Tag Archives: work

Zuppe!

I’ve not written for a while. I was in Ghana for work and the time just got away from me. No big adventures on that trip; I barely got out of the hotel. I did manage a trip to the not-very-interesting market where I was pleased to see a bust of Abraham Lincoln, from whom I am proudly descended.

Market guy proudly shows off his bust of my long lost Uncle Abe.

I will say one thing about Accra: the sidewalks consist of wooden and stone planks with many holes in them, under which runs a river of raw sewage. Scary. What’s with all the planks lately is what I’d like to know.

I’ve been anxious lately. I hate that I haven’t been able to post much here in recent weeks. I’m working on a complex project with a tight deadline. I’ve been traveling far too much and the dogs are giving me attitude. I was very anxious about the election. Fortunately that has now been resolved in a way that brings me joy. I’ve not been to the gym in ages, mostly because of aforesaid travel. I also blame the mysterious incident of the muscle that somehow pulled itself in the middle of the night while I was fast asleep. And oh yeah, I’m lazy.

Now I know and you know that the best cure for anxiety is Xanax soup. Fortunately the American Academy was hosting a soup-themed event recently and I went along. The Academy was the brainchild of Charles Follen McKim, a super famous 19th Century architect. He designed the Agricultural Building for the Columbian Exposition in Chicago. By the way, I highly recommend Eric Larson’s great book,  The Devil in the White City, which tells the parallel stories of the building of the Exposition and of H.H. Holmes, the serial killer who used the fair to lure his victims to their deaths. He built a hotel complete with gas chamber, dissection room and crematorium and when he was done with the bodies, he sold them for medical research. Many of the victims — no one knows how many there were — were young women who came to Chicago to get work or to see the fair. They stayed at his hotel (he rented exclusively to women) and then just disappeared. He married a couple of them and just bumped them off when he got bored. Creepy.

McKim established the American School of Architecture in 1894 as a place for artists to study and be inspired by all of the glories the Eternal City has to offer. In 1911, the school merged with the American School of Classical Studies to become the American Academy in Rome.  Today, the Academy offers artists, scholars and writers the opportunity to hang out in Rome doing incredibly interesting and creative things. It’s located on the Janiculum Hill just down the road from me in beautiful Monteverde.

The American Academy in Rome

I spent a semester in Rome studying classical archeology 800 years ago and we used to hang out in the Academy’s library, which was awesome. Some of the Academy’s Fellows also taught at my school, the Intercollegiate Center for Classical Studies. The Academy owns the Villa Aurelia across the street. Villa Aurelia was built as a summer estate for Cardinal Girolamo Farnese in 1650, was Garibaldi’s headquarters during the French siege of Rome in 1849 and was bequeathed to the Academy in 1909 by then-owner, Philadelphia heiress Clara Jessup Heyland (shout out to my home town!). More recently, it was the scene of the wedding rehearsal dinner for Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes. So there you go.

Since 2007, the Academy has hosted the Rome Sustainable Food Project, which was created with the involvement of Alice Waters of Chez Panisse fame. The RSFP provides the Academy community (and lucky guests) with fresh, seasonal food, grown in the Academy’s backyard or sourced from local farmers and artisan producers. You can become a Friend of the Academy, which gets you invited to various lectures and other events (and enables you to eat lunch there with up to 10 guests). Join. You’ll thank me.

The RSFP’s veggie garden

Mona Talbott, a Chez Panisse alumna, was the RSFP’s first Head Chef. Sadly for us, Mona has now returned to the US but not before she had penned the first two volumes in a series of cookbooks, each on a single subject, featuring favorite dishes from the Academy’s communal table. The first, Biscotti (written with Mirella Misenti), was about cookies and the second, Zuppe, is about soup. Thought I’d never get there, didn’t you?

The Zuppe-launching event started with presentations by Mona, Alice, Chris Boswell (the Head Chef that replaced Mona), one of the kitchen interns and a local supplier. Here’s what we ate: canellini bean, escarole and meatball soup; dried fava bean and chicory soup; spicy carrot soup; and chickpea, pumpkin and farro soup. There was also pizza bianca stuffed with prosciutto and provala cheese and with garden kale, sheep’s milk ricotta and arugula pesto. And cookies made with Amedei chocolate (the world’s best, according to Food and Wine). Yes, I ate everything.

More spicy carrot soup please!

Remember this little ad jingle from the 70s? Soup and sandwich, soup and sandwich, have your favorite Campbell’s soup and sandwich! Any time or weather…..soup and sandwich go together!

The soups were delicious, particularly the spicy carrot one. I bought the book so I can recreate them at home. Now I’m anxious about what this will mean for my waistline.

Eating Sri Lanka

Say what you will about big multinational hotel chains, when you are staying in a quaint, historical but down-at-heels flophouse in central Colombo, there are certain advantages to being a short tuk tuk ride from the Hilton. These include reliable air-conditioning, edible food and (I’d imagine) a relative lack of palm squirrels climbing into your third floor bedroom window while you are asleep and eating the apple on your desk, leaving behind nothing but a little pile of peel shavings.

My hotel was originally a barracks for the British army when it controlled Sri Lanka. The air con shakes the room with its racket and mostly just blows around dust and hot air. But on the plus side, palm squirrels can eat here for free!

So I often found myself at the Hilton at the end of the day, curled up in one of those big leather armchairs in the lobby, drinking incredibly delicious fruit juices (pineapple and ginger! watermelon! mango! more watermelon!) and reading about Italian food on my iPad. Cool as a cucumber and not a squirrel in sight.

I ate there too and while I’m not going to give space to reviewing a Hilton restaurant, I will say that you can eat some melt in your mouth sashimi at the Ginza Hohsen.

I’m not even sure what all this stuff is. But it sure was tasty!

Plus they had these cool machines on all the tables.

We need these in Italy!

Another night I ate at Semondu, which, according to the Interwebs, is derived from the word Simoundou, the name given to Sri Lanka by the 2nd Century Greek geographer Ptolomy. So why not just call it Simoundou? I don’t understand. The tagline is ‘fusion in the sky,’ which makes little sense until you know that the restaurant, located at the Old Dutch Hospital, is run by Sri Lankan Airlines. Insert airplane food jokes here.

Actually, it was pretty great. The very friendly waiter brought me a spicy lamb samosa with which to amuse ma bouche, paired with a mint-cilantro-lime sauce, which was so good that I drank it in one gulp.

Spicy lamb samosa with green sauce.

Next came a Greek salad with creamy feta: the Sri Lankans are not big on salads or raw vegetables and I was really missing the crunch.

Crunchy Greek salad and garlic bread (yay!)

My main course was the Trio of Seafood: Tasmanian salmon, lagoon prawns and rock lobster tail served with saffron, lemongrass and chili cream. And a side dish of fat luscious wild mushrooms. Yum. 

The night before I left Sri Lanka, I ate at the Gallery Cafe. This used to be the office of renowned Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa and you can still see his desk in the restaurant. It’s a lovely little complex, complete with koi pond, art gallery and a cute shop where I bought a hilarious hand painted wooden door stop for $2, which I can never use. It stopped my bedroom door for approximately one minute before Morgan started chewing on it.

The Morgster contemplates which end of the doorstop to start chewing first.

Dinner was a stuffed crab appetizer and fat juicy chili prawns with tamarind dipping sauce. The prawns came with coconut risotto and a green papaya salad. Amazing and beautiful with fresh lively flavours.

My colleague Abby had a cold zucchini soup with tons of basil and a tuna caprese with tomatoes and mozzarella and pesto. Also very delicious. Hands down my best meal in Sri Lanka. Wish I’d discovered it sooner!

Ginza Hohsen, Hilton Hotel. 2 Sir Chittampalam A Gardiner Mawatha. Tel: 11 249 2123, 2544644, ext. 2123

Semondu, The Old Dutch Hospital. Tel: 0112441590 / 1

The Gallery Cafe, 2 Alfred House Rd, Kollupitiya, Col 3. Colombo, Sri Lanka. Tel: 011 258 2162

Life lesson

I learned an important lesson in Sri Lanka, where I spent the past two weeks on a work assignment. Life is too short for horrible food. You would have thought I’d have figured that out by now, given the amount of time I spend reading cookbooks and blogs, scouting out restaurants and generally obsessing about ingredients. And I’m sure I knew it on some level. But it took the unrelenting awfulness of a few meals in Sri Lanka to convince me that, given a choice of horrible or nothing, I’d rather eat air.

During the day, I was eating in the cafeteria of the institute that hired me to help them write a strategic plan. Now you don’t really expect institutional food to be particularly good and in this I was not disappointed. The mercurial Sri Lankan lady in charge of the cafeteria (depending on whether she liked you or not, she’d give you more or less food and charge you more or less than the normal rate of about $.80 per meal  – mine was free because I was a guest) would shovel out a kilo of rice and cover it with bits of egg, vegetable and chicken, all swimming in oil and dyed bright red by the millions of chilis that were basically the only flavoring in every dish. So hot. So so hot. By the second day, my throat was raw and my taste buds were gasping for a nice gazpacho. Yes, I fantasized about gazpacho for nearly two weeks. And not just any gazpacho. This one. The only exception to the atomic lunch motif was the one day she served some carrots and green beans mixed with what tasted like Campbell’s cream of chicken soup.

The food at the hotel was far worse. It was Western-style-ish (I think). Not Western enough. I would have given anything for a nice hamburger or chicken sandwich (or that gazpacho). Two highlights: the Steak Sizzler: a minute steak wrapped around some diced onions and brought to the table aflame. Tasted like charcoal and chewed like rubber. And an impossibly tough ‘barbecued’ pork chop, which came smothered in ketchup and broiled canned pineapple. That was it. Although it was the fiscally irresponsible choice (because the institute would have covered my meals at the hotel), I resolved never to eat there again.

An average lunch. Not for the faint of heart.

The first place I went was the Ministry of Crab in the Old Dutch Hospital, which was recently converted into a little shopping mall with several restaurants. Apparently the restaurant was owned by a couple of famous Sri Lankan cricketers. Sri Lanka is crab country and I was very excited to check out the local seafood. You choose the size of crab you want, ranging from small to colossel. I had garlic chili prawns to start and couldn’t stop dunking my bread in the sauce. The chili was just enough to give the old taste buds a little jolt but not enough to fling them against the wall, where they would lay whimpering and begging for mercy. The black pepper crab, which was made with crushed peppercorns, whole peppercorns and a pepper stock, had an incredible depth of flavour.

Welcome to the Ministry of Crab!

Garlic chlli prawns

Black pepper crab

It was so good, I went back a few nights later.

Prawns with oil and soy sauce – looking a lot like the ones above, but altogether different

Crab with garlic, butter and soy sauce. In case you are wondering, this is the ‘small.’

These wonderful greens are garlic scapes, curly green shoots that grow from garlic bulbs. They are crunchy and mild and quite delicious – sort of like a cross between garlic and scallions.

Messy but worth it.

I have a few more (great) Sri Lankan meals to write about. Once I escaped the hotel, I did very well indeed. But this will do for now.

Ministry of Crab, the Old Dutch Hospital, Colombo. 011 2 342722

Random Sri Lanka 2: muscular distress edition

Two nights ago I was awakened at 2 am by someone wailing the tar out of my right shoulder with a baseball bat. Or that’s what it felt like. I spent the rest of the night tossing and turning, desperate for sleep, trying to find a position that wasn’t unbelievably painful. To no avail. The next morning I dragged myself to work. Or rather, I was dragged by a taxi driver, whose car stalled every five minutes and who took the opportunity of my catatonic agony to play chicken with all the other cars in between stalls, which resulted in me being flung around the back seat of the car like Raggedy Anne, too much in pain to even protest. By the time I got to the office, it was pretty clear that I was not going to accomplish much until I sorted out the shoulder issue. My colleagues sent me in a tuk tuk to a nearby clinic. It was a small and dingy room with a desk, a bookcase and a poster of a skeleton on the wall. The gruff doctor saw me right away. After poking and prodding a bit, he declared that I had muscular distress and wrote me a prescription, which I had filled on the spot. I was in and out of the clinic in less than 10 minutes. Total cost of doctor’s visit + prescription = 350 rupees = $2.64. In Rome, it would have taken me a half a day to accomplish the same thing, I would have had to wait two weeks for an appointment and it would have cost me a couple of hundred euro. It took a few hours for the pills to kick in but by last night I was feeling much better and today I am nearly back to 100%. So, Sri Lanka, you are (nearly) forgiven for the poor quality of your hotel food. More on that later.

My prescription

Random Sri Lanka

I’ve been in Colombo, Sri Lanka and its environs for the past week and although I haven’t had much time for touristry (I’m here for work), I have a few random things to report.

1. I first stayed in a little guest house near the institute where I’m working – very pretty but remote. No TV, telephone, hot water or closet. Thus ensued a humorous discussion with my English colleagues who thought I was having an issue with the lack of a bathroom (a.k.a. water closet) in my room, when my problem was really having to drape two weeks worth of clothes over a single chair! At the weekend, I moved to the Grand Oriental, which was originally built as a barracks for the English army when it occupied Sri Lanka (back then it was known as Ceylon).  A bit down at heels but with a lovely view of the harbour and a fine closet complete with hangers.

The Grand Oriental Hotel was built to house British soldiers in 1837. You can see plenty of tuk tuks (see below) out in front.

2. Up the street from the hotel is the Dutch Hospital, which was used to house ailing soldiers back when the Dutch ruled Sri Lanka in East India Company days. Built in 1681, the hospital was restored last year and now houses a pretty little mall with a couple of restaurants (of which more later).

The newly refurbished Dutch Hospital (note the big skyscrapers behind)

3. There are many many homeless dogs here and they are all pretty laid back. That is not to say that they are not scruffy because they are that in spades. But they don’t seem sick or starving or particularly fearful of the many crazy drivers on the road, which is more than I can say for myself. I am always amazed by off-leash dogs who understand the concept of the automobile, waiting quietly for cars to pass before they cross the street. If I tried that with my dogs, they would leap under the wheels of the first car that passed by in their eagerness to get home for supper.

A local denizen

And another

Although he appeared to have a collar, this guy was just chillaxing in the street.

When I was in Puglia a few weeks ago, I noticed many dogs there running free but appearing to live lives of purpose (as opposed to the Sri Lankan dogs, who mostly just hang around street corners checking out the ladies). For example, in a town called Sannicola we saw a big black and white dog trot by, looking neither left nor right, clearly on a mission. Between her teeth she held what could very well have been a plastic bag of mozzarella, which she was taking home to her owner from the local cheese shop. Or so I choose to believe. Since I didn’t manage to get Mozzarella Dog’s picture, I tried to do a dramatic recreation with Morgan holding a bag of cotton (as a substitute for expensive cheese) in his mouth. That went entirely as expected. There’s a little society in Colombo called Embark, which raises money to look after the homeless dogs by selling funny dog-themed tee-shirts. That might explain why they don’t look too badly off. I am the proud owner of a new tee-shirt that reads “License to bitch!”  I’d take a picture of it but it’s hanging in my very fine closet and I don’t want to disturb.

4. Sri Lankans are very friendly and are always trying to talk to you on the street. Not is a smarmy stalkery way (not that I attract much of that kind of attention these days). More of a “I see you’re not from these parts. Let me welcome you to my fine country. And perhaps you’d like a ride to a tourist destination in my tuk tuk?” way. Tuk tuks are little motorized rickshaw things that go “tuk tuk tuk” as they putt down the street. Yesterday, a guy tried to convince me to go to a big Buddhist celebration at the temple, promising that I’d see 60 elephants. I didn’t bite but when another guy told me about the same celebration, I thought there might be something to it and I hopped a tuk tuk to check it out. It turned out the so-called celebration was at Gangaramaya Temple, the main place for Buddhist worship and learning in Colombo. I didn’t see 60 elephants — there was one, however — but there were worshippers, tourists, incense, candles, chanting, thousands of statues of Buddha (include one made of diamonds and one that could only be seen with a magnifying glass) and various legacies left to the temple by the faithful, including elephant tusks, cars and eyeglasses. Not sure if what I saw constituted a special celebration or just business as usual but nevertheless I’m glad I bothered.

I’ll leave you with one final thing to ponder: a poster that hangs in all of the bathrooms in the institute where I’m working.

Flush flush flush until all your friends are gone!

Saturday at the mall, Bogor style

I’ve been in Bogor (Indonesia) for the past two weeks, working. Apologies that I’ve been rather quiet but between having to wake up every day at 6 – am pretty sure that one of the reasons I quit my job was so I’d never have to do that again – unrelenting meetings all day and Season 1 of Friday Night Lights waiting patiently but insistently for me back at the hotel, I just haven’t managed to keep up with the blog. I’m heading home tomorrow and we can catch up after.

In the meantime, have you ever been to an Indonesian mall? No? Well, I went so you don’t have to. You are welcome.

You’ve got your Pizza Hut.
And A&W
And Starbucks, obviously
Vanilla coffee jelly latte

Starbucks featured something called a vanilla coffee jelly latte, which I tried because it sounded just gross enough to be interesting. It’s basically jellied espresso with milk and vanilla syrup. Over time, like if you are riding the Starbucks’ wifi for five hours while transcribing notes from a conference you’re blogging, the jelly sort of melts into the milk and it’s really not bad. I consulted the Starbucks website – and can I just say Salted Caramel Mocha? Yuck! (and also yum) – and there was no sign of the jelly drink. Tant pis, yanks.

There was an Apple store where I bought some toys for my new iPad, code name ‘crack.’

By the way, all the ululating and testimonializing on the death of Steve Jobs to the contrary (and do count me in that number), the world is still a distinctly Mac-unfriendly place. I spent the entire week trying to send email from the institute where I was working to no avail. “It’s a Mac issue,” I was told.

There’s a gigantic supermarket selling root beer, the groovy taste (among a million other products from Japan, Korea and Thailand, as well as Indonesia).

But lest you think that once you’ve seen one mall you’ve seen them all, Bogor Botani does offer some surprises.

A cow reading a newspaper
A vast amount of batik
And karaoke in the middle of the day
Also some really cute sheep

 

Lightbulbs and business cards

I celebrated hitting the halfway mark on my consultancy project by buying lightbulbs and picking up my new business cards (this was the second printing: my friend Jamie helpfully noted that a real ‘communications strategist’, which is one of the things I’m purporting to be these days, would probably remember to include an email address on her card). This made me think of all of the things that aren’t getting done while I’m sitting in front of the computer writing about tropical deforestation and mangrove forests. I need to go to the dentist, the doctor, and pay those bills that didn’t get paid the other week. Not to mention brave the bank again. I really need a haircut. I need to do a consult with the vet about Morgan’s adolescent obsession with the lady dogs (in the park they call him Berlusconi Junior!). And what about all of the enjoying of Rome I’m supposed to be doing? And the navel contemplation? It kinda feels like I’m doing as little of that as I did when I was working full time.

On the positive side of the ledger, I am entertaining (and cooking) more than I have in a long time. I did get the hot water heater (which has been on the fritz for 2 years) fixed and the window (which has been broken for 8 months) replaced.

Work-Life Balance. Such an intimidating phrase. How balanced does the balance have to be?  50-50? 60-40? 30-70? Those are rhetorical questions. And I know the answer. One just can tell when the balance is right. Or should do. But I’m just not sure what it would feel like to have the balance right. I certainly have never gotten the life part down, at least not for the past 20 years or so. I am working far shorter days than  than I did when I had an office job (5-6 hours per day as opposed to 10-11 including a 2 hour commute) and I like that a lot. But I still can’t quite find the time to do all the stuff I want to (or should) be doing. That’s made more complicated by the fact that even the simplest errand here seems to take all day. Ah well. At least I have light again. And business cards.

And now for some totally gratuitous photos of my dogs.

You want work-life balance? I got work-life balance!

Out for a Sunday drive.