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.

Friday, April 01, 2016

All about sucking at sports, Owen, licuados, and me

Owen inherited his athleticism from me. In other words, he is a pauper. Are he and I unathletic because we’re uninterested in athletics? Or did we lose interest in athletics because we have no athletic ability? The answers to these questions (with regards to me, anyway) are rooted so deeply in the swampy origins of my narrative that I will never know. I was bad at sports as far back as I can remember and therefore - or because of that -- I found them extraordinarily unpleasant, humiliating, and pointless. Today, I am basically indolent and sedentary and happiest when my life involves moving from the sofa to my bed to the seat of a movie theater, punctuated (maybe) by a gentle evening walk around the neighborhood wearing normal street clothes and cute shoes.

But the medical establishment insists that such a lifestyle leads to illness and premature death, a warning I didn’t take seriously until a few years ago, at which point I started exercising for real. I go to a CrossFit gym. It is a such a bad fit for me. The gym is full of tough, great-looking, gum-cracking mesomorphs who crushed P.E. when they were growing up and went on to play Division One soccer or whatever before becoming stock brokers, unlike, say a yoga studio or a water aerobics class, which is where I really belong. The awesome warrior people at the CF gym are always forking up grass-fed steak salads out of Tupperware and they dissolve protein powder into water. Not milk, water. That’s really hardcore. Meanwhile, after my workout the other day I walked across the parking lot to Walgreen’s and bought up a basketful of half-price Peeps and Cadbury eggs. I felt very proud and rebellious. It’s important to maintain my identity, even if it means I get diabetes.

Anyway, I think the exotic cultural milieu at CF has been part of the draw for me and I've come to really like my coach. There’s a lot to observe and think about and I could probably write a book about what I have seen and thought about over 2+ years at the CF gym. I'm often so busy thinking during my workout that I forget what I’m doing and lose count of burpees or can’t seem to recall how the rowing machine works. You think I'm joking? I wish. Then I wonder if escaping into my head is why I am so bad at athletics or if I escape into my head because I am so bad at athletics.

Unlike his father, who ran cross country in high school and works at a sports web site, Owen has never been into either watching or playing sports. Unlike Isabel, he has never been interested in dance. Owen comes home from school and reads comic books with our elderly cat on his lap and carefully plots his moviegoing for the coming weekend, checking the revival theaters for any stray screenings of The Big Lebowski. He attends to his many collections. He listens to records. He follows a number of TV shows and podcasts. He’s an aficionado of iFunny. He posts reviews on crappy movie sites. He takes very good care of his plants.  

I think he’s adorable and perfect exactly the way he is. 

But I can see that he is gawky and physically uncertain and I understand why a 15-year-old boy might want to make some changes. A few weeks ago, out of the blue, he said he wanted to do CrossFit. I signed him up. He's been twice. Yesterday afternoon, I got there to pick him up as he was running across the parking lot, just like I run across the parking lot, except faster, and he gave me this huge smile as I drove up, like, Isn’t this the stupidest? Oh, I loved him so much just then. As we were driving home he said, “I don’t need to get super-strong or anything, I just don’t want to be a pile of mashed potatoes.” 

I said, “I’d say you’re more like a breadstick.”

He said, “It’s only funny the first time, Mom. Mashed potatoes are funny, but breadstick pushes it too far.” 

I said, “But you look like a breadstick, not a pile of mashed potatoes.”

“You don’t get it, Mom,” he said wearily, so I shut up. 

Back home he stretched Camille-like on his bed with a baggie of ice on his forehead. His emerging post-CF routine involves dramatic languor and requests for exemption from chores, which he does not get. Yesterday, he requested a smoothie. I am anti-smoothie. Smoothies are what people ask for when they want to treat their food as fuel, or a health aid, which bums me out. Smoothies are on the spectrum with protein powder dissolved in water and power bars. My anti-smoothie position is silly and irrational and connected in some way to my lack of athleticism, so don’t get defensive. I am happily married to someone who makes smoothies all the time for himself and our kids. 

Yesterday, because I hate exercise as much as he does and know the toll it takes on body and psyche, I agreed to make Owen a smoothie. As it turned out we didn’t have yogurt or bananas, which are vital smoothie ingredients. We did have strawberries, milk and sugar and I said I’d make him a licuado instead. He was suspicious, but enfeebled enough to agree to a licuado.

Have you ever had a licuado? I first drank one in Costa Rica (though it might have had a different name, I don’t remember) when I was an exchange student in high school and I’ve loved them ever since. I love licuados as much as I dislike smoothies. They are the refreshing and pretty milk-and-fruit shake that you might sip while sitting on a bench in the Zocalo and watching the passerby.You would never add algae or flaxseed meal to a licuado.

Here’s how you make a licuado: Put equal parts ice, cold milk, and fresh, hulled strawberries (or cantaloupe, my favorite) into a blender with sugar to taste. If you’re using a cup of ice, a cup of milk, and a cup of fruit, start with a tablespoon of sugar and see how you like it. You might need more, depending on the sweetness of the fruit. Blend until the ice has pulverized and the drink is foamy. Pour into a pint glass.

As it turned out, Owen likes licuados better than smoothies, too. That's my boy. He said, “This should have been in Make the Bread, Buy the Butter.” 

It was one of the nicest things he’s ever said to me. I didn’t thank him, because if I had he would have taken it back.

Mark was out of town so after the licuado restored Owen’s strength, he did some homework and then I made grilled cheese sandwiches and we sat on the sofa with the elderly cat between us and watched Daredevil. I pulled out a couple of Cadbury eggs for dessert. Then I went to my room and slogged through a little War and Peace and he went to his room and read comic books. I made him a licuado this morning for breakfast and I’m picking him up from school so we can go straight to a matinee of Batman vs. Superman. After all, we would both agree that there’s no better way to spend a beautiful, sunny April afternoon than in a dark movie theater. I would probably pick a different movie, but one day soon Owen will stop spending time with me and I will happy for him, but also incredibly sad. Meanwhile, I don’t really care that much what movies we see.