Jul 192016
 

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Today is the 8th full moon of the lunar year. As such it is celebrated as Asalha Puja in the Theravada Buddhist  tradition. Asalha Puja is one of Theravada Buddhism’s most important festivals, celebrating the Buddha’s first sermon in which he set out to his five former associates the doctrine that had come to him following his enlightenment. This first pivotal sermon, often referred to as “setting into motion the wheel of dharma,” is the teaching which is encapsulated for Buddhists in the four noble truths:

there is suffering (dukkha)

suffering is caused by craving (tanha)

there is a state (nirvana) beyond suffering and craving

the way to nirvana is via the eightfold path.

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All the various schools and traditions of Buddhism revolve around the central doctrine of the four noble truths. In scriptures ascribed to the Buddha the eightfold path is described as follows:

Just this noble eightfold path: right view, right aspiration, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration. That is the ancient path, the ancient road, traveled by the Rightly Self-awakened Ones of former times. I followed that path. Following it, I came to direct knowledge of aging & death, direct knowledge of the origination of aging & death, direct knowledge of the cessation of aging & death, direct knowledge of the path leading to the cessation of aging & death. I followed that path. Following it, I came to direct knowledge of birth… becoming… clinging… craving… feeling… contact… the six sense media… name-&-form… consciousness, direct knowledge of the origination of consciousness, direct knowledge of the cessation of consciousness, direct knowledge of the path leading to the cessation of consciousness. I followed that path.

(Nagara Sutta, Samyutta Nikaya ii.124)

This first sermon is not only the first structured discourse given by the Buddha after his enlightenment, it also contains the essence of all his subsequent teaching. At the end of the talk, one of the five participants recounted his understanding of what had been said and asked to be received as a disciple, a request the Buddha granted, thus establishing the first order of monks.

The day is observed by donating offerings to temples and listening to sermons. The following day begins the period known as Vassa, the Rains Retreat. Vassa lasts for three lunar months

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For the duration of Vassa, monastics remain in one place, typically a monastery or temple grounds. In some monasteries, monks dedicate the Vassa to intensive meditation. Some Buddhist lay people choose to observe Vassa by adopting more ascetic practices, such as giving up meat, alcohol, or smoking, hence it is sometimes casually called “Buddhist Lent,” although the analogy with Christian Lent is not really appropriate. Commonly, the number of years a monk has spent in monastic life is expressed by counting the number of Vassas he has observed. In some SE Asian countries, notably Myanmar, young men may become ordained monks during Vassa, but afterwards return to a secular life.

Most Mahayana Buddhists do not observe Vassa but it is normal in the Theravada tradition of Sri Lanka and SE Asia. Vassa ends on Pavarana, when all monastics atone for any offense committed during Vassa. The Vassa tradition predates the time of Gautama Buddha. It was a long-standing custom for mendicant ascetics in India not to travel during the rainy season as they might unintentionally harm crops, insects or even themselves during their travels. Many Buddhist ascetics live in regions which lack a rainy season. Consequently, there are places where Vassa may not be typically observed.

Most of the dishes considered to be uniquely Buddhist are vegetarian, but opinions and restrictions on the eating of meat, and whether it should be prohibited, vary among sects. When monks and nuns who follow the Theravadan way feed themselves by alms, they must eat leftover foods which are given to them, including meat. The exception to this alms rule is that when monks and nuns have seen, heard or known that animal(s) have been specifically killed to feed the alms-seeker, consumption of such meat is considered karmically negative and should be refused. The Pali Sutras where this rule is set forth tell of the Buddha refuting a suggestion by his student Devadatta to include vegetarianism in the monastic precepts. In fact one tradition asserts that the Buddha died from eating tainted pork.

Some Theravada Buddhist sects follow a cuisine for monks and nuns that prohibits the killing of plants. Therefore, strictly speaking, root vegetables (including potatoes, carrots or onion and garlic) are not to be used because their use results in the death of the plant. There is also a prohibition on eating mango based on an old tradition.

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Today I’ve prepared a dish of lentils, pasta, and fresh porcini mushrooms for my meals, not because I follow either a vegan or a Buddhist regime, but because that’s what my body wants today. For several years I’ve been very careful to eat only foods that appeal when I first begin the cooking process, and not rely on whim or convenience. If nothing I have on hand appeals, I go out to the market or I don’t eat. I am never driven by hunger or appetite. I found the porcini mushrooms in the market and they instantly appealed to me.

Mar 062016
 

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Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni, commonly now simply called Michelangelo, was born on this date in 1475 in Caprese, now a commune (called Caprese Michelengelo) in Tuscany. Let me first dispense with the idea that Michelangelo was an Italian artist, as he is almost universally styled. This is a ridiculous anachronism. Italy as a nation did not exist until the 19th century, and, therefore, “Italian” is a purely modern term embraced by revolutionaries such as Garibaldi, but absolutely not pertinent to the 15th and 16th centuries. At best we might call him Florentine since in Michelangelo’s time Caprese was part of Florence.

I don’t need to give you a big song and dance about Michelangelo. I’ve referred to him many times in posts here. I’ve been to Florence and Rome to see many of his most famous works, and I recommend doing likewise. Otherwise there are plenty of “experts” to read and images online to keep you busy.

As demonstration of Michelangelo’s unique standing in his day, he was the first Western artist whose biography was published while he was alive. Two biographies were published of him during his lifetime; one of them, by Giorgio Vasari, proposed that he was the pinnacle of all artistic achievement since the beginning of the Renaissance. Perhaps a tad overblown, but fair enough. In his lifetime he was often called Il Divino (“the divine one”).

Apart from his art he was also a prolific writer and poet. So, I’ll start there with a few quotes. He is famous for having said on several occasions, in different ways, that his job as a sculptor was to reveal the statue latent in the stone:

Carving is easy, you just go down to the skin and stop.

Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.

Michelangelo was, likewise, rather humbly self deprecating:

If people knew how hard I worked to get my mastery, it wouldn’t seem so wonderful at all.

I’ll disagree. Yes, he worked exceptionally hard; but his genius is, nonetheless, evident. I could work for 100 years, a thousand times as hard, and never produce anything approaching what he did. Furthermore, there was a passionate fervor to his devotion to his work:

There is no greater harm than that of time wasted.

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As tribute to the great man I’d like to focus on one piece, his final sculpture known variously as the Deposition, the Florence Pietà, the Bandini Pietà or The Lamentation over the Dead Christ. Its various names derive from the fact that art historians have argued for centuries about the scene depicted. Michelangelo worked on this piece between 1547 and 1553. There are four figures: the dead body of Jesus, newly taken down from the Cross, Mary Magdalene, the Virgin Mary, and a hooded man who could be Nicodemus or Joseph of Arimathea. It is generally agreed that whoever this man it is meant to be, it is actually a self portrait of the aging Michelangelo. I find the identification with Joseph of Arimethea plausible because the scene has the effect of a deposition from the cross to my eyes, and Jesus was being taken to Joseph’s tomb. However, Nicodemus is also recorded as being present at the deposition and was conventionally portrayed as hooded. The identification with Michelangelo himself is not insignificant, however. One can see this sculpture as an act of pure devotion, with Michelangelo himself caring for his savior. After all, Michelangelo meant it to be his own tomb decoration according to Vasari.

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Vasari noted that Michelangelo began to work on the sculpture around the age of 72. Without commission, he worked tirelessly into the night with just a single candle to illuminate his work. Vasari wrote that he began to work on this piece to amuse his mind and to keep his body healthy. After 8 years of work, Michelangelo attempted to destroy the piece in a fit of frustration. Vasari gives several reasons why Michelangelo tried to destroy the sculpture:

Either because of defects in the marble, or because the stone was so hard that the chisel often struck sparks, or because he was too severe a judge of his own work and could never be content with anything he did. It is true that few of his mature works were ever completed and that those entirely finished were productions of his youth. Such were the Bacchus, the Pieta of the Madonna della Febbre [in Saint Peter’s], il Gigante [the David], at Florence, and the Christ Risen of the Minerva [Santa Maria sopra Minerva], which are finished to such perfection that a single grain could not be taken from them without injury. Michelangelo often said that, if he were compelled to satisfy himself, he should show little or nothing. The reason is obvious: he had attained such knowledge in art that the slightest error could not exist without his immediate discovery of it. But once it had been seen in public, he would never attempt to correct it, but would begin a new work, for he believed that a similar failure would not happen again. He often declared that this was the reason that the number of his finished works was so small. He gave the broken Pieta to Francesco Bandini. While it was still in Michelangelo’s house, the Florentine sculptor, Tiberio Calcagni, inquired after a long discussion why he had destroyed so admirable a performance. Our artist replied that he had been driven to it by Urbino, his servant, who urged him every day to finish it. Besides, a piece had broken off the arm of the Madonna. This and a vein which appeared in the marble had caused him infinite trouble and had driven him out of patience.

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Upon receiving the piece, Bandini asked a young apprentice, Tiberius Calcagni, to restore it. Calcagni used models provided by Michelangelo himself to base his repairs on. In his restoration, Calcagni reattached the limbs of Mary Magdalene, the Virgin’s fingers, Christ’s left nipple, Christ’s left arm and elbow, and Christ’s right arm and hand. The only thing that was not reattached was Christ’s left leg which Michelangelo specifically asked to be left off. This request has led to a number of speculations about the inadvertent sexuality of the pose which Michelangelo subsequently detested.

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Calcagni caused controversy with the changes he made to Mary Magdalene’s face. It has been noted that prior to the destruction, Mary Magdalene’s face reflected the pain shown on the Virgin’s. The change in her face altered the overall tone of this work. She was no longer in complete anguish but instead was now disassociated from and seemingly uninvolved in the scene. The sculpture stayed with the Bandini family in Rome until 1671 when it was sold to Cosimo III. Cosimo III brought the piece to Florence where it went around from museum to museum for a while. It currently resides in the Museo dell ‘Opera del Duomo, which I find to be something of a problem. Should it not be on Michelangelo’s tomb, as he originally desired? Or would this be seen as counter to his desire to destroy the work?

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Vasari noted that Michelangelo had no interest in food, so finding a celebratory recipe is a challenge. Michelangelo was known to have appalling table manners, eating rapidly because he saw eating as time wasted away from his work. As a compromise I’ve settled on pappardelle, very broad, flat noodles originating from the region where Michelangelo was born. The name derives from the verb “pappare”– “to gobble down,” which seems massively appropriate given the way he ate. Also, papparele on a plate remind me of the delicate folds in the draperies of Michelangelo’s work. Fresh papparele, which are the best, are 2 to 3 centimeters (3⁄4–1 in) wide and may have fluted edges. They can be sauced in all manner of ways. There are tons of local recipes for papparele in rich meat and wine sauces, but these seem inappropriate. I suggest the following:

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First, make your own pasta. I give a good recipe in the Hints section of this blog. You may be able to buy the pasta readymade, but it is not easy to find, even in Italy, and it is not usually made with egg.

Second, decide on a sauce. For me the most delectable, and simple, is a butter sauce with fresh porcini. Chop the porcini coarsely and sauté them gently in ample butter over medium-low heat. Cook the papparele to al dente in a large pot of rapidly boiling salted water. Drain the pasta, but reserve a little of the water. Toss the pasta in the butter and porcini mix, adding a touch of the water as needed. Serve in a deep, warmed serving dish with a garnish of finely shaved Parmesan cheese. Then gobble it down. I do.

Sep 102013
 

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Today is the feast day of St Nicholas of Tolentino (San Nicola da Tolentino), Augustinian monk and confessor, known as the Patron of Holy Souls.  He was born c. 1246 at Sant’Angelo in Pontano in what was then the March of Ancona. He was the son of parents who had been childless into middle age. They made a pilgrimage to the shrine of Saint Nicholas of Myra for his intercession, and when his mother became pregnant they named their son after the saint. At the age of 16 Nicholas became an Augustinian novice at the monastery in Sant’Angelo having been inspired by the teachings of the abbot.  In his youth he spent time in a number of different monasteries coming under the influence of the hermits of Brettino who were extremely devout in their vows of poverty and charity. He was ordained in 1270 at the age of 25, and soon became known for his preaching and teaching. Having had several visions of angels reciting “to Tolentino” to him, in 1274 he accepted this as a divine sign to move to that city, where he lived the rest of his life.

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In Tolentino his superiors entrusted him with the daily feeding of the poor at the monastery gates, but at times he was so free with the friary’s provisions that the procurator begged the superior to check his generosity. Once, when weak after a long fast, he received a vision of the Virgin Mary along with St Augustine and St Monica who told him to eat some bread marked with a cross and dipped in water. Upon doing so he was immediately stronger. He started distributing these rolls to the ailing, while praying to Mary. This is the origin of the Augustinian custom of blessing and distributing Saint Nicholas Bread. In some locations this custom continues down to the present day. Also in some locations his feast day is a major celebration and special molded sugar cookies bearing his image are baked.

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Photo by traveler on foot

In Tolentino, Nicholas worked as a peacemaker in a city torn by strife between the Guelfs and Ghibellines who, in the conflict for control of Italy, supported the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor respectively. He ministered to his flock, helped the poor, and visited prisoners. During his life, Nicholas is said to have received visions, including images of Purgatory, which friends ascribed to his lengthy fasts. Prayer for the souls in purgatory was the outstanding characteristic of his spirituality. Because of this, Nicholas was proclaimed patron of the souls in Purgatory, in 1884 by Leo XIII. Towards the end of his life he became ill, suffering greatly, but still continued the mortifications that had been part of his holy life. Nicholas died on September 10, 1305.

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There are many tales and legends that relate to Nicholas which you may take for what they are. One says that the devil once beat him with a stick, which was then displayed for years in his church. In another, Nicholas, a vegetarian, was served a roasted fowl over which he made the sign of the cross, and it flew out a window. Nine passengers on a ship going down at sea once asked Nicholas’ aid and he appeared in the sky, wearing the black Augustinian habit, radiating golden light, holding a lily in his left hand, and with his right hand he quelled the storm.

According to the Peruvian chronicler Antonio de la Calancha, it was St. Nicholas of Tolentino who made possible a permanent Spanish settlement in the rigorous, high-altitude climate of Potosi in Bolivia. He reported that all children born to Spanish colonists there died in childbirth or soon thereafter, until a father dedicated his unborn child to St. Nicholas of Tolentino (because his own parents asked for saintly intervention to have a child). The colonist’s son, born on Christmas Eve, 1598, survived to healthy adulthood, and many later parents followed the example of naming their sons Nicolás.

Nicholas was canonized by Pope Eugene IV(also an Augustinian) in 1446. He was the first Augustinian to be canonized. His remains are preserved at the Shrine of Saint Nicholas in the Basilica di San Nicola da Tolentino in the city of Tolentino, province of Macerata in Marche.

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A number of churches and oratories are dedicated to him, including San Nicolò da Tolentino in Venice, San Nicola da Tolentino agli Orti Sallustiani in Rome, and Saint Nicholas of Tolentino in The Bronx, New York. In the Philippines, the 16th century Church of San Nicolas de Tolentino in Banton, Romblon, was built in honor of him and his feast day is celebrated as the annual Biniray festival, commemorating the devotion of the island’s Catholic inhabitants to St. Nicholas during the Muslim raids in the 16th century.

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St Nicholas bread is not really a specific type of bread, but rather the name given to bread distributed in the saint’s name.  So providing a recipe is not really pertinent.  Instead I thought I would include a recipe for lasagna, known as vincisgrassi, which is famous in the region around Tolentino.  Generally people tend to think of lasagna as one dish – pasta sheets with layers of ground beef, sauce, and cheese that is baked.  But the varieties possible are legion. I’ve always been fond of making lasagna with mixed shellfish in a cream sauce. Once you open your mind and get creative worlds await you.  Vincisgrassi is notable in two separate ways.  First the filling is a luscious mix of prosciutto and porcini or wild  mushrooms. If the amount of prosciutto means taking out a second mortgage for you, use any good Italian ham. Porcini are best, but when I was living in Italy I could quite often get wild mushrooms at the local grocer’s and they are superb in this dish. Use any mushrooms you can find.  Dried porcini work well.  Simply reconstitute them in warm water and incorporate the liquid in with the sauce. Second, the pasta is made with vin santo which is a dessert wine found in many regions of Italy.  You can buy it online if you cannot find it locally.  Or you can substitute Marsala.

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Vincisgrassi

Ingredients:

For the pasta

2 cups all purpose flour
2 cups semolina flour
¼ cup virgin olive oil
¼ cup vin santo (or Marsala)
3 eggs
pinch of salt

For the filling

1lb/ 450g porcini or wild mushrooms, thinly sliced
2 cups/ 500ml double cream
2 cups/ 500ml chicken stock
1 bay leaf
olive oil
2 tbsp flat-leaf parsley, chopped
10oz/300g prosciutto, shredded (or Italian ham chopped fine)
1 egg
5 oz/150g parmesan, grated
butter for greasing

Instructions:

Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil.

You prepare the pasta in the usual way.  Combine the flours and salt and build a mound of them on your work surface. Punch down a hole in the center of the mound (I always like to think of this as being a replica of the crater of Vesuvius).

Beat together the oil, vin santo, and eggs, and pour the mixture into the crater.

First with a fork, and then with your hands, mix the flour and egg mixture by pushing flour from the top and sides into the crater.  Gauge the amount of flour needed by rolling the dough into a ball and kneading by hand as soon as it is workable. Work in only as much as is needed to make a smooth, elastic  dough.

I generally continue the kneading process by running the dough repeatedly through a wide setting on my pasta maker, doubling it over and repeating until the dough is even and silky. Then run it through finer and finer settings until you reach the second to last. Cut the pasta into strips or sheets to fit your baking pan.

Boil the pasta for one minute only (working in batches if necessary), and immediately plunge it in an ice water bath.  Pat off excess water with paper towels, and keep the sheets separate.

For the filling (which can be made ahead of time), put the cream, stock, and bay leaf in a large skillet, bring to a simmer, then reduce by half.

Put 2 tbsp olive oil in a large pan over high heat, add the mushrooms and sauté until browned. Stir in the parsley and prosciutto, take from the heat and let cool.

Remove the bay leaf from the sauce, pour into a blender,  add the egg and blend until smooth.

Brush a baking dish (about 8/12in/20 x 30cm) with butter. Place a layer of pasta in the bottom.  Ladle cream on to the pasta, then sprinkle with parmesan cheese. Scatter with mushroom mix, add more pasta. Continue layering pasta with cream, cheese and mushroom, finishing with pasta topped with cream and cheese plus a few mushrooms. It should be about 4 layers.

Pre-heat the oven to 350F/180C

Bake for 20 minutes or until bubbling, turning up the heat at the end to brown if necessary.

Serves 6-8