A Classic Menu in the Bolognese Style – With Marcella #48, #49, #50, #51 & #52 (of 466)

I have a friend who is turning 40 about now. I don’t know the exact date, but I know she wants to celebrate it! She’s a single girl who loves life, loves people and loves Jesus. She’s confident in the skin that God has given her and she is a joy to be around. Many others would agree.

As far as I can tell she’s not moaning about turning 40. She’s not being overly introspective or in any way depressed about reaching that age. She’s thankful for the years that God has given her.

It’s hard to resist wanting to celebrate that with her. Why would one even want to resist it?! So as part of the celebrations, I offered her my table and a dinner menu cooked from Marcella’s book.

I decided to cook dishes chosen from recommendations that Marcella made for a ‘Classic Menu in the Bolognese Style’. For each of the five courses, there were two or three options. The menu was particularly attractive to me as it feeds 6-8 people (and there will be 7 of us at the table) and a good deal of it is prepared in advance, or slow-cooked on the day itself.

I’m starting this post before the evening itself, in order to record the progress of the meal preparations.

Thursday: In the afternoon I started the preparation of the Bolognese Rice Cake for dessert. Marcella suggests (insists) that it be made 1-3 days in advance to allow the flavours to develop. The preparation is more time consuming than complicated, involving three hours of gentle simmering of rice, milk, sugar and lemon peel. I am normally quite patient when I am cooking and particularly love the slow-cooking process. In this case, my stove top was letting me down in a big way. It is not a gas hob – but rather one that takes ages to heat up and then ages to cool down to a simmer. We were not friends at one very ‘heated’ point. However, we settled into a satisfactory companionship eventually. The ‘pale brown mush’ arrived at after the hours of simmering was so yummy that if it weren’t so very sweet I would have been in danger of eating the whole lot. Imagine a superb version of creamed rice! This is then mixed with chopped almonds, candied lemon peal and beaten eggs. Then baked for an hour. After removing it from the oven, you stab it several times with a skewer and pour a couple of tablespoons of rum over it to soak through. The flavours are developing as I type – I trust.

Friday: After an interesting search for Grappa in the afternoon (which I finally sourced in a takeaway cup from my favourite, local Italian cafe), I came home to begin the slow-cooking of the Bolognese Meat Sauce. I had come from a couple of ‘slow-cooked’ pastoral issues with women that I meet with in my work and I was feeling some of the weight of that. Methodically and finely chopping onion, celery and carrot started to ease some of the burden. Sauteeing the vegetables in oil and butter, adding minced beef, milk, white wine, a grating of fresh nutmeg and some tinned tomatoes, then leaving it simmer for three hours, left me with time to process the day and relax with a cup of tea. The meat sauce is gently simmering as I type.

Saturday (the day itself): In the country market I visited this morning, the man selling the fresh spinach I needed was excited about the dinner – well, maybe just vaguely interested, now that I think about it. In the local butcher shop, the man selling me the boned and rolled shoulder of pork was indeed excited. But only after I’d told him that the pork was to be cooked in a bottle of wine. Perhaps I should have invited him? The accompanying potatoes have been peeled and diced. The spinach has been rinsed. Most importantly, the shoulder of pork has had carrot sticks inserted into it (I know! Who would have thought?), dusted in flour and browned in the pan. Then it was not quite entirely submerged in fine Italian red wine – after an initial and exciting splash of grappa! The drunk roast pork is simmering as I type.

Now for a cup of tea before the final preparations commence…

Post-party: The evening was lovely! The birthday girl kept conversation flowing beautifully. While I admit that I wondered if the menu would prove a little ‘boring’, the flavours all complimented each other wonderfully. Marcella certainly knew what she was talking about. The birthday girl took beautiful photos of the food – which was good because I never remember to take photos. I tried to transplant them here from Facebook where she’d posted them, but couldn’t work out how. Sorry.

Think white tablecloth, crystal wine glasses, candles and simple, slow-cooked food. Think smooth-flowing conversation. Think of a pause before eating to give thanks to God for the food, the company and the inspiring life of the Birthday Girl – and you’ve pictured it.

Last night: #48 ‘Bolognese Meat Sauce’ with Tagliatelle, #49 ‘Drunk Roast Pork’ accompanied by #50 ‘Pan-roasted Diced Potatoes’ and #51 ‘Spinach Sauteed with Olive Oil and Garlic’, ending with #52 ‘Bolognese Rice Cake’ with the Birthday Girl and five of her friends at my table.

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With Marcella #45, #46 & #47 (of 466)

I have reached the point where I’ve cooked 10% of Marcella Hazan’s ‘The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking’. I feel the need to celebrate! I also feel the need to battle the doubts of ever reaching the end.

I will battle those doubts!

In one sense it doesn’t matter one iota (or two hoots) if I ever finish the book. In another sense, I recall how simple and successful the recipes have been (all but the Praline!). I recall how they were never burdensome. The ingredients have been few, fresh and uncomplicated. I also recall the joy it has given me to watch the dishes evolve as I follow Marcella’s careful instructions. These recollections give me hope to continue.

A couple of nights ago, I had four friends over for dinner. I used the last of a friend’s gift of a large bag of porcini mushrooms to create ‘Braised Pork Chops with Tomato, Cream and Porcini Mushrooms’. The amount of cream was so small – and yet the combined flavour of the few ingredients created a sauce that had one guest confessing they would rather like to lick their plate.

I had come from a meeting that day where kind and patient colleagues had sought to solve issues I was facing. There weren’t any obvious solutions – except prayer and the comfort of burdens shared. I was then able to come home, tired, to be further comforted by the way that a meal can come together so well and so easily.

The comfort continued around my table with friends to share food and life with.

Last night, I sat with two other friends facing sickness themselves and in the lives of their loved ones. I had seen whole chickens half price that day and felt it was the perfect solution to hearts made tired by illness.

It was so simple and so suited to the task. We thanked God for the comfort of chicken!

I will continue to battle with the doubts and also celebrate the milestone in this cooking project. There are further celebrations to come later this week – where I will attempt one of Marcella’s menu suggestions for a friend’s 40th Birthday Celebration!

This past week: #45 ‘Braised Pork Chops with Tomato, Cream and Porcini Mushrooms, #46 ‘Baked Potatoes, Onion and Tomatoes, Apulian Style, and #47 ‘Fricasseed Chicken with Rosemary and Lemon Juice’ with a whole load of comfort at my table.

Applied Theology of Gardening – With Marcella #43 & #44 (of 466)

Frank is a gardener. Frank is a landscape gardener. Frank did not like the landscape of the garden at my place. Frank validated my feelings of frustration as we toured the garden together and estimated what it would take, in both time and money, to get it into shape.

Frank diagnosed my garden as a ‘high-maintenance garden’. The primary cause of this disease was the ‘willy-nilly’ planting of ‘whatever they like’ over many years of previous owners and tenants – before I came to live here, I hasten to add.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a lovely garden in many ways. At least there is a garden. At least I didn’t have to head out and buy plants when I arrived at this house nearly four years ago. It’s generally lovely – but there are corners that are dark and causing-of-despair. There are plants that are spiky and ugly and, in Frank’s words, ‘have no business being there!’ I totally agree!

This land where I live is a land that naturally grows beautiful, big, ‘fluffy’ trees (as I like to describe the beech and other like trees). It’s a land of soft, beautiful, subtle plants.

But every now and then, someone must come back from some holiday in some exotic location and decide that they want a little bit of the exotic in their back garden! ‘No’, I say!

Frank says ‘No!’ too.

However, the business of putting things to rights will take time and a few others being roped in to help him. Men with chainsaws and other serious equipment. Frank is normally in the business of ‘maintenance’ gardening – not the business of overthrowing the dominance of the high-maintenance garden.

But he’s up for the challenge – I think – I haven’t heard back from him yet…

Over dinner with Frank, his lovely wife, and a fellow lodger at this place of high maintenance, we discussed an applied theology of gardening. How being made in God’s image means that we delight in bringing order to chaos. We are made to subdue and bring order (most of us, anyway…some prefer to create it!). Yet, we also exist in a world that suffers the effects of bad decisions and lack of foresight, of the ‘willy nilly’ and the ‘whatever I like’ and it causes suffering. Living in this world, living in God’s image, is going to be hard work. We’re going to need to call in help, serious help!

We’d enjoyed a meal together of pork chops ‘modena style’ – slowly braised in tomato and sage – accompanied by mixed roast vegetables. All the fruit of hard labour – the growing that is. The recipes themselves were so simple that I was able to lie on the sofa and read a book after setting them to do their work.

Later, we enjoyed vanilla icecream with an espresso poured over the top and a scattering of the leftover ‘failure’ of the Italian Praline (see previous post). The deliciousness of that failure encouraged me that good things can come out of hard work and failures.

I call that to mind as I look out the window at the bramble that is snaking its way around the spiky exotic plant that has no business being there. I look out and dream of a day when there will be roses and hydrangeas to delight my eyes.

The other night: #43 ‘Braised Pork Chops with Sage and Tomatoes, Modena Style’ and #44 ‘Mixed Baked Vegetable Platter’ with Frank, Miriam and the Lodger at my table.

With Marcella #40, #41 & #42 (of 466)

Last night, a designer of scarves, a screenwriter, and later a violinist sat at my table. We sat for hours talking about an upcoming marriage, the loveliness of sandwiches (perhaps it was just me talking about sandwiches), what makes stories satisfying (or not), personality profiles and how God works in and through our creativity.

Most of my favourite topics were covered, with only an occasional deviation to talk about technology. Towards the end of the evening, a disturbing but fascinating modern technological reality was explained to me. Apparently, one’s phone can now act like a microphone and can somehow interact with google search engine interfaces and the cookies (I am making this up as I go along – but the gist of it is apparently true) and take in what you are talking about and then provide appropriate search items the next time you’re searching.

We joked about how your phone might now listen to the inevitable ‘lag’ in the conversation as an evening draws to an end, and anticipate the guests’ need of a number to call a taxi.

All jokes (and alarming thoughts of the significance of this technology) aside, this morning I awoke to find a post from a blog I’ve been following, that might as well have been generated from someone overhearing our conversation over dinner that night. But this post was not generated by any computer or google search – this was someone writing creatively about creativity. It was like the writer had listened in on our attempts to explain how God works in and through our creative urges and had then organised those thoughts into a clear, beautiful expression of what we were trying so hard to express.

The following words from the post resonated with me.

And every time I’ve ever tried to do anything even remotely creative, I’ve experienced two simultaneous emotions: disappointment and exhilaration. Disappointment because the end product is virtually never what I was aiming for. Exhilaration because I almost always create something unexpected in the process.

That evening, as I was preparing the meal, I had experienced that familiar combination of exhilaration and disappointment. The chicken dish came together beautifully. Yet the praline, for which I painstakingly chopped many almonds, in no way resembled praline – but more a gourmet granola. This was my first ‘fail’ from Marcella’s book.

Yet, there we were at the end of the meal, crunching our way enthusiastically through the pale, almondy rubble that was my attempt at Marcella’s ‘Italian Praline’. It looked ridiculous but tasted gorgeous!

As I was clearing up the kitchen, the guests having departed in a taxi that may or may not have been magically ordered by an intuitive ‘app’, I resolved to have another meal soon with these creative friends. It was such delicious food for the body and the soul.

Last night: #40 ‘Chicken Fricassee with Porcini Mushrooms, White Wine and Tomatoes’, #41 ‘Sauteed Broccoli with Olive Oil and Garlic, and #42 ‘Italian Praline’ with Brendan, Alexandra (and a Violinist joining us for coffee) at my table.

A Perfectly Adequate Life

Tonight I ate a bowl of bircher muesli for dinner. Across the table sat a good friend, eating leftover flourless chocolate almond cake. I had grated apple on my muesli and she had whipped cream on her cake – so I do believe that, between us, all the main food groups were covered.

The past three days have been a delightful mixture of company and fairly ordinary delights:

Monday it was a boat-ride up a river (not too ordinary, I admit), a packet of ‘Mini Cheddars’ in the sunshine, a proper roast lamb dinner with vegetables, and berries from the garden for dessert.

Tuesday, my friends took me to marvel at the local wind turbines, the cows, and the seals with their noses poking out of the sun-soaked, sparkling sea (alas, no seal waved its flipper at me). That evening, back at home, I had fourteen women over for dinner – plates of beef stew and rice balanced on our knees.

Today, I had my old friend visiting. We walked, we talked, we hung out washing and got excited when it dried (on the same day it was washed!). We ate lunch, sat in the sun, talked some more, walked some more, then had the above-mentioned bits and pieces for ‘dinner’ before leaving her to take the long bus journey back home.

All so ordinary – yet all so perfectly lovely. A thread of God-centred conversation was embroidered through each of the three days. Each and every one of us, speaking something of God and his place in our lives.

Today, over soup and sandwiches and a shared piece of berry cake (you’ve got to get those five a day in!), Christina and I both spoke of how we longed to experience more of God in our lives. We were trusting that he’d fill that longing and that we’d know him better. We both confessed to having settled for such a ‘safe’ experience of him in the past.

We want more of God in our life – and yet we reminded each other that would likely be experienced in the very mundane, day-to-day realm of our lives. It won’t necessarily be ‘shouts’ but very likely whispered reminders of his word and the ‘not-so-safe’ work of his spirit in us each day.

Nothing startling happened these past three days – they were three adequate days. Yet they were three perfectly adequate days. Days filled with longing to know God better, and experiencing some of that longing filled in the wonderfully, ordinarily adequate provision of friendship, sunshine, conversation and daily bread.

The ordinariness gave space to notice God’s presence with us – space that the spectacular doesn’t often afford.

I’ve begun thinking these past few days, about how to make more of my ‘perfectly adequate life’ – and encourage others to do the same. I have a few ideas.

Please do comment below if you have ideas of your own!

If Only These Stones Could Speak…

The gently spoken monk stood next to an old stone well and said “If only these stones could speak…”. We had been clambering over stone walls and past some obliging farmers to see an old well that was likely an old baptismal pool. Or it could have been a well. He couldn’t be sure – but it was ‘instinct’ (and a lot of research) that led him to believe it was a baptismal pool. I liked this man with his instinct. Others smiled – but I liked it. I mean, what else have you got, really, when you’re guessing about the history of some old stones?

Just prior to this, we had been in a churchyard in a small village nearby. A motley gathering of interested farmers, clergy and a cult expert were clustered around a High Cross as the Brother explained the different engravings in the stone. St.Anthony caught my attention (or was it another name? I can’t remember). What I do remember is that he was remembered for being the first religious hermit – living in the desert for many years. As the monk outlined the common features of the engraving, all I could think was how I would hate to be a hermit – and to be remembered for being a hermit. It struck me as ironic that the way he was engraved in memory was with a picture of him and a visitor (another hermit saint whose name I can’t remember) sitting on chairs in the desert. Did they talk as they shared the bread that a raven had bought them? I hope so.

At the front of the church there was a cylindrical stone resting on some other small stones on the ground. This could have been an old Irish King’s grave – or maybe not. We all liked to think it was – but no one was old enough to know for sure! It was certainly ancient. One of the interested farmers could remember when they all found it as they tidied up the church graveyard one day many years ago. He remembers it was a great day.

Inside the church, still used on Sundays, there was a beautiful patchwork wall-hanging. It was made in memory of the seamstress’s husband. I can’t remember who he was, but the quilt was lovely. I wonder, now, if the husband would have liked to be remembered with a quilt on the wall? I hope so. On the back wall there was a noticeboard with rotas for flowers and wardens to help people remember their tasks. So many memories. So many reminders.

Then, looking at one of the stained glass windows, we saw a reminder of something well worth remembering. A sower with seed, on the path, surrounded by thorns, with harvests in the background. And an inscription at the top “The Seed is the Word of God”. I stood at the window with the man who was my boss at the time. A man who lives by this conviction. He said “If I die and they make a stained glass window in memory of me, will you make sure it’s like this one?”

I’m fairly sure he wouldn’t literally want a stained glass window made in memory of him – but I know he’d want to be remembered for that. And as I stood there, I wanted that too. I saw how ambiguous stones can be. How carvings and stories and pictures and quilts can be open to all sorts of rememberances and intuitions. But the word of God stands forever and impacts lives forever – beyond the life of a carving in stone – beyond the length of a flower rota.

After our tour we were invited to lunch back at the Brother’s monastry. A hearty meal served by the Brother himself. We had tea and conversation with him after lunch and asked about his spiritual journey. He spoke of how it was the word of God that had most impacted him in his life. We didn’t get to ask him how it had impacted his life – time was short.

On the way home, I kept thinking of how I’d like to be remembered – a sower of God’s word. I’d prefer a patchwork quilt to an old stone – but the memory of being one who lived for something that lasts forever – that’s what I really want.

(In response to the Daily Post)

Two’s Company…Thirteen’s a Crowd (of Company) – With Marcella #39 (of 466)

For the past few years, apart from the occasional temporary housemate, I have been living alone. This changed a couple of weeks ago. The change was a good one.

As my home is also my workplace it can be tricky, if not impossible, to have a permanent housemate. My new temporary housemate is therefore a great and timely gift – a girl in a similar line of work to me who understands that she occasionally needs to be somewhere else while I have other women over for meetings and other gatherings.

Over the past few months I had struggled, more than usual, with living alone. I tended to fill the empty space with lots of hospitality and visitors. This was a blessing to me (and hopefully to those who visited and ate with me) but I reached a point where it was all too much.

When we’re feeling at out lowest (or at least what feels like our lowest) loneliness makes the lowest feel even lower. But then the effort required for company can be too much effort. It’s tricky. It was tricky.

At my lowest point (or what felt like my lowest point), I went on holiday to stay with various friends in England. Poor friends! Poor, gracious, loving friends! They were so good to me – and good for me. Yet, I knew I had to return to life in my house – my ‘party for one’. I wondered how I’d manage.

It turned out that I didn’t have to manage. My loving God knew that I couldn’t manage. He sent company. Good, relaxed, intuitive, sensitive-to-other’s-needs company. The ‘lowest point’ became more and more distant. The clouds lifted and I felt strength to keep on keeping on.

I’ve read a couple of great books this past couple of weeks. One that I would heartily recommend is ‘True Friendship’ by Vaughan Roberts.

We need company. God has made us that way. He’s also given us the means to find it.

This week, the numbers in my house were, for a few hours, increased from two to thirteen. A whole load of women coming to keep company with one another and with one of the Psalms. We were encouraged by the reminder of God’s unfailing love for us and how he comes to our aid when we cry out to him. He keeps company with us through thick and thin, high, low and the very lowest.

Tuesday night: #39 ‘Almond and Lemon Biscuits’ with a whole crowd of company.