The Kindness of Strangers

Like it or not, we all depend on the kindness of strangers in life. You know what I mean – the young girl in the store who hands you back a $10.00 bill when you have given her too much money for your purchase. The lady who stops traffic for the duck family when she sees them crossing the street. The neighbor who brings you kid’s ball back to them when it goes across the street into his yard so they don’t have to cross the street. The waitress who runs after you because you left your cell phone on the table. You know what I mean.

FQ1A1306Today, a stranger returned my wallet that I lost 3 months ago in Northampton. I lost it at night – it fell out of my purse as I was dashing from my car to meet a friend. Once I realized that I did not have my wallet, I went out to the parking lot where I was sure that I had lost it but it was not there. Ransacked my car and purse, too. I went home and contacted several restaurants in the vicinity, but no one had turned it in. I kept my eye on my credit card purchases on-line for a few hours in case someone used the card, but no one did.

I waited a few more hours before cancelling my credit cards and notifying the Police. I returned the next morning to the place where I lost my wallet, but snow had come in overnight and the plows had already been there. I went back there a few more times, too, in better weather, but found nothing.

From that time forward I was never contacted by someone who had found my wallet. Nor did anything nefarious seen to occur because of this loss. I wondered about my wallet but was grateful that all it proved to be was a minor inconvenience. I was fortunate.

Today, I found a manila envelope with my name on it neatly placed in my mailbox. I thought it was perhaps something silly from a friend or neighbor. Instead, there was my wallet and a small note.

It was just as I last saw it – no scratches, no water stains, no damage of any kind. It was still soft and plump as ever from all the receipts and the this-and-that I stuff into it. I was thrilled to feel its smooth black leather which has developed a nice patina. I had begun the search for a new wallet recently but could not find one to measure up to this one.

I opened my wallet and surveyed the contents – all my credit cards ( now worthless ) were there, my prize discount card from a local frame shop, a points card from my local used book store, my driver’s license, medical card, grocery store cards, etc, all present and accounted for. Appointment cards for appointments past. Even the money was still there.

The whereabouts of my wallet still has an air of mystery about it. I may never know where it has been for 3 months nor the name of the person who so kindly returned it to me. It doesn’t appear to have been exposed to the rough winter weather, but I am sure that I lost it outside.

I only know that a stranger with a good heart drove a good far piece to the address on my driver’s license and did the right thing. The note inside of the envelope only said ” FOUND THIS IN NORTHAMPTON.’

I have no way to thank them, but I guess that was their goal. If they wanted thanks or a reward, they would have known what to do. I will keep this good karma going and donate the money that was in my wallet (plus a bit extra) to our local animal shelter.

For this kind stranger, doing something honest for someone else was as natural as breathing out and breathing in. We need more of this in today’s world.

Cookbooks I Love: My Calabria: Rustic Family Cooking from Italy’s Undiscovered South.


It is hard to believe that the authoritative book My Calabria: Rustic Family Cooking from Italy’s Undiscovered South is a first book for author Rosetta Constantino, a Calabrian native from the village of Verbicaro.

Rosetta now lives in the San Franciso area, and has collaborated with food writer Janet Fletcher on this lovely, soul-satisfying book. Like many  cookbooks that guide us on an exploration of  the culture and place as well as the food and cuisine, My Calabria introduces us to the cucina povera of this rural region of southern Italy. With a friendly style and the knowledge of a local, Rosetta introduces us to tidbits of culture, local festivals, important regional foodstuffs, and a way of life that is sharply focused on kitchen tasks, food, and seasonally prepared dishes.

I discovered a wonderful review of My Calabria on the blog: The Travelers Lunchbox. This delightful food and travel blog is written by Melissa Kronenthal, a talented writer and photographer. (Sadly, but hopefully temporarily, Melissa seems to have stopped posting to her blogs. This has been one of my favorite blogs and I am a big fan of Melissa’s work.)

Click on this link to read Melissa’s entire review of My Calabria.

I am quoting a portion of what she wrote here: “The heart of this book, though, is its recipes. It’s by no means a comprehensive work nor does it try to be; instead Rosetta has distilled the collection to reflect what makes Calabrian food different and unique, and to explain the what, why and how so that we can really understand the food. Above all her recipes introduce us to the simplicity of Calabrian food and the tremendous respect placed on both quality and thrift. Vegetables are celebrated in dozens of different forms, including fried, stuffed, marinated and folded inside pitta, the local cheeseless double-crusted pizza; animal parts you or I might throw away here feature in succulent dishes like braciole di cotenne, braised pork-skin rolls; and nothing but flour, water and a deft technique are used to make dromësat, a couscous-like specialty of the ancient Arbëresh community. The building blocks of Calabrian cuisine are well-covered too, things like the local hot fennel sausage, home-canned tomato sauce and rustic, chewy pane calabrese.”

This earthy recipe is very southern Italian in feeling, and the preparation of the tomatoes, olives and capers is something akin to combinations that my Grandmother used over the year with various fish dishes. The green olives and the salt-packed capers are both essential to the flavor and spirit of this dish – please do not substitute black olives or capers packed in vinegar.

Pesce Spada Alla Ghiotta

( Swordfish with Olives and Capers )

This dish matches meaty swordfish steaks with a rustic, briny sauce of tomatoes, olives and capers.

  • 4 swordfish steaks, about 6 ounces each and 3/8 ” thick, skin removed
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
  • 2 cups whole peeled canned tomatoes, drained and minced
  • 1/2 cup large green olives (such as cerignola), pitted and roughly chopped
  • 3 tablespoons sals-packed capers, soaked and drained
  • 1/4 teaspoon crushed red chile flakes
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

1. Season swordfish with salt and pepper. Heat oil in a 12″ skillet over high heat. Working in two batches, add swordfish and cook, flipping once, until golden brown and medium rare, about 3 minutes. Transfer swordfish to plate, leaving oil in skillet.

2. Reduce heat to medium; add garlic and cook, stirring, until soft, about 3 minutes. Add tomatoes, olives, capers, and the chile flakes and cook, stirring, until tomatoes soften and release some of their juices, about 5 minutes.

3. Return swordfish steaks to skillet, nestling them in the sauce, and all parsley and lemon juice; cook until fish is cooked through. To serve, transfer swordfish to platter and spoon sauce over top.

Cookbooks I Love: Rustica A Return to Spanish Home Cooking

Rustica: A Return to Spanish Home Cooking by Frank Camorra and Richard Cornish
( Chronicle Books, 2011).

Simply put, I love everything about this book. The cover makes me swoon, and the artwork, layout and design, the feel of the paper, the stories, the recipe selections, the photographs, and the tone of the overall content gets my blood racing.

Do I know the authors? No, but I wish I did.

Have I been to Spain? No, but I am ready.Co-author Frank Camorra wrote the cookbook MoVida, which I also own. I like that book and the style is similar, but something about the design and the presentation is a little too blunt for me.

In  Rustica: A Return to Spanish Home Cooking  Frank’s food is simple and the tone of the book is confident. Vignettes about culture, stories and information about ingredients and foodstuffs, and lush, dreamy photographs (kudos to photographer Alan Benson ) of Spanish life that roam time and place add to the appeal. The book captures the essence of food and place in a charming, warm way. And it comes neatly wrapped in a down-to-earth yet seductive volume that is hard to put down.

I like the idea behind the book, too. Frank journeyed through his native land and found more than 120 savory and sweet recipes from people in villages across Spain. He tailored these recipes which showcase the everyday foods that Spanish people eat. Not the fancy cutting edge foods that have become world-famous, but the dishes that are the foundations of Spanish food, the bedrock of traditions on which Spanish cooking is based.

The recipes feature centuries-old traditions,  super-spicy and divinely mellow dishes, charcoal-fired meats, vegetables dishes, seafood and fish specialties and simple sweet desserts in chapters titled:  In the Kitchen Garden; Sherry, Salt & Fish; The Jamon Phenomenon; Red Food; Preserving Food; Catalan Traditions; The Green Coast; The Basque Kitchen; Cooking with Fire; and Andalusia – The Moors Great Legacy

In the introduction Frank writes: ” …...this is probably why the food in this book is the simplest form of  Spanish food – food that was particularly popular at a time when Spain was poor and had to be prepared in a manner determined by poverty. But poverty meant resourcefulness in feeding the family. …….I also wanted to make a note of the ‘ old school’ techniques used across the nation.”

In an era of foams and molecular gastronomy, this is a return to the past and the roots of the cuisine. Co-author Richard Cornish is a television producer and food writer. Perhaps it is his influence that tamed the MoVida beast and gave it charm and charisma. His bio on the back of the book says this about him: “ He writes about the connection between the land, producer, chef and consumer and its significance to food diversity and taste.”

Amen. Together, these authors have created a humble tone, with a human element, and delicious recipes, which is compelling stuff. The cover design is printed on the book itself; there is no additional dust jacket to come between the hands of the cook and the book.

Adobo De Pollo / Chicken Skewers Marinated with Smoked Paprika and Oregano

This recipe features smoked paprika and is inspired by the skewers of grilled meat served at summer agricultural fairs – ferrias.

  • 2 & 1/2 lbs skinless chicken thigh meat, cut into 1-inch chunks
  • 2 tablespoons smoked paprika
  • 1 tablespoon cumin seeds, roasted and ground
  • 3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 3 tablespoons finely chopped parsley
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1/2 teaspoon saffron threads
  • 1 teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

1. Combine all of the ingredients in a large bowl, cover with plastic wrap and marinate in the refrigerator overnight.

2. Thread the chicken meat onto 12 metal skewers. Heat a charcoal grill or grill pan to high. Cook the chicken skewers for 5 minutes, or until cooked through, turning regularly. Allow to cool slightly, then serve.

Christmas in Alsace and Germany

This Christmas, Bob and I celebrated our first real Christmas in 38 years.

Christmas Tree in Strasbourg, France

Christmas Tree in Strasbourg, France

Since we downsized our store this summer to a smaller space, we shed much responsibility and stress. Now our life is concentrated exclusively on our tea, and we have  something that we are not used to – some free time, and easier life-management. While we are far from retired, we have renewed energy and feel young and almost carefree again. So in a decision based on sheer fun and self-indulgence, we decided to do something that we have always longed to do – visit Christmas Market in the Alsace region of France and parts of Germany. So we made a plan, booked flights, hotels and  trains for late November and let the anticipation build. We were not disappointed.

Colmar, France

Colmar, France

Christmas Markets begin their festivities in the days right before Advent and continue up until Christmas Day. The markets continue a tradition of selling and trading and gathering people together for joyful celebration that began 400-500 years ago in medieval cities and towns across Europe. Today, this festive spirit continues in most cities and many small towns, in the main medieval market square or in the streets surrounding a cathedral or prominent church in the heart of old town. According to our friend Peter, who lives in Stuttgart, Germany, each village with more than 4,000 inhabitants has its own Christmas Market – or Weihnachtsmarkt – as they are known in Germany. Regional differences in the crafts and the foods sold bring different a flavor to each market, so it is best to visit several markets, both city and village, to experience the local specialties.

A vendor stall in front of Strasbourg Cathedral

A vendor stall in front of Strasbourg Cathedral

Christmas Market, Nurnberg, Germany

Christmas Market, Nurnberg, Germany

But no matter if the market is large or small, the air is scented with the sweet perfume of spices, honey, carmel, gingerbread, and hot spiced wine, and the savory aroma of sausages grilling over a wood fire. For us, after years of selling European holiday goodies in our store – Pan d’Epice and Fruit Breads from France; Marzipan, Lebkuchen, and Stollen from Germany – this trip allowed us to taste these goodies in their historical places, and to appreciate many variations of these celebrated treats.

Candies and confections in a shop window

Candies and confections in a shop window

Two varieties of Lebkuchen

Two varieties of Lebkuchen

While Christmas Market reflects the tastes of today, it embraces the traditional past and speaks to people of all ages from many countries. We heard many languages being spoken as we wandered in these lovely towns and cities, and we were astonished at the crowds – Christmas Market is very much alive and well. Merry-makers filled the streets day and night, but the best atmosphere was in the evening when the sun went down and the lights came on. Everything from vendor stalls to timbered houses are illuminated and wrapped in a warm cozy glow. Can you see the tidal-wave of people in this photograph?

Getting close to the Nurnberg Christmas Market!

Saturday afternoon – just arriving at the Nurnberg Christmas Market!

It was delightful to see people of all ages laughing, hoisting a glass together and singing along with the street choirs and having a joyful time. Shopping temptations were many and I saw a majority of  visitors carrying large tote bags filled with goodies and purchases. Grandparents found plenty of treats, edible and not, for their grandchildren. It was easy to fall in love with adorable wooden toys, carefully sewn stuffed animals, old-world inspired tree ornaments, elegant glass decorations, hand-crafted wool ornaments, stables and manger figures, and other lovely items.


Glass Temptations

Lebkuchen Santa cookies

Lebkuchen Santa cookies

We shopped at vendor stalls and selected small, hand-crafted tree trimmings and decorations made of pewter, wood-shavings and lace; indulged in many kinds of local sausages; drank local wine and beer, and of course, also enjoyed many glasses of the holiday spiced wine known as Vin Chaud in France and Glühwein Germany.

A very popular Christmas Market stall

A very popular Christmas Market stall

We wandered in and out of charming old book stores, lusted over and purchased a few reproduction gingerbread cookie molds, visited nearly every church and cathedral to be found, and took in as much feeling and atmosphere of the old city streets as we could.
In both France and Germany, many food vendors work in their stalls – roasting chestnuts, caramelizing almonds, baking Lebkuchen gingerbread cookies, fruitbreads, etc. We were enthralled watching them work and the aromas of their foods was enticing. These displays of cakes and confections was very appealing, and shoppers were quick to snap up the best looking offerings.

Rich, honeyed fruit breads

Rich, honeyed fruit breads

In Germany, we watched a glass artist put the finishing touches on a richly colored piece of stained glass that depicted a drummer clad in medieval tunic and stockings keeping time on his drum. Around the corner we joined a crowd of onlookers who were mesmerized watching a baker who was giving the final decorative touches to a sheet pan of spicy Lebkuchen cookies.

Decorating a tray of ready-to-bake Lebkuchen

Decorating a tray of ready-to-bake Lebkuchen

Old poster in a shop window

Old Lebkuchen-vendor poster in a shop window

In Alsace, city streets leading to the old square are festooned with lights and decorations, and shopkeepers add to the magical atmosphere by decorating buildings and storefronts with elaborate decorations and themes.


Pedestrian street Strasbourg, France

specialty food shop in Strasbourg, France

Above the awning of a specialty food shop in Strasbourg, France

Elegant Christmas-inspired  storefront decorations

Elegant Christmas-inspired storefront decorations

In Nurnberg, we awoke on our last full day to an overnight snowfall. It continued to snow throughout the day, adding to the fairy-tale feeling of this place. We feel truly blessed to have been able to experience a little taste of European Christmas and look forward to more years of such adventures.

My new friend!

My new friend!