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. 

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Apple Pie in Summer // 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. And it turns out that these entries are a sort of long-form blog-post. So settle in. This seventh installment is a book published in 1917.

Where there is a fallen woman, there is usually an apple.  Even for the venerable Edith Wharton.

In Wharton's little novel Summer, published exactly 100 years ago, Wharton likes to talk about eating. A lot. She is not particular about the food, itself. But eating--well, eating and its environs take center stage. Eating becomes a place of transaction. And apples, both in their pie and in their unsliced, unsugared, and unbaked forms, show up a lot.  But then again, we've got a fallen woman, the Fourth of July, and New England. Seems just about right. But it's Edith Wharton, so let's not get ahead of ourselves. For, you see, she's going to complicate these apples a bit.

Summer, which takes place in New England (only one of two of her works to be so), is lesser known than Ethan Frome (that oft-assigned chestnut of middle school) but it certainly shares similarities; Wharton herself said Summer was her "hot Ethan," and like Ethan, it is about sex and sexuality and desire. And it suggests, perhaps, there's more to life than a hot romance with a ne'er-do-well outsider and a longing to leave one's small hometown. Not much more, she concedes, but something just a little bit more.

Set in the small town of North Dormer in the Berkshires of Massachusetts, the story details the coming of age of Charity Royall, bored teenage librarian from "the Mountain," as she is often reminded. In other words, not from town, from a lower class of squalor and lawlessness not spoken of. Rescued as a child from said Mountain, which looms over North Dormer, by the town's premier citizen Lawyer Royall, Charity finds herself aching for something more than either the Mountain or her oppressive small town but with little means to get it or even name it. Enter visiting architect and dreamy city slicker, Lucius Harney. 

When she first meets Harney in the library, he is interested in learning more about the architecture of the old houses "about here" (104). Charity knows that there was a book, North Dormer and the Early Townships of Eagle County, a book against which she holds "a special grudge" (105) because it a "limp weakly book" that falls off the shelf or disappears between more substantial volumes. Oh, how she hates the limp and weakly (and the library, for that matter). And she cannot understand "how anyone could have taken the trouble to write a book about North Dormer and its neighbors: Dormer, Hamblin, Creston, and Creston River" (105). Dormer, apparently, is where North Dormer goes "for its apples" (105). She then lists the other claims to fame dismissively: "Creston River, where there used to be a papermill, and its grey walls stood decaying by the stream; and Hamblin, where the first snow always fell" (105). This is hardly an impressive place to Charity. Apples, papermill, snow. Ho hum. Could it get more New England? 

But then Harney becomes a border in the Royall household for some time (a plot twist involving an out-of-town cousin),  and Charity becomes his tour guide as he traipses through the countryside exploring buildings for a book on colonial houses. What better, then, than a picnic of cheese sandwiches, freshly decanted buttermilk, and wrapped slices of apple pie (135)? Possibly one's slightly dingy pink calico and a sassy sense of triumph at being "a part of the sunlight" (you cannot make this stuff up) (135-6). Charity is a claustrophobic teenager on a mission and Harney is her ticket to excitement. They unpack their basket under a walnut tree and she muses on the fact that just the night before Lawyer Royall had revealed the secret of her childhood on the Mountain to Harney. Embarrassed by her past and a little unsure about how he will take it, Charity demures to the lovely Lucius Harney, and they share a meal. Complete with an apple. Temptation at its core. 

Not surprisingly, a storm brews over the Mountain, and the two race off to Hyatt house (137), a home filled with Mountain dwellers, possibly and likely Charity's blood relations, and certainly those who live in abject poverty. And all Charity can think is "this is where I belong" (139). And the Hyatt's offer her something kind--a broken teacup half full of whiskey (140). She cannot escape this past that is passed around as knowledge among these men (Royall and Harney) without her consent and she cannot escape this town or its looming mountain, even with a pretty little picnic.

Later, Harney and Charity go to Nettleton (the bigger neighboring town) for the Fourth of July, and Charity is impressed: the town is overrun with "other excursionists" and while the shops were closed, you can scarcely tell, as "glass doors swinging open on saloons, on restaurants, on drug-stores gushing from every soda-water tap, on fruit and confectionary shops stacked with strawberry cake, cocoanut drops, molasses candy, boxes of caramels, and chewing gum, baskets of sodden strawberries and dangling branches of bananas. Oranges, apples, spotted pears, and dusty raspberries, stale coffee, beer, and sarsaparilla and fried potatoes" (164). This is a community of abundance and commerce and opportunity. As well as an abortionist and her childhood friend, who has essentially become a prostitute. It is also where Harney kisses Charity for the first time, buys her a brooch, and tries to take her to dinner at a fancy restaurant (where they wait is too long and they end up with a clam chowder at another, less elegant restaurant). Literal fireworks ensue. As do more figurative ones with a kiss between Harney and Charity. Only to be sullied when they run into a drunken Lawyer Royall, who is accompanied by prostitutes and calls Charity as much. Not surprisingly, just after Charity's first kiss, the harlot. Nettleton is complicated at best. 

And then shortly therafter Wharton gives us a love affair and apples everywhere in a secret home created out of an abandoned house. Let's review. For starters:
"The garden palings had fallen, but the broken gate dangled between its posts, and the path to the house was marked by rose-bushes run wild and hanging their small pale blossoms above the crowding grasses. Slender pilasters and an intricate fan-light framed the opening where the door had hung; and the door itself lay rotting in the grass, with an old apple-tree fallen across it" (182).  
Oh my.  That seems a bit obvious, Edith. An overrun garden, wild and disheveled. A dilapidated farm house with its door torn from its hinges. And there it is: an old apple tree, just aching to be a meeting point for this burgeoning, aching pair. And so, Harney brings Charity some tablets of chocolate inside a little abandoned house. He asks her to kiss him again they way they did at the 4th of July. And there it is, that old apple tree: "The room was empty, and leaning her bicycle against the house Charity clambered up the slope and sat down on a rock under an old apple-tree. The air was perfectly still, and from where she sat she would be able to hear the tinkle of a bicycle-bell a long way down the road...." (188).  Can't you just hear the ache in that bell tinkle? And even later, "For a few minutes, in the clear light that is all shadow, fields and woods were outlined with an unreal precision; then the twilight blotted them out, and the little house turned gray and spectral under its wizened apple-branches" (190).  Daaaaang, Edith. We get it. Abandoned house. Somewhat Edenic atmosphere. Apple tree looming, coloring how everything is seen. Got it.

And Harney, for all of his faults (and boy he has many), does awaken something in her that is found, most often, when she is alone. 

"She was always glad when she got to the little house before Harney. She liked to have time to take in every detail of its secret sweetness--the shadows of the apple-trees swaying on the grass, the old walnuts rounding their domes below the road, the meadows sloping westward in the afternoon light--before his first kiss blotted it all out....The only reality was the wondrous unfolding of her new self.... She had lived all her life among people whose sensibilities seemed to have withered for lack of use; and more wonderful, at first, than Harney's endearments were the words that were a part of them. She had always thought of love as something confused and furtive, and he made it as bright and open as the summer air." (188-9)
He brings her a newfound appreciation for the natural world. He opens up a world of excitement and brightness. And he reminds her, through language, that she is worth something. That love is open and bright. 

The night of the first time Charity and Harney have sex, she bicycles home. The family cook is siting at the kitchen table and gets Charity a glass of milk and a plate. She eats pie hungrily. She sees her dress for the upcoming dance in virgin whiteness (192). You know this isn't going to end well. 

Harney is, of course, engaged to another woman--the society darling Annabel Balch--and despite Harney's assurances that he will marry her, Charity insists that he do the right thing, uphold his promises, and marry Annabel. Charity doesn't feel well--and well, you can tell where this is going to lead--and it turns out she's pregnant, a diagnosis that costs her five dollars (which she doesn't have and instead she leaves behind her brooch). Melodrama ensues, Charity determines she cannot remain in North Dormer, and decides to return to the Mountain, to reunite with her mother, and to be the person she believes she was destined to be: 
"The hours wore on, and she walked more and more slowly, pausing now and then to rest, and to eat a little bread and an apple picked up from the roadside. Her body seemed to grow heavier with every yard of the way, and she wondered how she would be able to carry her child later, if already he laid such a burden on her....She herself had been born as her own baby was going to be born; and whatever her mother's subsequent life had been, she could hardly help remembering the past, and receiving a daughter who was facing the trouble she had known" (218). 

Yep, our fallen woman with a code of ethics is munching on apples on her way back to the Mountain. This is her exile from her Eden. 

However, she's too late--her alcoholic mother is already dead, and instead Charity buries her mother's body. She is caught. The Mountain is no attractive alternative for Charity. She doesn't, however, want the abject poverty that her mother would have had to raise her in, so she decides to come down from the Mountain again, become a prostitute, and pay someone to raise her child. Enter in Lawyer Royall again (forgot about him, didn't you?) and his proposal.

Lawyer Royall is hardly the upstanding citizen he would like us all to believe. Yep, he's a windbag and a pompous drunk who once tried to force his way into Charity's bedroom after the death of his wife. But Wharton found something compelling about him, if only because Wharton said "of course he's  the book" when Bernard Berenson complimented her on the good lawyer.

But Wharton is smarter than the simple apples to apples connection of a fallen woman and the forbidden fruit.  She is interested in the transaction. The decision by Charity to marry Royall is just that--a transaction. They go to breakfast and she knows that he knows that she is not a virgin. He tells her to go shopping and gives her money to buy clothes; instead she goes to buy back her blue brooch (but the doctor won't part with it without an even hefiter sum of money, so Charity filches it) (240). Some transactions can be completed openly. Others need to be done furtively.

And Royall saves her from the fate of bearing a child out of wedlock. Her reputation can remain unsullied, as the child will be passed off as Royall's not Harney's. This is business. Not love. This is realism, not romance. Charity was the illegitimate child of an alcoholic. She has been given and has chosen something more for her child. But what a sad transaction. It's better than the Mountain. It's better than prostitution in Dormer.  

Charity and Royall are a kind of twins--they are set apart from "the stifling environment" of North Dormer. Both are rebels rejecting village life. Both are village outsiders. They both desire more than North Dormer. They both have fantasies of escape, and neither of them ultimately can. Wharton gives us the gradual exposure of destructive illusions and the reality of a transactional world.

Is the ending a tragedy or a triumph? I am going to go with tragedy, in part because it's packaged as a transactional triumph. Charity raises her child, yes, with little shame. But she has lost the illusion of wrapped apple pies and abandoned houses with withered apple trees. Yes, we saw this coming. Harney was no good. He treats her like a transaction as well. But the price is paid not by Royall or Harney. Nope. It's paid by Charity.  How's that for the most depressing, transactional, fallen from grace apple pie you're ever going to eat? 

The good news, it's a damn good apple pie.


The Quintessential Apple Pie

The sun rose without a cloud, and earlier than usual she was in the kitchen, making cheese sandwiches, decanting buttermilk into a bottle, wrapping up slices of apple pie, and accusing Verena [the cook] of having given away a basket she needed, which had always hung on a hook in the passage. When she came out into the porch, in her pink calico, which had run a little in the washing, but was still bright enough to set off her dark tints, she had such a triumphant sense of being a part of the sunlight and the morning that the last trace of her misery vanished. What did it matter where she came from, or whose child she was, when love was dancing in her veins, and down the road she saw young Harney coming toward her? (Summer 135)

Adapted from Kate McDermott's Art of the Pie

Kate McDermott is a master pie maker. Trust me on this one. And McDermott does not peel her apples, for she finds the peels breakdown in the baking process.  Plus, it gives a little interest to the texture of the pie. She's right. Don't doubt her. Also, serve with a slice of cheddar cheese--it's the dairyland thing to do.

1 gorgeous, 9-inch deep-dish pie


For the crust:
2½ cups all-purpose flour unbleached 
½ teaspoon salt 
14 tablespoons salted or unsalted butter cut into tablespoon-size pieces
½ cup ice water and 1–2 tablespoons more as needed 
Additional flour for rolling out dough

For the pie filling:
About 10 cups apples (skin on), quartered and cored
½ cup sugar
½ tsp salt
1 tsp cinnamon
2 gratings nutmeg
½ tsp allspice
1-2 tsp freshly squeezed lemon juice (or 1 Tbsp artisan apple cider)
1 to 2 tablespoons Calvados or apple liqueur, optional
½ cup flour
1 knob butter (about the size of a walnut) cut into small pieces
1-2 tsp sugar
1 egg white plus 1 Tbsp water, beaten with a fork

For the crust:
1. Put all ingredients but the ice water in a large bowl. With clean hands, quickly mash the mixture together, or use a pastry blender with an up and down motion, until the ingredients look like cracker crumbs with lumps the size of peas and almonds. (We used a food processor, pulsing quickly and in short bursts--and the results were grand. McDermott says that you lose about 3-5% tenderness and only a true pie geek will notice.)

2.  Sprinkle ice water over the mixture and stir lightly with a fork. Squeeze a handful of dough to see if it holds together. Mix in more water as needed. 

3.  Divide the dough in half and make two chubby discs about 5 inches across. Wrap the discs separately in plastic wrap, and chill for about an hour. 

For the pie filling:
4.  Cut the apples into ½-inch thick slices or chunks you can easily fit in your mouth. 

5.  In a large bowl, mix apples with sugar, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, vinegar, Calvados, and flour. Stir until mixture begins to look sandy. 

Putting it all together:
6.  Take out the dough discs and let them temper until they feel slightly soft to the touch and easy to roll out. Unwrap one disc and place it on a well-floured board, pastry cloth, parchment paper, or plastic wrap. 

7.  Sprinkle some flour onto the top of the disc. Thump the disc with your rolling pin several times. Turn it over and thump the other side. 

8.  Sprinkle more flour onto the top of the dough as needed to keep the pin from sticking, and roll the crust out from the center in all directions. When the dough is 1 to 2 inches larger than your pie pan, brush off the extra flour on both sides. 

9.  Fold the dough over the top of the pin and lay it in the pie pan carefully. Don’t worry if the crust needs to be patched together. Paint a little water where it needs to be patched and “glue” on the patch piece. 

10. Pour in apple mixture. Distribute the pieces of butter evenly on top. 

11.  Roll out the top crust; place over the filling. Cut at least 5 vents in the top. Trim any dough that hangs over the side of the pie pan. Crimp the edges. 

12.  Cover pie in plastic wrap and transfer to fridge for about 30 minutes. 

13.  Meanwhile, heat oven to 425 degrees. Remove wrap from the pie. Brush the top of the pie with the egg white and water mixture. Transfer pie to middle rack in the oven. Cook, 20 minutes. 

15.  Reduce heat to 375 degrees. Bake, 30 minutes. 

16.  Sprinkle sugar on pie. Continue cooking until evenly browned on top, and liquid just starts to bubble from vents, about 10 minutes more. 

17.  Remove and let pie cool for at least an hour.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Piquillo Peppers Stuffed with Refried Beans on Chipotle-Vanilla Sauce

This cookbook is not for the feint of heart.  In Maricel Presilla's new cookbook, Peppers of the Americas, one must be a serious connoisseur of peppers, either as a gardener or a cook. One does not dabble with this cookbook. Instead, one must commit.

Do you want the history of this capsicum? Do you ache for a breakdown of pepper anatomy and heat? Do you long for pretty little naturalist drawings of calyx, flower, and seed, and then hope for well-shot, full-color photographs of hundreds of peppers? Do you need the Latin name, the approximate lengths, and a thoughtful catalogue of the growing season of each of those hundreds of peppers? Again, I ask of you, are you a serious connoisseur of peppers?  If you answered yes to even just one of those questions, then this just might be your new cookbook.  In fact, I think this is the perfect book for my friend at Bat Barn Farm. He's a food geek, and this book is for geeks. Period.

Presilla is the first Latin American woman invited to cook at the White House; she has been nominated six times by the James Beard Foundation (both for her non-fiction writing and for her cookbooks) and one of her cookbooks, Gran Cocina Latina, won the 2013 James Beard Foundation Cookbook of the Year. She is chef and co-owner of Cucharamama and Zafra and owns the little shop Ultramarinos--all in Hoboken, New Jersey. And she is no slouch in the intellectual business either. She has her PhD in medieval Spanish history. Yep. She's got chops.

Since I am a food geek myself, I decided to be ambitious.  If I was going to cook from this book, it was going to be an all day endeavor. It was going to involve three recipes. It was going to call for three different kinds of peppers. I would not call myself a serious connoisseur of peppers, no. But I would call myself a curious geek on the look out for interesting combinations, and this cookbook provides!

Let's break it down by recipe and pepper.

The first recipe: Refried Black Beans with Chile de Árbol

Chile de Árbol are potent little peppers. These are dried peppers, found sometimes in the bulk section of your grocery, with thin skins and bumpy exteriors. Presilla describes the flavor as "clean and sharp" with "an edge of bitterness without acidity or great complexity." And the beans take an afternoon to cook, they make your house smell amazing--all garlic-y and onion-y and bean-y. As the afternoon wore on (with October baseball in the background), my belly growled and I grew hungrier and hungrier. What an amazing smell. Such delightful torture.

The second: Chipotle and Vanilla Sauce

The chipotle?  Well, it comes from what Presilla calls the "chicken of the pepper world": the jalapeño. It's just one of those workhorse peppers that can often be substituted in for harder to find peppers. The dried, smoked jalapeño is simply the infinitely more interesting chipotle. With a powerhouse of concentrated flavor, the chipotle is often housed in a lovely adobo sauce and is easy to pick up at just about any grocery, these days. 

Okay, this sounds a bit unusual, I am not going to deny it. But it seemed interesting enough to try. And interesting it was. Presilla grinds all of the bean (pod and seed) into a crumbly paste and combines it with a smack of chocolate in a tomato-chipotle sauce. It is big and bold and complex. And my only regret is that I made only enough for this recipe.  And next time, I am not going to add the sugar.  It seemed a little sweet to me, but still amazing. Looks like I will need to make more.

And the third: Piquillo Peppers Stuffed with Refried Beans on Chipotle-Vanilla Sauce

Finally, the piquillo is a specialty pepper originally from Navarre, Spain (although there are plenty of growers in the US, China, and Peru). These are the ultimate sweet pepper for cooking for they do not tear easily, they boast a sweet and tangy flavor, and their size (small) and shape (heart shaped with a pointy tip) just beg to be stuffed. But you can also just saute them in olive oil and be almost equally as happy. 

And once we put the beans in the piquillo peppers and sauced everything up--oh, it was much greater than the sum of its parts. This instead was an algorithm of flavor. Yes, it would be just fine with some polenta, but it's also delightful all on its own. The best parts are the little charred bits of cheese and pepper. And the beans are an anchor to the sweetness of the sauce. And, oh, sweet lord, this recipe alone was worth the whole book. Connoisseur of peppers or not. 

So the final assessment: this is a cookbook for the serious gardener or cook. The rewards are sweet, indeed. I declare, it is time to geek out.

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


Piquillo Peppers Stuffed with Refried Beans on Chipotle-Vanilla Sauce

Adapted from Peppers of the Americas: The Remarkable Capsicums That Forever Changed Flavor

4 Servings

9½ ounces canned piquillo peppers, drained
1 cup refried black beans with Chile de Árbol
6 ounces aged manchego cheese, grated
2 cups Zafra's Chipotle and Vanilla Sauce

1.  To stuff the peppers, place one on the palm of one hand and hold it upright and open between your thumb and index finger. Fill with 1 Tbsp refried beans and top with 1 Tbsp grated cheese. Gently transfer to a large plate. Repeat until all the peppers have been stuffed. Cover the plate with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30-60 minutes for the beans to firm up.

2.  Preheat the broiler.  Pour about 1½ cups of the sauce into  12x9-inch baking dish and spread evenly. Arrange the stuffed peppers over the sauce. Pour the remaining ½ cup sauce over the peppers and sprinkle the rest of the cheese over the dish. Broil 5 inches from the heat source until the sauce is bubbly and the cheese has melted, becoming golden brown and a bit charred in places. Serve hot. 

3.  Store any leftovers (right, like there will be leftovers) tightly covered in the refrigerator for up to 2 days.  Would be great served on a bed of creamy polenta.

For the Refried Beans with Chile de Árbol
Presilla recommends procuring 5 large dried Mexican avocado leaves, and charring them over a gas flame or in a cast-iron skillet over high heat.  Then crumble the leaves into a blender with the peppers.  

3 cups

8 ounces dried black beans
1 medium white onion, cut in half lengthwise
6 garlic cloves
3½ tsp salt, plus more
1/4 ounces (about 7) Chiles de Árbol, stemmed and seeded
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 small white onion, cut crosswise into 1/4-inch roughs, rings separated

1.  Place the beans, halved onion, and garlic in a medium saucepan with 2 quarts of water. Bring to a boil, lower the hear, cover, and simmer. Season with 1 tsp of the salt, just as the beans are beginning to soften. Cover and continue cooking until the beans are soft, about 1½ hours total cooking time. Strain the beans, reserving the cooking liquid. You will need about 2/3 cup to blend the beans and about 1/4 cup if you plan to store the beans.

2.  Heat a cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat and add the chiles. Toast for about 15 seconds, tossing with tongs. Transfer the chiles to a blender, and add the beans, 2/3 cup of the reserved cooking liquid and the remaining 2½ tsp salt. Process into a smooth puree.

3.  Heat the oil in a medium skilled over high heat and add the sliced onion. Saute until the onion is golden brown and crunchy with small charred bits. Strain the oil through a sieve and set over a bowl, pushing he onion down with a spoon to extract as much oil as possible.  You should have about 2 Tbsp oil. Pour the onion-flavored oil back into the skillet over medium heat. Pour int he bean puree and cook, stirring, until the puree bubbles, about 5-8 minutes.

4.  If not using immediately, let cool completely. Store in a tightly covered glass container in the refrigerator until ready to use. Te beans will keep up to 4 days. To reheat, place the beans in a skillet over medium heat and loosen with some of the reserved cooking liquid. It is best to keep the beans as thick as possible if using them as a filling so that they will not ooze out.

For the Chipotle and Vanilla Sauce
2 cups

2 large Mexican vanilla beans
2 lb ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and quartered
3 canned chipotle chiles in adobo with the sauce clinging on
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 tsp salt
1 Tbsp Mexican piloncillo, Colombian panela or light muscovado (optional)
1 ounce 60% cacao dark chocolate (preferably made from Latin American cacao) (optional)

1.  Cut the vanilla beans into 1-inch pieces and put into a food processor or spice mill, and process until the texture resembles fine breadcrumbs. You should have about 1 Tbsp. Set aside.

2. Place the tomatoes into a blender or food processor and process into a puree.

3.  Heat the oil in a 10-inch skillet or medium saucepan over medium heat. Stir int he puree and the salt. Saute, stirring occasionally, about 18 minutes, until the sauce thicken and the oil starts to separate. Stir in the ground vanilla, muscovado, and chocolate, and cook for about 2 minutes. Remove from the heat.

4.  If not using immediately, store the sauce in a glass container in the refrigerator for about 2 weeks.