Where's the book?

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Almost, but not quite.

I wanted to read a book a week. I almost made it. I think The Goldfinch and The Interestings probably slowed me down, being so doorstoppy and all, but they were well worth it. Reading is like life in general, it goes so much faster when you're enjoying it. So even if I spent well more than a week on one of those timber-books, it felt like far less than something brief and painful to read (not mentioning any names).

So to finish out the year with numbers 49 and 50:

#49 Anything that Moves: Renegade Chefs, Fearless Eaters, and the Making of a New American Food Culture by Dana Goodyear. Molecular cuisine, nose-to-tail restaurants, fried grasshoppers, extreme dining, raw--it's all here in this collection. Interesting reading, although not for the faint of stomach.

#50 Tenth of December by George Saunders. I heard him read at the National Books Awards evening and although I'd been avoiding this book (it sounded too cooler-than-cool for me), I decided to get it. It definitely is, as the Times called it, "blazingly original," but maybe I just prefer something a little more ordinary. Some of the stories were gripping and painful, but some just left me cold. Sorry, George.

And goodnight and happy new year to all. Here's to wonderful reading in 2014.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Beat the clock. Or the calendar.

Well, I'm probably not going to reach my goal of a book a week this year, 52 books total. Unless I read like a madwoman for the next 9 days, which may not be possible considering there's one family birthday (figlio minore, not so minore any more-aye?) (sorry), the arrival of figlio maggiore, some cousins visiting from out of town, a massive Feast of the Seven Fishes (more like nine in my menu) to prepare for Christmas Eve, then more feasting of the traditional ham-and-all-the-trimmings variety on Christmas Day. Not to mention various other festivities and presents to wrap and places to go and things to do.

But I can't say my output has been too shabby. And here come the last four (yes, four!) books I've mostly enjoyed (one of which really slowed down the total, but was so worth it). I'm still hoping there will be a couple more before the midnight bell strikes on 2013.

#45. The Love of a Good Woman by Alice Munro. I've read her stories over the years in The New Yorker, but never picked up a collection. My book group chose this one for December in honor of her receiving the Nobel Prize in literature this year. I had the same response to them that I always have to her stories: they are compelling, a little scary, somewhat creepy. Reading them feels like picking up a rock and seeing something slimy and awful slither out. Even when bad things don't happen there is still a lingering feeling of dread. I can't say I enjoy the experience of reading her, but I sure do admire her ability to conjure up a full, rounded character in just a few short sentences -- better than most writers manage in pages and chapters (sometimes entire books). If you don't believe me, just read the first few pages of the title story. She introduces three boys and with just a few brief strokes you know them, you know their families, their fears, their hopes, and their lives -- and then they leave the story, never to reappear. It's almost like she's showing off. But I give her more credit than that -- she's building a town and a time -- and then finding her way to the true heart of her story, set like a gem in this world that you now know and believe. It's quite something.

#46. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. I'm a big Tartt fan and was very excited that a new novel -- and a big juicy one -- was to be published this year. I read the New York Times review and got even more excited. Nearly 800 pages later (this was the book that slowed me down) I completely agreed with what Michiko Kakutani wrote:

"Ms. Tartt has made Fabritius's bird the MacGuffin at the center of her glorious, Dickensian novel, a novel that pulls together all her remarkable storytelling talents into a rapturous, symphonic whole and reminds the reader of the immersive, stay-up-all-night pleasures of reading."

So true. The book was a captivating joy to read with brilliantly drawn characters, excitement, sorrow, joy, pain, love -- it had it all. I wanted to race through it and I wanted to savor it slowly because I loved every single one of the oh-so-many pages.

#47. Mastering the Art of French Eating by Amy Mah. Ms. Mah's husband, a diplomat, managed to achieve the dream and get posted to Paris. But then he is sent to Iraq for a year, where she cannot accompany him, and Mah is left alone, jobless, virtually friendless, in the city of her dreams. One of the ways she copes is by researching and writing this book, a look, chapter by chapter, at various regions of France and each one's iconic dish. Paris = steak frites, Brittany = crepes, Lyon = salad Lyonnaise, etc. Although her writing may not be brilliant, it's an interesting tale, and the recipes for each dish are included. One of these days I may get around to making the highly complicated standout dish of Toulouse, cassoulet.

#48. The Circle by Dave Eggers. It's the 1984 for the google generation. The time is now, and young Mae Holland goes to work for a google-like company called the Circle, which is aiming to consolidate all information, all knowledge, all identity, through its technology. Although it seems wild at first, it quickly comes to feel not very far away -- like we could be on the verge of this right now, and all those paranoid-seeming people who rant about loss of privacy are maybe onto something. Although the book has some flaws -- it gets preachy at times, and Mae is not very well drawn (by the end of the book I still had no idea what she looked like), Eggers is an entertaining and fast-moving writer, and the company and world he creates is both marvelously inventive and frighteningly believable. Almost made me delete my Facebook account.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Make hummus, not wars

We eat a lot of hummus. A lot. Both at home and out. And I've been making hummus at home for years. I've tweaked my recipe this way and that, based on other recipes, hints from other hummus makers, and bits and pieces of information I've managed to wheedle out of the maker of my favorite hummus to date, Rawia Bishara, owner/chef (and soon-to-be cookbook author) of the terrific middle-eastern restaurant Tanoreen, in Bay Ridge.

Rawia at Tanoreen
But after years of making decent hummus, good hummus, and better hummus, I have finally made perfect hummus. Hummus nirvana. Hummus heaven.

And it's all thanks to Yotam Ottolenghi, chef and cookbook author. Quite the man of the moment, I'm sure you've heard of Yotam by now. I've made many of his recipes, but I think I can confidently say that I've made the hummus, from his latest Jerusalem book, most of all. What makes it different? Glad you asked. It's not the ingredients, which are the basic chickpea--lemon--tahini trio of all good hummus. It's not some crazy trick like peeling the chickpeas (thanks for nothing, Smitten Kitchen, That's several hours of my life I'll never get back!). It's the simple technique of agitating the soaked chickpeas with baking soda, which softens the beans (yes, I know it's a legume) and allows them to puree to a smoother, creamier texture. It's the best hummus I've ever made. Maybe the best I've ever had.

I love you Magimix!
(It also helps that I have a brand-new, super-powerful food processor, the Magimix by Robot-Coupe. It's quiet and incredibly strong and easy to clean. I haven't been this excited by a new kitchen appliance since I lost my old Robot-Coupe, which died a couple of years ago after over three decades of loyal service. I bought a high-end Cuisinart to replace it and hated every loud, bumpy whirr of it. Robot-Coupe makes only commercial processors under their own name these days, but they make Magimix for home cooks. Never again, Cuisinart!)

But back to the recipe at hand. I've made this hummus using the overnight soak as well as the quick soak method (boil one minute, sit one hour). Both worked just fine. I haven't tried it with canned chickpeas, because...why? I add a little more garlic because I like it, and sometimes a dash of cumin. Sometimes extra lemon, sometimes more tahini. You really don't even have to measure -- just taste. Whatever you do, the result is the creamiest yummiest smoothest hummus you've ever made -- maybe ever had.

   1 1/3 cup dried chickpeas
   1 teaspoon baking soda
   6 1/2 cups water
   1 cup plus 2 tablespoons tahini (or more if you like it)
   4 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice (watch out for those bitter pits!)
   4 cloves garlic (or more, or less)
   6 1/2 tablespoons ice cold water
   Olive oil for serving (optional)

So good

  1. Soak the chickpeas overnight in lots of cold water or use the quick soak method. 
  2. Drain the chickpeas. Put them in a medium saucepan over high heat, add the baking soda, and cook for about 3 minutes, stirring constantly. Don't add water -- you're just agitating the chickpeas with the baking soda.
  3. Now add the water and bring to a boil. Cook, skimming off any foam or skins that float up, for about 20-40 minutes. You don't have to be terribly diligent about the skimming, just do it once or twice. When the chickpeas are done, they will squash easily when pressed. 
  4. Drain the chickpeas and put in your (hopefully Magimix) food processor. Process to a stiff paste. With the machine still running, add the tahini, lemon juice, garlic, and about 1 1/2 teaspoons salt. Then slowly drizzle in the ice water and process for about 5 minutes, until smooth and creamy. 
  5. Transfer to a bowl, cover the surface with plastic wrap, and let rest for at least 30 minutes. Refrigerate until serving, which is best at room temp. Top with a drizzle of good olive oil and whatever else you like -- a spoonful of chopped parsley, a handful of chickpeas, a sprinkle of za'atar...whatever. The recipe says the hummus will keep in the fridge for three days. I think it would last longer, but good luck keeping it around!