Where's the book?

Sunday, January 27, 2013

I Eat. Therefore I Cook.
It says up top that I cook. And I do. Sometimes I actually raise myself from my comfy reading chair and head into the kitchen. Like nearly every day.

I love to cook. It's creative, it's calming, it's enjoyable...and at the end you have something yummy to eat. (Usually.)

What do I like to cook? I'm a kitchen dilettante -- I like to cook all sorts of things from all over the culinary map. The only constant is I like big flavors with lots of spice. Nothing frilly or delicate, nothing fancy. Just strong, bold tastes. I make great pork banh mi. Delicious pho. Excellent chili. Terrific murg tikka masala.  In the winter, I love one-pot meals like chili and short ribs. In the summer, I specialize in grilled fish and interesting salads. And I must live in a locale with changing seasons, because there is nothing better than the first spring asparagus, the first summer berries, the first butternut squash of fall. I'm not a loco locavore, but I try (it can get pretty despairing during a New York winter if you like vegetables).

As much as I love books, I don't generally use cookbooks and own just a few, my long-term favorite being the original Silver Palate cookbook by Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins, published waaaaay back in 1982. That book was a revelation to me, and I wore its pages out -- literally. I had a replace it somewhere around 2000. Cookbook author Barbara Kafka said, "This was the book that changed the way America cooks." That might be hyperbole, but it was surely the book that changed the way I cooked. That garlicky aioli, the buttery bearnaise sauce, the decadent chocolate cake...I'd never heard of things like this, but it was love at first bite. I still make the black bean soup, the pecan bars, the warm lentil salad, and they are all still wonderful.

I have a few other much-loved and much-stained cookbooks: Tom Valenti's Soups, Stews, and One-Pot Meals; Claudia Roden's ancient Book of Middle-Eastern Food; the just-out Smitten Kitchen (those peach pancakes! if you like to cook and you don't follow the Smitten Kitchen blog, start); a really old Fannie Farmer Cookbook and an equally old Joy of Cooking (where else can you find the recipe for tartar sauce? or find out how to skin a squirrel (other than watching Winter's Bone?); and a few others.

But my current favorite is one given me by my friend Michael from Melbourne: Ottolenghi: The Cookbook. In case you don't recognize the name (Ottolenghi, not Michael), Yotam Ottolenghi is the brilliant Israeli (of Italian-German descent) chef, owner of four London restaurants, weekly Guardian columnist (check out his column here), and co-author (with his partner Sami Tamini, an Israeli of Palestinian heritage) of three cookbooks. including the just-out and very well received Jerusalem. 

The recipes in Ottolenghi are in British, meaning you have to translate from grams and milliliters to ounces and cups, which is a pain. And you have to figure out what mangetout and sultanas and caster sugar are (snow peas and golden raisins and superfine sugar, respectively). But judging by the recipes I've made, it's worth these minor annoyances -- and I'm not much of a measurer anyway (except for baking), so I just approximate anyway.

The other caveat is that there are many ingredients that may be hard to find, especially for cooks living outside well-stocked major metropolitan areas: preserved lemons, orange blossom water, sumac, rosewater. But thanks to the magic of the Internet (or some smart substitutions), pretty much anything can be located, delivered, or worked around.

I made this incredibly delicious dish for a recent gathering and liked it so much I've made it twice more in the last couple of weeks. It's so yummy that I caught people -- grown-up, well-mannered people -- licking the little bits of sauce off the platter with their fingers. There's no greater compliment.

I also tried this dish because I'd never used Jerusalem artichokes before. In fact, I wasn't exactly sure what Jerusalem artichokes were. Isn't learning new things fun? I've discovered the most delicious, easy-to-use vegetable! These ugly, knobby little balls look like something Shrek would have for breakfast. But they cook up like a dream, fluffy and starchy like potatoes but with that lingering, sweet-ish taste of artichokes. Interestingly, the name is a misnomer. Jerusalem artichokes have nothing to do with Jerusalem and are not related to artichokes. They're the root of a type of sunflower, also called sunchoke or sunroot, native to America. They got the artichoke part of their name from the taste. As for the Jerusalem, some believe it's because Italian immigrants to America called the plant "girasole," the Italian word for sunflower. Somewhere along the way, girasole became Jerusalem. Having fun yet? You will be, once you try this oh-so-delicious side dish. And I've even done the conversions for you.

Roast potatoes and Jerusalem artichokes with lemon and sage
From Ottolenghi: The Cookbook, Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamini
Serves 4-6
Measurements are approximate because I'm translating from metric

About a pound of small potatoes (I used fingerlings)
About a pound of Jerusalem artichokes
4 garlic cloves, crushed (please crush rather than mince, so the taste can spread and adhere)
1/4 cup olive oil
2 TBS roughly chopped sage
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp black pepper
About half a pound of cherry tomatoes
About 6 ounces Kalamata olives, pitted (I didn't use these and it was fine without them)
2 TBS roughly chopped flat-leaf parsley

1. Preheat the oven to 375. Wash the potatoes well, put them in a large saucepan and cover with salted water. Bring to a boil, then simmer for 20 minutes, until semi-cooked. Obviously, this will take less time the smaller your potatoes, so check. Drain, cool slightly, then cut in half lengthwise. Put into a large roasting tray.
2. Wash the Jerusalem artichokes, cut into slices about 1/4" thick and add to the potatoes. Add the garlic, olive oil, sage, salt, and pepper. Mix everything well with your hands and put in the oven.
3. Meanwhile, thinly slice the lemon and remove the pits. After the vegetables have been roasting for about 30 minutes, add the sliced lemon, stir with a wooden spoon and return to the oven for 20 minutes. Then add the cherry tomatoes and olives (if using), stir well again and cook for a further 15 minutes.
4. Remove from the oven and stir in some of the chopped parsley. Transfer to a serving dish and garnish with the remaining parsley. Then lick the plate.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Incredible Vanishing Book
Did you ever read a book that, while you are reading it, you're forgetting it? You put it down, pick it up a couple of hours later, and, honestly, it's like you're picking it up for the first time. Who are these characters? Where are they? Why are they doing what they're doing?

It's not that you don't like it -- it's that you literally cannot remember anything about it from one minute to the next.

If you're interested in experiencing this unique reading phenomenon, try The Vanishers by Heidi Julavits. I would give you a brief plot outline, but I can't remember the plot. It has something to do with a woman who has powerful psychic abilities. There's a school for these people (like the school for mutants in X-Men?) and she has a mentor, and the mentor is trying to solve a mystery, and she gets involved in the mystery. There's a psychic attack, and an artist/pornographer, and a woman who may or may not be real, and a mother who committed suicide when our heroine was an infant.

There -- I actually surprised myself by remembering that much. I do remember that the plot is convoluted and confusing (one of my great writing teachers used to say, "There is no excuse for lack of clarity," and I think many authors need to learn that). Nothing feels real or authentic, the level of absurdity approaches comic book heights (maybe she was inspired by X-Men), and, worst authorial sin of all, it all gets boring. It's a soup with too many ingredients, and the ingredients themselves are often inedible.

The cover sure is pretty, though.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Turkey and Tragedy
Remember Corelli's Mandolin? I did, because I loved it. A compelling, romantic story. That's why I was interested in Birds Without Wings, the novel Louis de Bernieres wrote after Corelli. I was also interested because I visited Turkey in October, and at least three or four people I met along the way said, "You have to read Birds Without Wings," or something to that effect. Because it's set in Turkey. And because it chronicles the rise of Kemal Ataturk, who established the modern nation of Turkey (and whose kinda' scary visage stares out at you from statues and posters everywhere you go in the nation he founded).

Reading a book set in a country you've recently visited sounds like such a good idea. Too bad this isn't the book. This one, set in a small village in Turkey during the waning days of the Ottoman empire, is repetitive, overly cute, and annoyingly showoffy. An "exiguous military moustache"? A "sedulous cultivation of the art of offending military superiors"? An "ebullition of fanaticism"? That wouldn't be so irritating if it didn't feel like he was writing the book with an open thesaurus at his elbow.

(In case you were wondering (as I was), exiguous means small, sedulous means dedicated, and ebullition means bubbling. I read the book with a dictionary at my elbow.)

There are way too many characters, which results in a mile-wide sprawl of a story in which the characters are an inch deep. Far too many feel like a single-tic characterization: one is mad, one blasphemes, one is beautiful, one is ugly. They are not the sum of their parts, they are one part each.

He clearly did an enormous amount of research, and it shows, because it's all there. He scatters foreign words throughout, without defining them, or even providing enough context so the reader can intuit the meaning. Like a good student, he crams it all in (along with those SAT vocab words). But because no one feels real, the enormous tragedies the book encompasses, like the Armenian genocide and the population exchanges, which destroyed lives and killed millions, arouse no emotion, no sense of loss.

The general point of the book seems to be that "things were better then" -- in this case, under Ottoman rule. Whether it was or wasn't, I can't claim to know. But that backward-looking nostalgia, combined with the exhibitionist use of language, made the book feel like it was written by a college-bound eighty-year-old.

I learned a little, slogging through those 550 pages. Did I enjoy the ride or the read? Not much.

Thursday, January 17, 2013


I started the year with a classic, one I'd been avoiding for a long time. I'd read the first 20 pages of Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath at least four times, and every time, I closed the book, rolled my eyes, and wondered what all the fuss was about. Boring, I thought. Boring and repetitive and...well, boring again. You know that question they always ask authors in interviews...What do you think is the most overrated book of all time? If I ever got interviewed, I thought Grapes would be my answer. Well, probably Moby Dick. Because that overrated classic I actually read.

But it always bugged me that I'd never read The Grapes of Wrath. Can you call yourself well-read if you've skipped such an obvious big fish? The Modern Library puts it number ten on their 100 Best Novels of All Time list. I love the movie. I saw it years and years ago but I still get teary when I think of Henry Fonda in the darkness, his soft and heartfelt words to his mother..."I'll be all around in the dark...wherever there's a fight so hungry people can eat, I'll be there..." Oh, such beauty and pain. 

I wanted to scale that wrathful mountain once and for all. So I chose it for my book group. We're a pretty serious group, and we have one rule, our own prime directive: you don't have to come to a meeting, but if you do come, you have to have read the book. Seems kind of obvious, but you'd be surprised -- or maybe you wouldn't -- how many book groups are more about the wine than the book. Since I was hostessing I would have to be there. Which meant I would have to read the book. 

And, of course, once I started, I loved it. It was gripping, and desperate, and painful. It felt sadly naive and also perfectly relevant to where we are today. It is a book without irony, without much in the way of humor, without even too many moments that are not bleak and sad. But it had so much love -- for people, family, and for land. It was sentimental, but in the sense of strong, powerful feelings, not silly frivolous sentiment. Yes, it got preachy at times, and some characters were saintly (Ma Joad! that woman could make dinner out of dust and the dishwater left over from breakfast!), but it didn't matter because it was such a big, important, human drama. 

I loved the way Steinbeck moved back and forth between the long chapters that followed the Joads on their journey from Oklahoma to California and the short chapters that allowed him a broader scope and the chance to use different voices and explore different characters -- a used-car salesman, a truck-stop waitress, even a turtle. 

I loved what first felt to me like naivete (property should belong to all? goods should be shared? there is no God but love? what the hell kind of old-timey 1930s Commie baloney is this?) but soon came to experience as real and honest and beautiful -- in a way that I can't imagine a current book could ever be. here is no irony in The Grapes of Wrath. There is no snark, no sarcasm, no jadedness. 

It's a BIG book, and makes no pretense about it. Yet somehow Steinbeck also conveys, in a very few words, the essence of a wide range of characters. From a young girl to an elderly grandfather, everyone feels real, and everyone summons a range a feelings from the reader. No one is completely evil (although several characters feel too good to be believed, but I decided to believe them anyway). The "bad guys" are just as trapped as the rest, trapped by big companies, and banks, and the pressures of the poor economy...is this starting to sound familiar?

We wondered, when talking about Grapes at our meeting (so timely, since it came just a few weeks after Michigan became yet another state to pass right-to-work legislation), if anyone could write (and publish) a book like this nowadays -- a book so sincere, and emotional, and un-ironic. We couldn't think of one, and we couldn't imagine it, which makes me kind of sad. Especially now, when so much in this book feels timely, we could use another Steinbeck and another Grapes of Wrath and really, really another Tom Joad. 

I'll end with my favorite line and a plea to read the book if you haven't -- and read it again if you have (I will). It's from the former preacher Jim Casy, the book's conscience and Christ figure: "The hell with it! There ain't no sin and there ain't no virtue. There's just stuff people do. It's all part of the same thing. And some of the things folks do is nice, and some ain't nice, but that's as far as any man got a right to say." 

Monday, January 14, 2013

In 2008 I started keeping a journal of the books I read. I did this because (a) I found myself forgetting which books I had read and occasionally even found myself 50 pages into a book before I realized I had read it before (sometimes it took even longer) and (b) even if I did remember reading it, I often couldn't remember what it was about. Before this starts sounding like I'm senile, I also wanted to do it because I like keeping track of things. Call it a mild form of OCD. I like lists. Academy Award winners. Best cheap restaurants. Books I've read.

Of course, once I started doing it, I started adding to the list: a few comments, some description (so I would remember it), a red star if I liked it or not, whether or not it was a book group book (I have the most awesome book group; more about that later). And then counting how many I read each year.

In case you're curious (I would be), I read 37 1/2 books in 2008. 40 1/2 in 2009. 40 in 2010. 50 in 2011 (I got laid off and had a lot more time to read). 47 in 2012 (still laid off, but I had a lot of freelance work). Does that count as a lot?

I read a lot of different types of books. Fiction is my preference, 19th-century Brits are my sweet spot, but I'll read sci-fi, memoir, fantasy, murder mysteries, YA, non-fiction, thrillers...as long as they're good.

In 2008, I starred 10 books, and looking at them now, they are a very well-mixed bunch: Revolutionary Road, The Golden Compass, Family Matters, Unaccustomed Earth, Pnin, Eat Pray Love (have to be honest here, no matter how it embarrasses me), On Chesil Beach, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, The Blue Zones, and Twilight (you heard me). The authors, respectively: Richard Yates, Philip Pullman, Rohinton Mistry, Jhumpa Lahiri, Vladimir Nabokov, Elizabeth Gilbert, Ian McEwan, Junot Diaz, Dan Bueltner, and Stephanie Meyer. Now wouldn't that be an interesting group to have over for cocktails?

The half a book, btw, was a bunch of stories from a short story collection. I didn't like most of them much, but "Boys" by Rick Moody was, I wrote,  "poetic and deeply moving."

In 2009, I read 40 1/3 books, the third being George Eliot's Romola, which I actually was trying for the third time. Couldn't do it. As much as I love George and everything else she's written, this book is unreadable. As in can't read it.

I red-starred Dreams From My Father, To Let (the last book of the Forsyte Saga), The Custom of the Country, The Warden, City of Thieves, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, Barchester Towers, and Stuffed. By Barack Obama (heard of him?), John Galsworthy, Edith Wharton, Anthony Trolloppe, David Benioff, Ann Fadiman, Trolloppe again, Patricia Volk.

As you see, I have a bit of a thing (a thinglet?) for 19th- early 20th-century Brits. Just know anything by anyone named Bronte, Austen, Trolloppe, Eliot (sans Romola), etc. is gonna' get starred. Just know that.

In 2010, I read 40 and starred Doctor Thorne (Trolloppe, what did I tell you?), The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larson (and both sequels), The Master by Colm Toibin, Interpreter of Maladies (Jhumpa Lahiri, reading it for at least the third time, but every time it amazes me), The Last Chronicle of Barsetshire (more Trolloppe), To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee in case you didn't know, and Freedom by Jonathan Franzen.

In 2011, I read 50. Red stars went to: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Room by Emma Donoghue, Persuasion and Sense and Sensibility (both Jane Austen, each for at least the fourth time), The Great Gatsby (Fitzgerald's masterpiece is my idea of the perfect novel, I read it every few years), The Age of Innocence (Edith Wharton, third time), Wuthering Heights (a Bronte, this time Emily, and at least the third time), Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (also third time), and Jeffrey Eugenides's The Marriage Plot.

2012 (we're almost up to today!) saw 47 books and the following red stars: 11/22/63 by Stephen King, Six Tales of the Jazz Age and Other Stories by Fitzgerald, Bossypants by Tina Fey, who is the funniest woman alive and my fantasy best friend, Flappers and Philosphers (more Fitzgerald), New York: The Novel by Edward Rutherford (I love any stories set in old New York), I Am Forbidden by Anouk Markowitz, Gone Girl by Gillian Murphy (me and about 50 million other readers), Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo, Empire Falls by Richard Russo, Unorthodox by Deborah Feldman, and Unbroken by Laura Hilenbrand.

That brings me to 2013, which is starting off with a bang. But you'll have to wait for the next post to find out why (such a tease!).