Sunday, February 28, 2016

zryala vuzrast

French lemon meringue tart is prettier than lemon meringue pie, but eggier and less delicious.
Sorry for my absence. I was busy turning fifty.

Mark took Owen and me to Paris for a few days to celebrate this milestone. It was cold and gray and expensive and beautiful. There were police and soldiers everywhere. We saw the actor who plays Carl on the Walking Dead in the Mona Lisa room at the Louvre. We saw Mrs. Roman Polanski outside Cafe Flore. From the cheapest seats in the house, we saw a ballet choreographed by Mr. Natalie Portman. What else? French women do get fat. So do French men, even though a lot of them smoke. Everyone was wearing coats, but the fashions were still fun to study. Ladies, if you want to look Parisian, quit combing your hair so much and never set foot in Lulu Lemon again. Just do the messiest ponytail you can manage and buy lots of scarves, black tights, and boots. But above all, no yoga pants in public, ever.

I like this artful little video of Owen and me on the Metro:

It captures one dynamic of the trip in 7 seconds.

So much as been written about French cooking it's hard to have an original thought. This may not be an original thought, but I fell in love with the simplicity and deliciousness of French salads. The three or four salads I ate there involved big leaves of lettuce of a single variety, not those scrappy mixed greens we favor here. I can’t remember the last time I ate an American salad that didn’t consist of wisps of baby arugula, baby spinach, baby mizuna, baby oak leaf, etc. Fully-developed leaves from an adult head. That’s the salad I want at fifty.

I'm happy to be fifty, by the way. You have to understand, I’ve been bracing for fifty for the last three years and now I can stop. Now I can relax and settle in. The late forties are so ambiguous. Fifty isn't. 

Recently, this acclaimed novel came in for me at the library and I took a short break from War and Peace to tear through it:

It's about an English teacher in Bulgaria and his unrequited love for the male hustler he meets in a public men's room who gives him syphilis. 

Yes, I just made that sounds as unappealing as I possibly could, but think of it this way: A book has to be really, really good to overcome subject matter like that and What Belongs To You absolutely does. If you don’t believe me, believe Dwight Garner ("incandescent") and James Wood ("brilliantly self aware.") 

I mention this book because at one point, the narrator meets a woman whom he describes like this: "She wasn't a young woman, but there was a sense of vitality about her that made me think of the Bulgarian phrase zryala vuzrast, ripe age, which they use for the period of time before one is truly old. She was large, but she carried her weight like a sign of health, her frame softened by well-being."

I like that.

Next post: the 2016 Piglet. I warn you, I'm not engaged like I have been in years past, but I did get as many of the competition books out of the library as I could. It's a very interesting mix. I've never eaten, let alone cooked, food from Oman, Ukraine, or Senegal. But within the week. . .

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Some cooking, some reading

Looks like dessert, but isn't.
Two delicious dishes I cooked this week from Michael Solomonov's Zahav:

*The sugar/fat/salt/crunch combo in Solomonov's chicken pastilla cigars makes them even more lethally irresistible for some of us than actual cigars. Have you had b’stilla, that lovely, unusual Moroccan squab pie? This is that, deconstructed. You fry together some ground chicken, onions, fennel, cinnamon, and orange flower water. Roll this into filo dough cylinders (filo can be fussy and if it breaks, just patch and fake it), sprinkle with sliced almonds, bake, and sift some powdered sugar on top. You will enjoy.

*The risotto-like Israeli couscous with mushrooms and kale is another winner. Fairly easy, too. I added Parmesan cheese, which was a good move. I would also next time use the whole bunch of kale and more maitake mushrooms. The vegetables are where the flavors and nutrition is, so I say: maximize. My adaptation of the recipe is at the bottom of the post. 
Israeli couscous  

On another subject, I've been keeping a list of the books I've been reading and the other day I pulled it out. I have only finished two books in 2016! Very slow by my frenetic standards, but there’s a reason.

This is the reason:

One fun part of opening this book was seeing my underlinings from when I tried (and failed) to read it when I was 22, along with the phone numbers of old boyfriends and addresses of editors to whom I was going to send my pathetic college newspaper clips.
Don’t be impressed. Anyone can do it if they are patient. Tolstoy isn't hard, just long. Starting War and Peace is like boarding an ocean liner and you need to settle in for a leisurely journey. I’ve been reading for weeks and weeks and there’s still no land in sight, but I'm not bored at all. Tolstoy's insights into the counts and countesses and scheming blackguards and high-strung maidens of the early 19th-century apply with deadly accuracy to men and women of 2016. Every page or so comes a moment when I stop and think: yes, this is exactly how people are! I’ve had that same subtly awful interaction before and never seen it described. I’ve disliked someone for precisely those reasons -- how did he capture it? And so on.

Here are the books I’ve finished. What a puny list:  

So You’ve been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson. It could be you. It could be me. Ronson’s book reads like a long and chilling magazine article about the power of  an internet mob to destroy the lives and livelihoods of unlucky individuals, many of whom have done nothing more egregious than post an ill-advised joke on Twitter. The book dampened my enthusiasm for blogging and if you read it you will understand why.

An Experiment in Criticism by C.S. Lewis. If you like to ponder the underpinnings of literary taste and often argue with a teenaged boy about the artistic value of comics, which he stubbornly insists are on a par with Tolstoy, this excellent book-length essay will help you frame your arguments. Or maybe just lay down your arms. Who knows? Instead of tackling the issue of whether a book is good or bad, Lewis says we should instead look at the way people who love the book read it. Over the years, I’ve read Experiment three times and I’ll probably read it again -- a sign that it is of high literary quality, per Lewis. I never got into Narnia, but this is an all-time favorite, a short, invigorating gem of a book that will make you feel instantly sharper. The title makes it sound daunting and dry, but it's not at all.

Finally, let me say a few more words about Role Models by John Waters. I’m almost done listening to the audio version, which I touted in the last post. I still recommend these funny, weird, warm-hearted essays, but I had forgotten just how sordid the chapter on outsider gay pornographers is. How sordid? Very sordid indeed, and maybe even nauseating unless you're on the same psychosexual plane as John Waters. I still think Role Models is a great book. I just don’t want anyone to get to the part about Bobby Garcia and shriek, "WTF, Jennifer?" 

You’ve been warned.

Israeli couscous, adapted from Zahav 

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. On a baking sheet, toss 2 cups Israeli couscous with 2 tablespoons olive oil and toast for 15 minutes or so, until golden. Meanwhile, warm 2 tablespoons olive oil in a skillet and add 1 grated carrot, 4 minced garlic cloves, and 1/2 cup chopped onion. Cook until softened but not browned. Add the couscous and stir well to coat in oil. Add 1/2 cup dry white wine (or vermouth) and 1 cup tomato sauce. Cook until the wine has evaporated and tomato sauce reduced. Add salt and pepper to taste. Heat 6 cups water (or chicken stock, but water is perfectly fine so why waste the stock?) in another pan and now start cooking the couscous a la risotto. In other words, add a 1/2 cup of the simmering water to the couscous and stir. When that is absorbed, add another half cup. Keep doing this until the couscous is tender, up to 40 minutes. (It went faster than this for me.) Meanwhile, in another skillet, heat another 2 tablespoons olive oil and add 2 cups coarsely chopped maitake mushrooms (or more) and 1/2 cup chopped onion. Cook until onions are soft and mushrooms have released all their liquid and begun to brown at the edges. Add a bunch of shredded kale and cook just until leaves are tender. Fold this into the hot couscous along with 3 tablespoons butter and some grated Parmesan -- as much or little as you want. Serve with additional Parmesan. Serves 6. 

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Mississippi roast and chicken albondigas

I wasn't cooking at all for a few weeks. I was busy one night and lazy the next and then Mark was out or Owen was out or I couldn't be dragged away from my marathon viewing of Shoah. It was great for a while, but eventually I started to feel slovenly and unhealthy. In the absence of leftovers, my non-dinner meals had devolved to cherry Hershey’s kisses left over from Christmas and spoonfuls of Jif straight from the jar. That’s not a droll hypothetical. That's a precise description of one of my lunches last week, and probably all of my snacks. There was another day when sustenance consisted of an orange, handfuls of Nabisco gingersnaps, and a chai latte.

Saturday, I decided to start cooking again. Mark’s aunt is visiting and you have to offer a houseguest a meal at some point, plus I missed real food and missed blogging. I decided to warm up slowly. I decided to warm up with Mississippi roast.

Have you heard of Mississippi roast? Sit down, get comfortable, I'm going to tell you all about it.

A few weeks ago Sam Sifton wrote a story in the New York Times about the “improbable rise” of so-called Mississippi roast. The story was both fascinating and unintentionally hilarious, or at least I found it so at the time.

Over the last decade, a 5-ingredient, slow-cooker beef dish -- a.k.a. Mississippi roast --  has become a sensation among, as Sifton put it, “the mom-blog set.” A slab of chuck goes into your slow cooker along with a packet of Ranch dressing mix, a packet of au jus gravy mix, a stick of butter, and a few jarred pepperoncini.  Cook for 8 hours. Dinner.

Sifton tracked down the Mississippi woman who invented the recipe and the friend of hers who subsequently published it in a church cookbook, et cetera, et cetera (this was the fascinating part), until suddenly it was all over Pinterest and the blogosphere. One blogger quoted in Sifton’s story enthused that the roast passed “the hubby test.”  

It didn’t quite pass the Sifton test.

Sifton: “Packaged dry ranch-dressing mix? Packaged dry gravy mix? These are built on foundations of salt and monosodium glutamate, artificial flavors, artificial colors, polysyllabic ingredients that are difficult to pronounce much less identify. Surely they could be replaced without increasing by much the prep time for the roast.”

He came up with a new version of the recipe that involves browning the meat "aggressively beneath a shower of salt and pepper and a coating of all-purpose flour that I hoped would create a fond, or base of flavor, to replace the gravy mix, and give some structure to the sauce.” Then he whips up some homemade ranch dressing. Sifton: “It was exactly the same as the original effort, and took about the same amount of time to make.” (Italics mine.)

I didn't have to try the recipe to know this was absurd. How I chuckled. The original Mississsippi roast was about the miraculous alchemy of a few unfussy supermarket ingredients in a crockpot. It was about magic. By turning it into just another recipe and using the word fond, Sifton missed the whole point.

I was awfully smug. Like I'm so folksy and unpretentious. I made Mississippi roast according to the traditional mom blogger recipe Saturday, emptying two packets of flavoring powder plus butter and pepperoncini onto a chuck roast. I love ranch dressing. I love butter. I was sure it was going to be delicious. 

You've probably guessed from my long wind-up that a dramatic reversal awaits. I won't disappoint.

We sat down to dinner Saturday, I took a bite of the Mississippi roast and cried, “This is is terrible!”

It was terrible! The flavor of real beef had been replaced by salty and revolting “beef flavor.” The roast tasted like it had spent years in a can. It tasted like a hospital cafeteria smells. The difference between the flavor of regular pot roast and Mississippi roast was the difference between the flavor of a real strawberry and strawberry bubblegum. 

Mark said, “I don’t know what you’re so upset about. This is really good.”

Mark’s aunt said, “I like it. It’s delicious.”

Owen said, “It’s weird and too salty, but I like it.”

I’m not sure why this beef offended me so much. After all, I enjoy cloyingly artificial Hershey’s cherry kisses and love garbage like instant vanilla pudding. But Mississippi roast was so not my thing. Disgusting. I just don't get it. I’m sorry I ever doubted Sam Sifton. I bet his fancy Mississippi roast is delicious and worth the ten or fifteen extra minutes it takes to make, I can not recommend the original.

Last night, I continued the cooking revival by making the chicken albondigas (meatballs) from Zahav, which were good, though I thought they contained too much smoked paprika.

A word on meatballs. Everyone thinks they are an easy, homely, weeknight dish, but they're not. Meat loaf is an easy, homely, weeknight dish. Meatballs are a miserable chore. I forget this every time I decide to make meatballs and only remember when I'm in the middle of making meatballs. What is so hard about meatballs? A lot of things, but it mostly comes down to handwashing. If you’re shaping a meatball and the phone rings, you have to turn on the sink with your elbow and wash your hands to take the call. You have to wash your hands to turn on the stove. You have to wash your hands if your son wants you to come over and read his English essay. Then you often have to brown the meatballs "in batches." "Batches" is not a word you ever want to see in a weeknight recipe. 

And in the end, you just have meatballs and no one is as impressed as if you’d made something truly easy, like, I don't know, cassoulet.  

Gosh, I sound negative. I’m actually very cheery, A few things that have made me happy and might do the same for you:

*45 Years. It won't make you happy, exactly, but this movie will make you think and argue (in a good way) with your friends over what actually happened and whether the character played by Charlotte Rampling is justified in feeling as she appears to feel at the end, which I think she absolutely and clearly is. I can't say more without ruining it.

*I read John Waters’s wonderful book Role Models a few years ago and loved it so much I’m listening to it now in the car and I love it just as much, maybe more, because Waters narrates with personality and wit. This book really does make me happy. I find the irony and outrageousness of Waters' movies wearisome, but his writing charms me. He’s an enthusiast whose exuberant, almost wholesome, delight in eccentricity is infectious and life affirming.  Parental warning: I used the words “almost wholesome.” There are a couple of chapters here that must be avoided when driving carpool. 

*Typing the name “Waters” reminded me to say that if you’re ever in San Francisco, the David Ireland House, which I toured last week, is extraordinary and worth a visit. It’s a lovely old Victorian that Ireland, a conceptual artist, used as his canvas, so to speak. You can read all about it here. At the end of our tour of this bizarre, entrancing house the guide had us sit at Ireland’s dining room table which is set with silver bowls filled with cement, candles stuck in blobs of cement, and perfectly round cement balls. She asked if we had any questions. Having heard that Ireland threw raucous dinner parties at this table, I asked, “What did David Ireland cook?” She said, “He cooked very basic things but he was in a relationship with Alice Waters so he certainly ate well.” I said, “A relationship relationship?” She said, “Yes, a relationship relationship.” 

I like to keep this blog nominally about food and I think that brings us back around.