And thus my dinner plate in an unfamiliar city
with its rivers and lighted bridges
was graced not only with chilled wine
and lemon slices but with compassion and sorrow
even after the waiter removed my plate
with the head of the fish still staring
and the barrel vault of its delicate bones
terribly exposed, save for a shroud of parsley.
[excerpt from The Fish, a poem by Billy Collins]
Cooking up rose petals and creating Dyn-o-mite photos
Since then, the globe-trotting blog that documents Sarah’s dishes – and her response to her son – has delighted a worldwide audience.
When I caught up with her, just two countries shy of the finish line, she was busy constructing a “still” on her stovetop for Yemeni shortbread cookies.
Not content to rely on bottled rose water, Sarah lay a flat a brick at the bottom of her well-scrubbed lobster pot, and placed a small metal bowl atop the brick. Next, she tossed in a couple handfuls of rose petals picked from her garden. The petals lay on the bottom of the pot. Then she poured in just enough water to cover the petals.
Atop the lobster pot, she placed the cover – inverted. Into the cover she piled two or three ice cube trays of ice, then lit the flame on high to boil the water. Once the “petal water” heated, the steam condensed on the underside of the pot cover and dripped into the metal bowl below.
The resulting rose water was less sweet, less intense, than the bottled version, but still flavorful.
As for the cookies, they were to die for. Cookie Heaven in any culture. They even smelled heavenly.
The previous night, Sarah researched Yemen’s customs, culture and food for the blog post. After she locates a recipe, she typically converts from kilos and grams, and looks for other changes to make; in this case, replacing the Indian clarified butter known as ghee with somewhat healthier canola oil.
For an Angolan dish, Arroz Integral com Manteiga de Amendoim e Bananas and Chicken, she eschewed the red palm oil it called for. “That sh*t is really bad,” she wrote in her posting. “Plus it would be really hard to find around this white bread town.”
As she shaped her cookies, 17-year-old Tim wandered in and brushed his teeth at the kitchen sink. It was his challenge to expand her dinner repertoire that inspired the project originally.
That afternoon, Sarah brought a batch of cookies to her backyard with tripod and camera, re-arranging the plate more than a dozen times. “It’s like Christmas when I plug the photo card into the computer and see how the images turned out.”
If Sarah’s cooking skills were on par with her photography when she embarked on this project, she likely would have quit after Antigua.
But she improved by leaps and bounds, and her husband, Liam, rewarded her with a sophisticated D-SLR camera and high-quality tripod. She doesn’t own Photoshop and doesn’t have the time to manipulate her images. “I like the image to look like it does on my plate.”
Nevertheless, the high-quality shots reflect the time and care she devotes to them; rich in color and awash in natural light. They greatly enhance her blog posts, both illustrating her recipe steps and lending an artistic charm.
Attending a photography class helped, but she still glazes over when discussion turns to f-stops. She prefers to devote her attention to props, enhancing her photos with the dishes, fabrics and other items she loves to collect. “I purged the collection [years ago], but it all came back when I started this project.”
Ghraybeh (Shortbread Cookies) from Yemen
clarified butter (ghee) or canola oil
Plus a few staple ingredients
Mix together the butter, sugar, and rose water. Sift together the dry ingredients, stir into the butter mixture and chill dough. Then shape the dough into cookies, arrange on baking sheets, and bake. Complete recipe here.
Rosemary Shortbread Cookies
Sarah Commerford calls these her favorite cookies of all time. They’re from Joanne Chang’s baking book, Flour, which she heartily endorses. The cookies are not too sweet, and have just the right amount of fresh rosemary, “which lends them a sublimely delicate, savory flavor and fragrance – a more elegant cookie does not exist. I’m that sure.”
Sarah, a salt freak, substituted sea salt for kosher salt. The larger grain salt provides “little random crunchy bursts of saltiness,” which your tongue will appreciate as much as hers, hopefully.
The cookies use just 8 ingredients: light brown sugar, cornstarch, and fresh rosemary. Also sea salt (optional), Plus a few staple ingredients. Complete recipe here.
If you want to find out why Sarah loves her Salter scale for baking, go here.
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