Simple Roasted Cauliflower and Garlic Soup

I haven’t posted a blog in forever, I know, but today I had a success with a simple soup recipe, and since I don’t usually make soups, I was proud of myself, and wanted to share.

 

The business started recently when I took myself to happy hour at Casbah, and was a little hungry after work.  I ordered a new seasonal menu item, “Cauliflower Puree”, and it was s delicious creamy soup.  I LOVE cream soups, and basically licked the bowl out.

 

Then, I decided to invite Friend Jay over for dinner.  I was putting together a menu, and decided I’d try to recreate Casbah’s delicious soup.  It didn’t turn out exactly like Casbah’s, but it was very good, and easy, and so.  You’ll need:

 

1 head of cauliflower

1 bulb of garlic

1 box of veggie broth, or water, or some combination thereof, about 4 cups of liquid

About 1/3 to 1/2 cup of heavy cream

A goodly amount of olive oil

Salt and pepper

2-3 strips of bacon

A little bit of bleu cheese

 

Preheat your oven to 450.  Chop the cauliflower roughly, douse it in olive oil, and spread it over a large cookie sheet.  Cut the top off a whole bulb of garlic, douse that in olive oil, and wrap it up tightly in foil.  Put the sheet and the garlic bundle into the oven; turn the cauliflower once or twice.  It will be done in about 35 minutes — the garlic will take another 15 minutes or so.

 

Add the roasted cauliflower and garlic to a pot of warming broth and/or water, enough to barely cover the cauliflower.  The garlic cloves should be soft, and squeeze right out of the bulb; discard the husk.  I have an immersion blender, which works perfectly for such a job, but if you don’t, transfer the hot liquid and vegetables carefully to a food processor, and blend until everything’s very smooth.  Put the soup back in the pot if you’re not using an immersion blender, and add 1/3 – 1/2 cup of heavy cream.  Stir thoroughly.  Add salt and pepper to taste — don’t be afraid to go hard on the pepper.

 

Meanwhile, fry up your bacon strips, and slice them thinly.  Soup goes in the bowl, bacon goes in the center of soup, bleu cheese crumbles get sprinkled around the bacon — let them melt into the soup.  Yum.

 

Roasted Cauliflower and Garlic Soup with Bacon and Bleu Cheese Garnish

Equal Opportunity for Women, Hot Dog Eating Edition

It should be pretty clear by now that I love food: making it, eating it, writing about it … mmm, food.  It should come as no surprise that I’m a fan of Competitive Eating.  Specifically, every Fourth of July, I love to tune in to ESPN and watch the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest.  At noon today, Ted and I were camped in front of my laptop to watch the live stream.

 

The very first event of the hour-long presentation is the women’s hot dog eating contest, but it was not always so.  In fact, the division of the competition into men’s and women’s contests only happened last year.  For the second year in a row, Sonya “Black Widow” Thomas won in the woman’s division, eating 45 dogs this year.  Prior to 2011, Sonya competed — and acquitted herself very well — with the elite men of the competitive eating field.

 

Joey Chestnut eating his way to victory in this year’s Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest.

Right now the men’s Nathan’s champ is Joey “Jaws” Chestnut.  In fact, Joey just won his 6th straight title, tying him with Takeru Kobayashi for consecutive Nathan’s wins.  Kobayashi no longer competes in the Nathan’s contest after a conflict with Major League Eating, which took over the Nathan’s event in the mid ’90s.  Joey ate 68 dogs this year, tying a previous world record-setting performance of his; Takeru competed in the inaugural Crif Hot Dog Eating Contest, and they say he ate 68.5 dogs.  But that’s it’s own strange conflict.

 

Second and third place at Nathan’s this year, in the men’s division, went to Tim “Eater X” Janus and Patrick “Deep Dish” Bertoletti, with 52 and 51 dogs consumed respectively.  Fourth place went to up-and-comer Matt “Megatoad” Stonie, who is only 19 and giving elite eaters a run for their money; he ate 44 dogs — less than the Black Widow.

 

This whole women’s division thing really pisses me off.

 

I understand the need for divisions.  Joey Chestnut  is in a league of his own, but below him is a collection of similarly matched elite eaters, and it’s clear that Sonya Thomas is among them.  Why not have divisions based on skill-level qualifier rounds?  The Black Widow would easily qualify to compete with the likes of Jaws and Deep Dish.  And while it’s true that some sports are better left gender segregated for reasons of physiology, size and strength differences that might legitimately prevent female athletes from playing alongside male athletes in sports like football and hockey are completely moot in competitive eating.  Most of the elite competitors, although fit, are not particularly large.  Megatoad is all of 120 pounds; Takeru Kobayashi is 128.  Sonya Thomas is quite wee at about 100 pounds, but that clearly doesn’t have any impact on her ability to cram dozens of hot dogs into her mouth quickly.  While there is a physical component to competitive eating (both Chestnut and Kobayashi work out year-round), and some training techniques, it’s not a matter of size or strength: there’s absolutely nothing relating to the average physiological differences between men and women that requires the imposition of gendered competitive divisions.  This is more like declaring that a high school math team or quiz league needs to be divided according to gender.

 

Now, it may be the case that women make up a minority of elite competitive eaters — Black Widow’s closest rival, Juliet Lee, came in second in the women’s competition, having eaten “only” 33 dogs in 10 minutes.  Hell, it may be the case that women are in the minority when it comes to math teams and quiz leagues.  But that’s not a matter of ability, it’s a matter of acculturation.  Given all of the super fucked-up narratives about  food and control and morality that our culture foists on women, it’s no surprise that fewer women consider entering the field than men.  I assume that Major League Eating developed the Nathan’s women’s contest in the hopes of increasing women’s participation in competitive eating, but they’re taking precisely the wrong approach.  Women aren’t inspired when they see the best, elite woman competitor ghettoized, pushed into some less-than opening act; they’re inspired when they see an elite woman performing competitively alongside the best in the field in the world.  A friend of mine had the opportunity to see Sonya Thomas go up against Joey Chestnut in a wing eating contest that wasn’t gender divided, and she said watching the Black Widow take on the champ was amazing.  If Thomas — and any women like her — can play at the level of Chestnut and Bertoletti and Janus, then she should get the chance.  And seeing women competitors out-eat men will do a lot more to increase other women’s participation in Major League Eating — and hell, who knows, maybe even help to destabilize some of those super fucked-up narratives about women and food — than pushing them down the bill will.  Plus, you know who won that wing eating contest?  It wasn’t Joey Chestnut — Sonya Thomas kicked his ass.

 

So personally, I’m calling on Major League Eating to get rid of this counterproductive. unnecessary, and, frankly, insulting gender division in its Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest.  Equal Work, Equal Pay, Equal Hot Dogs!

 

Sonya “Black Widow” Thomas, a personal hero of mine.

 

The Golden Pig: Far-flung Korean Worth the Drive

Some things are worth traveling for.

Today I went on a little road trip adventure!  Everyone has been raving about Golden Pig, the tiniest Korean restaurant, clear out in Cecil.  When I say “clear out in Cecil”, I have to say, before I set out today in Marshall, my Honda Accord, I didn’t have the faintest idea where Cecil was.  Honestly.  I’d read and heard people going on about Golden Pig, and they’d be like, “It’s in Cecil,” and from that I figured out that Cecil was 1) within relatively reasonable driving distance of Pittsburgh, and 2) … *cricket cricket*.  It turns out that Cecil is south and west.  It’s actually easy to get to Golden Pig, it just takes a while.  The thing I find curious about Pittsburgh is that there’s the city, which is a city like any major urban center (except better), and then there’re the inner-ring suburbs, which could easily be mistaken for part of the city proper, and then — nothing.  Nothing whatsoever of interest.  Highways.  Trees.  The odd small town, but really, just nothing.  It’s instantly rural, like, 20 minutes outside the city in all directions.  It’s bizarre, frankly.  But so anyway, to get to Cecil, go through the Fort Pitt Tunnel, get on 79 South, get on 50 West, keep an eye out on your left after a few miles, and there you go.

 

Desolation.  Picturesque enough, though.

 

So wee.

 

Golden Pig is about the wee-est place I’ve ever eaten.  There are 11 seats inside.  The cooking happens in the same room as the eating, and everything is prepared fresh by two very nice Korean ladies.  Friend Mark J. joined me for lunch, and I don’t know about him, but I liked the atmosphere.  It was homey.

 

There’s a theme, you see.

I ordered us a “Korean pancake” to share.  I’m not sure what it was made of, though Mark surmised buckwheat flour.  It was crispy on the edges and had the particular glutinous consistency that I have only ever encountered in Chinese and Korean cooking.  It was filled with kimchi and quite tasty; we also got little dishes of kimchi and other pickled vegetables, which we nommed at with stainless steel chopsticks.  I mention the chopsticks because it occurred to me that I had never seen stainless steel chopsticks before — I’d eaten off very nice, lacquered wood chopsticks, but never stainless.  Well, there you go.

 

Pancake and various yummy pickled things.

 

For our entrees, both Mark and I ordered the daeji bulgogi, which was thinly sliced, stir fried pork in a super rich (but not thick), spicy, succulent, just fantastic sauce, plus a side of truly delicious sticky rice.  Good rice is easy to make and common — great rice is an art.

 

*Homer Simpson gargle*

 

SO FUCKING GOOD.

 

Seriously.  And my half of the meal came to $12.57.  Plus whatever I spent on gas, but, whatever, I practically never leave the city, so it’s good to burn a little gas from time to time.  I listened (sang along to) Hot Hot Heat on the drive home and just generally was pleased as punch.

 

**I returned the Golden Pig just recently, with my mother.  I’m a little embarrassed to report that I ate exactly the same things I ate the first time I went there.  They were just so good!  The quality of everything was just as good as I’d remembered, and the owner was even friendlier.  Next time I’m there, I swear I’ll try something different.

Golden Pig Authentic Korean Cuisine on Urbanspoon

Brasserie 33: What the Hell?

The silver lining is, it’s always more enjoyable to write — and read — blogs about things that suck.

 

Oh, Groupon.  There was a time when you were a wonderland of cheap, delicious meals.  I think restaurants caught on to what a bad deal that was for them, though, and now it may be the case that only embattled and benighted eateries like Brasserie 33 offer Groupons.  Alas.  Alas!

 

The wine was actually crisp and pleasant. And the label was adorable.

Our Brasserie Groupon was about to expire, so on Monday night, we made reservations for this French restaurant in Shadyside, on Ellsworth.  The space itself is quite well done, with a lovely marble bar and an open kitchen.  The food was OK – Good (though overpriced) even.  But the service.   Ay yi yi.

 

Problem one: the menu is printed on paper, which would be fine if they offered a new, seasonally inspired menu every day, but they don’t.  After being handled many times, the pathetic, wilting sheet I was handed was damp, wrinkled, and soiled — not particularly appetizing.  Nor were the wine and water glasses placed on our table, which had water marks and fingerprints all over them.

 

We were sat promptly, but then waited for many minutes before our server came over to greet us.  I was also given no wine list.  I finally hailed down the food runner to bring one to us, and he brought it over a moment before the server finally arrived.  Our server, it turned out, was actually French.  And friendly.  Too friendly.  Look, if I’m in some mom ‘n’ pop diner, and the sassy woman behind the counter wants to call me “Hon”, that all just makes sense.  But at a semi-fine dining establishment, I’m not there to make a new friend.  I expect the service to be courteous, competent, and efficient.  I don’t want to banter with the server.  I want him to have a good working knowledge of the wine list.  Ours didn’t.  He also — and I know I’m a dick for bringing this up — had truly terrible teeth, yellow and rotten, which, I’ve gotta tell you, is not the most appetizing thing to be faced with when choosing your appetizer.

 

So anyway, the server arrived a moment after the wine list, though after many minutes of waiting, and when I told him we needed another moment with the list, he disappeared again, after some more friendly prattle.  Great.  When he finally returned, he seemed unable to tell me much about the Cote du Rhone blanc I asked him about, and told us we should order all of our food at once, if we wanted it to come out of the kitchen in a timely fashion.  Right.  Right.  He also promised us bread was on the way.

 

The oysters tasted nice and fresh, though they got a bit overwhelmed by the butter.

To start with, we ordered the oysters rockefeller, which was good, if perhaps a bit greasy.  The arrival of this appetizer, by the way, took probably 25 minutes.  No small plates were given to us, so we used our bread plates — naturally, the bread arrived after the oysters, and by then our plates had been overwhelmed by shellfish drippings, making them useless as bread plates.  We were so hungry at that point we just spread our butter and ate our bread without putting it down; it was a good thing the bread was warm, because the butter was ice cold and hard as a rock.  Our server finally reappeared, bent down towards the plate with the oyster shells on it, real close like, stood up, made a “cuckoo” finger-rotating hand motion against his forehead at Ted, and walked away, without taking the plate.  I shit you not.  I said to Ted, “I think there’s a bit of oyster left in one shell.”  I was just trying to guess what action would result in my plates being cleared.  Ted ate the wee morsel, and when the server returned, he took the plate — but not the wee soiled bread plates, nor did he offer us more bread.  Those soiled bread plates remained on the table for an hour.

 

More waiting, more waiting, more nursing of our bottle of wine.  Another server came over and refilled our water, and began to tell us, apropos of nothing, about how the air conditioner broke last week, and all the trouble that caused.  What the fuck, people?  I want my goddamn entree, not to chat.

 

Our main courses finally arrived.  I ordered the half a roast chicken with frites.  The thigh was perfect, moist and tender, with a nice crispy skin covered in a peppery pan jus.  Naturally, therefore, the drumstick and breast were hopelessly dried out and overcooked.  I appreciate that this is the great problem of chicken roasting: since the breast meat finishes cooking before the thigh meat is safely up to temperature, how do you keep the breast from drying out while you wait on the thigh?  This has plagued home cooks since time immemorial, so it’s not that I don’t understand the problem.  But for $22, I expect a restaurant to have had this problem solved.  The frites were fine, but nowhere near as good as Point Brugge’s.  (Or Park Bruges’s, for that matter.)  Ted ordered the coq au van, and he liked his meal a great deal. I tasted it, and it was good, though I thought it was a bit heavily seasoned and a bit too rich for a hot June night.  There was absolutely nothing seasonal on the menu, and many of the offerings, like lamb shank, beef bourguinon, and the coq au van, were heavy, wintertime dishes.  I realize that these are staples of French cooking, but I don’t believe for a moment that the French don’t eat lighter fare in the summer.

 

Tasty in the center, dried out at the edges. Meh.

Anyway, we finished our meals, all of our plates were finally cleared, and then … we sat.  No appearance from our server.  Ted was determined to order the chocolate mousse, so eventually we flagged down the chatty water woman to put our order in.  The food runner brought the mousse out, and at that point, we hadn’t seen our own server for almost an hour.  Ted finished his dessert, and still no appearance.  We waited another 20 minutes for our French waiter to reappear.  He took my Groupon information, and came back with our check … which he hadn’t deducted our Groupon from.  He had also, natch, disappeared again.  So again we flagged down the woman, who acted confused by what she was seeing on the check, even though I spelled it out for her quite clearly.  “Here is our appetizer, here are our entrees, he didn’t charge us for our dessert, here is our bottle of wine.”  She took the check, and finally our waiter reemerged, to chastise me.

“I was trying to give you a free dessert.  You don’t want a free dessert?”

“I want my Groupon deducted.”

“But you turned down a free dessert.”

Are you fucking serious?  Fuck your $7 dessert, I want my $40 discount removed from the check.  He goes, “But you’re religious, I respect that.”  You see, our priest had stopped into the restaurant, quite by happenstance, and been assigned the table next to ours.  When we told him about the service, he decided not to order anything, though he did chat with us for a while.  When the server had looked at me quizzically, I had volunteered, “That’s our priest.”

 

Look, Buddy.  Monsieur.  Too familiar, and way unprofessional.  What the fuck?  In the end, he charged us for the dessert, but did subtract the $40.  We still ended up paying, with tip, a hundred bucks, and with that money could have gone down the street to Soba or up the street to Casbah and had an infinity better experience, both food- and (especially) service-wise.  I will not be returning to Brasserie 33, and you shouldn’t go there, either.  I honestly don’t know what the hell whoever owns that place is thinking.  There are reviews all over Yelp and Urbanspoon about how bad the service is, and how the food is overpriced for the quality, as it turns out.  (Here’s one by my friend, Carley, for example.) You’d think eventually a restauranteur would take action to remedy such imminently remediable problems, but nope!

 

Ugh.  Just ugh.

Brasserie 33 on Urbanspoon

My Frustrations with Ian McEwan’s Atonement

I don’t know about you, but I always have a collection of unread books on my shelves, picked up from used book stores or library sales. I always intend to get to them when I buy them, but sometimes they languish. Such was the case with a book by Ian McEwan, Atonement. I actually have two of his books on my shelves (the other is Saturday), but about a month ago a friend of mine recommended him as an author generally, and Atonement in particular, so I pulled the volume down and put it in the summer reading list stack.

On one hand, I should have good things to say about this book: I read it quickly, in two non-consecutive days, and so I can fairly say that I found it compelling. Additionally, McEwan’s prose itself is rendered with remarkable skill: it is evocative, with pitch-perfect tone. Despite my many frustrations with this novel, his writing alone makes me think that I’ll still get around to reading Saturday someday.

But oh, those frustrations. There were a few. Most notably how much I hated the main character of the book (I don’t think I, as the reader, was supposed to, no), but we’ll get to her in a moment.

Firstly, McEwan is a writer writing about writing in many parts of this novel, which is a pet peeve of mine. The above-mentioned main character begins to write little stories at the age of 10 (we see her primarily pursuing this hobby at 13). This is fair enough — I think that is about when kids who are so inclined start writing. But it is not merely a part of her character outline that she writes stories; rather, McEwan takes the opportunity to rhapsodize about the craft of storytelling. I’m exaggerating only slightly with my snarky italics. The problem with this sort of going on about the profound art of writing stories is that it’s self-aggrandizing horseshit. It is one thing to describe a character as one who likes to construct fiction, and to tease out what that might imply about that character: they have a tendency to live in their own mind; they are, perhaps, particularly observant; they are, perhaps, abstractly empathetic, by which I mean, while they can easily suss out the feelings and predict the (re)actions of others, they nonetheless are at a remove from other people, seeing others as objects of consideration rather than fellow subjects in the world. These are just my thoughts on the subject, perhaps others’ would be different, but my point is, it’s not a bad project for an author per se to make a character a writer. But there is some line past which the belaboring of the craft of storytelling becomes a reflection not on the writer character but on the author, and oh my, what a god of imagination he or she can be! In short, it becomes obnoxious, because all of the author’s reflections on the writer character and their pursuit of writing as an art are necessarily reflections on the author him/herself as artist.

I find this especially obnoxious because, as a failed writer myself, let me dispel a little conceit: writing is not a mystical labor of godlike intuition and profoundly creative compulsion. Being a writer requires natural talent, yes, and when one really feels inspired to write, doing so can be exciting and rewarding. But being a writer also requires practice, tedium, and, frankly, drudgery. Most writers are not successful; I certainly wasn’t. Being a writer is also a lot of luck, like any career in the fine arts. Most of the time, writing is just staring at drafts in frustration, and, let’s be honest, most writing doesn’t contain blinding insights into the human condition. It’s a skilled art, but its end result is usually not much more than an entertainment for consumers, and while it can rarely transcend that to become Important, that moment of importance is even still a brief brief moment in the life of a writer overall.

So basically, let’s take the self-importance down a few dozen pegs, OK Ian?

Moving on. The book itself as it’s crafted presented me with some quandaries. For one, the writing, although lovely, occasionally turns towards the … improbable. Take this passage:

“The silence hissed in her ears and her vision was faintly distorted — her hands in her lap appeared unusually large and at the same time remote, as though viewed across an immense distance. She raised one hand and flexed its fingers and wondered, as she had sometimes before, how this thing, this machine for gripping, this fleshy spider at the end of her arm, came to be hers, entirely at her command. Or did it have some little life of its own? She bent her finger and straightened it. The mystery was in the instant before it moved, the dividing moment between not moving and moving, when her intention took effect. It was like a wave breaking. If she could only find herself at the crest, she thought, she might find the secret of herself, that part of her that was really in charge. She brought her forefinger closer to her face and stared at it, urging it to move. It remained still because she was pretending, she was not entirely serious, and because willing it to move, or being about to move it, was not the same as actually moving it. And when she did crook it finally, the action seemed to start in her finger itself, not in some part of her mind. When did it know to move, when did she know to move it? There was no catching herself out. It was either-or. There was no stitching, no seam, and yet she knew that behind the smooth continuous fabric was the real self — was it her soul? — which took the decision to cease pretending, and gave the final command.”

Now that sounds just lovely. But seriously, what the fuck? Go back. Read the passage again. In the first place, these are the supposed musings of a sheltered 13-year-old — really? For another, 5 demerits for describing the human hand as a “fleshy spider” at the end of one’s arm and “a machine for gripping”. Additionally, there is something just too precious about looking for one’s soul(!) in the “crest” of one’s intention to move a finger. This looking for the “real self” (NB: dear fellow writers, if you find yourself musing about the “real self”, stop, take a nap, and come back to reconsider) by navel-gazing one’s own reflexes is writerly and unrealistic — this is not how humans, even very thoughtful, precocious humans, consider the world, and especially not in such abstract language.

But it sounds nice! It sounds … deep. This sort of tipping into absurdity is a problem McEwan has occasionally, it would seem.

Another problem with the way the novel is crafted: its engagement with World War II left me puzzled. Let me explain. The novel happens in three parts. The first occurs in 1935, on a single day and night during which we are eloquently introduced to a family and its moving parts (including that main character, the 13-year-old, whom I dislike so much), as they throw a small garden party in midsummer at their quasi-aristocratic British estate. This makes up the first half of the book or so (my copy is 350 pages), and it builds slowly, acquainting us with the characters of the novel until it concludes with an event the consequences of which play out in parts two and three. Part two of the book is set four years later; one of the characters is retreating from the Germans in northern France. I have sat and tried to think of why McEwan decided to stage this novel, at least in part, in battle in WWII. In the first place, the book did not seem to readily provide the answer to this question on its own. Don’t misunderstand, the book makes chronological sense and the plot is adequately tied to the setting, but: war is a loaded topic, McEwan is describing a loaded historical moment, and surely an author wouldn’t deploy such a time casually, for shits and giggles. I have considered that the transition from prewar to wartime Britain might usefully reflect on the maturation of the novel’s central character (the third part of the book takes place in London in 1940), and might parallel in some way the traumas and the strippings away of Briony’s (my loathed 13-year-old’s) adolescence, particularly in light of her crimes in the conclusion of Part One. (We’ll get there!) But that explains only the trajectory of the first and the third parts of the novel; the second part is set squarely in war-torn France as British forces fall back in hasty retreat, and again, this setting and this historical context seem too full, too fraught, to be deployed without larger symbolic purpose. One of the characters is at war, and it’s a trial for him, surely. But is that enough to justify 100 pages of disgraced battlefield? I kept looking for something that I don’t think was there, a significance the reader anticipates but is never rendered up. I am left with this feeling that McEwan — whom one can tell researched this portion of the novel ruthlessly for historical accuracy — wrote about the flight to Dunkirk because he thought it would be neat; I challenge this as a good decision, or, at least, as a fully realized component of the novel. McEwan left a lot on the field in this portion of the book.

Finally, let me come to Briony herself. To begin with, I should confess that books, movies, and television shows that are primarily about children and their concerns bore me. I have no desire to revisit the growing pains of my own youth, and I never found the reiteration of such struggles in art to be particularly useful or engaging for the adult version of myself. Again, frankly, I find children boring. But the recommender of this book does also, and so I took it on faith that McEwan must be doing something different in rendering youth.

Not really. Oh, how I hated Briony. The character as a young teen is precociously self-assured despite being so breathtakingly naive that I could not stop myself from spontaneously composing dialogue in my mind for the other characters to utter for the sheer purpose of humiliating Briony. She is also self-important and self-involved to the point of narcissism. These are deep character flaws, and yet they go unremarked upon by other characters or the author. And these flaws are not harmless — by the end of the first part of the book, her undeserved conceit — and her willingness to lie (though the character herself refuses to own up to the fact that she was lying, throughout the entire book, rather calling herself confused) — ruin the lives of a family friend and her own sister.

In the third part of the book, Briony is 18, but still cowardly, still apparently unclear as to the full dimensions of her own actions in the world, and, to me, still irritating for all that. But at this point in the book, I perked up a bit, as there seemed to be some hope for her — she seemed to be finally maturing, finally realizing her flaws. But then comes an epilogue. I don’t spoil much to tell you that it turns out a conceit of the book is that it is actually a non-fiction novel written by Briony, whom we encounter again in a first-person epilogue supposedly written in her late 70s. Still self-involved, still prattling about writing, the elder version of Briony is revealed to be profoundly uncharitable in her judgments of others, despite how much charity the forgiveness of her own young life requires. I was especially shocked by Briony’s lack of charity towards the character of her slightly older cousin (now an old woman as well) who was — again, I don’t spoil much here — a rape victim at 15. This ugly misogyny could be as much the unconscious fault of McEwan as of the character Briony, I couldn’t say for sure. But regardless, it’s a nasty note to bring the character out on.

And speaking of nasty, the “author” herself feels compelled in the final pages of the book to ruin its ending for “her” readers, out of what comes off as a selfish need to fulfill her own supposed obligations to truth, a compulsion I found laughably undeserving of the reader’s consideration; Briony, you have not earned the right to claim that you value truth above all else, or to be its defender in spite of its unpleasantness.

Long story short, I hated this bitch her whole life long. And I could be wrong, but I don’t think I was supposed to — I don’t think it was one of those books. So, you know, given that, that’s a problem, right? It actually might have been interesting if I thought I was supposed to hate Briony, given that the book is supposedly a true story written by her: the psychological implications of that are noteworthy. But even if that is the case, the revelation that the book is patially autobiographical comes too late, and is not given enough space on the page, for the reader to really work through those potential psychological implications. So while I don’t think I’m supposed to hate Briony, even if I am, the book still fails to give that idea the space and time it needs to really work on the reader’s experience with the character, assuming that forcing the reader to fully flip flop their understanding of a book after it’s already over is a cheap trick. (Which it is.)

Oh, Lordy, Ian McEwan. I don’t know what to say. McEwan’s writing talent is self-evident (not just in his prose, but in his composition’s balance and momentum, his characterizations, and his emotional acuity). But as I couldn’t stop myself from going on about above, this novel so frustrated me that I don’t know if I can call this a good book or not. I’ll leave it for you to decide. As I said, I will probably take on Saturday in the not-so-distant future, if you want to consider that. I hope there are no children in that one.

2nd Annual Memorial Day Weekend at The Trailer

It was Memorial Day Weekend, which means it was time to visit the The Trailer.  I’ve mentioned The Trailer previously on this blog: Sarah’s parents own a trailer in Great Valley, New York, and last Memorial Day Sarah decided she would request its use for a small vacation and invite Ted and I to join her.  Last year’s trip was a success, so we decided to make this the 2nd Annual Trailer Weekend.

 

The first upshot was that Sarah has a new car, so while Ted and I still managed to get a little carsick on the drive up — Route 28 North and Route 66 through Allegheny National Forest are both pretty roller coaster-y — at least there was air conditioning.  Sarah’s old PT Cruiser didn’t have air conditioning; frankly, that car was kind of a lemon, and we don’t particularly miss it.  Anyway, we arrived slightly nauseous but cool.

 

Here’s the thing about The Trailer: there’s nothing to do.  Now, I bet that would get boring after more than a couple of days, but for a long weekend it’s pretty ideal.  Because here’s the thing: “staycations” are bullshit.  Utter bullshit.  I’m not saying that Pittsburgh doesn’t have lots of awesome stuff to do, but look: let’s say Ted and I had “staycationed” over the weekend.  1) Had we actually done the stuff in Pittsburgh that’s cool to do, the only money we would have saved would have been gas money, because it’s not like cool stuff is free, even where you live.  2) You can’t do nothing at home without feeling guilty, because there’s always something you could be cleaning or fixing or organizing or whatever.  But at The Trailer, there’s literally nothing to do, so you can just kick back, snack, and drink.

 

A Tim Horton's donut -- mmm, the Great North.

 

Chiefly that’s what we did: snacked and drank.  I brought a bunch of snacking provisions, like cheeses, olives and peppers and artichoke hearts, dried fruits, cured meats, and a loaf of bread; Sarah brought three(!) different kinds of Doritos and we both brought a fair amount of booze.  Plus also, I got a Tim Horton’s donut, since we were in the Great North, and they have Tim Horton’s up there.  Also, Sarah made us knock-off Red Lobster Cheddar Bay Biscuits, since they’d come up in conversation recently, and so we had a Biscuits and Beer Break, which led me to decide that in the future, I’m going to invite my baking-inclined pals over for a Biscuits and Beer party, cause seriously, how good of an idea is Biscuits and Beer?

 

Biscuits and Beer

 

To be fair, there isn’t nothing to do near The Trailer.  On Saturday night, we went to Myers Steakhouse and Inn, which is actually in nearby Salamanca; Sarah’s cousin, Jennifer, is married to the co-owner of Myers, so we met Cousin Jennifer and her husband Trevor for drinks and dinner at his establishment.  Cousin Jennifer is pregnant, which is a little startling, but only because I always think pregnancy is somewhat alarming in any context.  Also somewhat alarming: a lamp made out of taxidermied deer legs.  On previous trips to The Trailer, I had noticed that decorating with dead preserved animals is a Thing up north, and, OK, I guess that’s just different strokes.  But for some reason I was really weirded out by the deer leg lamp.  It seemed like it was a step beyond just mounting a trophy buck’s head on the wall — it was too ingenious.  Like, it’s what a deer serial killer would do.

 

It's like, the Devil's lamp.

 

Luckily the lamp didn’t follow us into the dining room, where we shared crab-stuffed mushrooms and bruschetta (the crab-stuffed mushrooms were particularly good, especially because they were covered in a creamy cheese sauce); Sarah had haddock covered in a fruit compote with a balsamic sauce; and Ted and I shared the Chicken Wisconsin, which was chicken covered in a sharp cheddar bacon sauce, and “Myers’s Seafood Explosion”, which was a creamy garlic pasta with lobster, shrimp, and bay scallops.  So it’s not like you can’t get a decent meal near The Trailer.  Two interesting points about the meal: 1) everything was served with a little side of homemade creamed corn, which I loved, probably because I’d never had homemade creamed corn before, and 2) the salads had really good croutons because they fried the bread instead of baking it.  Genius!

 

Chicken Wisconsin

 

After dinner it was back to the trailer for drinks, naturally.

 

This is Sarah in front of Ellicottville.

 

The next day, we headed into nearby Ellicottville, where our first stop was the Winery of Ellicottville.  They use only local New York grapes, and tastings are very reasonable at $3 and $5 each for six-wine samplers; we each had two.  The wine was … well, a lot of it was much too sweet for me.  I mean, New York wine is New York wine, it’s not gonna be amazing. But Ted and I each found a wine we liked — I favored the chardonnay, he the Traminette — and we brought a couple bottles home, to remind us of our Trailer Weekend when we finally crack them open.

 

Some New York Wines

 

Next we encountered Sponge Candy.

 

See? Sponge Candy.

 

Sarah was surprised we’d never heard of Sponge Candy, though I’m not sure why, because I’m pretty sure Sponge Candy only exists in about 40 square feet of Ellicottville, New York.  Of course, we had to go in to Watson’s Chocolates and buy some.  We sat down immediately to sample this strange new thing.

 

Ted Displays the Sponge Candy

 

I have absolutely no idea what the sponge consists of.  It’s a kind of crunchy orange … substance.  Sarah also doesn’t know what it is.  It’s the sponge.

 

The Sponge

 

So that’s a thing in the world that you now know about.

 

Sponge Candy secured, we headed onward to the Ellicottville Brewing Company.  We’d been here last year, and bought a growler, so I figured we should return — I mean, if I only get one chance a year to fill a growler, I should take that chance.  We also had dinner there.  We started with pierogies “made by a gentleman in Hanover, NY”, and soft pretzels with beer cheese sauce.  Mmm, beer cheese sauce.  Adorably, New Yorkers appear to believe that pierogies should be served with peppers as well as onions. I actually didn’t mind this, but still.  Also, Sarah noted that the pierogies were a bit dry.  By “a bit dry” what she really meant, I believe, was “not swimming in a lake of butter” — so, clearly, New York has a thing or two to learn about pierogies.  I got a ceasar salad as my entree, as well as an appetizer crab cake; Ted had the fish and chips, Sarah had the shepherd’s pie. I was frankly just glad to have some leafs in me at that point.  We had several of EBC’s beers, and all of them were good.

 

Pierogies and Pretzels: A Taste of Home

 

Then it was back to the trailer for more drinking. Naturally.

 

Monday came and it was time to go, after a leisurely breakfast and some tidying.  Ted and I had to make a ginger ale — pretzel — Dramamine stop in Marienville on the way home, but again, at least there was air conditioning.

 

Truly, it was another successful weekend at the trailer.

 

Chief demanded lots of cuddles when we got home, since we left him for three days.

Thoughts on Gentrification, Race, and Some Delicious, Fraught Fried Chicken

If you like to go out to restaurants in Pittsburgh, you probably know the name Kevin Sousa. He’s the chef behind Salt of the Earth, arguably the best fine dining restaurant in town; he was nominated for a James Beard award this year. He also owns two other restaurant properties, Station Street Hot Dog, which is kind off by itself over on Broad Street, across the busway from the Target, by the East Liberty post office; and Union Pig and Chicken, which is on Highland Avenue, a block back from Penn Circle North. Station Street Hot Dog has been a hot dog place on and off since 1915. Likewise, Union Pig and Chicken is in a store front that has been variably occupied for as long as I’ve lived in the city, but was most recently Steel City Rib House.

I’ve been to Salt twice and it really is amazing food. Sousa put the restaurant into a formerly abandoned building in Garfield, just up Penn from Negley, several years ago. If you live in the city, you know that the Penn Avenue corridor has been slowly improving for years. Fancy lofts came to meet Sousa’s Salt, as did the upscale Mexican restaurant Verde (which is also very tasty). Penn is the dividing line between Garfield to the north and Friendship to the south, running more or less west to east up from where it divides Bloomfield to the south from Lawrenceville to the north. On the Larryville side of Penn, UPMC built the new Children’s Hospital, which has been a boon to the more westerly end of Penn. Likewise, East Liberty, which had at one time been one of the largest commercial districts in the commonwealth, but then was destroyed by terrible city planning in the 1960s, becoming a poor black neighborhood thereafter, has in recent years shaken off its blight and is now home to trendy bars and restaurants along Centre Avenue, which runs into Penn at the Target. The transformation in the neighborhood is now creeping onto Penn as well at this easterly end, which currently houses a number of predominately black businesses — and a fair number of empty store fronts. With the rehabilitation of the Highland Building into upscale apartments now underway, I don’t see how Penn Avenue can fail to go the way of Centre in this area.

My Mom and the Unfinished Boards.

So look, what’s the problem? Well, on one hand, there isn’t a problem, right? I mean, Kevin Sousa put three very good restaurants at three different price points into three empty store fronts in a somewhat blighted neighborhood. It’s hard to argue that something isn’t better for a neighborhood than nothing, and something good and popular isn’t even better than that. And though I haven’t been to Station Street yet, I can tell you that Union Pig and Chicken has some of the most delicious fried chicken I’ve ever had in my mouth, a fact I discovered on Friday when my mother and I went there for lunch.

But on the other hand, we know how gentrification works: a poor neighborhood, often a predominately black neighborhood, is down in the dumps. Working from a variety of intentions, from an honest desire to see a neighborhood get back on its feet to the cold calculation that you’ll make a killing if you get in on the ground floor of the Brooklynification of a city neighborhood, a crowd of wealthier, predominately white folks moves in and starts sprucing up the place. Except they always seem to spruce it up for themselves rather than the people who already live there — let’s be honest, it would seem that the Venn diagram of what black Americans and white Americans like to do with their disposable income does not completely overlap, which is fine, unless all of the businesses in a black neighborhood that catered to the black community get pushed out in favor of Stuff White People Like. Or, a worse scenario perhaps, or at least a more disconcerting one: where there is overlap in what black folks and white folks like, a black business providing it gets supplanted by a white business doing the same damn thing — like selling ribs and fried chicken.

Lemonade is served in mason jars. For some reason.

Look, Sousa didn’t push Steel City Ribs out of business: its doors had been shuttered for a couple of years before he started selling his pig and chicken. And I’d never eaten at Steel City, so I couldn’t tell you how good the food was. (Sad to say, I, like a lot of people I bet, feel more interested in trying Sousa’s comfort food joint — and maybe a little more comfortable — than an anonymous black business owner’s comfort food joint.) So I don’t want to sound as if I’m blaming Sousa for the gentrification of East Liberty, or for running the black residents of the neighborhood out of town, though that is likely to happen eventually if history is a reliable guide to what happens when trendy young white people get ahold of lower class black neighborhoods. I’m just saying that Union is emblematic of something happening in East Liberty right now that’s a bit fraught. I wish improving the neighborhood would raise all boats, so to speak, but I doubt that’s going to happen. And to disclose my own small responsibility in the affair, I’m sort of happily complicit in this — I patronize the new, gentrified businesses in East Liberty a fair amount: Abay, BRGR, Kelly’s, Plum, et cetera, and now Union Pig and Chicken. I prefer having a nice neighborhood full of shit I like right nearby to having an uninviting (to me), kind-of-run down neighborhood there instead.

It is the case that the Urban Redevelopment Authority has tried to keep new housing in the area at a mixed income level, and I hope they continue in that effort. And, to go back to an earlier point, it’s fair enough that the Kevin Sousas of the world would look at an empty store front in a neighborhood that’s had some tough times and say, “I can put something good in there and make this whole block better” — that’s not a bad inclination, nor one I’m trying to fault him or anyone else for.

I’m just saying the whole thing’s sort of fraught, OK?

This fried chicken was so fucking moist and wonderful.

For what it’s worth, here’s the restaurant review. The atmosphere of Union Pig and Chicken is almost satirically spot on to what a fancy version of a Southern/soul food restaurant should be: unfinished wooden boards make the walls, wooden tables and benches make the seating, and there is a single head-high slit in the back wall allowing the staff to see the customers without being so exposed as to interrupt the New Northeast Picnic feeling of it all; they play bluegrass on the stereo. There are three yummy sauces at every table setting, a BBQ sauce, a hot sauce, and a vinegar sauce. Half a fried chicken is $11, and it is absolutely delicious. Seriously, I want more of this chicken in my mouth, though next time I go back, I feel I should try something else, like the ribs or the pork shoulder — I also hear great things about the brisket. The sides don’t come with, and are $3-$5 apiece. I had the mac and cheese, and frankly, though it was absolutely fine, I was expecting more from Kevin Sousa mac and cheese. Mom got the potato salad and thought the same thing. Next time I’ll try the greens. I also got a fancy lemonade, which had lemonade, mango, vanilla, and rose in it, and it was very good. They have a nice cocktail list that I avoided because I was already suffering from a hangover, but I would definitely try a whiskey drink when next I’m there. So, anyway, there you have it. I’ll totally go back.

I’ll just feel a little fraught about it.

Union Pig and Chicken  on Urbanspoon

Let’s Talk About Mushrooms, Baby (And a Pasta Recipe to Put Them In)

This is a recipe I make all the time, and it’s not particularly complicated, though it is particularly tasty.  I never know what about cooking is or is not self-explanatory: I cook a lot, food is kind of my vocation, so this recipe seems self-evident to me, but if you’re new to cooking from scratch, maybe it’s not.  In any case, though, writing it up gives me the opportunity to talk about mushrooms.

 

I love mushrooms.  They’ve got a great, rich umami flavor that lends oomf and savory glory to vegetarian dishes, they keep well, they’re cheap, and since they’re a vegetable, I’m going to assume they’re nutritious.  But I sometimes run into people who claim to hate mushrooms, and I think I’ve figured out whence comes their hate: people don’t cook mushrooms right.  They crowd the pan, they undercook them, and the end result is a slimy, rubbery, gross, too-wet mess.  Well, it’s easy to not arrive at this dreadful state: you’re just not cooking your mushrooms long enough or hot enough.  Period.

 

Allow me to demonstrate.

 

First of all, get a BIG pan.  Do not overcrowd your mushrooms — in fact, the mushrooms I’m showing you are a little overcrowded.  Seriously.  Make them in batches if you have to.  Secondly, use a little oil, and turn the heat up to medium high.

 

The mushrooms at first. Look how happy my spoon is.

 

Now, let the mushrooms cook, stirring occasionally. They’ll shrink in size and release a lot of moisture.  They’ll start to stick to the pan a little.  Keep going.  These next mushrooms?  THEY’RE NOT DONE.

 

NOT DONE. STILL RUBBERY.

 

Keep going.  I don’t know how long it takes — 15 minutes, maybe?  Just watch them.  Refer to my illustrations.  Now, these mushrooms down here?  They are ready.

 

Mmmm ... caramelized.

 

They’re not rubbery, they’re not slimy, they’re not wet — in fact, they’re just barely moist and delightfully toothsome.  They’ve also taken on a delicious deep caramelized flavor.  All it took was space, heat, and patience.

 

Now, here’s how I use these mushrooms, though you’re welcome to think of other applications.  You’ll need:

1 pound of mushrooms, sliced.  I like to mix crimini, white, and chanterelles, but if you can only get one, go crimini (or “baby bella”).

2-3 tablespoons of oil.  I mix canola and olive oil, olive oil for the flavor, canola for the heat tolerance, but if you can only use one, go canola.

1-2 cups white wine, something hearty, like a dry chardonnay (but not too oaky)

3-4 cloves garlic, crushed or minced

1 teaspoon sea salt

1 teaspoon black pepper

0.5-1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

asparagus, chopped (or spinach, chopped, or green beans, chopped, or … you get the idea)

1/2 cup of peas, fresh or flash frozen

1.5 tablespoons flour

2 cups half ‘n’ half or light cream

1/2 cup of grated parmesan, or pecorino, or a mix of the two

1 bag/box of pasta

 

Wash and slice the mushrooms, heat up the oil in the pan, and do to them what I showed you above.  Meanwhile, boil water for the pasta and cook it to al dente.  When the mushrooms are ready, add the garlic and give it a second to get aromatic and golden.  Then deglaze the pan with the white wine, scraping up all the scrumptious mushroom bits.  Add the salt, pepper, red pepper flakes, fresh veggies, and peas.  Bring to a simmer, and let it simmer away until the fresh veggies are getting tender and the peas are heated through.  In a separate little bowl, mix the flour with enough of the half ‘n’ half or cream to dissolve it.  Pour this into the pan, and then add the rest of the cream and the cheese.  Stir and allow to simmer for just a bit, until the sauce thickens a little — it should be loose but not watery, so it coats the pasta easily but doesn’t run around your plate.  Drain the pasta and mix it in with the sauce.

 

Mushrooms, veggies, wine, cream, cheese. Yum.

 

Voila.  I promise, people who say they don’t like mushrooms will change their minds.  An interesting thing about this sauce is that it has an under-taste that’s just faintly cinnamon-y, even though clearly there’s no such thing in the recipe.  I have no idea what chemical process makes this happen, but it does, and it’s pretty nifty.

 

The Completed Dish

ETA: I submitted this post to my friend @javelinwarrior’s Made with Love Mondays food blog!

JWsMadeWLuvMondays

Crime and Punishment

I kicked off my Summer Reading List with Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. By kicked off I mean, I read the first 150 pages or so of the book over Winter Break, and didn’t pick the book back up again until Spring Term was done on May 2. Over the last couple of years I’ve been trying to read the greats of Russian literature that no one forced me to read when I was younger. Though I’ve been teaching in the Slavic Department for years, my formal education was primarily in English departments, so there’s been a fair amount of self education I’ve undertaken about Russian history, culture, and literature. (Though the interpretative skills and teaching techniques I was trained in while getting my degrees are the same across disciplines, so it’s more a matter of teaching myself the background than it is some actual skill.)

Anyway, over the past couple of years I’ve taught Dostoevsky’s The Double and Devils, and I’ve also read The Brothers Karamazov on my own. (I also read Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Anna Karenina. I actually liked War and Peace — don’t let the heft scare you off. And do read Ivan Turgenev’s Sketches from a Hunter’s Album: it’s absolutely lovely.) So, y’know, on to Crime and Punishment. There’s an entire Dostoevsky Studies subdiscipline in Slavic Studies, and I don’t have anything to add to it here: these are just my impressions and observations. It strikes me that people don’t read a lot of classic literature for entertainment, and I think that’s a shame sometimes. Some of it’s really interesting.

But that having been said, let me just come out and say it: Crime and Punishment is about 175 pages too long. (My copy was 630 altogether.) All 175 of those unnecessary pages come in the first half of the book. (Though there are vivid gems of insight and powerful writing in this front half as well — the scene in which Raskolnikov dreams of a childhood memory of a drunken peasant beating an old mare to death for sport basically punched me in the throat, and I found myself hastily brushing tears away at the bar, where I was reading over a happy hour beer.) In one of my classes, the students read Pushkin’s “The Bronze Horseman“, Gogol’s “Diary of a Madman“, and Dostoevsky’s “The Double” one after the other, and we discuss the different forces that each author seems to posit as the starting point of madness. Pushkin and Gogol wrote the pieces I assign contemporaneously, and I basically agree with James Billington that Pushkin’s work highlights the overwhelming power of natural and historical (including political and governmental) forces as a source of chaos and madness for the common man — that is, the natural disaster of the flooding of the Neva coincides and works with the descriptions of St. Petersburg’s monumentality and the will of Peter the Great, who built the city out of a wasteland over the bodies of the thousands of men who died in their conscripted labor; together these forces assault the lowly clerk in ways he’s powerless not only to contravene but even to fully grasp. Pushkin’s Yevgeni might be the first “humble clerk” of Russian literature — he’s also the victim of forces that Pushkin seems strangely ambivalent about, which suits Pushkin’s biography: an aristocrat with a Western cultural bent, he points to the destructive power of government without indicting it. On the other hand, Gogol’s “Diary” is a partisan attack on social immobility and the toll it takes on his own humble clerk — read in tandom with “Nevsky Prospect“, another short work of his from around the same time that deals with the theme of madness, Gogol’s opinion of class relations in Russian society is harsh and clear: the cruelty of a social structure that puts people in their place will, in fact, make you crazy.

Dostoevsky’s work comes later, and his themes are much more psychological. When HIS humble clerk goes mad in “The Double”, it seems to be from a combination of his own existential crises; the inhumanity of others towards him; and HIS inhumanity towards THEM. Dostoevsky is consistently driven to explore this rift between people — it’s a central concern of Brothers K as well. He’s also the great psychologizer of characters: it’s not what’s happening around them, it’s what’s happening within them, at least in large part.

And yet, whereas we spend most of Crime and Punishment tracking Raskolnikov’s inner state, as he hovers close to insanity and is finally redeemed, what I find most unavoidable about the novel is the constant presence of the crushing poverty that Raskolnikov and all of his fellows are borne down under. For me, anyway, it’s impossible not to see Raskolnikov’s claim that certain Napoleons among men have a (a)moral “right to crime” as arising from his destitution. Though Dostoevsky doesn’t formulate it this way, it strikes me that the sheer unfairness of Raskolnikov’s situation — how hopeless and overwhelming is his lack — has to be the source material for the conclusion that certain men can and may do anything necessary to rise above the rest of the (squalorous) world. Maybe I just want to make Dostoevsky a Marxist critic because that’s my wont — he himself had no such leanings, as he was explicitly opposed to radicalism and particularly the nihilism of Russian revolutionary circles — but having accurately depicted the crushing world of Raskolnikov, he’s led me, probably against his will, to radicalism over the poverty Raskolnikov et. al. suffer under. (Though Dostoevsky DOES want to document the sickness of Russian society, and DOES want to fix it; however, he wants to fix it with a return to religion and “traditional” Russian cultural values, not with like, socialism. So he and I differ in that. Ahem. ANYWAY.)

And certainly, if whoring is a crime, poverty is directly responsible for Sonya’s sins, though she is actually the moral redeemer of the tale. This brings us to the seeming central concern of the book: Dostoevsky is desperately trying to convince either us or himself of the redemptive power of Christ. In the three major works I’ve read by him, Dostoevsky confronts again and again a problem that I myself — and I would suspect many modern Christians — have come up against over and over again: the problem of the desire for belief in an atheist world. (This is another idea that Billington has mused upon.) By atheist world, I mean that thinking people, intelligent people, like Dostoevsky and myself, are familiar with and are bound to accept the truth of scientific and cultural conclusions that situate one squarely outside the realm of traditional, orthodox teachings about Christianity (and many other religions). And yet there is the yearning for belief — how are these things reconciled? Dostoevsky once wrote in a letter, shortly after he was released from a labor camp, “If someone were to prove to me that Christ was outside the truth, and it was really the case that the truth lay outside Christ, then I should choose to stay with Christ rather than with the truth.” Such a thing may be an affirmative choice; but it is also, ultimately, an unreconcilable position. And so Dostoevsky spends literally thousands of pages “proving” the effectiveness, the affectiveness, of this choice. In Crime and Punishment, Sonya, who is described explicitly by Raskolnikov as a holy fool (a uniquely Russian concept that is deeply fascinating and maybe I’ll tell you about sometime), ecstatically reads the passage from John’s gospel about the resurrection of Lazarus to Raskolnikov — and though the breakthrough is not immediate, it is this encounter that forms the beginning of his redemptive journey: turning himself in, going to a labor camp, and, finally, arriving at a literally mysterious and apparently mystical epiphany of love and dedication, which Dostoevsky assures us, on the last page of the novel, is in fact a real and irreversible moment of redemption and transformation. Well, then.

The thing is, Dostoevsky writes so smartly about the interior of the human mind, he observes the outside world so acutely and precisely, that after he has demonstrated to the reader for many, many pages how sharp and how true are his observations and interpretations that he would seem to have built up the authority necessary to then render a mysterious, imprecisely drawn, and apparently unconveyable moment as though it, too, were the absolute and unavoidable truth. This happens at the end of Crime and Punishment, it happens at the end of the The Brothers Karamazov, and I’ve got The Idiot on my list, so I’ll let you know, but I’m not getting into any bets against it. I think Dostoevsky has a lot of people convinced — but I’m not sure I’m convinced, and I’m not sure Dostoevsky’s convinced, though both of us want to be. At the end of Crime and Punishment, I wasn’t thinking about Raskolnikov’s salvation, I was thinking about Dostoevsky’s doubt. The former is a great and hopeful triumph — the latter is profoundly tragic. Or maybe I’m wrong, and Dostoevsky was an unquestioning believer.

But I doubt it.

Chicken Cacciatore

I make this recipe all the time, and decided I should finally blog it, since it’s tasty and works every time. What I find interesting about the recipe is how the ingredients are very simple, but getting it right involves patience and technique. Strictly speaking, I don’t think I use all of the traditional cacciatore ingredients; but another nice thing about the recipe is that it’s very forgiving about the vegetables you can use, which I always think is a plus, and anyway, fuck tradition or whatever.  I present it to you with the vegetables I like to use the most. Oh, and another nice thing about the recipe is that it’s a one-pot meal – well, two pots, since you’ll want to be making rice or pasta simultaneously. But still.  The following makes enough for my husband and I for dinner, and enough leftovers for at least one of us to have lunch the next day.

Chicken thighs, frying away.

 

You’ll need:

4 chicken thighs
Oil
All-purpose flour
1/2 large white onion, diced
4 cloves garlic, crushed
2/3 cup white wine
1 red bell pepper, chopped
1 bunch red kale, destemmed and torn into small pieces
1 small BPA-free can of diced tomatoes (I use Muir Glen Organic), or 4 fresh roma tomatoes if they’re in season, diced
1/2 – 1 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon sea salt (or 1/4 teaspoon regular old salt)
1/2 – 1 teaspoon dried oregano
Brown rice or pasta

 

 

Get a heavy-bottomed lidded pot or deep skillet. I have Le Creuset Dutch oven that’s coated cast iron and it is worth every single cent of the $150 it cost and more – I use it constantly. But the point is, you’ll need a good heavy pot or deep skillet with a lid. Heat it over medium heat, and add enough oil to coat the entire bottom. Olive oil adds a nice flavor to the chicken, but canola can be heated to a higher frying temperature, so a mix of both is ideal, but failing that, if you use olive oil keep the heat at medium, but if you use canola you can go to medium high.

CAN YOU SPOT THE DORITO BAG?

Coat your chicken thighs in flour, and then fry them gently until they’re golden brown; it takes about 5 – 7 minutes per side. Set them aside on paper towels. Pour most of the oil out of the pan, but leave a little.

Dice half a large white onion and crush four garlic cloves and add them to the oil, turning down the heat to medium low. Sautee until golden brown, about 10 minutes. When everything’s starting to carmelize (don’t burn the garlic!) deglaze with the white wine. Bring the wine to a simmer.  Drink the remainder of the open bottle of wine – remember, NEVER cook with a wine you wouldn’t drink.

Add the can of tomatoes* and juice. Chop the red bell pepper and add that along with the pepper, salt, and oregano. Stir and bring to a simmer. De-stem and chop your red kale into bite-sized pieces (you can do this while the chicken is frying) and put that into the pot – cover it and allow the leaves to wilt, about five minutes.

Nestle nestle.

Give everything a good stir, and then nestle your chicken thighs back into the mix. Turn the heat to low+ – somewhere between low and medium low – and cover the pot or skillet most of the way, but make sure steam can escape. Braise the kale and chicken thighs this way for 45 minutes.

Traditionally cacciatore is served with pasta, and that’s perfectly tasty, but I personally like to serve it with brown rice because I think that the rice soaks up the sauce better. My husband insists that this recipe should also be served with grated parmesan cheese – I might put a few red pepper flakes on the table as well.

Look at all that glistening health!

*If Muir Glen Organic seems pricey (though they’re not so bad, maybe $0.25 more than store-brand for just the small tomatoes), Hunt’s also offers BPA-free can linings, I hear.  Because it’s better not to get cancer, you know?  Oh, and FYI, Muir Glen’s canned tomatoes are BPA-free, but their other canned goods aren’t, so don’t like, assume the beans are non-carcinogenic just ’cause the tomatoes are.  Of course, @javelinwarrior shamed me about canned beans so often that I bought some damned dried beans, so the point’s moot in my house now.

 

Speaking of @javelinwarrior, I submitted this recipe to his made-from-scratch noms blog:

 JWsMadeWLuvMondays