The Passing of an Icon

 

This is a story that first appeared in the Grass Valley Union newspaper. I’d like to share it with my blog friends as well. Amigo Bob Cantisano was a great inspiration to my life and  many others.

He accomplished a great deal to help others that I often feel I haven’t done enough. SOO  I take heart in Mother Theresa’s comment (not exactly quoted).

Not all of us can do great things, but we can do small things with great love.

This is a painting of Amigo Bob by local artist and friend, Boni Woodland.

 

If you ever wanted proof of how the world has progressed and improved in our lifetimes, you only have to look at food.

When I was younger, finding something besides white bread was like a treasure hunt akin to the search for the holy grail. Whole grains, yogurt, honestly extra virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar, raw nuts and so many other foods we take for granted today were nowhere to be found. Farmer’s Markets with organically grown produce were in their infant stages, and naturally fermented foods were lost to a previous generation of farm wives who cooked from scratch. Organically grown vegetables and fruits were only eaten by hippies, radicals, and chefs who had traveled the world and saw new flavor and health possibilities for the American cuisine/diet.

In the 1970’s changes to our food culture began evolving and expanding in ways no one had dreamed possible. The credit goes to a growing number of organic farmers, visionaries and chefs. One young man, who grew up in San Francisco, was gaining knowledge and experience that would eventually lead him to become one of the most informed and influential players in the Organic Farming/Food Movement.

Just as his ancestors had been pioneers in California, Amigo Bob Cantisano, was determined to make the world a better place. Some people are born with a fire in their belly. He was impassioned and had the focus to manifest his ideas.  We, here in Nevada County, California were lucky to have benefited from one such as this. Amigo Bob distinguished himself by being a powerhouse in the organic horticulture field for nearly half a century.

 I met him through his radio show on KVMR-FM, called Organic Matters. On the radio he lived out one of his primary life goals—that information should be free and accessible to anyone; not hoarded by the few for their own enrichment. With a wry sense of humor and a rich baritone voice, he answered garden questions every month for more than 25 years. I’ve watched at various events in Northern California where folks surrounded him asking questions about lady bugs, compost or white flies. He always had time for answers.  Amigo Bob taught many of us how to eat and grow our own food without toxic chemicals.

Kalita Todd, his ex-wife, recalled that Amigo was blessed with a photographic memory. In his early years, he parked himself in the UC Davis Agricultural library gleaning information from pre-World War II articles before the mass acceptance and use of chemical additives to our soils began; when conventional agriculture was primarily organic.

She recalled a drive through Truckee in the mid 70’s when Cantisano saw an abandoned store front and made up his mind that it was the perfect place for a Co-op grocery. We the People Food Co-op was born, and many other stores followed in the years to come.

With support from friends and family, Amigo founded Peaceful Valley Farm Supply in Grass Valley, California and the Eco Farm Conference which has been held annually in Monterrey for the past 41 years.  Both of which brought supplies and information to the burgeoning organic farm and food movement.

Perhaps one of the most impactful projects that Cantisano undertook, was Organic Ag Advisors. As the first, self appointed organic agricultural adviser in California, he consulted with more than 600 farmers and 400,000 acres of crops over the last 30 years. Walking into orchards or pristine vineyards of the Napa Valley, his dreadlocks and tie-dyed t-shirts drew many skeptical looks. But when he offered an encyclopedic explanation of what their soil and plants needed, minds changed quickly. And his business grew.

In recent years Cantisano and his wife, Jenifer Bliss, along with Adam Nuber, created a non-profit called Felix Gillet Institute (www.felixgillet.org) dedicated to preserving the legacy of Felix Gillet, a nurseryman in Nevada City in the1860’s who imported and propagated grapes, olives, vegetables and nut trees from all over the world. Though rarely given much credit, he is often considered the father of California agriculture.

For the past nine years Amigo, Jennifer and Adam along with  many volunteers combed the Sierra foothills searching for heirloom fruit and nut trees were planted during and after the Gold Rush. These trees, still surviving in abandoned homesteads and ranches, were propagated to bring back and grow again. Every autumn their catalog of trees for sale sells out quickly and will continue to do so. www.felixgillet.org

Amigo Bob Cantisano passed away on December 26th. This pioneering visionary and friend to many helped to bring safer foods to our plates and launch the next generation of farmers and gardeners. In line with his life’s work, Amigo chose to have his body composted by one of the first companies in Washington state certified to develop compost from human remains.  Perhaps it’s an idea whose time has come.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Best Discovery in Asia and the Music of Morning

November 24, 2011

22 days in Thailand

Ohh, it’s been such a long time since I’ve written, and here I am still dreaming of Thailand and food. In 2011 David and I visited the island of Koh Maak and the ruins in the town of Sukhotai in Thailand. We wanted to experience a normal, “non-touristy” place so we took a bus to the small, ordinary town of Nan in the northeast of the country.  It had one major drawback. No tourists, no English.

 

The guesthouse last night was terrible. This is the first time I’ve caught the Lonely Planet Guide books not doing their research. I don’t think this family had rented their guesthouse in months. It was quite humorous however. I tried to brush my teeth only to discover that my feet were getting wet. The drain pipe from the sink ended at the floor.

This morning David is looking for a new place and practicing driving a rented motorcycle. I get too nervous. I sit in a restaurant to wait, but the waitress doesn’t know what to do with me. She hasn’t seen many tourists and doesn’t understand even my gestures. Finally, I point to soup the man next to me has for breakfast. No problem!  She brings my soup right over.

The Ice man comes into the restaurant carrying a big bag on his shoulder. He looks 16 but is probably about 30. Strikingly handsome, he smiles broadly. To my surprise, he has braces. Thai people smile much–pretty teeth are important. Many American jobs/companies have come here, and the Thai people are becoming more affluent.

Today is Thanksgiving in America. Sitting in the restaurant, I feel lonely far from home on a holiday.  I try to hide my sniffles and tears, but the waitress sees me crying. She must have told the others. People are all looking at me and laughing at farang foreigner who, they assume, can’t handle the spicy soup. I’m not crying because the soup is too hot. I miss my family. Traveling offers many chances to learn lessons; lots of surprises and opportunities to practice patience. Travel takes flexibility, but today mine is all gone.

David arrives. The “nice man” next to me points to the waitress. “More soup.” David and I got lost in town last night. I think rumor had it that the farangs tourists were a little kooky. I think the restaurant lady called her friend who speaks English. She comes in big Chevrolet just when we need her. She says, “where do you need to go? You can follow me on the motorbike. I’ll take you there.”  Thai people are so thoughtful. Sometimes you only need one word to say, “Kahp kun kah”   Thank you.

 

November 25, 2011

The Music of Morning

Waking up in our new guesthouse, I feel rested and relaxed. It is an old traditional house built of teakwood with a steep slanting roof that creaks and crackles in the wind. The place  is impeccably clean. Our bed has Disney “Little Mermaid” sheets. Go figure !

Bananas growing toward the sky.

In the distance the town dogs begin their day barking and doves coo nearby. I am wide awake enjoying the dawn light streaming through the open window of our guest house in this “untouristy” town of Nan. The neighbor’s back yard is close and full of vegetation. He (my neighbor for a week) stands directly below having his morning cigarette, about 8 feet from where I am looking through the window, observing his little plot of garden. There are four green papayas on a tree and several bananas on another one, their pointed green tips upside down growing toward the sky. I’m half a world away from home starting my day with a stranger who doesn’t see me. We stand together doing what I do every morning –watching our gardens grow. 

 

Someone, I assume his wife, enters their kitchen which is also less than 10 feet or so from my window. Chop! Chop! Chop!!  Sharp staccato sounds on a wooden cutting board; then the rhythm crescendos to tiny quick movements of mincing –onions? garlic?

The wok comes clanging out of a cupboard and clatters onto a burner. SSSSS! The sizzle of hot oil. Liquids sear as they’re poured into the wok—the sound of a wooden spoon on metal. Still sleeping, my husband’s light snuffle/snore provides the background beat of this breakfast melody.

The old teakwood deck talks as my neighbor meanders back into his kitchen and slams the screen door. Dishes clink as they are taken down from the cupboard. I can’t see them, but I hear snippets of conversation (in Thai) and the tinkle of teacups onto saucers.  I imagine soup spoons scraping delicate porcelain bowls and a slight slurping sound (to get those noodles in one’s mouth). The smell comes drifting through the window to confirm my nose’s suspicions–taking a deep breath is such pleasure. The scent of warm broth, garlic, lime, fish sauce and lemon grass floats throughout our room.

Though I haven’t actually eaten and I don’t speak their language, I feel my neighbors and I have shared a meal together. I like this intimacy of living so close; the music of their lives drifting through our window.

Their dishes are stacked together. The kitchen is quiet except for the ubiquitous sound of chatty Thai TV. My husband is finally awake. It’s time to walk up to the main street noodle shop for a good Asian breakfast and another day of eating and adventures.

 

In Thailand, as in much of Asia, breakfast is a bowl of steaming noodle soup. It often contains strips of beef or pork, sometimes chicken or tofu. It might also contain egg, chopped green onions, mung sprouts, cilantro or parsley and a host of things I don’t recognize. Ubiquitous fish sauce smells nauseating but adds an intense saltiness to the flavor. It’s available in most Asian sections of the grocery and  will last a long time in the refrigerator. The salty taste is balanced by limes, ground peanuts and hot little peppers. It’s a warm and nurturing meal first thing in the morning.

We, here in the states, have something similar in the form of packaged Top Ramen noodles but, more likely, would eat this as an afternoon snack or lunch.

It’s so easy to make a much more nutritious version of “Top Ramen”. Only takes a few minutes, I added chopped chard from my garden and grated carrots to replace all the unrecognizable vegetables in Asia and used leftover chicken from the night before.or cubed tofu.

In Thailand this soup is offered with several condiments on the table that can be added however one wants– usually fish sauce, small dried chilies, quartered limes, and chopped peanuts.  Make it vegetarian by using soy instead of fish sauce, tofu, and/or adding an egg. Warm soup for breakfast is so much more satisfying than milky, sweet cereals in the morning. I think it’s my favorite discovery in Asia.

These quantities are guesses. You will want to adjust to your liking.

Thai Noodle Soup

Half package of Annie Chun’s Rice Noodles, cooked separately and drained

Two cloves garlic

About one teaspoon grated ginger

Four cups vegetable or chicken broth (store bought cubes work fine)

Two Cups water

About three quarters cup chicken, pork, or cubed tofu

About two cups chopped chard or kale

Four to six mushrooms, sliced (optional)

One carrot grated

Pinch of hot chili peppers (or finely chop half of a jalapeño )

One or two sticks of lemon grass, finely chopped like a green onion

(you may need to remove one outer layer of skin)

One to two teaspoons Thai fish sauce or soy sauce

Six finely chopped green onions

Juice of half a lime

Two generous handfuls of Mung bean sprouts

Salt and pepper to taste

One half cup chopped cilantro

Cut up limes, cilantro, peanuts, and additional hot chillis

Add rice noodles to a pan of boiling water. Boil  (following package directions) four to five minutes stirring occasionally.  Drain and set aside.

Chop the green onion, garlic, chicken or tofu, chard, carrot and mushrooms.  Add all these ingredients to the water and broth simmering in a soup pot or small wok. Add the fish sauce, chilies, ginger and lime juice; continue simmering until chicken is cooked. Add the cooked noodles and stir into the mixture. After turning off the heat add a generous handful of mung sprouts and finely chopped cilantro.

Small bowls of extra lime, more chilies, cilantro, and peanuts ground in the food processor allows each person to flavor to their own intensity.  Serves two to three hungry people.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Cooking in Chiang Mai

 

 

Meandering through Markets

Chiang Mai, Thailand

 

Now that the holidays are over, I’m starting to get the Covid Blues or maybe it’s the Cooped Up Blues.  Memories of past adventures make me happy and give me hope. And then there’s always my favorite past time (I’m sure it might be yours as well)  EATING!  I thought you might enjoy this little memory and recipes from Thailand.

 

I felt like a 5 year old in my first candy store when our cooking class in Chiang Mai meandered down a narrow lane to a small morning market. This was nothing like our clean and orderly Farmers Markets back home. It was a multi-sensual extravaganza. On one table I found mountains of mushrooms, piles of shallots and garlic, green and bulb onions. Further on, there were mounds of red and green curry and the less piquant, penang curry. One merchant had greens I didn’t recognize and eggplants the size of ping pong balls.

Peppers and little eggplants

For our cooking project our teacher/guide put on a plastic glove, shook off the water, and weighed a bagful of fresh mung beans. She did the same thing to squares of fresh tofu that floated in a plastic tub of water.

Wandering into the back of the market I met an ancient beauty. I will never forget her. Sitting on a 5-gallon bucket next to her daughter, she busily snipped the stems off small chilies. Her skin was more wrinkled than the clothes I forget in the drier, but when she smiled at me her face was radiant. I pointed to the camera to ask if I might take a photo. She adjusted her cap and flashed a sheepish, toothless grin giggling with her daughter like two adolescents.

Moving to the fish section of the market was barely on the edge of tolerance. I don’t mean that it wasn’t clean. The whole market was just raw and in your face. Dried fish heads smirked at me as I squeezed through the narrow aisles. The concrete floor was so sticky and slippery my imagination wandered to places that my stomach was reluctant to go.

There is no fresher fish anywhere in the world than here—well, they’re still alive. A Ford pick-up, loaded with giant oil drums, backed into a fish stall. They were filled with splashing, frantic fish.

The most potent smell I’d ever experienced in my life was the fish and shrimp pastes. Most Thai dishes utilize these essential flavors, but it’s probably best to hold your nose when you open the bottle.

Each of us had our own wok and cutting board. The cooking school, Asia Scenic, was a dream come true for two lovely sisters. Held in their home, they shared with us not only techniques of cooking but the history and traditions of ingredients and their culture.

Though Thai cuisine has complex, incredible flavors; trust me, preparation is simple. It is always best when stir frying to have all your ingredients previously chopped and ready to use. You will be surprised that the spices and ingredients needed are mostly available at local grocers.

Well, not all the ingredients are easy to find. I use ginger in place of galangal though some stores do have it. If you live near Roseville, there is an Oriental Market 2 blocks from Trader Joe’s off of Douglas. I bought frozen kaffir lime leaves and lemon grass there so that it will last a long time. They also have much less expensive rice noodles than most stores.  I have never found Thai basil so I usually use regular basil.

Try this Pad Thai. It is sort of the fried chicken of Thailand and fairly easy to make. The secret is that it must contain a balance of all these flavors: hot, spicy, sour,  salty, and a tiny sweet. In Thailand it is always offered with bowls of additional chopped peanuts, limes, and some form of chili.

Pad Thai

  • ½ box of Thai Kitchen stir fry rice noodles, about 7 oz
  • 2 tsp. sugar
  • 1 tablespoon fish sauce or soy sauce
  • 2 tablespoons oyster sauce
  • 3 tablespoons cooking oil
  • 4-5 cloves garlic, minced
  • About a quarter-pound tofu, drained and cut into squares
  • About a cup of cut-up chicken or shrimp, optional
  • 1 egg (optional)
  • 1 bunch green onions, sliced fine
  • Half a red pepper, cut in small pieces
  • ¾ of a Serrano chili, finely chopped (adjust to your own level of heat. We used only half a jalapeno pepper)
  • About ¾ cup finely chopped cilantro/parsley mix
  • Lime juice to taste and about ¼ cup water
  • Mung sprouts, a couple generous handfuls
  • Serve with bowls of sliced lime to squeeze on, ground peanuts, and chili powder or some form of heat

In a small bowl combine the sugar, fish sauce, and oyster sauce. Set aside.

Bring large pot of water to a boil. Add the stir fry rice noodles; boil for 3-5  minutes then turn the heat off and let stand 8 to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Soak until noodles are soft but firm. Rinse under cold water and set aside. Drain very well,

Chop and set aside all ingredients as needed.

In a wok or large fry pan, add the cooking oil and then the garlic for 1 minute. Then add the chopped pepper, chicken and /or tofu. Stir fry 2-3 minutes until chicken turns white; then add the egg. Add the seasoning mix with the green onions. The last to go in is the cilantro parsley mix. Just before serving, turn off the heat and add the lime juice, noodles and mung sprouts.

The secret to good tasting Pad Thai is to set out bowls of additional hot pepper, slices of lime and chopped peanuts for each person to add themselves.

Prawn and Coconut Soup or Dtom Yum Goong

You can easily make this a vegetarian soup by eliminating the shrimp and using extra tofu. Also substitute soy sauce for the fish sauce. Remember tofu is full of water and will dilute your flavor if it isn’t drained well. Place it in a strainer and put a large can of stewed tomatoes on top for 10 minutes.  As with other Thai dishes it is best to have everything chopped ahead of time before you begin the cooking process.

  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • Half of a red or green pepper, cut into bite-size pieces
  • 2-3 chilis chopped fine (I only used half of a Jalapeno chili, it wasn’t quite hot enough)
  • About 8-10 medium shrimp, cleaned and cut in half
  • About ¼ pound well drained and cubed extra firm tofu
  • 2 small tomatoes, cut into bite-size
  • 5-6 mushrooms, sliced into bite-size
  • 2 13-ounce cans coconut milk (not light)
  • 2 stalks lemongrass, finely chopped (like green onions) and mashed
  • 2-3 slices of galangal, cut thin or use about 1 tablespoon grated ginger to taste
  • 3-4 kaffir lime leaves, sliced thin
  • 2 teaspoons sugar
  • 1 tablespoon fish sauce  (or more)
  • 2 tablespoons lime juice or to taste (always add at end of cooking)
  • Green onions and cilantro, about ¾ cup chopped fine

In a medium size soup pot over high heat, add vegetable oil and partially sauté the peppers, cleaned shrimp, mushrooms, tofu and chilis; add the tomatoes, coconut milk and heat just until boiling. Then add lemongrass, galangal or ginger, and kaffir lime leaves. Cook 2-5 minutes.

Add the sugar, fish sauce, and lime juice just before turning off the stove.

Add chopped cilantro and green onions stirring them into the soup, Serve immediately.  Happy eating!!!!!

 

 

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Connections at Bing Bang Bao

In the beginning, isolation was more than tolerable. It was a forced simplifying of our lives, and that was a welcome change. But these days it drives me into memories of times that were so sweet and that I took for granted.  Years go by and we Americans think working hard, making more money, keeping our material existence orderly—they all take precedence for way too much time. I don’t think on my death bed I will regret not crossing more off my lists. What I do know is; I will remember the sweet moments of connection and laughter, time spent with fleshy warm, complicated human beings.

Our first adventure into travel was in 2011. I made the plans via the internet to stay at two different islands.

Koh Maak Island, Thailand

February, 2011

After months of planning and excruciating hours of planes and buses, we arrive at our resort, eat a quick lunch and wander along a beach on a deserted bay. The footpath meanders under palm trees along velvety sand. Finally, this is the freedom we dreamed of.

This side of the island is downwind. The beach is strewn with so much trash it is shocking, but also a fascinating menagerie of the human presence —long lost flip flops with mini shells clinging to them, pieces of colorful rope, all shapes and sizes of styrofoam, plastic water bottles, food containers from the tourist boats, and whatever else the commercial fishermen throw overboard.

  On our way back to our bungalow we stop by the swimming pool at the resort. I am sitting in the shallow water. A woman, about 45ish, is standing with a man across the pool. She wades her way towards me. Her sun streaked, curly hair and red balloon cheeks remind me of my sister. A playfulness dances in her eyes and the heavily accented English immediately tells me she’s German.

       After a friendly hello she comments like an over eager puppy, “What happened to your back?”

“The one time I will spend days in my swimsuit and my back looks like I’ve been beaten,” sheepishly I admit.

As David approaches she quips, “And you brought the wife beater on vacation with you?”

Laughing, I explain, “ No, I had my first Thai massage yesterday with an enthusiastic ex-Buddhist monk. He had a special technique.”

“I’m glad I didn’t run into him.”

We are both laughing, and I like her immediately. Later as David and I leave the pool, she calls to us again. “By the way, I’m Christine and this is my partner, Piotr.”

That evening as we are leaving the beach after dinner, there they are again.  Like Tigger, Christine almost bounces in front of us. “Hello!”         Would you like to have dinner with us?”

“Great to see you again.” I comment somewhat taken aback.

“We just finished eating,” David says almost apologetically.

“Well, have another beer with us.” Noticing our hesitation she continues, “Why not? You’re on vacation.”

“Maybe we’ll have a dessert?” we chime in.

Piotr and Christine drag chairs around a plastic table.  I nuzzle my toes in the still warm sand.

 

Paddling to Koh Pi 

We’ve had several days of adventures, meals and laughter with Piotr and Christine. The four of us seem to be almost a perfect match, but this afternoon Piotr is quite upset. His subtle sense of humor disappeared. The maids confiscated his carefully washed sacks of “beach junk” thinking it was garbage. He is an art professor at the University of Berlin and is collecting these for a major installation of his work. The disappointment still simmers on his face.

“We’ll help. We love to collect junk along the beach,” David chimes in with his typical enthusiasm.

“I need to do this on my own,” Piotr grumbles measuring out the words not allowing his feelings to boil over. Christine shrugs and ignores him so David and I let it go.

Leaving Piotr behind, the three of us head for the boat launch and rent two kayaks to paddle out to the tiny island of Koh Pi. Christine and Piotr snorkeled there yesterday and thought the water was clear enough to try again. Battling against intense winds, however, is extremely difficult. David and I have paddled for more than 15 years, but mostly in solo boats. We bicker as we attempt to work together.

“Either we can do this or the winds will beat us back to shore,” David calls out starting to lose patience with my inability to cooperate.  Christine, more headstrong than the wind, appears to effortlessly glide through the choppy waters.

Nearly worn out, we pull our boats onto the island and moor them onto the rocks. We don masks and look like alien frogmen walking on the jagged volcanic rock. There are quite a few poisonous black spiny coral, but as we ease into the water it is evident we can float over the top. Wind is still strong, but now it blows across my back as I skim the warm water—blue and green corals and schools of fish swim everywhere. Mesmerized, I am a child in an underwater playground. Except for the gurgling sound of my breath through the snorkel, it is a silent world. I pop up to breathe in time to see Christine’s enthusiastic wave. She’s found a spot with good coral.

As we untie our boats to return, a large hawk swoops down onto a dead tree at the top of the island and captures a snake in its claw. It flies less than twelve feet over our heads the snake dangling and writhing. Its eminent end of life somehow reminds me of our own temporary existence.

With the wind at our backs, paddling home is more like sailing. On the distant shore of the cove where David and I walked yesterday, Piotr is a dark form carrying his bags of junk among the palm trees. We float into the shallow waters and he wades out to meet us. Christine and David tie the burlap bags of trash he’s collected onto the tops of the kayaks.

We all flop into the turquoise blue water. It is warmer than the balmy evening air—temperatures in perfect balance. Floating in its womblike embrace little fish nip at my toes — salty water on my skin and wetness all around. Palm trees are etched against the ethereal light of a fading sky. I whisper a prayer of gratitude or is it a moan of pleasure at the altar of natural beauty.  Pain and pleasure merge as my mind knows that this too must end. The little snake in the claws of the hawk pops up in my mind.

Piotr swims back to the resort as our boats are full. It’s dark by the time we paddle into the boat launch.

Bing Bang Bao

Famished, David and I borrow dry clothes from Piotr and Christine before heading to a restaurant for dinner. They have rented motorcycles so I hop on the back of Christine’s. Not as confidant a driver, Piotr asks David to drive. The two men zoom up the hill and vanish from sight before we even discuss our destination.

We stop in the road and the men are nowhere to be seen. “Piotre is always in his own little world,” Christine says with irritation in her voice.

“Oh, that sounds exactly like David,” and we both laugh heartily at our similar dilemmas.

Christine and Piotr

Finally reunited, Christine and Piotr quibble over which is the right road to the restaurant. A confidant Christine leads down a deeply rutted dirt road into the dark night toward the less developed end of the island and a Thai-family owned resort. Our English version we call Bing Bang Bao. (More and more Thai resorts and restaurants are corporate owned. That friendly, generous spirit of the Thai people and great food is found in family owned facilities. )

It’s late by the time we arrive. The open air restaurant has emptied of customers. Children of varying ages run around playing and laughing while babies cuddle on grandparents’ laps. The adults are collapsed into plastic lawn chairs, fatigue etched on their faces. Cigarette smoke dances in the night air.

“Restaurant closed,” says the young man who appears to be in charge. Christine coaxes him with her enthusiasm and charm. He turns to the other family members. They  mumble to each other in Thai and relent. Children and grandparents disappear into the night. The adults go back to work.

“Kahp Koon Kah,” we gush our thanks and bow to our hosts; then slide onto benches near the edge of the deck. The crude wood picnic table is covered in an orange and white plastic tablecloth with little cherries. The inky black water below reflects the colorful chili pepper lights that hang from the galvanized metal roof. Crickets sing incessantly, and night birds call to each other.

The waiter appears at our table. He sheepishly shows us a still wiggling fish he had left from the day’s catch. “Sure, we’ll take it,” Piotr pipes up without a moment’s hesitation. We’ve learned over the last few days that Christine and Piotr embrace the prospect of food with forks raised high.

“We should bless the fish if we’re going to eat him,” I comment as I raise my hands over the fish and the surprised waiter.

“Sure, whatever,” the others comment sarcasm oozing between their teeth. The waiter’s half smile of amusement broadens as he realizes the voluminous amounts of food we order, and we can hear them chuckling in the kitchen.

Raised in Berlin, Christine apprenticed with a photographer in New York City as a young woman and knows the words to many of the same “American oldies” that I do. We heartily embrace our off-key renditions as Piotr and David move the beer away from us even before it is open.

“Johnny Angel, how I love him. And I pray that someday he’ll love me.”

“Baby love, sweet baby love . . . . .” we sing joyously.

And the Dishes Just Kept Coming

Bowing, we say our good-byes and thank yous, “ kahp koon kah” to the cooks; then head into the darkness and walk our motorcycles to the edge of the resort before starting the engines. I hop on the back and Christine begins winding through ruts on our way up the hill.

“I don’t hear them behind us. Maybe we should go back and check,” I yell over her shoulder. We turn around and soon find their bike lying on its side. David and Piotr a little dazed, but still jovial and only scratched.

“My bike slid out in a rut and now it won’t start. It’s definitely due for a tune-up,” David bemoans.

“What do you think we should do?”

“Well, we obviously can’t wake up the family and ask another favor,” I add and we all agree.

“I’ll ride back up to our resort and use the phone to call for help. Then come back,” Christine says.

Deeper in the jungle there is an eery munching and crunching sound.
“That’s the elephant hospital that we wanted to take you to,” Christine says. They care for older, abused elephants—a sort of “retirement home.”

“ Great! You’re going to leave us alone in the jungle with the elephants?” David protests half laughingly.

“They’re fenced in!” Christine yells already revving her engine to head up the hill to call for help. I jump on the back laughing at the two of them, helpless in the dark jungle.

A night clerk at the resort makes the call, and we zig-zag our way back down the road.  Minutes later the Thai emergency vehicle, a pick-up truck with benches in back, arrives. The young drivers want to take David and I to our resort across the island. Another truck is on its way to pick up the motorcycle.  Rented motorcycles breaking down is quite common in Thailand. Before we even realize what’s happening, we hug and say our good-byes to Christine and Piotr.

Far too quickly, David and I are whisked away in the back of their truck bouncing along sandy one lane trails that we had never seen in our five days of exploring the island.

“How much do you think this ride is going to cost us?” David laughs.

“I don’t care, as long as they don’t leave us dead in the jungle.” We pull through a weedy trail that looks like nothing more than a fire break and suddenly we’re at our resort. The drivers are smiling and seem quite amused to be rescuing the crazy tourists.

“No charge,” the young driver says as he steps out of the truck. Another long sentence in Thai we think explains that their emergency services are free, but of course we don’t understand a word of it. Nodding politely, we bow to them and say our well-rehearsed phrase, “Kahp koon kah.”

Early the next morning, I am not sure where the dream of last night ended and this day begins. The sound of the surf laps against the shore of my consciousness as if there is salt water in my veins. Perfume of Frangipani flowers permeates our entire room, and giant cilantro shaped leaves rustle in the sea breeze against my window. I want to lie and listen to the waves for a thousand days.

Our new friends are journeying in the opposite direction this morning, and we must catch a ferry to the mainland. I feel a heavy sense of loss. Instant rapport between people rarely happens in life. How can you know two people for such a short time and feel deeply connected? Perhaps a part of that is being outsiders together in a new culture.

In truth, Christine and Piotr nudged us out of our usually cautious selves. As vivacious and enthusiastic as my younger sister and more willful than my daughter, Christine made me feel they were both somehow with me these past days. In essence and energy, Piotr is practically David’s double. Two beautifully balanced men, both in their own little worlds, but living on opposite continents.

As we pack to catch the ferry, my body drags not wanting to move on. I am deeply grateful for the friendships and this hidden treasure of an island; bittersweet at life’s merciless impermanence.

 

PS  Are you hungry for Thai food but can’t go out?  My next piece will show you just how easy it is to make at home—and all the ingredients you need are in the supermarket.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Isolation Memories, Thailand | 1 Comment

What’s in Your Go-Bag?????

For those of us in the West who live in the inland drier climates, we have deliberated over and over as to what to take if we had to leave our house in a fire. This past fall there was so much emphasis on being prepared to evacuate and packing a “go box”.

Yes, we’ll need our important legal and insurance papers, some personal necessities and clothes, pictures of our kids, sleeping bags, valuables and few cans of food and on and on. But for me, there is one more crucial item that I would include. In fact, it might be the first thing I put in the truck.  OK, it’s not practical. It’s not even possible or realistic.  But, if one were to consider in an emergency, taking the things that have brought one the most happiness, satisfaction and adventure in life, I’d put my kayak in first.

I’ve had time the past few months of the pandemic to ponder all the memories my kayak has brought my husband, David and I–spending the night on an island in the Yuba River, paddling with the Sierra Club on the American River, reading our books in the middle of a lake on a sweltering summer afternoon. My boat is now 25 years old and still floatin’.

One of my fondest memories is floating down the Nan River in the small, untouristy town of Nan in northeastThailand, probably in 2017.  We rented a kayak from a Chinese tour company that we heard was pretty reliable.

*************************

Mr. Fhu, the owner of the tour company, arrives at our guest house promptly at 8 AM with a sidekick, and we head north out of town. David and I bounce along in the back of the jeep hanging on for dear life. The boat is well tied on a rack above our heads which is a good sign. Mr. Fhu regales us with stories of his childhood in English sprinkled with Chinese—the American cowboy TV shows he loved.  I’m bracing my knees and hanging onto the overhead rail as we descend the rutty dirt trail to the river.

At first sight, the Nan River reminds me of the muddy rivers in the Midwest where I grew up. There are, however, no factories or businesses along the shore.  The jungle tumbles down to the river’s edge which looks suspiciously low. It’s a fifteen mile float. It could be a three or a seven hour paddle depending on current.

Even if I’ve run the same stretch of river ten times, there is one last hurdle to overcome—fear bordering on panic. A fatal error message in my brain computer says, “I can’t do this. What was I thinking? Maybe we should go back now.” But I push those thoughts to the back of my mind and go through the motions; checking gear, sunscreen, water, loading the paddles Unfortunately, I didn’t check thoroughly enough.

“Are there snakes in this river?”

“Only when sun go down,” Fhu comments. He and his sidekick chuckle at what seems to be my naive question.

“Can you swim in it?”

“Children swim in river,” he shouts as if only a child would want to cool off in the water. They skip a few rocks while we gather our gear; then jump back in the jeep.

David yells as they are about to depart, “Hey, where are the seats?”

Fhu shouts a little sheepishly, “OHHH, I think we forget. No problem. You use life preservers.” David and I can only shake our heads and laugh as we watch the jeep struggle back up the dusty road.

I bunch up my life preserver to lean against, and we push off into the slow rolling river. Not a catastrophe but a lot less comfortable   It takes only a few minutes of paddling to know we will work hard to reach the take out before sunset. There is no wind, and that’s a great boon. David and I merge into a paddling rhythm and a comfortable silence. Soon I forget all details that belong to land life.

The music of the jungle accompanies us as we paddle down the sleepy river. I feel like not only am I in another country, it’s another century. The day heats up. “This feels like we’re floating down the Nile. I’m waiting to spot an unwanted child in a papyrus basket,” David laughs.

We pass A-frame bamboo huts built on stilts near the edges of the river. Fishermen sit inside in the shade, their poles in the water. They nod and wave to us. Three women in a small wooden boat are harvesting fluorescent green river moss. One of them is waist deep in water cutting the long strands with a machete. The others slap the moss on the water to wash it.

We stop to watch several little boys in underwear digging into the muddy sides of the river for fresh water crabs. They are surprised to see us and yell, “Where you from?”

“California!”

“Oooh Hollywoood,” they yell giggling amongst themselves.

“Hahmbuhguhrs,” they call out proudly at their great worldly knowledge.  We pull into the bank to watch them digging crabs. Soon they are surrounding me in my little boat so I invite them to sit and check it out. But before their enthusiasm launches us all down stream, we say good-by and head out. It’s time to move along.

Back into the boats, we’re in serious paddle mode. There are places where the river slows and has no current at all; then some riffles and a breeze that carries us along. Waves of sunlight dance on the water and the smells change from moment to moment—from stale fish, to wet mud. Occasionally the scent of a frangipani tree sails its fragrance on the breeze.

The heat of the day soon catches up to me. I call to David as I flop into the cool, clear water, “Mr.Fhu say snakes only swim in river at night. No Problem!”

“No Problem!” David calls back joining me in a rejuvenating swim. No snakes in sight. We eat the brown bag lunch that Mrs. Fhu included in our rental package. A flavorful combination of chicken and rice wrapped in wax paper along with a wooden spoon, but David devours his in a few bites and looks greedily at mine.

The afternoon begins to drag, and the hunger pangs grow. The sun saps my energy. Lounging, I lazily dangle my fingers along in the water. There is something transforming about being on water looking back at land. It changes one’s perspective. Much like traveling, I’m on the outside looking in. The problems and dramas of daily life on earth float downstream with the current.

“Hey, Cleopatra, how about it’s your turn to paddle,” David yells.

“I’m getting tired.” I whine

“Endurance furthers. You get to learn how to stay strong cuz we have a long way to still go.

A little further downstream David calls out, “ I see a trail that leads into the jungle. I can hear cars up on the hill, and I’m starved.”

“Sure, I need to stretch my legs.”

We cautiously walk up into the jungle. The canopy of trees is a welcome relief from the intense sun. A rustle in the brush makes my heart jump, but it’s only a rooster. The trail leads through a small homestead with a cabin in the distance, chickens and a fenced yard with pigs. As I traipse up the steep trail, the crunch of American potato chips echoes in my head.

The trail actually ends up on a small road. The grandmother that runs a little market next to it awakens with a start as we enter. Judging from the dust covered bags of snacks, her customers aren’t many. A scowl on her face says, “who are these crazy farangs  foreigners that came out of nowhere?” She watches us with cautious curiosity and distrust. With hand gestures, pantomiming rowing a boat and a lot of pointing we are soon conversing. A toothless smile flashes across her face when we choose two beers and two bags of chips. She’s thrilled when we order more chips and beaming when we buy ice cream bars.

Waving good-by, we race back down the trail with renewed energy. The river is almost stagnant slow, but our strength has returned. Eventually, I spot the first bridge at the outskirts of town. There are gardens that line one side of the river with several  banana and papaya trees. Corn, beans, cilantro, tomatoes, and little green eggplants grow in orderly rows.

The sun is close to disappearing by the time we spot the next bridge and our agreed upon take out spot. Mr. Fhu and his sidekick are squatting on the side of the river in the distance, worried looks on their faces. With barely a greeting, they haul the boats up to the road and onto the top of their jeep, and they’re gone.

The twilight air is cooling quickly. Still in wet swimsuits, we’re exhausted and grumpy from hunger. Back up on the street, we discover a small restaurant that looks out on the river. There is no restroom, but the young waitress points to a closet where I can put on my dry clothes.

When I return to our table, David is frustrated. He can’t make her understand what he wants. She brings us Coca colas. Finally, Dave walks over to a table where a group of business men sit and points to their beers and then his soda, shaking his head. They look confused and talk amongst themselves. Finally, when David shows them his soda again and points to their beers, they all start laughing. Lively communication ensues but not with language. The men choose some options from the menu and tell the waitress what we want. We bow over and over saying, “kap kun kah” or thank you.

Down on the water four wooden long boats are racing each other. The businessmen  stand and cheer the rowers so David and I stand and cheer with our new friends.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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When I return to our table, David is frustrated. He can’t make her understand what he wants. She brings us Coca colas. Finally, Dave walks over to a table where a group of business men sit and points to their beers and then his soda, shaking his head. They look confused and talk amongst themselves. Finally, when David shows them his soda again and points to their beers, they all start laughing. Lively communication ensues but not with language. The men choose some options from the menu and tell the waitress what we want. We bow over and over saying, “kap kun kah” or thank you.

Posted in Nan River in Northeast Thailand, Your Go Bag | Tagged | 4 Comments

September Was Cancelled

 

 

September, the days are often hot enough for a last swim in the Yuba River when, hopefully, the tourists have gone and serenity returns.    The angle of the sunlight and, of course, the changing trees. Dinners on the deck enjoying an evening with friends. An abundant tomato harvest and the smell of peppers roasting on the grill. Most years I savor those lingering warm days of September like the last spoonful of honey in the bottom of a jar. This year was different.

We were going on our seventh month of the pandemic and, for the most part, the isolation had been a relief simplifying our lives. The loneliness hadn’t, as yet,  gotten me down. Granted, we don’t have jobs and children to worry about.

But the real challenge began Sunday, August 17th three of us were pulling kayaks out of our truck to launch on San Francisco Bay when the loudest lightning strike I have ever experienced clapped overhead. The electrical systems of cars in the parking lot went crazy. Suddenly they were honking and honking. Children were crying! Masked characters stood nearby in a semi state of shock.  Dry lightning without rain is definitely an ominous sign in hot weather.

 Within the upcoming days/weeks the interaction of four different calamitous climate events all occurred on top of the pandemic. First, the lightning triggered fires in some 300 places. Temperatures soared all over the West climbing to unheard of numbers. On Labor Day, only 104 degrees on our kitchen deck; in Sacramento, it was 112. I don’t ever remember Sacramento ever registering a temperature over 101-103. That evening the winds picked up and cooled everything down. That was a good thing, but it also provided a springboard for sparks to rise up and re-energize. Smoke covered our car, our trees, and drifted in the windows. Pacific Gas and Electric declared an emergency and cut the power to most of Northern California. By 11 PM all was dark.

In the past, our power outages happened in the winter not when the temperatures soared. Downright dangerous to be without a fan, running water or an air conditioner in that heat. I was six days past a knee surgery hoping this was not our time to evacuate. It was as if some Hollywood screenwriter had dreamed up the next blockbuster disaster movie called, Your Uninhabitable Planet.

It’s strange to wake up in a house that’s absolutely pitch black. There’s no night light in the bathroom, no blinking yellow modem and printer lights, no fluorescent beam coming from the neighbor’s garage. The silence is otherworldly and a little eerie.

The wind had cleared the air of smoke for the first time in 10 days. Stepping out on the deck, a fingernail moon shared the sky with a plethora of stars. I could breathe–a sigh of relief. Little did we know that the smoke would require us to be indoors for most of that entire month.

Smoke in the air makes me feel like the old floppy Raggedy Ann doll that I had in childhood. With less oxygen I can barely walk straight or remember the sentence while I type it. 

It’s impossible not to recognize that the weather/world has changed when your “go bag” sits ready for an entire month. Climate change is already upon us. It’s not a hoax! It’s not in the future.  I truly understand why people would prefer to pretend that it doesn’t exist.  I suppose we can’t really drink something in, or accept it, until it hits our family or our own experience.

It’s not hard to see how the cost of climate change is quickly becoming life altering; not just for individuals but for governments as well. Some people are paying triple/quadruple for home owner’s insurance. Every day the whirring of chain saws and the sound of trees ka-plunking to earth echoes throughout our forests. People are trimming trees and cutting underbrush around their houses. It can cost as much as 10 to 15,000 dollars. Those that live on the financial edge will, as always, be impacted the most. And no one wants to talk about how breathing smoke for a long period of time will impact our health. It’s  beyond mind boggling.

This past summer I’ve been reading, well, sort of skimming, Walter Isaacson’s book, Benjamin Franklin.  In the book there is a photo of the editing marks on the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson’s rough draft says, “We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights; that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness”  ”. . . .It was Franklin whose back slashing remarks changed them to say, we hold these truths to be “self-evident”. . . .

It seems to me that the right to breathe clean air, to be treated equally like other human beings, and to pursue the happiness of all our citizens is not only self-evident but is also sacred and undeniable. It is one of the most important precepts of our country. People all over the world admire these ideals, and it gives them hope. Yet, we continue to deny/ignore contradictions in our reality.

In the past few months our streets have been filled with demonstrators shouting to be heard, to recognize these contradictions. It’s beyond mind boggling that in the 21st Century we are still enmeshed in racial prejudices based on the color of people’s skin? And if I can’t throw litter on my favorite beach. Why can corporations, which supposedly have the same rights and rules as individuals, continue to send tons of pollutants into our atmosphere, produce products that poison our waters, and contribute to the changes in our climate? Isn’t it the same mindset that creates these contradictions?

 

PS  These photos are of a fire that was about 70 miles away, but two were happening simultaneously and drove the smoke over Grass Valley and Nevada City.

 

 

 

 

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Reflections on November

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;

Where knowledge is free;

Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow  

      domestic walls;

Where words come out from the depth of truth;

Where tireless striving stretches its arms toward perfection;

Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way in the dreary        

      desert sand of dead habit;

Where the mind is led forward by Thee into ever-widening 

      thought and action;

Into the heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake!

 

 From Gitanjali

by Rabindranath Tagore

1861-1941

 

“One can’t believe in impossible things,” said Alice.

“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “Sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

From Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland

 

 

“I would not be an American worthy of the name, should I regret a fate that has allowed me the extraordinary privilege of serving this country for a half a century . . .

Today, I was a candidate for the highest office in the country I love so much. And tonight, I remain her servant. That is blessing enough for anyone and I thank the people of Arizona for it . . .

Tonight—tonight more than any night, I hold in my heart nothing but love for this country and for all its citizens whether they supported me or Senator Obama. I wish God speed to the man who was my former opponent and will be my president.”

Taken from the concession speech of Senator

John McCain,  2008

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Doorways

 

Stepping through a doorway into the “new normal”.

Doorways entice one to new adventures,  imagined scenarios, to deeper understanding, or perhaps difficult challenges.  I am excited to see what is born from it.

 

 

In the midst of difficulty lies opportunity. Albert  Einstein

 

 

 

 

“One can choose to go back toward safety or forward toward growth. Growth must be chosen again and again; fear must be overcome again and again.”

Abraham Maslow

Continue reading

Posted in Independent Travel, Uncategorized | Tagged | 5 Comments

Heirloom Treasures for the Orchard and Beyond

This is a piece I wrote for the Grass Valley Union newspaper. It is such a unique concept and an important agricultural opportunity that I wanted to share it here in the blog also. These folks deserve our support.    Patti Bess

 

 

Ever heard of Felix Gillet? If you value California agriculture, you might want to know him. If you drink wine, you are indebted to Mr. Gillet as he cataloged over 240 varieties of grapes.

In 1866 Gillet, a French immigrant, opened his Barren Hill Nursery to the public on 16 acres of logged property on a beautiful hilltop in Nevada City, California. During Gillet’s lifetime, he imported and bred thousands of varieties of old world fruits, nuts, and ornamental plants from as many as 35 countries. Much of California’s success in perennial crop agriculture can be traced back to this Nevada City nurseryman. He could be called the father of California agriculture, yet rarely does he get any credit. He also contributed to various scientific journals.

In 2003 Amigo Bob Cantisano and his partners, Jennifer Bliss and Adam Nuber, created a nonprofit corporation called the Felix Gillet Institute (www.felixgillet.org) dedicated to preserving the legacy of Gillet by identifying, propagating, and preserving edible and ornamental heirloom perennials that were planted in the Sierra foothills during and after the Gold Rush days. The three partners have become sleuths exploring abandoned gold mining towns and old homesteads as far as Graniteville, Columbia, Humbug and beyond. They search for the old varieties of fruit and nut trees that still survive today.

They take scions from the grandmother trees and graft them onto rootstock, plant and care for them for a couple of years; then sell them in a catalog under the auspices of the Felix Gillet Institute (FGI). Currently, they have two mother orchards in Nevada and Sonoma Counties where the trees are grown and are looking for new orchard land.

Fruit Mix

Preserving the trees of our forbearers has a certain romanticism to it, but also very practical applications. If, as projected by most scientists and demonstrated by our recent weather challenges, we continue to have harsher conditions in the future, these hardier trees may indeed be better suited to survive and thrive. They have been growing in abandoned homesteads and mining camps for more than a hundred years without pruning, watering, or fertilizing. Many are still producing under those conditions.

When visiting their farm last fall, Jenifer Bliss took me to the back of the house to a walk-in refrigerator. Stepping inside, my senses were overwhelmed by the scent of fresh picked apples. Something we never experience in our supermarkets. Reine de Reinette is one of her favorite apples. It originated in France and the name means Queen of the Pippins. An old farm guide from the 1800s describes the variety called  Autumn Strawberry as a “yellow and pink apple with a hint of strawberry and tender flesh, the best dessert apple.”  This year the Felix Gillet catalog will feature apples, pears, cherries, figs, almonds, walnuts, and many others.

“If we can figure out how to take the characteristics of these old varieties and meld them into modern agriculture, we’re going to have a more sustainable food source in the future,” Cantisano commented.

Amigo Bob Cantisano, the founder of the Felix Gillet Institute, is an agricultural heirloom himself. Self-educated, he is a walking, talking organic gardening encyclopedia and a man with a mission. Through his consulting company, Organic Ag Advisors, he has worked with more than 600 farmers and 400,000 acres of crops over the last 30 years. He has helped them to transition to organic growing techniques and to bring safer foods to our plates.  Most folks know Amigo Bob as the host of a monthly radio show, Organic Matters on KVMR-FM, where he answers the many questions from frustrated (and successful) gardeners/farmers. He is the owner of Heaven and Earth Farm and a co-founder of the Eco Farm Conference in Monterrey County, to name just a few of his accomplishments.

Think this all sounds pretty far out? Last three years Felix Gillet catalog sold out of trees. (Reminder, the early bird gets the proverbial worm or tree as it may be.) Buyers are generally Sierra foothills gardeners and small farmers who want to preserve a bit of our past and willing to experiment with them, but the last couple of years more commercial farmers ordered trees. If a new heirloom variety takes hold with consumers, it can bring higher profits for a farmer.

All of these plants will grow well in any region that gets an average of 500 chill hours each winter, which is most of northern and central California, Oregon and Nevada. They would not grow well near the bay or Pacific Ocean.

If you would like to receive the upcoming online catalog, send an email to thefgi@gmail.com. Catalog will be live online by mid-October. You can also find the institute on Facebook or the website, www.felixgillet.org      Office phone: 530 292-3619.

 

 

 

 

 

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Risottos and other Revelations

We can’t travel these days, but the memories enliven a dull evening and give me hope for a brighter future for all of us. I don’t know about you and your family, but since the beginning of the Coronavirus we have been spending more time in the kitchen and trying recipes we haven’t cooked in years.

Last night I made risotto that brought up reminiscences of my one and only trip to Italy. There are many lasting memories; but Padua, Italy, makes me think of risotto.  It is a medium-size town, not on many tourist itineraries. The first evening we cruised the little town for an inviting looking trattoria for dinner.

That night I enjoyed a risotto creamier than I’d ever had before, but that was not what left the lasting memory. I innocently asked the old “nonna”, the cook and perhaps owner, “Your risotto tasted deliciously rich. Do you add cream to it?” The fire in her eyes would melt butter and that look will never fade in my mind’s eye. Instantly, I became the stereotyped, uncultured, clueless American tourist. I suppose my question was a little insulting. Removing the plate from in front of me, she grumbled an indignant reply.

But I still think, to this day, that my question was legitimate!  And that perhaps the added cream was her shortcut version. In all the cookbooks I’ve ever read, not one risotto recipe uses cream. Risotto’s richness of flavor and texture comes from the starchiness of the rice and slow cooking in a flavorful broth. I am not an expert on the cooking of various regions of Italy so it’s possible I could be wrong about this.

What is a risotto you might ask. It is Italian comfort food. Stay with me here and I’ll give you an easy way to make risotto.

 

What magnetically drew me to Padua was a Christmas book that I bought my children many years before, called The Glorious Impossible by Madeleine L’Engle. The book shows/tells the life stories of Mary and Jesus through the paintings of Giotto.  They are reproductions of the 39 sequential frescoes he painted on the walls of the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua.

The Scrovegni family were notoriously deceptive moneylenders. At that time, early 1300’s, the Catholic Church allowed wealthy people to expiate their sins by doing things to benefit the church—to basically to buy their way out of their misdeeds/sins.

The family spared no expense. They commissioned the already famous Giotto to paint the inside of their chapel. Giotto’s style of painting was revolutionary. This was pre Renaissance. He painted realistic characters and emotions—three dimensional humans with faces expressing compassion, grief, doubt. Once he came on the scene, the two dimensional, wooden style of medieval painting suddenly fell from favor.

Since my teenage years I had rebelled against my “churchianity” upbringing, but the fresco of Mary holding her dying son as he was taken down from the cross brought on a surprising cascade of tears like snowmelt on a spring day. Cheeks drenched and thoroughly embarrassed, I couldn’t stop myself.

I walked through the chapel with my jaw dropped open. There is a certain stillness in Giotto’s paintings—a heartfelt understanding of being human. Every fleshy arm, every shaft of light turned in the direction of Mary and Jesus. For me, it created a moment of connectedness that softened, maybe even re-arranged the mental judgments I had made.

 

So back to my “risotto revelations”. It makes a simple but elegant meal. Risotto takes a little more time than using a rice cooker, but is definitely worth it.

Risotto requires using Arborio rice, a short grain variety grown primarily in Italy and Spain specifically for paellas and risottos.  Short grain rice tend to be more creamy. There are other varieties but Arborio is most available in the U.S. Once I tried substituting a less expensive short grain brown rice as was suggested in a cookbook, but it wasn’t all that satisfying. In this situation I would spend the extra money for Arborio. Vegetable or chicken cubes for the broth work fine, but never buy Knorr brand—too many additives, MSG, and a flavor over dependent on salt. Most health food stores offer a better alternative (or be ambitious and make your own).

Just about anything can be added to a risotto. Our favorite summer version contains cut up tomatoes, basil and a can of white beans (drained and rinsed). Or a spring version might include cut up asparagus, grated lemon peel, parmesan, and maybe some red pepper for color. Shrimp is great too.

I once used a red wine instead of white. The flavor was just as good, but the rice had the color of dried blood—visually unappealing! I won’t do that again. Italian women often keep an old stub of parmesan in the refrigerator. They add it to the risotto as it simmers to deepen the flavor; then remove whatever is left when the rice is cooked.

If you are vegan, skip the parmesan but perhaps add herbs to enhance the flavor like marjoram and sage or basil and tarragon depending on other ingredients. Wine deepens the flavor but is not essential if you prefer not to use it, though alcohol evaporates in cooking.  As an alternative, a tablespoon of red wine vinegar added at the end of cooking will also give that touch of acidity to deepen the flavor.

I am taking this basic recipe from The Art of Simple Foods by Alice Waters. It’s a good foundation recipe though I’ve made a few of my own changes.  Enjoy!

Risotto Bianco

Two tablespoons butter or extra virgin olive oil

One small onion, diced fine

One and half cups Arborio rice

Five cups chicken or vegetable broth

One half cup dry white wine

Salt and pepper (depending on saltiness of your broth)

One tablespoon butter

One third cup grated parmesan cheese

Grated lemon peel or a little saffron        (optional)

 

In a separate pan, bring to a boil the broth and then turn to a low simmer. Melt the butter or olive oil in a heavy bottomed 2 ½ to 3 quart saucepan. Add the onion and cook until soft and translucent, about 5 minutes.

Add the rice, stirring now and then, until translucent, about four minutes. Do not let it brown. Pour the wine over the rice and stir again. Add a cup of the warm broth and continue stirring. When the rice starts to get thick, add additional cup of broth. Keeping the rice on a gentle simmer, add broth each time the rice absorbs most of the liquid and stir occasionally. I usually add the vegetables/tomato about half way through the cooking process. Continue until the rice is tender but still has a firm core, maybe 25 to 30 minutes.

Add the parmesan cheese and optional butter. Stir vigorously for a couple minutes to develop the creamy texture; then let the rice sit for a few minutes before serving.

 

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