Saturday, December 9, 2017

Steak and Cheese Pie in Grendel // Cook Your Books

In this Cook Your Books series, I have chosen 15 books to read in 2017 based on somewhat arbitrarily chosen categories. My theory (bogus it might turn out to be) is that all 15 of these books will somehow connect to food. And I plan to write about that food. It turns out that these entries are a sort of long-form blog-post. So settle in. This ninth installment is a book published in the 1970s.

Aghem. I am not sure what possessed me to choose this book, given what we know about its source material.

So John Gardner's wonderful little novel Grendel is a retelling of Beowulf from the point of view of the beast. But here's the rub. The beast eats humans. Both in Beowulf and in Grendel, and I should have known that. I knew that. I took "Beowulf to Dryden" in my first semester in college. I knew that. But I have promised myself I wouldn't preview books to ensure that they have a connection to food (that would sort of ruin the project); but seriously. I have a graduate degree in English. I probably should have thought this one through. 

So, to be quite clear, I am not making human. I promise. I am, instead, focusing on what those 10th-century Brits who retell stories about 5th-century Danes may have eaten (because we don't really know). And so we're having steak and cheese pie. That makes reasonable sense, right? It seems like the best compromise, I think.

I will tell you this: the resulting steak and cheese pie is actually quite good. However, if your belly is a bit squeamish, you might just want to skip ahead to the recipe.

Alright, let's recap Beowulf to prep us for Grendel, and then let's get down to business, my friends.  Beuwulf goes something like this: we have a Danish king (Hrothgar) who is plagued by the monster Grendel. Nightly, Grendel attacks the meadhall, killing and eating (of course) the Danish warriors. This goes on for some time (okay, 12 years), with Grendel snatching up the men and eating them, until the remaining warriors are scared to sleep at night. Declining with age, Hrothgar accepts the help of the Geats (a seafaring people from the south of Sweden), specifically our hero, Beowulf. That night, there is feasting, as can be expected. Grendel attacks Heorot Hall, and Beowulf fights Grendel in hand-to-hand combat, tearing the monster's arm off at the shoulder (and subsequently displaying it in the mead-hall). Grendel flees into the wilderness and dies. Festivities ensue. Let's imagine it is here that meat and cheese pie would be served. However, the story is not over. 

Grendel's mother arrives to avenge her son's death. As the warriors are sleeping off a night of mead and ale, she attacks. Panicked, she retreats to her lair, a cave beneath a lake. Not to be outdone, Beowulf follows, dives into the lake, slays her with a sword he finds in her mountains of treasure, and returns to the surface of the earth with her severed head. Again, much partying ensues. Perhaps more meat and cheese pie. Beowulf heads home, eventually becomes the King of the Geats, and rules for fifty years. However, Beowulf has one last battle in him: he goes after a village-slaughtering dragon who doesn't take kindly to thieves. With only one man, Wiglaf, at his side, he defeats the dragon, but suffers his own wound, thus shuffling off this mortal coil. Funeral follows. Earthen memorial mounds are built. Perhaps more meat pie is eaten. Hard to say.

Enter in John Gardner's retelling of this epic, this time from the monster's point of view. Nearing the end of his 12-year run on terrorizing the Danish meadhall, Grendel has sort of had it with all things Danish. Each year is the same as the last, and like any eye-liner wearing, existentialist teenager, he cannot see the point of any of it. He fancies himself the intellectual philosopher, stranded in a lonely world, and the humans are the base consumers. It's as if he's dressed all in black and just carrying around Sartre's Being and Nothingness. Yes, he eats people, but it's the part he has to play: even he says, "I had to eat them" (33). Sure, he has eaten an old woman who tasted of "urine and spleen, which made me spit" (7), and "[M]y belly rumbles, sick on their sour meat" (13). This is duty, this is fulfilling one's role in a society. This is fate, but not some fate from the gods. No this is a human-inflicted fate. 

Twelve years prior, Grendel merely lurked around the meadhall, fascinated by The Shaper, who takes the reality of a brutal world and retells it as poetry ("he stares strange-eyed at the mindless world and turns dry sticks to old" (49)), where monsters, such as he, are to be feared. While the beauty of the songs enrapture Grendel, they remind Grendel that he can communicate with no one, including the meadhall goers, whom he pleads for "Mercy! Peace!" (51) as he tries to join them, and they do not understand his language, as they scream and flee in terror.  Nor can he communicate with his strange mute mother who smells of "wild pig and fish" (29). And when he returns to the meadhall two days after killing those who attacked him when he asked for peace, the Shaper sings of how the brave dead fought the monster (54). Grendel comes to understand that language is just another way to create the world, and currently the Shaper is creating a world where one race is to be saved, and another--Grendel's--not (55). Tormented and lonely, Grendel does not know what to believe--the Shaper, who prophesies a life of loneliness or his own understanding of reality, where he is also tormented by loneliness. No way this monster is going to win. 

Grendel falls in with a bad crowd, mostly a dragon who encourages Grendel to make a choice--either be a hero or a monster. But no matter what he chooses, he should choose it fully. We're all going to die anyway. So Grendel chooses monster, in part, because when he returns to the meadhall, he hears the Shaper. The Shaper sings of the goodness of a god that blessed the Danes with Hrothgar, who accepts their toast with "bits of food in his beard" (77). A guard comes upon Grendel as he listens, "I'd meant them no harm, but they attacked me again, as always" (79). And so, Grendel devours the guard "with glee" (77). Thus, he begins his reign of terror on the meadhall, launching his first of many raids on the meadhall, killing seven and devouring them on the spot (79). He claims: 

I was transformed. I was a new focus for the clutter of space I stood in: if the world had once imploded on the tree where I waited, trapped and full of pain, it now blasted outward, away from me, screeching terror. I had become myself, the mama I'd searched the cliffs for once in vain. But that merely hints at what I mean. I had become something, as if born again. I had hung between possibilities before, between the cold truths I knew and the heart-sucking conjuring tricks of the Shaper; now that was passed: I was Grendel, Ruiner of Meadhalls, Wrecker of Kings! (80)
He has found it now: the ability to be something. To claim an identity. Yes, an identity of the destruction--ruiner, wrecker--but an identity nonetheless.

Upon realizing his own new identity, Grendel ends up in a conversation with Unferth, the best of Hrothgar's thanes. It takes some time, but eventually, Unferth understands, at least part of, what Grendel is saying: finally, the ability to communicate with language. They have a talk about heroism, or at least Grendel does, and he mocks it thoroughly because he comes to understand his role in others' heroism: "I went on polishing the apple, smiling. "And the awful inconvenience," I said. "Always having to stand erect, always having to find noble language! It must wear on a man."" (84). Heroism is itself as much destruction as Grendel's consumption is:
Ah, ah, it must be a terrible burden, though, being a hero—glory reaper, harvester of monsters! Everybody always watching you, seeing if you're still heroic... But no doubt there are compensations," I said. "The pleasant feeling of vast superiority, the easy success with women... And the joy of self-knowledge, that's a great compensation! The easy and absolute certainty that whatever the danger, however terrible the odds, you'll stand firm, behave with the dignity of a hero, yea, even to the grave!" (84-85)

This is not the glory that Grendel had hoped for in finally making the overtures with the Danes.  "So much for heroism. So much for the harvest virgin. So much, also, for the alternative visions of blind old poets and dragons" (90). And Grendel toys with Unferth mocking him and not even killing him, which would afford him a hero's death. He is beginning to realize the part he is made to play, and that they are dependent upon him always remaining monstrous: "My enemies define themselves...on me" (91). "So much for heroism," indeed. The Shaper dies. And Grendel is bored, so achingly bored by playing his role. He fancies that his killing gives the Danes as much meaning as it gives them--it gives them a sense of purpose and the opportunity to engage in battles and perform great deeds. His killing gives them their humanity, but it is so boring.  

And we're only in year two (of twelve).

Then a woman Wealthoew arrives as a gift from her brother to Hrothgar, and she is breathtaking. Wealtheow is new queen and meadbowl-bearer, and, of course, Grendel falls hopelessly in love with her. Or as much as a teen-aged monster with no real ability to communicate with his beloved can do. And he decides to kill her because he is a teen-aged monster with no real communicate that he is frustrated by the men's lack of ability to see her sorrow and her isolation in a community that is not her own. And just as quickly he decides not to kill her. Such is the fate of teen-aged love.  So he goes back to his more general killing and eating. "Tedium is the worst pain" (138). 

Then the Geats arrive. The Danes are embarrassed to have to be rescued by the Stranger (whom we all know is Beowulf), and even Grendel notices "Honor is very big with them; they'd rather be eaten alive than be bailed out by strangers" (159).  Much mead boasting ensues. And Grendel declares that Beowulf "was insane" (162). He one-ups Unferth in stories, and Hrothgar calls for Wealtheow to pass the meadbowl some more. They sleep, and Grendel enters the meadhall's "great cavernous belly" once more (169). The hall itself is the consumer of Danes, Geats, and Grendel alike, and Grendel merely an active agent. He ties a tablecloth around his neck as a napkin and eats one sleeping man and goes after another--Beowulf (168).  Then we learn that Beowulf is more monstrous than the monster. He rips Grendel's arm from his body. "I scream, facing him, grotesquely shaking hands—dear long-lost brother, kinsman-thane—and the timbered hall screams back at me--who is the monster? Who is the hero?" (168-69). He is Beowulf and Beowulf is he. Long lost brothers, ripping limb from limb. And Grendel realizes he will die, just as the dragon suggested, without a lot of fanfare or importance and merely out of an accident, a slip of fate (or in this case on blood). The only one who will mourn him is himself, in this indifferent world.

So let's think about consumption in Grendel and by extension in Beowulf.  In this world, Grendel consumes and consumes, so let's recap three different ways this voracious consumption matters--

Identity: As much as he consumes these people he so wants to be accepted by, they will not recognize him as any more than monster. Yes, it's the consumption that makes him monstrous in their eyes, but he can be and is nothing else. Might as well consume the very thing he wishes desperately to be associated with.

The threat the the host/guest relationship: Grendel likes to crash a good feast. And in doing so, he serves as a threat between the host/guest relationship. Hosts welcome guests, provide them food, warmth, shelter, protection. Guests act accordingly with gratitude. Enter monster. Now everything is all awry. To not be a protective host is to lose your standing, and Hrothgar cannot protect his guests or even his kinsmen. He has no power, and Grendel, it seems, has it all. 

Power: There is certainly power in Grendel's consumption, but it is a nihilistic power that brings him nothing in the end. His power becomes tedious and predictable, and it doesn't have any meaning, or fulfillment for the teen-aged and petulant monster. From the well-stocked meadhall (filled with wine, mead, ale (and let's assume) meat and cheese pie) to Grendel's feasting upon the Danes, this is a world of blind consumption that gives a thin identity. What does all this consumption add up to save a nihilistic recognition that we are trapped in some cycle of celebrate, consume, mourn? We are completely dependent upon each other for binary power definition, breaking the power is nigh impossible, and again and again we slip back into the cycle, try as Grendel might to change the narrative.    

Oh John Gardner, you pessimistic but wickedly brilliant fellow (beyond this little blog post, apparently Gardner was interested in exploring "the main ideas of Western Civilization. . . and go through them in the voice of the monster, with the story already taken care of, with the various philosophical attitudes (though with Sartre in particular), and see[ing] what I could do"--go have a gander). 

Let's just go eat some meat pie, shall we? I should have served our nihilism with mead. 


Steak and Cheese Pie

She was brighter than the hearthfire, talking again with her family and friends, observing the antics of the bear. It was the king, old Hrothgar, who carried the meadbowl from table to table tonight. He walked, dignified, from group to group, smiling and filling the drinking cups, and you'dhave sworn from his look that never until tonight had the old man been absolutely happy. He would glance at his queen from time to time as he moved among his people and hers, the Danes and Helmings, and with each glance his smile would grow warmer for a moment and a thoughtful look would come over his eyes (Grendel, 106).

Doesn't it seem as if Steak and Cheese Pie would be served at such an event? If only I had purchased mead!

Adapted from The Cottage Kitchen 

This is a lovely steak and cheese pie. You might cut up some button mushrooms and throw them in for even more umami goodness.  Do watch the salt--we put a little too much in. Also this is delightful the next day, too.

2 Tbsp salted butter, plus more for greasing
2 Tbsp olive oil
2-3 garlic cloves
1½ pounds stewing beef, cut into 1-inch cubes
1½ cups chicken or beef stock
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
2 Tbsp all-purpose flour
½ cup plus 2 Tbsp dry white wine
1½ Tbsp dried porcini mushrooms, roughly chopped
3-4 fresh thyme sprigs
1 Tbsp chopped fresh sage leaves
2 dried bay leaves
8 ounces frozen puff pastry, thawed
7 ounces Taleggio cheese, chopped

1. Preheat the oven to 350°F.

2.  In a large ovenproof saucepan set over medium heat, melt the butter with 1 Tbsp of oil. Working in batches, add the garlic and the cubed beef and brown the meat on all sides, about 3-5 minutes. Transfer to a plate. Add a splash of stock to scrape up the browned bits on the bottom of the pan. Cook until stock is evaporated, about 1-2 minutes.

3.  Add the remaining Tbsp of oil and the onion and cook, stirring, until lightly transparent, 2-3 minutes. Stir in the flour and cook until golden, about 3 minutes. Add the stock, wine, mushrooms, thyme, sage, and bay leaves, and bring to a boil. 

4.  Return the meat to the pan, and place the pan in the oven. Bake until the meat is tender, about 1½ hours. At this point, you can cool the filling and refrigerate overnight. Or you can sally forth. 

5.  Butter a 9½-inch round pie dish with a depth of 1½ inches.

6.  On a slightly floured work surface, roll out the pastry into 2 circles large enough to fit the pie dish. Place a circle in the bottom of the pie dish.  Add the meat filling and cheese pieces in 3-4 layers. Cover the dish with the remaining pastry, trim, and pinch the edges to seal. Cut a hole in the middle of the pie to allow steam to escape.

7.  Bake until browned on top and heated through, 40-55 minutes. If the pastry browns too quickly, cover with foil. Serve hot straight from the oven.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Shallow Grave (and Apple-Cardamom Shrub)

I like a shrub.  Mostly because I like sour things. Well, I also like salty things. And sweet things. And hot things. Okay, okay, I just like things. Especially if those things have strong flavors. 

But this lovely cocktail is subtle, sweet, piney, citrusy, and spicy. It's the perfect holiday drink. And it packs a punch. A one-two punch. So plan to sip slowly.

To make this shrub, simply grate up some apples and crush some cardamom pods. Then you let them soak in some apple cider vinegar mixed with a lot of sugar. Let a little fermentation happen. Strain. Bottle. Serve. Pucker up.  To learn more about a shrub, see here. To drink more shrub, see below for a fabulous recipe. 

Once you have the shrub hanging out in your kitchen, you're officially qualified to dig your own shallow grave. Aghem, I mean make your own shallow grave. This one calls for gin, Pimms cup, and lemon. Yes, yes, Pimms is usually associated with the summer and Wimbledon, but let's splash some in a coupe glass and toast the holidays.  We can do it; I believe in us.


Shallow Grave (with Apple-Cardamom Shrub)

Adapted from Shrubs: An Old-Fashioned Drink for Modern Times

1 drink

2 ounces gin 
½ to 1 ounce Apple-Cardamom Shrub (the husband preferred this on the less "shrubby" side) 
½ ounce lemon juice 
½ ounce Pimms Cup No. 1

1. Add ingredients to an ice-filled cocktail shaker. Shake hard to blend ingredients and to dilute the cocktail.

2. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass.  Yes, it's this simple.

Apple-Cardamom Shrub

About 1 cup

3 medium apples, quartered (no need to peel, core or seed them)
1 cup apple cider vinegar
½ cup turbinado or demerara sugar
1 Tbsp cardamom pods, lightly crushed

1.  Using a box grader or food processor, shred the apples.

2.  Add the shredded apples, cider vinegar, sugar, and cardamom to a nonreactive container. Cover and leave in a cool place on the countertop for 2 days.

3.  After 2 days, place a fine mesh sieve over a bowl. Strain the apple mixture, squeezing or pressing the mixture to remove any remaining liquid. Discard the solids.

4.  Pour liquid into a clean mason jar or bottle, cap with lid, and then shake well to combine.  refrigerate for up to one year.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Spiced Plum Jam in The Constellation of Vital Phenomena // Cook Your Books

In this Cook Your Books series, I have chosen 15 books to read in 2017 based on somewhat arbitrarily chosen categories. My theory (bogus it might turn out to be) is that all 15 of these books will somehow connect to food. And I plan to write about that food. This eighth installment is a book written by someone under 30.

Lately, there haven't been many books that keep me up at 1 a.m. weeping on my couch. Lately, I have been arguing at book club that most 20th- and 21st-century novels (or at least the ones I have been reading) highlight the futility of community. Lately it's been hard to find books about connection or, let's face it, even meaning. Lately, such a viewpoint seems depressing, because it is not truly the viewpoint I actually take on the world. Lately, I have been looking for a book like this book.

In Anthony Marra's absolutely stunning debut novel from 2013, The Constellation of Vital Phenomena, one must be ready for the brutality and cruelty of the Chechen Wars. One must be prepared for the absurdity, betrayals, hopelessness, and horror of rape, torture, betrayal, land mines, and check points (it is not a book I would recommend lightly). And, yet, one must also be ready for humor, whimsy, and coincidence. For meaning and hope and beauty. For a sense of community and connectedness.  It's kind of just the book I needed.

This book is big--not necessarily in page numbers (but it does clock in at 379 pages)--but it is big in scope. This plot is complicated, contains what feels like a multitude of coincidences, almost to the point of eye rolling. Then I realized that was a limitation on my part, not the book's. More on that in a moment. But let's look at a fraction of the plot.

The book opens with an abduction, with loss and brutality. Set in Chechnya between 1994-2004, this book is unrelenting. Eight-year-old Haava hides in the forest with a small blue suitcase as her father, Dokka, is taken by Russian soldiers in the middle of the night. They accuse him of aiding Chechen rebels, because an informant (a man he considered his friend) tells them so. A neighbor, Akhmed, also watches, afraid of what has happened to Haava as the soldiers set fire to her home. While the house burns, Akhmed finds Haava, and he brings her to a hardly-functioning hospital, where the sole remaining doctor, Sonja, almost single-handedly tends to the wounded. Sonja, who is an ethnic Russian born and raised in Chechnya, gave up a career in London to return to her sister, Natasha, who is recovering from enforced prostitution. Now, Sonja is consumed with grief as her sister has vanished in the wake of the Russian bombing of Grozny, and she has no emotional space to take in an orphaned child. 

So that's the premise. Or at least the opening chapter.

Then the book continues with stories of gun-running neighbors, a military officer with a chest stitched with dental-floss, a one-armed security guard, multiple affairs, and a gun that holds together all of these characters coincidentally, tragically, and heroically. 

Yet, more than any of the horrors of war is a sense of the power of one's stories, this sense of community, this sense that we are actually bound to one another, in spite or and sometimes because of cruelty and pain and betrayal. As heartbreakingly brutal as this book is, and it is, there is this beauty that permeates it all--from the poignance of Havaa dreaming of sea anemones on the night of her father is duct-taped and thrown into the back of a truck to the tender embrace of two men who spin and spin in the mud. That bond stems from a sense of purpose, of the commitment to one another, of the stories that we tell one another about the meaning we create in our own lives. 

And, because of the nature of this blog and this project, I have to mention that there is food--all over the place: Akhmed and Havaa share black bread together on the road to the hospital (9); Sonja's sister Natasha drops an entire pot borscht, staining the Sonja's couch and providing a reminder of her sister's prolonged absence (32); Akhmed feeds broth to Ula, his bed-ridden and dementia-stricken wife (31); Sonja cooks Natasha potatoes and onions in a sisterly gesture of care (104); Natasha wistfully remembers starting her day with such simplicities as an alarm clock, breakfast djepelgesh, morning news, and a cigarette (180); the informer Ramzan trades cured meat for shotgun shells (233); in the mountains Dokka and Ramzan can eat freely, without the need to talk as their mouths are full of and satisfied by mutton (245); in contrast to the landfill pits where prisoners are taken, Ramzan has a fantasy of modern Chechen prisons that store banana peels, potato skins, and apple cores along with broken shoelaces, last-year's calendars, and deflated tires (257); the Chechen army comes to the hospital and tells of a commander who ate only antacids and an army that could only eat breakfast kasha (307); Ula used to take carrots from her mother's stew and feed them to her rabbits (327); Khassan taught his young son Ramzan to eat sunflower seeds, long before Ramzan is tortured and becomes a Russian informant (365). And so many, many cans of sweetened condensed milk or evaporated milk because nobody can access fresh milk, as it was the first to go in the food shortages (302); next to go were plums, cabbages, then cornmeal (302). And while there are stories here, and some of them are central, none stand out quite like the plums.

One character, Khassam--who is the scholar neighbor of both Akhmed and Dokka and disappointed father to the informant Ramzan--is trying, in some small way, to lay bare purpose, commitment, and meaning--from an historical perspective. Khassan publishes only a fraction of the 3,302 of pages he has written on Chechen history in a chapter entitled "Origins of Chechen Civilization: Prehistory to the Fall of the Mongol Empire." The only story that he can publicly tell is that of before his country was a country. This tome burdens him; he obsesses over it, as he wrestles with the decision of whether or not to kill his own son, Ramzan, for his son's turn as a Russian informant. Khassam resorts to writing, instead, the simple and private stories. Khassam knows, like us, that Dokka is doomed; he will be killed. Not in this book, but the ending leaves no doubt that it is merely a matter of time. In order to preserve for Havaa the stories that she, as an eight year old, will forget, that she is doomed to forget, just as Khassam is doomed to forget as a future sufferer of dementia, he writes down the stories of Dokka and Haava. 

And the first story he writes involves a beautiful gesture and a plum. Allow me to quote rather extensively:

These are stray memories, plucked from the air. But if I closed my eyes and force myself to find your father, to truly find him, I would find him at his chessboard. In his forty years he lost only three matches. One was to you on your sixth birthday. 
I would find him peeling a plum. You haven't forgotten, have you, how he peeled the skin with a paring knife? A dozen revolutions and the skin came off in a thin, unbroken coil, a meter-long helix. He transformed that skin of that squat little fruit, smaller than your fist, into a measurable length. Then he held the blade to the naked flesh and rotated the plum vertically. One half fell from the other, the clean so cut not even a filament clung to the seed. Pale pink beads dripped to the plate. If Sharik [Khassam's dog] was with me, the dog would contemplate his hands eagerly. But when your father finally let them fall within reach of Sharik's tongue, he tasted the disappointment of dry skin; your father wasn't a graceful man, but he could cut a plum like a jeweler. 
He pretended to prefer the skin, and always gave you the flesh. You devoured the slices because you had to wash your hands before touching the chess pieces. It was a beautiful set, hand carved, purchased by your great-grandfather, before the Revolution, when a postal clerk could afford such intimate craftsmanship. He taught you to play chess, and on your sixth birthday, he let you win. Your father did many things in his forty years. Yet if pressed to recall his finest moment, I would chose to see him in the living room, with you, by the chess set peeling a plum. (131-2)


That skin is continuous, unbroken despite being peeled from the fruit. A stretch, perhaps, but much like the stories told within this novel. More obvious though is the description of the peel as a helix, which can only call to mind DNA, this connection of genetic material of one to another. And Dokka is masterful in peeling it, transforming the"squat little fruit," something ugly into something vulnerable in its "naked flesh" but also exquisite with its "pale pink beads." Further, there is something magical about the peel, which is over a meter long, coming from a fruit "smaller than your fist." This is a gesture of wonder and delight--a gesture that suggests even the smallest fruit holds this massiveness, just as the smallest stories or gestures hold within them a multitude of possibilities.  

Dokka makes small sacrifices for Havaa (eating the skin while offering her the flesh), sacrifices she cannot understand or appreciate, as she is only six. She "devours" the plum, ready to wash her hands promptly, as she has other things on her mind rather than the beauty of her father artfully peeling a plum as a gesture to her. She has a chess game to play. The logic of the game seems--to her--paramount to the experience; for her there is nothing tangible to be savored here. However, Khassan sees instead the gift of the plum flesh and the ethereal offering of a father sitting with his daughter, letting her win at chess game played on a board purchased by her great-grandfather.

Most poignant and breathtaking about this novel is that the stories we tell are inadequate, not because there is no purpose or meaning, but because we cannot always know the full story. That there are stories outside our own that are as steeped in their own purpose that lend meaning to our own lives without us fully knowing how or why or when. And we lend meaning to those stories without realizing it either. 

If we were to write the stories of our own lives, or better yet if someone, who knew the stories of all of the lives that have touched our own and we have touched theirs, were able to tell to those stories, too, then our stories would look coincidental and concentric. Like an unbroken, continuous peel of a story. And they would have an insight that we would not--perhaps because of our haste to move on (to wash our hands and get to the game of chess, perhaps) but more often than not because of our ignorance of the larger picture or the concentric circles of the stories of others around us. Our understanding of our own stories is inadequate but not without meaning.

Thus, any eye rolling at the number of coincidences in the book that I may have felt the urge to do was immediately squelched. My limitation. Not the book's. And Mazza wants us to know it--look how he titled the book. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena—the title comes from the definition of “life” in a Russian medical dictionary. 

Yep, a constellation. Or a helix. 

Now I have to curl up on the couch and read this one again.


Spiced Plum Jam 

"Your father did many things in his forty years. Yet if pressed to recall his finest moment, I would chose to see him in the living room, with you, by the chess set peeling a plum" (A Constellation of Vital Phenomena 131-2).

Adapted from Marisa McClellan's Food in Jars

This is the perfect fall jam. Make it every summer.  Then slather it on everything you eat, including oatmeal, toast, or straight from the jar. 


about 8 ½-pint jars

8 cups pitted and finely chopped plums (about 4 pounds whole plums)
3½ cups granulated sugar
Zest and juice of one lemon (preferably organic)
2 tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp freshly grated nutmeg
¼ tsp ground cloves
2 (3 ounce) packets liquid pectin

1.  Prepare a boiling water bath and 4 regular-mouth 1-pint jars or 8 ½-pint jars (see To Sterilize the Jars below). 

2.  In a large stainless steel or enameled cast iron pot, combine the plums and sugar. Stir so the plums begin to release their juice. Bring to a boil and add the lemon zest and juice, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves. Cook the jam over high heat for 15-20 minutes until it looks quite syrupy and (as McClellan calls it) "molten."

3.  Add the pectin and bring to a rolling boil for a full 5 minutes. The jam should look thick and shiny.

4.  Fill prepared jars (see To Seal the Jars), wipe rims, apply lids and screw rings. Lower into a prepared boiling water bath and process for 10 minutes at a gentle boil (do not start counting time until the pot has achieved a boil).

5.  When time is up, remove jars from the pot and let them cool completely. When they are cool to the touch, check the seals by pushing down on the top of the lid. Lack of movement means a good seal.

To Sterilize the Jars:
1.  If you're starting with brand new jars, remove the lids and rings; if you're using older jars, check the rims to ensure there are no chips or cracks.

2.  Put the lids in a small saucepan, cover with water, and bring them to a simmer on the back of the stove.

3.  Using a canning rack, lower the jars into a large pot filled with enough water to cover the jars generously. Bring the water to a boil.

4.  While the water in the canning pot comes to a boil, prepare the jam (or whatever product you are making).

5.  When the recipe is complete, remove the jars from the canning pot (pouring the water back into the pot as you remove the jars).  Set them on a clean towel on the counter.  Remove the lids and set them on the clean towel.

To Seal the Jars:
1.  Carefully fill the jars with the jam (or any other product). Leave about ¼-inch headspace (the room between the surface of the product and the top of the jar).

2.  Wipe the rims of the jars with a clean, damp paper towel.

3.  Apply the lids and screw the bands on the jars to hold the lids down during processing. Tighten the bands with the tips of  your fingers so that they are not overly tight.

4.  Carefully lower the filled jars into the canning pot and return the water to a boil.

5.  Once the water is at a rolling boil, start your timer. The length of processing time varies for each recipe; for the jam, cook for 10 minutes at a rolling boil.

6.  When the timer goes off, remove the jars from the water. Place them back on the towel-lined counter top, and allow them to cool. The jar lids should "ping" soon after they've been removed from the pot (the pinging is the sound of the vacuum seals forming by sucking the lid down).

7.  After the jars have cooled for 24 hours, you can remove the bands and check the seals by grasping the edges of the jar and lifting the jar about an inch or two off the countertop. The lid should hold in place.

8. Store the jars with good seals in a cool, dark place. And jars with bad seals can still be used, just do so within two weeks and with refrigeration.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Tomato Tarte Tatin with Burrata from The Cottage Cookbook by Marte Marie Forsberg

In a last hurrah to summer and, perhaps, even to the fall, I present to you this lovely tomato tarte tatin. And I wistfully bid farewell to tomatoes, or at least good ones, until next July. In the meantime, let's just drink Pimms Cups with cucumbers (probably from the hothouse) with good friends, cook from fun cookbooks, and settle in for the winter.

This little inspiration comes from my latest acquisition, The Cottage Kitchen cookbook from Marte Marie Forsberg. Forsberg is one hell of a photographer (seriously, if you didn't click on her link in the previous sentence, do so now.  I'll wait.)--her images are lush and abundant and inviting and casual and snug--something like a Dutch Renaissance painting. Oh, I want to visit her cottage in England. I want her to make me dinner. I want her to photograph said dinner. Sigh.

Her cookbook is equally lush. And it gives the air of casualness, but I am not going to lie to you. It is extravagant. I want to eat Foie Gras and Kidney Bruschetta with Parsley; I can convince myself I need Black Pudding with Scallops and Caviar; who doesn't hanker for Grilled Lobster with Lime and Cilantro Butter? Lest you think this cookbook is only for the rich of taste and of pocketbook, Forsberg tosses in such delights as Norwegian Waffles with Strawberries and Sour Cream and Fennel and Potato Soup, reminding us that simple starches are equally delightful. 

Forsberg divides the cookbook into seasons, with photographs of frosty countrysides and of utterly snuggly white dogs in front of fogged-in gates that are framed by bare vines. Or of spectacular pewter cups being filled with Brandy Hot Chocolate with Cardamom (yes please).  I suppose she does make the coming winter look as equally good as she made the tail end of summer taste.

About the Tomato Tarte Tartin:

This is one of those dished that I will need to make again and again to get it just right, and I will enjoy the process of perfecting it. The tomatoes are salty and sweet and I think if you added some anchovies, you would not go wrong. Unless you are married to the husband, who is not an anchovies fan. However, I have a sneaking suspicion that I could sneak some in and he wouldn't even notice. He just thinks he doesn't like anchovies. He is wrong. 

Also, I added the step to dry out the tomatoes a bit. In my photographed version here, you can see that the puff pastry got a little steamed rather than toasted. The taste was still lovely, but I wanted to bump up the texture a bit.

And finally, don't skimp on the burrata. That is a heavenly cheese. No doubt. However, if you have dear friends who are not cheese fans (what!), you can always put it on the side. 

Okay, people, summer is officially over. Bring on the rain and the fog and the green hills. I am so ready. And let's crack open the winter section of The Cottage Kitchen because I can see some afternoons sipping Crema Catalana or a breakfast with a lashing of Forsberg's Lemon Curd in my future. I can tell. 

I received this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for an honest review.


Tomato Tarte Tatin with Burrata

Adapted from The Cottage Kitchen 

Serves 6-8

1 large red onion, halved and thinly sliced
1 tsp salted butter
3 Tbsp honey
1 tsp red wine vinegar
14 ounces cherry tomatoes halved
½cup green or black olives
1½ tsp finely chopped fresh thyme
Salt and pepper
6 ounce puff pastry
4½ ounces fresh burrata, torn into pieces
Olive oil, for drizzling
Fresh basil torn, for garnish

1.  Preheat the oven to 425°F.

2.  In a large, ovenproof skillet set over low heat, cook the onions in the butter, stirring occasionally, until caramelized, about 15 minutes. Transfer to a plate and set aside.

3. In the same skillet, saute the halved tomatoes until they release their juices, about 5-6 minutes. Add the olives, thyme, salt and pepper.  

4.  In a small skillet set over medium heat, bring the honey to a gentle simmer, and cook until warmed through and slightly thickened, 5-6 minutes. Add the vinegar and cook, swirling the pan until combined, 2-3 minutes. Add the honey mixture to the tomatoes and toss to coat.

4. Arrange the tomatoes into a heap in the middle of the skillet as much as you can, so you have room to tuck the pastry around everything. Pile the onions on top.

5.  On a lightly floured surface, roll out the puff pastry and cut into a circular piece just slightly larger than the skillet. Lay the pastry over the tomatoes and onions in the skillet and tuck any excess down under the vegetables.

6.  Place the skillet in the middle of the oven and bake until cooked through, 27-30 minutes. After removing the tart from the oven, let it cook for a few minutes longer before placing a large plate upside down on top of the skillet Using oven mitts, press the plate down and quickly flip the skillet and the plate so the skillet is update down and the tart dislodges onto the plate. Carefully remove the skillet.

7.  Scatter the torn pieces of burrata on top of the tart. Serve warm, drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with basil and pepper 

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Bowl of Red (Texas Chili)

My father-in-law and I disagree about chili.  We also disagree about most of the books we read in Bookclub, but that's another issue, especially when one has the pressing issue of chili to discuss.  You see, he's wrong. And I am right.  Beans belong in chili.

And that's where he chimes in: He argues that chili should not have beans in it. He ascribes to Texas chili making, where beans are eschewed for more meat. And then some more meat on top of that. I guess, the happy part about a Bowl of Red is that if you're paleo, this is one meat-friendly pot of soup.

Adapted from The New American Heart Association Cookbookthis bowl of red is incredibly simple, especially since I didn't stew this on the stovetop for an hour, which you are welcome to do. Instead, I put this is in the slow cooker after browning the meat. Then I went to work. And when I came home I had a fantastic bowl of chile-meat soup, which is what we non-Texans might call this dish. 

Now, if you add beans, you'd have a bowl of chili. 


Bowl of Red

Adapted from The New American Heart Association Cookbook

4 Servings

1 pound boneless top round steak, visible fat discarded, and cut into ½-inch cubes
1 cup water
1 cup dark beer
½  medium onion, chopped
½ 8-ounce can no-salt added tomato sauce
3 ancho chiles, seeded and chopped
1 medium fresh jalapeno, seeds discarded and chopped
1 Tbsp chile powder
1 Tbsp ground cumin
2 medium garlic cloves, minced
½ tsp ground coriander
½ tsp dried oregano
¼ tsp salt
⅛ tsp pepper
⅛ tsp cayenne
¼ cup sour cream
Fresh cilantro, chopped

1. Lightly spray a pan with cooking spray. Heat over medium-high heat. Cook the beef 3-5 minutes until browned on the outside. 

2. Add the beef to a slow cooker. Stir in the remaining ingredients. Cook for 6-8 hours on low.

3.  Ladle the chile into bowls. Top each serving with sour cream and sprinkle with cilantro, all optional.