Friday, January 29, 2010

Food/Chicken "Salmi"

When my heroine in Across the Table needs to orchestrate an important conversation, she stages it with food. Rose Dante takes her husband to an isolated beach north of Boston to recreate with sun and a spicy meal the early days of their marriage on the island of Trinidad.

I spread the blanket on the sand near the shoreline. It wasn’t the azure blue of the Caribbean, but the sun caught the water at just the right angle and broke up into thousands of pinpoints of light. It was like my brother Jimmy’s girlfriend Marie, the Sicilian, had snagged one of her gaudy dresses and all the sequins had spilled across the ocean.

Al pulled me down next to him, and I swear, I would have done anything with him at that moment. But he whispered to me.

“I just want to hold you, Rose. Rest your head on my chest so that I can breathe in your perfume.”

We lay like that for a while, quiet, just listening to one another breathe, me feeling the weight of his arm draped over me and knowing with certainty that’s where I wanted to be.

When both our stomachs started growling, I stirred.

“How about some lunch?” I murmured.

“As long as you promise to lie down again with me after we eat.”

I set out the dishes I’d prepared the night before: chicken salmi that had absorbed the flavors of wine vinegar and garlic and oregano overnight and that we ate with our fingers, the olive oil slick on our chins; string beans and potatoes with some chopped up tomatoes from Uncle Annio’s garden; and the fried bananas now soaked through with rum and brown sugar. I even had managed to put a couple of bottles of beer in the basket.

What my mother called "chicken salmi" when we were growing up is a pungent dish, simmered for hours so that the chicken falls off the bone. She didn't leave the recipe, and I couldn't find one in my search through my cookbooks. But here is a close approximation.

1 chicken, cut up into pieces

Olive oil

½ cup red wine vinegar

1/4 cup water

1 teaspoon dried oregano leaves

1 teaspoon dried basil leaves

3 garlic cloves, chopped fine

Salt and pepper to taste

Heat olive oil in a heavy, ovenproof casserole and brown the chicken pieces.

Add the remaining ingredients, cover the casserole and bake at 350 degrees for one hour, basting the chicken every 15 minutes.

As Rose explains, this tastes even better the second day, when the flavors have had a chance to meld.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Encounters/The Honey Dew Ladies

I have a sixty-mile commute to work, which I share with a colleague. We've been carpooling together for almost five years and have developed certain rituals to ease the ride. One of those rituals is stopping at the Honey Dew Donut Shop for our morning tea (mine) and coffee (hers). The early morning shift at Honey Dew is staffed by two warm and gracious women who welcome us with smiles and friendly banter. They look out for us, know exactly how we like our drinks and send us off on the road with good wishes.

We probably spend no more than a few minutes with them, but starting our day this way is a simple pleasure.

What or who gets your day off to a joyful beginning?

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Inspiration/The Gesture

I've just returned from a dinner honoring donors who support research seeking a cure for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), often referred to as "Lou Gehrig's Disease," a progressive neurodegenerative disease. They were a close-knit and dedicated group, almost all of whom had family members who had been touched by the disease.

In attendance was one member who has ALS. He is still able to sit in a wheelchair, but he requires a respirator. One by one, the other guests stopped by his table to greet him and talk with him at length. With him was his wife.

At one point during the evening, I watched her get up from her seat and reach into a pocket on the back of the wheelchair. She retrieved a soft white cloth and gently wiped her husband's face. His own hands were motionless on the armrests of the chair, unable to make even the slightest movement.

Her small gesture--thoughtful, loving--was an inspiration.

Have you ever witnessed an inspiring act?

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Discoveries/Chris Guillebeau

I started reading Gretchen Rubin's Happiness Project blog about a year ago on Slate and it became my daily lunchtime fix. One of the things she does that resonates with me is how she organizes ideas. I've learned a lot from her, including something as simple as illustrating my blog posts with a colorful image. Through Gretchen I discovered Chris Guillebeau. On the surface, Chris is a writer and a traveler. But a few weeks into reading his newsletter and sporadic epistles that pop into my mail box, I've realized what a gift he brings to his readers. As he puts it, he gives people the courage to do something remarkable with their lives.

Yesterday, his message truly struck home with me. Essentially, it was this:

You have to do. Not just think.

Our intentions have no impact. Our actions can effect change--for ourselves, for someone we love, for the world.

What will you do today?

Monday, January 25, 2010

Craft--Writing Prompt/The Crabapple Tree

I had dinner on Friday night with one of the Margies in my profile, a childhood friend with whom I had spent many a lazy summer afternoon playing games of jacks, rescuing injured birds and climbing the gnarled limbs of the crabapple tree that straddled the boundary of our backyards. We kids in the neighborhood had named every branch; it was a place to hold "meetings" or hide with a book.

Take a tree--outside your window or buried in your memory. Create a scene in which it stands at the center.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Craft/Recharging and Catching Up

I've gone missing a few days, between dental surgery, family gatherings (my aunt's wake and my husband's birthday) and taking down the tree (yes, we keep it up this long because we don't mark the end of our holiday celebrations until the birthday).

I'm back again, trying to recharge my dormant creativity. Yesterday I wandered from room to room, teacup in hand, not quite able to summon the words and the discipline that sustain me. I decided to allow myself a few hours--my mouth hurt from the stitches, my brain was rebelling. I even took a nap, curled up with a comforter on our down-filled blue velvet (don't ask!) couch in front of the wood stove.

When I woke up, it was to music. My husband was listening to Bono on YouTube, singing "MLK." In the way that often happens, we found ourselves moving from Bono's version to the Heartland Men's Chorus rendition, which then led us to several other songs by the HMC. I shook off my fatigue and mental paralysis, touched by both their music and their history.

I did two things last night to get back to where I wanted to be: I made a list and I played the piano. The list set out what I wanted to accomplish in the next week, with very specific next steps for each item--even if it was something as simple as printing out an email from my editor. The piano playing was practice in the Zen sense of the word. I empty myself of everything except the notes when I play.

Tonight, as I write, I'm on my way again.

How do you recharge when you falter?

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Discoveries/Jesse Cook

One summer a few years ago, my husband and I were wandering in and out of galleries in Provincetown, Massachusetts. As we drifted from one sculpture to another, a vibrant flamenco guitar played in the background. Curious, we inquired and learned that the musician was a Canadian musician named Jesse Cook. His CD was for sale in the gallery. We bought it, and from that moment became avid fans. One cannot sit still listening to him, and I often find myself dancing around the house as I perform the most mundane of tasks.

When the time came for me to suggest ideas for the cover of my first novel, Dancing on Sunday Afternoons, I recommended that the artist listen to Jesse to understand the spirit and energy of my heroine, Giulia Serafini.

Fast forward to the launch of Dancing. My husband, who does not know the meaning of the word "impossible," seized upon the idea of inviting Jesse and his band to perform at my party. It took him nearly a year. But one Sunday afternoon in March, the celebration that he had envisioned one night listening to Jesse came together in one of the most memorable days of my life: family and friends filling a theater we had rented; dancers from a local conservatory interpreting the rhythms and melodies we had come to love; Jesse Cook and his musicians expressing the joy and exuberance of his compositions; and me, alone in the spotlight with only my words to share.

As I write this tonight, I am listening to Jesse and dancing.

What makes you dance?

Monday, January 11, 2010

Craft/Writing Prompt--A Childhood Memory

I have just come from the wake of my Aunt Clara, who passed away on Friday evening. After offering our condolences to my cousin and her family and sharing our memories of my aunt, my generation gathered to reconnect with one another. As my husband and I drove home, I reminisced about my childhood experiences with many of those present tonight--especially in the Eden that was my grandmother's home in the country.

Take a childhood memory and describe it in the voice of a child.

Friday, January 8, 2010


In my novella "A Daughter's Journey," my heroine, the journalist Melanie Ames, shares a bowl of the Vietnamese national dish, Pho, with ex-Marine Phil Coughlin on a night that changes her life.

“…the food met a need so basic that it quelled the earlier disquiet Mel had felt about being with Phil any longer than absolutely necessary. She swallowed the noodles and shredded cabbage voraciously, registering the warmth, the flecks of hot chili pepper, the intense flavors of garlic and onion and basil from the broth that must have been simmering for days.”

Vegetarian Pho Bo

(Vietnamese Noodle Soup)

8 cups Vietnamese style-broth

1 pound rice noodles
One 8-ounce package seitan, drained
1/4 cup bean sprouts
1/2 cup shredded cabbage

1/2 cup basil leaves
1/2 cup cilantro, coarsely chopped
3 scallions, thinly sliced

3 Tablespoons chopped, roasted, unsalted peanuts (optional)
1 lime, cut into wedges
3 fresh red or green chili peppers, seeded and cut into fine rounds
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

1. Make the broth as directed. When broth has been simmering for about 10 minutes, soak the noodles as follows. Bring 4 quarts of water to boil in a large pot. Remove from heat, add noodles, and let soak around 15 minutes, stirring occasionally until noodles are pliable and easily separated.

2. Drain the noodles and divide them among six bowls. Simmer the seitan in the broth until heated through, about 4 minutes. Remove the seitan with a slotted spoon and slice thinly into six portions. Add to noodles.

3. Assemble the soup by placing the bean sprouts, cabbage, basil, cilantro, scallions, and optional peanuts on top of the noodles and seitan. Ladle the hot broth onto the noodle mixture. Serve with a plate of lime wedges, chili rounds, and salt and pepper for individual seasoning.

Vegetarian Vietnamese-Style Broth
8 cups clear vegetable stock
3 Tablespoons soy sauce
8 medium garlic cloves, peeled and chopped coarsely
1 small onion, diced
One 1-inch piece of ginger
Two 3-inch cinnamon sticks
2 pods of star anise
2 large bay leaves

1. Put stock, soy sauce, garlic, and onion in a large stockpot and bring to a boil over medium heat.

2. Meanwhile, char ginger on all sides over an open gas flame or in a small skillet. Add to the stock.

3. Add the cinnamon sticks, star anise, and bay leaves to the broth. Reduce the heat to low. Simmer, partially covered, for 20-25 minutes. Strain the broth. Adjust seasonings if necessary. Return to pot and keep hot until ready to use in soup.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Encounters/Sharon and Holly

One of the pleasures of the writing life (and there are many) is connecting with other writers. A few years ago I had the good fortune to be invited to spend a weekend writing by the sea with Sharon Wright , a novelist (and now wonderful life coach) I'd met when she attended a writing retreat I ran. Sharon had also invited another writer friend, the journalist (and now novelist) Holly Robinson. The three of us had escaped our daily lives as mothers, wives and jugglers of many tasks to hole up for two days in a small apartment on the beach in the middle of January. We wrote for hours, Sharon and Holly wrapped in quilts with their laptops on the couch, and I with my narrow-ruled pad and fine point pen at a small round table overlooking the water. At night, we ate a meal I had brought (a butterflied leg of lamb marinated in garlic, rosemary, olive oil and lemon juice; roasted red potatoes and baby green beans), drank some very good wine and read out loud to one another what we had written during the day.

We affirmed what was good in one another's prose and offered fresh perspectives and thoughtful commentary. And then we drank some more wine.

I count both women as friends. Although I rarely see them because of the geographic distance between us, our stories link us. My writing has been enriched because of those days I spent with them at the beach, and I feel privileged to have been among the first to hear their words as they were tumbling onto the page.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010


My Aunt Clara turned 101 on Christmas Eve.

Although her hair is now white, she is still the beautiful woman pictured here. The last time I visited with her this summer, her elegant hands had just been manicured in a subtle shade of coral and she sat regally, fully enjoying her role as the matriarch of our extended family.

It is more than Clara's longevity that is an inspiration. She radiates peace and joy that extend to anyone who comes into contact with her. She also has an indomitable spirit, facing pain or sadness with strength and humor (a trait inherited from my equally long-lived grandmother).

Do you know anyone who has lived more than 100 years?

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Discoveries/Madama Butterfly

"But for opera I would never have written Leaves of Grass,"
Walt Whitman is said to have acknowledged in later life.

I first discovered opera when I was a child coloring on the floor in my grandmother's parlor while she listened to the Met broadcast on Saturday afternoons. My memories of the romance between my father and my mother are intricately bound to the melodies of Madama Butterfly. When my husband and I were choosing the music for our wedding ceremony we wanted to honor our parents with pieces that had meaning for them. For my Viennese father-in-law and Bavarian mother-in-law, we chose Mozart. For my parents, it was "Un Bel Di," Cio-Cio-San's hopeful dream of happiness.

I don't know that I would never have written without the influence of opera, but the motifs of Puccini and Verdi that filled my childhood have certainly shaped my vision of the elements of a passionate love story--the backdrop of a specific, climactic moment in history (the fall of Saigon in "A Daughter's Journey," the dismantling of the Berlin Wall in "The Hand That Gives the Rose"); lovers from widely divergent backgrounds thwarted by family, duty or political upheaval (the privileged daughter Giulia defying her conservative family to embrace Paolo, the union organizer with the fiery pen in Dancing on Sunday Afternoons). The stakes are high; the language is lyrical; the ending is not always happy-ever-after but has integrity and coherence in the midst of great sacrifice.

Has a piece of music found its way into what you do?

Monday, January 4, 2010

Craft/Writing Prompt--Word Games

Here's a random list of words (pulled from the well-worn pages of my bright red American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, purchased when I was an editor at its publisher, Houghton Mifflin). Write for twenty minutes, using all the words.

  1. pensive
  2. firebird
  3. brink
  4. acrobat
  5. escalate
  6. lapis lazuli
  7. river
  8. almond
  9. trace
  10. vial
I'll be happy to critique the first three responses I receive in the next 24 hours. Have fun!

Friday, January 1, 2010

Food/Stuffed Artichokes

The holidays when I was growing up were not complete without my mother's extraordinary artichokes--filled with a fragrant stuffing that spilled over the top and filled the spaces between the leaves. Just writing about them makes my mouth water.

Lena’s Stuffed Artichokes
(For 4 servings)

4 large artichokes, with stems
2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped fine
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
1 cup breadcrumbs
½ cup grated Parmeggiano cheese
Olive oil

With kitchen shears, trim the tip of each artichoke leaf straight across.

Slice off the stems of the artichokes close to the base so that artichokes stand upright.

Peel the stems and chop into 1/8” dice.

Mix the chopped stems with the breadcrumbs, parsley, garlic and cheese.

Add olive oil to hold the mixture together.

Spread open the top of the artichoke, forming a cavity, and stuff with the breadcrumb mixture. Add more stuffing between the leaves.

Arrange stuffed artichokes in a heavy pan. Drizzle with olive oil.

Fill the pan with about one inch of water

Cover the pan and bring water to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook for about 45 minutes, checking to make sure that water has not evaporated (add more if necessary).

Artichokes are done when a leaf can be pulled off easily.

Eat by pulling off one leaf at a time and scraping teeth along the inside of the leaf.