a few years ago, I studied abroad in beijing. I had heard about the air quality and imagined that it would look something like los angeles, but the reality, a greyish-yellow fog that often obscured buildings across the street, was unlike anything I had ever experienced before. within days, I had developed a hacking cough that made it nearly impossible to speak in full sentences, a condition that ex-pats termed the “beijing cough”.
a few weeks later, my cough had finally disappeared and my abroad program held a food preparation contest judged by our chinese professors. my friend and I, both huge dessert fiends, wanted to do something sweet, but in the hot and humid beijing climate, we did not want to use too much heat. we settled on rice krispie treats, trekking to a large carrefour to find marshmallows and rice krispie cereal, then melting it all together in a giant pot we borrowed from a chinese student. we actually ended up winning the contest because our chinese professors had never seen rice krispie treats before and thought they were really exotic and creative!
the contest took place on one of the few sunny days of that summer. the sky was a clear cloudless blue. the night before, a thunderstorm had hit with raindrops so huge, they hurt when they hit my bare skin. we half-joked that the government could control the weather, could create a rainstorm so ferocious that it washed away all the pollution. whether it was true or not, the day after a thunderstorm in beijing was always clear and blue.
I cannot even remember what my friend and I won – it was probably some coupons to a local bubble tea store. but I do remember eating warm watermelon in the sweltering heat, happy to be able to see across the street for the first time in weeks and feeling like I could breathe again.
in the wake of dangerously high levels of air pollution that have made the city almost unlivable, beijing has issued its first red alert for the first time. and for the first time, the chinese government has put environmental concerns before its emphasis on rapid economic growth through industrialization and signed on to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.
and here in the northeast, global warming has now made it possible to frolic on a beach in december, then head into the city for some outdoor ice skating (because apparently we still are willing to waste energy for “winter traditions”). so save some energy and add these (super-legitimate chinese teacher’s) award-winning, no-bake rice crispy treats into your holiday sweets repertoire.
1 grease an 8×8-in square pan. 2 in a large pot, melt butter over medium-low heat. using a silicone spatula, stir frequently until it turns brown and begins to smell nutty. immediately turn off the heat and mix in the vanilla paste. 3 stir in the marshmallows until smooth. if they are not completely melted, stir over low heat until completely smooth. add salt and stir until well-combined. 4 remove pot from stove and stir in rice krispie cereal. using spatula, quickly press into prepared pan. 5 let cool completely (~1 hr), cut into squares, and serve.
I have struggled to put my experience on the camino de santiago into words. it has somehow proved impossible to convey just how incredible it was – it seems that no one can quite understand how walking and talking and washing clothes and lukewarm to cold showers every day for weeks and weeks could somehow be an amazing experience. hell, when I distill it to the physical happenings of each day, even I question whether I’m viewing it in retrospect with rose-tinted shades. but the answer is always no, it is and probably always will be one of my most special memories.
when I first set out, I doubted I could do it. people told me that should I decide I had “had enough,” there was no shame in buying a ticket and returning to the states earlier. but through all the pain and all the moments where it seemed that another step would snap my legs or the weight of my backpack would split my shoulders, I kept walking. and walking. through forests of ferns taller than me, through days of cold rain that sapped the feeling out of my frozen fingers, through fields and fields of green-gold wheat, through mud so thick, it stuck to the soles of my shoes in misshapen lumps. every day, I could tangibly sense that I was getting stronger than I had ever felt before. I reveled in the feeling of walking, of knowing that there was a destination somewhere down the path and knowing that I would eventually reach it, that I eventually must reach it.
there was a certainty, a rhythm to the days: I would awaken before sunrise, pack my life into my bag, munch on a granola bar, then set out. I would walk, alone or alongside others, sometimes with laughter and conversation, other times in silence. I would breathe in the smells of the early morning, feel the heat slowly radiate across the empty landscape before me, warming my numb limbs and face. I would bask in the friendliness of the locals (one of whom handed out whiskey-flavored candies, took my hands, and told me “forte!”) and in the companionship with people who ended up becoming confidantes and close friends, or whose names I never learned, but whose faces became familiar as we followed the same path towards santiago de compostela.
when my friends and I arrived in león, we fell in love. the old city of león is built of warm brown sandstone, which looked especially welcoming in the brilliant afternoon sunlight. as we lounged beneath umbrellas at a café in the cobblestoned square, we knew that we would stay for another day. we watched amazing kid-prodigy dance groups, ate delicious food, and chatted over cervezas and gin and tonics (served in huge goblets) until we could barely keep our eyes open. the city thrummed with people celebrating summer and life and who-knows-what-else in endless festivities all weekend.
before I came to spain, I always arrived in new places with a prepared agenda, then immediately set out to see everything that there was to see. but in león, we spent an entire afternoon in an alleyway outside a bar, and it was perfect. inside, vendors had set up some kind of fair with food, drink, and exotic trinkets. outside, local bands played as street artists sculpted and hurled paint on large canvases like some kind of performance art. I had the best paella I have ever eaten: a slow burn of savory mushroom and chicken flavors imbued in pliantly chewy grains of rice, no fancy seafood in sight. it is the paella of the spanish meseta, where endless fields of wheat form a rippling sea under the merciless sunlight, where the water tastes slightly of clay. for me, it is the paella of my camino experience, a dish best served up in a large pan to a crowd (and accompanied by wine, of course), a dish that celebrates the transcendent beauty of the ordinary.
makes 4-6 servings
10 ripe plum tomatoes (~20oz of tomatoes) or 14oz can of peeled plum tomatoes
1/2 cup spanish extra-virgin olive oil
2 small spanish onions, peeled and finely chopped
1/2 tsp sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp pimentón (spanish sweet paprika)
1 bay leaf paella
2 tbsp spanish extra-virgin olive oil
4-6 buffalo wings, cut into small pieces
1/2 pound flavorful mushrooms (I used shiitake and maitake)
3 oz green beans, cut into 1-in pieces
1 garlic clove, peeled and finely chopped
2 tbsp chopped jamón serrano (I used proscuitto)
1/4 cup dry white wine
1/4 cup sofrito
1 quart chicken stock
1 generous pinch saffron threads
1 bay leaf
1 tbsp salt
1 1/2 cups spanish bomba or arborio rice
josé andrés. tapas: a taste of spain in america. new york: clarkson potter/publishers, 2005.
sofrito|1 heat oil in medium saucepan over medium-low flame. add onions, sugar and salt. cook, stirring occasionally with wooden spoon, until onions become soft and tender and turn light brown, ~45 minutes. (if they get too dark, add 1/2 tbsp water to prevent burning.) 2 while onions simmer, cut tomatoes in half. using a grater over a mixing bowl, grate open faces of tomatoes until all the flesh is grated. discard skin. 3 add reserved tomato purée, pimenton, and bay leaf to onion mixture. cook for ~20 minutes over medium heat. the sofrito is ready when tomato has broken down and deepened in color, and the oil has separated from the sauce. paella|1 heat olive oil in paella pan over high heat. add chicken and sauté until it is well-browned on all sides, ~8 minutes. remove and set aside. 2 add mushrooms to paella pan and sauté over medium heat until they are golden, ~3 minutes. add green beans and garlic and cook for another 3 minutes. return chicken to the pan, and add the ham. 3 return heat to high, pour in white wine, and cook until it is reduced by half, ~1 minute. add sofrito and cook for 3 minutes. pour in chicken stock and bring to a boil. crush saffron and add it to pan, along with bay leaf. season with salt. (you want it a little salty because when you add the rice, the flavor will balance out.) 4 add rice, taking care to spread it evenly around pan. cook for 5 minutes over high heat, stirring frequently with a wooden spoon. (rice should be floating around the pan; if not, add 1/2 cup stock or water.) 5 reduce heat to low and cook at slow boil for 10 minutes, or until liquid is absorbed. (never put your finger or spoon in paella during this cooking, or the seal will break, liquid will escape, and the rice will cook unevenly!) 6 remove pan from heat, place lid on top, and let sit for 3 minutes. The stock should be absorbed by rice and there should be a nice shine on top of paella. serve immediately.