Friday, April 22, 2011

The art of eating and the joys of cooking

What I'm reading on my trip:
Memoirs of Deborah Mitford, Duchess of Devonshire
Architectural Digest, Dec 2010 issue
Monocle, March 2011 issue
Vanity Fair, Dec 2010 issue
The Art of Eating, Feb 2011 issue

What's on my iPod:
Heart of the Matter
version by Indie Arie
originally sung by Don Henley of Eagles

I know I'm supposed to post Part 2 of my series of blog entries on "lessons learned while traveling solo" today; but I thought I'd interrupt this with a short entry about a couple of things I'm reading right now. In Manila, I never have time to read books or magazines except just before turning out the lights and calling it a day -- and I always read a chapter or two of books this way; on my night table back in Manila now is a biography of Russian Grand Duke Michael Aleksandrovich, once heir to the Russian throne -- but I try and make up for this lack of reading time by bringing a book and lots of old issues of magazines when I travel.


On this trip, I'm reading the recently-published memoirs of Deborah Mitford, the youngest of the famous Mitford sisters and perhaps the luckiest, for she married the Duke of Devonshire and became mistress of Chatsworth, one of England's grandest private homes. I've always been interested in this particular period and genre of life that Deborah Mitford presided over, for it almost spans two of our greatest wars and covers a period when life changed forever for the aristocracy all over Europe. The way some of the world's most enlightened and educated people coped with crises and handled a permanent change to their way of life forever fascinates me. So far, the book is full of amazing recollections and witty accounts of a life that has practically vanished forever.


Deborah Mitford is not the only talented writer in the family either. Her sister Nancy Mitford wrote a biographic tale of Madame de Pompadour, mistress of Louis XV and one of the most enlightened women of her generation, that I personally consider one of the best stories of Madame de Pompadour that I have ever read. I'm a great fan of this intelligent woman who made the most of her abilities and who also was gifted with charm and emotional intelligence. I use the word intelligent liberally here, but she was at least intelligent for her time, which was a period when many women were not formally educated after a certain age.

Anyway, she captured Louis XV's heart for 20 years via a mixture of charm, grace, smarts, caring and humanity -- and at a time when every female who crossed his path was throwing herself at him. Nancy Mitford's book is among the best-written and most enthralling portraits of Madame de Pompadour, although I understand that she took some liberties with the facts.


I'm also reading a back issue of The Art of Eating, an independent magazine produced by Edward Behr, one of America's top food critics. This made me think about food this afternoon, including both eating it and cooking it. Both are sources of joy. Lately I've been doing more cooking than usual in Manila (although I still eat out about 90% of the time) and I find I'm enjoying these chances to create something with materials instead of with words for a change.


Regular readers of this blog -- and some friends reading this blog -- will know that I hardly cook in Manila because my evenings are usually booked with something else. However I do cook a lot when I'm abroad because I have the time and also the inclination. Seeing all the beautiful produce available abroad really puts me in the mood to create wonderful meals. I also like the challenge of making something from limited resources. After all, it's a strange kitchen and new ingredients when you're cooking overseas.

When I'm in a major city for at least a week and staying in an apartment or home, I often host dinner parties for all my friends living in that city, along with friends traveling with me. I've done this a couple of times now in Paris (where I had 18 people for dinner), London (30 people!), New York (25 people), Hong Kong and Tokyo. Once I did an around-the-world trip for two months and I sent out a general invite to friends in the vicinity of Europe and the East Coast giving the dates of dinners I was hosting in Paris, London and New York. Lots of people came and it was great fun -- even for me, who had to cook all day for each dinner.

It's lots of fun to see what's available in each city in terms of ingredients and then to just let inspiration guide me. I've almost never cooked with a recipe, as cooking to me is all about a feeling -- a feeling about what ingredients will go well together, and about how a dish I'm imaging in my mind should taste like.

But in the past weeks, I'm also cooking more in Manila. Many friends have come over for dinner recently and, after months if not years of eating out every single night, I've rediscovered how relaxing it is both for my guests and for myself to just hang out and chill at home. However, as I'm really busy with work when I'm in Manila, preparing dinner is just slightly more stressful to me compared to cooking abroad, when I'm usually on holiday and can actually think about a menu full-time.


If it's a weekend dinner in Manila, I usually only think about my menu on the day itself. One of my friends who likes to invite himself over for dinner once teasingly asked me by a phone message on a Wednesday what I'd be serving him that Sunday night. I think I was abroad then and only returning to Manila on Saturday so the menu for a Sunday dinner was still far from my mind. I texted back this exact message: "You'll eat what I serve, I'll cook what I like, and I'm only thinking about this on Sunday morning." Fortunately, he seemed to like what I cooked that night as he ate everything on his plate.


Last weekend, I cooked dinner two nights in a row -- I had very different guests and menus, so Sunday night dinner was definitely not a leftover meal. I made a pasta and a pork dish on Saturday and a foie gras salad and beef dish on Sunday. For weekend cooking, I like going to one of the weekend markets -- Salcedo on Saturdays and Legazpi on Sundays, plus Mercato Centrale -- to see what ingredients catch my attention and inspiration, and then I work on a menu in my mind from there. I find that if you have good ingredients, the work is half-done. So far, so good.

I also have an informal rule about my dinners in Manila, so I don't get overly-stressed about them. If I have to do the cooking and the entertaining, such as when I only have one guest, then I like menus that are fairly simple and cooking processes that either short and sweet, or something I can do in advance or on the table with a burner so I can talk to my guest while cooking. If I don't have to do the entertaining myself, such as if I'm going to have a bunch of people over who can talk to each other fairly easily, then I go for something more elaborate that will take more time and effort.

Tonight I'm still abroad and I've decided to cook a dinner. Perhaps I was inspired by reading The Art of Eating. I thought I'd do a spaghetti with a very strong ragu sauce, as it goes well with red wine and it's something I haven't done in a long time. The best ragu sauce I've had was on a trip to Bologna with my best friend. I've never forgotten it and I just hope I can recreate it tonight. As usual, no recipe. Just feeling -- and lots of tomatoes.

Lessons learned from solo travel, part 2
to be continued in the next entry

Travelife's Special Summer Issue
with Angel Aquino in Boracay
Angel Aquino in Bora
for Travelife Magazine's April-May 2011 issue


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