March 27, 2009

Holler if you like hollandaise!

Yesterday I had lunch at Literai II for the last time in a long time. I ordered the eggs florentine with high hopes -- but the cook left me hanging dry and sauceless.

I could not bear to dig into my poached eggs, naked and vulnerable as they were, mounted on thick slices of sourdough toast:

I had to ask for the sauce. The hollandaise sauce arrived in a cup and I wasted no time pouring it liberally and briskly over those eggs. Yum, yum, yum. While I can't say that my first time having eggs florentine went off without a hitch, at least the end result was pretty tasty.

Now I'm eager to try eggs benedict, which also features hollandaise sauce...
"The versions served at Le Meurice, Le Plaza, and La Maxeville were basically the same: a poached egg placed on a toasted slice of brioche lined with ham, napped with hollandaise sauce, and, as a final touch on top, a slice of black truffle. I had made eggs benedictine dozens if not hundreds of times, without a word of complaint form the most discriminating palates in the world.

The petty officer took one look at my preparation and snorted. 'You call yourself a cook?' he said. 'Everyone knows eggs benedictine calls for poached eggs to be served with a puree of salted codfish and a cream sauce.'"
--from Jacques Pepin's The Apprentice
They say the sauce chef, or saucier, is a key figure in the kitchen, ranked below only the head chef and the sous chef. It appears that, unluckily for me, the saucier at Literati II (if it has one, that is) decided to take a break that day.
"To be considered a great saucier was the highest accolade a cook could receive. The subtlety, intricacy, and lightness of a sauce could make a dish.

Stock is the basic ingredient of most sauces, and stock was critically important at Le Plaza's sauce station. Back in Bourg-en-Bresse, the only stocks Chef Jauget used were brown and white chicken stocks. For the brown stock, the chicken bones were roasted to a brown color in the oven before they were tossed into the stockpot, whereas for a white stock the roasting was omitted. In addiiton to these, we made white veal stock, white fish stock, and white beef stock for consommedemi-glace. The demi-glace had no salt and was basically fatless and fairly mild, so it was perfectly adaptable to various dishes. It took on the taste of a bordelaise with a reduction of red wine; of a perigueux with truffles and Madeira; or a chasseur with tomatoes, white wine, and tarragon.

A slight variation in seasoning, viscosity, reduction, or cooking time could make the difference between an average and a superlative sauce."
--from Jacques Pepin's The Apprentice

March 25, 2009

March meat pie madness

When I was just a wee girl discovering Danny the Champion of the World for the first time, I remembered for many years afterward the idea of soaking raisins in water overnight to plump them into bait for pigeons. I've always wanted to try it myself. The second time I read Danny, I couldn't stop salivating over the cold meat pie with hard boiled eggs. Since reading and drooling over it with my fellow oats-lovin' pal Kara, I've been obsessed with the idea of the cold meat pie. Does it really taste as good as Dahl makes it sound? This is the burning question that I have had in mind for quite some time now.

Witness my helplessness:
"Very carefully, I now began to unwrap the waxed paper from around the doctor's present, and when I had finished, I saw before me the most enormous and beautiful pie in the world. It was covered all over, top, sides, and bottom, with rich golden pastry. I took a knife from beside the sink and cut out a wedge. I started to eat it in my fingers, standing up. It was a cold meat pie. The meat was pink and tender with no fat or gristle in it, and there were hard-boiled eggs buried like treasures in several different places. The taste was absolutely fabulous. When I had finished the first slice, I cut another and ate that, too."
--Danny the Champion of the World
Dahl has a gift for writing about unusual foods that, to me, are a major part of what makes his stories so wickedly delightful. The meat pie description, though, has got to be Dahl at his best. Almost makes me want to buy Roald Dahl's Even More Revolting Recipes to make Doc Spencer's pie myself.

March 24, 2009

English muffin, Russian author


Today I embarked on my second attempt at reading Anna Karenina -- the first time, I only got about a third of the way in. Maybe in digital form I'll be able to last longer than last time, when I was reading that cumbersome volume whose binding boasted creases that were evidence of my thwarted attempts to read it one-handed. 'Twas too thick! 'Tcouldn't be done. No, I guess "'tcouldn't" is not a valid word. Oh well. 'Tshould be.

I wanted to share this excerpt I read at work today, in between bites of my sandwich (wheat English muffin / chicken breast / cabbage leaves / mayo):
"But in spite of this, each of them--as is often the way with men who have selected careers of different kinds--though in discussion he would even justify the other's career, in his heart despised it. It seemed to each of them that the life he led himself was the only real life, and the life led by his friend was a mere phantasm."
--from Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, speaking of Levin and Oblonsky
Levin and Oblonsky are old friends, tied by familiarity rather than by traits they share in common. Tolstoy is right -- it seems we cannot avoid being somewhat bothered when friends devote themselves to careers that we find disappointing or even despicable. But is it enough to cause a friendship to fail?

March 23, 2009

Wham, bam, thank you Spam


Steak doesn't always turn out juicy and delicious, but Spam, ah...Spam seldom disappoints. Oh, what am I saying? It never disappoints. Hormel (the fine maker of this product) says "it's like meat with a pause button." Not such good PR.

The N.Y. Times calls Spam "a gelatinous 12-ounce rectangle of spiced ham and pork." That's more like it.

Pretty shnazzy website, too. Gasp! A Spam fan club? Now there's a quick way to get spam (of the email variety).

March 19, 2009

Look here

"Both she and her brother, however, exaggerated the young girl's limitations; for Catherine, though she was very fond of her aunt, and conscious of the gratitude she owed her, regarded her without a particle of that gentle dread which gave its stamp to her admiration of her father. To her mind there was nothing of the infinite about Mrs. Penniman; Catherine saw her all at once, as it were, and was not dazzled by the apparition; whereas her father's great faculties seemed, as they stretched away, to lose themselves in a sort of luminous vagueness, which indicated, not that they stopped, but that Catherine's own mind ceased to follow them."
--from Washington Square
Never underestimate the lowly. Poor Catherine; she is a decent observer of character and recognizes greatness when she sees it, but everyone around her just looks at her and sees a simpleton.

It occurred to me today that the lowliest of the low still have eyes and ears; oftentimes their bottom-of-the-rung state gives them a clearer vision of what's really going on. Which is why, if I ever become a boss, I am going to make it a point to ask an intern what he or she honestly thinks of the full-time employees (at the end of the internship, of course, when it wouldn't be awkward for him or her to return to work after pointing out a superior's weaknesses). The view from the bottom speaks volumes about those up top.

March 18, 2009

Sandwich salivation

"She pulled the uncovered bowl of chicken salad out of a big Servel, the door around the handle discolored with garage grease, slapped three pieces of bacon on the grill and laid three slices of white bread to toast. She pressed down on the bacon with a spatula, forcing the oil out. She opened the Servel again, grasped a head of lettuce like a bowling ball, tore off an inch of leaves and dropped them on the cutting board. She turned the bacon, turned the slices of bread, pressed them with the spatula. She got the pot of coffee from the booth and poured it in a white mug marked "Souvenir of Big Pinetree in the Adirondacks." She slid the spatula under a slice of bread, toasted dark with a narrow rim of black around the crust, slid it onto a plate, plastered it with Silvernip mayonnaise, put half the lettuce on it, whacked a scoop of chicken salad dead center, then picked up the second slice of toast, laid it in place like a mason dropping a brick in line, hit it with the mayonnaise, the rest of the lettuce and the hot bacon. When the last slice of toast was on she looked up at Loyal, holding the knife.

'Kitty corner or straight?'

'Straight.'

She dipped her head in a single nod, laid the knife dead center horizontal with the edge of the toast, raised the heel of the blade and cut it clean. She pulled a two-inch cream bottle out of the Servel and thumped it all on the counter in front of him.

'There you go. I don't trust guys like it cut kitty-corner. City style. Fifty-five.'"
-- Postcards, E. Annie Proulx

March 16, 2009

From messages to Postcards

"She wore jewelry by the breastful, by the armload: diamonds, rubies, emeralds. She wore big rings like engine bearings, and vast, slithering mink coats. She wore purple and green silk, purple and green linen, purple and green wool -- dresses, suits, robes -- and leather high-heeled pumps, which drew attention to her long, energetic legs and thin ankles. She looked imposing. She looked, we at our house tended to think -- for how females looked occupied most of females' attention -- terrible. We were all blondes; we disliked purple, we disliked green, and were against the rest of it, too."
--Annie Dillard, An American Childhood
This was left for me in a voicemail by a friend today; no introduction, just plunged right in and started reading. She's always doing wacky stuff like this that gently snaps (is that an oxymoron?) me from idle to creative/productive mode. Today, she made me remember that reading is not just a work activity; it's also a pleasure and a privilege.

And so I finally cracked open E. Annie Proulx's Postcards, which hits the floor running with an intriguing start:
"Even before he got up he knew he was on his way. Even in the midst of the involuntary orgasmic jerking he knew. Knew she was dead, knew he was on his way. Even standing there on shaking legs, trying to push the copper buttons through the stiff buttonholes he knew that everything he had done or thought in his life had to be started over again. Even if he got away."

March 11, 2009

cummings and goings

Lately, I've been swimming in questions of commas and redundancies, hanging modifiers and correct spellings of foreign words. I'm all comma'd out at this point.

taking a page from ee cummings, ive decided to boycott punctuation for a single post and its already bothering me that im not going to insert a period at the end of this sentence

try dropping rules
of h
ow sentences should
look,
& it gets e ven
tougher

ithinkills,topnow
somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond
any experience, your eyes have their silence:
and in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,
or which i cannot touch because they are too near...
--from ee cummings, "somewhere i have never travelled"
This is the beginning of a fantastic poem. It has more remnants of punctuation than some of his other work.
That was as far as I could get by heart. I used to know it all by heart. I urge you to look up the rest. You shan't regret it.

March 9, 2009

Heroines and gluttons

"In her younger years she was a good deal of a romp, and, though it is an awkward confession to make about one's heroine, I must add that she was something of a glutton. She never, that I know of, stole raisins out of the pantry; but she devoted her pocket-money to the purchase of cream-cakes. As regards this, however, a critical attitude would be inconsistent with a candid reference to the early annals of any biographer."
--Henry James, Washington Square
Why would it be awkward to confess that the heroine of your story is somewhat of a glutton? This strikes me as one of many reasons that I like this novel quite a bit. More excerpts to come!

P.S. If you ask me, cream cakes sound like a fantastic use for pocket money. An even better one? The Max Brenner's chocolate pizza pictured above. Yum yum yum. That was one gluttonous afternoon. What heroines we were, conquering that pizza!

March 7, 2009

Congee con ti? Si.

In my sickness-induced groggy state, I've set my heart and stomach on making myself a pot of congee aka jook aka rice porridge/gruel.

Hopefully this turns out better than the crude gruel that poor Oliver asked for s'more of. (Update: It was scrum-diddly-umptious. See photo evidence below.)

I have no idea what people are talking about when they say that being sick makes them lose their appetite. Unless I'm vomiting from the flu or something, I usually maintain a healthy appetite in my unhealthy state. I should really just get some rest, but I prefer to consume things constantly no matter what state I'm in. Ha.

The Simplest Recipe for Congee Ever Posted in History:
1/2 cup white rice
5 cups water

Bring all two* whopping ingredients to a boil in some sort of pot. Stir and reduce heat to med-low & cover. Let simmer until it thickens into a porridge (about 1 1/2 hours).

*Well, technically 3** ingredients -- IF YOU WANT IT TO TASTE LIKE ANYTHING. Add salt or chicken flavor granules to your liking. You can also use chicken or veg. stock instead of water, and omit or reduce the salt accordingly.
**OK, I lied again. So technically you can have way more than 3 ingredients if you wish to get fancy by adding preserved turnips, shredded or ground meat, fish fillets, and/or eggs (of the preserved or regular variety). I suggest garnishing with sliced scallions, at the very minimum.

New addiction

Oh my. I stumbled upon this website today and I think I'm destined to fall even more deeply into computer whoredom than I already am.

Though I'll always prefer real books to digital ones, I have to admit that the digital option is oftentimes more convenient and accessible. Give it a whirl sometime.

Henry James, did you ever imagine a novel of yours would (or could) ever be rendered into HTML code, chopped up into installments, and finally, sent through cyberspace to email subscribers who would find your words waiting in their inboxes, somewhere lodged between spam and long awaited letters?

Good night


"Sometimes I wonder about my life. I lead a small life. Well, valuable, but small. And sometimes I wonder, do I do it because I like it? Or because I haven't been brave?

So much of what I see reminds me of something I read in a book, when shouldn't it be the other way around? I don't really want an answer. I just want to send this cosmic question out into the void. So, good night, dear void."
--You've Got Mail
That flower is not just some random flower. It's located in the garden in which said movie's grand conclusion took place. Or so I think.

They should really give You've Got Mail city tours. Or if you choose to do it yourself, like I did, you'll find that one of these two lovers' apartment buildings doesn't actually exist, while the other is as real as the screen in front of you.

March 4, 2009

Quite (extra)ordinary

"I know that my achievement is quite ordinary. I am not the only man to seek his fortune far from home, and certainly I am not the first. Still, there are times I am bewildered by each mile I have traveled, each meal I have eaten, each person I have known, each room in which I have slept. As ordinary as it all appears, there are times when it is beyond my imagination."
-- Jhumpa Lahiri's "The Third and Final Continent"
That is how Interpreter of Maladies ends. And I wanted to hate it, but it was such a great ending that I just couldn't. Usually, I can't help but hate (or at least dislike) the final words of a story that I've immensely enjoyed, because it signals the inevitable fact that there isn't any more to come.

It's so universal, this odd swelling of self-pride upon seeing that we've accomplished things that we never even thought we were capable of doing. Oftentimes we work so hard for what we want that we might stop, too tired to even think back to a time when we ever had the energy to be able to take those first steps that were so necessary to bring us to this point. And so we feel proud of what we've accomplished, because even if it isn't anything groundbreaking or unfathomable, it is our own, and we are entitled to marvel at the lives we've shaped. We achieve things without even knowing that we were in the midst of greatness, that our lives are extraordinary in their ordinary way, and when we finally stop and reflect on it, it feels good, so very good.

I can't help but think back on Eggers and his euphoric sense of accomplishment in AHWOSG:
"Oh please. What would a brain do if not these sorts of exercises? I have no idea how people function without near-constant internal chaos. I'd lose my mind."
And so it's true -- we push and push and push ourselves until we feel we're nearly going crazy, but the truth is, we'd really go crazy if we didn't keep pushing ourselves to what felt like the brink of chaos. And this is "quite ordinary," but it's also what makes the human being extraordinary.

March 1, 2009

Out of Africa, out of mind


"People always ask me, they say, In 'The Deluge at Norderney,' were those characters drowned or saved at the end? (You remember they are trapped in a loft during a flood and spend the night recounting their stories while awaiting rescue.) Well, what can I reply? How can I tell them? That's outside the story. I really don't know!"
--Isak Dinesen (aka Karen Blixen)
When a story ends, does it really part ways with its creator, or does it sometimes creep into the author's mind, haunting him or haunting her until it's heard? I always thought it was the latter, but maybe not. Perhaps it depends on how much power the author wants to hold over the characters...Dinesen seems to be an advocate for free will when it comes to her characters. Another writer might feel that the characters wouldn't have free will outside the story created for them.

Then again, her response could be a sign of her belief in the finality of the ending of a story. Of how it all can end, just like that -- so that when the pen is set down, the characters and storyline cease to exist, except as they were. Out of paper, out of sight, out of mind.

P.S. I want to watch "Babette's Feast."