Tuesday, June 30, 2009

"The Snack Thief"

Andrea Camilleri's detective, Inspector Salvo Montalbano, has individualistic and even eccentric habits -- as do most of the heroes of police procedural detective stories. The Sicilian setting where he works (a renamed version of the Sicilian city of Agrigento) provides a colorful background: another essential for a good suspense tale. Bumbling or otherwise inept subordinates and variously ineffectual superiors leave Montalbano to face his challenges pretty much alone: a third element of a successful contender in this genre of fiction. The inspector's private life, including a beautiful girlfriend from northern Italy, constantly has to be put on hold as he becomes absorbed in solving his case -- also typical. In my opinion, skillful use of the norms of genre fiction leads to success: that's what I think Camilleri does.

Camilleri's 14 novels about the inspector (ten available in English) have sold many millions of copies. However, I admit, I just heard of him this week when reading The Oxford Companion to Food. Inspector Montalbano, you see, is a great gourmet with a prodigious appetite. He particularly loves Sicilian seafood dishes -- so much that the food descriptions from the stories are cited in something like ten entries in this encyclopedia! Sicily has been a seafood-loving and innovating country since the time of Odysseus: the mosaic in the illustration -- showing a fish that will no doubt soon be someone's dinner -- is from the Roman villa at Piazza Armerina, a few hours' drive from Agrigento. We made the drive (and took the photo) in 2002; on that visit, we stayed at a resort-hotel very near Camilleri's birthplace, Porto Empedocle, adjacent to Agrigento. Of course this makes the books even more appealing to me.

In The Snack Thief, the first Montalbano Mystery I've read (third in the series), the inspector is faced with two murders: a middle-class retired businessman found stabbed in the elevator of his apartment building, and a Tunisian fisherman on a boat just outside Italian territorial waters.

At the beginning, the police commissioner invites Montalbano for a dinner of "black spaghettin in squid ink. It's delicious." (p. 6) However, he becomes too immersed in following his case, and repeatedly has to call and cancel a series of promised meals at his boss's house.

As the inspector intensely follows the leads on the case, however, he stops around every 10 pages for a meal or a snack. Some delicious ones:
  • "Bring me a generous serving of the hake [in anchovy sauce]," he asks at lunch, just after beginning his investigation. He also orders "a nice plate of seafood antipasto. He was overcome by doubt. Was that a light meal? ... Eight pieces of hake arrived, enough to feed four people. They were crying out in their joy... at having been cooked the way God had meant them to be. One whiff was enough to convey the dish's perfection, achieved by the right amount of breadcrumbs and the delicate balance between the anchovies and the whisked egg. ... He let the flavor spread sweetly and uniformly over his tongue and palate." (p. 29-30)
  • "The woman [an elderly Tunisian] was crushing minced meat in a mortar, folding in grains of cooked wheat. On a platter beside her, all ready to be roasted, were some skewers of meat, with each morsel wrapped in a vine leaf.... Montalbano wasn't too thrilled with the kubba, but the kebabs had a tart, herbal flavor that made them a little more sprightly, or so, at least, he defined them according to his imperfect use of adjectives." (p. 79-80)
  • "He set the table, then looked in the fridge and found the pasta 'ncasciata [translator's note -- a casserole of ... elbow macaroni, penne, ziti, mezzi ziti, or something similar -- tomato sauce, ground beef, Parmesan cheese, and bechamel] and veal roulade from the day before. He put them in the oven at low heat... The delicious meal... prevented him from getting as angry as he would have liked." (p. 124-5)
  • "He drew up a rapid, unhappy inventory: as a first course, he could make a little pasta with garlic and oil; as a second course, he could throw something together using sardines in brine, olives, caciocavallo cheese, and canned tuna." (p. 132-33)
  • "He gobbled up a saute of clams in bread-crumbs, a heaping dish of spaghetti with white clam sauce, a roast turbot with oregano and caramelized lemon, and he topped it all off with a bitter chocolate timbale in orange sauce." (p. 225)
Does this explain why this author is so often quoted in a cooking encyclopedia? Oh, yes -- the title of the book is also food related: a child who holds a key to the murders is abandoned, and begins to steal snacks -- such as an omelet -- from other children.

For some reason, we took a photo of a police car while staying at the resort and sightseeing the ancient Greek ruins that attract tourists and historians to the region, along with the fantastic food.

Monday, June 29, 2009


Zuppa Inglese is approximately equal to an English Trifle, according to the very last entry in the encyclopedic Oxford Companion to Italian Food by Gillian Riley. For several days, I've been browsing through this unusual work.

The book doesn't look unusual -- letter by letter, it goes through ingredients (like the first entry, abbacchio, which refers the reader to see LAMB), regions of Italy, classic dishes, food writers, famous Italians (if they had something to say about food), and concepts like SLOW FOOD and FAST FOOD. It has illustrations -- black and white, a bit grainy. It has consistent cross references. After Z there's a bibliography and an index; the front matter is also complete.

But the content reflects the author's ideas, which are interesting, and I would say, unusual.
  • First, it's fabulously historical -- for example, the entry on Sicily begins at the beginning of history, when Greeks and Phoenicians began to colonize the territory already inhabited by local people. In the Odyssey, the Cyclops adventure took place on Sicily -- and one thing the Cyclops did was to make cheese. Myth or reality? "By 400 BC, Sicilian salt pork and cheese were being exported to Greece," we learn. Also, "Mithaikos, the first celebrity chef, is said to have migrated ... from his native Syracuse [in Sicily] to Greece."
  • Second, the author makes such interesting connections. Zuppa Inglese, or trifle, for example, is linked to many other egg-custard-based desserts -- lighter versions, flummery, syllabub, dishes "where slices of bread are toasted or fried then allowed to absorb a liquid," bread-and-butter puddings, savory bread puddings, budins, other cake and custard dishes, tiramisu, and by implication related custards such as creme brulee.
  • And third, the work makes such wonderful use of Italian literary food references and even art references, such as the citrus fruits that appear in the works of Andrea Mantegna. I think I've in fact been introduced to a new mystery writer that uses food in his works -- I'll post more when I've followed it up.
In all -- I love browsing in this book. It's a really different experience from online browsing!

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Thanks to Lydia!

Now that I'm in my own kitchen, I feel like trying new recipes and buying new condiments. Today's experiment involved sriacha sauce, an Indonesian hot sauce, recommended by Lydia at The Perfect Pantry. I was inspired by these posts: Coconut milk (Recipe: chicken satay) and Sriracha sauce (Recipe: Asian broccoli slaw).

I did make the broccoli slaw, with several items from Trader Joe's and sriracha from Whole Foods, and used the coconut milk marinade on some beef satay. I bought some peanut sauce from the trader too. I admit to adding sriracha pretty liberally to everything, actually. A real change to what I've been cooking. Thank you, Lydia! Now I have a number of new items to try. And the sriracha sauce was just the right heat.

Friday, June 26, 2009


Little tiny hamburgers have an appeal. They are cute, like anything smaller than expected. At Vinology in downtown Ann Arbor, they come with several flavors of in-house catsup. Unlike Heinz catsup, they are spicy not sweet -- I suspect that they contain no corn syrup! Miss Piggy says one should never eat anything bigger than one's head -- even smaller is even better (though an order of these little burgers includes three of them).

We've been back in Ann Arbor for almost two weeks, and have enjoyed seeing friends, unpacking, and getting our house in order. We have waited a while to go to a restaurant here as we had such a big week or two saying goodbye to all the restaurants in La Jolla and the rest of the San Diego area, and were a little afraid our hometown restaurants would suffer in comparison. We were glad we chose Vinology, since it's quite a good restaurant, and we enjoyed visiting with our friends Elaine and Bob during dinner there.

The creme brulee, lemon-blueberry cake, and berry crisp were all really delicious for dessert.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Food Safety Enhancement Act of 2009

In response to a question about my most recent post, "What is a farm?" -- I looked for more information on the food safety legislation now before the Committee on Energy and Commerce. The committee's official report:
The Committee on Energy and Commerce held a markup to consider "H.R. 2749, the Food Safety Enhancement Act of 2009" on Wednesday, June 17, 2009, in 2123 Rayburn House Office Building. The legislation grants the Food and Drug Administration the authorities and resources it needs to better oversee the safety of the nation's food supply. The legislation also increases industry's responsibility for overseeing the safety of their own products and provides FDA with new and enhanced tools to hold them accountable when they fail.
Besides the article I cited yesterday, there have been other responses to the inadequacy of this bill to accomplish the protection of the food supply by added regulatory provisions (I count around 37 provisions in the text of the bill, which is VERY long). For example, an L.A.Times editorial -- "The proposed Food Safety Enhancement Act is missing some ingredients" -- calls the legislation "weakened by deal-making. Instead of phasing in a system that would track the origins of ingredients in processed foods, the measure now orders the FDA to study the issue." In particular, the editorial states: "Congress should restore the tracking provision to a bill that otherwise contains many of the elements for meaningful reform."

The committee has recommended it be considered by the House as a whole. It's not clear how soon it might actually be discussed or pass, and whether the interests of big agriculture will take away the things we need, and allow big agriculture to once again thwart the wishes of consumers to be able to obtain small-scale production from small farmers.

Monday, June 22, 2009

What is a farm?

The Food Safety Enhancement Act, which was passed by the House Energy and Commerce Committee last week, appears to have some quite disturbing provisions. It would affect many of the small farmers who bring their produce to the Ann Arbor Farmers Market, if I correctly read this: Politics of the Plate: Family Farms or “Facilities”? -- Why the new Food Safety Enhancement Act could spell trouble for small farmers by Barry Estabrook. He writes:
Although “farms” are technically exempt from many of the new regulations intended for processing plants, the bill plays fast and loose with the definition of a farm, according to the Defense Fund. For instance, a farmer would no longer be considered a farmer if she sold jam made from fruits produced on her farm. She would become a “facility,” subject to a $1,000 annual fee, and would be required to conduct a full hazard analysis, to maintain detailed records, and to submit to regular FDA inspections. A farmer who made cheese only from his own cows’ milk would still be a farmer. But if he bought milk from a neighbor, he, too, would become a “facility.” An Amish producer who failed for religious reasons to register in an electronic format, as required by the law, would be in violation of the act, and like any violator, subject to fines of $100,000 per day, or up to ten years in jail.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Ann Arbor Farmers Market -- YES!

I am a coward -- here on offer is the latest food fad, garlic spikes, and I didn't have the energy to buy & try them. I only bought strawberries and sugar peas, a few geraniums, and some lamb from Ernst Farms. But I was very happy to be here: it's a much bigger selection of fresh food than in La Jolla, even though only a few spring fruits and vegetables are yet available.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Airplane Kitchen

Most airline food service has been curtailed, but today we were flying first class (thanks to years of accumulated miles) so Northwest-in-transition-to-Delta gave us lunch from the little galley. Of course it was only stored in the galley, not prepared there.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

One more dinner

In the freezer there was one last package of salmon fillets from Trader Joe's, which I broiled with a red pepper. And a bit of yogurt made dressing for the last 1/2 a cucumber, on a bed of lettuce, one last local lemon ... just what was left ...
... and now the oven is self-cleaning, the dishwasher is running, the last clothes are in the dryer, and we think we will be out of here in the morning and home by night in Ann Arbor.

Goodbye, Piatti. Goodbye, La Jolla

Lunch today was at the beautiful courtyard of Piatti, which is quite near our condo. Many other guests were celebrating UCSD commencement, which is taking place this weekend -- they were in big family groups or groups of students hosted by one or two parents.

We ordered brunch: sweetbreads and mushrooms over scrambled eggs and "Uovos Benedettos" which is their attempt -- I guess -- to make Eggs Benedict sound Italian. (The menu also literally translated "French Toast" which I would bet isn't the Italian name for it -- after all the French call it "Pain Perdu"). Translation oddities aside, we enjoyed the food. Very rich and decadent. We couldn't even think about dessert.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Fine Food

My last bite of beet salad at dinner tonight at Whisk & Ladle in La Jolla
Len's moules frites
My spaghetti with chunks of lobster flavored with mint
Dessert-- my clafoutis with ice cream; Len's house-made coffee ice cream

Taste of Thai

Virginia and Herb, friends for a long time, took us to the restaurant Taste of Thai in the Hillcrest area of San Diego -- a new experience for us. We enjoyed visiting with them one more time before our departure, and enjoyed a brief walk around this laid-back neighborhood of restaurants, used books, coffee shops, and vintage clothing stores with flared-skirted dresses and Hawaiian shirts displayed on very retro mannequins.

We found the Thai food really delicious. Herb had his favorite, which he says he always orders here: Gaeng Mussaman Kai curry, which is chicken and potatoes in curry sauce. Virginia had the Thai boat -- a mixture of fish and vegetables cooked in a foil "boat." I ordered fish fillets with ginger sauce, served on a fish-shaped dish. Len ordered the duck, which is covered with a sweet-sour curry sauce. We shared platters of appetizers, including gyoza, spring rolls, skewered chicken, shrimp coated with shreds of deep fried somethingorother, and a selection of dipping sauces. I loved every bite!

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Picking up raisins

At the Elephant Odyssey, which recently opened at the San Diego Zoo, the keepers show visitors what the elephants can do. One keeper was spreading raisins and pieces of squash a little out of sight, and showing how the elephant could feel around, find the food, and pick up individual pieces in her trunk. This elephant, he said, is 38 years old, and had a long career in things like advertising before retiring to the zoo. The new Elephant Odyssey is really fun to see.

At one point, the elephant started to walk away. "Wait up," said the keeper, and the elephant stopped immediately and came back to where he was feeding her.

Bismillah Pakistani Restaurant

We ate dinner with Lori, my fitness trainer (in pink sweater), her husband (next to Len), and some of their friends and neighbors. The spinach with paneer cheese, rice pilaf, aloo gobi, meat koftas, chicken tikka, and various breads were all really delicious. Somehow we communicated just how hot we liked the food -- at least for me, it was just the right level.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Vitta's Designer Kitchen

Above: Vitta and Soni, two of my friends from fitness classes, in Vitta's kitchen.

My friend Vitta is a gifted interior designer, and her own home is a magnificent example of her skill. Her high-ceilinged kitchen has a number of imaginative details and beautiful appliances and gadgets. Above the tops of the very tall cabinets are glass-fronted display cases, lit to show a collection of glass and ceramic items. Also notable: the pull-out pantry between the refrigerator and ovens, the tempered-glass hood over the cooktop, and the built-in espresso coffee maker (though she says she has not used it). I loved seeing Vitta's kitchen!

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Politics of the Potato Famine

I am continuing to read The Potato: How the Humble Spud Rescued the Western World -- as I described here. (Illustration: Irish countryside from my most recent trip to Ireland.)

The misery caused by the potato crop failure in the 1840s in Ireland is a familiar topic, which the author covers in detail, illustrating the failure of social institutions -- both public and private -- to prevent mass starvation. He describes how the English, who governed Ireland at the time, handled the social issues of that time, comparing their approach to the way we handle the same issues.

"The Great Famine evokes familiar images from political and social discourse," he states, continuing "we still wrestle with many of the social-welfare devices and issues that emerged from the Great Famine: graft, bureaucratic fumbling, public works, means tests, taxpayers' rage, conflicts over what charity is. ... Political winds blow back and forth between whether government should leave matters to the private sector. President Ronald Reagan, for one, championed private charity, an ironic position given his family history. His paternal great-great-grandfather, it is said, emigrated from county Tipperary to England during the famine."


The other day at Whole Foods, I bought myself a monster cupcake. I didn't actually eat the whole thing. First it had been given a rather hard chocolate dipped coating, and then the top was sliced off and chocolate butter cream put between the layers -- along with a couple of eyes that made it into a monster.

In another burst of self-indulgence, we ate breakfast out. Lemon ricotta pancakes and French toast with apple filling, whipped cream, and syrup. And yes, it's ironic that I am eating so well while reading about the Irish Potato Famine, but that's just the way it is.

Friday, June 05, 2009

The Potato

The Potato: How the Humble Spud Rescued the Western World by Larry Zuckerman begins with several chapters that detail the introduction of the potato into England, Ireland, France, and colonial North America. That's how far I've read. Zuckerman's bibliography underscores what's obvious in the book: he used a lot of original sources such as diaries and early government surveys to figure out about agricultural economies. This makes for occasionally challenging reading. I've read about potato history before, mainly The History and Social Influence of the Potato by Redcliffe N. Salaman and portions of more general food histories. I was thus aware of the superior nutritional values of the potato compared to other foods, and of the resistance that European populations -- even poor hungry ones -- had to its adoption.

Zuckerman highlights another important difference between potatoes and grain staples. The potato cooks quickly. Fuel for cooking (as well as for heating homes) was often an issue in early modern history. Rapidly growing European populations had not only strained the resources for growing food, but also had stripped forest areas clean. Coal was often expensive, especially where it had to be transported. Roasting or boiling a potato was fast and easy compared to baking bread or even to making porridge or soup, and for this reason as well as nutrition it became important in England, Ireland, and France. Americans created a different story in all ways -- America was richer and less populous, and its people were mysteriously open-minded to a wide variety of foods, including the potato.

I may have more to say when I read the second half of the book.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Japanese Lunch

We tried Matsugawa, a Japanese restaurant in Del Mar, for lunch today. The tempura was perfectly crisp, with a soft vegetable center. My rainbow roll was excellent, as was Len's sashimi bento box (but the photos were out of focus).