Monthly Archives: June 2018



UnknownAnother book that I heard about in a podcast well enough in advance of publication to be the first to crack the cover of the library’s copy when it came in. I loved the cover, with its wildlife on the fringe of human habitation. It’s just the sort of story I’m drawn to: An American divorcee who goes to London to study the habits of urban foxes (quirky character, perhaps on the fringe herself, like the foxes she studies). Jean met Attila, a Ghanaian psychiatrist who traveled the world of war torn countries, to treat victims of PTSD. They met the first time when Jean literally ran into him on the Waterloo Bridge. Another chance meeting brought them together again, when they established a tenuous friendship. There is a lot going on in this novel. Both characters, Jean and Attila, are suffering from their own brand of loneliness and loss, but function perfectly well by throwing themselves into their work. Jean’s story raises the issue of how humankind and nature can share the same space and people can peacefully cohabit with the fauna that live in cities. (Perhaps the key to the success of that lies in the word “humankind.”) Attila’s passages are more complex as he contemplated the keynote address he came to London to deliver to colleagues in the mental health profession. He had come to believe that the current thinking on PTSD could be wrong. He no longer believed that trauma causes suffering which exclusively causes damage to the individual. Instead, he now believes that yes, trauma causes suffering, but suffering and damage are not the same thing. What we don’t know is whether the absence of adverse life events creates the ideal conditions for human development. We just assume that trauma causes damage.

Attila was a minor character in one of Forna’s earlier books (I have not read it) and in the years since, she had not let go of him, thinking that one day she might write a book where he was a more central character. Perhaps that is why Attila was a character I loved. Yes, he was a guarded person, still grieving his dead wife. But he also experienced what looked like happiness to me. He loved all kinds of music. When I first met him, he was listening to a tango by a Portuguese composer, and dancing, by himself, in his hotel room. He was very specific in his love of food, Brazilian cuisine, not Cuban. (He dined at a Latin American restaurant on Old Kent Rd., which unfortuantely has closed, permanently.) He attended a conference of psychiatrists in Cuba where the focus was the rising suicide rate of young men in industrialized countries. Despite the travel restrictions imposed on visitors, he hired a car and traveled across the country. He stopped in a small town in the center of the country on a Sunday night, and observed dancing. He did not know the steps, so he watched for a while, and discerned that a woman’s willingness to accept a dance with a partner was indicated by the way she held her fan. A woman in her late sixties accepted the hand of a young man. Attila watched how they performed the steps, that he later learned were to a slow rumba. Several songs later, when the music to another rumba began to play, he approached the same woman who had danced with the young man, and she accepted. “In the years to come, Attila thought from time to time about that Cuban town. It seemed to him like a place where happiness might exist.”

Finally, the writing is contemplative, thoughtful, beautifully wrought. In one passage,   Attila had an encounter with a woman. When she left his hotel room, he selected some music and thought that he would dance, but failed. “Instead he turned up the music until it smothered the sound of the dead woman weeping in his heart.

THE BEAUTY: Once in Sri Lanka, even though Attila did not care to swim, he was persuaded to accompany his colleagues to the beach. When his buddies went into the water Attila followed the footprints of a man and a dog along the shore. The sky was full of frigate birds, which could not land on water because they didn’t have waterproof feathers. He listened through his headphones to a nuevo tango by Argentine-born composer Astor Piazzolla. He liked the way the music went straight to his heels. He took off his shoes and carried them in one hand as he walked away from his colleagues. “He did not see the frigate bird dive for the scrap of fish thrown by the fisherman, nor did he see his colleagues cease their horseplay, treading water the better to watch him as he danced alone on the wet sand.”

THE FOOD: Once, when Attila returned home from a mission, he had gone to the bedroom he shared with his wife to wash his hands before dinner. He got the sense upon entering the room, that it had been undisturbed for some time in an abandoned house. His evening shoes were on the floor beneath the stand which held the jacket he had worn the day before his departure. His wife’s gown hung on the chair in front of her dressing table. He realized that the room was exactly as it had been at the moment when he had turned at the door with his suitcase in hand, to check if he had forgotten anything. Attila realized that Maryse had not slept in their bedroom those days he had been away. She had slept on a daybed in her office at the hospital where she worked. The meal Attila had gone to the bedroom to wash up for was chicken yassa.

Chicken Yassa 

½ C white wine vinegar
3 limes, zested, juiced
1 1- inch piece ginger, thinly sliced
1 scotch bonnet pepper, slit
1 onion, peeled, sliced
2 tsp black peppercorns, crushed0
4 cloves garlic, peeled, thinly sliced
2 tsp Kosher salt
¼ cup olive oil
4 chicken leg quarters

Chicken and Onions
2 T olive oil
3 medium onions, peeled, thinly sliced
3 sprigs thyme
1 T ginger, peeled, minced*
1 tsp ground allspice
½ tsp cayenne pepper
2 C chicken stock
⅔ C pitted green olives,sliced
white rice, cooked, to serve
parsley, chopped, to garnish

For the marinade:
In a large zip top bag add the vinegar, lime zest and juice, ginger, scotch bonnet, onion, peppercorns, garlic and olive oil. Season with salt and pepper, add the chicken legs and allow to marinate for 4-5 hours in the refrigerator. (Marinate the chicken up to 12 hours in advance.) When ready to sear, remove from the refrigerator 30 minutes prior to cooking to come to room temperature.

For the chicken and onions:
In a large Dutch oven, add the olive oil and heat over medium-high heat. Remove the chicken from the marinade, discarding the marinade. Season with additional salt and pepper and add to the Durch oven skin side down. Sear until golden brown, about 4 minutes, flip and allow to sear on the other side another 4 minutes. Remove to a plate. Add the onions and cook, over medium heat, until caramelized, about 25 minutes. Once caramelized, add the thyme sprigs, ginger, allspice and cayenne and cook another minute. Season with the salt and pepper.

Add the stock, scraping the browned bits up from the bottom of the pan, and bring to a simmer. Add the chicken back to the pot, the stock should come halfway up the chicken, cover and continue to simmer for 35-40 minutes until the chicken is tender and cooked through, or a meat thermometer registers 165º. Stir in the olives during the last 5 minutes of cooking. Serve the chicken and onions over white rice. Garnish with parsley.

IMG_4457         I forgot to take the picture when it was artfully arranged on the plate.


A Time of Love and Tartan


imagesIt’s no secret that I love all things Alexander McCall Smith (except for that bulldozer one) and consider time spent reading his books a chance to catch up with old friends. When I finished reading it I was smiling and hugging the book. I know I’m not alone in this, even if other readers are reluctant to admit that they, too, hug their books. In this latest Scotland Street incarnation, one  of the characters is questioning their love for a significant other; Bertie experiences a dream come true, finally; Irene has contact with Dr. Fairbairn, Bertie’s former psychologist; Stuart is a up for a promotion; and intimations of a possible love interest for Big Lou are a big tease.

In a somewhat touching exchange as Matthew escorted the Duke to his car after dinner at Nine Mile Burn, the Duke sincerely thanked Matthew and Elspeth for their friendship, saying that we live in difficult times. “It’s the destruction of civility,” said the Duke. “Twenty years ago, people may have had their differences of opinion – of course they did -but they did not abuse one another for it. They respected those with whom they disagreed. They spoke courteously.” He went on to say, “And now there’s something very unpleasant on the loose. We may pretend that it isn’t; we may deny it, but we know that there are more and more people who hate those whom they used not to hate. And there are even some who encourage this hate, who harbor that hate within themselves, are are happy to see it flourish in the breasts of others.” I love how AMS (Sandy to his friends) references current cultural trends. It’s comforting.

THE BEAUTY: There is always so much beauty in AMS’s books, it was a challenge to highlight just one. I settled on an occasion that Bertie got to share with his father and his best friend. Stuart planned a special outing for his son, and his best friend, Ranald Braveheart McPherson to a rugby match between Scotland and New Zealand.  It was an especially important game because Scotland had never beaten the all-powerful New Zealanders. After the Scottish fans sang their national anthem, “Flower of Scotland,” New Zealand responded with their haka, of which I had never heard, although I had seen similar gestures made by Samoans in a dance at a luau in Hawaii years ago. So here it is – a unique demonstration of power and intimidation. Ahead of the final of Rugby World Cup 2011 in New Zealand, the French team formed an arrow as the All Blacks performed their pre-match tradition – the haka.

THE FOOD: For food, I wrote down the following: king scallops, white onion veloute, Glass and Thompson’s on Dundas St. or the Cumberland Bar. I didn’t write down the page number and have been unsuccesful finding the reference by skimming the book. Loving scallops, that’s what I decided to go with.

White Onion Veloutè and Seared Scallops
Serves 2

For the veloutè:
5 T unsalted butter
6 large white onions very thinly sliced*
3 sprigs of thyme
sea salt and white pepper
⅔ C white wine
3 C chicken stock
¾ C crème fraîche
optional black pepper to serve
10 large sea scallops, tendons removed, patted dry

To serve: extra-virgin olive oil and finely chopped chives

To make the veloute:
Peel, halve and slice the onions. Melt the butter in a large pan over a low heat.

Add the onions and thyme, sprinkle over a heaping teaspoon of sea salt and fry
for 30 minutes, stirring frequently to prevent the onions from coloring. By the
end they should be lusciously silky and soft. Pour in the wine, turn up the heat a little and simmer until it is well-reduced. Add the chicken stock, bring to a simmer and cook over a low heat for 15 minutes.

Remove the thyme stalks, and then purée the soup in a blender or food processer, along with the black pepper.

*White onions have a particular character and finesse, and here it’s quite important to use these rather than the ordinary brown ones that are better reserved for French-style onion soup.

To make the seared scallops:
It’s important that the scallops be absolutely dry before searing. If they aren’t, they’ll steam instead of sear, and you won’t get the sweet, carmelized crust that makes seared scallops so delicious.

Heat a 10 inch skillet over medium high heat for 2 minutes. Add the oil and heat until quite hot. Pat the scallops dry once more and put them in the pan in a single, uncrowded layer. Season with salt and pepper and let sear undisturbed until one side is browned and crisp, about 2 minutes. Using tongs, turn the scallops and sear until the second side is well browned and the scallops are almost firm to the touch, 2 minutes. Take the pan off the heat and place 5 scallops on plate over a layer of the hot veloute. Drizzle some good extra virgin olive oil over the scallops and veloute, sprinkle with chives, and serve.

IMG_4445So, so good. The chives at the market looked lousy, and mine in the garden aren’t big enough, yet, so no chives. But still delicious!