Monday, April 14, 2014

Books books books

It has been a while since I've written about books but that isn't because I haven't been reading anything worthy. I've just been lazy about putting my thoughts together. So without further ado, here are four books that I recently read and loved, for wildly different reasons.




 Hild by Nicola Griffith
This was a really gratifying read, though not an easy one. I had sticky notes marking maps of 7th C Britain, lineage charts, glossary and pronunciation guides. But I loved this story of Hild, the Angle king's seer. It may have helped that I felt a connection to the location--it's set in what is mostly present day Yorkshire--because my grandmother lived in a town called Ingleby greenhow (which translates to Angles by the Green Hill), so I could superimpose my memories of the landscape onto the text. What stood out for me in Griffith's writing was the incredible vividness of the natural world--plants, birds, animals, weather, rocks--it all was so detailed and rich in this book, particularly tastes, smells and sounds (which I think are much harder to capture via the written word than visual descriptions). Here's a sample:

"She walked in the evening through her domain, as aware of it as of her own body. The dragonflies and damselflies zooming over the water; the gush and rush and mineral bit of the millrace compared to the softer babble of the beck. The clatter of reeds by the pond scented with green secrets; the chatter of wrens and goldcrest flocks, squabbling with each other like rival gangs of children." p.482 

There are descriptions like this on pretty much every other page which made me slow down and read with all my senses. I'm looking forward to the next installment of Hild's life.



A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra
This is an amazing first novel about the wars in Chechnya. It feels particularly relevant with the present Russian crap going on in Crimea--another place that I find hard to picture. But after reading this book, I have a far better understanding of what happened in a part of the world not far from today's conflict. 

The ending was perhaps a little bit tidy as far as tying the different story lines together, but the novel was forceful in its humanism and the author so clearly loved his characters that I found the decision to be understandable. 





On Such a Full Sea by Chang-rae Lee
This novel is a really interesting distopia (for grownups!) It takes present economic conditions (increasing disparity between haves and have nots) and extends them to their extremes. Then the author plops down an unshakeable every-woman character to experience all three economic models that are depicted. It's told in a compelling "group" voice using "we" as the main pronoun and makes the journey of the main-character into something mythic. I've read some reviews where people were bugged by this voice, but I was charmed by it. I've found myself thinking of this book as I read stories in the news about civil unrest, the environment and clashing political systems and wonder what the future will look like.




The Good Lord Bird by James McBride
Wow, what a voice! This novel blew me away (and that sentiment seems pretty universal since it won the National Book Award). The story and the language it is told in manages to be poetic and ribald and funny and poignant, all at the same time. Here's a little taste:

"The Old Man was a lunatic, but he was a good, kind lunatic, and he couldn't no more be a sane man in his transactions with his fellow white man than you and I can bark like a dog, for he didn't speak their language. He was a Bible man. A God man. Crazy as a bedbug. Pure to the truth, which will drive any man off his rocker. But at least he knowed he was crazy. At least he knowed who he was." p.343

I had a hard time reading the last 75 or so pages because the sense of loss for the Old Man was so intense that I didn't want to experience it. But when I steeled myself and dove in, it was worth it--a beautiful, funny, sad goodbye to such a memorable character.  

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Mindfulness w/Kids

And now for a detour from my regular obsessions with food, books and the like for a brief update in the parenting department.

I recently posted a link on facebook about a film that the Michigan Collaboration for Mindfulness in Education will be showing on April 26th, "Room to Breathe." The film is about about a mindfulness program at a San Francisco public middle school and my son and I have bought our tickets and are going to the showing. We started mindfulness practice last summer and do it regularly. I credit it with his having the best school year ever and for both of us feeling better able to manage stress, bounce back from intense emotions and deal with difficult people and situations. As a mom, I also like the connection it establishes with my 13-year old*: it makes me feel like we'll be better able to navigate the storms of adolescence together and constructively.  After the facebook post, I received a number of questions from people and while I'm no expert on mindfulness, it sounds like people are interested and want to know what has worked for us. So I'm going to share some of what I've found here so those people who are interested might have a few shortcuts if they want to try and establish a practice with their kids.

There are a whole lot of books out there about the benefits of mindfulness and why you should do it. I've read some of them and found some helpful and if you know nothing about the reasoning behind mindfulness, then it might be good to pick up a few. Our library has a ton of books that you can check out. Thich Nat Hanh, Jon Kabat-Zinn and Pema Chodron are all good authors to try and see if what they say resonates. Or, if you prefer to listen to your information rather than read it, NPR has had lots of coverage about practicing mindfulness for everything from depression, to blood pressure control, to developing better business management skills. There are also lots of podcasts that you can subscribe to that discuss aspects of mindfulness. I like Zencast and Audio Dharma--you can listen to or download the episodes at the previous links, or subscribe to them in iTunes. Last summer when I was painting the exterior of our house I listened to many hours of talks by Andrea Fella, Gil Fronsdal and Jack Kornfield on various aspects of mindfulness.**

When it comes to actual practice, both my son and I like guided meditations and the occasional spoken affirmation. Maybe when we're better at it, we'll be able to meditate on our own without any recordings, but we aren't there yet. I am better able to calm my thoughts during the day when they get stormy without the use of a recording, but I still prefer to have a guide when we sit down to meditate. I've learned that there are lots of different options out there and not all will suit all people. My son and I have clear preferences for certain voices: there have been some meditations where we like the content, but don't like the speaker's voice. Some meditations have new-age music in the background and both of us prefer meditations that don't have music. But other people may have entirely different preferences--try a bunch and figure out what you like and what you don't.

Here are some resources/things I've found:

  • The iTunes U series of Mindful Meditations is terrific (and free!). I feel lucky that we started with these meditations--we like Diana Winston's voice, there isn't any new age music that bugs both of us, and they aren't too long. Neither Ian nor I has the ability to meditate for more than about 25 minutes and we often want something a lot shorter to use as a quick "reset".  There are 2 and 3 minute meditations which we've been able to sneak in right before he leaves for school, even on pretty rushed days and 8 to 10 minute ones that we do regularly on non-rushed mornings. I think they help a lot in waking up his brain and making a kid who is totally not a morning person more able to learn first thing in the morning.
  • One meditation coach we like is Jon Kabat-Zinn. Our library has a number of his CDs with guided meditations (and his books, too) so you can try them out and see if he clicks for you. (If your library doesn't carry them, you can also listen to some previews of his meditation CDs in iTunes and see if you like them before purchasing.)
  • There are some free meditations and affirmations here at the web site My Thought Coach. I like some of them and am not so fond of others so it is a trial and error kind of thing. If you find them helpful, there is a month-by-month paid subscription that you can sign up for that lets you access all the content you want. You can download unlimited episodes while you have your subscription so you don't have to pay forever if you don't want to (and if you value the ease of just going to the website and listening from there, the cost isn't crazy).
  • Another one we like is Bohipaksa (he has a nice warm voice with Scottish accent). In particular the CD Guided Meditations for Busy People suits our attention spans.
  • Another set of  meditations that we really like is called The Practice of Mindfulness: 6 Guided Practices and it is available for a free download if you sign up for an e-newsletter at the Sounds True website (you can unsubscribe after downloading, if you want).
  • There are some guided meditation podcasts that I subscribe to (Audio Dharma and Zencast sometimes have episodes that are guided meditations, but they tend to be pretty long), and we use these occasionally. There are two Stin Hansen affirmations that we downloaded from iTunes ("Think Like a Great Student" and "Inner Peace--Affirmations for Growing Up in a Crazy World") that are good on days when we need a positive pick me up. And you can also just type in meditation podcasts in iTunes and see if anything appeals to your particular taste.
I've set up four playlists on iTunes which organize our guided meditations into categories and it makes it easy to pick one from the list without having to dig through my library: Before School, Short Meditations, Longer Meditations, Bedtime Meditations.

I've tried a couple of meditation and mindfulness apps for my iPod touch, but so far haven't found anything that we'll use. Knowing how particular we are when it comes to voices/music, I won't pay for an app unless I get to try it out first, so that does limit our options to the apps that have at least one or two free tracks (and then switch to in-app purchases).  If you have tried any and found them helpful, please let me know.

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*So far, my 11 year old wants nothing to do with our mindfulness practice, though she is willing to leave us alone to do it. But she's also a much calmer person and is already naturally able to recover quickly from difficult emotional states, rather than dragging them with her like a ball and chain for the rest of the day.  Maybe when she's more of a teenager, if/when things get rocky, I'll be more persuasive in my sales-pitch, but for now "forcing" her to try mindfulness practice is too contradictory of a concept for me to attempt!

**I should also note here that we are not a religious family and our practice has not included the spiritual aspects of Buddhism. We're atheist humanists and have found mindfulness practice completely compatible with our world view.


Sunday, March 23, 2014

Flamethrowers


For the first time in years, I went to my book group having not read the book.  I bought the book, read the first 85 pages or so and then lost it. I'm pretty sure it fell into a snowbank in Detroit after a concert at the Music Box at the Max. I have to say, book group when you haven't read the book is way more boring (despite the excellent company and food!)

The book was The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner and I can't say I enjoyed the first 85 pages. That fed into my decision not to buy a second copy of the book.  But sometimes a difficult or flawed book is the most interesting to talk about--we've had book group meetings where we all loved the book and the conversation kind of peetered out or just dwindled to "didn't you love it when ____" statements. The Flamethrowers generated a passionate discussion about art, sexism, authenticity, and meaning. BIG subjects.

So it was hard to sit silently while other people expressed some very interesting opinions. But luckily I had a negroni and a some delicious cheese, prosciutto, salami and olives to keep my normally jabbering mouth occupied.
Part of The Flamethrowers took place in Italy so that guided our meal (well, except for the salad I brought, but then I didn't read the book so I figured I was exempt).

Lea made an amazing batch of foccacia bread. There was olive oil for dipping but it really didn't need it.

And Meg made a salt-crusted roasted red snapper,

which when unearthed was wonderfully sweet and flavorful.

It was served with romesco sauce, a mushroom rice dish, roman-style artichokes and my salad with spinach, dates, almonds, red onions and toasted pita.

Then Sarah brought out three types of gelato for desert with some lovely little lemon biscuits. I was so full by then that I just had little sampler dabs of each one.

The next time we meet, I know I'll have read the book because I already read it and loved it--Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Whether it ends up an interesting conversation or a chorus of "didn't you love the part ____" will be fun to track. And of course, the food and company will be wonderful!

Friday, February 21, 2014

Thundersnow, or what I like to call Despair-in-weather-form

Yesterday I was introduced to a new term: thundersnow.

It's when your snow storm is accompanied by thunder. Because snow falling at 2 inches an hour isn't bad enough. If you want to see and hear what it's like, I direct you to this youtube video I found.

I've handled the 6+ feet of snow we've had and shoveling new snowfall onto piles that are taller than I am. I've only griped a little when the numerous polar vortexes swept through and temperatures dropped into the -20 degree zone and were even colder with the windchill. I've deal with chipping through 1.5 inches of rock hard ice off the sidewalk with a coal shovel (great upper body workout!).

But thundersnow made me want to go hide in the closet, curled in a ball, and not come out until Spring.

So something had to be done.

And that something had to involve butter, eggs and chocolate. Definitely chocolate.

Ok, yeah, I'll uncurl myself from the fetal position to eat profiteroles.

The fact is that choux pastry is ridiculously easy to make and I was in no mental state to take on anything tricky or labor intensive. You chuck a stick of butter and a cup of water into a sauce pan, bring it to a boil, then turn the heat to low, dump in a cup of flour and stir with a wooden spoon until you have a globby ball that pulls away from the side of the pan. Plop the ball in the stand mixer and beat in 4 eggs, one at a time, until you have a smooth, pasty batter.

Then you can either use two spoons to urge little 1" blobs of the sticky dough onto parchment-lined cookie sheets, or glop the stuff into a ziplock bag, snip off a corner and pipe tubes for eclairs.  30 minutes in a 400 degree oven and you get cute little balls (or sticks) of puffiness to play with.


My favorite way to fill these is with whipped cream, but I didn't have any in the house and the two other people I was making these for still don't like whipped cream (my kids now eat spinach, but still consider whipped cream to be an unpleasant substance...go figure). There was vanilla ice cream in the freezer and I made a mediocre batch of pastry cream for the eclair tubes. It was more like vanilla pudding, enriched with egg, and not as good as the pastry cream I learned to make in my pastry class years ago (gotta find that recipe which is buried somewhere), but it was perfectly sufficient and served its therapeutic purpose last night, particularly when drowned in chocolate sauce (again, not amazing chocolate sauce--just some bittersweet chocolate melted into hot half and half). For my second round, I peeled a ripe bartlett pear, sliced it thin, put the profiteroles on top and doused the whole thing in chocolate sauce. It was very messy and very delicious and possibly the only reason that I am able to be coherent today.

You'd think that thundersnow would be a good way for winter to get its last punch in, but no. Today we have high winds (50 mph!) and flooding. Yesterday in a low lying part of a street I saw a backhoe digging out a storm drain from the concrete-hard mountains of snow that the snow plows have tossed up--not a little bobcat, but the big honking kind that you see on construction sites.  That was a first in my memory. And I assume the city will be sending that particular piece of equipment out all over town to try and give some of the melting snow a place to go. Particularly since there is another nasty blast of cold coming and if they don't all the streets will be sheet ice. If that happens, I don't know what I'll do--will a second round of profiteroles save my mental state? Or will I have to take it up a notch and if so what would that even look like? Suggestions welcome, particularly if you are local and want to come share.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Detroit Dining (with crap photos!)

One of the more fun things that I've had the chance to do since last September is dabble in the Detroit restaurant scene.  That's when my son started playing jazz piano with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra's Civic Youth Ensembles (which, on a musical and parenting note, has been a fantastic experience. Auditions for 2014-15 are coming up so if you have a musical kid and are willing to do the schlep, I'd highly recommend checking them out.)  His ensemble rehearses every Wednesday from 7-9:30 and by a fortuitous aligning of our family's schedule with my mom's, my daughter has spent those evenings having concentrated one-on-one granny time while Brian and I take Ian to Detroit. We drop him off and then have about 2 hours to go out to eat before heading back to listen to the end of the rehearsal and take him home. There have been a few times that we both couldn't go and since the new year they've had to cancel 3 out of 5 rehearsals due to extreme weather (and probably should have canceled one of the 2 they held since it took us 2 hours to make the normally 45 minute trip).

One of the first things I did was make a Google map of food establishments that I'd like to try. Since we have time limitations*, we're mostly sticking with midtown and downtown Detroit (though I hope to get to Hamtramck soon to try Rock City Eatery). It also means we can't go to places where there are long waits for tables or super slow service. I really want to try La Feria Tapas, which is right around the corner from DSO, but it's tiny and there's always been a wait. There are also the financial limits--we don't have the budget to try Detroit's higher end dining every week so most of the places we're going to are pretty affordable. 

Here's a rundown of the places we've gone. The few photos I have are crappy iPod pics because I haven't remembered to bring a decent camera with me.

Green Dot Stables: A fun tapas-like place but with sliders. Order a whole bunch and share. I liked the Korean (beef, peanutbutter and kimchi), tempeh and buffalo chicken sliders the most. Some of the others were less successful--the quinoa was dry and the "mystery meat" of the day was a tasteless deep fried wee scrap of wild boar. And then there were basic choices like the coney dog and cuban (fine, just not very interesting). The desert fluffer nutter slider was fun and sticky. The cocktails are cheap ($3) and potent so make sure you have a designated driver who can resist their call.

Buffalo Chicken Slider with a Gin Promise

clockwise from left: mystery meat/wild boar, Cuban, coney dog, Korean slider, tempeh

Motor City Brewing Works:  good beer and decent enough pizza. I wish they'd improve their crust (too squishy and sweet) but otherwise an ok accompaniment for the beer.


Slows BBQ: delicious bbq--we had pulled pork, brisket and ribs--and huge portions. We got lucky with two seats at the bar but be prepared to wait if you want a table or visit the Slows to Go (which, despite the name, actually has some seating and in summer has a nice long outside picnic table) on Cass Ave.

Grand Trunk Pub: Decent enough bar food (good burger and corned beef) but we went here mostly for the atmosphere--the pub is located in what was the Grand Trunk Railway's ticket station so you can sip your beer under a gorgeous ribbed barrel vault ceiling.

Mercury Burger & Bar: Good beer on tap, perfectly cooked and affordable burgers and fries with a little extra oomph. 
I had the Flint Burger (green olives and cheddar) and garlic fries. The fries were cooked in lard and then tossed with an addictive garlic, rosemary, black pepper, salt comnination.

Brian had the fried bologna sandwich which came with excellent homemade pickles. He chose poutine for his fries which were ok, but not as good as you can get across the river in Canada.


Cass Cafe
: Very casual, friendly place with good affordable food and decent beer selection. I had a good salad that they made a little extra effort to make interesting  (hardboiled eggs coated in smoked paprika and deep fried artichoke hearts). It might not be a place I'd go out of my way to visit, but I liked the place and I'd be here all the time if I was a Wayne State Student.

Traffic Jam and Snug: fun atmosphere and decent porter, but I thought the food was disappointing. They make their own cheese and bread here (along with the beer), but I thought the bread was dry and tasteless and the cheese wasn't much more interesting than a slice of Kraft cheddar.

Dangerously Delicious Pies (inside the 3rd St Bar): outrageously good savory pie (especially the Smog--steak, mushroom, onion, gruyere), $6 a slice with a side salad, but I won't go back unless I want to get it for carry-out or until Spring/Summer when the outside seating is open. The 3rd St Bar is dark, cold, plays crappy music really loud and didn't have functioning draft taps. I wish Dangerously Delicious was housed in a more worthy bar.

Here are the places that I'd like to try between now and when Ian's rehearsals end for the season in early May:

La Feria Tapas
St Cece's Pub

Xochimilco Restaurant 

Ally Tacos (a counter inside Marcus Market)
Bucharest Grill (two words: chicken shawarma. You can take it to the Park Bar next door where they have a good selection of Michigan craft beer)
Rock City Eatery
Craft Work

Any other places that should be on my list and meet our limiting distance and price criteria?


_____
*There are additional timing complications because some of Detroit's restaurants and bakeries aren't open in the evenings (I'm looking at you Le Petit ZincMudgie's and Avalon Bakery) so despite being within our geographical and price ranges we can't make them work.


Friday, January 31, 2014

Lentilicious


It gets my attention when a chef says that they could eat a particular dish every night which is what Yotam Ottolenghi said about the above dish.  While I haven't made it daily, I have made it twice in as many weeks and it is really good--a cross between a lentil stew and hummus, but served warm (which is totally necessary since we're in the middle of a very harsh winter here.)

I made it once with regular old brown lentils and once with the more swanky French Puy Lentils that Ottolenghi called for and what do you know, I liked the more humble lentils better. He had to crush the French kind at the end of his recipe, while I found the slightly less firm brown lentils made for the perfect texture (the above photo is of the French kind; I forgot to take a picture when I made it with the brown, but it was a bit softer and saucier.)

Once I served it with brown rice because I already had some cooked and it was fast and easy and fine. But it was even better when I took the extra step of making pita bread to go with it--hot, soft, puffy bread pillows were the perfect medium for scooping up the saucy lentils. Add a green salad and you have a fantastic meal.


Lentils with Tahini and Cumin
adapted from Yotam Ottolenghi's Crushed Puy Lentils with Tahini and Cumin

3 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
2 T butter
2 T olive oil
1 C lentils (I prefer the humble brown lentil)
1 t ground cumin
1 can petite diced tomatoes, or 3 large fresh tomatoes, chopped
a handful of cilantro leaves, chopped
4 T tahini
2 T lemon juice
1 C water
salt and black pepper

garnish:
olive oil
1/2 small red onion, peeled and sliced very thin
1T chopped cilantro

Bring a medium pan of water to a boil. Add the lentils and cook for 15-20 minutes, until completely cooked, drain and set aside. Put the butter and oil in a large sauté pan and place on a medium-high heat. Once the butter melts, add the garlic and cumin, and cook for a minute. Add the tomatoes, the handful of cilantro and the cooked lentils. Cook, stirring, for a couple of minutes, then add the tahini, lemon juice, water, a teaspoon of salt and a good grind of black pepper. Turn down the heat to medium and cook gently, stirring, for a few minutes more, until hot and thickened. Serve each portion with a drizzle of olive oil, a scattering of red onions and a sprinkle of cilantro (or put it all in a warmed serving dish and garnish the whole thing).

Saturday, January 18, 2014

I miss him



I finished reading Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch about a month ago and I've had the strangest response. I enjoyed the book immensely, but it isn't the pleasure of reading the book that I miss (well, a little because it was a wonderfully immersive read). I miss one of the characters: I miss Boris.

Boris isn't the main character (that would be Theo) and he isn't in the first big chunk of the book and disappears for a good long while later in the book.  He's first a school boy and soon becomes an Ukrainian mobster with a heart of gold--unethical in a traditional sense yet highly loyal and thus admirable in a completely different way.

I would probably be terrified of Boris if I ever saw him in person. I rarely choose to spend time with people who are simultaneously erratic, violent, drunk and stoned. But I want to see him walk around the corner because I miss how interesting he was.

I've read a few reviews that compare the book to Dickens, and there are a ton of similarities. I've read a lot of Dickens and enjoyed a lot of Dickens and I think it's pretty clear that Boris is modeled on the Artful Dodger. But I've never I've felt this sort of affection for a character in Dickens.

I found that after I finished the book, I missed Boris the way I miss Falstaff, particularly the Falstaff in Henry IV Part II (and by the way, Simon Russell Beale's portrayal of the role in The Hollow Crown production of the plays was amazing). He lies and cheats and steals and is selfish and excessive, but he loves Hal and for that the audience forgives him everything (Hal doesn't, but that's part of Hal's character's growth). Similarly Boris loves Theo--he's the one person who really sees who Theo is, even when Theo is clueless about himself. And for that the reader loves Boris even when he's embarking on what appears to be a completely disastrous tangent.

There were things about the book that drove me crazy--sometimes it seemed like it was trying too hard to be like Dickens. And (similar to Dickens) the younger women characters were not satisfying which surprised me, since Tartt's other two novels have fully-drawn, complex women characters. (Was their flatness an homage to Dickens' heroines? If so, I'd like to have told her she had plenty of Dickensian similarities already packed in almost 800 pages and could chuck the Victorian roles of angel and devil.) And there's one completely simple solution to Theo's predicament with the stolen painting that never appears and the willful dodging of it got me pissy at times (I'm not going to list it here because maybe you can read the book and not have it bugging you in the back of your mind.) I put this book down and stalked huffily away a few times, but I kept being drawn back, and Boris was a big part of that.

But even with all these issues, I can still say that this book gave me so much more. It made me want to go sit in an art museum again and spend time with a painting (I haven't been in a museum without kids in way too long). It made me want to tramp the streets of NYC. It made me want to go to Amsterdam again (even though the main character is completely miserable while there). But most of all it made me appreciate interesting people who may not be safe people.

Have you read it? What did you think?

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Contrasts

As I mentioned in my last post, I'm a little rusty on the blogging front. As I forgot to take a photo when I made this the other night, you are stuck with this photo of the leftover version that I had for lunch today:

Thankfully, a much prettier version accompanies the recipe in Plenty:


This recipe works because of the contrasts:  silky roasted eggplant; garlicky, sharp buttermilk sauce; bright sweet-tart pops of pomegranate seeds. It's not a terribly complicated recipe, but you don't want to skip any of the three facets and that means you better get in gear and make it while pomegranates are in season (they pretty much disappear from the markets here for about half the year.)

I've made a few tweaks to the recipe because while the combination is inspired, I think the dish benefits from added intensity: more garlic in the buttermilk sauce, more salt and a lot more za'atar. Also, while this edition of Plenty has fixed some errors that were in the first edition (the copy I borrowed from the library last year had erratic conversions of temperatures in Celsius to Fahrenheit so this recipe had 250 F listed rather than the approximate conversion of 450 F), I still had to adjust some temps. My edition of the cookbook says 400 F and I would definitely recommend 450 to get that golden burnished top (unless maybe you are dealing with really small eggplants).

And a warning, if you are thinking of serving this at a formal dinner party you should know that there really is no tidy way to eat it. Despite its pretty presentation once you start eating you're going to get a plate full of messy bliss, that quickly turns into something requiring fingers to pull away the eggplant skin and release the delicious innards. I recommend serving it with puffy, warm pita bread so you can sop up all the mashed bits of eggplant and sauce that will flood the plate.

Eggplant with Buttermilk Sauce and Pomegranate Seeds
adapted from Yotam Ottolenghi's Plenty

Ottolenghi recommends serving this as an appetizer but I found it made a terrific main course, especially when paired with a spiced lentil tahini dish (recipe to come!), warm pita and a salad.

Eggplants
2 medium eggplants (if you are using large, then increase cooking time)
1/3 C olive oil
4 t za'atar*
salt and pepper

Sauce
9 T buttermilk
1/2 C greek yogurt
1 1/2 T olive oil
2 cloves of garlic
1/2 t salt (or more to taste)

For serving
the seeds from one pomegranate
4 t za'atar
ground black pepper
olive oil

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F. Cut the eggplant in half lengthwise. Score the flesh in a diamond pattern (but make sure not to pierce the skin).

Place the eggplant halves, cut-side up on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Brush them with the olive oil--keep brushing until all the oil has been absorbed. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and 1 t of za'atar for each eggplant half. Roast for 35-40 minutes until the tops have become golden brown and the flesh is soft. Remove from the oven.

While the eggplants are cooking, seed the pomegranate (I do it in a bowl of water to keep me and my walls from being speckled with red juice) and set the seeds aside. Then make the sauce. In a medium bowl whisk together the sauce ingredients until smooth. Taste for salt--you want it pretty salty since it'll disperse over the eggplant and be diluted--and adjust as necessary.

You can serve these with the eggplants warm or at room temp. Put an eggplant on a plate, generously top with the sauce, sprinkle on an abundant quantity of pomegranate seeds and then sprinkle each eggplant with 1 t of za'atar (or more!) and a grind of black pepper, then drizzle with a little olive oil. Put the bowls of sauce and seeds on the table so people can add more as they work their way through their eggplant half.

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* za'atar is a Middle Eastern spice mix composed of roasted thyme, sumac, sesame seeds and salt. I'm sure there are chi-chi spice shops that sell it for $10 for a 1/2 cup (no doubt with thyme harvested by elves at starlight and salt from the shores of Atlantis) but if you have a Middle Eastern market nearby, it is sold in 1 lb bags for $3-4.


Monday, January 06, 2014

Time to wake up

I've been letting this blog have a good well-deserved rest for the past year or so, but it's January 2014 and for some reason, old pessimistic me is thinking this is going to be a good year. And I'd like to share some of that goodness here.

I'm going to try and post once every two weeks (on average). Maybe more often than that.

A quick preview of what is to come:

I received two of Yotam Ottolenghi's cookbooks for Christmas, to join the one I already had:



I've been cooking out of all three and there are some real winners and favorites already emerging. Last night I made some amazing recipes from all three, but I'm out of practice and didn't take pictures. While Brian and I were gobbling it down (and he even declared it "gourmet") I thought, "I really need to share this with other people." So share here I shall.

I've been diligently updating my books read blog (and just started a new one for 2014) and I'll try to feature some more-than-just-a-blurb responses here on the main blog. 2013 ended with a superb run of grown-up fiction so I'll probably start with that.

And in the books + food category, I'm going to try and remember to bring my camera to my book group meetings this year. We're going on 14 years together and the book-themed meals are still fantastic.

And now for a little update on two of my former obsessions that are presently on the sidelines:

I probably won't be blogging about writing much. I'm presently working on two novels (early November was great! Then a period of fallowness and craziness and extreme non-writing followed) but despite being a realistic person, something about writing about my writing spooks me. I wouldn't go so far as to say "curse" but it feels like that. So other than possibly sharing a few resources that have helped "unstick" me when I've been stuck, don't expect much reflection on my own creative writing.

And my craftiness has definitely fallen by the wayside. I am knitting a super basic sweater now, but it isn't interesting, either to look at or to write about. I may feature some of my daughter's weird and wonderful creations (she's still at the age--10--where her imagination is uninhibited), but most of my crafting energy is spent figuring out ways to help her express her creativity which is far more visual than mine ever will be (her Christmas presents included whittling supplies, needle felting supplies and that ever popular medium, polymer clay).

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Not going to win prizes in the looks department....

The other day I made a soup that was oh so tasty but pretty damn ugly:


Let's face it, the inside of an eggplant is not exactly attractive and that's the main ingredient. If you take away the artfully scattered drops of lemon olive oil and the sprinkle of za'atar, then you are left with something that looks like sludge.  

But it's really tasty sludge. So this isn't a recipe that you are going to make for its looks. And looks aren't everything, right? The soup is makes up for it by being smokey, silky and piquant in every spoonful.  Did I also mention that it is ridiculously easy to make? I've made it three times in the last month and the recipe has been filed in my recipe binder--this one is a keeper, even if it isn't very pleasant to look at.


Smoky eggplant soup
adapted from this recipe in the New York Times

2 lbs eggplant(s)
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 cups sliced yellow onions
Salt and pepper
6 garlic cloves, minced
Pinch of cayenne
6 cups mild vegetable broth (I used this Better than Bouillon stuff and it works great here)
4 T lemon juice
1 tablespoon za’atar (Middle Eastern blend of thyme, sesame seeds, salt and sumac)
  • Poke a couple of holes in the eggplants with a paring knife, then place on a baking sheet under a hot broiler, about 2 inches from the flame. Cook until the skin has blackened and charred. Turn and cook on other sides until eggplant is soft and the skin is charred all around. This took me probably 10-15 minutes, keeping an eye on the eggplant and rotating it with tongs.  Set aside to cool, then remove and discard skins, scraping away any flesh that sticks to the skins (that's where you get the nice smokey flavor) then roughly chop the eggplant flesh.
  • Put the olive oil in a saucepan over medium-high heat. Add onion, season generously with salt and pepper, and cook until softened and beginning to color, about 5 minutes. Add garlic, cayenne and eggplant flesh and cook 1 minute more, then add broth and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer gently for 10 minutes. 
Either use your immersion blender and blend until smooth, or blend in batches in a regular blender. Add lemon juice to puréed soup and taste again, adding more as necessary. Soup should be well seasoned and rather lemony.
Top each serving with about a teaspoon of za'atar. 

(If you want the pretty lemon olive oil droplets to detract from the dinge, then mix a teaspoon of finely grated lemon zest with two tablespoons of olive oil and dribble a little over each serving. I thought it made a negligible impact on taste so I wouldn't make the effort, unless you are really worried about the sludge-look. And if you are really worried about the looks because you have some judgmental diners on your hands, then you probably also want to follow the original recipe and put some chopped parsley on top, too.)