Monday, August 31, 2009

Some Blogs I Know

Over on the right-hand side of this blog, a little farther down the page, sits a little area I've dubbed "BlogRoll," a list of fellow bloggers that I visit from time to time and suspect some of my readers might enjoy. It's one of the satisfyingly democratic aspects of blogging that one can so easily introduce others to projects that interest them - with a simple click, another writer gains another reader. And what makes these instant-recommendations so unique is that a blogger with millions of followers can be presented alongside one with only a few dozen readers. The easy ability to start one's own blog, and the total lack of oversight or outside control, means that more sloppy and pathetic writing is now available to more people than ever before. But talented and intelligent writers are also inserting their voices into the public realm - some of them established writers, others enthusiastic amateurs. Some are even friends of mine.

The more established bloggers need little introduction. My recommended links offer a little politics, a little food, a little art. Andrew Sullivan is my kind of political writer, and The Daily Dish is my kind of political blog, partly because Sullivan offers a viewpoint often strikingly dissimilar from my own, yet thoughtfully and intelligently presented. He's conservative, but he's also a U.K. transplant and a gay intellectual, so his worldview is noticeably more complex and well-informed than many of his fellow right-leaning comrades. His conservatism tends towards the libertarian stripe, meaning he's down on racism and bible preaching, wobbly on gun rights and income taxes, and reasonably business-friendly. And while it was even more pleasurable to read his daily posts after his enthusiasm for George W. Bush ran its course and he applied his full disdain towards the likes of Sarah Palin and the G.O.P.'s brand of reactionary politics, the truth is that Sullivan's ideas are always worth considering and discussing. I'm certainly not the first person to suggest I've learned quite a bit from those who I (mildly) disagree with. On the other hand, Glenn Greenwald's blog at Salon is the kind of liberal wet-dream that probably makes Glenn Beck break out in hives. I can't recommend his literate, impassioned and righteous screeds against Washington hacks and cultural crusaders to everybody, but he fights the good fight, in my opinion. And his writing rarely lapses into mere fire-breathing anger - a welcome attribute during these times of hot-air punditry and shouting matches.

But why sink into the mire of partisanship? Everybody likes to eat, and just about everybody likes to read about food or at least look at pretty pictures of food. The massive and sprawling FoodBlogBlog is just that - a collection of the many food blogs in existence under one alphabetically-organized umbrella. Many of the blogs presented here have seen better days or have gone completely under, and many are less carefully-weighed thoughts on food than benedictory offerings placed underneath the temple of conspicuous overeating. But there are so many quality food blogs out there - from restaurant reviews to recipe corners and home gardening tips - that one comes away from even the briefest visit with an amazement for how many people feel compelled to write about the food they eat or admire. It hasn't been updated in a while, so one may need to look elsewhere for more timely and /or new blogs, but there's plenty to drool over (literally and figuratively).

A few other linked sites are those from critics or art enthusiasts I admire, including Kristin Thompson's and David Bordwell's Film Art blog, which features some of the most consistently thoughtful offerings on film I've found in any freely accessible venue. BookSlut is the wonderfully named headquarters for reviews, essays, interviews and thoughts on the rapidly fading world of literature, while ReadySteadyBlog is a slightly more austere corner for book lovers (and currently on a summer hiatus). For music junkies, Idolator has some pleasures, although there's plenty of stronger sites out there. Those with an interest in another dying form of communication - journalism - may be interested in the sometimes lively debates that take place over at ARTicles, the blog for the National Arts Journalism Program.

And finally, I'd like to give a brief shout out to those blogs created and tended over by personal friends of mine. It's quite gratifying to read the thoughts of people one knows, especially when they're well-crafted, intelligent and witty. I'm lucky to have many intelligent and witty friends who are also talented writers, some in the professional realm, others not so, and several with feet planted firmly in both camps. It's one of the benefits of living in the 21st century that I can peruse the thoughts of two high-school friends and my father-in-law's co-worker from the same computer terminal each morning. For consistently high quality musings on food and related items (and, really, what's not ultimately related to food?), including in-depth analysis of episodes of Top Chef, try Reading This Will Not Make You Popular, penned by an old high school buddy and fellow keeper of the librarian flame. If the collusion (collision?) of anarchy and art rings your bell, and you're also slightly curious on which noise concert to attend this weekend in southern Wisconsin, well, the newly-launched CAHOOTS, the work of a dear friend who's a much more talented writer and thinker than I'll ever be, may be some sort of manna for your soul. And if you have a passion for wine, quality thoughts about the noble grape, and have ever sampled a vintage from that corner of eastern Washington reputedly "so nice they named it twice" - then Walla Walla Wine Woman should be your first stop.

I can heartily recommend visiting all of the above-listed blogs. You'll find solid writing, reasoned analysis, humor, insight and sometimes even flashy photography. Give some a try. Seek others out on your own time. And by all means, leave a comment or drop a line if you come across a blog post you enjoy. I think I can speak for all us out there when I paraphrase critic Robert Christgau, who once dedicated a book to any reader who had ever written him in thanks for turning them on to something new:

"If I haven't responded, I'm sorry. It always means a lot - in fact, it helps keep me going."

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Funeral Blues

We've been rather peripatetic this summer, and not completely due to plan. Our trips to the Napa Valley, Seattle, and Ireland left us pleasantly exhausted and ready for some rest close to home. As the late summer arrives in San Diego, it's best to lay low and beat the heat, avoid the crowds, enjoy the cool mornings. Plenty of books line our shelves, plenty of recipes await my attentions. Pickles must be sampled. Blu-ray players must be utilized.

One of the major drawbacks of living far from family is the need for sometimes immediate travel considerations for unexpected life events. The death of a family member always comes suddenly, even if one has been solemnly predicting or expecting the passing. Jane's family had ample time to say their goodbyes to a dear and close relative, and one can consider it a blessing to achieve a sense of closure and finality rather than the sudden shock of a quick and unexpected loss. However, planning doesn't make saying goodbye any easier. And while "Pops" had cut a lonely figure since the passing of his beloved wife nearly a decade ago, and had suffered from increasing confusion and dementia following a series of small strokes over the past few years, the knowledge that he was finally leaving his pain behind still left the rest of us with our grief.

I'm still at the age where my attendance at weddings far outweighs my attendance at funerals, but I've seen enough farewell ceremonies to know that I'd be proud to be escorted from this earthly domain with the love, consideration and warmth with which Jane's grandfather was last week. One couldn't call the ceremony a secular one, and yet it managed to avoid being strictly an offering up to God. The religiously-themed funerals I've taken part in have certainly helped offer a noble face to death, and calling upon the protocol and ritual of the centuries establishes a continuing thread of meaning that helps connect old with new, past generations with present. And yet, amid all the prayers, hymns and ritual, one can lose sight of the individual being laid to rest. A funeral should encompass both mourning and celebration - the celebration of a life. While a religious ceremony may help with the mourning, it sometimes offers little in the way of celebration. For that, one must turn to those who knew the departed best.

What came through during our farewell ceremony was a small yet accurate portrait of Pops - his love of life, his strongly-held opinions, his bawdy sense of humor, his love of Sikeston, Missouri's Lambert's Cafe and their "throwed rolls". Short and long speeches were given, old-time country-and-western music played on the stereo, and a military flight jacket was hanging in the corner. Jane and I sang two duets in tribute, Buck Owens' "Together Again" and Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton's "The Last Thing on My Mind." At the burial ceremony, representatives from the local VFW offered taps, a gun salute and the presentation of the flag - fitting tribute to a man who flew bombing raids during World War II. And at a small dinner for family and friends held later that evening, the spirit of Pops was noticeable and uncanny. At each table placing sat a baseball cap and a can of Dr. Pepper. The caps came from Grandpa's not-inconsiderable collection that spanned all four corners of the globe (I claimed one that bore the name of a Yuma, Arizona-based business establishment, which nobody present knew the significance of). The cans of Dr. Pepper represented Pops' favorite libation - the Drink of the Gods. Everyone put on a baseball cap, poured themselves some Dr. Pepper, and told one or two stories about the guest of honor - stories about tipped canoes, about Branson, Missouri, about improvised rules of card playing, about stray fish hooks, of jokes involving ducks eating popcorn. More than once, we recalled one of the favorite sayings of this proudly working-class individual - "I wonder what the poor folks are doing?" - spoken during moments of pure contentment, often involving food and cans of the Drink of the Gods. Pops had the kind of wealth that has nothing to do with money - in his eyes, he lived like a king when his hot dog was roasted properly and his can of Dr. Pepper was properly chilled.

I'd like to think that our lengthy walk / hike / ramble along an Oregon riverway the following day was a further tribute to a man who loved the outdoors and family time as much as he loved anything. We didn't see many wild animals, and the cooler weather meant we didn't take advantage of the rushing waters. But the blackberries were at their absolute ripest. The rattlesnakes left us alone. Our cucumber-and-cream-cheese sandwiches hit the spot. We all wondered what the poor folks were doing.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Voluminous Heaps of Shimmering Prose: William T. Vollmann's "Imperial"

I've just started getting into the Library of America's recent release of John Cheever's collected short stories, and recently acquired works by Iris Murdoch, Edward Whittemore, Tayeb Salih, John Millington Synge and William Trevor are patiently awaiting my attention. And yet here goes William T. Vollmann again with another massive offering that will swallow up yet more bookshelf space and occupy significant chunks of my reading time. And his topic of choice happens to concern a region of the country that lies practically just beyond my backyard and has been a topic of no little fascination since I relocated to the West Coast - the Imperial Valley. So, I happily submit, singing in my chains like the sea, etc. etc.

Vollmann, for the uninitiated, is a writer of considerable abilities, astounding reach, staggering ambitions and seemingly inexhaustible effort. The aspect of his writing which seems to attract the most attention is his sheer output, both in terms of separate volumes and word count. His planned seven-volume Dreams series, which investigates different times and places in North American history concerning native-and-settler interactions, is still three volumes away from completion yet already tops 2,900 pages. His 2005 National Book Award Winner Europe Central weighed in at over 800 pages. And perhaps his signal achievement was an audacious seven-volume treatise on violence, 2003's Rising Up and Rising Down - 3,352 pages in all, gloriously brought to fruition courtesy of the good folks at McSweeney's (this original edition was published in a limited run that has since sold out, with a well-meaning but hopelessly incomplete abridged version still available from Ecco Press).

Clearly, then, any discussion about Vollmann must partially deal with the sheer weight of his published work. One could argue that, like similarly prolific artists, such as Anthony Braxton or Steve Lacy, his output does his craft a disservice - even admirers increasingly find it difficult to keep up, and any attempt at true familiarity with Vollmann's work is fast becoming impossible for the scholar and amateur alike. And many commentators insist that Vollmann's verbiage is consistently excessive and unnecessary, that even his best works are marred by long stretches of bewilderingly bad or convoluted prose.

For reasons that continue to baffle me, I don't agree. While I long ago moved beyond the rather adolescent and almost exclusively male concept that (in literature / art, at least) heft and size automatically deserve admiration and suggest profundity, I remain impressed by any individual willing to tackle massive subjects and treat them with the seriousness and detail they deserve. In an age dominated by sound bites and Twitter - an era in which to speak for more than a few seconds on any topic is to run the risk of being cut off by a yawn or a commercial break - I applaud Vollmann's refusal to dumb down or hurry along. 1,300 pages devoted to one of the bleakest, hottest, flattest and emptiest sections of the country may strike some as absurd. I find it to be rather appropriate.

In fact, I tend to view Vollmann as representing a far different literary approach from many of his contemporaries in the literary fiction and postmodern world. To my way of thinking, Vollmann is less a writer of fiction and non-fiction and more a throwback to those writers of the pre-novelistic age, in which authors were expected to assemble massive collections of style, thought, opinion and whimsy. Rising Up and Rising Down reminded me not of scholarly histories by the likes of Edward Gibbon (whose six-edition The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was used more than once as a critical counterpoint to Vollmann's offering) but more of something like Robert Burton's nearly unclassifiable The Anatomy of Melancholy, a 1,300 page tome from 1621 that purported to investigate, from top to bottom, the concept of melancholy and humanity's attempts to describe and understand it, both scientifically and artistically. The work is maddening, obtuse, overlong, eccentric and utterly wonderful. Any attempt to pigeonhole it would fail. And so it is with much of Vollmann's work - part fiction, part reportage, part armchair philosophy, part Baedeker.

My interest in Imperial stems partly from my own exploration of the desert lowlands lying between San Diego and the Arizona border, an area boasting one of the richest agricultural regions in the nation, a rather porous border in which Mexican and American culture mingle in uncomfortable ways, an accidental inland sea that grows more saline with each passing day, and a massive set of sand dunes that served as the planet of Tatooine in a certain popular film of the 1970s. Last night, I attended a public lecture and book signing engagement at Warwick's bookstore in La Jolla for the release of Imperial, and was pleased to see that the event attracted a large crowd. Vollmann didn't speak for long, but took many questions and chatted animatedly and engagingly with the crowd while signing copies of the book (along with earlier works that numerous fans brought along, including one industrious fellow who carried his entire collection of Rising Up and Rising Down in a Trader Joe's shopping bag). The crowd was a little genteel for Vollmann's tastes, I suspect, although the man is so polite and friendly that nobody was the wiser (although I think he flinched as much as I did when one exceedingly-coiffed La Jolla matron asked how on earth he could claim to enjoy visiting Imperial County more than San Diego) (related side note: the very nice woman next to me at one point asked if I knew where Vollmann lived, and when I told her "Sacramento," she repeated the name several times out loud in a shocked and almost offended tone, as if the sheer audacity of anybody living in such a place boggled her mind). Somebody else asked Vollmann if he had found anything positive or uplifting to write about the Imperial Valley - this after he had gone on at length on the beauty of the desert nighttime skies, the warmness of the people, the devotion to family and work, and the glory of the many hidden dive bars sprinkled across Calexico and Mexicali.

While signing my book and adding one of his trademark doodles, Vollmann asked me what other books I was reading, and when I told him I'd just finished Frank Norris' 1899 McTeague, his face lit up and he told me what an odd and unsettling work it was. "It actually reminds me a bit of Blue Velvet," he said, and I realized how right he was, especially in the way the work begins in an almost cliched atmosphere of goodness and decency before devolving into utter despair and horror. He then invited me to stick around after the book signing to have a drink or two across the street. I wasn't about to say no.

About a dozen of us made our way down the quickly emptying streets of La Jolla in search of any drinking establishment open past 9:30. There aren't many in this part of town. We eventually wandered into Jose's Court Room, hardly a dive bar, but capable of housing larger groups. Vollmann kindly asked my opinion on local beers as we walked along, and we both expressed our enthusiasm for IPAs. Alas, none were on tap that night at Jose's, and when Vollmann asked the bartender for the darkest beer they had, the answer came back Guinness, in a bottle. The man didn't flinch. He asked us thoughtful questions about books we were reading, talked of his past visits to Sarajevo and the recent re-opening of their destroyed national library (at which he was present and spoke), spoke briefly of his upcoming fifth volume in the Dreams series, and showed admirable restraint and politeness while listening to a rather loud and uninteresting woman in the later stages of inebriation talk about herself.

In addition to sharing a drink with one of my favorite living authors, I was also pleased to make the acquaintances of several like-minded individuals, Vollmann fans all and with multiple interests dovetailing with my own. We all agreed that San Diego needed to host more speaking engagements of interesting contemporary authors, and at one time or another we all mused on the area's rapidly declining record store and book store scene.

After finishing his Guinness, Vollmann excused himself, apologizing that he needed to be in Seattle for another appearance tomorrow. I found myself remarking to several others how pleasant it was to meet an individual one admired and find them to be even more approachable and genuine than suspected. Like that fantastic evening several years ago in New York, when Thurston Moore, Kim Gordon and Jim O'Rourke hung out at my table before taking the stage at Tonic, the humble qualities and complete lack of celebrity bullshit from individuals I consider to be giants is a wonderful and life-affirming thing. It makes one proud to seek meaning in life through art.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Kafkaesque Cooking: Chilled Moroccan Tomato Soup

Mid-August is traditionally when the heat truly becomes a force to be reckoned with in the coastal regions of Southern California, and one quickly discovers that the less heat-based cooking one undertakes the better, especially come late afternoon. The perfect solution for those with the cooking bug may be found through exploring a combination of salads, grilling, iced beer and cold dishes (ordering takeout pizza is also highly recommended). I have found cold or chilled soups to be extremely satisfactory come late summer. Chilled soups, like iced tea or cold shrimp, seem tailor-made for the season, and I'm fascinated by the sheer flexibility of soups - they can both warm the inner core during winter time or cool the body temperature in summer.

At the same time, we've recently been enjoying all things Jewish (or at least Jewish-American), be it the Philip Roth novel-on-disc Jane's been listening to during her morning drive, the celebration of a neighbor's Bat Mitzvah at Ohr Shalom Synagogue, my growing appreciation for klezmer, or my increasing insistence on the genius of Billy Wilder. Perhaps it was the sampling of the ceremonial challah loaf at the Bat Mitzvah last weekend, or perhaps it was simply a desire to crack open an under-utilized cookbook, but I found myself paging through the massive New York Times Jewish Cookbook, a hodge-podge (farsheydene? פֿאַרשיידענע? My Yiddish ain't too strong) of over 800 "traditional and contemporary" recipes representing the glory that is the Jewish diaspora. Lovers of gefilte fish and schmaltz and gribenes will be pleased, as will those looking for matzoh meat pie, anise cookies and "Chinese Romanian-Tenderloin Pepper Steak" recipes.

From the always-inspired Barbara Kafka comes the delightful, cooling and acidic Chilled Moroccan Tomato Soup, a pareve dish that proved relatively easy to assemble and requires the absolute freshest of raw tomatoes. Don't even think of substituting canned tomatoes for this puppy - your best option is to use home-grown fruits directly off the vine. The paprika and cumin paste adds a wonderful flush of heat, while the vinegar and lemon juice keep things lively. And it's a beautiful thing to look at, too - the dark red of the liquid tomatoes standing out sharply against the sprinkled green leaves of cilantro.

Barbara Kafka's Chilled Moroccan Tomato Soup


5 medium cloves garlic, smashed, peeled and minced
2 1/2 teaspoons sweet paprika
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
large pinch cayenne pepper
4 teaspoons olive oil
2 1/4 pounds fresh tomatoes, cored and cut into 1-inch chunks (I pureed mine)
1/2 cup packed cilantro leaves, chopped - plus additional leaves for garnish
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons water
2 teaspoons salt
4 stalks celery, diced

Stir together garlic, paprika, cumin, cayenne and olive oil in a small saucepan. Place over low heat and cook, stirring constantly, for 2 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside.

Pass tomatoes through a food mill. Stir in cooked spice mixture and remaining ingredients.

Refrigerate until chilled. Serve garnished with the cilantro leaves.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

A Taste of Thai: dtom som hoi maleeng puu (mussel and ginger soup)

I'll get to the Ireland photos and details eventually, but for the moment, I prefer to let my memories of that green island linger deeply in the mind - if they rise close to the surface, the unending sun and heat of a Southern California summer threatens to burn them off. In the meantime, our friend's recent preparation of "soaked chicken" and the resulting aromas of lime, ginger and cilantro filling our kitchen led me to take down from the bookshelf a wonderful if imposing book of authentic Thai recipes and flip through for a suitably simple yet complexly flavored dish.

David Thompson is both an Australian chef and a food writer, and considered one of the finest ambassadors for Thai culture and food working today. His book Thai Food runs to nearly 700 pages and concerns itself as much with Thai society, culture and history as with individual recipes. To call this work a cookbook is to do it an injustice - it's more a survey of a country and a comprehensive explanation of how food helps shape a people.

I tend to eat most of my Thai food in restaurants, largely due to the fact that our kitchen reflects my European heritage, resulting in an over-abundance of ingredients and spices that can be easily carried over between ethnic lines (Italian today, Iberian tomorrow). The cuisine of Asia - China, Japan, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, to say nothing of India - represents an entirely separate blending of flavors, ingredients, and cooking preparations. In fact, in order to prepare authentic or even near-authentic Thai dishes, one must practically accrue a separate and individual pantry. I've tried substituting ingredients in the past for Thai or Vietnamese dishes, and while the results were certainly edible, they had little to no relation to the richly seasoned dishes I'd sampled in restaurants.

So, a few nights back, I set about locating a recipe that required the smallest amount of "exotic" ingredients possible. The idea was to make a quick trip to the grocery store and not spend a fortune on small bottles or jars of oddly-named or -flavored substances that might not be used again anytime soon. Luckily, I stumbled upon a concise recipe for dtom som hoi malaeng puu, or mussel and ginger soup. Aside from the mussels, I counted only 3 seasoning ingredients not already in our pantry - palm sugar, tamarind water and coriander root. Along with a few other needed ingredients (ginger, shallots, baby bok choy for a side dish), my total at Whole Foods came to less than $30 - stunning, in a way.

I was skeptical of the need for palm sugar, assuming that the other varieties of cane and granulated sugar already in our pantry would offer a reasonably similar flavor profile. In the end, I caved in and grabbed a small bag of cane sugar off the shelf, going for less than $3.

And am I glad I did. Popping open the top of the palm sugar bag, I sniffed the contents and was instantly transported back inside one of our favorite area Thai restaurants, Kafe Yen. Ah, so these were the fragrant brown crumbles found in the lovely appetizer mieng kham, alongside the roasted peanuts, coconut and diced lime in lemongrass sauce! I can only describe the smell as being somewhat close to crushed graham crackers. At any rate, an essential ingredient. Of course, I later found out that even the variety of palm sugar makes a big difference in Asian dishes. The organic palm sugar I picked up was actually produced in Indonesia. Malaysia also produces palm sugar, as does Thailand. A helpful post on the food blog Chez Pim points out that the three varieties of palm sugar differ quite markedly, and that one should always attempt to use Thai palm sugar for any Thai dishes. Well, whoops (the post adds, however, that even regular cane sugar can be used in a pinch as a substitute for palm sugar, by adding a bit of maple sugar - something that, having tasted palm sugar, makes absolute sense).

Tamarind water was yet another ingredient our pantry was lacking, and a few Internet searches suggested that one could recreate the ingredient at home simply through using actual tamarind pulp. Whole Foods had neither tamarind water nor tamarind pulp, but it did have small cheap jars of tamarind paste. Surely, one could dilute this down with liquid to create a poor man's tamarind water....right?

Well, I'm not sure. I was able to mix the thick paste with some water, swirl it around, and let it sit as I busied about with the other ingredients, and by the time I was ready to add the concoction to the soup pot, it seemed to have blended nicely. Still, I'm sure my improvising violated at least one tenet of traditional Thai cooking.
As for "one teaspoon scraped and chopped coriander root" - I had plenty of fresh cilantro / coriander at home, but the roots had been removed, as seems standard practice for Western groceries. Seems like Asian markets value these roots far more than others, and I found more than one Chowhound forum devoted to inquiring where in various areas (from Orange County to Boston) one might find coriander roots. The general consensus seemed to be if one did not live near a large Asian grocery store, simply use the chopped stems of cilantro as an acceptable substitute.
So...that's 3 traditional and important ingredients, and 3 semi-strikes. Luckily, I already had gapi or shrimp paste, and plenty of fish sauce - two essential additions of Thai flavor (I'd be curious to hear from any vegetarians or vegans out there how they create their Thai dishes without recourse to either of these ingredients, which seem so evocative of Thai food).
The recipe for the mussel and ginger soup can be found below. I ended up mashing the intensely aromatic paste on our front porch, in order to escape the late afternoon heat of the kitchen. Within a few moments of scraping the chopped cilantro stems, salt, garlic, red shallot, ginger. shrimp paste and peppercorns, I knew I was on the right track. Later, as the soup stock cooked and bubbled, I removed the lid several times from the pot to deeply breathe in the thickening aromas. "It's starting to smell like the real thing, isn't it?" I asked Jane several times.

When the soup was finally ready, we ladled it into brand new bowls purchased in Ireland (nothing wrong with global fusion, right?). The portions were small, with only three mussels per person. Yet the size was perfect, especially given the strong flavors and copious amounts of ginger. The recipe said the soup "should taste equally sweet, sour and salty" - and it did. Even with my amateurish substitutions and total white guy ignorance, what came out of the pot was something I would have no hesitation paying $5.95 for at any favorite Thai establishment.

Dtom som hoi malaeng puu

Mussel and ginger soup

1 tablespoon oil

2 tablespoons palm sugar

2 tablespoons tamarind water

2 tablespoons fish sauce

2 cups chicken stock

1/2 cup shredded ginger

6 oz. mussels, cleaned and debearded

3 green onions, cut into 1 inch lengths

1 tablespoon cilantro / coriander

pinch of ground pepper


1 teaspoon scraped and chopped coriander root (or cilantro stems)

pinch of salt

1 tablespoon chopped garlic

1 tablespoon chopped red shallot

1 tablespoon chopped ginger

1/4 teaspoon shrimp paste

10 peppercorns

First, make the paste, using a mortar and pestle. Slowly and gradually pound the ingredients together until smooth.

Heat oil and fry paste over medium heat until fragrant and beginning to turn a light golden color. Add sugar and simmer for a minute, then add tamarind water and fish sauce.

Pour in stock and add half the ginger. When the soup comes to a boil, add the mussels and turn the heat down to a simmer. Cover for a few moments, until the mussels open.

Add the other half of the ginger and the green onions. Taste for seasoning. Serve, sprinkled with cilantro leaves and pepper.

This recipe made two small yet satisfactory servings.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Like Jelly On a Plate: More Preservation Efforts

As our pickles continue to rest in the gloom of the closet and brine their way into late August, we've turned our attention towards the multitude of other canning and preserving opportunities available to those with some extra time on their hands during warm summer weekends. It's time to make some jelly.

Quick crash course in jam / jelly / marmalade basics, or should I say the world of preserves. Jams are the result of combing crushed or chopped fruit with sugar and maybe pectin. Jelly, on the other hand, specifically utilizes fruit juice rather than chopped fruit, along with sugar and pectin, and should be very jiggly. Marmalades are soft jellies with fruit rinds suspended inside, usually citrus (going deeper into preserves, conserves are two fruits mixed with sugar and nuts, chutneys boast fruit, vinegar, sugar and spices, and relishes are a cooked combination of fruit and/or vegetables preserved with vinegar). We're lucky enough to have a healthy vine of concord grapes growing in the backyard, and after two straight years of using the fruit strictly for grape juice, we decided to make a small batch of grape jelly.

One attractive aspect of making jams and jellies is the rapidity with which the fruit sets, allowing the impatient some rather immediate feedback. Within 24 hours of properly preparing most jellies, you can pop the top and have a taste.

We began by purchasing a set of glass jars, smaller than those used for pickling (not wanting to make the long drive back up to Escondido's lovely country store, we cast about San Diego for what we needed. It's not the most canning-friendly city in the country, let's just say. Thanks to Ocean Beach Hardware, we were able to stay close to home).

The grapes were picked from the vine and carefully cleaned. We extracted the juice by filling a large pot with the grapes and a small amount of water, placing over low heat, covering, and allowing to cook for an hour or so. The grapes sweated and mushed their way into oblivion, leaving behind several cups' worth of inky-purple-black liquid gorgeousness. We then measured the concoction into 4-cup servings.

An obscene amount of sugar was called for and added to the still-hot grape juice. So much for counting calories.

The secret ingredient for our jelly was liquid pectin, a "structural heteropolysaccharide contained in the primary cell walls of terrestrial plants," according to scientific sources. It's simply a gelling agent taken from apples, plums or other citrus fruits. Pectin is your jelly friend - it makes the difference between creating sweet fruit juice and sweet quivering fruit jelly.

The pectin was added to the broiling grape juice and unmentionable amounts of sugar....

...and the rich brew was stirred by yours truly for a short amount of time while watching for the telltale signs of thickening and setting of the pectin.

Then began the familiar ritual of slowly filling the sterilized jars with the hot juice-pectin combination. The tops and sides also needed to be carefully cleaned of any drops or spatters of juice.

Into the rack they went. The jars were submerged in the boiling water for a mere 5 minutes.

And that was that. We removed the jars from the boiling water and placed them on the kitchen table to cool.

Jane waited patiently for the jars to seal with their wonderful little thunks. Some sealed faster than others.

We placed the box of jellies (seven jars in all) inside our closet to share space with the stubborn pickles. But a mere twenty-four hours later, we popped one of the jars open to sample. A perfect spoonful of quivering sweet goodness.

Spread onto some homemade sesame bread, the jelly (despite its large sugar qualities) becomes, as the commercials for sugar-bomb cereals used to claim, "part of this healthy balanced breakfast".

Monday, August 3, 2009

A Massive Haul of Tea Leaves

In an effort to return to the world of blogging after a brief yet busy trip to Ireland and the weeklong rush of activities that followed (including a stubborn case of jet-lag, which seems to get worse with each passing year), I thought I'd offer a few photos on a not-totally-unrelated-to-Ireland topic - tea.

A friend was generous enough to come over and make us a large Chinese-themed meal last night, as a show of appreciation for the many meals we've shared over the last year. He prepared "soaked chicken," a simple yet amazingly tasty preparation that filled our kitchen with the wonderful smells of soy sauce, ginger, lime and cilantro. I've included the recipe below for those curious (featuring his idiosyncratic directions and vocabulary), and will add that our Peruvian friend mentioned multiple times that the longer one cooks the chicken is directly proportional to how white (culturally speaking) one is. Green beans and a spicy dipping sauce accompanied several bottles of German wheat-doppelbock ale and an after-dinner snifter of Connemara peat-smoked Irish whiskey. Yeah, it's a pan-cultural household over here.

Our friend's generosity didn't end there, however. In addition to later politely watching several short abstract films by avant-garde master Stan Brakhage, he left us with a heaping bag of various teas that had been left in his care by what I think he said was a previous fellow boat-dweller off the Silver Strand near Coronado. Whatever the provenance, the armful of teas (mostly from the online purveyor Adagio Teas) was a welcome gift, especially given my own ignorance of the world of tea, Jane's love of the brewed leaves, and our own recent experiences sampling wonderful Irish "high tea" sessions.

I suspect I'll always prefer iced tea over traditional tea, mainly because my taste in hot beverages begins and ends with coffee, and partly because I'm a sucker for anything with ice. In this, I am a true American. My general ignorance on matters of tea may have quite a bit to do with my Yankee genes - I wonder how much the general American disinterest has to do with long-lingering hurt feelings over the British Empire and such provocations as the Boston Tea Party. I was recently startled to learn that tea bags are quite a recent American invention, first released in 1908 by John Sullivan. The overall lower quality of tea found in tea bag varieties says much about our obsession with time-saving measures and gadgetry and willingness to forgo taste for speed.
So, we'll see how deeply I dive into the various flavors of tea now arranged across our kitchen table. Some of the flavor names are quite charming and whimsical...
...others rather straightforward, if specialized....

...and others make me wonder whether I'll be tasting kippers and black pudding when I take a sip.

Our sampling of tea in both County Clare and County Galway last week was often accompanied by a tower of cakes, pastries and other goodies. I can't say how much these Irish "high tea" sessions were original to the region or merely straightforward imports from England, but it did give me pause to consider the fact that we were experiencing a ritual imported from a previously ruling Empire which had, in turn, imported the practice from another colony. Again, pan-culturalism at its best and worst.

I don't yet get the same pleasurable rush from inhaling the dried leaves of tea as I do from inhaling a freshly ground serving of coffee beans, yet it probably is time to set aside any petty dislike and begin sampling what a large majority of the world turns to in order to soothe spirits and calm the mind.

Our Friend's Very Delicious Soaked Chicken Recipe

1 whole chicken. Note: a whole chicken’s worth of pieces doesn’t count, it has to be whole.
2 or 3 stalks of celery (you don’t really need an entire plant but that’s usually how they come)
One bomp of green onion
A small ginger root
At least a cup (8 flozzes) of soy sauce
1 lime
Just a bit of cilantro (but you know they only sell it by the entire forest. It’s okay a forest costs like 12 cents unless you are in New York in which case it's ridiculous)
Sesame oil
Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil. Massage the chicken with sesame oil, remove the offal and stuff it’s cavity with a couple celery and a few slices of ginger. Insert the whole chicken and let it set in there for an hour. If you are concerned that it won’t be cooked enough then after 30 minutes you can turn the stove on really really low; the lowest of the low, for 10 or 15 minutes. Don’t let it boil again or the chicken will get all F’d up. Try sort of flipping the chicken halfway through. Not upside down, just kinda rotate it maybe. To make the soaking sauce mix about 8 flozzes of soy sauce and squeeze in one half or even a whole lime. Peel the ginger and dice up about 4-6 slices and add along with one or two green onions chopped up (omit the really wispy part of the stems, the part far from the bulb). Pluck the leaves off of about 5-10 cilantro stems and mince those up and add them to the sauce. You can add a serrano pepper up in that business too if you are daring or Peruvian or daring AND Peruvian. Taste the soaking sauce and add more of whichever ingredient you would like more of to make it taste how you want. When the chicken is served you will dip it in this sauce and it is delicious.This goes well with white rice and a fun Asiany vegetable that has been stir fried with a bit of oil, soy sauce, and corn starch (or rice starch too). Some good ones are Broccolini, Bok Choy or those really ridiculously long green beans from China that aren't called green beans, they are called something else that I forget.