Where's the book?

Thursday, April 25, 2013

You've got kale.

Bello Gennaro

There’s a small Italian restaurant around the corner from me called Gennaro. It’s been there for close to 20 years, owned by a neighborhood guy named, you guessed it, Gennaro. It’s the definition of a great neighborhood restaurant: warm and welcoming, great food, no reservations, excellent wine list, and a wait staff that hasn’t changed much in all these years (a sure sign of a well-run establishment). Plus, every member of my opinionated food-loving family loves it. So we go there. A lot.

Gennaro is from an island off the coast of an island, Lipari, off of Sicily. The restaurant’s menu is more varied than the typical red sauce place, but not as esoteric as some of the city’s more upscale Italian joints. It manages to perfectly satisfy my pasta-worshipping red-sauce-addicted kids and my tomato-sauce-makes-me-scream self. They make incredibly delicious lamb chops (I'm a sucker for anything lamb). Plus, there are about 20 specials every night, which the waiters manage to remember and rattle off without a hitch every single time.

But perhaps the thing I am most grateful to Gennaro for, is that he has changed my mind about kale. Kale, in my college years, was the ultimate flower child veggie: healthy, crunchy, wholesome, disgusting. We could grow it on the commune, we could bake it into pies (we did, really), we could mix it with cheap rice and cheap pasta from the food co-op. Whatever we did with kale, it remained chewy, bitter, and revolting.

Bello lacinato kale
Until we met Gennaro’s kale. His insalata di cavolo nero with currants, pine nuts, balsamic vinegar, and ricotta salata was a whole new green revelation: sharp, vivid, vinegary, tart, sweet—sexy kale. Reason one: He uses lacinato kale, which is regular curly kale’s hipper, more sophisticated cousin. Lacinato kale is so cool that it has more names than this guy: dinosaur kale, Tuscan kale, black kale, Italian kale, Tuscan cabbage, palm tree kale, black Tuscan palm, which is regular old curly kale’s hipper, more sophisticated cousin.

Reason two to love Gennaro’s kale salad: the dressing, which both tames the bitter in the kale and adds a jolt of sweet-tart that makes the whole thing more so good that my figlio minore, who has never—and I’m not exaggerating here—met a green vegetable worth eating, will happily have seconds, even thirds. And the figlio maggiore not only likes it, he actually requests it be made for him when he’s home.

Bello kale salad
After enjoying it at the restaurant a few times, I decided I had to attempt to replicate the dish at home. After many failed experiments, I think I finally got it right. It may not be exactly the magic they serve at Gennaro’s, but it’s pretty damn close. Since I rarely have ricotta salata on hand, I use shaved parmesan. And I’ve substituted dried cranberries and golden raisins for the currants with good results (although the smaller currants look prettier). I’ve also used walnuts when pine nuts are scarce (or too expensive). Pine nuts are best (and nothing smells as good as toasting pine nuts) but walnuts, even slivered almonds, are fine substitutes.

Please try it, even if you hate kale. I used to. And then I met Gennaro.

Kale Salad

2 TB dried currants (or cranberries, or golden raisins, or raisins)
3 TB white balsamic vinegar (adjust to your taste)
1 TB unseasoned rice vinegar
1 TB honey (adjust to your taste)
1 TB extra-virgin olive oil
1 tsp salt
2 bunches Tuscan kale (about 1 pound)
2 TB pine nuts
Shavings of ricotta salata or parmesan
  1. Let the currents soak in the vinegar for a few minutes to plump (they can soak all day or even overnight if you like).
  2. Remove center ribs and stems from the kale, thinly slice crosswise.
  3. Lightly toast the pine nuts till golden.
  4. Whisk the vinegars, honey, oil, salt. Add the kale and currants; toss to coat. Let macinate 20 minutes at room temperature, tossing occasionally.
  5. Season to taste with salt and pepper, stir in pine nuts, serve topped with cheese shavings. 

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Book #15: It’s a mystery

 I went back to Deborah Crombie this week, for the latest installment of her Duncan Kincaid-Gemma James series, which is now (good for her!) fourteen books long. I’m happy to report that after a few disappointing entries, with No Mark Upon Her Crombie is back in fine form. The book is tight, the protagonists have rediscovered their somehow mislaid personalities, and the main storyline is a satisfying arc with a surprising reveal (I should have seen it coming, really, but so glad I didn’t).

It all begins with the murder of a talented but troubled woman. The victim is a star rower (they have such things in England), making a comeback with an eye towards Olympic contention, She's also—good one!—a high-ranking detective with the London police force. Without giving away too much more, there’s also a series of disturbing crimes that might—or might not—have been committed by an officer even higher up the police ladder.

Any excuse to show the Imp
The plot trots along at a good clip, there aren’t too many arcane rowing references or an untenable number of side plots or dozens of ancillary characters, and, for once, Duncan and Gemma are not waylaid by their insanely complex personal lives. If you ask me, so many long-running dramas, from Game of Thrones  to ER to a mystery series like this one, eventually start to feel like a narrative version of cat’s cradle. Trying to keep track of all the romantic and familial entanglements gives me a headache. Maybe Duncan and Gemma can push a narrative re-set button and start over with the two of them meeting for the very first time? Like they have a concurrent amnesia? It would ease my weary mind, not to mention author Crombie’s.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

#14 The overblown "Gods of Gotham"

You think 2013 is a happening year? Check out 1845. Now that was a year with a lot going on.

The fire of 1845
In 1845 James K. Polk was inaugurated as the 11th president of the United States. The nation’s first baseball team, the New York Knickerbockers (ancestors of today’s Yankees) was organized. The great potato famine sent Irish immigrants flooding onto the streets of New York. Florida became the 27th state (I didn’t say it was all good things going on). A fire in New York City, still a village of wooden houses and dirt roads, destroyed 1,000 homes and killed more than 30 people. And New York City’s first professional police department was formed.

All of these things (minus Polk and the baseball-playing New York Knicks) figure into
So mediocre!
Lindsay Faye’s second novel, The Gods of Gotham. Compared—right on the cover, no less—to Gangs of New York and The Alienist, and sporting an endorsement from the Alienist author Caleb Carr, the novel stabs at Alienist territory, but doesn’t come close to the richness of that brilliant novel. It does cover lots of the same terrain: a serial killer, vivid period details, a twisty plot, the mean streets of nineteenth century New York, and early methods of policing and forensics.

So good!
I love The Alienist. It’s one of my favorite novels. And I like Gangs of New York, especially every second Daniel Day-Lewis is on screen. Plus, I’m a total sucker for anything old-New-York. From Edith Wharton to the time travel novels of Jack Finney, if you set it in New York of long ago, I’m there.

Despite all the hype—or maybe, a little bit, because of it (heightened expectations, anyone?)—I didn’t fall for The Gods of Gotham. The charming-enough narrator is a bartender-turned-copper star (latter-day slang for police) named Timothy Wilde. The plot—figuring out who is killing the dozens of bodies that have turned up in the forest (yes, forest!)north of West 23rd Street—is interesting enough. There’s a love story, plenty of action, and dozens of colorful characters, from a driven doctor to an evil madam to an army of play-acting newsboys.

But it doesn't add up to enough, at least not for me. Some of that may be Faye’s over-writing, which drove me to distraction. Nothing ever just happens, no one ever just speaks. People breathe, murmer, command, suggest, inquire, announce, object, mutter, muse, challenge, and affirm—and that’s just in the space of two or three pages. Eyes “slide” and “shift skittishly,” they “lose their bearings.” Lips tremble “like the wings of a moth.” Jaws “angle quizzically.” Shoulders tilt, chins are pulled up, lips convulse. Things “come untethered inside,” which sounds scary. Are these people contortionists? Do they have Tourettes? A shrug “has all the weight of a beautifully penned argument.” How does someone shrug that way? Even someone screaming for help in a fire has a “low, smooth voice” and “sharply defined lips.” Who stops to notice things like this when half a city is burning down?

The emotional content of the novel is equally murky. Our narrator Timothy passionately hates his older brother Valentine, but it’s not clear why, since he tells us from the beginning that his brother raised him after they were orphaned (in a fire, of course) when Timothy was 10. And he hates Valentine in a peevish, childish way that makes us doubt his feelings, and his opinions on other matters as well. He is in love with the charitable daughter of the local Reverend, but it mainly seems to be because she has an unruly curl that he obsesses over, and she always answers a question with a question—a pretty darn annoying habit, if you ask me.

The descriptions of New York of the time are vivid, and made me realize that despite my romantic notions of long-ago, New York in 1845 was pretty much a cesspool. Filth everywhere, garbage in the streets, a level of poverty that makes today’s poor look like royalty, rampant corruption, intense and often violent hatred between races and religions, rampant and untreatable disease, child whores, a volunteer fire department that can’t possibly keep up, and a newly-formed police force that doesn’t exactly know what it’s doing. So much for time travel. I’ll stick to the twenty-first century, thanks.

See how cute he is as a cop?
Despite all that, I wouldn’t not recommend Gods (how’s that for a well-crafted sentence?). I think readers with more patience for a florid writing style, a fondness for the time period, and respect for a decent mystery might like it very much. And, if they do, there’s a sequel coming. I think, however, that I’ll wait for the inevitable movie. This might be one of the rare books (The Godfather anyone?) that benefits from having a good story cleaved from its overblown verbiage. With maybe Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Timothy (he mentions repeatedly how slight he is) and Ryan Gosling as his charismatic, powerful, troubled older brother Valentine. Throw in Amanda Seyfried as the love interest with the wayward curl and I’ll buy a ticket tomorrow.

See how cute he is as anything?

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

World's best brownies. Guaranteed.

Do you like a dry, cakey brownie? One with lots of nuts and possibly other mistakes mix-ins like orange peel or candied fruits? With a milk-chocolate-y taste and a light, crumbly texture?

Stop reading. Now

My brownies are precisely the opposite of that sad description. They are moist and rich, dark as night, fudgey and gooey, and filled with nothing but chocolate, and then more chocolate, and then some more chocolate. They are ridiculously easy to make and deliver more CPMs (compliments per mouthful) than just about any other dessert I know of. I’ve been baking them for decades, and I promise they will make you the most popular kid at the party.

There is one simple secret: You must use good quality chocolate. When you have a recipe with only seven ingredients—a recipe that spotlights one ingredient above all—you go for the best. Dine on rice and beans the rest of the week if you have to, but don’t stint here. That means no Hershey and no Bakers (heaven forbid!). I’ve tried all the possibilities over the years and while a side-by-side comparison would be fun (as long as insulin was on hand), I couldn’t say which I like best. Callebaut, Valrhona, Ghirardelli, Sharffen Berger, Guittard…they’re all good. 

Need proof that quality matters? Serious Eats had the Pioneer Woman, Ree Drummond, do a brownie taste test, comparing Bakers, Scharffen Berger, and Betty Crocker. Being a down-home, anti-elitist kinda' gal, she was all for the supermarket stuff to win. Was she surprised? Find out here.

And for even more information on chocolate quality, check this out.

The chocolate vortex
 But back to the world’s best brownie recipe. Here are a couple of things you need to know. The brownies must be chilled overnight (even better, right? dessert is ready well before company arrives!). Fresh from the oven, or even cooled for a couple of hours, things fall apart (RIP, Chinua). But after one night in the fridge, they coalesce into dark chocolate perfection. Another point: These are very rich, so cut them into small pieces. They freeze well (emergency dessert!). Also, you might not want to sneak a brownie shortly before bedtime. Between the chocolate and the coffee, these babies deliver quite a hit of caffeine.

One last point: Resist, resist, resist the temptation to add stuff. (Yeah, I'm talking to you AS.) No nuts, no raisins, no (shudder!) orange peel. This is about chocolate, so don't junk it up. 

For perhaps the world’s best dessert, serve the brownies with ice cream (coffee and vanilla are my favorites), and a bit of whipped cream. Or, if you really want to go crazy, make an ice cream pie, with layers of ice cream or sorbet, crumbled brownies, and chocolate sauce, in a chocolate graham cracker crust. But you don’t have to go to all that bother. A heaping platter of the world’s best brownies is really all you need.

World’s Best Brownies
Makes about 8 servings, depending on level of chocoholism

½ cup (one stick) unsalted butter, cut up
2 TB strong coffee (I use espresso)
8 ounces good quality semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, chopped
2 large eggs, room temperature
¾ cup sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract (do I need to say don’t use imitation?)
¼ cup all-purpose flour
1-2 cups chocolate chips (these don’t have to be top quality, although it never hurts)

  1. Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 375 degrees.
  2. Line an 8-inch square cake pan with 2-inch high sides with foil and oil the foil (love the sound of that).
  3. Melt the butter and coffee in a heavy saucepan. Reduce heat to low and add the chocolate. Stir till melted and smooth. Cool a couple of minutes.
  4. Beat the eggs, sugar, and vanilla in a large bowl with an electric mixer until thick, about 2 minutes. (I use a hand mixer.) Stir in the chocolate mixture. Mix in flour and chocolate chips. Transfer to pan.
  5. Bake until brownies are cracked around the edges, about 25 minutes.
  6. Cool. Cover and chill overnight. Cut into pieces. 
  7. Try not to eat all at once.

Good place to buy chocolate (also Fairway)

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Book #13 (sort of) and a visit to the land of Kims

Boring Kim

If I haven’t actually read the book (or at least the entire book), do I still get to write about the book?

Since I make the rules around here, I say yes. Especially if, for all my good intentions (and I had them, dear reader, I did), I could not bring myself to read every word of what one astute Amazonian called, “A plotless, meandering exercise in boredom.”

Rudyard Kipling’s Kim is an English-language classic and, according to many, a “ripping good yarn.” I am not one of the many. First published serially in McClure’s Magazine, it came out in book form in 1901. Set in 1880s India, this picaresque tale has been compared to Don Quixote and Huckleberry Finn.

Rudyard Kipling--great eyebrows!
Kim is a white orphan boy, the son of an Irish soldier and a poor mother, living a happy native life in colonial India. The story touches on more topics than I can (or care to) count, from Buddhism to British intelligence. Kim journeys alongside a Tibetan lama, is discovered by his father’s old regiment, sent to an English school, works as a spy, encounters religious seekers and Russian intelligence agents. It all unfolds against the background of what was known as the Great Game—the Russian-British battle for supremacy in Asia.

Is you ask me, there's way too much plot, uninteresting characters, an overly sentimental tone, language that was often meandering and difficult to track, and a linear direction that I found frustratingly superficial. None—let me repeat that, NONE—of my difficulties with the book have to do with a condemnation of imperialism or colonialism. Not that I approve of them, of course, but art is of its time. “There is no such thing as a moral or immoral book,” Oscar Wilde said. “Books are either well written or badly written. That is all.”
Slutty Kim. Creepy friend.

So why was I plodding through it at all? A book group pick, of course. I wanted to read it for the group—and because I’ve long heard wonderful things about it. But after a truly heartfelt effort (I made it more than halfway through, really, I did), I started skimming, and the last two chapters are completely a blur. I just couldn’t do it.

Crazy Kim
I get, I think, why Kim is considered an important book. It’s #78 on the Modern Library list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century (cross one more off, woo-hoo!). But it’s not #78 on my list. It won’t even make my list at all.

As an aside (and a heck of a lot more interesting, if you ask me, than the book itself), if you google “kim,” out of the ten top results, six relate to Kim Kardashian (her net worth, her baby bump, her significant other…), one to actress Kim Richards (never heard of her? me neither), one to Real Housewife Kim Zolciak (never heard of her either), one to Korean nutcase supreme leader Kim Jong-un, and, finally, one to Kim Novak (I’d so
Beautiful Kim
rather be watching Vertigo).

And by the way, why doesn’t anyone name their kid "Rudyard" any more? Damn fine name. If you ask me.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Book #12: Where Memories Lie

I believe there are good books and not-so-good books in any genre. And if The Puppet Masters wasn’t proof that I’ll read just about any type of book, here’s another. Book #12 for 2013 is Where Memories Lie, the twelfth in the Duncan Kincaid-Gemma James mystery series from author Deborah Crombie.

I’m not a huge mystery fan like so many are, but I do enjoy a good one every now and then, old and new. I’ve been through almost all of Agatha Christie and all of Dorothy Sayers (love!) and Ngaio Marsh. I pretty much exclusively read female mystery writers (P.D. James is another one I like) because I enjoy the less hard-boiled (soft-boiled?) tone of a female writer. I also like mystery novels that fall more heavily on the “novel” end, so there has to be strong character development and solid narrative in addition to the mystery. In fact, the mystery can be the least of it if I like the characters and their arcs. I also like a little bit of romance (in all books, and movies, too). Elizabeth George used to meet my oh-so-demanding criteria before she completely lost her way a few books back (someone kidnapped her and locked her in a cellar and is writing the books using her name, if you ask me). Her first ten novels were just about perfect mysteries. I’m hoping she escapes from the cellar someday and restores a level of interest and excitement to her books again.

Deborah Crombie is another favorite, although, again, her books were better earlier on. Interesting characters, a lively romance, captivating mysteries—the books were downright charming.

I can’t say that’s the case for this one, although it was a good-enough read. Scotland Yard Superintendent Duncan Kincaid and Inspector Gemma James are back. Once a professional team, they now work separately. I don’t want to give too much away about their personal lives, since it forms so much of the story in earlier books in the series, and makes for great reading. In this book there is less focus on the two main characters and more on the somewhat convoluted mystery. It involves a Holocaust refugee, a long-missing diamond brooch, a fifty-year-old unsolved murder, a wealthy society matron and her ne’er-do-well son, and several recent homicides of people orbiting the jewels. There are flashbacks to the post-WW II era and a seeming suicide. Throw in Gemma’s mother’s cancer, her father’s disapproval, an auction house whistle blower, even a giant drooling hound, and you’ve got a mystery with far too many tentacles, and far too many of those not terribly interesting. Many of the problems seem contrived, even, in fact, the mystery itself. There’s enough plot here for three books, and Crombie might have been better off with less to do and more to say about it.

And, the most grievous sin: I had the murderer pegged halfway through the book. And I’m a lousy detective!

The final analysis? It’s just good enough that I’ll keep going with the series, ever hopeful that it will regain its footing and make me care again.

If you haven’t read one of Crombie’s books, start from number one: A Share in Death. And let me know what you think.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Book #11: The Orientalist

Has this ever happened to you? You hear someone describe a book or a movie or a play and think to yourself, that sounds fantastic! I have to see/read it! But then you see/read it and realize that their description was far more exciting and enjoyable than anything the screen or stage or page has to offer.

That just happened to me.

At a dinner one recent evening, a friend was talking about a book she had recently read. The Orientalist: Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life sounded fantastic, in both senses of the word. A terrific, thrilling, page-turner of a true story about an almost too-crazy-to-be-believed life.

The book is journalist Tom Reiss’s exploration of the life of one Lev Nussimbaum. Never heard of him? Neither had pretty much anyone else. But Nussimbaum managed to publish nearly 20 books, many of them best-sellers, and live a short but dramatic life that touched on every major event and locale of the first half of the twentieth century, before dying and virtually vanishing from record. Born Jewish in Baku, the oil-rich capital of Azerbaijan, in 1905, Nussimbaum was the son of an oil millionaire and a Bolshevik revolutionary (and friend of
Lev when he was Lev
Stalin when he was still Iosef Dzhugashvili) who committed suicide when her son was just five years old.

To mention just a few of the more amazing adventures in Nussimbaum’s brief life: He and his father escaped the Soviets by camel, journeying into Turkestan and Persia before ending up in Istanbul just in time for the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Finding themselves penniless refugees, they moved on to Paris, and then Berlin, where Nussimbaum became Essad Bey, a celebrated author and, as he let people believe, a Muslim prince. There were encounters with Nazis, a visit to New York, yet another name change—to Kurban Said—marriage and divorce, two world wars, Mussolini’s Italy, and much, much more.

Lev when he was Essad
Too much, in fact. Author Reiss suffers from an inability to let go of any fact he has ever learned. The book spends more time on historical digressions than it does on the life of poor Lev/Essad/Kurban. Pages and pages of history go by and Lev is left by the roadside, so much so that by the time we return to his story—ostensibly the story of the book—we’ve forgotten where we left the poor fellow.

I learned a lot about the Russian Revolution, the Ottoman Empire, and the Weimar Republic. But in the end, I didn’t feel that I really knew Lev Nussimbaum, other than superficially. I knew the what of his life, but not the why. Much like he vanished from the world stage, he nearly vanishes from the pages of the book that is, we were promised, about him.