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Saturday, October 28, 2006

The Queen

So, another rainy afternoon and another chance to see a movie. This time I opted for The Queen. It's essentially all about what went on behind the scenes at Balmoral Castle and the Blair household during the week of Princess Diana's death in 1997. This could so easily have just been a gossipy, tabloid-y thing. But - no. What a superb, perfect movie! The director wisely assumes that we already know what happened and has made a film that is really a psychological study of characters whom we all think we know well and may have preconceived or negative opinions about. We can, ultimately, understand and even sympathize with each of them. Extrapolate a bit, and we have a fine lesson in human relations.

I'm no professional film reviewer, but can comment on a few little things I appreciated. Always a sucker for interior detail, I adored the glimpses of the Balmoral kitchen and the jigsaw puzzle in the drawing room. Love the dead stag scene, the nose-blowing on the Hermes scarf, and the Range Rover breakdown (and the reminder that the Queen, then a young princess, had been a trained as a mechanic during WWII).

I was eleven when King George VI, the Queen's father, died suddenly in 1952. And I was reminded of the project that my cousin Nancy (visiting Bloomington from Texas that summer) and I undertook, which was to make her some handmade monogrammed stationery - something we thought a brand new Queen would be needing. We spent quite a bit of time on it, wrapped it carefully, and mailed it off to Buckingham Palace. Unless memory deceives, we actually received a thank-you note from a lady in-waiting (whom I pictured in medieval garb, as seen in some fairy tale book). I do remember our wondering whether, if she were to thank us, she would use our stationery, or some other kind. Those were simpler times, and the royals were objects of envy and respect, not ridicule. This movie helps put things into perspective.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears

This delightful Soviet film was made in 1979, and won the Oscar for best foreign film in 1980. I missed it, of course. I was in the midst of a demanding graduate school program then, after a twenty-year learning hiatus. Movies would have to come later - in some cases, much later. Like now. Our little local library is part of a large cooperative system that allows me to request virtually any film by searching on line and having it delivered to my home library, just a block away. All for free. I take full advantage of this wonderful system.

The first part of the story takes place in 1958. Three young women have come to Moscow where they live in a dormitory and find jobs as factory workers. They are desperate to find respectable, professional husbands, and go to some madcap extremes to accomplish this. Imagine "Laverne and Shirley" in Moscow, if you will. Then, for the second part of the movie, fast-forward twenty years to see what has become of them. Things haven't, of course, all turned out as expected. I've never seen a better depiction of day-to-day life in Moscow. A sitcom, yes, but more than that. I loved seeing the streets of Moscow, the nearby countryside, the picnics, the apartment interiors, offices, factories. It makes one wonder what the Cold War was all about. These people were our enemies?? Why? The acting is first-class. It's in Russian, of course with subtitles. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Gertrude Gaddis Price

It's October, 1966. Forty years ago, almost to the day. This is the Bloomington grandmother, holding her first-born great-grandchild, my first child, daughter G. By this time the cane (you can see it leaning against the chair) was a fixture. But the hat? What was that about? I don't remember questioning it; it must have been part of her "going out" uniform. She lived by herself, about half a mile away; my father routinely brought her to our house for the Sunday evening meal. She would always jump out of the car before the ignition was turned off. Now I realize she was probably excited; she had been waiting all week for this! So now we are in my parents' living room, in the big brick house. She always sat in that chair when she came over; I imagine most of the other options were too low and squishy - hard to get in and out of.

Ever since I was very small, people would see us together and remark how much we looked alike. I think it was meant as a compliment, but I never took it as such. I never could imagine why anyone would say that! Grandmother (that's what we called her) was always cheerful. She never even raised her voice except when she was in "back seat driver" mode. "Look out Herbert!", I can still hear her say to Fafa. She never learned to drive a car herself. We always took the bus when we went on our expeditions downtown to the movies, or to the five and ten. For groceries, the Piggly Wiggly was just two blocks away. She loved her bridge games and her crossword puzzles, and she was an enthusiastic Cubs fan.

Grandmother was the youngest of twelve children. I never knew any of them, but I used to love asking her to name them all. They had lived in nearby Carlock, Illinois, the town founded by her mother's family, and a streetcar-ride away for Sunday visits with her own young boys - my father and his brother, "Junior". She was a college graduate - unusual for a woman of her generation, though I never remember anyone commenting on it, and she taught school in a one-room country schoolhouse somewhere in Indiana for a few years. She loved to tell us about the first time an automobile went by; they could hear it in the distance, and she had plenty of time to round up the children and herd them outside to watch it pass.

She wasn't a traveler. She left Bloomington on only a few occasions. She and Fafa went to New York when my parents were married there in 1939. And they visited us in New Orleans when we living there during the war. The minute they arrived I announced: "I can count to 100 - 1, 2, 3, 4, 5...." That became a family story! We all had to move to a hotel the night the water rose and threatened to flood our corrugated metal "boat house". And they spent a few winter vacations in Coral Gables, Florida in the late forties and early fifties. She and Fafa both hated winter.

I'm a lot like her. In more ways than I'd like to admit.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Apple tarts


One of the best things I know of to do with apples is make these little tarts. They're a Patricia Wells adaptation of the ones from Poilane in Paris. (That's the real McCoy in the top photo.) As long as you have a round of pate brisee in the freezer they take no time at all. Sometimes I make one big tart, sometimes 4, sometimes 8 little ones....today I am making 6. Because the apples I had were small I used 6 instead of the usual 4. These are Empires, but any tart cooking apple works fine. Peel and cut them in 12ths and saute in half a stick of sweet butter and 1/4 cup of sugar til golden, about 15 minutes. Let cool slightly before assembling. After folding up the edges, brush with beaten egg. I love these new silicone brushes! (Are you wondering how I took the photo?)


As soon as they come out of the oven (about 20 minutes at 425 - a little longer if you like them darker ) sprinkle each tart with a little brown sugar. Here I'm using turbinado, but I think regular light brown sugar works even better. It adds a little crunch.


Dinner is served. The wine is the Delicato chardonnay from Saratoga. I like it very much!

Monday, October 23, 2006

What's this?


It must be a special occasion. Thanks, H and D!

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Art walk




Today I went on an "art walk". It was billed as "40 juried artists exhibiting in 40 venues througout Montclair Center". A few of the venues were bona fide galleries; most were ordinary shops, many of which I'd never set foot in before, and not all of which provided ideal hanging space. In most cases, the artists were on hand (in their "venues") and happy to discuss their work. There was wine, cheese, all sorts of cookies and cakes. It was a pleasant way to spend an hour or two on a Sunday afternoon.

Listening

I can walk to the library, the train, the post office, the drugstore, the diner - I can even walk to a waterfall. But most days I find myself getting into the car, even though the destination is rarely more than twenty minutes away. So I like to have something to listen to. Those "twenty minuteses" add up, and you can read/listen to a lot of books in the course of a year. Not all books work well for me in audio format. But this one was a winner.

I never read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time when it was new (2003, I think). I enjoyed it so much that I found myself manufacturing errands just so I could continue to listen. Michiko Kakutani, on the jacket blurb, wrote " to get an idea of what Mark Haddon's moving new novel is like, think of The Sound and the Fury crossed with The Catcher in the Rye and one of Oliver Sacks' real life stories". That's a start. Christopher Boone, the narrator, is a teenage savant/math whiz with Asperger's Syndrome. He finds a neighbor's dog stabbed by a garden fork, and sets out to find the murderer and write a book about it a la Sherlock Holmes, whom he admires. It's funny, sad, moving, surprising, educational. At the supermarket I found myself wondering, a la Christopher, whether I qualified for the "12 items or less aisle" with my 3 rolls of toilet paper (1 item or 3?) and 2 Anjou pears (1 item or 2?). Highly recommended.

And now it's back to the language tapes which will do fine til I can get to the library and get another "book" - tomorrow, most likely.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Beautiful Soup

Today is a soup day. I'll make enough to share with H&D. Here are some of the raw materials. Aren't they pretty?

First, the butternut squash soup. I like to start by roasting the squash in a hot oven til it's tender and slightly caramelized. Cutting it in quarters is easier and safer than trying to do a single lengthwise cut, since once you've made the crosswise cut you can put the flat ends of the two pieces down on the board to make the second cuts. After it's cooked it's simple to just lift off the skin with the help of a paring knife. I saute a chopped onion and apple in a little canola oil, together with the spices (cumin, ginger, and ancho chile powder), then add water and the squash and cook together a while. Add seasoning (salt and pepper, that is), some coconut milk, a little cream and a little orange juice. Whiz with a stick blender and it's done. I found the dried coconut milk at an Asian market. One little package is equal to quite a few cans, and takes up no space at all in the cupboard. Cheaper, too.


The cauliflower soup starts out the same way - the cauliflower is roughly sliced, tossed with a little oil and salt, and roasted in the oven. Onions are sauteed in butter, along with some curry powder (sometimes I use smoky paprika instead), then the cauliflower is added, along with some chicken stock, water, and seasonings. The liquid should just barely come up to the level of the vegetables. Sometimes I add a potato into the mix, but not today. The stick blender is used again, though this time I keep it a little chunky. There are really no rules about soup.



Chopped parsley is added at the end, along with a little cream and nutmeg. I saw Lydia Bastianich use a mezzaluna like this on TV once and hinted to The Daughters that I'd like one. Thanks, Z! I use it all the time!

Friday, October 20, 2006

Movies

It's a rainy afternoon and I'm thinking I'll go see a movie later. There are three good options, all starting at the same time: The Queen, Marie Antoinette, and The Prestige. I'll probably opt for the latter.

I remember the day when my Bloomington grandmother and I saw three different movies in a row at three different theaters: we trooped from the Irvin to the Castle to the Esquire. I guess it hadn't been important to coordinate the starting times; nobody thought too much about seeing a movie from the beginning - you just showed up. You sat there, through the newsreels and the "coming attractions" and the cartoons, and got up and left when you came to the place where you had arrived. Maybe that's where the expression "this is where I came in" comes from? In any case, people would be popping up and down, entering and leaving, all through the movie. That's just the way it was.

UPDATE: I wouldn't rush out to see The Prestige. There's so much jumping back and forth in time and between switched identities you just end up confused and not really caring what the twists all mean. There is, however, an undeveloped subplot involving the rivalry between Edison and Tesla (TESLA - that familiar crossword friend!) that left me wanting to know more. I've heard a lot of friends rave about The Illusionist, also about nineteenth century magicians, and wish I'd seen that instead. Oh well.

UPDATE: I see that PBS did a special on Tesla in 2004. This explains the Colorado interlude that the movie (and presumably the book) describes.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Down the shore


Here in New Jersey we don't go to the beach or to the seashore; we go "down the shore". A popular summer weekend destination, to be sure, but many of my contemporaries have chosen to live there year-round now. A day spent here with good friends and good food transports me briefly to another world. An option for me? No, not really. But a lovely change of pace.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Garden Club

The wonderful Helen Hokinson (clearly an important influence for Kay Kato, by the way) drew this in the 1940's.

These photographs were taken by me today. There is something reassuring and gentle to be part of something that has changed so little over time. The lecture, held in a different space, was by an eminent rosarian. We learned about easy-to-grow floribundas. Then, as always, we adjourned for tea and cookies and tiny sandwiches, and to admire the horticultural specimens (individual twigs and snips and branches, all individually judged and commented upon) and floral arrangements in different "classes" (novice, intermediate, etc.). I'm an "intermediate", if you must know, but didn't compete today.

Festivals I missed out on


Weekend before last (when the gang was here) the New Yorker held its annual "festival". I recently discovered that several of the events were taped, and can be viewed here. The Steve Martin/Roz Chast talk was one I might have signed up for. Chast, looking like a refugee from one of her own drawings, is charming, and it's good to hear Martin make the point that her work is literature as well as visual art as, indeed, it is. Worth watching, even though they mostly just look at a bunch of cartoons and read them aloud.

On a far more serious note, I also liked and learned from the discussion on the poorly titled (according to most of the panelists) "Islam and the West". The others I haven't watched yet.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Heat


I've finished this now, having first mentioned it a few posts ago. I have already passed my library copy on to H&D (14 days, non-renewable - don't forget to take it back!). For those who don't know, Bill Buford was the fiction editor of the New Yorker and founding editor of the literary journal Granta when, as an amateur cook, he had the chutzpah to invite Mario Batali to dinner. One thing leads to another, and before long he is working as a prep cook at Babbo, after which we find him in Italy learning to make hand-rolled pasta, and working as an apprentice to a crazyTuscan butcher.

I loved this book! Among other things, and in no particular order, here are nuggets I came away with:

1. The importance of the acidity factor in cooking (Mario learned this from Jeremiah Tower.)
2. Chicken feet are the secret ingredient in the Babbo chicken stock.
3. If you plan to saute greens in a dish, boil them first to make sure they are tender.
4. The immigrant population New York today is 40%, the same as in 1892.
5. A stuffed bird will cook more slowly than an unstuffed one and will end up being more tender because of it.
6. At Babbo fresh pasta is frozen in baggies in portion-size amounts which are then cooked to order. (One could do this at home.)
7. Never eat late (or just before closing time, that is) at a restaurant. The kitchen will be in chaos and the cooks will all be drunk.
8. How to make a perfect pasta with clams.
9. Mario has a "secret sauce" involving yogurt, red hot chiles, and red peppers. It goes on the plate under the entree and blends imperceptibly with the meat juices.
10. Babbo pasta is made with the 3 eggs and 8 yolks per 1 lb of flour (plus water, salt, and dribble of olive oil).
11. Think twice before eating in restaurants in the winter, realizing that there is no such thing as a "sick day" for the cook staff.
12. It is very worth seeking out a source of grass-fed meats.

And per this last item, I have read elsewhere that grass-fed cattle (as compared to corn or grain fed ones, organic or not) are much less apt to harbor the e-coli bacteria in their intestines, meaning that crops (such as spinach!) which are fertilized with their manure are also worth seeking out.

Fortunes of War

. What was I doing in 1987? Not, as it turns out, watching this great miniseries on Masterpiece Theater. A friend who raved about the book (BalkanTrilogy, by Olivia Manning) steered me to it and I was able to get it from the library on DVD. A little slow-starting, but mesmerizing once you are into it. The story takes place in Bucharest, Athens, and Cairo on the eve of World War II. Brilliant acting (Thompson and Branagh acting together for the first time), and best of all - the kind of photography and scenic detail - costumes, furniture, architecture, planes, trains - that only the BBC and Merchant Ivory can pull off.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Labradoodle and keytar

Two new words today. The NY Sun crossword theme was back-to-back portmanteau words. The three long theme answers were HERSTORYCHUNNEL, LABRADOODLESKORT and SPANGLISHKEYTAR. I was able to finish the puzzle from the crossings, but had to look up "labradoodle" and "keytar" later. Did you all know those already?

Green smoothies

I'm no stranger to smoothies. The first ones I made, decades ago, tended to involve frozen strawberries and/or bananas, and some kind of dairy product - buttermilk, yogurt, skim milk.... The idea was to have a yummy and easy way to get some fruit and some dairy into your diet. But green smoothies? These are utterly new to me. And the ones H made for us were delicious - good enough to warrant further research and experimentation.

They seem to be part of the "raw foods" movement. Not something I know a lot about, or want to know more about. Give up cooking? No way! I understand that the inventor is a none-too-svelte Russian woman who has such bad teeth that she is unable to chew vegetables without pain; hence she began to throw them into smoothies, along with the fruit. Should this inspire confidence?

The very simple premise is that you make an ordinary fruit smoothie and add fresh greens to the mix. The usual proportion is something like 60/40 fruit/greens. The remarkable result is that as long as you don't go overboard with the greens (usually lettuce, bok choy, kale, spinach, arugula, watercress, chard, or parsley) the flavor of the fruit will prevail and the greens will provide two things: the typical bright green color, and a je ne sais quois "grassy", or "fresh" quality.

You can follow a detailed discussion of the trend and find a bunch of sample recipes here. As you will discover, practically anything goes.

The ones H made began (and these are proportions for two) with a blender stuffed 3/4 full with torn kale leaves (no ribs) to which she added 1 T flaxseed oil and 1 cup almond milk. She liquified this, then added 1 peeled Valencia orange, a banana, a handful of blueberries, and a couple of ice cubes. Then she blended it all together til smooth. The dominant taste was of the orange. With not unpleasant grassy overtones. I commented that I thought you could serve it up as a cold soup at a fancy dinner and get raves. It really was that good.

I'm wondering about the almond milk, though. It's true that it's tasty and sweet, but it's not as calcium-rich as regular milk or yogurt which, for me, might be a better choice. After all, I have no issues with dairy. I think the flax is a good idea (I'm using the seed, not the oil); it's any easy way to sneak in some healthy Omega 3's. The greens are a novelty to be sure, and full of healthy vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, but I need to remember that I don't have any special problem with eating greens in other ways; I make lots of soups, stews, stir-frys. I don't see a need to suddenly make all my smoothies green ones.

But I'm intrigued. I plan to play around with it. Not go overboard - all things in moderation, after all. If you try it and make a good one, be sure to post the results here!

Update: though I'm already a little bored with these I am interested in the comment about the lemon. I made some wonderful butternut squash soup today (an "orange smoothie", if you will) and felt it needed a little something at the end. A splash of orange juice brightened it right up; some fresh lime juice would have done the same. I am reading (simultaneously) Bill Buford's "Heat" and Sally Schneider's "The Improvisational Cook". Both have me thinking a lot about how flavors work together - balancing the sweet, the salty, acidity, heat. For these smoothies to be successful they have to really work on every level; it's not enough just to cram a lot of nutrition in there. I'm thinking that developing a repertoire of savory "shakes" (soups, really - more like gazpacho) might be a direction to move in. But I also think it's a texture thing; you can't just puree everything you eat unless your teeth hurt nonstop.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Happy Birthday!


A gala dinner at H's last night, where we celebrated a milestone birthday for G, a few days in advance of the official date. We returned for breakfast and H served and taught us how to make "green smoothies". More about these in a future post. Had to go to Whole Foods later to stock up on kale, almond milk, flaxseed....like penance.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Puzzle

An amusing quote in a movie review yesterday inspired me to create a short double crostic puzzle. It's pretty easy. For now, it's here on the Double Crostic Site if you'd like to try it. Click on "bonus" in the left hand column.

If you haven't done one of these before, the idea is this: fill in as many of the definitions in the right hand column as you can. When you run out of steam, you can begin to work backwords by guessing words in the now partially filled-in quote, which will, in turn, provide helpful letters in the definitions. Also, the first letters of the definitions, reading down, will spell out the names of the author and the title of the quote. Good solvers work back and forth until the quotation has revealed itself.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Sketchbooks at the Fogg

I'm hoping I can fit in a trip to Boston before this exhibit at the Fogg Museum in Cambridge closes. But if not, it's possible to view the whole thing on line. Of course there's no substitute for the real thing, especially with something as intimate and tactile as a sketchbook, but it seems to me that if you go there you're going to be limited to seeing just a few pages at a time, right? In the virtual exhibit you get to see every page of every sketchbook. I love this trend for museums and galleries to make their collections digitally available.

Waiting

Interesting article in the NYT today about the custom, in rural China, of arranging marriages for "dead bachelors". It's not my normal style to comment on random news like this, but I am finally reading "Waiting", the National Book Award winner by Ha Jin from several years ago. (I tend to be hopelessly out of sync in nearly all my reading and movie-going.) Like the Times article, this wonderful book is a glimpse into a remote and rarely seen world by a hugely talented writer. Highly recommended, and yes- that's the State Street Grill again.

Update: I should have pointed out this most interesting AGNI interview with the author. (Note that I needed no prompting whatsoever to add this!)

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

The Cheese Stands Alone

I was late for the lunch that precedes the Wednesday bridge today because, as I pulled out of the driveway, I noticed the moving van at the Lubins' house across the street. Of course I had to stop and say goodbye. They've been there for 27 years, which is no match for my 33 years. We were among the youngest in the neighborhood then; now there's no question that I'm the oldest. How come I don't feel old?

Monday, October 02, 2006

Tagliatelle


NY Times critic Frank Bruni demoted Italian celebrity restaurant Da Silvano from 2 stars to 1 last week, but in the process, wrote, "my favorite was taglierini contadina: narrow, flat noodles with crumbled sausage, peas, cream and tomato, coexisting in blissful harmony". My Googling skills failed me when I tried to track down the recipe, although I felt I could most likely improvise, given the description. But I found the cookbook at a giveaway price on half.com (I know, I know - just what I need - another cookbook) and it arrived today. In the book it's called Tagliatelle Contadina and I'll be making it soon. Quite a number of other temptations in there, too.

Mysterious Blondes

Grabbing a coffee to go this morning on the way to the garden club meeting I'm greeted by name by an attractive blonde. I return the cheerful hello, but - who is it? I don't think I'm losing my memory - I think it's more about my contemporaries all changing their hair color. I'm more than a little tempted to do it myself. But I know what would happen. It would be yet another thing to do - another thing I wouldn't stay on top of. I can't even seem to remember to get it cut. Oh well. At least people will continue to recognize me. Some things will never change.