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Monthly Archives: October 2013

Something Added

Screen Shot 2013-10-15 at 10.27.29 AMOne of my English professors used the phrase “something added” to sum up the value of books. I have expanded it to include food, and for that matter, anything artistic, insightful, or whimsical that we encounter on a daily basis — works of art, fleeting images from our day, snippets of conversation, or home cooked meals. The value of these things lies in their being “added,” a reminder that our work-centered, often self-centered culture is filled with side notes. There is a creative pulse worth taking, observing, contemplating. Last week I was doing research for an article on brownies (what else?) and I found this lovely blog: http://www.101cookbooks.com. In the author’s words, it “chronicles a cookbook collection, one recipe at a time.” I love blogs that document ongoing, behemoth projects — http://101books.net is another good one — and it got me re-evaluating my broad, blurry approach to blogging. At a certain point, though, follow through is everything. As much as I enjoy reading your admirable, impeccable, immaculately groomed sites featuring elegant variations on a well-defined theme, I’m going all-inclusive with this post as a mark of solidarity with my fellow generalists. I invite you to enjoy my sloppy smorgasbord of inspiration this past week. Something added is always welcome 🙂

Screen Shot 2013-10-15 at 10.30.06 AMI saw the national tour of this musical at The Oriental Theatre (in Chicago) this weekend. It won the Tony for best musical, and now I understand why. It is an understated, humorous love story carried by beautiful music. The staging is also beautiful: the actors play their own instruments and move seamlessly in and out of scenes set in a pub turned music shop turned recording studio. All this is accomplished with wooden chairs, mirrors, tables, and a few supertitles. The audience mingles onstage as the ensemble warms up, visiting the onstage pub during intermission. The staging/choreography was subtly timed, almost self-effacing, which enhances the music.

Screen Shot 2013-10-15 at 10.32.21 AMMy main squeeze and I visited an art gallery, Hilton-Asmus Contemporary, that converted itself into a movie theatre for a free pop-up film festival dedicated to John Ford. We saw Ford’s 1940, Academy-Award winning classic “How Green Was My Valley.” The surrounding photographs by Dennis Manarchy of the American West — cowboys suspended in swirls of sand and looming clouds, an enormous buffalo posing demurely — granted the film’s black-and-white images of coal mines, craggy countryside, and weary villagers a sort of unspoken kinship.

Screen Shot 2013-10-15 at 10.34.23 AMDeb Perelman’s recipe for a chopped Mediterranean salad is my October lunch of choice: A hearty, healthy, slightly briny salad with chopped cucumbers, olives, feta, pickled red onions, and peppers is as colorful as an art gallery, eh? That, and it gets tastier with time. See link at the bottom of this page.

Screen Shot 2013-10-15 at 10.35.19 AMRead this book by Muriel Barbery, author ofThe Elegance of the Hedgehog. It profiles the last waking hours of a famous food critic. He waxes poetic about various meals seared in his memory, digging for a delicacy that has slipped to the recesses of his mind. Meanwhile, various members of his household — from doting wife to bitter children to the bemused Venus hanging over his desk — express their grief, hatred, and utter indifference toward the dying aesthete. It’s wry, diverting, and food-filled.

Screen Shot 2013-10-15 at 10.37.55 AMI found a killer tomato sauce. By “found” I mean the google search I did worked out very well for me. This sauce is all over food blogs, which is promising, because a delicious sauce has a way of getting all over everything. You literally take a 28 oz can of whole tomatoes, dump them in a pot, and simmer for 45 minutes with an onion, peeled and halved, and several pads of butter. That’s all. It’s unbelievable. In this case, the “something added” philosophy falls flat. You could add a little salt, pepper, or possibly some parmesan cheese, but that’s a highly emphasized maybe. It’s an exercise in silky, luxurious minimalism. See link at the bottom of this page.

Screen Shot 2013-10-15 at 10.39.14 AMCooking with apples is an autumn ritual for me. I have made several batches of sweetened applesauce and I am reminded that this humble dessert need not be relegated to school cafeterias. The version I adapted from “Apple Cookbook” by Olwen Woodier is thick, rich, loaded with fresh, tart apples, and spiked with cinnamon, ginger, and brown sugar. You peel, core, and slice about 10 medium apples, place them in a large pot with three T. of apple juice or cider, and simmer until they break down. Instead of puréeing the soft apples, I simmered them a little longer and mashed them with a potato masher right in the pot. Stir in 1/3 c. brown sugar, 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger and cinnamon, as well as several T. butter. I like to use really tart apples. A warm bowl for breakfast hits the spot.

Screen Shot 2013-10-15 at 10.45.19 AMSpeaking of soft, comforting foods that signal shorter, darker days, I was inspired to make “baked polenta with vegetables” from a cookbook called “The Pleasures of Cooking for One.” (For more where that came from, see my book review). I was drafting an article about polenta, then scrounging in my cabinets for dinner, and voilà, the food muse materialized. In the form of instant polenta. This creamy, cheesy “cornmeal mush” used to be the Venetian grain of choice. Now pasta exists, but it still makes a decadent receptacle for leftover vegetables (and, as it turns out, a cushy sop-up for my “killer” tomato sauce.)

Screen Shot 2013-10-15 at 10.47.40 AMI recommend this documentary called “Park Avenue: Money, Power, and the American Dream.” It uses NYC neighborhoods as a lens for broader economic disparity. Park Avenue on the upper East side of Manhattan is contrasted with Park Avenue in the Bronx, a ten minute  drive away. One Park Avenue consists of high rise apartment buildings populated by some the world’s most politically powerful billionaires, and the other displays a community lacking basic resources and social agency. The proximity of these two streets is startling, a symbol of the boldness with which high concentrations of political and socioeconomic power are seized and retained. It’s like a Monopoly board, literally. I had just taught a class to a group of high school freshmen on Chicago’s far West side who, generally speaking, were several years behind reading level — a direct correlation to the schools in their neighborhood. Everyday we witness these inequalities in our respective cities. From the power base of New York City, the contrasts are even starker.

Screen Shot 2013-10-15 at 10.48.44 AMFellow writing enthusiasts, are you familiar with Becoming A Writer, by Dorothea Brande? Five bucks at Armadillo’s Pillow bought me a reissue of the 1934 classic. Its scope is fundamental and timeless, that of helping writers to cultivate self-awareness: of their passions, subconscious feelings and perceptions, convictions. In the foreword, John Gardner writes that “the root problems of the writer are personality problems… and [Ms. Brande’s] whole focus, and a very valuable focus indeed, is on the writer’s mind and heart” (15). In the sea of information about writing, this sounds like clarity, consistent with the wisdom that, to quote a line from Theodore Roethke, “we think by feeling.”

Screen Shot 2013-10-15 at 11.06.08 AMIt’s interesting to think about the fleeting words or images that leverage us to take action. In Becoming A Writer, Brande writes that “the author has at his command, in the mere exercise of stringent honesty, the best source of consistency for his own work. If you can discover what you are like, if you can discover what you truly believe about most of the major matters of life, you will be able to write a story which is honest and original and unique. But those are very large ‘ifs,’ and it takes hard digging to get at the roots of one’s own convictions” (123). I feel like this little man furrowing my brow over which apple to pick. I’m just trying to decide what I want for lunch.

Links:

[Photo credits, in order: Craig Damlo’s photostreamBroadway Tour’s photostreamdrmvm1’s photostreamJon Pinder’s photostreamartizone’s photostreamkahala’s photostreamMGF/Lady Disdain’s photostreamArchives New Zealand.]

Reading With Tongue in Cheek

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I read cookbooks cover to cover. They are my preferred form of “chick lit.” I prefer a bellowing, copper-pot-whapping Julia Child to a shoe-addicted Carrie Bradshaw. I am a sucker for the neat and tidy fantasy of a day that begins with “tri-berry muffins” and closes with a single portion cheese soufflé. I’m a sucker for glossy images of heirloom tomatoes or, for goodness’ sake, a large oven-baked pancake that can be sliced like a pie!

Recently I plucked Judith Jones’s The Pleasures of Cooking For One off the bookshelf. As the senior editor and vice president of Alfred A. Knopf, she worked with Julia Child and James Beard on their legendary cookbooks.  She also co-authored several cookbooks with her late husband, Evan Jones, and after he passed away, wrote a memoir called The Tenth Muse. The Pleasures of Cooking For One was published in 2009.

When Jones’s husband died, she encountered new challenges inherent in solo cooking, and the possibility of giving up home cooking altogether. Soon, she realized the relevance of her situation to unprecedented numbers of Americans living alone today:

“Fifty-one percent of the population in the New York metropolitan area lives alone. Yet no one seems to cater to their needs. Supermarkets do everything they can to make us buy more than we need, and the food industry has for more than a century been selling the idea that it is demeaning for women to cook and a waste of time when they can buy ready-made products instead” (vii).

And… voilà — the inspiration for recipes catering to a developing nation of loners. She gets us pampered urbanites as excited about being resourceful with food as we are about dining out for brunch! And she appeals to our sense of creativity, which, you know, we like — spreading the philosophy that home cooking is not about individual meals, but about using our creativity to plan, save, and repurpose. Recipes for modest portion sizes are accompanied by tips on how to avoid buying gargantuan quantities of raw ingredients, how to think about cooking as “one dish leading to another” (4). It almost sounds like recycling! Pretty hip.  She has a whimsical, savvy, and hearty approach to cooking that is actually focused on eating what you cook — all of it — with equal emphasis on creativity and frugality. This is the mark of an authentic, experienced cook, and I have to say, her groundedness cramps the style of celebrity chefs and their carefully crafted branding.

Screen Shot 2013-10-06 at 9.50.21 PMNotwithstanding the occasional name drop (such as “Potatoes for Julia”) practical food is the focus (Child, that is, to the left is a replica of her kitchen on display at the American History Museum in Washington, D.C.) But the chick lit aspect is there — in the first chapter “On Cooking Through The Week,” I’m transported to a cosy kitchen with a New England, cottage feel. It’s a far cry from Manhattan, Jimmy Choos, or Prada bags, but you can’t help but feel modern, enlightened, resourceful, dare I say, classy, when you improvise chicken breast with herbed butter for dinner, broiled over a bed of root vegetables. On day two, you’ll just shred the leftovers, steam some vegetables, throw together a light cream sauce, grate some cheese, pull out your individual sized gratin dish, and make “Chicken Divan.” On day three, maybe you’ll throw it back to 19th century New England with some “Minced Chicken on Toast.”

Frugal, whimsical, high-low, yes. Is it sexy? Eh. In a section on “The Nine Lives of a Turkey,” Jones refers to the maxim, “having a good country ham in the refrigerator is like owning a good black dress — you are ready for anything” (22).

Whatever it lacks in glamour it makes up for in practicality. The concept speaks to huge segments of the population — young, urban professionals, older people who find themselves newly accustomed to the single life, or families who have trouble navigating the huge quantities of food at the store. We are encouraged to go all out with cooking, but in a responsible way.

Jones’s passion for cooking implies her tenacious desire to keep on keepin’ it classy, despite life’s changes or challenges. This zest for life, represented by Jones’s willingness to dig deep in her kitchen cabinets, is what makes this book so charming and spirited. I think the chapter titled “The Magic of Eggs — And the Seduction of Cheese” says it all. Well, I’m up to the challenge, Ms. Jones (two people here, but still large quantities of food), thank you for the inspiration. If you are reading this entry, thanks for stopping by, and I hope you’ll check out the book for yourself. It’s worth it, no matter the size of your household. In the meantime, I’d like to pay a tribute “the magic of eggs” when it comes to making resourceful meals at home:

Omelet For Two

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Oven proof sauté pan
Bacon
Butter
1 potato, diced
1/2 medium yellow onion, chopped
5 Eggs
Milk or cream
Salt and pepper
Scallions
Cheddar cheese

Fry Up The Filling

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and chop bacon. Sauté bacon until brown and crispy; drain. Wipe the sauté pan clean. Add a dab of butter, the diced potato and onion and cook until the onion starts to brown and the potato starts to tenderize but still has some firmness (about 10 minutes).

Whisk The Eggs

While this is happening, beat together eggs, 2 tablespoons of milk or cream, 1 teaspoon of salt, and 1/2 teaspoon of pepper. Stir in 1/4 cup scallions and 4 oz of grated cheddar.

Let The Magic Happen

When the onion and potato are ready, add the bacon back to the sauté pan and pour in the egg mixture. Put the pan in the oven for 15 to 20 minutes. You want the eggs to puff up and be almost fully cooked in the center. Sprinkle the top with extra cheddar if you want. It’s magic.

[Images: cover of book,  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Julia_Child, nathanmac87’s photostream; recipe adapted from Ina Garten.]

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