Sunday, January 6, 2019

Veggie Burger in Turtles All the Way Down // Cook Your Books

In this Cook Your Books series, I had chosen 15 books to read in 2018 based on somewhat arbitrarily chosen categories; I failed. I failed not to read (I read a ton), but I failed to blog.  So I reignited the quest in 2019. 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 first for 2019 installment is a novel about anxiety.

About a year ago, I sat around the dinner table with part of my family and I asked for four recommendations for book categories, and this (a book about anxiety) was one of them. And I have to tell you, outside of non-fiction, this was a tough one. A lot of fiction may include anxious characters, but not many where the anxiety rides front and center, but John Green's young adult novel, Turtles all the Way Down, does just that.

In a nutshell, the premise to this book is that Aza Holmes, a 16-year-old girl, is hellbent on investigating the disappearance of a local billionaire with her best friend Daisy.  (Rather, Daisy, who is adventure seeking and somewhat fearless, is more hellbent and Aza is along for the ride.) That is, until hunky Davis, son of said billionaire and childhood camp acquaintance of Aza, enters the picture, and the investigation falls a bit flat. Of course, all of this--investigation of parental disappearance, navigation of best friend relationship, and budding romance with hunky boy--is overshadowed by Aza's crippling anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder.

John Green spends the book writing from Aza's point of view, guiding the reader through the mundanity and the paralysis of mental illness--the obsessive cleaning of a cut she has had since childhood, which she opens and reopens in an effort to drain the germs inside of it; the "thought spirals" as she ponders whether she is a pawn or if she truly has any agency in her own life; a crippling fear that she will contract clostridium difficile that leads Aza to sip hand sanitizer. And we see how hard it is to not only be Aza but also to be with Aza: Daisy has her own outlet of writing Star Wars fan fiction, where Daisy get to be the star in the relationship or at least the star in defining the relationship, as Daisy's current relationship with Aza is so hemmed in by that anxiety. 

Aza's anxiety and ODC are exhausting--for Daisy, for Davis, for Aza's mother, and even for the reader. But most of all for Aza. And that's the point. Her thoughts spiral and she cannot escape them. Thankfully the end of the book doesn't just pretty mental illnesses up with pat answers and a lovely little cure-all tonic--Aza still has to deal with all of her anxieties, through cognitive behavioral therapy and medication and supportive relationships. But at least she's not sneaking nips of hand sanitizer in her hospital room after a near-fatal car accident anymore. In fact, Green suggests that she will go on and live a full and difficult and ultimately happy life, aware that the first love detailed in the book shows her what is lovable in herself--and delightfully, this first love is not just with Davis (although it ostensibly is) but it is also the first love of a best friend in Daisy. 

And this is where and how John Green shines as an author of young adult fiction. He allows there to be a messy reality even when he's channeling a Nancy Drew investigation as a plot line. While these are teenagers whose fathers have left their fortunes to prehistoric reptiles called tuatara and whose would-be boyfriends casually give away $100,000 to other teenagers to keep them pursuing the disappearance of their Indianapolis billionaire father. These are teenagers who have lived through tragedy, where their parents have died (Aza has lost her father and Davis's mother has also died), and are snapped up in underground art scenes. These are not ordinary lives. Until John Green makes it so: these are also teenagers who text, who bring coupons to eat at Applebee's, who do homework, who name their cars (Harold!), and who spend two hours getting dressed before going on first dates.  And that is how we know we're in John Green's world--the ordinary and the extraordinary collide just so.

And because this is a food blog and this series focuses on how food is important in books, let's take a look. Certainly, food plays a role in this book, but the variety is limited to that which a teenager consumes (for the most part). I could have written about Cheerios, peanut butter and honey sandwiches, pizza, or burgers.  Indeed, pizza would have been interesting to examine as Daisy once claims thaAza is like pizza--full of variety and the highest compliment Daisy can imagine (238), after Aza yells that she herself is mustard--astringent and redundant and ultimately caustic (217). The book even opens, albeit slowly, in a discussion of food--or at least in a discussion of the herding of high schoolers into a lunch room:
At the time I first realized I might be fictional, my weekdays were spent at a publicly funded institution on the north side of Indianapolis called White River High School, where I was required to eat lunch at a particular time—between 12:37 P.M. and 1:14 P.M.—by forces so much larger than myself that I couldn’t even begin to identify them. If those forces had given me a different lunch period, or if the tablemates who helped author my fate had chosen a different topic of conversation that September day, I would’ve met a different end—or at least a different middle. But I was beginning to learn that your life is a story told about you, not one that you tell. 
Of course, you pretend to be the author. You have to. You think, I now choose to go to lunch, when that monotone beep rings from on high at 12:37. But really, the bell decides. You think you’re the painter, but you’re the canvas (1-2).
So we see Aza's hyper-articulate and hyper-aware thoughts. She wants to have control, to be able to write her own story (or paint her own picture to use her second metaphor), but she feels as if so much, even when and how she eats lunch, is out of her control. Indeed, this is a book about control--from Aza and her anxiety to Davis and his simultaneous desire to find his father and not to find his father, from Daisy authoring fan fiction to Aza's mother trying to comfort her daughter after the death of Aza's father.  

And this desire for control is precisely why I chose to write about veggie burgers and Applebee's, the place where Aza doesn't have to worry so much about control. Pizza be damned.

Early in the book, we learn that Aza's mother purchased a coupon book filled with sixty Applebee's coupons from a local Boy Scout. Each coupon offers "Two burgers for $11" and Daisy and Aza have been "working our way through them ever since" (52).  So we--and Aza and Daisy--spend a lot of time at Applebee's.  

Aza describes Applebee's as follows: "Applebee’s is a chain of mid-quality restaurants serving 'American Food,' which essentially means that Everything Features Cheese" (52). The featuring cheese is a little tough for Aza, as is the burger part, as she avoids both the meat and the dairy while at the restaurant, coming out with a "veggie burger, no mayonnaise, no condiments at all, just a veggie burger and bun... with fries" (53). Again, a kind of control. However, what is also evident in this paragraph is a kind of comfort in location. While their waitress is often exasperated (mostly because of the lack of tips given by Daisy and Aza), Applebee's is a place of familiarity and comfort and acceptance, as Aza sits across from her friend, slowly peeling off the coupons and ordering their burgers. While the choice of location and even the coupon-mandated meal selection are authored, perhaps in Aza's mind, by the fate of her mother buying the coupon book, the connection between Daisy and Aza is clear and is most palpable as they eat their burgers--one meat and one not--with one another and try to figure out dating and employment and sometimes the meaning of life (this is a John Green novel after all).

Applebee's is also the location of Aza and Davis's first date (along with Daisy and one of their friends Mychal) (95-99). And it is also the first stop for newly rich Aza and Daisy after Davis gives them money to stop their investigation of his father's disappearance (in part because if his father is found dead, his sizable fortune does to a tuatara research foundation--strange plot twist, I know) (121-2)--and this time, while they order their usual burger (or veggie burger) with fries (or an upgrade to onion rings), they don't use a coupon. It is at Applebee's they celebrate a fortune that might allow Daisy to quit her job at Chuck E. Cheese and leave an extravagant tip for a waitress who has suffered their teenage wit, and at Applebee's where these two best friends mull over every detail of Aza's relationship with Davis. Applebee's allows for a teenager to be a teenager when so much else in the book does not allow them to be.  With or without cheese.

And so, I offer up this veggie burger--it is certainly no Applebee's veggie burger (which I admittedly quite enjoy), and I did put mayo, quick-pickled cucumbers, and yes, a little bit of cheese on it. However, it was just the kind of burger that hits all the right spots, when you're hungry, contemplating an investigation of a disappeared parent, or just want to remember to be a teenager.


The Really Hungry Burger

“I’d just like a water with no food please, but around nine forty-five I’ll take a veggie burger, no mayonnaise no condiments at all, just a veggie burger and bun in a to-go box please. With fries.” 

“And you’ll have the Blazin’ Texan burger?” Holly [the waitress] asked Daisy. 

“With a glass of red wine, please.” 

Holly just stared at her. 

“Fine. Water.” “I assume y’all have a coupon?” Holly asked. 

“As it happens, we do,” I said, and slid it across the table to her. (Turtles All the Way Down 53).

Adapted from A Modern Way to Eat: 200+ Satisfying Vegetarian Recipes

I am a fan of Anna Jones, particularly this magnificent dal from A Modern Way to Eat. I seem to have also made another veggie burger from her book A Modern Way to Cook; however, I think this burger holds up a little better than the solely bean-based one. This veggie burger is, as promised, quite hearty, and I love the mushrooms all packed in there. Jones does call for 4 medjool dates, pitted and added to the white beans before they go for their blender spin. However, I removed them because I didn't want the bit of sweet in an otherwise savory patty. You could add them back in, but I certainly did not miss them.  Finally, do as Jones suggests: make a quick pickle of raw cucumbers by placing thin slices of cucumber in a bowl with a pinch of salt, a squeeze of honey, and a tablespoon or two of white wine or champagne vinegar.  Let them sit while you make the burgers, and then they'll be ready when the burgers are.  Now, that's the perfect way to get a hint of sweet.  

8 Burgers

Olive oil
6 big portobello mushrooms, roughly chopped into small pieces
2 sprigs fresh thyme
salt and pepper
1 (15-ounce) can of white beans (navy or cannellini) drained
2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
1 small bunch fresh parsley, finely chopped
2 Tbsp tahini
2 Tbsp soy sauce
 1 1/2 cup cooked and cooled brown rice (2/3 cups uncooked)
2/3 cups breadcrumbs or oats
 grated zest of one lemon 

To serve (optional)
1-2 avocados, peeled and sliced
1-2 tomatoes, sliced
pickles or quick-pickled cucumbers
8 seeded buns

1. Place a large pan over medium heat and add enough olive oil to lightly coat the bottom of the pan. Once the pan is hot, add the mushrooms and thyme and season with salt and pepper. Sautée until the mushrooms have dried out and are slightly browned; set aside to cool.

2.  Drain the white beans and put them into a food processor with the dates (if using, see note), garlic, parsley, tahini, and soy sauce. Pulse until the mixture is mostly smooth but with some small chunks. Transfer to a bowl and add the rice, breadcrumbs, lemon zest, and the cooled mushrooms.  Mix well, then refrigerate for 10 minutes to firm.

3.  Once cooled, divide the mixture into 8 portions and shape into 8 patties. Place them on a baking tray lined with parchment paper and keep in the fridge until needed.  This can be done the day before--and the burgers freeze well at this point.
4.  Preheat the oven to 450° F.

5.  Bake the burgers for about 15 minutes until nicely brown. If using, place a slice of cheese on top for a couple of minutes before removing them from the oven.  Really good if you broil the cheese for just a minute or two to get that fabulous umami flavor intensified.

6.  While the burgers are cooking, prepare any toppings, such as sliced tomatoes, avocado, pickles, or cucumbers.  Once the burgers are golden, toast the buns and layer the burgers with toppings.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Angel Food Cake with Whipped Cream in Ruby // Cook Your Books

In this Cook Your Books series, I have chosen 15 books to read in 2017 based on somewhat arbitrarily chosen categories. While we're well into 2018, I did finish reading this book last year--these posts take longer than I anticipate. 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 twelfth installment is an Oprah's Book Club Selection.

Oh, this book is brutal. Sexism, rape, systematic racial injustice, torture, cruelty. Compassion, community, family, love, magic realism, metaphor. Certainly, 
Ruby by Cynthia Bond was all the talk of the Oprah airwaves in 2015, and I chose it for this twelfth installment. And what a whirlwind it was.

The book opens with Ruby Bell wetting herself in the street as the men circle on a center-of-town porch, jeering and judging. All save Ephram Jennings, who promptly returns home, asks his sister to bake her famous white lay angel cake, and rises the next morning to bring it to Ruby. The first half of the book focuses on Ephram's journey through town, the cake on full display, as he withstands the jeers and cruelty of the townspeople. How could he deign to bring this heavenly cake made by a church-going woman (Ephram's sister) to Ruby, the mad woman on the outskirts of an east Texas town? How does he have the nerve to present this cake to a woman who has been used time and again for the sexual pleasure and abuse of many of these god-fearing inhabitants of the, perhaps ironically named, town of Liberty? But Cynthia Bond is no single-sided storyteller, for she points out that these god-fearing inhabitants--well, they too have been shaped and molded by a grinding American history of racism and misogyny. 

As much as these inhabitants would like to pin Ruby's "howling, half-naked" madness on her high-heeled red shoes that she dared to procure in 1950s New York, Ephram sees Ruby for what she is: a woman as beautiful as the girl he knew as a child, a woman who is haunted by her own searching for her mother who abandoned her after her own sisters were killed by the sheriff’s deputies for giving in to a married white man’s demands, a woman who spent part of her childhood in forced prostitution by none other than Ephram's own father, a woman in search of her red-headed green-eyed mother in the New York piano bars, a woman returned to east Texas when called home to her own roots, a woman haunted by ghosts that Ephram will never be able to exorcise but can at least make his own peace with and nudge Ruby to do the same. 

Ephram is single-mindedly bent on protecting Ruby from the gossip of his small town's population, from the purportedly saving graces of his sister Celia and her church, and from the madness that haunts Ruby from the traumas she experienced at the hands of any number of men. Ephram also shares in tragedy--watching his mother be dragged away to a mental institution and knowing that his father (a hard-spirited preacher) was lynched by white men. His sister, Celia, raised him as her own, and now he spends celibate weeks bagging groceries at the local Piggly Wiggly and attending church on Sundays. 

Such are the ghosts of the American South, the American West, the American past, and ultimately the American present. And these ghosts haunt the townspeople as much as they haunt Ruby. She just experiences the ghosts more directly and more presently. Oof. 

Let's take a closer look at the cake, shall we?

Ephram asks his sister to make the cake for him, and she does, with a sense of duty and love and reverence:
“She made it in that pocket of time before dawn, when the aging night gathered its dark skirts and paused in the stillness. She made it with twelve new eggs, still warm and flecked with feathers. She washed them and cracked them, one at a time, holding each golden yolk in her palm as the whites slid and dripped through her open fingers. She set them aside in her flowered china bowl. In the year 1974, Celia Jennings still cooked in a wood-burning stove, she still used a whisk and muscle and patience to beat her egg whites into foaming peaks. She used pure vanilla, the same sweet liquid she had poured into Saturday night baths before her father, the Revered Jennings, arrived back in town. The butter was from her churn, the confectioners sugar from P & K. As she stirred the dawn into being, a dew drop of sweat salted the batter. The cake baked and rose with the sun.  

Ephram slept as the cake slid from its tin, so sweet it crusted at its crumbling edges, so light little craters of air circled its surface, so moist it was sure, as was always the case, to cling to the spaces between his sister’s long three-pronged silver fork” (6).

Could there be a more reverent description of baking a cake? There is muscle and patience and memory and commitment here. This is work done in the dark while others are sleeping. Celia gets a bad rap in this novel--she is judgmental and rigid--but she is also steady, filled with conviction, and determined. Her love for her brother is solid, protective, and strong. This is a prized cake, baked with love, even if that love at times misdirects her. 

Celia slices one piece out of the cake, leaving it for her brother at his door even though he says he doesn't want any. This is an affront to her, she who made this cake with such love, yet the act of disregarding his wishes is indicative of her character. She believes she knows best, especially in matters of the cake. However, Ephram has other designs on this cake, and it does not matter to him that one piece is missing. He simply restores order. When the time comes for him to journey to Ruby, he sees "the slice of cake Celia had cut with her special wire blade. It had a white cloth napkin draped over it like a flag of surrender. He carefully removed it, lifting it with both hands at the corners, slipped the three-pronged silver fork under the slice and fitted it like the last piece of a great puzzle into the whole" (53).  Celia very much wishes to control whose allotment of sweetness she will mete out, when and where; however, Ephram wants something whole to deliver, something pure and unsullied, so he pieces it back together, gently, and prepares for his journey.

And it is no easy one. From his first steps into the world, he is met with dangers: "He leapt free onto the front porch but stumbled on the bottom stair. A pillar of will sent the cake up and out of his right hand. It was falling, flat and hard towards the earth. Time slowed. The yard spun before him. Then he swooped under the falling circle, fell to one knee and caught it in two steady hands. The cake quivered under its cloth but did not crumble. Ephram could have sworn he heard a holy jubilation, a swell of cheers from the passing clouds" (54).  He is a man, however, ready to go to his knees to save this offering. Truly it is holy--a hallelujah bursts forth figuratively. This is no ordinary journey, but it is a spiritual quest, for him, for Ruby, for his community.

This cake bears quite the burden. It is offering, it is salvation. It is community, it is true connection to another, and as such it is dangerous for it makes him vulnerable and exposed. "[H]e figured, he could .... reach Ruby's before nightfall if he was careful. And Ephram Jennings was a careful man. He was careful of the cloud of sweetness he cared on Celia's fine plate, careful not to let the August breeze blow dirt under the cloth. Careful not to hope" (75-6). 

So much is his exposure that when he comes into town, he is heckled by the men who park themselves on the porch outside the P & K, the neighborhood store and center of gossip. Gubber, once a high school friend and now a man at whom Ephram only nods and grunts, challenges Ephram to a game of dominoes in exchange for the cake: "Gubber relented, 'Hell, I'll give you five whole dollars if you win which you ain't 'bout to do.' Suddenly Ephram wanted to be rid of the cake. Wanted it stuffed between Grubber's large teeth, so he nodded yes and the porch leaped to watch" (92). 

Ephram wins the game, and he "stomp"s down the road with his cake teetering. The mocking begins from these men, who claim Ephram hasn't "wet his wick in twenty year" (93) and that it is a "[w]aste of good cake" (92).  This cake is a prized object of desire and possession and when it cannot be had, it becomes a symbol of derision and of failed or at least wasted sexuality. 

When he finally comes upon Ruby, she is clawing the earth with her bare hands and is miming the giving of birth. When she sees him, she assumes he has come to have sex with her and prepares herself. She is grateful that he brought cake, which is more than what most of the men--many of them the same porch-sitters at the P & K--bring to her to demand sex. Ephram ever the decent human, picks her up from the ground, takes out a bottle of iodine, and hopes to begin the slow process of healing her (105). 

But she kicks. She kicks hard and in the face. And hard enough to knock the cake from him: 
"The cake in ruins at his feet, Ephram felt a lump rise in this throat and then he began to sob. Soft whimpers like a child. She looked at him. Then she caught the jagged tear of her breath. Her lungs calmed and she leaned over and let her hand pat his back. Gently like burping a baby. She said, 'There, there.' They stayed like that for awhile in the dark, until she reached over and grabbed a handful of cake from the ground" (105). 
What seems ruined is not. What seems degraded is not. Instead, "[t[he night shifted her horizon and contemplated the kindling of dawn. Ruby and Ephram sat in silence and ate the most amazing white lay angel cake, made theirs with bits of dirt and grass, while the piney woods watched from the shadows" (106). The journey is physically over, and there is a moment of peace between them.

This scene is a big one; however, it's also not one the reader fully understands yet (that takes the whole second half of the book to explore), but it is powerful. In the second half, Ephram cares for Ruby, bathing her, scrubbing her home, tending to her family's property. And Ephram, and we, learn that Ruby is not mad--instead she is a conduit for spirits, spirits she is charged to protect. Now, this is about to sound a little wild, but stay with me--and think in terms of magic realism and metaphor. This spirit--known as a Dybou or an evil spirit--haunts our history and, without our willingness to confront it, must haunt our present. Enter decades of racism, slavery, misogyny, and injustice. 

Ephram does not shy away. He stands with Ruby, sometimes ill-equipped and vulnerable, but always stands, with compassion and humility. Through Ephram and in witness to Ruby, Bond challenges us to confront our individual and our collective pain. She will not let us look away. 

That said, Bond ends with hope as does Ruby herself: “She turned to her children. She had so much to teach them. To stand. To fight. To believe in rising. She would teach them. She would teach herself. She felt her heart beating steady in her chest. She could give each of them this knowing. She would give it to them like angel cake” (330).  Simple, perhaps, but a powerful testament to what we must do, how we must stand, and what we must not only confront but fight. This clear-eyed vision of our collective past is a gift, as much as any angel food cake. 

We may want the sanitized, pure, prized offering of our past, pre-sliced and placed outside our doors. Instead, what we get is the scraping of it from the piney woods floor with the knowledge that by eating it, we are growing closer in community and connection to one another. What we get is a reality worth sharing. What we get is truth.

Let's do this together.


Angel Food Cake with Whipped Cream 

“She made it in that pocket of time before dawn, when the aging night gathered its dark skirts and paused in the stillness. She made it with twelve new eggs, still warm and flecked with feathers. She washed them and cracked them, one at a time, holding each golden yolk in her palm as the whites slid and dripped through her open fingers. She set them aside in her flowered china bowl. In the year 1974, Celia Jennings still cooked in a wood-burning stove, she still used a whisk and muscle and patience to beat her egg whites into foaming peaks. She used pure vanilla, the same sweet liquid she had poured into Saturday night baths before her father, the Revered Jennings, arrived back in town. The butter was from her churn, the confectioners sugar from P & K. As she stirred the dawn into being, a dew drop of sweat salted the batter. The cake baked and rose with the sun. 

Ephram slept as the cake slid from its tin, so sweet it crusted at its crumbling edges, so light little craters of air circled its surface, so moist it was sure, as was always the case, to cling to the spaces between his sister’s long three-pronged silver fork” (Ruby 6).

The angel food cake is adapted from Baking in America

Here's a link to the actual recipe, but I made another recipe I enjoy from Greg Patent. He adapted this recipe from the 1951 winning entry in the Pillsbury Bake-Off. Come on!  You cannot do better than that. You do need a baker's dozen of egg whites. The only solution is to make ice cream with the remaining yolks. 

1 10-inch cake, 16 servings

1 cup sifted cake flour
½ cup confectioners' sugar
13 large egg whites
½ tsp salt
1 tsp cream of tartar
1 cup sugar
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
½ tsp pure almond extract

whipped cream to serve

1.  Adjust an oven rack to the lower third position and preheat the oven to 475℉. Have ready a grease-free 10-x-4 inch tube pan.  If you have one with a removable bottom, all the better, but don't worry too much.

2.  Resift the flour with the confectioners' sugar. Set aside.

3.  In a large wide bowl, beat the whites with an electric mixer on medium speed until frothy, about 1 minute. Add the salt and cream of tartar and continue beating until the whites are thick and fluffy and form soft billowy mounds that droop a little at the tip. Beat in the sugar 2 Tbsp at a time, beating for a few second after each addition. Add both extracts and beat for 30 seconds, or until the whites form slightly stiff peaks that curl and the tips.

4.  Gradually fold in the flour mixture, sifting about 3 Tbsps at a time evenly over the whites and using a large rubber spatula to fold the two together with a few gentle strokes.  Using the spatula, gently transfer the batter to the tube pan. To remove any large air bubbles, run a long narrow metal spatula in 3-4 concentric circles through the batter, beginning at the tube and working outward or bang the tube pan on the counter. Smooth the top with the rubber spatula.

5.  Cover the pan tightly with aluminum foil. Bake for 10 minutes. Quickly open the oven door and remove the foil (this is a kind of souffle or meringue, so move quickly here). Close the oven door and reduce the temperature to 425℉. Bake for 15 minutes more, or until the cake has risen to the top of the pan, is well browned, and springs back when gently pressed. The cake may have a few cracks. Immediately invert the pan on a narrow-necked bottle. Let cool completely, upside down, for 2-3 hours.

6.  Loosen the sides of the cake from the pan, using a narrow thin-bladed knife. Run the knife between the cake and the central tube. If you have a removable bottom, lift the cake out of the pan by its tube, and release the cake from the bottom of the can with the knife. Carefully turn the cake out onto a wire rack. Cover with a cake plate and invert the two so the cake is right side up. If you don't have a removable bottom, knock the cake out of the pan (it took a good whack from me). Gently turn the cake over so it is right side up.

7. To serve, cut into portions with a serrated knife with whipped cream.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Spicy Meat Dolma from Samarkand

Very few things I can make without a recipe, and dolmas are one of them. Why? Well, when I was a vegetarian for a decade, I taught myself how to make dolmas because, people, they were so freaking tasty, and if I made them myself I could guarantee that they were meat-free and low on oil. Nowadays, the meat doesn't matter, which is a boon for this recipe, for I am telling you, friends, this is all meat. All meat wrapped up in a grape leaf.  And I couldn't be happier.

I snatched up this cookbook a while back, and I don't cook from it nearly enough. This fabulous glimpse into the cooking of the Caucasus region leaves one mouthwatering and aching for dill, eggplant, beets, cucumber, mint, rose petals, and pomegranates. Caroline Eden and Elanor Ford take you on a culinary tour, and they promise that you will not only not get lost but also that there will be delightful stops along the way.

For my first stop, I went with this recipe, for it was an old standby with a new twist for me, and I was not disappointed. Because I like meat now. Lots of it. And it's even better when it is well spiced, wrapped in a grape leaf, and boiled in yummy spices.  The perfect dinner. And then takeaway lunch the next day. I'll take it, with or without a recipe.

One Year Ago: Polenta with Winter Salad, Poached Egg, and Blue Cheese

Spicy Meat Dolma

Adapted from Samarkand: Recipes and Stories from Central Asia and The Caucasus

12 Dolmas

7 ounces beef 
1 shallot, finely chopped 
1 red chile, seeded and finely chopped 
1 Tbsp dried cranberries or barberries 
½  tsp paprika 
¼ tsp cayenne pepper 
¼ tsp ground cumin 
Tbsp finely chopped flat-leaf parsley leaves 
16 grape leaves, in brine
Tbsp olive oil 
1 onion, sliced 
1 carrot, sliced 
4 tomatoes, diced 
salt and freshly ground black pepper 
Greek yogurt, to serve

1. Mix the minced beef with the shallot, chile, cranberries (or barberries), spices and parsley. Season with salt and pepper. Set a small amount of the mixture aside, then use your hands to shape the rest into 12 sausage shapes. 

2.  Put the grape leaves in a colander and pour over hot water to rinse off the brine. Choose the 12 largest grape leaves and remove the stalks. 

3.  Lay a leaf on the surface with the stalk end towards you. Sit a sausage on top, roll up the leaf to just cover the filling, then draw in the sides and continue rolling to make a neat parcel. Repeat with the remaining leaves. 

4.  Choose a casserole pan that will accommodate all 12 dolmas snugly in a single layer. Heat the oil and add the reserved meat mixture to flavor the stock. Cook over a medium heat until golden, then add the onion and caramelize. Add the carrot and tomatoes and cook for a further minute or two until beginning to soften. Season with salt.

5.  Place each dolma on top, seam-side down. Add enough hot water to the pan to come three-quarters of the way up the dolmas. Cover with the remaining grape leaves–broken ones that would not work for stuffing are perfect here–then use a plate a little smaller than the pan to weigh the stuffed leaves down. 

6.  Bring to a gentle simmer and cook the dolmas for 40 minutes. Leave to cool in their cooking juice. 

7.  Drain and serve at room temperature with Greek yogurt.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Review of The Drinking Food of Thailand

I wanted this to be my cookbook.  I get the premise of Andy Ricker's new book, The Drinking Food of Thailand: easy food that is perfect for a 2 a.m. snack in the midst of a night on the town. However, I am generally not awake at 2 a.m. and my nights on the town are somewhat circumscribed.

However, if you're in the market for an adventure-filled cookbook, this might be your book. If you're looking for photos that are meant to capture the nightlife in Thailand, this might be your book.  If you want to go on a bit of your own journey to find some ingredients, this might be your book.  If you're delighted by Ricker's work with Pok Pok in NYC and Portland or a fan of Anthony Bourdain, this is most certainly your book. If you want to get out of rut with your own Thai cooking, people, pick this book up immediately.

If you're looking for a Tuesday night meal before sitting down to answer all those work emails you didn't get to during the day, this is not your book.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Cook Your Books Series for 2018

Whew.  And we're back for round two of my series.  Last year, I proposed to read 15 relatively arbitrarily chosen books on 15 different topics. My theory is that no matter what I choose to read, food will somehow play an important role. Turned out to be true. So I am doing it again.  (And while I am behind in posting, I promise you the four books I still have left over from 2017 actually all have food in them: Ruby, The House of Spirits, The Sympathizer, and Spendthrift--when I post them, I'll link here, but I promise I actually finished the books in 2017; I just haven't done the posting.)  

Ready for my 2018 list?  

1.  A book of letters.
2.  A rewriting of a Shakespeare play.
3.  A post-apocalyptic or dystopian novel.
4.  A book by an author from a country I have not visited. 
5.  A book that is more than 500 pages. 
6.  A book that feature anxiety.
7.  A book written by a woman under 25.
8.  A classic Austen.
9.  A book I always think I have read, but haven't.
10.  A book set in pre-colonial India.
11.  A book by an author who uses a pseudonym.
12. A book with multiple narrators.
13.  A book that features poverty or low-income housing.
14. A book my mom loves.
15.  A book set during wartime.
I will be posting and then linking back to this tab (also found at the top of the page) and to each category.

Let's get cooking and reading, shall we? And feel free to join me--what are you reading, and what are you cooking based on what you're reading?

Oh, this is going to be fun. I promise.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Steak in Sister Carrie // 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 eleventh installment is a book set in Illinois.

Oh, Desire. With a capital "D." There you are. Haunting around Chicago and New York (and their restaurants) in this old chestnut from the turn of the century.

I picked up Sister Carrie in the Chicago History Museum gift shop while I was wiling away some time before catching my plane from O'Hare back to San Francisco. I needed a book set in Illinois, and there was no way I was going to write about one of my most loathed books Augie March (with apologies to my father-in-law, who is a big fan) or about the meat exposé The Jungle (a great book, but it seemed, well, a bit inappropriate for a food blog). I thought about going to two books that I love: Native Son and House on Mango Street, but I have read both already, and I wanted to explore something new to me.  So I considered some more contemporary books (including Then We Came to the End and I Sailed with Magellan), but then there she was, our heroine Carrie, staring at me from the Penguin paperback, and I had a four-hour flight in front of me. And so, that is how we landed on this eleventh chapter of Cook Your Books.

Okay, for those of you who have never read Sister Carrie, or just need a refresher from your high school days, this Theodore Dreiser book was published in 1900 to the weak reception of only 456 copies sold. In a coming-of-age, American dream tale straight out of the history books, Carrie Meeber leaves behind the doldrums of Columbia City, Wisconsin, boards a train (with "a small lunch in a paper box," no less (1)), and lands in Chicago, home of numbing jobs, cold winds, a disapproving sister, middle-class heartthrobs, and a ticket to fame and (comparative) fortune. Of course, on said train from small town America to the big city, innocent and naive Carrie meets the dashing and urbane traveling salesman Charles Drouet, who leans forward and offers Carrie familiarity with an overwhelming city and assistance as she disembarks the train (and, oh so much more). Of course, ever the proper Midwestern maiden, she refuses, disembarks alone (but under Drouet's watchful eye), moves into her sister's home, and takes a tedious and coarse job. 

However, Carrie gets sick, loses her job, and happens to encounter Drouet on a downtown street, of course. Because Carrie is a looker straight out of provincial dairyland, he takes her to a fancy restaurant--the Windsor Room (which can still be found in Chicago, here)--and over sirloin and potatoes, he convinces her to take $20 for new clothes, and eventually to leave her sister and move in with him. That seems fast. But let's slow down and take a closer look.

Previously, when Carrie was out searching for a job, she had entered into a restaurant with prices so high that all she could order was a bowl of soup (21). Thus, restaurants seem fraught for her; they are places of exclusion and consumption. They are reminders of what she desires but cannot have. The Windsor Room is "a large, comfortable place, with an excellent cuisine and substantial service" (61). It is, for Drouet, a place "to see and be seen as he dined" (61) and he is completely at home here among its pageantry and wealth. But, Carrie is overwhelmed and full of desire: "She was very hungry, and the things she saw there awakened her desires, but the high prices held her attention" (62).  But Drouet has no worry about the prices, and he quickly commands the situation, ordering sirloin with mushrooms ($1.25), stuffed tomatoes, hashed brown potatoes, asparagus, and a pot of coffee.

I, on the other hand, served my steak with sweet potato fries and creamed broccoli rabe.

And oh how Drouet becomes more attractive over that meal:
Drouet fairly shone in the matter of serving. He appeared to great advantage behind the white napery and silver platters of the table and displaying his arms with a knife and fork. As he cut the meat his rings almost spoke. His new suit creaked as he stretched to reach the plates, break the bread, and pour the coffee. He helped Carrie to a rousing plateful and contributed the warmth of his spirit to her body until she was a new girl. He was a splendid fellow in the true popular understanding of the term, and captivated Carrie completely. 
That little soldier of fortune took her good turn in an easy way. She felt a little out of place, but the great room soothed her and the view of the well-dressed throng outside seemed a splendid thing. Ah, what was it not to have money! What a thing it was to be able to come in here and dine! Drouet must be fortunate. He rode on trains, dressed in such nice clothes, was so strong, and ate in these fine places. He seemed quite a figure of a man, and she wondered at his friendship and regard for her. (63)

There he is in all that finery and abundance and pageantry (seeing and being seen, particularly by Carrie), and he comes out all the better. She notices that his suit is new, he wields cutlery in such a way it draws attention to his body, his rings almost speak. In this moment, he is the promise of Chicago: American. Masculine. Wealthy. Comfortable. Urbane. Generous. It's no wonder she's willing to take the "two soft, green, handsome ten-dollar bills" (66) he later presses into her palm. As out of place she feels in the gleaming Windsor room, he impresses her with his ease with money and with the city. He is all she desires to be, all that she longed for back in Columbia City, Wisconsin. And all of this done over a hearty, American meal of steak and potatoes. This is it, the American Dream. And the longing for wealth and ease.

So she, our sin-loving sister, moves in with him. How can a country girl resist? But then Drouet introduces her to George Hurstwood, who is ever more dashing than Drouet (it just might be his healthy employment as the manager of Fitzgerald and Moy's, a saloon in Chicago). And isn't that just it? The American Dream, Dreiser suggests, is something we touch on, but then we want more. We desire and then we desire and then we desire.

Thus, Hurstwood and Carrie begin a flirtation that turns into more, despite Hurstwood being married (a small detail he fails to mention to Carrie). Through a series of events (most of which include Drouet being humanly incapable of letting people down and always wanting to look a bit more debonair and sophisticated than he is), Carrie ends up on the stage of the Elks Club theater.

The next day, all hell breaks loose: Drouet learns of the affair, as does Hurstwood's wife, and Carrie learns that Hurstwood has a wife. Heavy drinking (on Hurstwood's part) ensues, as does a bit of thievery from an unlocked safe at Hurstwood's employer's, and a lie to Carrie lures her onto a train, and both Carrie and Hurstwood abscond in the middle of the night to the wilds of Montreal. A guilty conscience leads to Hurstwood returning most of the money but not guilty enough to keep him from committing bigamy (and Carrie agreeing to it) and whisking her away to the even bigger city of New York. 

Oh, New York. You provide more desire than even that burgeoning cow town of Chicago, and Carrie's desire is fueled further by Hurstwood's ability to provide for her, at first, a sumptuously decorated apartment with a view of Central Park and her fancy neighbor, Mrs. Vance. But Hurstwood, who had achieved his wealth through hard work and perseverance, loses it all through his inability to find another manager's job at a reputable saloon. All that desire. All that inability to find contentment.

After some steps down the social ladder, a hiatus on Carrie's and Mrs. Vance's friendship, and a real beating to the pocketbook, Carrie comes across neighbor Mrs. Vance again, who introduces Carrie to her cousin, Robert Ames. And they go out to a fancy dinner in a fancy New York restaurant (sound familiar?) where Ames suggests that there is more to life than a fancy dinner in a fancy restaurant. And that something is art.  Let's zero in again (This time Sherry's in New York):

Carrie, down on her luck again, is hyper-aware by the prices on the menu, attuned to what food is worth. Soup is 50¢ or a dollar (which is about $27 in 2017) and entrées cost the same as a night in a hotel:
Carrie noticed [the prices on the menu], and in scanning it the price of spring chicken carried her back to that other bill of fare and far different occasion when, for the first time, she sat with Drouet in a good restaurant in Chicago. It was only momentary — a sad note as out of an old song — and then it was gone. But in that flash was seen the other Carrie — poor, hungry, drifting at her wits' ends, and all Chicago a cold and closed world, from which she only wandered because she could not find work. (335)

And just like that we're transported right back to the Windsor Room, that world that she longed to belong within but did not. Right back to who is included and not, and all of it based on money. But then Ames bursts this reverie:
"Do you know," he said, turning back to Carrie, after his reflection, "I sometimes think it is a shame for people to spend so much money this way." 
Carrie looked at him a moment with the faintest touch of surprise at his seriousness. He seemed to be thinking about something over which she had never pondered.  
"Do you?" she answered, interestedly.  
"Yes," he said, "they pay so much more than these things are worth. They put on so much show." (336-337)

Which, of course recalls Drouet and his love of the Windsor Room, as it was a place to see and be seen.  Ames surprises her that there could be another relationship one could have with money. That maybe there could be something more than having it. And so, our Sister Carrie begins her great awakening. And the end of the book entirely depends on how you read this:
"I shouldn't care to be rich," he told her, as the dinner proceeded and the supply of food warmed up his sympathies; "not rich enough to spend my money this way."  
"Oh, wouldn't you?" said Carrie, the, to her, new attitude forcing itself distinctly upon her for the first time.  
"No," he said. "What good would it do? A man doesn't need this sort of thing to be happy."  
Carrie thought of this doubtfully; but, coming from him, it had weight with her.  
"He probably could be happy," she thought to herself, "all alone. He's so strong." (339)
Just after this moment she and Ames speak about the theater, and she vows to return to the stage, in part to impress him and in part because he has inspired in her the desire for something more. The juxtaposition of the over-priced meal in a too-fancy restaurant and this purity of art are troubling for Carrie, but she is "beginning to see" (341) Yes, she wants to be seen by Ames, or someone like him, and thus gain his approval. But she also wants more than just pageantry. So, return to the stage she does. And she gains oodles of money as she works her way up from Chorus Girl to Star. And Hurstwood finds himself a scab, driving a Brooklyn streetcar, then abandoned by Carrie, then homeless. He dies alone and unhappy, truly fallen from the pinnacle of the American Dream we saw him embracing early in the novel.

But Carrie's end is also solitary, wanting, and ambiguous. Some argue this ending is tragic. Others, not so much.
Sitting alone, she was now an illustration of the devious ways by which one who feels, rather than reasons, may be led in the pursuit of beauty. Though often disillusioned, she was still waiting for that halcyon day when she should be led forth among dreams become real. Ames had pointed out a farther step, but on and on beyond that, if accomplished, would lie others for her. It was forever to be the pursuit of that radiance of delight which tints the distant hilltops of the world.
Oh, Carrie, Carrie! Oh, blind strivings of the human heart! Onward, onward, it saith, and where beauty leads, there it follows.... In your rocking chair, by your window dreaming, shall you long, alone. In your rocking chair, by your window, shall you dream such happiness as you may never feel. (527)

But Carrie ends the book alone, wanting, desiring, and never really in the reach of that "halcyon day" when her dreams have become real. She is going to keep striving, keep desiring for happiness, and from the looks of it never really find it. But let's hold tight for a second. We have a woman who has engaged in a pre-marital affair with a man in Chicago, knowingly committed bigamy with an on-the-lam man in New York, and she leaves both of them for a life of theater. Perhaps, totally ho-hum to the 21st-century reader, but a true scandal for an early 20th-century reader. And (gasp!) she's not punished for these relationship. Let's consider other options for such a woman in 1900. Dreiser could have written her in the hackneyed way where the sinful woman with a heart of gold still has to end in suicide or despair (see Maggie, Girl of the Streets). But no, she sits alone just as Ames suggests, aching for more, yes. But Ames suggested that being alone is actually not so bad. 

Her failure to find happiness in the end has nothing to do with her extra-curricular activities. Instead, that failure to find happiness is wrapped up in that ever-consuming desire to consume. Girlfriend loves money. More than she loves George Hurstwood or Charles Drouet or, one might guess, the stage. 

So, unlike Edith Wharton's Summer (which I wrote about here), wherein the fallen woman gets the apple, this time we get the fallen woman who just desires to consume and consume. Just like any other character in this book. Just like any other man. And she gets the Windsor Room, The Chicago Opera House, the Elks Lodge, Sherry's, and the Broadway stage. Ain't nothing going to keep this consumer down.

P.S.  (Totally a sidenote and not at all related to food in this book.) John Berryman asserted that Dreiser "wrote like a hippopatomus," an apt (and perhaps my favorite) description if ever there was one. While this book is a bit pedantic, it is a great look at early 20th-century Chicago, where one was able to have a full lawn in downtown Chicago. Totally worth any hippo-plodding.


Marinated Steak from Ad Hoc

"She was very hungry, and the things she saw there awakened her desires, but the high prices held her attention" (Sister Carrie 61).

Very liberally adapted from Thomas Keller's Ad Hoc at Home

Keller does a lot more wonderful things to this steak than we did.  We grilled it, because we live in California and can grill in December. I suspect that basting it in the oven in a very cozy home (say, in Illinois) would be just delightful. As for your cut of meat, use whatever you want. He uses skirt steak. I served this with sweet potato fried and a glorious creamed broccoli rabe, found here.

4 Steaks


For the Marinade: 
3 sprigs of fresh thyme 
1 long sprig of fresh rosemary 
2 fresh bay leaves 
1½ teaspoons black peppercorns 
3 garlic cloves, smashed with skins left on 
1 cup extra virgin olive oil 

For the Steaks: 
24 ounces steak (your choice: Keller uses skirt, but any steak is fine)
Kosher salt 
Freshly ground black pepper 
Olive oil 
2 tablespoons unsalted butter 
4 sprigs of fresh thyme 
2 garlic cloves, smashed with skins left on

For the Marinade
1. Combine the 3 springs of thyme, rosemary, bay leaves, peppercorns, 3 garlic cloves, and olive oil in a medium saucepan and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Remove from the heat and let the cool to room temperature. 

2.  Place steaks in a large, shallow dish and cover with the marinade. Cover the dish and marinate for at least 4 hours in the refrigerator (or preferably overnight). Turn the steaks in the marinade half way through the waiting time. Thirty minutes before you are ready to cook the steaks, remove the meat from the marinade and let sit at room temperature. Pat the meat dry with paper towels and season both sides with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper. Discard the marinade. 

For the Steaks
3.  So this is what Keller says to do:  
Preheat oven to 350°F, set roasting rack in a roasting pan. Heat some canola oil in a large frying pan over high heat. (Have a splatter screen ready.) When the oil shimmers, add half the meat and quickly brown the first side. Turn the meat and, working quickly, add 1 tablespoon of butter, 2 thyme sprigs, and 1 garlic clove, and brown the meat on the second side, basting constantly; the entire cooking process should only take about 1½ minutes. Transfer the meat to the roasting rack and spoon the butter, garlic, and thyme over the top. Wipe the pan, and repeat with the remaining steaks. Place the baking sheet into the oven and cook for 8 to 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and let the steaks rest for about 10 minutes in a warm spot.
4.  Here's what we did:
(Okay, to be more specific, grill for about 8-10 minutes over a medium high heat.)