Thursday, December 31, 2009

Fondue Dinner

A tradition new to us: fondue for New Year's Eve dinner. Broth with marinated meat, various vegetables, bread, and Miriam's suggestion: shrimp. And a huge selection of dipping sauces. If I photograph our dessert, I'll post it next year.

Happy New Year!

My Favorite Restaurants -- 2009

Happy New Year to all: may you enjoy many wonderful meals in 2010. I resolve to continue blogging what I eat as well as what my favorite fictional characters eat, and what I cook and read in the newspaper. How about you?
From Amsterdam Falafel in Washington D.C. (above) to sushi in Maui, from Ann Arbor to San Diego -- we've had some very good meals this year!

They really make great burritos here!

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Murder -- with recipes?

The Body in the Ivy by Katherine Hall Page was recommended to me because I love to interpret the meaning of food in mystery and detective fiction. Page takes this to a new level -- Faith Fairchild is an amateur detective and a caterer. The details of her meals and food ideas are far beyond what I think one needs to set the stage for several murders and their detection.

As far as I'm concerned, Fairchild's cooking is more believable than her detecting, which isn't much more penetrating than Nancy Drew. In the back of the book, in fact, one finds recipes: Asian Noodles with Crabmeat, Boeuf Bourguignon, Fennel Soup, Rhubarb Crumble, and Pelham Fudge Cake (named for Pelham, the fictitious women's school at the center of the story). These are among the very dishes Fairchild made for the island visitors who were gathered in an Agatha-Christie-country-house-like setting to solve a murder mystery leftover from their college days in the 1960s.

Yes, the author dropped Christie's name often. She is obsessed with brand names and what their users mean by using them. See the book cover I included with this review? That's what I kept thinking about: The Preppy Handbook, from 1980, which describes the Ivy-league millieu in which the original murder took place, the types of people who are guilty or suspected, and their brands of clothing, shoes, cars, depatment stores, and sports equipment. I recognized most of them. It's more than just stereotyped. The modern day parts of the book are nearly as brand-conscious as the flashbacks, but it seems slightly less forced. Faith Fairchild's food is also stereotyped -- sounds like the Silver Palate Cookbook.

My main problem with the book isn't the excessive stereotyping, as that's a common feature of some detective fiction. It's the lack of a clear point of view. In the middle of a passage about Fairchild's catering decisions, there's a reference to page 322 where you can get the fudge cake recipe; later, reference is made to the other recipes. This isn't a post-modern book, so the self-referential "this is a book with book apparatus" thing is very distracting. And instead of having Fairchild-as-detective pry stories out of the gathered suspects -- brought together artificially by the owner of the country house -- the author has alternate flashback chapters. These cover the college lives of each character, told omnisciently. Another viewpoint: the murders that take place during the story are told as experienced by each victim, but the passages don't reveal who the murderer was. I hate authors who do that, though I admit Agatha Christie was one of the worst.

All that trendy food just doesn't do enough for me to make up for what I see as the other deficiencies of the book. But I'm nevertheless grateful to my friend who recommended it. Next year, I resolve to try some additional food-themed mystery authors.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Dinner and a Movie

We ate at Coastal Flats, a very large restaurant specializing in seafood. My grilled fish with spinach, red pepper, and mushrooms was very nice. The busy kitchens are open to the large dining room. After dinner we saw "Avatar" the world's most successful movie of the moment. Many reviewers have noted that the visuals are beautiful -- true, but they aren't particularly imaginative. Nor are the plot, the characters, nor the predictable allegory of militarism, corporate greed, and selfish science vs. new age spiritual chanting and trees. Not my kind of movie.

Lemon Tart

Monday, December 28, 2009

New Yorker Article on Whole Foods

Food Fighter: Does Whole Foods’ C.E.O. know what’s best for you? by Nick Paumgarten is an interesting profile -- typically, a very long one. I read it online; it also appears in the current New Yorker. I didn't really want to know a lot of the stuff that was in it, but read through the whole article in a sort of transfixed uncomfortableness.

Last summer, John Mackey, the co-founder and current chief executive of Whole Foods, published a particularly nasty op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. I was so turned off that I stayed away from the store for several months. I knew that no actual boycott was functioning, but just could not stand to enrich a man who said that people would not need health care if they only ate right -- that is, bought their food at Whole Foods. And who said that the whole country didn't need to reform our health care system. (I'm not thrilled with the current status of that issue though I feel that it's going to improve, but that's not relevant here, really.)

The New Yorker article doesn't make me like John Mackey any better than I did before. If he would only shut up and stay out of my face, I'd be much happier shopping at his store. As I've probably made clear on this blog before, I find much to like about the fish, produce, dairy, and bakery products that Whole Foods stocks. And I'm quite aware that many people whose politics I don't like are enriched by my other shopping decisions, including grocery shopping decisions. Also, I think eating healthfully is a reasonable suggestion -- just that blaming everyone for every disease they might have is heartless. But Mackey's combination of arrogance, wing-nut ideas, and obnoxious theories really infuriates me.

So I wish he'd shut up or quit his company.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Lunch in Baltimore

After a visit to the National Aquarium in Baltimore, we walked to Fells Point for lunch at Bertha's, where the specialty is mussels -- these days, the mussels come from Maine (I bet they were once from Chesapeake Bay).

In the lobby Bertha's has a couple of miniature rooms on display.

Bertha's mussels are delicious. We ordered the plain steamed mussels with garlic butter -- mine had added basil. The building is very old with wainscotting, old-fashioned tables, and many old black and white etchings on the walls.

Bertha's kitchen is quite modern.

Just down the block is a gelato store. On the walk back, we stopped at Barnes and Noble, which is in a fantastic re-purposed power station. It reminded me of the Tate Modern. Alice posed in front of the display advertising "Diary of a Wimpy Kid."

I had affogato -- coffee with a scoop of chocolate gelato. Miriam and Alice had lemon and strawberry sorbet.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Christmas Dinner

Evelyn made a leg of lamb with mustard sauce from the Julia Child recipe in Mastering the Art of French Cooking. We ate it with salad, followed by freshly cut-up pineapple with strawberries and a few Lebkuchen. All delicious! Miriam and Alice wore their special dresses, though later Alice added a pirate hat, just in case she seemed to serious.

What do princesses eat?

"The Princess and the Frog" is a great fairy tale. The characters include the beautiful young Tiana (a girl with a dream), her hard-working parents, an evil New Orleans voodoo man, cajun fireflies, a jazz-playing alligator, a handsome prince, and magical Mamma Odie who can reverse an evil spell and ensure that Tiana becomes a princess. A complete fairy tale -- visually, musically, and magically. AND a culinary fable as well.

Tiana's dream -- to have a splendid and successful restaurant in the best part of New Orleans. At the very beginning of the movie, as a very tiny child, she cooks gumbo for her parents, and seasons it perfectly -- with Tabasco sauce!

After the brief introduction, we jump forward in time and she's a young woman, working overtime in a restaurant and saving money to buy a decrepit waterfront building where she imagines creating her restaurant. Reality is harsh -- she seems to have little chance to succeed. But she imagines cooking etouffee, gumbo, jambalaya, and all kinds of New Orleans dream food for people from all over, and imagines (in beautiful jazz-age imagery) the atmosphere of her wonderful restaurant.

But this is a fairy tale! A handsome though penniless prince arrives on a luxury liner, just in time for a big Mardi Gras party. Her first challenge: to make hundreds of beignets for her rich friend's party. Of course the movie then presents a great adventure -- lots of magic, voodoo, danger, characters of all species from human down to firefly, and comic action. For me, the emphasis on lots of New Orleans food and cooking is what makes it most special of all.

Disney is up to his usual tricks. Of course there's lots of merchandise for sale -- even a cookbook.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas Eve

Tom's tradition for Christmas Eve is sausage and sauerkraut. Here it is cooking (the sausage is reflected in the sauerkraut pot). Once on the table, it looked like a lot of sausage -- and it was. We enjoyed some Kona Brewing Company beer as well -- reminding us of our times on the Big Island. There's also lots of Lebkuchen waiting for us.

Earlier in the day, we visited the Terra Cotta Warriors at the National Geographic Society and walked to the White House to see the Christmas tree and Santa's workshop.

After dinner, Miriam and Alice gave and received a number of gifts. Among them were four puppets from the Augsburger Puppenkiste: der Lowe, Princess Li Si, Ursel the baby dragon, and Mikesch the cat.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Inspector's Dinner Party

Martin Beck, Chief Inspector in the National Homicide Squad of Sweden, was planning a dinner party for some of his friends on the police force -- his debut at entertaining after splitting from his wife. As we first encounter him in Murder at the Savoy, he's contemplating the evening's menu -- a challenge, since he doesn't really know how to cook. We also know -- as he doesn't as yet -- that a murder has occurred, and he'll soon be engaged in solving it. But meanwhile:
At five to seven he'd finished setting the table and surveyed his work.

There was matjes herring on a bed of dill, sour cream and chives. A dish of carp roe with a wreath of diced onion, dill and lemon slices. Thin slices of smoked salmon spread out on fragile lettuce leaves. Sliced hard-boiled eggs. Smoked herring. Smoked flounder. Hungarian salami, Polish sausage, Finnish sausage and liver sausage from Skane. A large bowl of lettuce with lots of fresh shrimp. He was especially proud of that, since he had made it himself and to his surprise it even tasted good. Six different cheeses on a cutting board. Radishes and olives. Pumpernickel, Hungarian country bread, and French bread, hot and crusty. Crusty butter in a tub. Fresh potatoes were simmering on the stove, sending out small puffs of dill fragrance. In the refrigerator were four bottles of Piesporter Falkenberg, cans of Carlsberg Hof and a bottle of Lojtens schnaps in the freezer compartment. (p. 26)
Martin Beck must have had a great delicatessen to shop at! After the dinner party is over, he takes charge of the case -- the murder of a despicable industrialist whose success depended on his maltreatment and exploitation of the poor and the working classes. Needless to say, by the end of the book the case is solved

Martin Beck is the principal hero of the series of books by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo. These in my opinion are excellent mysteries, set in Sweden in the late 1960s; I read them years ago and have been rereading them lately, thanks to a recent republication. If anything, I like them better now because the suspense still works, the characters still ring true, and the social observations (such as the detective's dinner menu) and the political thoughts (the authors are leftists) are almost like a time capsule. I find the pace fast, and the choices of which areas of the detectives' personal lives to relate just right. In other words, I may not be easy to please but I'm not impossible.

Lunch in Alexandria

Alexandria's Torpedo Factory contains a collection of art studios and galleries in the industrial building built before World War I. The factory was a supplier of torpedoes for both wars.

We looked at some wonderful fiber art, photography, painting, and ceramics. We enjoyed a demonstration of weaving metal wires, and Miriam and Alice made several rows on the loom, whose owner was an expert on historical weaving techniques. We played with interactive art, especially a painting at which you could shoot ping-pong balls from an air gun.

The inventive and wonderfully friendly artist of the interactive works recommended lunch at a restaurant named Mai Thai nearby. It has a beautiful view of the Potomac River and Washington DC on the other shore. After lunch we took a brief walk along the brick sidewalks in the neighborhood (top photos).

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Lunch in Fairfax

We ate breakfast at home, drove to the airport, and had lunch in Fairfax. We'll be here for almost 2 weeks! The piles of Lebkuchen here are spectacular.

Monday, December 21, 2009

P. D. James

In The Murder Room P.D. James begins with well over 100 pages of introduction, including character sketches of every major and some minor players in the up-coming murders. The first two murders and their investigation by detective Adam Dalgliesh are also presented in a leisurely and very detailed way.

One character, Tally, is especially carefully depicted, including her life story, her work as a housekeeper in a museum (the location at the center of the plot), her reaction to discovering the first victim, her relationship with her daughter, and her thoughts on the murders. She's a generous woman, and tries to help a young handyman, Ryan, about whom we also learn so much I find it overdone. For example, she invites him to eat his lunch at her cottage, though she really doesn't welcome his company or like his presence. Food becomes an emblem of this.
Today he had brought half a small loaf of sliced brown bread and a tin of sardines. The key of the tin snapped when he tried to unfurl the lid and he had to fetch a can opener from the kitchen. It proved too much for the tin and, uncharacteristically, he bungled the task, spurting oil onto the table-cloth. The smell of fish rose strongly filling the cottage. Tally moved to open the door and a window, but the wind was rising now.... Returning to the table, she watched as Ryan smeared the mangled fish onto the bread using the butter knife instead of the one she had set out for him. It seemed petty to protest, but suddenly she wished he would go. The scrambled egg had lost its appeal and instead she went into the kitchen and opened a carton of bean and tomato soup. (p. 101)
This scene precedes any murders. The level of detail about many other things in this long run-up to action is equal to this minuscule examination of lunch. Much as I love details about food, I'm overwhelmed by it.

Similarly, when investigation of the murder finally gets going, there are many interruptions for details of the lives and thoughts of Adam Dalgliesh and his colleagues -- even their lunch in a hospital cafeteria that he remembers from a much earlier visit:
The grey brick opposite the high arched windows reinforced the impression that he was in a church. The tables he remembered... had been replaced by sturdier Formica-topped tables, but the serving counter to the left of the door with its hissing urns and glass display shelves looked much the same. The menu too was little different: baked potatoes with various fillings, beans and egg on tost, bacon rolls, tomato and vegetable soup and a variety of cakes and biscuits. (p. 197)
Yes, it's good to learn about a typical institutional cafeteria at the beginning of the 21st century when the story takes place. Yes, I like food detail. No, this isn't really appropriate for the pace I'd like to see in a murder mystery.

"The Third Victim" -- final section of the book -- begins on page 347 with a long suspenseful day in the life of Tally. After that, with less than 50 pages to go, suddenly the author is in a huge rush, and the coverage of the detectives' final solution to the murders seems almost cursory. I find the early chapters to be excessively detailed, and the end to be too little. Adam Dalgliesh was very appealing on the PBS mystery series, and I generally liked the book, but I have a problem with this.

In case you are wondering, for some reason I've had P.D.James books on my list forever, and finally read this one. If I did read any in the past it was so long ago I don't recall doing it.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Food Gatherers

Hunger is here in my community, Ann Arbor. The economy is bad, and more people need help than ever. Demand for government programs and private food distribution has almost doubled in the past 5 years.

Food Gatherers is a local organization that tries to alleviate hunger, so I'm thinking about them -- and I've donated to them as well. Their purpose: "reducing food waste through the rescue and distribution of perishable and non-perishable food, coordinating with other hunger relief providers, educating the public about hunger, and developing new food resources."

Food Gatherers collects food from grocery stores and other sources. According to the local online news, "A large number of the local organizations that give out food receive the bulk of their food from Food Gatherers.... The organization also directly distributes food through its Neighborhood Grocery Initiative that serves 17 different apartment complexes or neighborhoods."

I spend a lot of time thinking about food in what may be a somewhat trivial way. I cook. I read about food in history and about food and cooking as reflected in literature. I write about food. I question what food is healthful, and read about food politics and controversies as to what is healthy to eat. I also try to think about people for whom even less-than-healthful food is a luxury, because they simply don't have enough to eat. So I'm thinking about Food Gatherers.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Symbolic Tastes

Because I try to look for food in almost everything I read, try to figure out what the author is doing with it, and then try to write it up briefly on this blog, I was interested in a brief post about food in fiction: "The exotic flavour of literary food" (posted at the Guardian online Books blog).

The author, Phil Hall, begins with a seasonal reference to the plum pudding served by Mrs Cratchit in "A Christmas Carol." He thinks the passage where Dickens describes the flaming pudding may "actually represent the victory of the literary imagination over taste." He also cites foods that are either imaginary or unfamiliar to readers, and how they nevertheless can sound delicious, both literally and symbolically -- he writes:
There is a strong synesthesia that takes hold of the reader when food is described in literature. A simple sketch easily conjures up the platonic essence of food and drink. When you read the description of frying kidneys at the beginning of Ulysses it is advisable to open the curtains and at least one window.

But the corollary of this is that no cherries will ever taste as delicious as the ripe cherries in The Snow Queen and no Martini will ever be able to match James Bond's in Casino Royale, shaken or stirred.
I'm not sure I have such a profound view of food in literature, myself. I usually find that it advances or reinforces some of the themes of the book. While it sometimes does sound delicious, I'm not sure about a question like this: "How about the Forbidden Fruit in Genesis, and was it really as good as the Russet Matthew Cuthbert gave Anne in Anne of Green Gables?" Food in books just doesn't grab me the way he describes. What's the matter with me?

Deli Stories

Last night our guests, inspired by latkes, were telling deli stories.

Peter once was in a play with the actor Sam Jaffe. When Jaffe heard that Peter was from Philadelphia, he asked about a particular deli there that had great latkes. Peter had been to that deli, but never tried the latkes. Jaffe told him to sit in a particular booth, and try the latkes, which Peter did. The latkes were delicious. Beside the booth was an autographed photo of the actor, inscribed "I'd walk to Philly in my gatkes just to eat some of these latkes." (Gatkes, I just learned, means long underwear in Yiddish.) The deli is no longer in business, says Peter. Wonder what happened to the photo.

Elaine and Bob were with friends at the Carnegie Deli in New York recently. The waiter brought a mile-high corned beef sandwich to the next table. Their friend remarked "It's ok, I'm a cardiologist."


What 5 pounds of potatoes looks like before & after peeling

Last night I made latkes for 14 people; total, two 5-lb. bags of potatoes plus a couple of yams. Like my fellow Missourian Tom Sawyer, I got my friends to help paint the fence -- so the guests brought classic brisket, Michigan salad (with dried cherries & blue cheese), applesauce, berry pie, lemon cake, candy, and wine. Result: a wonderful meal that no one person could possibly do alone, at least not me.

For years, I've been making latkes without a recipe, but the results were drifting, and I wasn't satisfied. So this year I decided to do some research to improve them. There are three steps: making batter, frying the pancakes, and keeping them until time to eat. Unless you have only a very small number of people, it's impossible to produce hot fresh latkes for everyone at one time. I practiced with a small batch last week. Yesterday I made one batch in the morning and one batch in the late afternoon. Here is what I learned.

Recipe: I started with a simple recipe from Claudia Roden's Book of Jewish Food.
  • Batch 1: For each pound of potatoes I used one egg, 1/2 a small onion (chopped), and some salt, pepper, and parsley flakes. I peeled & cut up the potatoes, keeping them in cold water to prevent discoloration. Using a food processor with a chute, I grated the potatoes into a large bowl of cold water, then wrung them out in a linen towel, squeezing really hard, and then mixed them with the other ingredients.
  • Batch 2: I added 2 jewel yams to the 5 lb. of potatoes, and substituted 2 bunches of green onions for the ordinary onion & parsley. Same method otherwise. At the end, I added extra eggs to the second batch (total 8 eggs), and also a very small sprinkle of matzoh meal. I think these came out better.
Frying: I realized that I have not in the past used a hot enough frying surface or a vast enough quantity of oil. By the end of the many many batches I made this year, I got this straight. Oil was flowing off the griddle and down into the little receptacle attached to the griddle, and the pancakes really sizzled when they hit the surface. I flattened each one and cooked them a long time to make them crisp.

Waiting: Joan Nathan's advice in various newspaper columns is to drain the hot latkes on a paper towel from the time you cook them until dinner (or freeze them if more than a day in advance, which I didn't do). Reheat them on a cookie sheet at 350º for 20 minutes. She says that refrigerating them makes them gummy. This advice worked for me!