The Conservatory Gardens

September 26, 2009

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On Thursday afternoons I get off from work at 1.30 and I have designated the afternoon as a “Sabbath Day” where I don’t schedule any events or friends, but spend some good quality time alone, in meditation and study, and in prayer. I often go to a park and enjoy the nature, with a cup of tea and a cookie, my diary and some good reading material.

I recently rediscovered the Conservatory Gardens, up on 5th Avenue and 105th Street. They have become my new favourite garden in the City. Located at the north end of Central Park, you pass through an ornate set of gates into a heavenly world of slate stone paths and English country garden loveliness. Flowers spill over borders in waves of texture and colour, breezy statues of children playing drip with the laughter of the fountains, and for a moment the buses rolling by on the avenue are drowned out by the chatter of insects and birds. A tremendous trellis of vines arcs across the western side of the garden, beckoning you to come find solace beneath it. The first time I came to the gardens, four years ago, was with a now very distant boyfriend, to attend a wedding ceremony. I will never forget that evening, the beginnings of a rain storm trickling down through the leaves of the trellis, the sky grey yet bright, and the bride and groom glowing at each other as we all stood around cheering. What a wonderful place to start a marriage.
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My current Thursday ritual is to stop in a the Museum of the City of New York, which is across the street, tease the guards to let me down into the café where I then buy a fruit tea and a giant black and white cookie to take with me to the garden. After a leisurely stroll around the grounds, with frequent stops to sigh into the welcoming faces of upturned flowers, I settle myself into a bench for some blissful quiet.

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I love black and white cookies. The cookie is light and cakey, and the white glaze on the back is crisp and smooth and just a bit too sweet. The chocolate has a bitter bite to it, with a faint flavour of licorice in each bite. I take much comfort in eating this cookie slowly, bit by bit, letting the glaze melt in my mouth, not taking any one morsel for granted, washing down the sweetness with sips of tea. It is a large cookie so if you eat it too fast, you will ruin the experience with a sugar rush. I think because my favourite desserts tend to involve cake of some sort, that the black and white is one of the most perfect cookies imagined. And it is so New York.

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Ajiaco

September 14, 2009

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The best word to describe this wonderful Colombian chicken stew is silky. From the way the grated potatoes disintegrate into the broth to make a rich, thick sauce, to the fresh avocados that melt in your mouth at each bite, silky seems to capture it all. I’ve been dreaming of this recipe since it first appeared in Gourmet’s September 2007 issue (which was a glorious issue on South and Central American cuisine if I may add), intrigued with the idea of avocado and whole slices of corn being part of a soup. The soup is easy to make, and a great way to use a small bony little chicken. It warms up well, and the flavours are fresh and surprising (pops of cilantro and salty capers) at the same time as being homey and soothing (it IS chicken soup after all…) The one difficulty in eating this soup is that you do have to fish the corn out of your soup bowl with your fingers which makes for a messy eating experience. But then there is the delight of slurping the broth from the corn cobs as you eat the kernels.
I’ve modified the recipe a bit, but otherwise it is very much straight from the recipe book.

Ajiaco (Columbian Chicken Stew)– Gourmet Sept 2007, p.74

1 whole chicken

2 qt water

2 cups chicken stock (or 2 cups hot water and one bouillon cube)

1 large white onion, chopped

1 tablespoon oregano

1 lb Yukon Gold potatoes

1 lb red skinned potatoes

3 ears of corner, cut into 1 inch rounds (careful, I broke my knife chopping these up. Use a bread knife and saw instead of hack)

¾ cup chopped cilantro (divided)

½ cup heavy cream (optional)

¼ cup drained capers

2 -3 larger firm rip avocados, cut into cubes (I like the big pale green ones you find in the West Indian markets)

Put chicken in a 6-8 quart pot with water, broth or bouillon, onion, oregano and 1 ½ tsps salt. Bring to a boil, skim off foam, then reduce heat and simmer covered until chicken is cooked through (about 40 minutes.) Transfer chicken to a plate to cool, reserving broth in the pot. Grate the red skinned potatoes (no need to peel) and add to the broth. Simmer uncovered about 20 minutes until potatoes are falling apart and soup is becoming thick. Meanwhile chop up the Yukon Gold potatoes into 1 inch pieces and add to pot. Let simmer another 15 minutes till just tender. Add corn, ¼ cup cilantro and 1 tsp coarse ground black pepper and simmer covered until corn is tender, about 5-10 minutes.

While corn cooks, coarsely shred chicken, discarding skin (I save the bones and wings in the freezer for future stock). Add chicken to stew and cook, stirring occasionally, until heated through. Season with salt.

Serve stew with a drizzle of heavy cream, capers, chopped avocados and remaining ½ cup of cilantro. Add these fresh to each bowl just before serving.

So yum!

On Gardening

September 7, 2009

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“I have given myself to this new garden that I may receive from it the gift of summer tomatoes and sweet potatoes, of scarlet peppers and the purple robed eggplant, of honey-sweet corn and buttery beans. But I do not forget that I alone cannot restore Paradise, not even in my own backyard. ‘Retreat to the garden,’ writes William Cowper, ‘cannot indeed to guilty man restore/ Lost innocence, or cancel follies past/ But it has peace, and much secured the mind/ From all assaults of evil’ (The Task)”
Excerpt from The Fragrance of God by Vigen Guorian, p. 68

I recently finished this wonderful book and have found much joy and peace in the author’s reflections on gardening. Here is some of the summer’s bounty…

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I made a quick fried rice with the fresh vegetables in my garden. Lovely Crown Heights, Brooklyn: despite the fact that I must regularly fish out broken glass bottles and chicken bones tossed over the fence into my garden plot, the plants have managed to thrive and given me reward for my pains. It is a blessing to be able to get my hands dirty, to weed and replant, to discover new buds and flowers– promises of good things for the future.

Not much to say in terms of this recipe: purple onions, diced zucchini, corn from the cob, sliced green eggplant, a fried egg, some chinese sausage  all fried up with some leftover rice. I threw in a handful of pine nuts and cilantro and a drizzle of sesame oil and tamari sauce to finish. Simplicity becomes divine.

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