Archive for the ‘Reflection’ Category

Ho Hum   Leave a comment

Pear Gingerbread Upside Cake -- a heavy-handed attempt to liven things up a bit

A recent essay published in the NYT Review of Books explores the nature and uses of boredom in advance of the 2011 publication of David Foster Wallace’s final novel, The Pale King, a work that takes boredom as its most prominent theme. In her article, Jennifer Schuessler makes a case for the necessity of boredom, its relevance and importance. She writes:

Researchers have discovered that when people are conscious but doing nothing … the brain is in fact firing away, with greater activity in regions responsible for recalling autobiographical memory, imagining the thoughts and feelings of others, and conjuring hypothetical events: the literary areas of the brain, you might say. When this so-called default mode network is activated, the brain uses only about 5 percent less energy than it does when engaged in basic tasks. But that discrepancy may explain why time seems to pass more slowly at such moments.

If this is the case, then my energy-efficient mind should be whirring away like an EnergyStar-rated dishwasher, cataloging my recent past, considering the needs of others, and imaging worlds unknown.

Can’t you hear it?

Nah, me neither.

I mean, I hope all of that is happening, but right now, I just feel kind of tired of being bored. However, I have started to think about attempting to cook myself right out of boredom, which surely suggests an impending mood shift.

Either that or a lot of hot water and a very big pot.

What do you cook when you’re bored, as I am now? something difficult or easy? strange or familiar? savory or sweet? spicy or mild? hard or soft? crunchy or chewy? Need it involve a lot of special ingredients and equipment? Should it reject or celebrate boredom?

Eugene Ionesco argued that boredom is “a symptom of security.” You can’t experience it when imperiled. Perhaps, then, I should make something difficult, confront the culinary unknown: croissants, soufflés, Pavlovas?

Then again, there are so many recipes that are proven energizers: curry, lemon tart, gazpacho. Maybe I should make one of them.

Oh, but it isn’t tomato season.

Suggestions? Advice?  What do you cook when you’re bored to death? Other than your very own goose?

By the way, the pear cake pictured above was anything but ho hum. I made it for Thanksgiving and will eventually post a version of the recipe.  For now, it’s just a clever ruse.

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Posted February 4, 2010 by snpulling in Boredom

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Meatless Monday — More or Less   1 comment

I’ve been preoccupied lately with my health and with getting my daughter settled into preschool, but in the back of my mind has been a word — more — usually used as a modifier to a variety of nouns. Like this: more cooking, more reading, more work, more play, more travel, more music, more conversation, more entertaining, more laughter, more community, more exercise, more writing, more sex, more sleep, more fennel. It’s the time of year, I think, that and the fact that, somehow, another decade of my life has gone by in what seems to have been an instant.

It’s not like nothing happened during that decade. It was an extraordinarily busy time. I lost my father; earned a Master’s Degree and a PhD.; got married; bought a house; and had a baby. I started teaching, wrote a dissertation, and went to conferences. I spent summers in England, France, and Michigan. I made shorter trips to Spain and Italy (with an 18-month old child in tow). I have become a better cook and writer. I started running. Hell, I even read the unabridged version of Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa. Still, I keep thinking of all of those things that I didn’t do or didn’t do enough of, mostly the latter –things like reading, exercising, and sleeping. Unfortunately, most of the things I’d like to do are contingent upon having more time, which is, of course, notoriously hard to find more of.

Even when a bit of time opens up — as it has this week, now that Mimi has started preschool — I can’t easily decide what to do with it. I fear that my new little pocket of time will be frittered away with minutiae, those petty little tasks that are so much a part of life — with maintenance, not meaning.

My friend Amy, who is working to finish her dissertation while living in Rome this year with her husband and young son, recently wrote about the need to balance work with play. It is a hard balance to strike. I struggle with this, being more inclined to focus on things that are pressing instead of things that are important. I fritter away the hours as pathetically as the Democrats frittered away their time in control of the Senate (damn them!).

I’m not sure how to change my tendencies, but over the past few days, I have been struck by the fact that although the words “more” and “less” are typically juxtaposed, in some ways, the words “more” and “better” may be more productively opposed. Perhaps I would be well-served by doing things better as opposed to doing more of them. Better friendships, as opposed to more of them. Better cooking as opposed to more of it.

Of course, becoming better at something often means doing more of it. As the Great Houdini once claimed, magic involves practice. What to do about that?

And, what does any of this have to do with cooking?

I guess it will function as an awkward transition to a good meatless recipe. Speaking of better, the recipe comes from the Steve Sando’s cookbook, Heirloom Beans. Sando is the genius behind Rancho Gordo, an online company that sells the most incredible heirloom beans grown by Sando himself. I’m completely obsessed with these things. It’s tremendously satisfying to eat something that is not only carefully grown and romantically named but that is also food that we should all eat more of. The following recipe calls for a variety of bean called Yellow Indian Woman, which are, as these photos attest, truly lovely. They are also delicious. Jim thought they tasted a bit like pinto beans, which Sando recommends as a substitute.

Making the fritters involves several steps, none of them difficult, and the use of a food processor, but the results are magical. A bit of honest labor for a delicious and healthy vegetarian meal: what could be better than that?

Yellow Indian Woman Fritters (barely adapted from Heirloom Beans by Steve Sando & Vanessa Barrington)

2 cups drained, cooked Yellow Indian Woman Beans (or Pinto beans)

1/4 cup whole milk

1/4 cup small red onion

1 cup yellow cornmeal, more if needed

1/3 cup all-purpose flour

1 tbs. sugar

1/2 cup buttermilk, more if needed

1 egg, beaten

2 tbs. fresh cilantro, chopped

Grated zest of one lime

1 1/2 tsp. coarse salt

1/2 tsp. freshly ground pepper

safflower oil or grapeseed oil for frying

In a food processor, purée 1 1/2 cups beans, milk, and the onion until a smooth paste forms, stopping once or twice to scrape down the sides.

In a large bowl, mash the remaining beans with a potato masher or fork. Add the beans from the processor, cornmeal, flour, sugar, buttermilk, lime zest, cilantro, egg, salt & pepper. Mix well. The mixture should look like oatmeal. Add more cornmeal or buttermilk, as necessary.

Heat 1/2 inch of oil over medium–high heat in a large frying pan. Preheat oven to 225 degrees. Line a baking sheet with paper towels. When oil is shimmering, but not smoking, add one tablespoon’s worth of batter to the pan. If the fritter smokes, turn down the heat. Fry the fritters in batches of 4-6. Do not crowd the pan. Turn the fritters over carefully when they are a nice, golden-brown color. You’ll want to cook both sides.

Drain the fritters on the baking sheet and keep them warm in the oven. You should wind up with around 12 fritters. I served these with tapenade and yogurt — Sando recommends salsa and sour cream — and my favorite fennel salad.

Ambrosia   Leave a comment

It’s the time of year when writers succumb to an inclination to categorize and rank. Everywhere I look, there are simplified ratings of complex people, new stories, and events; omnibus remembrances of the newly dead, and articles proclaiming the best of/worst of everything. Top ten lists abound.

I, myself, can’t resist categorizing and ranking, and not only at year’s end. Throughout the year, my family sometimes plays a game that I like to call “Best & Worst.” At the end of a party, vacation, dinner, etc., one of us will ask another: “what was the best part of ____ and why?” And then, of course: “what was the worst part of ___ and why?” Round and round we go, discussing the highs and lows of the event, comparing judgments, agreeing and disagreeing until we’ve discussed things as well as we possibly can.

If we play our game for the year that was 2009, I think we’ll have to get the “worst thing” out of the way first. There were all kinds of “worst” things about the past year: the crippled economy, petty politicians, childish celebrities, a lot of embarrassingly pointless news stories (balloon boy, anyone?), and the painful, seemingly endless, healthcare reform debate, to name only a few. In fact, it might be difficult to pinpoint one particular day that was itself so terrible; let’s just say that the whole year was saturated by and enveloped in a bad, smelly fog of discontent.

In spite of this, however, I can easily isolate one best day of 2009, one that was radiant in spite of all that fog. It was, without a doubt, the 20th of January.

To celebrate the inauguration of Barack Obama, I canceled all of my classes and spent the day with Mimi and Jim, watching every second of the festivities on our computer screen (we don’t have a functioning television). I even decorated the outside of our house with American flags, something entirely out of character for me. For dinner — prepared just before coverage of the inaugural balls started — I served a meal inspired by the inaugural lunch, with a few additional nods to ingredients from geographically significant places in Obama’s life. The star of the meal was ambrosia, made with fresh pineapple (from the great state of Hawaii), bananas, and coconut.

Although ambrosia is essentially just a tropical fruit salad, its name suggests that it should be so much more than that. According to wikkipedia, in Greek mythology, ambrosia is:

sometimes the food, sometimes the drink, of the gods, often depicted as conferring ageless immortality upon whoever consumes it. It was brought to the gods in Olympus by doves (Odyssey xii.62), so may have been thought of in the Homeric tradition as a kind of divine exhalation of the Earth.

I’m not suggesting anything actually divine about the inauguration of Barack Obama, but it did seem to me that on January 20, 2009, a lot of people who live on a small section of the Earth’s northern hemisphere were finally able to exhale — or sigh — in a way that felt divine, or very nearly so. Ambrosia was a fitting accompaniment to our inaugural meal.

In the quite a few parts of the US, notably the South and Midwest, ambrosia is a much more prosaic dish than its classical name implies. Sometimes called “five cup salad,” a name that is surely the antithesis of the word “ambrosia,” this modern version almost always includes one full cup of–shivers!–miniature marshmallows as well as other ignoble ingredients like mayonnaise, maraschino cherries, and canned mandarin orange and pineapple. It would be difficult to convince a dove to carry such food anywhere.

A more divine version of ambrosia includes fresh fruit and substitutes bananas for the marshmallows. And while our inaugural ambrosia salad did not, as far as as I can tell, confer ageless immortality upon anyone, it did make us all very happy.

(Inaugural) Ambrosia

1 cup of fresh pineapple (chopped over a bowl to catch the juice)
1 cup of fresh naval orange supremes*, (make the supremes over a bowl to catch the juice)
1 cup of banana, chopped
**1 cup of fresh cherries, pitted and chopped
1 cup of toasted coconut
1/2 cup of toasted pecans (optional)

Combine the first four ingredients in a large crystal bowl. Sprinkle the coconut and pecans over the top. Serve immediately. This probably makes enough for four as a side dish. It also makes a great dessert — just add a bit of freshly whipped, lightly sweetened cream, maybe spiked with Grand Marnier.
* To supreme a citrus fruit: With a serrated knife, cut the peel and pith from the top and bottom of the fruit so that it stands level on a cutting board. Beginning at the top of the fruit, carefully cut the peel and pitch away with long, even strokes. Next, pick up the fruit and hold it over a bowl to catch the juices. With your knife, locate the membranes that section off the fruits segments. Carefully slice the fruit in between the membranes to loosen. You wind up with lovely, peel, pith, membrane-free slices of orange, grapefruit, etc. It’s not hard to do and is absolutely worth the time and effort.
**I’m not really sure what to do about the cherries. First, cherries aren’t in season in January. Second, I confess, I sort of like maraschino cherries. Still, that red dye is spooky, isn’t it? I’ll look for a jar of morello cherries for the future. You should do whatever seems right to you here.

And one more thing: although this post implies otherwise, I actually like “Five Cup Salad,” miniature marshmallows and all. In fact, if I’d had the presence of mind to do so, I would have taken a photograph of the ambrosia salad that we had yesterday for Christmas dinner at my in-law’s. Still, I’m fairly sure that anything that contains miniature marshmallows cannot properly be considered classical “ambrosia,” and I definitely wanted something divine on January 20, 2009.

Posted December 26, 2009 by snpulling in Ambrosia, Reflection, Side Dishes, U2, Year End

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