaise (of page 42) that was required to make the Tomatoes Stuffed with Tuna (of page 67) counted as a separate recipe! So I knocked off an extra recipe of the 466 recipes without even realising it!

I’m just a little bit excited!

Oh, and the food was good. The company was even better. It was wonderful to explore together life and lessons learned in the secure context of God’s overwhelming love for us – and to finish it all off with the taste of strawberries straight from strawberry beds in the sunny south-east!

Tonight: ‘Mayonnaise’ (!), ‘Tomatoes Stuffed with Tuna’, ‘Grilled Prawn Skewers’, ‘Shredded Savoy Cabbage Salad’, ‘Orange and Cucumber Salad’ and ‘Peaches and Strawberries in Sweet White Wine’ with Sean and Ana at my table.

Writing 101 – Day #14 A Letter to Marcella

Dear Marcella,

In a writing challenge in which I’m taking part, I was asked to take the book nearest me and turn to page 29, taking note of the first word that jumped out at me.

It was no surprise to me that your cookbook was the closest book to me. That and my Bible – though page 29 of my Bible had me reading about Jacob’s speckled goats. Page 29 of your book placed me in the midst of your instructions about buying, storing and preparing radicchio.

Radicchio is just one of many vegetables appearing among your recipes that causes me some concern. I do not live in Italy and so it can feel a challenge to know where to source the ingredients I need. However, you do warn me not to buy those red and white leaves in the summer as they will be most bitter then. So I feel a sense of respite from having to search the streets of this city for them – at least until Autumn. There are just so many ingredients and recipes in your book that I am unfamiliar with – as unfamiliar as I am with the shepherding of speckled goats in the ancient near east.

Nevertheless, I am enjoying getting to know you better – at least knowing your writing and cooking methods better. I will never have the opportunity to meet you as a google search informed me that you had died some time ago. I wish I could have met you – or at least written a letter that you might have had a chance of reading.

If I could write such a letter to you, I would want you to know that I love your book. I love the careful and detailed way that you guide me through each recipe. I love that your recipes are so obviously tested, as they all work beautifully. I love that when you say your friends or students loved a particular dish – that my guests love it too!

Tonight I will be assembling another selection of recipes as friends are coming to join me for dinner. I’ve a little pre-reading to do to make sure everything goes smoothly, but I shall make a cup of tea and sit and read your words, imagining that you sit here with me.

Your faithful follower,

Writing 101 – Day #13 Losing Magnolia (part 2) – Finding Space

In the first part of a series of three posts (see Day #4) we were to write about losing something or someone. I was in the process of losing Magnolia – the paint colour. This proved a little difficult for some of my international readers as they only realised I was talking about a paint colour by the end of the post. Sorry!

In the second part of this series we are to write about finding something.

I have recently found space. Literally and figuratively.

As I’ve had to essentially move house – inside my house – I have been driven to get rid of more and more stuff. I became temporarily enamoured with ‘Gumtree’ when I realised that strangers would actually come and take your things away – free! They would come to my place. They would take stuff away from my place. Stuff that I didn’t want in my place. Stuff that people want in their place. One lady even brought me a bottle of prosecco to thank me for letting her take away an old bed! (The contents of that bottle were enjoyed at the ‘renovations-warming party’ last night).

In the process of losing Magnolia (that is, painting the house) I have lost many things (deliberately and accidentally) and I have subsequently acquired a lot more space.

A while back I read an article, in one of those magazines that one only reads while waiting for an appointment with a medical professional, about the art of minimalism in your home. I was intrigued. This woman, whose name I can’t recall, was inspired by the efforts of a man, whose name I can’t recall, to reduce the contents of her house to 100 items.

If you wished to follow her (and his) example, you were allowed to count furniture and the contents of your kitchen as one collective item. But everything else – books, cds, socks, hairbrushes etc – were to be reduced to 99 items. She was only starting with 600 items – so it wasn’t too difficult for her. I figured I couldn’t be bothered counting the contents of my house. So I decided to start by reducing the contents of my house by 100 items.

Within an hour I had reached 100 items – either in bags to go to the charity shop or into the bin. So I kept going. I soon reached 300 items.  A whole box of cassette tapes catapulted me into the second 100, as I realised that I no longer possessed a cassette player!

The minimalist approach to life has continued in stages. I find it very liberating. The charity shops find it very profit-boosting. There is less in my house to look after, store, dust or feel burdened about.

As this woman said (the one with the name I can’t remember), it also gives space in your mind to focus on other things. I have found this to be true. I would also add that opening your hands to lose some of your possessions also has the benefit of leaving them open to give of your life generously in other ways.

So I’ll put the challenge out there – the challenge that came from one nameless woman to this nameless woman – to lose 100 items from your house. I like to call it ‘Project 100’ – at least I think that’s my name for it – not the nameless woman’s name for it….

Lose stuff. Find space.


With Marcella #18, #19, #20, #21 & #22 (of 466)

At my table tonight, sat eight friends. Tonight was a celebration of finishing the renovations and also of coming to the close of another ‘year’ of work together. For me it was also an opportunity to give thanks for their friendship.

So many causes for celebration called for a big choice from Marcella’s book. That choice necessitated an early start to the day and the purchase of two chickens (one as a backup).

In the end, both were successfully deboned and stuffed and sewn up ready to cook.

The starter of boiled eggs with ‘green sauce’ were enjoyed outside while the air was still warm – a real treat in this land (the warm air – not the eggs).

I enjoyed the process of making a number of Marcella’s recipes for one meal. It’s a challenging novelty to cook from recipes that have no pictures. It creates a sense of adventure for me as I wait to see how a few simple ingredients combined will make something new – something I’ve likely never tasted before.

The highlight for most of us tonight was the ‘Garlic-Scented Tomato Salad’ which consisted merely of sliced tomatoes drizzled with garlic-infused red wine vinegar and olive oil. So surprisingly lovely!

But the highlight of the evening for me was cooking for (and eating with) friends who love Jesus, who have loved me so well when I have needed it most, and (thankfully) loved the food enough to leave me with very few leftovers to worry about.

I am blessed.

Tonight: ‘Hard-boiled Eggs with Green Sauce’, ‘Garlic-Scented Tomato Salad’, ‘Cos Salad with Gorgonzola Cheese and Walnuts, ‘Pan-roasted Whole Boned Chicken with Beef and Parmesan Stuffing’, and ‘Ricotta and Coffee Cream’ with Hannah, Richard, Miriam, Ed, Aubrey, Valerie, Jonathan and Ashling at my table.


Writing 101 – Day #12 No Bones About It

‘When you have finished boning, you’ll be faced with what looks like a hopelessly confused and floppy mass that in no way resembles a chicken. Don’t panic.’

That’s easy for her to say!

Tomorrow evening I will be having some work friends over to celebrate the completion of my house renovations. It should be no surprise to regular readers of this blog that I will be cooking a selection of recipes from Marcella Hazan’s ‘The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking.’

You would think I would feel somewhat invincible after the recent efforts of painting walls, doors and ceilings and hemming curtains. But I feel more than a little intimidated as I anticipate boning (or deboning – a google search did not help here) a whole chicken.

Marcella’s instructions begin with a detailed diagram of the skeleton of a chicken. She then assures me that ‘It’s great fun to bring to the table – its chicken shape less angular, more voluptuous, but intact…’

Sounds like fun! Right?

But then she tells me that patience is involved. A knife is involved. Not tearing the skin is involved (she mentions this at least four times). The snapping of hip joints and severing of tendons is involved.

The ‘floppy mass’ remaining is then to be stuffed with a beef and parmesan stuffing, sewn up the backbone and then pan-roasted.

I read, too late in the day, that ‘The entire boning operation may be completed a day before stuffing the chicken.’

I did make the dessert today to refrigerate overnight as instructed. She assured me that it would take 30 seconds to make. And it did. So perhaps I can believe her when she says that I ‘will find nothing baffling about boning a chicken.’

Tomorrow I shall buy two chickens. One that I will attempt to bone/debone. One as a ‘backup chicken’ should I throw the whole project (though not the chicken) to the wind.