Sunday, July 26, 2009


On Friday afternoon I sat at a table outside of a bistro in the hills above Grasse, France. The pale blue sea was visible in the distance. The air smelled of salt.

Ten of us were there together to eat lunch. An international group, hailing from places like India and Argentina, we are all in the midst of an intensive course on scent at the Grasse Institute of Perfumery. Grasse itself, speckled with fields of jasmine and firms of fragrance, is the birthplace of the perfume industry and remains vibrant and involved today. We spend long days in class sniffing thin paper strips, the tips of which have been dipped into bottles of raw materials like bergamot, lavender, and galbanum. I’m deep into work on my book and on my nose, and thus far I can smell them all. The scent of cistus, an aromatic and woody flowering plant from Spain, brings me straight to the The New England Spring Flower Show, an annual event that filled cavernous rooms in the Bayside Expo Center with the scent of earth and smoke and pine, and where my father brought me every year when I was small.

As we sat around the table on Friday, speaking of little else than smell, a portly man with a shock of white hair tied back in a ponytail brought out a massive steaming plate and plunked it down in front of us all. Paella: a rice dish rich with paprika and saffron, with chicken and mussels and squid. Though originally from Spain, it is the specialty of this coastal French chef. It glowed in orange and red, punctuated with the pink of prawns. Everyone leaned in to sniff before taking the first bite.

Later, we finished with pie. The tarte au citron smelled of lemon and brown sugar. It was light and sweet and tasted of summer.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Salad Days

I haven't slept in the same place for more than two weeks since March.

I moved in the first days of that month, from a dark little sublet in Manhattan's East Village to a tiny studio in Brooklyn. Matt and I traveled -- to Argentina, where we explored the foothills of the Andes and ate more red meat than I thought possible, and to New Orleans, where we saw his family -- before he had to report for duty. Once he was in uniform and I was back in New York, we spent weekends in St. Louis and in Louisiana, a countdown of days before he deployed to Afghanistan.

Since Matt left, I've traveled for work, interviewing scientists and chefs in Philadelphia and Chicago. I've seen family in Boston and on Martha's Vineyard. I attended a bachelorette party on Cape Cod, complete with matching pink tank tops and a sun-drenched afternoon at the beach. I just got back from North Carolina where I spent a long weekend with friends, scouting farms for their distant but approaching wedding, eating heirloom tomatoes and popsicles made of mangoes and chili. Next week I'm going to France, where I'll spend two weeks doing reporting and research for my book. These trips are exciting and fun, and I feel lucky to have the opportunity. But, ack, I'm exhausted just typing it all out.

I stayed here in New York for one weekend in the last month. I sat in Prospect Park with friends on the Fourth of July, a breezy but clear Saturday afternoon. We ate couscous and noodles with peanut sauce, homemade challah with butter and jam. I made a colorful chopped salad with basil and a balsamic vinaigrette. There was white wine and a buttermilk cake studded with blackberries and plums.

It was sunny and calm. Kids played frisbee nearby and I could hear a group of hip-looking twenty-somethings jamming on an acoustic guitar from behind a tree. I felt relaxed for the first time in a while. We watched the clouds overhead and I remembered to breathe. That night, I slept well in my own bed.

Crazy Chopped Salad with Basil and Balsamic Vinaigrette
Adapted from Peter Berley's The Modern Vegetarian Kitchen

This salad is large and colorful with the vibrant flavors of summer. I left out the radicchio and some of the herbs, simply due to the contents of my fridge, and a lack of desire to spend too much money on herbs that I would not have time to use again before my next trip out of the city. Even without the dill, mint and cilantro, though, the salad was refreshing and delicious.

3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1 teaspoon whole-grain mustard
5 tablespoons olive oil

2 ears sweet corn
1 cup string beans, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
4 cups romaine lettuce, chopped
2 carrots, peeled and chopped
2 fennel bulbs, trimmed and chopped
1 head radicchio, cored and chopped (though I left this one out...)
2 ripe tomatoes, cored and choped
1 yellow bell pepper, seeded and chopped
1 cucumber, seeded and chopped
1 small red onion, chopped
5 radishes, trimmed and chopped
2 tablespoons each of dill, mint, and cilantro (I left these out as well...)
10 fresh basil leaves, torn

Garnish: with fresh goat cheese, optional

-In a small bowl, combine vinegar, garlic, mustard and 1 teaspoon salt. Whisk in oil until creamy and emulsified, and set aside.

-Bring a large pot of water to boil and add salt. Add corn and beans when it comes back to a boil. Cook for 2 minutes and then drain. Shock in a bowl of ice water. Slice the kernels away from the cobs, and put both corn and beans into a large salad bowl.

-Add the lettuce, carrots, fennel, radicchio, tomatoes, yellow pepper, cucumber, onion, radishes and all the herbs to the salad bowl as well. Pour the dressing over and toss well. Add the goat cheese if desired. Enjoy!

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Taking Scent for Granted

I have an essay in today's USA Today on the sense of smell. It was inspired by the recent controversy over the zinc-based cold remedy Zicam. But it’s mainly about the importance of scent, which is often only realized once it’s gone.