Or: the Trials and Tribulations of an Uptown Girl with a Boyfriend from Old Europe

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Location: Basel, Switzerland

Friday, January 26, 2007

Let me eat cake!

Today, as everyone in the press has been pointing out, is the coldest on record in two years. Including the wind chill, this morning it clocked in well below 0 degrees Fahrenheit. This comes after weeks of unseasonable warmth: at the beginning of the month, I was able to go for a bike ride in shorts and a short-sleeved jersey! So, even though winter is my favorite season, right now I'm happy to remain ensconced in my apartment, organizing my papers and consuming the last of the amazing chocolate mousse cake that my sister dropped off Monday night for my birthday. For someone who can't eat wheat, she can sure pick 'em.

I spent much of the day on the phone, changing my address of record to Switzerland. People's reactions were quite varied. The Indian operators couldn't have cared less. What's more, they were easily confused. "What?" one asked. "The street number comes after the street name?" The German tendency to mash a bunch of normal words into one gigantic superword didn't help: a second representative was panting by the time she spelled my address back to me. (I have no idea why she didn't take a breath in between letters.)

But another lady with a lilting Southern accent was genuinely thrilled for me. She'd spent time in Italy when she was fifteen, she told me, and dreamed of going back. We compared notes on our respective countries. Talking with her was almost like chatting with a friend, and it made me positively cheerful about the imminent move.

Until I got off the phone and surveyed my apartment again, and that now-familiar lump of dread settled back into the pit of my stomach. I've been walking back and forth from the living room to the bedroom, touching favorite things and mentally preparing myself for the possibility that I'll never see any of it again. Shipping overseas does have risks, as the recent windstorm that lashed Europe proved. At least one container ship, I read, was wrecked in the English Channel, where beachcombers had a field day picking up bottles of perfume and engine parts. Yes, that's what insurance is for, but when it costs 2.5% of declared value, I simply can't cover everything. Which is why I've only listed the most valuable and breakable stuff: furniture, artwork, wine glasses and dishes, etc. If my ship really does go down, I'm not going to be happy.

Funny, isn't it? I never considered myself materialistic, and yet I'm so attached to my belongings! Filling out the insurance valuation form was another reality check. If you saw the way I dress, you'd never guess how much money I've spent over the years on clothes and shoes. Note to self: Un-Swiss Miss if you're going to spend like that, you might as well stop looking like a slob.

The good news is, I'm almost done cleaning out my pantry. I've even had to go grocery shopping! For lunch I made a delicious pasta out of ingredients I had lying around. (A triumph, since I thought I had nothing meal-worthy in the house.) It was quite simple:

Cappellini with Mushrooms, Spinach, and Mozzarella

2 cloves garlic, finely minced
4 oz mushrooms, sliced
1/2 cup frozen spinach
2 oz whole-milk mozzarella, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
1/8 package of angel's hair pasta
1/2 tsp red pepper flakes
1 tsp balsamic vinegar
olive oil
salt and pepper to taste

Put a pot of water on the stove to boil.

In the meantime, sauté garlic in olive oil over medium heat until fragrant, but not yet golden. Add mushrooms and cook until softened, sprinkling a few spoonfuls of water over, as necessary, to keep the mushrooms from sticking to the pan. Toss in spinach, balsamic vinegar, and red pepper flakes. Salt and pepper to taste. Turn heat to low and set aside.

Cook pasta in boiling salted water and drain. Toss pasta with spinach-mushroom mixture and mozzarella cubes. Adjust salt and pepper as necessary, drizzle with good-quality olive oil, and serve.

Makes enough for 1 hungry Un-Swiss Miss or 2 normal people.

Yes, it's filled with garlicky goodness, but trust me: I'm not kissing anyone tonight.

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Thursday, January 11, 2007

It's not fondue, but...

I've always said I'll try anything once. So this evening, with Swissy Pie egging me on over the phone, I gave the recipe for raw chocolate pudding a whirl - literally. The jujubes I'd planned to use turned out to have gone bad, so I skipped that ingredient, as well as the optional nut butter.

Making the recipe took little more than five minutes; blending was the most time-consuming part. In the end I had a couple of cups of thick, glossy stuff.

Was it disgusting? No, the results definitely exceeded my expectations, and over the course of a few hours, I confess I ate the whole batch. (Not a great idea, incidentally, because of the high fiber content.) Still, I have no regrets about making it.

But did it taste like chocolate pudding? Er... Kind of. The cocoa conjured up vague intimations of dark chocolate, and the pudding had a nice silky texture. But I couldn't quite ignore the figgy overtones, and the pudding lacked the depth and richness of a true chocolate pudding.

Including nut butter probably would have helped with the richness, but I really doubt that dates would've neutralized the sour-sweet flavor of the figs. I may experiment with using raisins, instead, to see if that gives a more muted flavor. If not, no problem - grapes go quite well with chocolate, in any case.

So would I recommend this to a friend? Sure, under certain conditions. It's a good substitute for someone who's lactose intolerant, or who loves chocolate covered figs. It's great for using up dried fruit in a novel way. It's a perfect dessert for entertaining friends who are raw vegans. And it would be fun as part of a creative meal constructed in the spirit of Ferran Adria or Wylie Dufresne.

But for anyone looking for a big bowl of comfort food, my advice is to look elsewhere.


Wednesday, January 10, 2007

How would you like your chocolate cooked?

It can be a lot of fun to search for recipes by ingredient; one comes across the strangest stuff. For example, under "dried figs" I found this concotion on Epicurious:

Raw Chocolate Pudding

10 fresh dates, pitted and cut in quarters
10 dried figs, stems removed, cut in quarters
2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
2 tablespoons raw nut butter (optional)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 - 2 cups filtered water

Place the dates, figs, cocoa, nut butter (if using), vanilla, and 1 cup of water in a blender and pulse several times until the fruits begin to break down.

Blend until smooth and creamy, slowly adding water as needed for desired consistency.

Makes 2 1/2 cups.

Dare I make it? It sounds disgusting, but there's a single (suspiciously) glowing review. Even if the review is real, I'm going to be omitting nut butter and substituting jujubes for the dates, so this pudding might turn out disgusting anyway. Stay tuned for the decision...

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Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Three down... a gazillion to go

Heather's comment to my last post reminded me of a cookie recipe that I found on Epicurious a long time ago, when my sister was first diagnosed with her wheat allergy. With peanut butter and chocolate chip as the main ingredients, I suppose it's hard to go wrong. They're so tasty and easy that I used to make them just for myself.

Here's the recipe as originally written. Since my peanut butter's pretty sweet on its own, I usually cut the sugar in half.

Flourless Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip Cookies
1 cup super chunky peanut butter
1 cup (packed) golden brown sugar
1 large egg
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup miniature semisweet chocolate chips (about 6 ounces)

Preheat oven to 350°F. Mix first 5 ingredients in medium bowl. Mix in chocolate chips. Using moistened hands, form generous 1 tablespoon dough for each cookie into ball. Arrange on 2 ungreased baking sheets, spacing 2 inches apart. Bake cookies until puffed, golden on bottom and still soft to touch in center, about 12 minutes. Cool on sheets 5 minutes. Transfer to racks; cool completely.

Makes about 24 cookies.

Incidentally, I think I'll be taking over a bottle of vanilla extract in my suitcase. When I was there last, I had trouble finding it in the grocery stores. I came across imitation vanilla, vanilla sugar, and vanilla beans, but no pure extract.

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Friday, January 05, 2007

Get out of the kitchen

With my imminent move, I’m starting to clear out my pantry. It’s like clearing out the refrigerator before going on vacation. In the case of vacation, the goal is to use up food that will spoil. In the case of the move, it’s to use up as much food as possible, period.

Some things will be easy to get rid of. I can think of hundreds of recipes involving basic supplies like chicken broth, dried pasta, canned salmon, and frozen peas. Others will be more difficult. What do I do with a pound of rice flour or two bags of dried jujubes? Still others are downright impossible. There’s no way I’m going to eat two jars of peanut butter, for example. And how will I use up red bean paste when I can’t stand the stuff?

Then there's the packrat part of me that resists using up the exotic ingredients, because God only knows whether I'll be able to find them again in Switzerland.

Well, I’ll give it my best shot. I’m including the list of supplies below, in the hopes that someone will share recipe ideas, particularly for the more esoteric stuff.

Basics in excessive quantities

  • peanut butter
  • basalmic vinegar
  • semi-sweet chocolate
  • honey
  • at least 5 types of tea
  • bread crumbs
  • raw wheat germ
  • barley
  • golden raisins
  • crystallized ginger
  • dried figs
  • cocoa powder
  • sunflower seeds
  • corn syrup
  • Dijon mustard
  • Miracle whip
  • anchovies
  • artichoke hearts
  • vanilla protein powder
  • various alcohols (vodka, gin, rum, port, and wine)
Other basics
  • canned salmon
  • canned tomatoes
  • canned mango
  • farfalle
  • capellini
  • maple syrup
  • all-purpose flour
  • confectioners sugar
  • brown sugar (hardened into a lump)
  • dried chickpeas
  • frozen peas
  • frozen scallions
  • frozen bananas
  • polenta
  • active dry yeast
  • chicken broth
  • espresso
  • homemade spicy bourbon barbecue sauce
Ethnic ingredients
  • s’chüg (a spicy Middle Eastern paste similar to harissa)
  • nori (seaweed)
  • red miso
  • tofu
  • rice vinegar
  • red bean paste
  • rice flour
  • dried adzuki beans
  • dried jujubes (Chinese red dates)
  • Chinese dried noodles
  • Thai garlic-chili sauce
  • coconut milk
  • mango chutney
  • cilantro chutney
  • yellow lentils
  • guava paste
  • masa harina

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Wednesday, January 03, 2007

In Beverley Hills, they don't throw their garbage away...

...they make it into television shows.
Woody Allen

It's been a long time since I've posted. Somehow, while I was in Basel, I never found the time. I wasn't particularly busy. Cleaning and grocery shopping could be stretched to occupy an hour each; job hunting took perhaps two; exploring the city on foot got old after about a week. Instead, I was waylaid by that evilest of human inventions: the television.

Despite the fact that there are only three English channels, I had the TV on quite a bit. Not because the programming was good (though I admit I developed an addiction to The Good Life on BBC Prime). I simply needed to hear noise. The noise of people speaking English was just a bonus: at times, when I really couldn't stand whatever was on (ahem, Jamie Oliver), I switched over to the unintelligible babble of one of the German channels. (Swissy Pie, I believe, neglected to program in the French ones, which I might have actually understood.)

That first week, the TV probably saved my sanity. Whether it's because I'm used to the bustle of New York, or because there are few cars in the city center, I found even the main streets of Basel to be eerily quiet. Since we're on a side street, and our bunker-like building houses all of 8 other families, our apartment is even more... stifled. More often than not, the only people I spoke with on a given day were the cashier at the grocery store and Swissy Pie.

Fortunately, I'm introverted by nature, so once I adjusted, I didn't particularly mind being alone. But there were consequences. As my inclination toward spoken communication dwindled, so did my interest in written communication. The English language books at Thalia, the big bookstore in Basel, failed to interest me. It was far easier to sit passively on the couch and allow mediocre British real estate shows to lull me into a coma. (Seriously, about 80% of the shows must have been about finding a new house, selling an old one, or redecorating!)

Still, there were times when I felt lonely instead of merely alone. Like I didn't exist. One day, at a nearby Coop, the butcher ignored me while I stood patiently in front of him, waiting to order pork chops. He helped everyone else first. I don't know why. Perhaps he was worried my German would be unintelligible. Perhaps he didn't like Asians. As I didn't really want to tell him he was an ass when I might encounter him again, I gave him my most disdainful glare before accepting my package and going on my way. Another time, after it had been raining for days on end, I thought I'd go mad from being cooped up inside for so long. I kept checking my contacts on Skype, even though I knew most of my friends weren't awake yet. Thank goodness for one of my college roommates, who now lives in the Philippines. Though we only talked once, just seeing her little green checkmark lit up made me feel connected to the rest of the world.

At other times, I felt homesick, which shocked me. Even when I went away to college, homesickness had never afflicted me. But after the initial excitement of being in Switzerland wore off, it began to strike at unexpected moments: when I couldn't find cheddar for the macaroni and cheese I wanted to make for supper one night, or kale for soup, or dumpling wrappers at the Asian market; when I went to sleep, but simply couldn't get as comfortable as in my own cozy bed at home; when I had to wrestle Google into searching English-language sites instead of the default German ones.

But there were triumphs as well. I cooked a rabbit for the first time - and it was good. I managed to make bread using fresh yeast, which I'd never worked with before, and a metric measuring cup; and it actually turned out even better than in my own kitchen. I discovered a children's library near our apartment that contained tons of German and English-German dual-language books. I stopped getting lost every day.

Most importantly, I managed substantive conversations with not just one, but two people who spoke only German - Swiss German, at that. First, with the super for our building, who needed me to do a walk-through of the apartment with him. (Swissy Pie was always at work, so he'd been unable to take care of it himself.) While I went through and pointed out flaws so that we wouldn't be charged for damage at the end, he talked to me. About my neighbors, one of whom is apparently also American. About the building's shoddy construction - "Schweinemachen," I think he called it, which translated literally means pig-made. (The place is actually quite solid, but he was angry that the roof was leaking water all over the fourth floor.) About cars, which he considered unnecessary. He complimented me for biking and told me that he himself got around by motorcycle.

Obviously, he was making an effort to speak slowly, but I was pleasantly surprised how much I understood. (Pantomimes helped too.) Not only was I understanding, but I talked back as well. My responses would hardly win any rhetoric prizes, but at least I was speaking.

Then the morning after, someone with a very thick Swiss accent called, speaking very fast.

Er... entschuldigung?

(Improper response, anyway: I should have said, "Wie bitte?")

More gibberish. It was a bad moment, the aural equivalent of staring stupidly at a blank wall. I thought I'd have to call Swissy Pie at work to deal with it, and I wasn't even sure if he was around. But once the caller understood that I was a foreigner, he began speaking loudly and slowly, the way one might speak to a retarded person. (The way, incidentally, I see Americans speaking to tourists all the time. I'm sure I've done it myself.)

I didn't care, since I eventually managed to piece together the message. He worked for the builder; our super had called him about a problem with our apartment. I confirmed that one of the doors didn't shut properly, since it had been hung crooked in its frame. He wanted to come by to fix it that day. We settled on 2 pm.

I stayed in the apartment all morning for fear that I'd misunderstood him. (Perhaps he meant he'd come sometime before 2?) Also, I'd been in obsessive-compulsive Switzerland long enough that I wanted to clean. I kept seeing strands of my hair on the floor. How embarrassing! He might think that I was a bad housekeeper! (Which truth be told, I am.) But precisely one minute before 2, the doorbell rang. I hadn't made a mistake, after all. He came in, fixed the door, and left. No small talk (and no comments about the state of the rooms), but I felt a sense of accomplishment nonetheless.

After that, there were smaller victories. Trying to order a coffee filter at Migros but being told they didn't take orders - if it wasn't on the shelf, I was out of luck. Asking for directions in unfamiliar areas. Chatting with a neighbor about his new baby.

Then the Friday before I left, Swissy Pie and I sat in front of the TV, watching a German cooking show. And that night, to my delight, I understood almost everything.