- Is anyone feeling pressured by festive family commitments, or somewhat stressed by difficult people in these days as I am? My personal circumstances are easily guessed: as one who does not eat meat, you have to fit in with omnivores in all get togethers, adjust your courses or let someone do it for you with the likelihood of loads of cheese and dairy white sauce everywhere. You thank everyone and are kind, even if you wish you could spend your time doing (and cooking) what you really like. Sometimes you wish Christmas holidays are over soon, you also have to stop blogging even when you have a lot to say. Everyday lunch is negotiated with crucial planning unless you are going out, but it is raining and cold out there. I made this Mediterranean fusion toast in a loved hour of freedom. Grilled Violife, Tofurky, roast aubergines, rocketleaves and mango.
I saw the city of couscous by the French-Algerian artist Kader Attia in the Tate Modern Gallery a few years ago. Under the generic name “Untitled”, the 2009 installation recreates the Algerian city of Ghardaia with 300kg of couscous cooked then left to dry with salt, in moulds shaped like the city’s buildings. The task of literally building the city from the project was carried out by the Tate’s staff who arranged it in the room of the “Living Cities”exhibition.
I was moved when I saw it for the first time, not only for all its meanings and references – the Parisian banlieues where the artist grew up, his homage to Le Corbusier and Pouillon, who used features of Gardhaia’s buildings in their architecture, the relationship and influences between Europe and Africa and the impermanence and decaying of the city, as the couscous will crumble with time like real cities do.
On a personal point of view, couscous is one of my best loved foods, it is quick to make (for who, like me, will only ever use the precooked one), it is nutritious, has many health benefits and an amazing taste. Other cereals (quinoa for example) have more protein, but the couscous flavour is unbeatable. I accompanied it today with oven roasted beetroot, a pumpkin burger and a powerful sprinkle of herbs and spices. Couscous is the typical middle-eastern cereal but I know no limits to the toppings. Whether it consists of stews, oven cooked or raw vegetables, I dare to go beyond tradition. I understand that couscous is a basic staple of north African nutrition, like pasta, rice and potatoes in other latitudes, and that it is less expensive than other cereals like barley, spelt, millet and so on.
At the exhibition I perceived the city of couscous like a place offering well being, which is slightly out of the context. At the same time it connects me with my roots. Even in Sicily, the southernmost part of Italy, couscous is part of the culinary tradition. Having in mind the low, flat roofed Mediterranean buildings of the south I look again at the city of Ghardaia on the wooden floor. It is doomed to erosion, and the plans are to act by adjusting it or building it again when it is nearly unrecognisable. What a challenge!
I cannot avoid to think of my home town in Italy, recently hit by a hurricane on the Tyrrhenian coast. With many roofs and walls collapsed and all the pine trees in the main boulevard eradicated by the violence of the storm, the calamity has changed it in its individual, characteristic features. It takes a huge endeavour and time to build it as it was, or better. I have no doubts that art curators and workers have a much easier task.
I am more keen on writing than on following the rules of culinary tradition, like they do for sure in the south. But thank you for dropping by and… have a lovely couscous dish.
For a pleasant start of the day or relaxing time read https://toastsandthoughts.blog/2018/12/10/a-poem-for-breakfast/
7 am and again on the road in my burgundy car, sleepy as a “never an early bird” can be! Stuck at the level crossing I raise the volume when the Rolling Stones start me up with some relief. I look to my right and a person I know says hello while she is walking on the pavement. She smiles and I return the greeting with another smile. Ah, it wasn’t the same last week! My smile was pretentious, as I was always criticising every human I saw from my metal hut on four wheels. This one has a white regrowth too visible, that one is wearing trousers I would only wear on a Spanish beach in August, another thinks too differently from me, I am sure by only looking at her face. The woman in her thirties walking on the pedestrian crossing must have immeasurable “me” time for wearing all that make up at dawn; the man jogging on the white stripes must be stupid for taking the risk of being put down by motorists that wouldn’t be me anyway, he also must be stiff in Pilates roll backs.
By looking at it now, the usual scene was a dispirited lady criticising all when tired and stressed during the rush hour. Changing from first to second gear, pushing the brake pedal only to stop again after a few seconds gave me freedom to be superficial and small in heart and intelligence. Against my daily ten minutes’ meditation, in those moments I did even forget I had ever meditated. I feel I have never considered myself to be better than any of the people above, indeed I was judging everyone appearing in front of my eyes.
But that was last week. One day, when the light went green and the radio was pumping it up with Elvis Costello as well as me with clutch and accelerator, the car broke down. It had to be put at rest for a full week at a near garage, from where it came out with a brand new gearset. That was the “Deus Ex Machina” appearing on stage to save my life at this delicate moment.
The bus glides on the preferential lane, the doors open at the stops indicated on the screen, letting in ladies and gentlemen who bounce in with no noise. It is Monday and I am back on the road. I am holding my laptop in my warm space and look at the lady sitting in front of me. I bet she is a nurse, and at the next stops more nurses, students, mums and older people come in. I recognise some of them as staff of the near big supermarket. I see them every week when doing my shopping there or ordering a drink in the coffee shop within. The nurse smiles and I smile back. My smile is sincere this time, I am surprised of this and feel no distance or disagreement with anyone on the bus. They have travelled on public transport every day for who knows how many years. I am relieved of traffic as the bus driver, not me, is in control of it now! Many new, unusual thoughts come to mind while I look around. I observe the people out on the street, aware of the fact that I am looking at them in a different way: the lady who didn’t go to the hairdresser, now she is considering the pros and cons of her next project while she is hurrying up and I didn’t even notice her hair, the man running on the pedestrian crossing might like to keep fit in the open air instead of a dull gym, the woman with heels and a cashmere coat has got off a plane from Switzerland and is walking to the physics laboratory nearby. The boys are running to school on their bikes as the rain is becoming heavier, the lady with funky shorts and t-shirt is still wearing brash clothes, brightening the grey air with colour. I feel we are all similar, as not only do we all have to get our things done, but we are also striving to survive, fulfil our ambitions and be happy.
I am persuaded now it is meaningful that a simple change of perspective can help change the mind when it is stuck in a fog of misconceptions that we build mainly because we are angry for something we find more or less difficult to control or change. I admit that moving from car to bus forced me to consider this: criticism may become dominant in our lives so fast without we even realise it. We cannot avoid judgement at all, but must remember that the best judgement comes without prejudices, and this is worth a resolution by us, because we can forget it at any time. Never mind our lifestyle, how virtuous we are, how many “Om” counts, there will be sparks of criticism ready to sabotage our clarity of judgement every time something goes wrong.
On the way back home I know the fridge and cupboards will become empty soon if I do not buy food a little at a time. I get off the bus near the local shop, where I buy the weekly pack of rocket, as I am crazy for it and it contains a massive amount of Vitamin C. For me, adding salt to rocket would undermine its pungent, peppery taste, so I will not use it on the salad. I see a packet of pickled beetroot on the nearest shelf and remember I have not eaten beets for ages, which is certainly wrong. As I do not quite like them so much, I drink beetroot juice often, and I put this into the basket too. It is expensive and heavy in my bag, so I cannot buy much more than bananas, the world’s favourites, milk for the kids and a package of cereals, not heavy but bulky. One corner of it makes a hole in the bag while I am walking home with hat, scarf, umbrella, backpack, gymbag and shopping bag. In the fridge, I find a pack of “Moroccan Falafels” still intact, but it will expire in a week or so, so I put half of them in an oven tray and freeze the remaining ones. I am in search of seeds now, there are so many in the cupboard it is only a matter of choosing which ones fit better today that my salad resembles to no world flavour in particular, as it consists of a mixture of all the flavours of the world. But when peeping at the bottom I see something red, bright as the skirt the lady in iridescent apparel was wearing this morning. It is the orangey-red, mildly and sweetly tasting Goji berries. They are antioxidants and may prevent deathly illnesses, but I always forget them. Then to make up for the months of neglect I scatter a large amount of berries upon the rocket, falafel and beetroot and leave the seeds to another day. Dates feel middle eastern like falafel and are the extra sweet touch bringing this salad a little out of balance, but after all that walking… I have now a brash, singular salad for this late November day. Something is missing. Who’s next? Olive oil is next, I am answering the Who as they sing “The Sweetest Thing”. With those cranberries in the bread as well, it is really over the top, but we are festive by now.
A November evening of last year the music ensemble of the community school performed a brilliant rendition of the song “Perfect” by Ed Sheeran, so well accomplished that it was the highlight of the Christmas Concert. In the other songs – “Seasons” by Vivaldi and“Behind your Eyes” in the Limp Bizkit version, which were far more my cup of tea than the smooth, clean note arrangement of the first one – there were many mistakes: one kid went out of tune, one other did not catch up with the time, another missed a bar, and the obvious reason was the pieces were much more complicated! Overall, it was a beautiful recital where the perfect moment was indeed “Perfect”. That was when I liked that song for the first time. This morning we heard it on the car radio while we were in the school run congestion. We looked at each other acknowledging the shared memory and the start of the day became more heartening.
“Do you remember when I played it so well?” she asked me. We agreed that its simplicity has a double side: it is pleasant and boring at the same time.
How am I so demanding of pop music while my attitude towards food is of a different kind, so that complicated recipes and instructions do not add significant value to taste? A friend of mine, who is an accomplished singer, piano and guitar player told me, “The music world is going simple, and we will be persuaded in some way that simple music is good.” I said I would be barricading against that threat and added, “Why are we so much bothered by the opposite trend in the kitchen world, where you have to conjure up dishes so complex and fantastic that will be rejected by a battery of inhumane judges (and also inhumanely rich) if pistachios are not from Bronte (a remote Sicilian town), basil does not come from Cinque Terre (that is in Liguria) and the horrendous meat is a little overcooked or the opposite, undercooked, which is still worse as in that case we would be playing vampires. Someone would find playing vampires fun, and I could have my part in laughing over stainy beetroot blood. Apart from this, why is it wrong to roast the aubergines for “Parmigiana” instead of deep frying them? Once they are in the baking tray and the oven is on for forty minutes you have time to sit at the piano and play that song! According to the experts, baked food cannot stand the test against fried food. This and other cooking nightmares I will not tolerate and while I am still complaining against the frying addicts I would make a quick sundried tomato pesto with a good handful of basil, two or three spoons of pine nuts or cashew nuts, natural yeast flakes and olive oil. Using the mixer slowly of course, not the mortar. The next day, I would take a little leftover pesto that was not used on pasta the evening before and spread it on a pita bread, cook a red/yellow/green pepper (with a garlic clove) in the pan and stuff it inside the pita together with some rocket and a few minced olives, cut the mango, pour a green juice in a cup and make my lunch.
The plate looked perfect to me. I would enjoy it while I am also opening the app for blues improvisation and admiring the beautiful geometrical figures of chords and scales. They are not made up by a chef, but exist in the amazing world of maths and we have to find them out in the straight line of the keyboard.
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