Monday, January 18, 2016

If you want to criticize my writing, today ain't the day

I was hard on this book.
You probably didn't know that Alfred Hitchcock once served Jimmy Stewart a meal that was entirely blue, from soup to ice cream, or that Marilyn Monroe ate lamb chops in bed, "dropping gnawed bones onto her signature white sheets." That Marlene Dietrich "reached a deep understanding of dill and always used it with fish" and Michael Caine grew up avoiding chicken because his father told him it was for "nancy boys." You'll find lots of this kind of culinary gossip, plus recipes, in Dining with the Famous and Infamous, a book about the eating quirks of 20th-century celebrities. Am I recommending it? You can read my review here.  
Lauren Bacall's Romanian grandmother taught her how to make kreplach. Dining with the Famous and Infamous taught me how to make kreplach. Here's the recipe, which is pretty good, though I cut back on the cinnamon. Two teaspoons is plenty. Also, I omitted the saffron. Too expensive.
Back to business. I have a lot of business. This is a long post.

Yesterday, I bought Zahav. The library copy was overdue and there were more recipes I wanted to try. Should I buy a copy, should I keep the library copy another week and pay the fines, should I feel shitty that someone else is waiting for the book, should I take it back and put myself on the hold list again, if I buy it where will I put it, if I buy it will I feel like an irresponsible spendthrift, if I buy it will I really use it, et cetera. For about a week, this "issue" was buzzing at the periphery of my consciousness like an annoying little fly.

Smack. Killed that fly. The book is mine. Sorry Mark.

Two more Zahav dishes to tell you about:

Dish #1: Halloumi is a firm, chewy, squeaky Cypriot cheese that holds its shape when cooked. I bought two brands of halloumi at the Middle Eastern market and opened one of them to make Michael Solomonov's fried halloumi with dates, walnuts, and apples. I tasted the cheese straight out of the packet and thought, wow, salty, but this is probably just halloumi, it’ll be ok once it’s fried.

It wasn’t. It was inedibly salty. Product failure, not recipe failure. I would warn you off that brand of halloumi except I threw the packaging away.

To make this dish, you puree dates, walnuts, oil, and water to create a rich, sweet bed for the halloumi cubes, which you fry until golden in a bit of oil. Top with feathery herbs and raw apple. The date-walnut puree is intended to offset the saltiness of the cheese and the herbs and apples are intended to offset the unctuous sweetness of the dates and I’m sure under other circumstances this would be a glorious and perfectly balanced dish, but it wasn't for me, not last week. Recipe here.

The other night I opened the second packet of halloumi and it was pleasantly salty, springy, delicious. We ate it plain, like any other good cheese. It went quickly. 
This is the halloumi you want.
Dish #2: Celery root and apple soup with hawaij sounds bland, doesn’t it? It sounded bland to me. Celery root is barely a food. If it looked so bland to me, why did I make it? Because it also looked easy. If I like to cook so much, why do I always go for easy dishes? Because maybe I don’t like to cook, maybe I just like to have cooked.

As it turns out, the soup wasn’t bland at all and if I’d known the meaning of “hawaij” I’d have known it wouldn’t be. Hawaij is a Yemeni blend of turmeric, cumin, and black pepper, a close cousin of curry powder that you can mix in under a minute using spices already in your cupboard. The soup was sweet, spicy, hearty, cheap, easy, and, if you care, anti-inflammatory, good for brain health, and vegan. It yielded plenty of leftovers for lunches all week. This soup has everything going for it. Recipe at end of post. 

Speaking of brain health, I will now tell you a story.

Recently, I decided to take a class at the community college. There’s an English prerequisite, a basic course in reading comprehension and writing. I thought I should be able to skip this class given how I've spent the last 30 years. 

You have two options if you want to skip English 98 at the College of Marin: provide proof that you’ve passed an equivalent class, or submit to something called the Accuplacer test, produced by the same company that produces the SAT. I have definitely passed many equivalent classes, but excavating ancient college records sounded like a nightmare. I thought, hell, I’ll just take the test. How hard can it be?

So there I was a week ago at the College of Marin in a hushed room full of computers and fellow students, all of whom appeared to be the age of my children. When I sat down at the terminal I found I was shockingly nervous. 

The multiple-choice section of the test wasn’t hard but it was tricky. Sneaky. You’re rewarded for being clever and suspicious, not thoughtful. Fortunately, I can be suspicious. I did well on this section.  Lest you think I'm boasting. . . 

In the final portion of the test, the computer instructed me to compose an essay answering this question: “Is making mistakes necessary even when doing so has negative consequences for other people?”

I stared at the computer, stupefied. I began to perspire. I had the fleeting impulse to leave and forget about my community college course. The phrasing of that question made no sense to me, given my understanding of the words “necessary” and “mistake.” I figured there must be a diabolical trick embedded in the question that separated smart people from aging blockheads.

I pulled it together. I addressed my problems with the phrasing of the question and wrote an essay. I avoided sentence fragments and cutesy blog shortcuts, used all the colors in my writerly crayon box, reread for errors. It wasn't great, but I thought the essay was decent.

The computer scored the essay in under a minute. I bombed the essay. I got a 5/8. There were “lapses in quality.” My essay lacked coherence and exhibited “inconsistent control of language.” 

I was stunned. Indignant. Stung! 

When I got home, Mark said, “Maybe this is a wake-up call.”

Ha ha ha. What a card. I still don't know what to make of this disaster! Maybe I’ve spent too many years trying to entertain rather than rigorously argue. Maybe I don’t test well. Maybe the computer is an idiot. Maybe I'm an idiot. All I know is, I do have consistent control of language and I feel sorry for the kids for whom tests like this really matter. 

I was exempted from English 98 despite the essay. No way I would have told this story if I hadn’t been.

CELERY ROOT SOUP WITH APPLES AND HAWAIJ, adapted from Zahav by Michael Solomonov

Solmonov instructs you to use 2 tablespoons hawaij, total. I’d start with that and see how you feel when you taste the soup. I wanted a lot more spice, so I’m giving proportions that leave you that option. If you don’t want more spice, you’ll have extra hawaij left over that you can mix into your jar of curry powder or save for the next time you make this excellent soup.

In a small dish mix together 2 tablespoons turmeric, 1 tablespoon ground cumin, and 1 1/2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper. Set aside. Warm 1/2 cup olive oil in a pot over medium heat, add 1 big onion, thinly sliced, 2 celery ribs, thinly sliced, 1 tablespoon kosher salt, and 1 tablespoon hawaij (the spice mix you just made). Cook, stirring frequently, until the vegetables have softened but not browned. Add 2 big celery roots, peeled and sliced, reduce heat to low, cover and cook until the celery root is falling apart, about 45 minutes. Add 2 apples peeled, cored, and sliced, and another tablespoon of hawaij -- or more  Stir. Add 2 quarts of water and bring to a simmer. Cook until the apples are completely soft. Blend with whatever implement you use to blend soups. Taste. Add more spices, if you want, and additional salt. (I thought it needed a lot of salt.) Serve with a dollop of yogurt or sour cream. Serves six.


  1. How does a computer even score an essay? Seems like a major fault to me.
    On a completely different note, I received a Vitamix for Christmas - do you still like yours? What do you love to make with it? (Besides pisco sours...)

  2. Very clever to include the link to the WaPo (nice!) book review, as you tell us about your essayistic fail. And that is a truly awful essay prompt. I cannot wait to show it to my high school senior.

    1. SRSLY. That question exhibits inconsistent control of language.

  3. Happy that you are enjoying Zahav. I pre-ordered it after reading a rave review of his hummus recipe on David Levovitz. Yes, that is just how easily I can be tempted into buying a cookbook. For one recipe. It is, in fact, the best hummus I've ever made (and in 40+ years as a cook, I've made a lotta hummus). Love his salads as well, and find the recipes somehow more accessible than Ottolenghi's. My one semi-failure was the roasted chicken with harrisa, which was blah for me, but as it turns out, I forgot to serve it with the tehina sauce. Made all the difference the second day. This is a cookbook that I use regularly. Man cannot live by bread alone, but possibly I could if that bread is accompanied by Zahav's twice-cooked eggplant….

  4. Oh, and that Hitchcock all blue meal took me back in time. By the time my kids were about to leave the family nest forever, I was experiencing extreme boredom on the cooking front, after years of producing what I considered to be pretty damned gourmet dinners night after night. So I decided to secretly do "color" meals, see if anybody noticed. For about two weeks straight I served meals with just one color. White was by far the easiest, red easy, yellow and orange easy, green easy. But for blue I had to cheat a bit, deciding that purple counted. Nary a child nor spouse noticed the single-color meals.

  5. I just read this out loud to Dave while he cleaned up the kitchen after lunch. You are a delight.

    1. If my husband is anywhere near me when I read these blog posts, I always end up reading them out loud too! I start out repeating a zingy one liner and then just kind of keep going.

  6. You sure know how to make a joyless food crank feel special.

  7. Thank you so much for sharing your experience with the essay exam. I had a similar experience with the essay portion of the GRE. I had read numerous examples of essays that had scored at each level and I was 100% confident that I could write at a 5 or 6 level with no problem. I took my test, felt good about my essay, and scored a 4. The 4's I had read were awful. Much more poorly written than anything I would ever write. I was upset about this for a week. I got over it. But hearing that you (a fabulous writer whose blogs I look forward to reading) had a similar experience with a stupid essay test really makes me that much more over it. Essay tests scored by computers are ridiculous.

  8. I would be shaken to the core if a computer failed my writing. That test result is just so wrong. Well, so is the incoherent prompt. How does a computer score a written exam? On the writing section of the SAT or the TOEFL human beings have to read them and score them. I'm starting to get indignant on behalf of the degree-seeking community college students out there who are dependent on the vagaries of the computer scoring algorithms. (I was already highly indignant on your behalf, don't worry.)

    Is it okay to ask what class you're taking?

    I want to read that book. I also want to read the one by the woman who tried all the different celebrity diets. Did you know that Karl Lagerfeld's diet involves tiny little rehydrated "flavor packets" and 11 Diet Cokes a day? So joyless.

    And the antithesis of the Lagerfeld diet: The celery root soup called to me, too, as I leafed through "Zahav", but I haven't made it yet. Hawaij is definitely something I need to have in the pantry, though. I see another trip to the bulk spice section at Sprouts in my near future.

  9. I'm a 7th grade English teacher, and I'm almost weeping with joy that an adult who is a published author has subjected herself to educational testing and has seen what we see in a daily basis. Those are exactly the kinds of tests that students are given around the country - tests that assess their ability to take tests. In VA, we moved to computer essay scoring for 8th grade writers, and a big chunk of what they have to do is just...write a big chunk. Since the software can't figure out if a paragraph contains only information relevant to that paragraph, it is now "best practice" to teach them to write without paragraphs in some districts. It honestly sickens me that we have become so quick to pass off jobs to computers that we sacrifice meaningful education and assessment in the name of progress. Equally terrible, these cuts and restrictions and conveniences seem only to be used in the public schools and higher education. Kids educated in private school or at home might not have learned how to take these "gatekeeper" tests because they always had a person to assess their work. This leaves only the good test takers, not necessarily the good thinkers, to inherit places of societal power.

    Sorry to ramble. I get really worked up over it because it isn't fair.

    Unrelated: haloumi is tasty sliced thinnish and fried golden, then served with apple butter on toasted bread. It sounds godawful, but I think it's lovely.

  10. I've never, ever left a comment on any blog anywhere before. I, too, am stunned by that utterly nonsensical essay prompt. I read it over several times and remain completely baffled by how one would do anything coherent with. It is a damn shame, and I suspect it is a sign of the incompetence of the test creators. Maybe give your cookbook writing a break and write an expose on how our academic standards have sunk so low that education has become a racket full of "credenialed" and "degreed" bureaucrats who can't even conjure a reasonable essay topic.

  11. I am stunned and almost speechless that education has come to this. I had no idea! It really is shameful, and we will reap what we have sown. Written language skills are so important to understanding all aspects of life, especially other people, cultures, and motivation!
    As always, I read this blog for your clear use of language, and for your unending curiosity, and I am never disappointed. I learn something every time you post.

  12. I wish you were in my class! Any kind of standardized testing for essay writing is terrible.

  13. Is Halloumi similar to the cheese used to make saganaki?

  14. Baaahahahahahaah!!! That test story kills me dead!


  15. In my other life I was a university adviser at Berkeley. I was horrified by the level of illiteracy that's fast becoming the norm. Native English speakers were admitted despite the inability to punctuate, read, write, or compose basic essays. They couldn't even write emails. I wish this were hyperbole.

  16. Here's a secret for you and other library book hoarders....but's a secret remember.
    Get a second card (it's waaaay easy where I live-it's all done online) in your spounces name, or your 2yr old kids or gkids name (if your spouce already has one). Then when you reserve a really good cookbook...reserve it right after the other. Then if you aren't able to "renew" it because it's on hold for someone else....that "next" someone else IS YOU....HAHAHA.
    ...but it's a secret so...shhhhh

  17. Wow.

    Your WP review is fantastic! I love the tone you strike, and feel like I have a very good idea of what the book's about!

    I am ordering it from my library.

    I am a big Andy Warhol kook. In his diaries, Andy goes on and on about how annoying Truman Capote is - always raving about what a good cook he is, and then serving what is obviously store bought food on his own dinnerware.

    If memory serves, I think Andy roots thru the garbage to find the tell tale empty take out containers as evidence.

    And then there was some story about a canned black bean soup Truman was trying to pass off as homemade.

    One of the many pleasures of Andy's diary is his food related entries. Andy loved food, loved junk food & fancy food too, but he was always interested in staying slim, and then he was plagued with awful digestive problems for years. He had a bum gall bladder and was scared to have it out. When he finally DID go to the hospital, the gall bladder was gangrenous, and he then died post-op under mysterious circumstances.

    FYI - Trader Joe's sells what I feel is decent Spanish saffron at a reasonable price.

    I love the flavor so much I will not do without.

  18. Darn. Not in my library system. I'm gonna suggest they purchase it.

  19. aubergine parmigiana. AUBERGINE parmigiana!

    And I love how in Mia Farrow's memoir WHAT FALLS AWAY, she describes her & Frank Sinatra, at the beginning of their way June/December romance, holed up in Palm Springs, so in love, making spaghetti sauce while Mia munches on potato chips perched on a kitchen stool.

    Well, everybody's got to eat, right?

    Have you ever acquainted yourself with Arthur Schwartz, the food maven, btw???

    Enough from ME - over & out!

  20. I'm confused. Writing is an art form. I love to read because of the imagery of the words, the impact the story has on me, and the way the images in my mind stay with me long after I read them. How is a computer able to assess that?

  21. "Maybe I don’t like to cook, maybe I just like to have cooked."
    YES! I would have never come up with that, but yes, exactly.

    I've been out of school for 16 years, and this blog post has just moved me from high-end nervous to completely terrified to take the GRE that's required for entrance to the graduate program I'm interested in. Thanks :)