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Best Food to Remember

The most formative year of my education was the year I went to the University of California’s center at the Facultad de Filosofía y Letras in Madrid.  It was there that I learned to speak and understand and DREAM in Spanish – I picked up a Spanish boyfriend and acquired a taste for true Spanish food.  No, not Mexican food, which is wonderful in its own right – SPANISH food.  Spain.

restaurante-y-tienda-lhardy_2199071This is a picture of one of the best restaurants in Madrid, Lhardy, on the Carrera de San Jerónimo; it’s been in existence since 1839.  Rich people and wanna-bes in 19th-century novels (and real life) were always sending for Lhardy take-out:  croquettes, pâte, fois gras… whether they could pay for it or not.  Eventually, of course, if they didn’t pay, Lhardy stopped accepting their orders.

I couldn’t afford Lhardy when I was 20 years old (and I hadn’t even  heard of  it until I read Benito Pérez Galdós’  nineteenth-century masterpiece, Fortunata y Jacinta).  But I did just fine eating a tremendous amount of one of the cheapest and most typical dishes in all of Spain:  tortilla de patatas.  Potato omelet.

1352438193_b043643ab9_mOf course tortilla can contain any number of ingredients besides potatoes:  peas, shrimp, asparagus, eggplant, ham, mushrooms, red peppers…   But the classic one is just potatoes, olive oil, salt and onion.  I watched my boyfriend’s mother make tortilla and learned how to do it – but she didn’t use onions.  It wasn’t till I remembered a description of a tortilla in a nineteenth-century novel that I started putting onion in mine.

I’ve seen many tortilla recipes; generally speaking, the more complicated and fussy it is, the further it will be from an authentic tortilla.  Try the recipe in Claudia Roden’s monumental  The Food of Spain.

I came home, started graduate school, got married and started teaching in Boston.  When I turned 30, one of my colleagues, María Paz, invited me over to lunch to celebrate my birthday.  She asked me what I wanted her to cook for me:  “Tortilla and flan and whatever else you like,” I responded immediately.

María Paz was from the southern Spanish city of Córdoba; I’d tasted her cooking before and knew it would be a good lunch.  It was.  And she taught me how to make something else I loved:  flan (caramel custard).  Now there are many kinds of flan, from all over the Spanish-speaking world:  orange flan, flan made with condensed milk, cheese flan, and so on.  But again, for me there is only the simple classic one, the one I remember from Spain and that María Paz taught me to make:  eggs, milk, vanilla and sugar (some of  it caramelized).


When I was a kid, I refused to touch custard.  It was supposed to be a dessert (I’m told my grandmother made wonderful custard), but it rhymed with “mustard,” which was certainly NOT a dessert.  How could it be any good?  It was not until I lived in Spain that I learned how delicately delicious it could be.  Maybe being a young adult instead of a kid had something to do with it.

I continue to make flan to this day.  Sometimes my family asks me if I want to order it when we go to a restaurant.  I sniff disdainfully and remind them that I don’t need to eat anybody else’s flan; mine is the best.

Other people agree.  My friend Nancy, a brilliant cook, tasted my flan at a family celebration and asked me for the recipe.  Flattered, I said of course and handed her my recipe book, open to the appropriate page.  As I turned away to continue cooking, she said, “Marti… I can’t read this.”  I turned back, and suddenly realized that it was written in María Paz’s handwriting – in Spanish, naturally.  No wonder Nancy couldn’t read it!

There are other delicious dishes that live on in my heart and on my palate - gazpacho andaluz, empanada, crema catalana – each with a story behind it that makes it memorable for a lifetime.  When you travel, be sure to notice what the people of the area eat, and try it yourself.  Sometimes people can’t believe you want to eat something as ordinary as their regular fare.  Sometimes you may not like it after you’ve had it.  But always give it a try.


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Two years ago in May, I went home to Maine for a visit.  With an eye toward brightening up my parents’ yard, I bought some flowers to plant.  Thinking they might also enjoy a freshly grown tomato or two, I bought a tomato plant and put it in a pot near a window so they could easily monitor its progress.  Last year I went home about the same time.  This time my mother had gotten their old garden area (approx. 30 ft. x 36 ft.) rototilled and was ready for me.  We visited every nursery in our area and some farther away.  The revived garden began to take shape.  We planted all sorts of seedlings:  tomatoes, green beans, zucchini, cucumbers, hubbard squash, and a few other things.  At the same time my sister and brother-in-law were planting their annual vegetable garden.  We regularly compared notes.  Soon my vacation came to an end.  Then I got updates by phone all summer.  I heard when they picked the first tomato, and ate the first cucumber for lunch.  Mom helped my sister and brother-in-law make marinara sauce and put up pickles from their own harvest.

Same time this year I went home again.  The garden was once again ready to be planted.  We hit all of the same nurseries.  And again I’ve gotten updates on the progress.  They’ve just finished canning several jars of marinara sauce, making apple jelly, blackberry jam, and blueberry jam.  They’re getting ready to make pickles.  The four of them also enjoyed a zucchini parmesan from one of the giant zucchinis.  It was a banner year for both gardens!

I’ll be going home for Thanksgiving, which will be at my sister’s house.  This year, as part of the Thanksgiving feast, my sister will serve tomato sauce made from her own tomatoes, various pickles made from veggies from both gardens, and probably a pie made from a squash from our parents’ garden.  Just the other day my mother called and asked me if I would please find her a recipe for sweet gherkins.  She’d had to pick a large quantity of tiny cucumbers to save them from a predicted possible frost.  As canning is a bit of a lost art I expected I would have to look online for this.  I should’ve known  better.  For one thing, it appears that canning is making a comeback.  For another, if you’ve ever ventured over to that section you know that we have a very robust cookbook collection at the Sunnyvale Library.  In that collection there are several books about canning, preserving and pickling food.  Among those is a brand new title:  Food in Jars  by Marisa McClellan.  This is not your grandmother’s food preservation cookbook:  tomato jam, rhubarb chutney, pickled garlic scapes, and cranberry ketchup are just a few of the featured recipes.

(Mom and I are already talking about what we’ll plant next spring!)

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A Pickly Problem

I had been disappointed for years in my inability to find a deli or a grocery store that sold something comparable to my favorite pickle:  the “new” pickle, (as opposed to the tangier, softer “old” pickle), from Zingerman’s deli in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Crispy and vibrant green, and only lightly salty, the Zingerman’s “new” pickle was as coveted as the sandwich it came with.

Back in California, I found myself  pickle-deprived. Sure, there are plenty of tasty pickles around, but I couldn’t find the ones I craved. After years of fruitless questing, this year I finally had an epiphany — I don’t need to purchase this pickle at a store. I can make them myself! And so I did.  And they were delicious. This recipe is closest to what I eventually did, which replicated almost exactly the friendly flavor and crispy bite of my missing pickle.

Looks good, right?

Once I had the first taste of success, I was hooked, and I have the library’s cookbook collection to thank for helping me continue my pickling adventure.  Pickling is surprisingly easy and totally worth the time. In our collection, we have instructions for pickling and preserving everything from artichokes to lemons to zucchini.  Now that local gardens are overflowing with bounty, perhaps it’s time to think about picking up some mason jars, pickling spices, and a little bit of kitchen courage. Give it a shot! (But do follow the sterilization directions contained in the books.)

Here are some recommended titles. A librarian will always be happy to help you find a few more. Happy pickling.


The joy of pickling : 250 flavor-packed recipes for vegetables and more from garden or market / Linda Ziedrich ; foreword by Chuck Williams.

The pickled pantry / Andrea Chesman ; illustrations by Lisa Congdon

Pickles to relish / by Beverly Ellen Schoonmaker Alfeld ; foreword by Ron Couch ; photography by Jim Smith


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Enjoying Nature in the First Person – Camping and Backpacking!

It is nearing the end of summer and school will be starting very soon, but there is still time to get in one more longer trip to the mountains or beaches, or deserts, or just about any climate you would want. This is California, and we have it all within a few hours of travel.

The library has books to help you get started with either camping or backpacking:

Camping & survival : the ultimate outdoors book / Paul Tawrell



Backpacking / Adrienne Hall




Camping and backpacking with children [electronic resource] / Steven Boga


The hiking companion : getting the most from the trail experience throughout the seasons : where to go, what to bring, basic navigation, and backpacking / Michael W. Robbins ; foreword by Rick Bass



And food always seems to taste that much better after hiking around, so there are also  recipes books to help with the planning:

The great American camping cookbook / Scott Cookman




Simple foods for the pack / Claudia Axcell, Vikki Kinmont Kath, Diana Cooke ; illustrated by Bob Kinmont




Of course it will help to know about the places you will be camping. The library has guides for many areas. Some here in California:

California camping : the complete guide to more than 1,400 tent and RV campgrounds / Tom Stienstra



Yosemite & Mammoth Lakes camping & hiking / Tom Stienstra, Ann Marie Brown




And other parts of the world:

Camping Europe : including Scandinavia, Central and Eastern Europe / by Carol Mickelsen ; cartography by Dion Good




And also guides that include information on how to minimize your impact on the environment while camping or backpacking:

Walking softly in the wilderness : the Sierra Club guide to backpacking / John Hart



Backpacker’s start-up : a beginner’s guide to hiking & backpacking / by Doug Werner ; photography by Doug Werner



And lots and lots more. Have a great trip, wherever you decide to go!

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A Little Lemon Verbena


It’s time to spice up your life and garden with a little cilantro, mint, rosemary, chile, basil, bergamot, myrtle…this list can go on and on.  With herbs, I just cannot get enough of them and with gardening and cooking books, I just cannot get enough of them either. Here are some wonderful titles the library has on growing and cooking with herbs!

essential guide to cooking with herbs

The Herb Society of America’s essential guide to growing and cooking with herbs

cooks herb garden
The cook’s herb garden

homegrown herbs

Homegrown herbs : a complete guide to growing, using, and enjoying more than 100 herbs



And if you need a little herb growing mood starter, come on by and check out The Essential Simon and Garfunkel to hear Scarborough Affair…”Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme.” Happy gardening!

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