Sunday, June 12, 2016

The kreme, carnitas, and plum ice cream diet

day #1 of the diet
A week or so ago I decided to go on a little diet. I try not to say the word diet too loudly lest I immediately start wanting to eat everything in sight. So I whispered the word diet. I’d weighed myself for the first time in months and it was exactly as I had predicted, down to the pound. That’s one beauty of middle age: I know my body so well that I don’t even have to step on a scale to know precisely how much I weigh, I just have to gently squeeze one of my arms. The only other person I know who shares the infallible arm-feel barometer is my sister. It’s one of our special genetic endowments, the sturdy arms, and I like to think it suggests we come from strong, cabbage-picking stock. I’m not trying to make you feel bad. I’m sure you have other things going for you.

full of good stuff, though the nifty cardboard cover is easily stained
So I sat there on the morning I intended to start my diet and flipped through The Naked Cookbook, an attractive volume by food blogger Tess Ward. It’s a wellness-oriented book with recipes for almond milk, coconut yogurt, and ginger-turmeric lattes, as well as information about things like wheatgrass and your adrenals.  
To me, those look delicious.
It had come in the mail. It isn’t the type of book I’d ordinarily buy as I do not have a wellness-oriented personality. And yet I found myself drawn to it. The pictures are so pretty and the desire to be someone you’re not not dies hard. Perhaps someone like Tess Ward. . .

Also,  I had recently made a very delicious riced cauliflower dish (riced cauliflower, goat cheese, lemon, pumpkin seeds, favas/peas) from the book and I wondered what other nutritious and dietetic gems it might contain. 

I was sitting there looking through Naked when Isabel came down and said, “What’re you doing today, Mom?”

“Nothing,” I said. "Want to do something?”

She said, “What should we do?”

“We could go to a movie.

She said, “I don't like going to movies in the day.

“Hmm,” I said. “What about a Bay Area food crawl?”

After movie, that was the first thought that popped into my head on a sunny June morning in California. Not hike, not bike ride, not spa day, not shopping trip.  Food crawl


“Sure,” said Isabel. “When should we leave?”

“Twenty minutes?” I said. 

You might think I decided to postpone my diet for another day. I did not. I decided to embrace, yet again, the small portions diet, the only diet that will ever work for me. It’s not the most miraculous diet ever, to put it mildly, and if you can handle something more restrictive and badly need to lose weight fast, you should. But until I get a personality transplant, the small portions diet is the diet for me.

In case you’re planning a trip to the Bay Area soon, here is our food crawl itinerary. I wouldnt recommend either the first or last leg of the crawl, which means that this account yields but a single restaurant recommendation. As Isabel put it later, our day was short on food, but long on crawl. 
Stop 1: Crixa Cakes in Berkeley. I can’t remember where I read about this Russian-Hungarian bakery, but it’s been on my list forever. The atmosphere was chilly and a little stiff, not cozy, and the woman behind the counter was stern, like the woman behind the counter of an Eastern European bakery should be. We ordered a miniature Boston cream pie (photo at top) and a kreme, which is a mighty brick of vanilla custard held between a few shards of pastry. The kreme was delicious and hard to stop eating, though I did so after a few bites and we got a box for the leftovers. The Boston cream pie turned out to be wonderfully resistible, the ratio of cake to pastry cream far too high. If you are in the vicinity, you could do worse than a trip to Crixa, but we did not adore this bakery.

According to the internet, cukraszda means sweet shop.
Stop 2: A few years ago, a friend of my father’s recommended El Paisa, a taqueria on International Boulevard in Oakland. The neighborhood is not the greatest, unless you consider piles of trash and mattresses on the street the greatest. But inside the taqueria, all was humming and cheerful and wholesome. We were the only non-Hispanics. Big line, Latin families from babies to frail grandparents all there for their midday Saturday feast of tripe tacos, brain tacos, horchata, chorizo burritos, chicken burritos, et cetera.  Isabel ordered two dainty carne asada tacos and I ordered one not-dainty carnitas quesadilla. It took titanic will power not to eat every bite of that fantastic quesadilla, even after I was stuffed. So good. But I dutifully put half of it in a box to take home. That might not sound like dieting to you, but trust me, it is. It could have been so much worse.
Sadly, Isabel did not inherit the arm barometer.
I highly recommend El Paisa for both the outstanding food and the fun cultural experience. Like going to Mexico without getting on a plane or worrying about the water. 

Stop 3: We drove from El Paisa an hour south to the Mitsuwa Marketplace in San Jose where I was hoping to find fresh dorayaki, a fixation ever since I saw the film Sweet Bean last month. Have you seen Sweet Bean? It’s a gentle Japanese movie about a morose dorayaki maker and the old woman who turns up at his cafe one day looking for a job. It’s a very pleasing story and a tiny bit sappy. I loved it. Among other things, it will make you want to eat dorayaki, which are small golden pancakes filled with a jammy sweet bean paste. Alas, Mitsuwa, a huge strip-mall chain grocery store, only sold packaged dorayaki, which did not appeal. We bought some cream mochi instead. 

We also bought some intriguing donut-shaped mochi.

Yuck. Bitter disappointment. It was easy to eat small portions of the mochi because they were intensely perfumey and artificial tasting, especially the fruit flavors. I think we chose poorly. I hate throwing food away, but we threw away our leftover mochi and that was the end of our food crawl. It doesn’t sound like much, but it took all day. I loved driving around with my girl.

I have consulted my arms and in the last week I have not lost weight, but not gained either. I consider that a win. 

Now, a recipe. 

Our plum tree went into overdrive this year and I couldn’t figure out what to do with the bonanza of fruit. I don’t make jam anymore (no one but me in this house eats homemade jam) and while I’d love to bake with plums, these are the kind of plums you can’t slice because they burst when you break the skin, the flesh collapses, and the juice runs all over the cutting board. I decided they might make a good ice cream, though, and I was right. I used David Lebovitz’s plum ice cream recipe from The Perfect Scoopwhich was easy and delicious. Because you puree the sour plum skin with the flesh, this ice cream has that sweet-tart magic of plum jam, plus the lovely pink color. It tastes like sorbet, but is definitely ice cream. Small portions, for sure! 

Lebovitz suggests cutting up the plums, but I just stewed them whole and removed the pits when the plums were cooked. You could use little wild plums for this. Make it. You’ll like it.

Plum ice cream

Stew a pound of whole plums in a pot with 1/3 cup water until the plums disintegrate completely. Remove the pits and stir in 3/4 cup plus 2 TBS sugar (180 g). Cool. Puree with 1 cup cream and (if you want, though it’s not necessary) 1/2 teaspoon kirsch.  Chill. Churn. Makes about a quart.

Thursday, June 02, 2016

Any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental

The couple agreed on a lot of things, maybe even most things. They agreed about religion and they agreed about politics. They were both punctual to a fault and didn't care that their cars were held together (literally) by duct tape. Neither of them liked camping or theater, both loved road trips, Wyoming, donut shops, used bookstores, clam shacks, and the fifth season of Girls. He made her laugh all the time. She made him laugh when she sang. They tried to live by the Golden Rule and expected the same from their children. You could say they shared the same values, at least when it came to the important stuff. 

Or should we say “important” stuff. 

One fine May morning, the wife walked into the kitchen and found her husband at the counter cutting beautiful, big, sweet, crunchy cherries she’d bought at the farmers’ market into little raggedy pieces. He put these sad cherry filets into a Tupperware container for inclusion in their son’s lunch bag. 

What a tender and caring father, thought the wife, to make his 15-year-old son’s lunches.

And what a barbarian, thought the wife, to cut gorgeous cherries into limp pieces. 

He probably didn't know any better. After all, he hadn't been raised in a fruit-worshipping household as she had. She decided to treat this as a teaching moment. Gently and benevolently, she said, “You know, you shouldn’t cut up the cherries. It ruins them. They lose all their crunch.”

The husband, whose favorite fruit might well have been the banana, said, “Ok. I didn’t know that.” He finished cutting up the cherries and snapped on the Tupperware lid.

The rest of the day passed peacefully.

The next morning, the wife went into the kitchen and there her husband stood at the counter making their son’s lunch again, mutilating cherries.

“What are you doing?” the wife cried. “I told you yesterday, cherries are supposed to be kept whole.”

“I heard you,” said the husband. 

She said, “But. . .”

He said, “Let it rest. Don’t push it.”

“But you’re ruining the cherries!” the wife said. “And you’re sending the message that cherry pits are a huge when they’re not! You’re turning our child off to cherries!” 

 Possibly she sounded a bit shrill. One would have to ask the neighbors.

“Didn’t you hear me?” the husband replied. “Don’t push it.” 

There was a hard, warning edge to his voice, an edge the wife didn’t hear often but knew she should heed. Still, the wife would have pushed it. A tendency to push it was one of her very few character flaws. Mostly, she was perfect. Mercifully, at that very moment the wife’s sister called. The wife left the kitchen and whispered her frustration about the cutting of the cherries to the sister, who shared her dismay. Or pretended to. The sister agreed that yes, it was wrong, like someone putting an ice cube in a glass of great red wine or ordering a dry-aged New York steak “well done.”  The conversation calmed the wife, who did not renew her ridiculous argument with the husband about the cutting of the cherries, even though she knew she was 100% in the right.

The rest of the day passed peacefully, as did the rest of the week.

But the wife’s thoughts kept wandering back to the cherry contretemps. It was funny that a couple would fight about cherries. Not money, not sex, not Sanders vs. Clinton, not laundry, not the remote control or asking for directions or self-destructive habits, but cherries. It seemed to her that in twenty years of marriage she and her husband had basically fought just one fight, over and over again. Broadly speaking, it was always about cherries. That is to say, it was always about the proper role of eating in daily life. Even when an argument was about chickens or goats or the garden, it was somehow about the proper role of eating in daily life. The wife cared a lot about cooking and food. In fact, she was preoccupied by cooking and food. The husband wasn’t. In fact, he was actively hostile to food. When they were courting, he had said that he wished he could consume nourishment in a pill -- and she had found this bizarre, but charming. At the time.

Sadly, while presidential elections came every four years, meals happened three times a day.  

Were they ever going to stop bickering about cherries? The wife couldn't see how. They'd both dug in their heels. While cherries weren't going to end their marriage, there was no question cherries made their marriage slightly less delightful.

On Sunday morning, to the wife’s surprise, the husband asked if he could join her at “the fruit fair,” which was his name for the farmers’ market. The husband almost never accompanied her to the fruit fair. He would glower at the prices and the silly people who exulted over dainty little bunches of organic baby carrots. What was wrong with the 5-pound bags from Safeway? The fruit fair could ruin the husband's day. 

But if he wanted to subject himself to the fruit fair, the wife was happy for his company. It was a beautiful morning and the fair was crowded with people carrying baskets and pushing strollers and tasting blueberries. The couple strolled past the organic creamery and the goat butcher, the honey guy, the waffle truck, the organic apricots and peaches and the crates of Little Gems lettuces and basil. They talked about their children, who, they agreed, were both shaping up nicely. They talked about what movie they should see later that day and chose Maggie’s Plan. They decided they would like to go to Mexico City for a long weekend, but not this summer. The wife did notice that her husband periodically vanished. When she would turn around to ask if she should buy some strawberries that she'd been hovering over, he would be gone. A minute or so later, he would reappear and take any bags she might have acquired.

Finally, she asked him where he kept wandering off to.

“I walk away whenever it looks like you're going to pull out your wallet,” said the husband.

He did not say this in a sarcastic, accusatory way. He said it in a calm and kindly way. He seemed to be in an extremely good mood. 

It hit her suddenly, the way it did from time to time, what a good man she had married. As much as it annoyed her when her husband cut up cherries and filled the freezer with Steak-Umms and made caustic jokes about the meals she cooked, it had to bother him just as much, perhaps more, to see her lavishing money on wild salmon, a curry leaf tree, white corn, organic pea shoots, cookbooks, preserved lemons, and so on and so on, year after year after year, a river of precious cash flowing into the pockets of people producing things like Vita Mixes and sunchokes and mizuna, the purpose of which he would never in this lifetime understand. Never. 

When she looked at things from his point of view, she shuddered. 

But there he was in his baseball cap and Birkenstocks, amiably carrying bags of expensive foodstuffs that she wanted and he absolutely didn't. By simply wandering away when it looked like she might pay $6 per pound for Utah giant cherries, he had figured out how to keep his cool. Couldn't she find a way to hold her tongue when he cut those cherries up into little pieces for their son’s lunch. Yes. Yes, she could. Of course she could. They could get past the cherry fight and this was how. It was all about quiet acceptance and accommodation. She’d seen the light!

Unfortunately, one of the depressing lessons that it had taken her decades to learn was this: You keep having to see the light over and over again. The same light.

But for now, this week, this spring, she could see it. And on the following Wednesday night when he made a caustic remark about the delicious riced cauliflower with pumpkin seeds and goat cheese she’d served for dinner, she just smiled.  

Monday, May 23, 2016

Let them eat mud

Be still, my heart.
Where the hell did the time go? Not just the five weeks since my last post, but the nine months since I weepily saw Isabel off to college? I just drove fourteen hours up to Walla Walla, Washington, packed her and her Birkenstocks, her suitcases and her friend's skateboard, into our car and drove fourteen hours back home. We listened to The Looming Tower and I saw my first Trump signs. We had a lot of time to talk. I told Isabel that I hate Donald Trump to the point of borderline derangement. She told me she doesn’t wear shoes to class sometimes. I told her she should wear shoes to class. She told me it’s not hampering her life, not wearing shoes, so why should she? I told her I hoped she at least hasn’t started wearing pajama pants in public. She told me she hasn’t. I told her she should see The Meddler. She told me I should read The Souls of Black Folk. I told her I have a lot of ideas but can’t seem to finish anything I start. She told me she wants to study in Vietnam or Thailand. I told her I’m pining after a dog, but her father doesn’t want one. She told me not to get a dog. We saw a lot of abandoned motels and barns. I kept hoping we'd see some abandoned puppies too, but we didn't. Now we are home.

This morning over breakfast Mark said, “I wonder where the Trump Presidential Library will be, Mar a Lago or --” He had to stop because I attacked him with a dirty dishtowel. 

I don't ordinarily mention politics on this blog, but my dislike of Trump isn't fundamentally political. It's animal. 

Anyway, friends, I’ve been cooking, but I haven’t been thinking about cooking and it’s the thinking, not the cooking, that gives me something to write about. I started wondering if maybe I should fast for a day or two because nothing makes food sparkle like going on a diet. The minute I decide to restrict my eating in some way I become completely fascinated with food, particularly the food I'm not allowed to eat. That would be great for the blog. I'd be so inspired! Alas, I’ve also found that nothing makes me get fat quicker than going on a diet. 

On a diet, I'd be obsessed with that picture. It would be full of poetry, mystery, sex appeal. Not on a diet, I just think the cake looks tasty.
So I did not start a diet yesterday. I made a Mississippi mud cake instead.  You bake a chocolate-pecan sheet cake and, while it's still warm, top with a lot of mini-marshmallows. After the marshmallows have softened a bit, spread with a fudgy icing of butter, cocoa powder, and sugar. According to a story in the Houston Press, the recipe "is believed to have originated post-World War II in the kitchens of domestic cooks eager to make sweets using new-fangled packaged ingredients, such as mass-produced miniature marshmallows. The texture and appearance. . . struck some as resembling the banks of the muddy Mississippi river, and so the name stuck."

I doubt it. I don't think anyone looked at the cake and thought it looked like the banks of the Mississippi River. Because it doesn't.

The cake was good. It was good. See? What a wan little addition to the food writing oeuvre. My writing would be much improved if I were on a diet. On the other hand, I had a small piece of the cake and that was plenty. If I were on a diet, resisting a second small slice would have been a mighty struggle.

There are lots of recipes for Mississippi mud cake on the internet, but Paula Deen's looks particularly luscious. The recipe I used came out of America's Best Loved Community Recipes.

I was trying to weed out my shelves and this cookbook looked pretty lame, until I opened it and discovered it was full of enticing recipes.

more of those new-fangled mini-marshmallows put to use
Maybe "enticing" isn't the right word for this one, but I am definitely intrigued. 
I felt I had to give a couple of the recipes a try before jettisoning the book. Prior to the Mississippi mud cake, I made a very solid beef stroganoff and a fabulous sweet potato poundcake that we demolished in a few days.

It was light, soft, and you could really taste the sweet potato. If anyone wants the recipe, I will happily supply.
Also, the book had a vintage inscription from Mark. He'd given it to me for my 32nd birthday.

So I can't get rid of it.
He was a boldly colored cat, and burly in his prime.
In closing, we had fifteen good years with our beloved Krazy Kat. He disappeared for a couple of days last week and then Owen found him in the yard, gaunt, mewing feebly, and covered with cobwebs. I took him to the vet straight away, the vet examined him, sighed, said Krazy was suffering the classic ills of feline old age, gave me some options, strongly recommended euthanasia, brought out the needle when I nodded my head, and that was all she wrote. He was a dear cat, a rugged, independent cat, our easiest cat. We loved him. We will miss him. 

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Back to Whiskas

We didn’t go anywhere for spring break. Mark worked, poor guy, while Owen and I toured a local art college, ate fried chicken and waffles at a famous soul food restaurant, saw Midnight Special, paid a visit to the pediatrician (6 feet, 132 pounds, a height-weight ratio I'd associate with war zones), searched in vain for copies of the first installment of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Black Panther at three different comic book stores in three different Bay Area counties, acquired a youth bus pass at the transit center, bought our cats their first ever organic cat food, which they hate, and planted a vegetable garden. It was a good week. I’m sorry it’s over. 

As to cooking, Nigella continued to deliver delicious dishes with almost zero effort on my part. Her green minestrone (from Nigella Kitchen) is basic and tasty. Ditto her parsley pesto (Nigella Kitchen), which is like basil pesto, but milder. I served it on spaghetti and the whole pound was gone in about twenty minutes. I like to think Owen ate most of it, but fear he did not.

I was skeptical of Nigella’s cheesy chili (Nigella Kitchen again), a melange of Spanish chorizo, ground beef, canned beans, cocoa, and oregano, as it contained no chili powder. How can you call something chili that contains no chili? You can’t. Sheesh. The “chili” was pathetically bland so I added a couple teaspoons chili powder and that did the trick, brought the whole dish to life. Who'd have thought. Anyway, once the spicing was adjusted, the chili was fantastic. It’s called cheesy chili because you add big chunks of fresh mozzarella to the hot chili at serving time which allows you to spoon up gooey pieces of melting cheese, sort of like chili pizza. Mark said, “Why don’t you make this once a week forever?”

That’s it for food this week. Here are some book recommendations:

*In At the Existentialist Cafe, Sarah Bakewell sorts through an unwieldy mass of material -- personalities, politics, history, gossip, unintelligible German philosophy -- to recount the history of 20th century Existentialism in a way that anyone can read and understand. I came across an review that described this excellent book as “glib,” which annoyed me so much that I actually replied. Sure, if you want to grasp all the nuances and complexities of Heidegger’s thought, go right ahead and grab a copy of Sein und Zeit. I wish you well. See you in thirty years. If not, try At the Existentialist Cafe. People seem to think it's easy to write about complicated subjects in a lively, accessible way for the common reader.  I would guess it's much easier to write about complicated subjects in a cryptic way, for the expert.

*Eileen, the narrator of Eileen, a disturbing, riveting novel that was nominated for some big awards last year, is a resentful, sexually repressed young sociopath with an eating disorder who shares a filthy house in a dismal New England town with her alcoholic father and works at the local prison for boys. Yep! Fun. Ottessa Moshfegh really “goes there” with her anti-heroine, which makes for some wonderfully dark, bracing reading. You don’t often meet characters this miserable and toxic and if you like that sort of thing, as I do, you will like this book very much. Eileen lets you know from the beginning  that something big is going to happen to change her life and I couldn't wait to get to this thrillingly twisted event, whatever it might be. Alas Moshfegh let me down! Did she lose her nerve? The book falls apart towards the end. It's still impressive, but I can only half recommend it.

*Hope Jahren’s memoir, Lab Girl, made me think about trees in a whole new way, which is to say, it made me think about trees. Short, enthralling chapters about tree life alternate with long chapters about Jahren’s human life, which has included bipolar episodes, sexist colleagues (she was banned from her own lab during her pregnancy), professional triumphs and travails, trips to collect plants and soils in the wilds of Ireland and the American South, her longstanding devotion to her eccentric lab partner, and, above all, her mad love of science. This book is uplifting, super-smart, incredibly well written, just delightful. I highly recommend it. 

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Never pick up hitchhikers

Clearly, I am a fan.
All I want to cook right now are quick, easy dinners that everyone will like and eat and not complain about. I currently have no desire to bone chickens, stuff dumplings, master cassoulet or even fry doughnuts. What is happening to me?! Have I become normal? I keep wanting to say, “I’m so lazy,” but falling back on “lazy” is what’s lazy. Lazy would be actually wanting to cook an elaborate dinner and then slumping on the sofa to watch The Texas Chainsaw Massacre instead. I don’t want to cook an elaborate dinner, I choose to slump on the sofa watching classic horror movies. 

And for this state of mind, Nigella is really just perfect.

Someone in the comments asked me to pick the best Nigella Lawson book and the short answer is, I can’t. Her voice and style are so distinctive and consistent that it’s hard for me to remember which book a recipe comes from. For instance, the two fantastic dishes I made this week -- Korean kheema and crustless pizza -- came from Nigella Kitchen, but they were so quick and easy I thought they’d come from Nigella Express. I flipped through Nigella Express looking for them so I could describe them to you and soon realized it was the wrong book. Maybe as I cook steadily from Nigella’s oeuvre I’ll get a better handle on the identities of the different books, but for now, I’ll just say I like them all.

So, here are the two recipes I loved this week:

-Korean kheema. The name could use some work. Kheema is an Indian ground lamb dish and this is a ground turkey dish with Korean flavors. It’s powerfully spicy, so if fire isn't your thing, skip this altogether. The original recipe includes peas, which I replaced with big handfuls of baby spinach. Pre-washed from the bag, naturally -- not lazy, a choice, and a good one, albeit a bit expensive. I almost substituted ground beef because I don’t like ground turkey, but trusted Nigella and was rewarded. There’s so much flavor (and so much sugar!) in the sauce that you won’t be able to tell what protein you’re eating. Also, I have wondered whether Nigella meant to call for rice wine vinegar, which is tart, rather than rice wine/mirin, which is sweet.  Or maybe she intended to call for a non-sweet type of rice wine? I used mirin, but it would be interesting to see if rice wine vinegar added another dimension. Maybe next time I’ll try it. Finally, you will need gochujang, available in Asian markets. If you want another use for it, have a bunch of friends over and make bo ssam.

I doubled the recipe and this is reflected in my adaptation:

Whisk together 1/4 cup gochujang, 2 tablespoons honey, 2 tablespoons rice wine (mirin), 1/4 cup soy sauce. Stir in 1 pound ground turkey and let marinate as you get everything else ready. Chop a bunch of scallions. Heat a tablespoon oil in a skillet. Add the scallions and a few big handfuls spinach. Cook for several minutes until the scallions are soft and the spinach has shrunk to almost nothing. Add the turkey and stir-fry 5 minutes or so until it’s cooked -- it’s hard to tell when it’s done because you can’t really see the color. Err on the side of caution and cook longer rather than shorter. Mix 1/4 cup rice wine with 1/2 cup water and use this to swill out the sauce residue in the turkey bowl. Add to the pan. Cook for a minute or so until everything is bubbling and very hot. Serve with rice -- you need a foil for all that flavor -- and top with chopped cilantro. Sometimes you can skip the garnish, but the cilantro really brightens this rich, spicy dish. Serves 4, or 3 with leftovers.

*Nigella’s crustless pizza is, in my opinion, dreamy. Sadly, not so good for you. Also, “crustless pizza” is a misnomer because the pizza actually makes its own crust. That’s the magic of it. You mix egg, flour, salt, and milk, and fold in some shredded sharp cheddar. (Nigella doesn't specify sharp cheddar, but I recommend it. Also, buy the pre-shredded if it’s cheaper, as it was at my supermarket.) You pour this batter into a buttered pie plate and bake. It will puff almost to the top of the pie plate, like a popover or Yorkshire pudding. Now top with more shredded cheddar and pepperoni and whatever else you want. I used some fresh mozzarella and I think the dish benefited from the extra cheese. Bake a few minutes more until everything is melted and hot. The crust is crunchy on the edges, slumped, cheesy, and tender in the middle. I doubled the recipe and made two pizzas.  Three of us ate one and a half. The recipe is here. I wanted to make a salad to go with it, but in the end, I could not be bothered. Yes, that was a choice, but it was a stupid one, and lazy. Serve this pizza with a salad.

Monday, April 04, 2016

I'm that kind of person

a very rugged mousse
Not even Nigella is perfect. The orange muffins from Nigella Bites are merely ok and her instant chocolate-orange mousse from Nigellisima didn’t work out for me (although it has worked for others, apparently.) To make this intriguing instant mousse, you whip cream and fold in some sweetened condensed milk. Nigella: “for the self-styled tastemakers of the world, condensed milk is really beyond the pale. So how can you blame me for wanting to slip it into any recipe whenever possible?”

Into this airy-runny-cloying cream you now fold melted chocolate, fresh orange juice, and Aperol. Alas, the chocolate seized when it made contact with the cream and I couldn’t seem to break it up again, so there were all these chunks of seized chocolate in the mousse. Mark, who didn't know this was unintentional, said, “The chocolate chips are a nice touch.” 
a very boring muffin
I'm glad someone thought so. I feel that the whole point of mousse is the smoothness. But even if the texture had been perfect, this mousse was too fruity, too sweet, and I would have given it a thumbs down anyway.

But I will forgive Nigella anything.
a very charming book
I’m trying to write a little about books I read, at least when they’re good, which Mary-Louise Parker’s collection of autobiographical essays definitely is. Her essays take the form of fantastically odd, mostly endearing letters to men who have played a significant role in her life, including her revered childhood priest, the oyster picker who provided the oysters for her father’s last meal, a beloved wether goat, and the hospital orderly who tried unsuccessfully to take her newborn son to the nursery. As an actress, Parker is funny and off kilter. So are her essays. They contain no gossip and almost no names. Don’t expect to read about how Billy Crudup left her for Claire Danes when MLP was pregnant with their son. This comes up, but only very obliquely in the apology letter she addresses to the poor NYC cab driver who picked her up around that time and started driving in the wrong direction. ("So, Mr. Cabdriver, I apologize for the profanity and the blame. I caused your turban to pop loose from its foundation and that was extreme. . . .") She makes it funny -- she makes almost everything funny -- but there's real heartbreak in these essays, too, and grief, disappointment, and self-reproach. They're pretty great.

Lately, it feels like I can turn any book (or movie) into a source of self-help inspiration. You know, news I can use. Is that wrong? Shouldn't my approach to art be more disinterested and pure? Yes, probably, but who cares. I found plenty of juicy self-help tips in these pages, particularly in the essay entitled “Dear Mentor.” 


“Our first week rehearsing together, we were outside on a break and you asked me what my character did at night when she couldn’t sleep. I rattled off stuff I thought was super-interesting before I said, 'and I feel like she’s the kind of person who . . .'

I kept on, but something I’d said had given you a twitch Your face was very close to mine and I remember the direction our bodies were facing in the courtyard, all of that. . . .

“You were nodding while I rambled and when I stopped you said, 

“'Uh huh? All that is good? But I would be careful of thinking about people as ‘kinds of people.’” 

I didn't think Mary-Louise Parker (i.e. beautiful actress) was the kind of person who could write sparkling, brainy, and delightfully bizarre essays.
Spend even just a few hours trying to avoid instantly categorizing the people you run into. I have. It's interesting and it's hard. 

Saturday, April 02, 2016

Less contempt prior to investigation

The new documentary City of Gold, about Los Angeles Times food critic Jonathan Gold, will make you hungry, of course, but the movie is about much more than food. It’s a love letter to multi-ethnic Los Angeles, a meditation on the role of criticism in our culture, and a study of the way a vast and seemingly unknowable megalopolis can be tied together by one writer’s sensibility. It’s also the portrait of an eccentric genius. I do think Gold is a genius. Can I use that word? Ugh, I hate that word. I’m not even sure what it means. But I have a collection of Gold reviews that I read cover to cover many years ago even though I don’t live in L.A. and couldn’t eat at any of the restaurants. If that’s not evidence of genius, it’s evidence of real brilliance.

I was unprepared for the Gold persona. I expected him to be as polished and charismatic as his prose, but he’s an unassuming, freckled walrus of a man with long, greying, red hair. He lives amid piles of books and drives a beefy Ram 1500 truck. I keep wanting to use the word “Falstaffian,” but that’s only because he’s stout. In fact, Gold isn’t Falstaffian at all. Rather, he comes across as gentle, quiet, genial, and empathetic. He rides around L.A. creating this incredible, ever-changing map of the city in which the plot points are taco trucks, pupuseries, hot dog stands, and Korean restaurants. People navigate by that map. People have learned about not just the foods of their enormous city, but the staggering diversity of cultures within its boundaries.

Gold is a generous and kind reviewer. One of the people interviewed praises him for his refusal to indulge in the contemporary American habit of expressing “contempt prior to investigation.” I tried to take a pen out of my bag so I could scribble this line on my hand or something, but everything fell noisily out of my bag onto the floor of the theater which is one way to spoil your movie experience. I remembered the line anyway! And when the movie ended I looked it up on my phone and discovered it’s a well known concept from AA. Perhaps you’ve heard it before, but it’s new to me, and inspiring. I jump to contemptuous conclusions all the time based on little to no investigation and it wouldn’t be bad to curb this tendency. While sitting in this very coffee shop typing just now, a fleshy tattooed guy came in wearing orange shorts and a red tank top, super-loud clothes that revealed way, way too much hairy back for this venue. Or any venue? Mark met my eye and shook his head. I said, “No contempt prior to investigation.”

He said, “I’m going to feel contempt. I don’t need to investigate. Gross.”

It was gross. Still, it's worth thinking hard before you jump from grossness of the attire to any kind of judgment of the person who chose to wear it. Obviously. Kindergarten lesson. And yet I forget.

Back to City of Gold. My favorite part of the movie was an interview with Roy Choi, founder of the Kogi food trucks and author of L.A. Son. Choi says that when he was just starting out he had all these exciting but inchoate ideas about what he wanted to express with his cooking. Then he read Gold's review of his food and he thought, that’s it. JG explained what Roy Choi was doing to Roy Choi. He also explained it to the rest of us. That's one of the vital roles that a great critic plays, one that Yelp never will.

Anyway, I liked this film a lot and recommend it. I can’t say the same of Batman v. Superman. Superhero movies don’t usually go over my head, but I could never figure out why exactly Batman and Superman were fighting. That was pretty crucial to appreciating the movie. It was Owen’s second viewing and he walked out in a state of such intense artistic rapture, that I can’t dismiss the film completely. I’ve investigated, but even so I’m not prepared to express contempt. Just bafflement.