Wednesday, May 31, 2017

In My Kitchen: Platters

A fish-shaped platter which I used for a salad of smoked trout with fresh vegetables.
In my kitchen I have many platters and serving pieces, which I try to use in making food look beautiful without overdoing the "plating" as seen on TV. No tweezers for me! During the month of May, I cooked all the food depicted on the platters here -- either in my own kitchen or (as noted) at my daughter Evelyn's house in Fairfax, VA. It's been a busy cooking month in my kitchen and those I visited.

Roasted salmon on another fish-themed platter (the fish pictures are hidden by the salmon in this picture).

Filled buckwheat pancakes on a black and white platter next to my griddle.
Fried dumplings on a very plain white platter.
Grilled lamb chops and edible pea-pods on a white ironware platter that I
long-ago bought at an antique market for a few dollars.
The same ironware platter with turkey patties and rice, along with some condiment dishes with apple & chutney.

Detail of the ironware platter: the china pattern is "wheat."
Cucumber salad in a plain glass bowl.
Tuna salad in a larger version of the glass bowl. Bowls are from Ace Hardware.
I have the same bowl in larger and smaller sizes as well.
Cherries in a bowl made by Ann Arbor potter I.B.Remsen.
I've had this for quite a long time. He's still making ceramics, but has
moved on with new glazes and new styles.
Three slab-built platters -- the work of two members of the Ann Arbor Potters' Guild.
Quesadillas on the square slab-built platter shown above.
I wouldn't exactly call my platters a "collection," but I am really tempted to add to my crowded shelves whenever I go to the Ann Arbor Art Fair, the Ann Arbor Potters' Guild sale, or a well-stocked shop specializing in craftwork. Many mass-produced serving dishes and platters at Ace Hardware, at a local store called Downtown Home and Garden, and at a few other stores can also be very appealing.
Broiled steak and vegetables on a black hand-made platter. I bought it at the Ann Arbor Art Fair many years ago.
In our family we're all admirers of well-made pottery. We especially admire the work of the potter Scott Frankenberger, whose studio is in West Lafayette, IN where my sister lives. Here are a few examples from my kitchen and Evelyn's kitchen, which we've been acquiring from time to time.

Two small platters, one 8-sided and one 5-sided, which belong to Evelyn.
The vegetables and garlic toast were accompaniments to a Beef Bourguignon.
You can see in the corner that she has a set of his dinner plates as well.
A deep and rather large platter, used here for Monte Cristo sandwiches.
This platter also belongs to Evelyn, who has many of Frankenberger's works.
This is my very large Frankenberger platter. Since I rarely use it any more,
I should give it to Evelyn! I put a full-size tomato on it to show how big it is.
A deep platter of Evelyn's, in plain white, used for meatballs with
mushroom gravy. I think it came from Bed Bath & Beyond.
In My Kitchen is a once-per-month blog event currently hosted by Sherry from Brisbane, Australia, at the blog Sherry's Pickings. I enjoy seeing the kitchen posts of participants in this event at blogs from quite a few countries.

My great-grandmother's turkey platter, the oldest one I own.
Many of the In My Kitchen bloggers have new things to share each month, but I have so much in my kitchen that I can't fit in very many new ones. So I usually choose to write my post about a theme, such as these platters and serving pieces, which I've been acquiring for years and years. Until I started taking photos, I had no idea what a large number of them I own. I only included the ones that are in my kitchen -- I didn't even get to the dining room!

In My Backyard: A Hummingbird

Monday, May 29, 2017

Harissa, Chicken, and the Season's First Corn

A new brand of Harissa, the Moroccan pepper sauce, which I bought at
Whole Foods yesterday. It was hot and tasty as a condiment with dinner.
The first sweet corn of 2017. It grew quite a lot further south than here in
Michigan, where the corn is just getting started. It's almost summer!
Chicken roasted with Moroccan spices and olives: I used Ras al Hanout (a Moroccan spice blend), cumin, coriander,
fresh garlic and ginger root, and olive oil. This is becoming one of my favorite ways to make a roast chicken.
Originally we planned to cook it outdoors -- but rain and thunderstorm warnings deterred us.

More about the season -- our garden is looking very beautiful this week, especially the rhododendron.

At the Nichols Arboretum Peony Garden, the tree peonies have mostly finished blooming, while the garden-variety
peonies are just beginning. It's a stunning and exceptional collection of many types of peonies founded over 90 years ago.
We had a very nice visit yesterday just before the thunderstorms rumbled into town.

Friday, May 26, 2017

My Recently Read Books: Some with Food

Song of the Lion by Anne Hillerman.
The characters in the newly-published police novel Song of the Lion include Joe Leaphorn, Jim Chee, and above all Bernie Manuelito, who are all officers of the tribal police on the Navajo Indian reservation in New Mexico. It's the third novel by the daughter of the late Tony Hillerman, author of the earlier books in the Navajo police series and inventor of these characters.

Anne Hillerman is really hitting her stride: I found this book to be a really great continuation of Tony Hillerman's many novels. I especially like Anne's development of Officer Bernie Manuelito, now married to Jim Chee.

In The Song of the Lion, I found it to be amusing when Bernie's sister Darleen tries to convince Bernie, a lover of hamburgers and other such foods, to become a consumer of vegetarian health food. Especially when Darleen serves a salad with garbanzo beans; Bernie picks at the salad and then:
"Bernie cleared the table, secretly disposing of the garbanzos she’d hidden under a lettuce leaf and hoping Darleen’s experiment was a one-time adventure."
(Song of the Lion, Kindle Locations 1010-1011).
The Debut by Anita Brookner. 
Too many novels portray women who are on the brink of a fulfilled, self-determined life free of obligations to demanding relatives, but then are sucked back into a stultified and dominated existence. The Debut (first published in 1981) has this plot. Though it has some amusing passages, and isn't bad on the whole, reading it made me sort of edgy. I always find the frustration of the subjects of such books to be difficult to read about with pleasure. I marked a ton of passages where the characters prepare food for themselves or feed others to comfort them, but I don't feel like expanding on the observation that food was used to mark various emotions.

Henry James did the lifetime disappointment and stultifying personal sacrifice theme better. So did Barbara Pym. I think I prefer other books by Brookner.

Mr. Vertigo by Paul Auster.
My first try at reading anything by Auster was Mr. Vertigo (first published 1994), because I found it in a bookcase while visiting family this week. Maybe I should try one of his more acclaimed novels. I've sort of been meaning to try this author for ages.

Mr. Vertigo is not a bad story, but Auster overdoes the philosophy or whatever it was. I would call it fake profundity, especially the conclusion. I think it's a flaw in the novel that at the end of his long life, the narrator doesn't quite know how to wrap up and says some very shallow things to try to make sense of his past.

The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald. 
I recently read The Blue Flower (first published 1995) because it's a historical fiction about the author Novalis (1772-1801). Years ago, in a college class, I read some or all of Novalis's book Heinrich von Ofterdingen, which is about the Blue Flower, symbol of the unattainable, to put it extra-briefly.

I'm not sure anyone would like Fitzgerald's historical recreation of his life very much if they hadn't had a class like that. It's really obscure, but beautifully constructed, or as the reviewer in the New York Times wrote in 1997, "This is, on the face of it, Ms. Fitzgerald's most recondite and challenging book." (NYT review: "Nonsense Is Only Another Language").

How to Be Both by Ali Smith. 
How to Be Both (published in 2014) is a challenging read since you have to figure out or guess a lot of things about who is imagining and what is (maybe) real. I liked it well enough to give my copy to my sister so she could read it too.

Half the book is historical fiction -- but a more fun and convoluted type of historical fiction than the straight-arrow narrative in The Blue Flower. All in all, a pretty good read. I loved its many references and biographical data about 15th-century painter, Francescho del Cossa and his works.

A good point in a review of the book: "Smith has said that the duality of the novel, in which stories run over and alongside each other, is inspired by frescoes, which often bear layers of drawings underneath what’s visible." (From "The Artful Duality of Ali Smith's How To Be Both" in the Atlantic.)

Dance Hall of the Dead by Tony Hillerman.
I wonder how many people are rereading Tony Hillerman's original books about Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee, Navajo detectives. My enjoyment of the sequels by his daughter (see above) has created a new interest in these books: I started with Dance Hall of the Dead. It was the second of this series -- Tony Hillerman wrote eighteen of them, published between 1970 and 2006 -- this one in 1973.

Although the character of Joe Leaphorn was more thoroughly detailed as the series proceeded, in this book Hillerman had already endowed him with the essential quality that made the books so readable. Namely, Leaphorn functions in two worlds.

First, Leaphorn is fully grounded in the Navajo world where witches, spirits, and the uncanny powers of the dead prevail. He can speak the Navajo language and can follow the rules of Navajo politeness, respecting others' privacy and also their pain, and allowing long silences in a conversation or even an interrogation. He also knows the effects of poverty and hopelessness, and how decent individuals can be ruined by drug addiction, alcoholism, and shame. He knows their pain when they can't care for their own beloved children, and knows the pain of those children.

As a professional policeman, a graduate of Arizona State University, and a sophisticated American, Leaphorn also fully understands the non-Navajo world. He knows the hierarchy of tribal police, state police, Federal Narcotics Agents, and FBI men. He appreciates the need for rules of investigation, standards of evidence, documentation, and proper procedure. Leaphorn successfully combines both worlds with their contrasting ethical demands, combining insights and values as he needs them.

I was fascinated to read the following about the influence on Hillerman of another author I've enjoyed in the past, Arthur Upfield:
"Hillerman repeatedly acknowledged his debt to an earlier series of mystery novels written by the British-born Australian author Arthur W. Upfield and set among tribal aborigines in remote desert regions of tropical and subtropical Australia. The Upfield novels began to be published in 1928 and featured a half-European, half-aboriginal Australian hero, Detective-inspector Napoleon (Bony) Bonaparte. Bony worked with deep understanding of tribal traditions. The character was based on the achievements of an aborigine known as Tracker Leon, whom Upfield had met during his years in the Australian bush."  (From Wikipedia, Tony Hillerman, retrieved May 25, 2017).

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Wordy Wednesday: "The Phantom Tollbooth"

Over the weekend, we ate some words in celebration of an almost-birthday.
If this were Wordless Wednesday, I would only post this photo. But it's Wordy Wednesday. So...

Punning is one of the big amusements for a reader of Norton Juster's book The Phantom Tollbooth. The book employs a decently high level of puns (though I admit that I like puns even when they really make people groan). Some of the puns seem intended to be teaching opportunities or seem to promote little quasi-moral lessons (though I admit that I prefer literature pure and message-less).

Milo, the boy who never knew what to do with himself, enters a strange and unexpected land when he drives through a mysterious tollbooth one day, as you probably know. He drives in his little car with his friend Tock, a dog made partly out of a clock, and Humbug, a dressed up bug -- well, a humbug. They are visiting King Azaz, who says, "Now, why don't you and Tock come up here and sit next to me, and we'll have some dinner?"

Milo's mother had always told him to eat lightly when he was a guest, so he asks, "Why don't we have a light meal?" The result:
"The waiters rushed in carrying large serving platters and set them on the table in front of the king. When he lifted the covers, shafts of brilliant-colored light leaped from the plates and bounced around the ceiling, the walls, across the floor, and out the windows."
The Humbug suggests something "a little more filling," and Milo asks for "a square meal." Immediately the waiters bring "plates heaped high with steaming squares of all sizes and colors." These turn out not to taste very good, and almost choked the Humbug. They are told that it's time for speeches, and each one speaks very briefly -- listing real food like "Frankfurters, sour pickles, strawberry jam," or -- from the king -- "Pâté de foie gras, soupe à l'oignon, faisan sous cloche, salade endive, fromages et fruits et demi-tasse." The waiters return with "heavy, hot trays, which they set on the table. Each one contained the exact words spoken by the various guests, and they all began eating immediately with great gusto."
"I didn't know I was going to have to eat my words," objected Milo. 
"Of course, of course, everyone here does, the king grunted. "You should have made a tastier speech." 
Too late! Milo hadn't really said anything -- but they offer him some somersault, a rigamarole, a ragamuffin, a synonym bun and "just desserts." And eventually some pastry from the half-bakery, from which half-baked ideas are wheeled out on carts. Such as a cake with icing and nuts through which one could read "THE EARTH IS FLAT." Turns out they swallowed that idea for years... and so on.

King Azaz, illustration by
Jules Feiffer

Quite a meal! It takes place in the chapter titled "The Royal Banquet," between pages 86 and 91 of The Phantom Tollbooth.

Monday, May 22, 2017

What I've Been Cooking

We are spending the week in Fairfax with the family, and I'm cooking for them. Here are some of the things I've made:

Potato Salad with oil-and-vinegar dressing.
Beef and lamb meatballs (for later this week).
Lettuce and tomato salad.
Tuna salad with celery, bell pepper, and mayo.
Tabouli salad for lunch boxes.
Green beans with bell peppers; bok choi with oil, soy sauce, and spices -- served with pork
tenderloin (not shown) and rye bread from a good bakery.
Egg salad -- it's sprinkled with paprika.
Rugula looked very good at Wegman's -- but we had poppy seed rugula
on Saturday from Balducci's, another wonderful store. So didn't buy it.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Along the C & O Canal, Potomac, Maryland

This is Lock 22 and the lockhouse beside it in the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park in Potomac, Maryland. We spent a few hours this morning strolling slowly along the canal towpath, which is still maintained for recreational use. We enjoyed occasional vistas of the Potomac River, which runs well below the level of the canal.

There's quite a bit of history in Lockhouse 22, which was originally constructed in 1832, and now is available for people to stay in. It's known as the Pennyfield Lock because George and Charlie Pennyfield, father and son, tended it from 1890 until 1924 when the canal closed. During this time, President Grover Cleveland liked to go fishing from this lockhouse. (He was President for two disjoint terms, 1885 – 1889, and 1893 – 1897.)

The website for the lock (link) states:
"The Potomac River is rife with obstacles that thwart water transportation. Rapids and waterfalls, products of the river’s elevation change, prompted C&O Canal visionaries to invest in a flat-level water route to run alongside the river. The idea was simple, but the construction quickly proved to be arduous. To bypass many of the geological obstacles, canal engineers devised unique structures such as aqueducts, lift bridges, incline planes, tunnels, and lift locks. These required the special skills of the stone cutters and masons whose work produced masonry marvels still appreciated today. Lockhouse 22 at Pennyfield reflects the early phase of canal construction, because of its lift lock and proximity to Dam 2 and its guard lock."
Both people and wildlife were enjoying the park as we strolled along this morning, having come from Fairfax where we are visiting. Herons, egrets, flycatchers, cardinals, and other birds were flying around, wading in the canal, or hiding in the foliage of the tall trees. Insects were flitting around, several turtles were coming up for air, and one water snake was rapidly swimming downstream. Bicyclists, fishermen, joggers, kayakers, and other birdwatchers were all doing their thing.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Zweig's Marie Antoinette

Marie Antoinette: The Portrait of an Average Woman by Stefan Zweig, is a fascinating study, bringing together Zweig's expertise in historical research with his enjoyable skills as a writer of fiction. First published in 1932, Marie Antoinette has recently been re-published -- as have many of Zweig's other books. I enjoyed reading it and seeing the illustrations, such as the one above.

Zweig was in eclipse for quite a long time after his death in 1942, and my interest in him started shortly before this renaissance, when I read his autobiography, The World of Yesterday. It pleases me that his stories and histories, which I could then find only in an academic library in quite old editions, have now become completely accessible: for example Marie Antoinette, which I purchased as an e-book, and Magellan, which I read a few years ago (link).

Although I have read a bit about the French Revolution and what led up to it (in historic works like Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution by Simon Schama or fiction like City of Darkness, City of Light by Marge Piercy) I was surprised at how little I knew of the central role that Queen Marie Antoinette actually played during the complex events of her time.

Marie Antoinette's character development -- as Zweig documented and brought it to life -- was portrayed in a most fascinating way. In the early years of her reign, she was a self-indulgent, pleasure seeking, irresponsible adolescent and young woman. As the Revolution began to threaten her husband the king, she developed a sense of responsibility. or as Zweig writes: "Too late, Marie Antoinette had grasped in the very depths of her soul that she was destined to become a historical figure, and this need for transcending the limitations of her own time intensified her forces to an extreme." (Kindle Locations 6223-6225).  By the end, Zweig shows her as a completely different, and highly self-aware and dignified victim.

Zweig, in my reading experience, always seems to present quite a bit about what his characters ate -- a subject I find especially interesting. Though there are many fascinating things in the book, I'll present a few of the food passages.

The illustration above, for example, shows the royal family at their dinner when their real imprisonment in a former Knights' Templar fortress in Paris called "The Temple." Zweig explains how their provisions were arranged:
There was a liberal supply of food and drink. No less than thirteen persons were appointed to minister to the pleasures of the table! At his midday meal there were at least three soups, two entrées, two roasts, four entremets, compotes, fruits, malmsey, claret, and champagne — so that in less than three months the expenses of the royal kitchen mounted up to no less than thirty-five thousand livres." (Kindle Locations 8392-8396). 
The abundance of food in their prison may have been modest compared to life in the palace, but the king was incredibly fond of good food, and never lost his appetite, even just before his inevitable death. For example, the royal family were well-provided with food during a failed attempt to flee the Revolution somewhat earlier, when a huge carriage tried to take them away from Versailles:
"The liberally stocked food baskets were opened, and a hearty breakfast was eaten off silver platters; the bones of the chickens and the empty wine bottles were disposed of through the carriage windows; the worthy guardsmen were not forgotten." (Kindle Locations 6921-6923).
On this aborted voyage, the king and queen and their children were intercepted, and returned to captivity in Versailles:
"On this June 21, 1791, Marie Antoinette, in the thirty-sixth year of her life and in the seventeenth year of her reign, for the first time entered the house of a French bourgeois. That was the only interruption of her progress from palace to palace and from prison to prison. She had first to pass through the shop, smelling of rancid oil, sausage, and spices. Then, by a sort of companion ladder, the royal party — Madame la Baronne de Korff as ostensible chief, the Queen as governess, and Louis as a bewigged servant — mounted to the first story, where there were two rooms, a bedroom and a parlor, low-ceilinged, poor-looking, and dirty." (Kindle Locations 7043-7049).

Marie Antoinette was even well-provided for during her final imprisonment in a damp cell in the Conciergerie, after the king had been beheaded and her children taken from her. As did many of her guards and jailors, the woman assigned to her in this cell was taken with her queenly behavior:
"As far as prison rules were concerned, all that the head warder’s wife had to do for the ex-Queen was to clean out her room and provide her with rough meals. This good woman, however, cooked the most dainty food she could procure; she offered to dress Marie Antoinette’s hair; every day she procured from another quarter of the town a bottle of drinking water which Marie Antoinette found preferable to that supplied in the prison." (Kindle Locations 9240-9243). 
As she was taken away to the Guillotine, Marie Antionette seemed uninterested in food, eating a few sips of soup out of politeness and sympathy for her jailor. Zweig portrays the crowds waiting to see her death, including a description of how they passed the time waiting for the spectacle: "Between times, for refreshments, one bought lemonade, rolls, or nuts. The great scene was worth a little patience." (Kindle Locations 10211-10212).

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Butter: A Rich Discussion at Culinary Book Club

Wednesday night, my culinary reading group met and talked about Elaine Khosrova's book Butter: A Rich History. Mostly, we all liked the book, especially the science of how cream turns into butter. We enjoyed the breadth of the book, including the historic chapters and the parts about the spiritual meaning of butter in early days. When people did not understand the sudden transition from cream to butter, they thought it was magic -- as they did with other food transformations by chemistry or by fermentation.

We observed that many books about the history and science of common foods are being published. While not all of them are uniformly good, we agreed that this is one of the good ones. Though there has been a trend towards these one-food-books recently, quite a few existed earlier. We mentioned, for example,  Six Thousand Years of Bread: Its Holy and Unholy History by H. E. Jacob, originally published in 1944 and republished several times.

I had a few things to say about Khosrova's book last week at these two posts:

• Tempering
• More about "Butter"