30 November 2016

Tell more

'Code yellow' is beginning with a bunch of dry leaves blowing across the bike path and rolling over the glistening sidewalk. The scratching sound they leave behind is the only chord the first badass storm of the season is offering right now. It's 4.30 am. At 4 am, midst my half-burnt toast and coffee for breakfast, I got a warning on my phone of the imminent severe wind – and that users of 'fragile' means of transportation such as bicycles, scooters and caravans may be at risk.

Another duo of leaves perform a circus stunt. A synchronized, uninterrupted somersault from one side of the bike path to the other. At 4.45 am I'm their sole spectator, albeit in a rush to get to work on time. I feel annoyed with my bike – it's stuck on the lowest gear. I take it out on the pedals, push harder on them. A block further it's starting to drizzle, a soft infrequent drizzle for now, and even quite pleasant on the skin.

I take a turn, and suddenly – a loud, low bang of thunder, the next chord in line. I'm about fifteen minutes away from work and the risen loaves of bread (plump and soft, and not unlike a young woman's breast), and the warmth of the bread oven. I push the pedals harder, I can make it, past the light installation that says in tall red electric letters MEMORIES ARE SOUVENIRS, just go go, fast fast.

4 pm. 'Code yellow' ends with a phone call from my parents.

Are you safe? We read on the internet about the storm, worried now, my mother says.

Yes, we are fine. I just got back home from work. It's calming down now. I'm making cookies.

What cookies? Tell more.



Nutbutter Cookies

Adapted from Sourdough, by Sarah Owens
Makes about 60-65 cookies


You know Lebkuchen, that old-fashioned German gingerbread? I bet these nutbutter cookies will remind you of it. And possibly of oatmeal cookies. And most certainly of spice cookies. And if that's not enough, here is more: they are sourdough cookies. Sourdough nutbutter cookies!

I understand that to make and keep alive your own sourdough starter for cookies alone, however delicious, is a big ask. But if you already have one, wouldn't you then want a great breakfast cookie – because it's great for breakfast, crumbled over a bowl of thick yogurt, or along with coffee and a cold tangerine on the side – for winter months at least?

What nut butter to use is the subject of taste. I myself gravitate towards milder nut butters – such as almond or cashew – for these cookies. This way all elements at play are more noticeable in the outcome: earthy rye flour; nutty, nearly milky oats; deep, smoky maple syrup; soothing cinnamon and exotic nutmeg.

By the way, if the presence of sourdough in the cookie evokes the notions of acidity, I'll hasten to say this is really not the case here. The sourdough starter is first mixed with water and rye flour to form such a pre-ferment that leaves no traces of acidity in the cookie dough.

For the leaven (pre-ferment)

20 g sourdough starter
50 g very warm water (40 C)
70 g rye flour

For the cookie dough

140 g leaven (pre-ferment)
2 large eggs
60 g maple syrup
½ teaspoon baking soda
1/8 teaspoon table salt
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
480 g good-quality nut butter of choice (almond, cashew, hazelnut, etc)
120 g unrefined cane sugar
1 vanilla bean, seeds only
30 g rolled oats

To make the leaven (pre-ferment):

Eight hours before making the cookies, mix together the starter and water in a medium non-reactive bowl (wooden, plastic or stainless steel). Add the rye flour, mix with your hand until hydrated and stiff then cover with plastic. Leave to ferment at room temperature. Once it's puffy and smelling of honeyed fruit, you can mix it into the dough or keep refrigerated up to several days before using.

To make the cookie dough:

Preheat the oven to 175 C (350 F). Add the eggs and maple syrup to the leaven and mix well with your hand. The mixture will look split, but it will come together once the remaining ingredients have been added. Sprinkle the baking soda, salt, cinnamon and nutmeg over the top, stir to incorporate. Mash in the nut butter, sugar and vanilla seeds, and then fold in the oats. If the dough feels a little runny, refrigerate it for about an hour.

Form the dough, about a teaspoon's worth, into small balls, and place onto a parchment-lined baking sheet. Don't overcrowd it, bake about 12-15 cookies at a time. (At this point you can also refrigerate the dough, covered with plastic, for up to two days.) Using a fork, press the balls gently to flatten into 4-cm disks. Dip your fork in (rye) flour before each cookie to prevent it from sticking to the dough.

Bake for 7 to 8 minutes, rotating the sheet halfway through, until the edges just begin to appear firm. Do not overbake. Let cool on a wire rack. These will keep well in an airtight container at room temperature for 4 to 5 days.

31 October 2016

Quite near

Downstairs a drama is unfolding.


In my bedroom there is a mosquito on the window, it makes thumping sounds as it runs into the glass, in angular curves, like the ones on a cardiogram, moves from one corner to the next. I'm in bed, arms under a pillow, and I'm watching it. There is not much choice for the mosquito to go elsewhere, the window is closed. I'd give it a moment before it will sense there is warm blood on the pillow, an easy reach. The sky is all grey, thick grey, it makes the mosquito look grey too.

A man with a pistol walks out of the hallway, starts to pace in front of the building.

The wine last night has left me with the disinclination to get out of bed too early. It was a good red, too good to stop at a glass. I baked a loaf of Russian rye and there were well-aged Dutch farmer's cheese, butter, a couple of soft-boiled eggs that trod on the edge of hard, and the remnants of an OK, store-bought roast chicken. We both agreed we could have made a better chicken ourselves, but we'd been too hungry to wait I suppose. Anyway, all that was dinner, and it was delicious. We had it on the floor, with the balcony door open, 'a picnic'. 


Downstairs police cars are everywhere, a security cordon around the entrance. The man has fired the pistol. Sirens break through the glass, come to a halt quite near. I wonder what may be wrong, eyes tracking the mosquito's ups and downs along the window frame.

The phone buzzes, but it's so far away, on the computer desk. The thought of getting up and out from under the warm blanket isn't so agreeable right now, it's my free day after six days of work. I'll get out of bed when the mosquito has finally reached me, I'm thinking. The phone buzzes again, makes me curious. I'm now willing the mosquito to finally get close enough to be annoying, so I have a good reason to make a move myself. Now it starts ringing. I'm getting up.

It's 12 p.m. on the phone clock, plus two messages and a missed call from Anthony. There is a shooting right in front of our building, says one, and a link to a Dutch news site in the other. I stare at the phone screen, make out that at least no one is injured.

I sit back down on the bed to call back Anthony. We exchange a few incredulous can-you-believe-its. After I hang up I reach for a newspaper by the bed and swat at the mosquito. Got him. Then I open the window and go to the kitchen. I set the kettle on and as I wait I cut a thick slice of the rye bread from last night to go with my coffee. I'll spread honey on it now. It's my favourite most comforting Russian bread -- Borodynsky.

Borodynsky Bread

Adapted from Bread Matters, by Andrew Whitley
Makes 1 large sandwich loaf


This is a beautiful bread: hearty, moist, dark, dense, intensely sour and flavoured with coriander seeds. Somebody I know even compared it to beer, something to do with the floral coriander seeds. It's certainly the most consumed bread in Russia, I grew up on it. Some time ago a great idea descended on me to make my own Borodynsky. Now I have a tub with rye sourdough starter in the fridge, I'm starting to think of it as a pet, I only need to name it. Alriiiiight. 


The process is really straightforward. You need the aforementioned rye sourdough starter that will require four days to fully come to life. Then you make a production sourdough, which is going to be more active than the starter itself, and which will be used, as the name suggests, for the production of the bread. And then you make the main dough. Frankly, it's almost a one-bowl operation, save for a tub and a loaf tin.

For the rye sourdough starter

100 g dark rye flour
200 g very warm water (40 C)


For the production sourdough

100 g rye sourdough starter
300 g dark rye flour
600 g very warm water (40 C)

For the dough

540 g production sourdough (the rest can be mixed into the sourdough starter as a “feed”)
460 g dark rye flour
10 g fine sea salt
40 g unsulphured molasses
180 g warm water
2 teaspoons whole coriander seeds, divided use


To make the rye sourdough starter:

On day 1 mix 25 g of dark rye flour with 50 g of warm water in a large jar or a plastic tub with a lid. Keep out of the fridge. On day 2,3,4 continue adding another 25 g of dark rye flour and 50 g of warm water. The starter will get a little bubbly, and that's of course a very good thing. After the last feeding let the starter ferment for another 24 hours out of the fridge before moving on to the next step to make the production sourdough.

To make the production sourdough:

Mix 100 g of the rye sourdough starter with the dark rye flour and warm water in a large plastic tub. The rest of the rye sourdough starter can be stored in the fridge, and fed with 25 g of dark rye flour and 50 g of warm water once every 2-3 days, and at least 24 hours ahead of your next Borodynsky loaf.

Let the production starter ferment, out of the fridge and for about 12 hours. Place a bowl underneath the tub in the (likely) event the production starter overflows; it will get very bubbly.

To make the dough:

Thoroughly oil a bread loaf tin about 23 x 13 cm. Sprinkle 1 teaspoon of slightly crushed coriander seeds over the bottom of the tin.

In a large bowl, mix all the ingredients together. It will be a very sticky mass. Wet your hands and place the mixture in the tin. Even it out, cover loosely (a clean plastic bag works well) and leave to prove until the dough has increased in size by about one third. This can take up to 4-5 hours.

Preheat the oven to 220 C. When the dough is ready, sprinkle another teaspoon of lightly crushed coriander seeds over the top. Bake for 10 minutes, then turn the oven down to 200 C and bake for further 40 minutes.

Remove from the oven and let rest for 5-10 minutes before turning out onto a wire rack. If necessary, run a sharp knife along the sides of the tin to ease the bread out. Cool completely before storing (wrapped in cling film). Borodynsky is best the day after baking.

30 September 2016

So many more

It starts with an unusual sound – I would have easily mistaken it for a candy foil wrapper.

– How strange, Anthony says looking out of the window across the narrow courtyard.

– What's that? 

– I can see the curtains moving about in the apartment across, and last night I saw the shadows and heard the clanking of the cutlery, but I can't see who lives there, the actual figures, not the outlines, you know. Such a difference from Amsterdam.

– It's an Eastern European thing, I contemplate from the kitchen table where I laid out a couple postcards we picked up at a souvenir shop in the old town last night. Your coffee is getting cold, I say then pour fresh boiling water into another cup and drown in it two full teaspoons of instant coffee for myself. The taste isn't that great but it does the job, hurries up the brain alright. I take a sip and think of what to write on the postcard we are going to post to ourselves.

Next to my coffee I have fresh prune plums, we bought a kilo at the market nearby yesterday. I pick one from a bowl on the kitchen counter, it's small and roughly oval, I look at it before biting into. I expect its thin purple skin to snap under my teeth which will then go on to sink into the juicy glass-green flesh. I'm right about that. I take another, this one looks like a misshapen rain drop. I'll probably end up eating at least a dozen now.
Every fruit street vendor in this beautiful city sells fresh Italian prune plums this time of year, I write down on the back of the postcard. On the front there are three connected images of winding cobbled alleys of the Old Town, and București below them. 

– How is it looking with the rain? Still sounds like a foil candy wrapper? I ask. The phone says it's thunderstorms and showers for the next hour or so, and that the temperatures are going to drop. Maybe we should get a cheap umbrella, and a pair of sweaters, one for each?

I push the chair back, stand up and move towards the window to bring Anthony his coffee. Sugar? He nods towards the cup. Affirmative, I say leaning over the window sill. A mix between a rustle and a swish, the rain drops remain soft and rare. Maybe the forecast is wrong, I suggest. I take a deep breath and notice how the air in the courtyard simultaneously smells of laundry detergent and wallpaper paste, or maybe that's nail polish remover. 

– How is the postcard coming along? Anthony asks between his coffee sips. I congratulated Bucharest with its abundant offerings of purple Italian plums, I say and we both chuckle. And in the next sentence, I'm thinking, we could congratulate ourselves with our wedding anniversary today.

Four years down already? We wish you so many more! With love from Bucharest --

Purple Plum Torte
Adapted from The New York Times
Yield: 8 servings

I'm happy to report that I did track down Italian prune plums back in Amsterdam (last weekend at the farmers' market at Noordermarkt, to be helpful). In Dutch they are known as kwetsen, and it's their season now, and this is the cake for them (and for you if you love plums). I must say the recipe looks too simple to believe it's special. But it is! It's about the plums, only them, how jammy and pleasantly sharp they get after they bake and how it's such a nice contrast to the sweeter crumb, and how, sitting atop the said nutty whole wheat crumb, they gather under themselves pools of their own bright juices to slowly release them the next day down the aforementioned buttery crumb. Purple Italian prune plums (they are sweet and tart at once) are meant for this torte, but if none are around, other purple plums will do too.
Anthony says this torte is "10 out of 10". Sweet but not too much, a little sour (because of the plums), nutty (because of the whole wheat flour), and light so you keep wanting to eat it – “it's got it all figured out”.

120 g cane sugar
115 g unsalted butter, softened
130 g whole wheat flour
1 teaspoon baking powder (4 g) baking powder
¼ teaspoon table salt
2 large eggs
15-20 Italian prune plums, pitted and halved
½-1 teaspoon ground cinnamon (depends on how much you like cinnamon)
1-2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

Heat the oven to 175 C (350 F). Line the bottom of a 22-cm (9-inch) or 24-cm (10-inch) springform pan with parchment paper and lightly grease the sides.

Combine the prune halves with the cinnamon in a bowl and set aside. To cut down on washing up, you  perhaps may want to sprinkle the cardamom over the fruit at a later stage in the process once the plum halves are arranged over the batter, but tossing the fruit in spice first allows for a nice and even coating.

In another bowl cream the sugar and butter with an electric mixer until fluffy and cappuccino in color. Add the eggs, one at a time, then the flour, baking powder and salt, and beat well. Scrape down the sides of the bowl; the batter will be rather thick.

Spoon the batter into the prepared baking form and smooth the top. Place the plum halves skin side up all over the batter, it should be all covered. Sprinkle with the lemon juice and a tablespoon or two more of cane sugar, depending on the sweetness of the fruit.

Bake until the top is golden and a toothpick inserted into the a centre part of the torte comes out clean of batter, about 45-50 minutes. Let it sit for ten minutes then remove from the pan. Cool on a rack and keep covered in clingfilm. It get even better on the next day after the plum juices has further permeated into the crumb. Keeps well for up to three days.

31 August 2016

That was great

I turn the oven switch on, a white round ribbed knob with my fingerprints of harissa and olive oil, from yesterday, on it. Alright. It's going to get hot, I holler to Anthony who is in the bathroom, under the water. Slowly the temperature inside the apartment rises to a hundred degrees, possibly more. A million of sticky, sultry, sexy centigrades that will loop the apartment to penetrate every surface, from the cotton blanket to the metal sink, and then fall out on the skin in the form of sweat. This last week it finally started to feel like real summer to me but everyone you ask is grumpy and inconvenienced. Too hot, they'll say, and wipe their heated foreheads with the back of their wrists. Some will point to the skin peeling off their pink shoulders, as if to say, See? 

– Even the coldest shower setting has felt like it's at room temperature. Do you really have to do this now? Anthony asks, out of the shower.

– Yes, I do. I really want to cook dinner for you now. It's our first free day together like, what, in a month? I say and extend a can of chilled beer. Besides it'll be quick, I just want to soften these apricots, no more, in fact they are ready. See?

I pull a tray with them out of the oven, a little juice oozes from each half. The room is filling with the smell of sauteing onions.

– Alright, alright, but whatchya making? Anthony asks and opens the beer can. Click.

– You'll love this – giant couscous with apricots and harissa. I made it for myself a few times before, a great dish.

– I love tiny couscous, and not in the least for its fluffiness. Is this one going to be fluffy?

– No, it's going to be chewy and soft and spicy and flavourful, I say. Then add, You'll smack your lips, trust me.

Anthony walks around the kitchen table, turns on the ceiling fan and picks up the big glass jar with giant couscous for inspection. Mo-gra-bia, he reads out load the name on the label, breaks it up in syllables. Never heard of it. Where did you get it?

– A Middle Eastern store in town.

I pour the cooked couscous into the prepared sieve over the sink, run cold water through it.

– If you could just mix these two together, the dinner will be ready in a minute, I say and point at the harissa and olive oil lined up along the cutting board.

The recipe is meant to yield four servings, but at the end we push each other's forks out of the bowl for the last bits – the sweet-tart apricot threads, the starchy lone couscous pearls, the left-out deeply savoury soft onion dice, the smears of harissa paste on the bottom of the bowl.

– That was great, thank you, Anthony says and pulls my silk skirt off the back of a chair to hand to me. Let's get out for ice-cream now.

I dump the dishes in the sink, check if I turned the oven off. I dab a little lipstick on my lips with my fingertips, notice how it still smells of garlic and cardamom and how the lips are still burning from harissa.

We shut the door behind us, only leave the ceiling fan on.

Pearl Couscous with Apricots and Harissa

Adapted from TheKitchen Diaries II, by Nigel Slater
Serves 2 (as a main) or 4 (as a side dish)


Unless you have apricots so ripe they practically ooze themselves inside out, I'd suggest to briefly roast them to get them juicier and more fragrant of the themselves. Not too long, somewhere around fifteen minutes in a hot oven.

I found the couscous needs plenty of liquid to cook and not get stuck to the saucepan's bottom, so I upped the amount of stock (water) from 300 ml, as per the original recipe, to 750 ml. (I thought to mention this in case you own The Kitchen Diaries II, look up the recipe and question my choices.)

For the couscous

750 ml vegetable stock or water
150 g pearl couscous
2 Tablespoons olive oil, plus a little extra
1 Tablespoon fresh lemon juice
2 teaspoons harissa paste
a small bunch of flat-leaf parsley


For the apricot dressing

3 Tablespoons olive oil
2 small onions, finely diced
5 pods of green cardamom, lightly crushed
1 clove of garlic, finely chopped
finely grated zest from 1 small lemon
250 g ripe apricots, halved and stoned (see headnote)


To prepare the couscous, bring the stock or water to the boil in a large saucepan. Pour in the couscous, bring back to the boil and salt the liquid very well, as you might for pasta. Simmer for 15-20 minutes, until the couscous is tender but still with a little bite. Drain in a colander and run cold water through it to cool it quickly. Tip it into a bowl and toss gently with a few drops of olive oil to stop it sticking together.

In the meantime, warm the olive oil in a pan over medium heat. Add the onions and saute them gently till soft and lightly golden (don't brown it). Stir in the garlic, cardamom pods and lemon zest, and cook until the garlic has softened. Cut the (roasted) apricot halves in two or three and add to the onions.

Stir the warm onion and apricot mixture into the couscous, then stir in the lemon juice. Put the harissa paste in a small bowl, stir in the 2 Tablespoons of olive oil, then fold gently into the apricots and couscous. Taste and add salt if needed. Remove the leaves from the parsley, chop them roughly and stir into the couscous.

31 July 2016

The right thing

I'm going to fucking need the ambulance – I want to pick up the phone and shout into the receiver. I'm having a crushing, no – squeezing, no – stabbing, no – burning sensation somewhere there, an inch deep under the ribcage, on the left of the sternum. I take a breath and it gets worse, a sharp pain shoots up my neck and into my shoulders, so I try not to breathe that much. As I wipe my cheeks dry there is a black residue on my fingertips, the mascara. I can't see, but I'm sure I must look like shit right now. Please fucking help me, I want to say.

That's stupid, so stupid to have wound up like this. I was going to unlock my bike, but I need a moment. I pull my bag off the shoulder, put it down on the pavement and place myself next to it. I pick my phone from the bottom of the bag and look at the black screen like it's a mirror. I do look like shit: the eyelids thicker than usual, especially the lower ones, puffy cheeks under the eyes, the mascara leaks. I search my bag for a napkin—the keys, wallet, lipstick, yes, a bruised ripe peach, a crumpled post-it with a grocery list (three exclamation marks next to 'cherries'), but there is no damn napkin today. I swipe the phone screen and dial Anthony. I tell him I'm sitting on the pavement, tell him about the chest pains. Take a deep breath, he says—but it feels there is a sharp fish bone stuck in my throat, I say back.
 
You are changing jobs, he says, with a very calm voice, and it's a lot of emotions, coping, accepting, and releasing, but you did the right thing. But did I? I ask.  

It's been a long while, Anya, seven whole years. Of course you did, of course. You needed to leave, to go and learn a new thing, you know it.

I baked and shaped my last breads there today, you know, I say and pull out of my bag an oval loaf of sourdough bread -- a batard -- I took from work. It smells sour and creamy, the time-old and visceral smell of good bread, and that's so very reassuring at the moment. The smell of these breads has always reminded me of my grandmother's well-used wooden salt-box (designed as Baba Yaga, the forest-dwelling deformed witch from Slavic folklore; this one was with a mortar, that's where the salt went). It had often been a centerpiece on my grandmother's dining table. I've got a baguette for you as well, your all-time favorite, I say with a stress on 'your'.

That's nice, thank you. But do something nice for yourself too today.

Something nice. I've been meaning to make a cherry clafoutis for a while now, maybe I should do that, I only need to pick up fresh cherries for it, yes, I'll do that. I'll get a kilo of fresh fat near-black staining cherries for a clafoutis. Only I won't make it. I'll eat the full kilo, berry by berry. Because fresh cherries are great like that. They make me very happy.


OK, I guess I'll get going, I say, wipe my cheeks dry again and get off the phone. I peel myself off the pavement, bump into a tourist with a camera a few steps away from my bike. Pardon me. Deep in my skull a headache is unfolding, the dull type. I take a deeper breath, still no better, it only pushes more salt out of my eyes. I put my sunglasses on, so no one sees the tears, unlock the bike to ride off.
 
Quick Flapjack Cherry Granola  
Adapted from Stirring Slowly, by Georgina Hayden
Serves 4


Since I don't trust myself around fresh cherries, I don't bother anymore to try and cook with them, at least for this summer. Dried cherries, however, are no problem, I can manage that. 

Why are you making a pancake granola? Anthony raised his eyebrows on a recent morning. Before I also didn't know that there is such a thing as a British flapjack and that it's not a thick pancake. The British understand flapjack as a chewy oatmeal cookie bar, and that's what the recipe in question refers to – good, chewy, toasty, crispy oats.


I tinkered a little bit with the recipe and came up with a formula (not that much different from the original) I'm particularly fond of. No cinnamon, but lemon zest; no vanilla extract but fresh vanilla bean seeds; runny honey with a neutral taste -- acacia honey works best here. The result is a pure, mild, well-rounded oatmeal flavour, a little savory, not undone by sweet dried fruit, with a few fresh and singing flavours (lemon zest and cherries) in between. 
 
1 Tablespoon flavourless oil
¼ teaspoon fresh vanilla bean seeds (from about half a vanilla bean)
125 grams rolled oats
grated zest of a small lemon (about ½ teaspoon)
50 grams dried cherries
50 grams dried figs
2 Tablespoons mixed seeds (pumpkin, sesame, poppy, sunflower) 
¼ teaspoon coarse sea salt, such as fleur de sel
3 Tablespoon light neutral runny honey, such as acacia honey

Combine the oil, vanilla seends and lemon zest together in a medium-size non-stick pan with a good splash of water (4-5 Tablespoons) and place it on a medium heat. Scatter in the oats and stir it all together. Put the matching lid on and leave the oats to cook for 5 minutes, stirring often. While the oats are cooking, roughly chop the dried cherries and cut the figs into similar-size pieces.

When the oats have softened, remove the lid and add the seeds to the pan. Turn the heat up a little and toasts the oats and seeds for 2 minutes. Sprinkle in the salt and add the chopped dried fruit. Toss everything together and drizzle over the honey. Mix well and cook for 2-3 minutes until you have a golden chewy granola.

Leave in the pan for a few minutes to cool, then spoon over fresh berries and yogurt or leave to cool completely, and store in an airtight container until needed. It will surely keep well for up to 3 days, this much I can tell, maybe even longer, but it never lasts with me that long.

Variation

For a much brighter, sharper taste, use 1 Tablespoon pomegranate molasses to 2 Tablespoons runny honey instead of lemon zest. I must say I can't quite decide which version I like better. Depends on the day, I guess.

30 June 2016

That is a must

“Wait, wait, I still can't believe it – and the phone hasn't rung before that in years?” I shout, incredulous, over the jet engines, stressing and drawing out 'e' in 'years'.

We are close to a runway, planes are taking off. I squint then raise my eyebrows and repeat what I just said, but my pitch is no rival to the taxying jumbo jet, so I wait before Anthony can hear me again. On the far side of the runway a plane lifts itself off ground, the jumbo jet is next.

“My father said it hasn't, no. Not a single phone call, not a single text message for the last eight years, since his retirement from the police force in fact – it used to be his work phone.” We are cycling side by side, towards a course of tall trees down the narrow road. The plan is to drop the bikes somewhere there, Anthony stretches out his arm to point, and watch the planes sprawled out on the grass in the cooling shadow. In the event of peckish-ness we've got a bag each of tortilla and ridged potato chips.

We had lunch at home before the ride: thick unapologetic sourdough toasts with bean confit, impossibly good and addictive. I placed the beans on top of the toast and smashed them gently with a fork. The best part is never the soft plump fragrant beans but the richly flavoured (garlic and herbs) olive oil that has to be mopped up off the plate, and then from the bottom of the pot, that is a must, it's non-negotiable. When we reach for the pot with the remaining beans, more bread is required, more hunks of moist and yielding sourdough crumb. We killed that sourdough loaf (a boule), the kitchen table surface is covered with the oily fingerprints and the floor with the crust shards, these prick the skin under my feet as I walk towards the sink to wash my hands and mouth.

There is a cold six-pack of Heineken with us in the rucksack, in the event of thirst.

I press my hands to my ears and the jumbo jet's roaring softens and sounds like seashells. A magic trick – physics. Airborne, it starts to look like a white ink dot.

“But when did you hear about this?”

A tractor chugs by, turns down a farmer's field across the road.

“We talked last night when you were asleep.”

We have recently gotten back from a two-week trip to Southern Russia. Where my mother filled our plates with the tenderest of cutlets and the tastiest of stuffed bell peppers, my father poured us birch sap vodka, my uncle took us well past midnight to a roadside cafe where they caught and grilled for us a whole carp, my grandmother made for us her signature Don Cossacks fish stew and fluffiest piroshki with stewed cabbage or chicken mince. There, from my old room, Anthony skyped with his parents in the States. And then his father's unused phone rang.

He couldn't tell if the woman on the phone was Russian, but she did sound Eastern European, he said.”

And what did she say?” I ask and follow the jumbo jet with my right eye, then with the left.

She wanted to know if he worked for an American company or the government. Hu aar u, she said. I'm Ron, said my dad.”

Bean Confit
Source: “The Temporary Vegetarian” series, from The New York Times
Yield: 2–4 servings

As far as which fresh herbs to use, it's completely to taste and adaptable. Originally, these are rosemary and oregano, but I like to sub rosemary for thyme, for instance, and when I had neither thyme nor oregano but only basil in my fridge, I used basil then and it was great.

But what beans to use, it's strict. Not as in what sort of white bean matters (that's also adaptable and a subject of taste), but how old they are. Old dried beans will take forever to cook, salt or no salt. If possible, use Rancho Gordo dried beans, those are the best (but sadly, not available in Europe, which is why I sometimes ask Ron for a shipment.)

100 g (½ cup) dried cranberry beans, Italian white beans, or other white beans
1 sprig thyme
1 sprig oregano
2 cloves garlic
375 ml (1 ½ cups) extra virgin olive oil

Soak the beans overnight in plenty of cold water.

In a heavy ovenproof pot, combine the beans and 1 liter (4 cups) fresh cold water. Put over high heat and bring to a boil, then scale the heat down to low. Simmer gently, uncovered, until moderately tender, 30-45 minutes, or longer if needed (beans can take from one to three hours to cook). Do not boil or stir to prevent the beans from breaking into pieces or the bean skins to separate from the beans. As the beans cook, check periodically for water, adding hot water as necessary to keep the beans covered with liquid by at least a fingertip.

Preheat the oven to 150 degrees Celsius (300 degrees Fahrenheit). Drain the beans, then return them to the pot and add the fresh herbs and garlic. Cover with the oil. Place in the oven, and cook uncovered until the beans are completely tender, 30 to 45 minutes. Remove from the oven, let cool and season to taste with salt. For best flavour, allow to cool to room temperature, then cover and refrigerate overnight or up to seven days.

To serve, gently reheat the beans and serve with a slotted spoon, leaving the oil in the pot (reuse the flavoured oil for various dressings or a vinaigrette, OR mop it up with good bread!). Serve warm, and crushed, on top of toast, or mixed in with rice or farro.