“Curtains” or: “7 Little Von Trapps and Then There Were None.”

jam dollopsHow do you solve a problem like Maria? In the United States, the answer would probably be “by lethal injection”. Austria, on the other hand, has done away with the death penalty. It might not be an appropriate solution for dealing with a flibbertigibbet or even a will-o’-the-wisp, but a serial child murder? Quite possibly.

I’m not implying that the real Maria Von Trapp was anything of the kind. And I have nothing against Julie Andrews in the least. It’s just that, lately, I can’t stop imagining The Sound of Music as an entirely different sort of entertainment.

As I sat down to eat breakfast with my coworkers several days ago, I remembered my friend Katie was performing in a stage show on the peninsula, so I asked her how it was going.

“What’s the name of it again?” I inquired between slurps of bone broth.

“It’s called ‘Curtains’”, she replied.

“I think that name would be a good title for a Sound of Music murder mystery or something.”

“Why’s that?” she asked.

“You know, Maria made play clothes for the children out of her old curtains. I was just thinking how fun it’d be if the kids started dropping off, you know… one by one.” I was just being an idiot, but idiotic thoughts have a way of staying with me.

It’s not that I don’t care for movie—quite the opposite is true. It’s just that it would have been so much better had the Von Trapp children been even remotely interesting. Or had they been able to maintain their vaguely English accents from one line to the next. Or had they been able to act. When I hear that wearisome septet sing “Do, a dee-ya, a female dee-ya,” it makes me want to cry, to quote the otherwise unquotable Marta.

I feel The Sound of Music would be a much more entertaining film if Maria was a sugar-and-spice novitiate on the outside, but a cold, ruthless murderess at her amoral core. She may claim to the Reverend Mother that she is unable to control what she thinks and feels, but in truth, she is in full control of her emotions, such as they are, and lays on the kind-and-loving shtick so brilliantly that she gains not only entry to the Von Trapp house but gains the trust of everyone residing within it.

In my version of the film, the only person who sees through Maria’s song and dance is the beautiful baroness. Unfortunately, Baroness Schrader misinterprets the deception as mere gold-diggery, and not cold-blooded serial murder. She does the decent thing and distances herself from Captain Von Trapp when she realizes he’s in love with his governess (whom he promptly marries). Tragically, it is not within her power to send the children to boarding school as she had intended, where they would be safely out of reach from the deadly machinations of Maria.

But how would they go, these seven hapless Von Trapps? What a good question. I have a few ideas, but if you, dear reader, can think of more appropriate endings for them, do write in. This is a work in progress.

Here’s a tentative list, in the order of their demise.

 Liesl— Maria convinces The Captain that his eldest is indeed old enough to stay and taste her first champagne. After consuming an entire bottle at Maria’s insistence, it is suggested that Liesl retire to the gazebo in order to finish off a second, which she does. Her body is found the next morning. She had been leaping from bench to bench without the assistance of a telegram messenger and crashed through the glass structure. In the fall, which rendered her unconscious, she suffered a thousand little cuts, from which she slowly bled to death.

Friedrich— Trained in the precise and deadly art of alpine medicine ball tossing, Maria “accidentally” hits the poor boy directly in the face at family playtime. He was struck with such force and at such an angle that his nasal bones pierced his brain, killing him instantly*.

Gretl—The heavy brocade material used to make Gretl’s bib overalls were made even heavier by Maria’s subtle and inspired addition of lead inserts. Out on the lake one afternoon with her remaining siblings and governess-cum-stiefmutter, the boat overturns and the youngest Von Trapp sinks like a stone in the deepest part of the lake.

Louisa— Known for keeping jars of arachnids on hand to terrorize governesses, the sturdy young blonde has the tables tragically turned upon her when Maria releases hundreds of dornfingerspinnen, or yellow sack spiders, under the unsuspecting girl’s counterpane. Though not killed outright by the dozens of venomous bites she incurs, the pain and discomfort are so pronounced that she quickly goes insane and is shipped to a clinic on the Dalmatian coast to convalesce, which mysteriously burns to the ground shortly after her arrival.

Marta becomes the first (and to date, the only) case of a person dying from a surfeit of ladybugs, which were reported to have been one of her favorite things.

Unable to cope without her sisters, Brigitta listens intently as Maria sings “Düsteren Montag”, otherwise known as “The Hungarian Suicide Song”. Inspired, Brigitta decides to leave a note for her father stating that she is “glad to go, [she] cannot tell a lie.” She then climbs to the rooftop where she flits and floats. Having read his sole surviving daughter’s last missive, her father races to the roof in order to talk her down, but she fleetly flees from him and flies over the edge, breaking her neck on the lawn very near where her eldest sister met her own end.

And poor, incorrigible Kurt is once again overlooked and dies of neglect. No one notices.

Maria, who has now successfully eliminated all physical evidence of Captain Von Trapp’s prior marriage, suggests to him that they start a family of their own together, offering herself to him on the floor of the ballroom directly in front of the puppet stage which had so recently been the scene of so much happiness. He breaks down and tells her that he couldn’t bear the thought of bringing another child into the world for fear of losing it. She cradles his head in her lap as he cries, consoling him with a chilling rendition of “So Long, Farewell” as she reaches for the nearest available marionette, the strings of which she could use to strangle her emotionally weakened husband and thus inherit his fortune and lovely lakeside home.

At that very moment, the baroness and her gay best friend Uncle Max burst in. With a powerful combination of bitchy comments, fabulous style, and superior breeding, they foil Maria’s attempt on Georg’s life and drive her from the house. The Captain realizes his mistake of choosing a homicidal-yet-alluringly-musical servant with no significant references over a world-weary sophisticate with a heart of gold. Elsa Schrader gets what she’s always wanted– a man who needs her, Uncle Max gets unlimited access to the Von Trapp wine cellar, and the three of them live happily ever after. Until the Nazis take over the country a few weeks later.

And what of Maria? She flees on foot over the mountains. But instead of heading west to Switzerland, she veers north into Germany, where she is allowed to ply her hideous talents on unruly children until the end of the war. She is later found guilty of crimes against humanity at the Nürnberg trails and imprisoned.

Roll Credits.

nockerl

Salzburger Nockerl

How fortunate it is that there is a dessert which fits the above story like a murderous glove? It’s a frothy little conceit, just like the original film, and yet it hides a bloody secret– dollops of raspberry jam are buried beneath powdered suger-dusted mountains of meringue. Three mountains, to be exact: Festungsberg, Mönchsberg and Kapuzinerberg, which are the mountains which happen to surround the charming Austrian city of Mozart and Sound of Music tour busses. I’ve added seven spoonfuls of jam– one for each Von Trapp child. Name them as you place them one by one into the luxurious lake of cream.

This recipe is a modified version of one found on Epicurious. All other recipes researched were  confusing and very horribly written.

Serves 7 6 5 4 3 2 Whoever is left to eat it. 

Ingredients:

• 1/4 cup of heavy cream
• 7 generous dollops of raspberry jam
• 5 large egg whites (at room temperature– you don’t want eggs straight from the fridge.)
• 3/4 teaspoon of kosher salt
• 1/2 cup of white sugar
• 1 tablespoon of all-purpose flour
• 3 egg yolks (hopefully you are smart enough to have gotten them from 3 of the 5 eggs you’ve already abused for their whites)
• 1 teaspoon of pure vanilla extract
• Powdered sugar for faking snow-capped peaks

Preparation:

1. Place your oven rack to the middle position in your oven. Heat this very same oven to 400°F.

2. In a 9-inch oval baking dish, pour the cream so that it shallowly covers the bottom. With a soup spoon or, if you don’t believe in soup, a similarly-sized one, place seven dollops of jam. I like to say the name of each Von Trapp child as I go, always placing Liesl in the center.

meringue3. Combine the egg whites and salt in the bowl of an electric mixer and whip until soft peaks form. At this point, continue beating as you add the sugar a little at a time until it is all gone and your egg whites have transformed into stiff, glossy peaks. Sprinkle the flour over your egg whites and fold in gently, but very thoroughly– streaks of flour in meringues are unpleasant, not to mention embarrassing.

4. Whisk together the egg yolks and vanilla until they are frothy but not rabid-looking. Fold them into the whites with the same élan you so recently performed with the flour.

5. Spoon three enormous globs of meringue into the awaiting, jam-speckled cream, shaping them to look like distinct peaks of a mountain chain, but making certain that all of the cream base is covered.

6. Pop into the oven and bake for 15 minutes. When it is finished, it will still be a trifle jiggly, but do not become upset by this. If you want a less custardy sort of nockerl, turn the oven off, but leave the dish in the oven for another 5 to 10 minutes. Or, you know, until you’re comfortable taking it out.

7. When you do remove it from the oven, dust it with powdered sugar to suggest snow– pure, innocent, cleansing snow.

Serve warm to the Austrian Navy Captain nearest you. If you are of a somewhat Shakespearean bent, you can pretend you’re Titus Andronicus and that he is Tamora, unsuspectingly eating her own children. It is an abrupt switch of gender to be certain, but I strongly believe your imagination can handle it.

Or you can just eat the whole damn thing by yourself and pretend none of this ever happened because no one is going to want to talk to you now that you’ve just hypothetically killed off all the children from their favorite movie, which they will never be able to watch in quite the same way again after reading this post.

So long, fare well for now,

Michael

* True fans of The Sound of Music will know that Nicholas Hammond, who played Friedrich, went on to portray “Doug Simpson”, who dissed Marcia after her own nose was broken (less fatally) by another type of ball.

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Dazed and Infused

Olive CocktailIn my opinion, vodka is the Daniel Day-Lewis of the spirit world. On its own, it’s as neutral and boring as it is strong. And yet it has an almost preternatural ability to absorb the personality of almost anything you can throw at it (or, in this case, in it), which makes it oddly fascinating. And highly drinkable.

I would have said “watchable” to continue the Daniel Day-Lewis metaphor, but the act of watching vodka is as painfully tedious as watching all 160 minutes of Gangs of New York. You could be doing something much better with your life. For example: infusing vodkas with interesting flavors which, with the help of a few friends, an immersion circulator, and a vacuum sealer, will take up the exact same amount of your time.

Like most of you reading this, I have neither an immersion circulator nor a vacuum sealer, but I do have friends. And some of those friends are fortunate enough to own the above-mentioned equipment to make alcoholic infusions.

Lucky me.

A couple of weeks ago, I drove down to my friends Craig and Shannon Rosa’s house with my friends Sean Timberlake and Paul Brown for the express purpose of making vodka (and cheap brandy) more interesting to drink. We’d played around with infusions in the past with great success– limoncello and candy cap mushroom-infused brandy were big hits. It gave me the idea that one could put pretty much anything into alcohol, suck out the air, warm it at a constant temperature for a couple of hours and have it be drinkable. So I decided to have a bit of fun with it. And what I ended up with was a sort of three-course Easter meal designed for alcoholics.

It wasn’t intentional– it’s just what happened. But I’m very glad it did because I happen to feel that people who like to drink their dinner should be allowed to enjoy themselves at the table just as much as those who prefer chewing do.

On any given holiday in my family, there was always a large platter of antipasti available for noshing before we all sat down to dinner– olives, salumi, peppers, etc. A Clean Dirty Martini would make an excellent liquid replacement. By simply throwing a few of your favorite olives into 2 cups of vodka and preparing it the sous vide way, you can have a delightfully clear cocktail that is redolent of Castelventranos rather than a dingy-looking one that tastes of brine and formaldehyde. In a way, it’s a (marginally) healthier alternative to a true Dirty Martini*.

 

Ham CocktailWhen it’s time to sit down with your loved ones, you can now afford to say a polite “no thank you” to your uncle as he stands at the head of table slicing the Easter ham. Tell him you’ve brought your own this year– in your hip flask. By adding 4 ounces of ham steak, 3 rings of canned pineapple which have been studded with 3 cloves a piece, and 1/2 cup of simple syrup to 1 cup of vodka, you can have a cocktail that tastes alarmingly just like an Easter Ham in about two hours, the immersion cooking way.

Anyone for seconds? Yes, please. But do remind me to perfect my Green Bean Casserole Shooters for next year, won’t you? Even drinkers need a side dish now and then.

pompelmocelloAnd finally, no Holiday meal is complete without a decadent dessert. After the long self-denial of the Lenten Season, a chilled glass of pompelmocello is just the thing to finish of your repast with elegant fluidity and a fine way to toast to Christ’s health, may it be better the second time around.

Pompelmocello, if it’s truly a word, is a grapefruit version of limoncello, but much better, because it doesn’t taste like Lemon Pledge. To make it, follow this recipe from Sean Timberlake**, who bore witness to my other sous vide experiments and didn’t even raise an eyebrow when I told him I wanted to make a smoked kipper liqueur. I really want to do that one next time.

If you do have an immersion circulator and a fondness for alcohol, there is almost nothing beyond your power. Think of all the other festive occasions you could drink your way through. Hot Dog Old Fashioneds and Sauerkraut Shrubs for Independence Day. Pixie Stix Fizzes for Halloween. Gingerbread House Cocktails for Christmas. Princess Cake Daiquiris to help cope with your daughter’s quinceanera.

Just the thought of being able to theme-drink my way through the calendar year makes me positively giddy. The actual doing of it, however, is sure to leave me dazed and infused.

But I’m game, if you are. Especially if you have an immersion circulator I can borrow for a few hours. I’ll bet Daniel Day-Lewis has one. He probably has one of everything. Except Oscars, I mean– he’s got three, which truly speaks to the awesome power of absorption.

* There is no such thing as a “true” dirty martini. Not in my book, at any rate.

**The link is actually to his limoncello recipe, but I have faith that my readers are smart enough to know what needs to be substituted in order to make it grapefruit flavored.

 

 

 

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The Biggest Sausage on Melrose

BockwurstThe evening started out innocently enough– a quiet back to school dinner with friends. But my highly prized purity was somehow called into question before the appetizers had even arrived.

My friend Alex had chosen a little Italian restaurant on Melrose as the gathering place for our last meal before we started our final year at UCLA. It was cozy and dark and employed a jazz quartet off to one side which played all the old standards. I can’t remember the name of the place, but I felt very much at home. There were enormous grissini placed in the middle of the table shooting up from the bottom of a water glass like glutenous phalluses. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but it was a centerpiece more fitting than flowers, given the direction the night was about to take.

We ordered drinks and appetizers, chatted about school, what classes we were taking. The usual banal conversation one makes with people one doesn’t know deeply. My martini arrived– beautiful in its enormity– and it reminded me that I should probably make a bit of room for it, so I excused myself and made my way past the jazz quartet and through the door into the men’s room.

It was a small facility, and there were two side-by-side urinals, which I never much enjoy, but I had the whole room to myself. I could relax and enjoy doing what it is one generally does when confronted with both a full bladder and a large porcelain bowl. But as soon as I began, the door opened. An old man approached the open spot next to mine and joined me. I nodded to him in the way most men do when forced to acknowledge each other when both of their hands are occupied with other business. He nodded back. And that was the moment I realized I was peeing next to Mr. Television himself, Milton Berle. He smiled at me, then did something that left me temporarily confused. He looked down at my equipment, turned his head to look at his own, gave a slight jerk of the neck in his direction, then smiled and nodded again, but then went back to concentrating on his own business.

Was I just cruised by The Thief of Bad Gags? It didn’t feel like it, but it did make me extremely uncomfortable. I finished up, washed my hands, and made my way back to the table. “You’ll never guess who I just peed next to,” I said. “Milton Berle!” Celebrity sightings are a common occurrence in Los Angeles– you  point them out to friends with the same level of enthusiasm as pointing out a squirrel running across the lawn in the suburbs, so I was very surprised by the amount of interest my remark caused every one of my fellow diners.

“Did you see it?” asked Alex, almost breathless.

“See what?” I asked

“His COCK!” he exclaimed. His English accent made it oddly acceptable to me that he had just yelled the word “cock” in public place. But few people could have heard it over the noise and the jazz music.

“I’m not in the habit of looking at other people’s junk when I’m trying to pee,” I responded somewhat indignantly. “Besides, why would I want to see an octogenarian’s cock.” I borrowed his accent for extra emphasis on the last word. The whole table groaned at my ignorance.

texaco-star-theater-milton-berle_thumb“Michael, Milton Berle is supposed to have the biggest dick in Hollywood!” he said, even louder.

“How do you even know that!?” I asked, somewhat disgusted, but matching him in volume. As soon as the words were out of my mouth, the men’s room door opened and the spotlight that was on the jazz quartet moved swiftly on to Mr. Berle. The band had seen him go in. They’d been biding their time for the moment he re-emerge. As soon as the light hit the rather surprised old man, they gave him an over-the-top musical “Ta-Da!” The whole restaurant erupted in laughter and applause. Uncle Miltie, ever the ham, bowed in thanks. With my newly found knowledge, I couldn’t help but think he was bowing to his own penis.

It was then that I was able to decipher his strange men’s room body language. He was basically telling me, “Yeah, it’s me. Go ahead and look if you want to. Everybody does.” I might have been the only person in the place who didn’t know about Milton Berle’s endowment,  yet I was the only person he invited to look at it. I found a small bit of comfort and satisfaction from that thought, then took a large sip of my martini. The eyes of everyone at the table had by then left Mr. Berle and returned to me, so I did the only thing that seemed appropriate, given the occasion: I picked up an exceptionally long grissini and toyed with it for a moment, and attacked it from the side of my mouth as Bugs Bunny might each a particularly challenging carrot. And then I raised my glass in a toast:

“To missed opportunities,” a said, taking another deep sip to help wash down the dry breadstick. It was well received and repeated back. I settled in with the menu to order my main course. There was sausage on the menu, but I declined. I thought I’d had enough for one evening.

But, as it turned out, I hadn’t. After dinner, we all wandered down the street to Drake’s at Midnight, a surprisingly well-lit adult store to gawk and giggle at sex toys and porn titles. It was there that I got an eyeful of a handsome, quiet Mormon co-worker from my restaurant– his sausage prominently displayed on the cover of a gay porn video right out in the open for everyone to see. It was impressive, but not so much as Mr. Berle’s.

Not that I would know. But everybody else does, so you might as well ask them.

Bockwurst sandwich

Open-faced Bockwurst Sandwich (aka The Uncle Miltie)

There’s more to the story, of course, but you’ll need to buy me a drink if you want to hear the rest of it.

The literal sausage in the story was of the Italian variety, sliced up and served with farfalle pasta, sun-dried tomatoes, and basil (as pretty much everything was in those days). I just don’t think it suits the story at all. The thought of slicing it sends shivers down my spine.

So the recipe has taken a decidedly German turn. Bockwurst originated in Berlin and, as luck would have it, the name Milton Berle was born with was Mendel Berlinger. Typically there is a bit of pork mixed in the the sausage’s veal stuffing, but Berle was quite the ham, so there you have it.

It’s open-faced, right out there for all the world to see. The only difference between it and Mr. Berle is that this sausage remains uncut when presented to the unsuspecting.

Serves One Unwitting Innocent

• 1 Bockwurst (Or whatever sausage suits your tastes)
• 1 slice of pumpernickel bread, toasted
• A thick slathering of good, German mustard
• A handful of sauerkraut, drained. Any more than that is a waste, I’ve heard it said.
• A few tender greens (I’ve used radish tops, but watercress would be lovely)
• A few dollops of mashed potatoes

Preparation:

1. In a vessel big enough to take a large sausage, pour in a paltry 3 to 4 inches of water and a pinch of salt. Bring to a boil and then reduce to a gentle simmer. Slip in the sausage. DO NOT LET THE WATER RETURN TO A BOIL. If you do, the casing will explode and you will have a very disappointing and unattractive mess on your hands. Continue at said gentle simmer until the bockwurst is cooked through– turgid and yet giving. Keep warm.

2. As your sausage is simmering, toast your pumpernickel and warm your mashed potatoes (I am not teaching you how to make mashed potatoes today, so please don’t ask.)

3. Slather the warm toasted bread (it’s not easy to tell visually when pumpernickel is toasted, but it does make for a much more solid sandwich base) with mustard, cover with drained sauerkraut, blanket that with greens, spoon the warm mashed potatoes next, and then finally secure the hot sausage in its anchoring bed of potato-y fluff.

4. Bockwurst is traditionally served with bock beer, but I say have it with a martini. You’ll need something strong to cope with what’s on the plate in front of you.

5. Just how you go about eating it is entirely up to you– knifed-and-forked or picked up whole with your hands, eaten in the privacy of your own home our out in public for all the world to see. I’m the last person on earth who’s going to tell you how to handle your own sausage.

6. As a little something extra, try covering the wiener with some cheese and placing it under the broiler to make a Miltie Melt? No, I wouldn’t do that, either.

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I Don’t Know Your Life

OnionsIt was my friend Joe’s turn to entertain us as we sat around our campfire on the edge of the Sahara desert. It was more of an anecdote than a full-fledged story, but it contained within it a moral lesson I’ve never forgotten, but which took a long time to fully grasp. And, unfortunately, practice.

It involved an affluent, middle-aged white woman who entered a Kentucky Fried Chicken alone. When she placed her order for two buckets of Original Recipe, the young black girl behind the counter asked, “Will that be for here or to go?” Indignant, the older woman responded in a huff, “Do you really think that I’d eat two buckets of friend chicken right here? All by myself?” The girl behind the counter looked her up and down, shrugged her shoulders, and said quite matter-of-factly, “I don’t know your life.”

At the time, I took it for what it was– a punchline. I found the story funny and yet I resented it to some degree because it made me hungry for something I didn’t have– a bucket of crispy, salty, golden fried chicken– and more disappointed in the steaming pot of hen flesh in front of me that seemed to fall apart in my hand.

When my friends and I sat down at the beginning of the meal, our Berber host announced that he had a special dinner prepared for us– tagine. I was deeply disappointed. I was hungry from a day spent keeping astride the hump of a horny, angry camel and climbing sand dunes, but tagine was the one “authentic” taste I’d grown truly sick of during our two weeks in Morocco. Everywhere we went, dishes of aromatic braised chicken were presented to us with piles of couscous or bread in what seemed a gesture of obsessive national pride. It caused me to wonder how long a Moroccan visitor to the United States would be able to bear his American hosts offering him a cheeseburger at every meal.

I knew I was being ungrateful. But I was hungry and ate without audible complaint.

Chicken for tagineAfter dinner,we wandered the dunes in the moonlight, sometimes laying belly up in the sand to look up at the stars. We were the only source of noise for miles– no cars or insects or planes or scorpions–  just us. Someone cracked a joke, the others laughed. Someone else expressed his wish that our friend Dan could have been here to enjoy this. I wanted everyone quiet. It was the one place in the world where I had hoped to experience extreme silence and they, I felt, were ruining it.

I didn’t want anyone talking. I especially didn’t want anyone talking about Dan. Not anything kind about him, at any rate. I felt it was my job to talk about him, and then only to complain. I was the reason he wasn’t there. Frustrated, I yelled at everyone, “Shut. The Fuck. Up!” like I screamed out my window in college at drunken frat boys. My outburst was met with several minutes of well-deserved sniggering and imitation. But everyone did eventually quiet down to enjoy a few minutes of stillness before finding our way back to the camp and falling asleep side by side under our camel blankets and a full moon.

I awoke because my shoulder was cold. Jean-Phillipe, who’d been sleeping on my right, was missing and a chill had gotten in. When I sat up, I could see him a few yards away staring up at the sky. He motioned to me to join him. He headed up one of the giant sand dunes and I followed.

Olives  TagineWe didn’t talk at first. We just sat there, looking up at the moon. The only sound I could hear was my own heart beating– I’d huffed and puffed my way up to the summit. It frightened me, because it sounded as if it would burst at any moment. The silence I’d begged for earlier now made me profoundly uncomfortable, so I started talking.

I shared with Jean-Phillipe my experience with our friend Dan and why he wasn’t here, which I’m sure he already knew: We were friends and drew closer to each other on an earlier trip. He left his boyfriend, feelings got very complicated, neither of us knew what to do about it. After much discussion and many assurances, feelings were acted upon. Then he went back to his boyfriend as if nothing had ever happened. I felt betrayed and lied to and became single-minded in my demand for an official apology. I couldn’t understand why my friends– most of whom were sleeping below us in the desert– refused to take sides. I played the role of victim with all the histrionics I could muster, like a hairy-legged, bourbon-drinking damsel tied to the railroad tracks by a black-caped villain. In other words, unconvincingly.

Jean-Phillipe put his hand on my shoulder for a moment to quiet me and then he began to speak for a long time. About love and loss, the sometimes shitty nature of men, and, most importantly, forgiveness. Not self-help book platitudes, but scenes from his own life he chose to share. The silence of our surroundings made his voice almost supernaturally clear– for those few hours on top of the sand dunes, it was the only thing that existed. There was nothing else for me to do but listen. When he’d finished, we talked of other, less important things and I sat there stargazing with him in the first state of inward calm I’d felt in months. I climbed down from that dune feeling as though my heart might explode from being pumped full of so much peace and forgiveness.

But that feeling evaporated with the daylight, as things in the desert usually do. Our midnight talk faded like a dream. Or a mirage, given my surroundings. My conversation with Jean-Phillipe didn’t magically dispel my unhappiness or desire for an apology– I still demanded one. But it did manage to form a tiny crack the foundation of my stony moral certitude. I was still angry and unable to forgive this terrible perceived wrong that had been done to me. And I stayed that way until the end of our trip, which terminated in London, where I planned to have dinner with my first boyfriend, Frank.

It was dinner which was organized so that I could officially apologize and ask forgiveness for being such an asshole to him nearly 15 years earlier, because what’s a story about the discomforts of personal growth without a nice dash of irony?

Frank patiently listened to my extended apology with the open calmness of a trained clinical psychologist, which he happened to be. He’d forgiven me ages ago and moved on with his life. But he was smart enough to know that I hadn’t yet forgiven myself and kind enough to let me talk. The slow, horrifying sense of what a hypocritical ass I’d been began to creep over me. I’d assumed Frank would have held a grudge against me for treating him poorly, because lord knows I would have held one against him if the shoe had been on the other foot. But he’s not that kind of person. I hadn’t seen him in years. I didn’t know his life, but he was clearly living a much happier one than I was.

I booked myself into psychotherapy as soon as I got home.

In the weeks that followed my first session, I found myself riding that angry camel into the desert over and over again back to that campsite and the tagine and Joe’s story.

I kept thinking about that woman in the KFC and the girl behind the counter who didn’t know her life. And then I imagined Dan as the woman and me behind the counter, not judging, for a change. I didn’t know his life or state of mind anymore than I knew if he could eat two buckets of Original Recipe at one sitting. It wasn’t up to me to examine his motivations or actions. My therapist hinted that it was up to me to start examining my own. And I really didn’t like what I saw.

But I took some comfort in climbing back up the sand dune with Jean-Phillipe, where I sit under a full moon and mine his words for wisdom. I did that frequently. I kept hearing him urging me to forgive and move on. It took dozens of exhausting mental ascents and therapy sessions to realize he wasn’t just talking about the need to forgive another person, but the necessity of forgiving one’s self as well. Or so I like to imagine. I found my behavior even harder to forgive than Dan’s.

Eventually, Dan and I met up at my local park to make peace. We both apologized. I felt it was important for me to give him one. The strange thing was that I no longer needed one from him. But I took that lesson from my first boyfriend in London to heart and let him do it because he simply might have needed to. Then again, maybe he didn’t. I really couldn’t tell you because I simply don’t know his life.

 

tagine

Tagine with Olives and Tomatoes

You may find yourself asking why I’ve chosen to make tagine, since all I’ve done is complain about it. The answer is this: it’s incredibly forgiving. The chicken can simmer more or less unattended for hours, cooking until it falls apart when you touch it, which is what it’s supposed to do. It is tenderness itself. And that’s something everyone could use a bit more of in our lives, both from within and without.

And I’ve wanted to write about that evening in the Sahara for a long time, but just didn’t know how because it was one of the most emotionally complicated nights of my life. I spent that dinner wanting something nonexistent and critical of what was warm and nourishing and present– not only the tagine, but the friends who shared it with me.

This month, Jean-Phillipe died very suddenly in Montreal. He has been in my thoughts ever since. With the exception of that night on the dunes, we were never close. On the few occasions when I did see him, he’d fondly remember our conversation. I just wish I could have told him how important it was for me.

Serves 3 to 4 people, depending on hunger level

Ingredients:

• 5 to 6 chicken thighs, depending upon the size of your vessel
• 2 tablespoons of olive oil
• 2 tablespoons of frying fat from the chicken
• 1 whole yellow onion, sliced thinly lengthwise
• 3 cloves of garlic, crushed
• 2 tablespoons of tagine spice mix*
• 2/3 cup chopped olives (choose ones you prefer)
• 2/3 cup oil-packed roasted tomatoes
• The zest of 1/2 lemon, julienned or grated**
• 1 cup of water
• Salt

Preparation:

1. Add the olive oil to the bottom of your tagine, which has been placed on your stove top. If you don’t have one, any heavy-bottomed pot with a tight-fitting lid (like a Dutch oven) will do. Turn heat to medium. Salt your chicken thighs, then add them to the pot skin side down until golden. Flip them over and brown the less attractive side. Set aside for later use. They do not need to be cooked through.

2. Remove all but two tablespoons of the chicken fat/olive oil mixture at the bottom of your pan. Reheat and add the sliced onions and stir to distribute the cooking fat amongst them. Add your spices and continue to stir until the onions are fragrant and softened, but not browned. Next add the water, olives, tomatoes, and lemon zest. Stir to blend, then place your chicken, skin side up on top of the mixture. Cover the pot with its lid and cook over a low-medium flame for about 45 minutes. Do not keep checking its progress– this is one instance in which letting off steam is not a good thing. Go do something else, like make couscous or something constructive.

3. After 45 minutes, remove lid and turn the chicken thighs skin side down. Cover and cook for another 30 minutes or until the chicken barely holds on to the bone.

4. Remove from the heat and immediately serve over heaping piles of couscous or, if you prefer, with slices of crusty bread to absorb the wonderful sauce.

5. Share with friends and be grateful for what you have in front of you. Tell your stories and listen to theirs. You never know when they might come in handy.

* I like to use a ready-made tagine spice mix, because it’s convenient. If you’re one of those people who like to do things the hard way, combine equal parts: cayenne, cinnamon, coriander, cardamom, turmeric, allspice, clove, and paprika. Also, if you’re one of those people who likes to do things the hard why, you probably won’t be making tagine– it’s too easy.

** You may use preserved lemons, if you like. I simply have neither the taste nor the patience for them.

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From Fork to Farm

Pre-seeded ManureThe Farm to Fork movement has made news in recent years, raising consumer consciousness about sustainability and where our dinner comes from. Many consumers of locally sourced, organic foods take pride in developing relationships with the farmers who grow their apples, spinach, and lettuces, but there is an expanding population of food enthusiasts who want to take this relationship to a higher, more intimate level.

“It isn’t enough for me to know where my food comes from,” says Doug Bottoms of San Francisco,” I want to know where my food’s food comes from.”

Bottoms is one of a dozen or so urban farmers who is turning the Farm to Fork revolution on its head. As he likes to put it, he and his friends are living a “Fork to Farm” lifestyle. Not only do they grow as much of their own food as possible,  they take pains to create the manure that nourishes it.

It is the ultimate form of recycling.

“I’m very careful about what I put into my body, because I know what comes out of it is so precious,” states Bottoms.

Creating one’s own manure isn’t for the faint of heart. The collection of materials goes far beyond saving bits of egg shell, potato peel, and coffee grounds, as one can imagine. “Gathering the prime material was a bit tricky at first,” Bottoms admits. “I originally tried using a kitchen colander, but my girlfriend refused to eat anything that touched it. And the handles made sitting uncomfortable.” He has now created a catch-all made from non-rusting steel mesh. “You’d never know it was there if you weren’t looking. Now I can create in total comfort.”

At work“Late Sunday morning is an ideal time for me to concentrate on my compost,” he added. “Armed with the New York Times and a double shot of Four Barrel Friendo Blendo, I head into the bathroom and get to work. All of it is compostable.”

But in an over-crowded city like San Francisco, space is at a premium.

“All available green space– window boxes, patio, emergency exit landing– are devoted to growing food. There’s simply no place for my composting bin outdoors,” confesses Bottoms. “So I use my roommate’s bathroom. He has anosmia plus he works in tech, so he’s never home. He’s a coder for Google, so it’s not as though he’d ever bring anyone home to smell it. I compost in his shower. It’s the perfect arrangement– although my girlfriend makes me keep the door closed with a bath towel stuffed in the floor gap.”

But it isn’t what comes from Bottoms that stinks, he claims. “I’ve carefully curated my diet over the past several months: carrots, lentils, charcoal pills– I’ve achieved an odorless ideal. I have not smelled a thing in nearly two weeks. I think that’s some kind of record.” He claims that the odor emanating from his bathroom compost heap is from the natural decay of other organic materials, noting that when he uses shredded bits of the San Francisco Chronicle Food Section, the odor is almost unbearable.

KohlrabiIs the bother of daily collection, of turning and wetting and tending an indoor compost bin worth the trouble? Bottoms thinks so.

“One of the unforeseen benefits of apartment composting is the heat it generates. My gas bill hasn’t been this low in years. And you should see what it did for my kohlrabi– it nearly exploded out of the soil. Although my girlfriend refuses to eat it.”

“Everything about the process of making home-grown compost has been rewarding. My garden’s taken off. I produce almost 50% of the vegetables I consumed this year. I’ve met some amazing people who share my passion for the organic lifestyle. And, most importantly, I’ve gotten to know myself much more intimately than I ever knew was possible.”

Bottoms has been so successful at being a self-composter, he’s admitted to having more of the stuff than he knows what to do with.

“My mother has been especially encouraging. She’s said frequently to anyone who’ll listen that she always knew I had it in me. She’s gone so far as to say I’m simply full of it and she’s absolutely right.”

As a result, Doug Bottoms is giving his locally sourced, artisan compost as Holiday gifts.

“I’m filling everyone’s stocking with it this year! My mail person, yoga instructor, friends, family. Everyone. Except my girlfriend. She says she’s had enough.”

“I am so glad that I can share a bit of myself with the world this Holiday Season,” he added as a final note. “I’ve reached deep within myself this year. I’d like to spread it around and touch as many people with it as I can. There is no better present than the gift of yourself. It’s what I’ve come to think of as the true meaning of Christmas.”

Jars of Shit

 

 

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The Tijuana Donkey

Tequila Bottle

I’ve never understood the allure of the Moscow Mule. Apart from the participation of vodka, it is decidedly un-Russian. At the time of the drink’s invention in 1941, what self-respecting Soviet would have chosen to dilute his precious vodka with anything, let alone a decadent Western fizzing beverage? Even more disappointing is that not one bit of the eponymous animal can be found in a Moscow Mule, just equal measures of cock and bull (see: decadent Western fizzing beverage.)

No, this ersatz Muscovite libation was the brainchild of a large Connecticut conglomerate who owned the rights to Smirnoff Vodka (which no one wanted to drink), who met a man in Hollywood with cases of un-consumed home-made ginger beer collecting dust in the basement of his restaurant, The Cock and Bull (see also: decadent Western fizzing beverage), who was friends with the owner of a copper factory who had far too many copper mugs on her hands.

In my opinion, there as never been a cocktail creation myth more American than the Moscow Mule. All that’s missing from the story is a plucky lime* heiress with a heart of gold.

The fact that the Moscow Mule is once again popular isn’t too surprising. It’s an excellent cocktail for people who don’t really care for the taste of alcohol, who lack any sort of booze-related imagination, and who are willing to do whatever Oprah tells them to do. It’s sweet, has a catchy name, and comes in a sweaty metal container which causes the uninitiated to wonder aloud, “What on earth are you drinking?” Its gauzy veil of Eastern exoticism distracts us from its essentially bland and neutral spirit.

And I reject the cocktail utterly. To me it is a symbol of three unforgivable evils: Corporate America, the inauthentic (How many Russians have even seen a lime?), and Russia itself (I am fond of its culture, but not its government). Why pay homage to any of them, I ask? Unless you’re simply a conformist. If so, then go right on drinking these little flagons of resignation.

As for me, I shall repurpose my little copper cups with the kicking mule embossed upon them and use them for a(n) (almost) totally authentic cocktail, which I am calling The Tijuana Donkey. Why drink a cocktail which glorifies cold, distant Russia, when you can drink one to celebrate our warm and friendly neighbor, Mexico?

It is a libation that brings back many happy memories of my teenage years– a time when I was too young to legally make caesar salads in my own country, so my friends and I would cross over into the welcoming arms of Tijuana, Mexico– a city brimming with hospitality and fresh, seasonal produce.

As we strolled down Avenida Revolución, looking for organic romaine lettuce and locally sourced Worcestershire sauce, my “amigos” and I were often personally invited into quaint, traditional Mexican drinking establishments with charming names like Señor Frog’s and Papas & Beer.

Spent LimeEventually, we accepted one such invitation because we had developed a serious thirst in the course of our quest. Almost immediately upon being seated, my always-thoughtful friend Douglas motioned to a waiter and pointed to me, indicating that I was very much in need of refreshment. A small glass was placed in front of me into which a quantity of beverage made from the exotic-sounding blue agave was poured, accompanied by an equal amount of carbonated lemon-lime drink. It certainly looked refreshing! As I was about to take a sip, imagine my surprise when our waiter covered the glass with the palm of one hand, picked it up with the other and slammed it down on the table in front of me! And, in what I consider a case of hospitality gone too far, pulled my head back and poured the now-frothing concoction down my throat, holding a dirty rag over my mouth and nose until I swallowed. Whistles were blown (in my ear), people applauded, and a wedge of lime was given to me for what I assume were its disinfectant properties.

Such a production for one little drink! Tragically, one was hardly enough to slake my considerable thirst. I found it necessary to consume several, which was exhausting but, after the first six or seven, I hardly noticed the rag at all. Or the ringing in my ears.  When we received the bill, I discovered that we had been drinking something called “Tequila Poppers”, much to my under-aged horror.

That was a very long time ago, but the memory– and my fondness for the blue agave–has stayed with me.

Unfortunately, a growing fear of loud noises and shattering barware has rendered me unable to drink tequila poppers exactly as I did in my college days, but that hasn’t stopped me from enjoying this delicious trio of los auténticos sabores de Tijuana: tequila, lemon-lime soda, and dirty rag lime in a my own way.

Tijuana Donkey

The Tijuana Donkey

Moscow has never been famous for its mules, but the donkeys of Tijuana are another matter entirely. Tourists have been famously fond of posing with ones which have been painted to look like zebras. And, for the more theatrically-oriented, donkeys can be found delighting (and surprising) predominantly male audiences in live variety acts on stages throughout the city.

Very few people can tell the difference between a kicking mule and an excitable donkey when confronted with one etched onto the side of a copper mug. After a few of these drinks, even fewer will be able to read the words “Moscow Mule” which typically accompany it. For the self-conscious, you may choose to have them either re-engraved or simply scratch the lettering out with a razor blade.

Makes: One drink with plenty of kick. If you’re catering to a crowd and happen to have a large copper bucket on hand, you can whip up a big batch and refer to it as “Tijuana Donkey Punch.”

Ingredients:

• Decent, but not very expensive tequila
• A decadent Western, lemon-lime flavored fizzing beverage such as 7-Up, Sprite or Jarritos.
• The juice of 1/2 a lime
• Ice
• Coach’s whistle and dirty dish towel for garnish.

Preparation:

1. Fill a copper drinking cup with ice. Preferably one which has seen better days, much like Tijuana itself.

2. Add equal parts tequila and flavored soda. You may at this point serve the Tijuana Donkey to your guest or to yourself, squeezing in the lime at the last moment, and sopping up any stray lime juice or tequila with your rag.

Or, for a somewhat more authentic taste of 1980s Tijuana, proceed as follows:

3. Place dirty towel over the top of the cup, situating the palm of your right hand over that. Raise the cup approximately six inches from the surface of your table or countertop with your left hand and slam it down with great force several times. If you are doing this at your mother’s house, please use a coaster.

4. Find a strainer and the nearest willing recipient of this beverage. Making certain to first strain all the ice from the now-foaming drink, push his or her head back by the forehead, blow whistle directly into the victim’s drinker’s ear.

5. Pour drink down his or her throat, making certain to cover the mouth and nose with the rag to facilitate swallowing. When the beverage has been consumed, rub rag over the entirety of their face for dramatic effect. Applaud. Offer lime.

6. Repeat as often as they are willing.

7. If you are drinking Tijuana Donkeys alone, make certain to remove the whistle from your mouth before consuming to avoid unnecessary choking hazards.

* The first Moscow Mules were made, however, with lemon.

 

 

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¡Vamos, Gigantes!

Gigantes FinishedBefore I begin, I should like everyone to know that I am a Giants fan, but one of an extremely subtle variety. Thanks to working for the Sunkist company at Disneyland as a teenager, I understand that the wearing of orange causes me to look as if I am suffering from Addison’s disease. And the only time I allowed myself to visit a psychic, she told me in no uncertain terms that it was dangerous for me to wear black anywhere near my face. It breaks my heart to be both physically and psychically prevented from the wearing of our great team’s colors. So, how then, does a person like me show support for our Messrs. October without resorting to sartorial display?

I very much enjoy baseball, but I’m just not one of those people who ever catches the fever, so to speak, even though I am surrounded by folks who cough and sneeze nothing but Giants, Giants, Giants. It’s nearly impossible to whip me into a frenzy about any aerobic activity which involves two or more players messing about with balls, which is why you’ll never find me cheering wildly.

And which is more than likely why I am single.

But take me to a game and I’m bound to let my beer get warm and my garlic fries get cold because I’m too busy peering through my opera glasses binoculars at the action on the field. Or, during the endless periods of inaction, at the impressive tailoring of the players’ uniforms. Away from the stadium, however, I don’t give America’s pastime a second thought, much to my great civic shame.

Until playoff season starts, that is. And then it’s all I hear about. At least in San Francisco.

DillI hop into a taxi and invariably, after a moment or two of silence, the driver asks, “So…are you a Giants fan?” Though I would like to respond with “Well, the Jolly Green one gives me the creeps, but I did find André the Giant’s turn as Fezzik in The Princess Bride so endearing that,on the whole, I’d have to say ‘yes'”, but I’m afraid of getting thrown out of the cab. Instead, I always respond, “Of course!” And then I let the driver go on and on while I nod in agreement and count the blocks to work where I can make my escape.

Except there is no escape. When I sit down to a pre-shift meal with my co-workers, The San Francisco Giants is the sole topic of conversation. Man or woman, cook or server, busboy or bartender– everyone seems to be discussing baseball, both in English and Spanish. Whether it’s The Giants, The “Yai-ants”, or Los Gigantes, I feel a supreme disconnect with my workmates because they are all speaking a language in which I cannot communicate well.

To me, Baseball-ese is a lot like Spanish– I understand most of the key words and structure, I appreciate the alien beauty of it, but completely miss the nuances. And when I try to speak it, I find myself stumbling and grasping for words, feeling like a complete idiot. So I clam up and wonder to myself if there is a Rosetta Stone program for Conversational Baseball.

When I am at my tables and a guest asks to know the score of a game, I apologize and imply that I’ve been far to busy attending to his or her needs to selfishly sneak away to find out. And then we’ll both hear half the restaurant either scream or groan in unison and the question is more or less answered.

It was while I was taking the order of one such guest that I hit upon the one way I could comfortably promote my team.

Raw BeansOn our menu, we offer a bubbling hot dish of Greek giant beans baked in tomato sauce and  topped with herbed feta and pesto. They’re called gigantes. A woman asked for them as an appetizer, mangling the word as she spoke it. “Can we get an order of dji-gan-tees, too, please?” She knew she’d mispronounced it and asked me the proper way to say it. “It’s yi-gan-des,” I said and then added, “Or if you want to get all Spanish about it, you can call them “hee-gahn-tes.”

“Spanish for ‘giants’, right?” she said. When I replied in the affirmative, she continued, “Well now we have to order them.”

Taking things one step further, I suggest that, rather than eat them prior to their meat course, I bring them out to accompany their shared plate of rotisserie lamb, explaining that each dish would be improved by the company of the other, to which she agreed. I was about to make what I thought was a clever baseball analogy by adding that the beans would act as cheerleaders for the lamb, but then I remembered that would be an unfortunate football analogy, so I simply said, “Yeah, that’ll be good.”

I may not found the clever turn of phrase I was looking for, but I did manage to find my own way to support my boys– through the magic of baked beans.

From now until the end of The World Series, I will be showing my civic pride by ensuring there’s a piping hot dish of beans on every table in my section of the restaurant. There’s going to be something in the air at Kokkari– the smell of excitement. Of team spirit. Of the beans that will help to win The World Series.

¡Vamos Gigantes!

Gigantes Prepped

Gigantes*

These Greek beans (which can also be spelled “gigandes”, which is much less interesting to me) are large, tough sons-of-bitches. They must be soaked overnight and gently cooked for what seems like ages to coax out their softer inner qualities. It makes one think of Babe Ruth visiting that little boy in the hospital. Or maybe it just makes you think what a pain in the ass making these beans is going to be. And to that I say, if you can’t take 90 minutes out of your life to simmer beans, then you obviously don’t want the San Francisco Giants to win. And if you happen to be from Kansas City, I would completely understand. But if you are from Kansas City, you should make them anyway. You could burn them in effigy under the broiler or lace them with something unpleasant (but non-lethal) and serve them to those you suspect of having Bay Area sympathies.

Makes enough for at least 6 people to be very full of beans.

Ingredients:

For the beans:

• 1 pound of dried gigantes. You can find these at most Greek markets. If you do not have access to a Greek market, dried butter beans will work as well.
• 1 large yellow onion, coarsely chopped
• 1 large carrot, peeled and also coarsely chopped
• 2 celery stalks, chopped coarsely
• 1 large leek, light green parts and all, chopped in a coarse manner (when doing all of this coarse chopping, please bear in mind that these bits will be served with the beans as well, so don’t make them as coarse as, say, Wallace Beery in Dinner at Eight. They should be more like Denholm Elliot in Room With A View)
• 2 cloves of garlic, minced
• 1 tablespoon of  dried Greek oregano. Although, in this case, I think Mexican is appropriate, too.
• 2 bay leaves
• 1/2 cup of extra-virgin olive oil
• Plenty of sea salt and pepper
• 4 tablespoons (or more, if you like) finely chopped fresh dill

For the tomato sauce:

• One 28-ounce can of San Marzano tomatoes, juice and all
• 2 cloves of garlic
• 1/4 cup of extra-virgin olive oil
• 1 tablespoon of dried oregano from the country of your choosing
• Salt

To finish the dish:

• Plenty more fresh dill, minced
• As much Greek feta as you are comfortable with, crumbled.

Preparation:

1. Place the gigantes in a large bowl and cover them with cold water 3 inches above the bean line, making sure you have first removed the beans from their cellophane bag with Greek lettering on it you more than likely cannot read. Let them soak overnight.

2. When ready to use, drain and rinse the beans, then pour them into a stockpot and cover with cold water with 2 inches to spare. Bring to a simmer over high heat, skimming the surface foam as it rises to the top– an activity which is surprisingly satisfying. Add 2 tablespoons of salt, cover and adjust the heat so that the water bubbles at a gentle simmer. After 45 minutes, add your Denholm Elliotted vegetables, the garlic and the bay leaves. Kick up the heat to return the water to a subtle simmer and cook, uncovered, until the beans are tender. This could take from 45 minutes to 1 hour, depending upon the beans. Test one every so often towards the end of cooking to test for doneness.

3. As the beans are cooking for the second 45 minutes you could spend your time doing any number of things, like checking baseball scores or watching telenovelas, but the most efficient use of your time would be making the tomato sauce for the beans.

• Liberating the tomatoes from their can, purée them in a food processor with their juice and set aside. In a medium saucepan, heat the oil over a middling heat. Crush the 2 cloves of garlic with the heel of your palm against the flat edge of a knife– you want a release of juices and increased surface area, not total annihilation. Add the abused cloves to the hot oil and fry them until they begin to brown. Think: “khaki” or “desert sand”. Shades of brown-nose and beaver are to be avoided. Remove the oil from the heat source and discard the doubly-traumatized garlic cloves.

• Add the tomato purée to the hot oil– making certain you are not wearing any shirt or blouse you are particularly attached to because it’s really going to spatter and hiss– then return the pan to medium heat. Stir often while cooking and keep the sauce at a gentle simmer until it reduces, thickens, and doesn’t taste like raw tomatoes. You may use a bit of tomato past as a cheat, but why bother? Remember: you’ve got 45 minutes to kill. Add the oregano and cook for another 5 minutes or so. Season with salt to taste. Turn off the heat but leave the sauce on the stove to keep warm.

4. When the beans have been proclaimed tender, but not disintegrated, gently drain them into a colander. Remove the bay leaves and return beans to the pot. Pour over the tomato sauce, toss in a handful of chopped dill (that’s the 4 tablespoons in the ingredients list) and season with a generous amount of freshly ground pepper and more salt. Give everything a gentle stir until the beans are evenly covered with tomato sauce, then transfer them to a large baking dish to cool. Cover the beans and refrigerate overnight to let all the ingredients mingle and get to know each other better.

5. When ready to serve, heat your oven to 350°F and pop the covered baking dish inside until the beans are hot and steamy. If you plan on serving the entire baking dish to, say, the entire San Francisco Giants bullpen then dot the entire surface with as much crumbled feta as you dare, crank up the oven and place the whole thing under the broiler. If your ambitions are more modest, take as much as you need, place in an appropriately sized heat proof baking dish, top with an equally appropriate amount of feta and proceed. When the beans are bubbling and the cheese has melted and lightly browned (buff, not burnt sienna), remove from the oven, drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with more dill.

To serve, turn on the World Series and consume as many gigantes as you possibly can. If you eat enough of them, you can cheer the team on with your own internal vuvuzela, if that sounds like something you’d enjoy. Or do vuvuzelas have something to do with another team sport where people play with balls? I forget.

* Please note that, although this recipe is heavily based upon the one in the Kokkari cookbook, it is not exactly the same. If you feel the need to know what I am talking about, you may purchase their book here. Also, I had absolutely nothing to do with the cookbook. Unless that is if you count the fact that I prevented the phrase “Kokkari has the cleanest rims in town” from being used in the introduction– an action I regret to this very day.

 

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The Great Leap Forward

10534687_10152615869789824_1637491072072861403_nI’m a very modest dreamer. In the evenings when I slip away to the Land of Nod, I never find myself gifted with the power of flight. Instead, I am blessed with the more demure ability of jumping a little higher than those around me. When I dream of my ideal home, it’s never as sexy as an Italian villa or a penthouse suite. It’s just me discovering a hidden room in my existing apartment or finding myself with the strength to push out walls another three feet so that I might finally be able to fit a dining table into my living room. And when I daydream about my ideal mate, I don’t conjure up a handsome prince on a white steed. I envision someone who is sane and patient and possibly bespectacled. And not prone to sudden abandonment.

It’s the same with this blog. I’ve always regarded it, more or less, as my little one-bedroom apartment on the internet which I could gradually fill with photos and food and emotional souvenirs. I may use it as a soapbox from time to time, but I’ve never much thought of it as a platform. I am relieved that none of my posts have gone viral because I’ve suffered through enough viruses in my day, and none of them have been especially pleasant. I didn’t start this blog thinking it would be a quick springboard to a book deal. I definitely didn’t start it to become an internet celebrity because, well, that would be silly. And highly unlikely.

I started writing here because it fulfilled the dual need of creative expression and keeping myself sane.

A lot of good has come from this blog. It’s allowed me to find my voice and gain a better understand of myself, both good and bad. It’s brought fascinating people into my life. Made me a better writer. And it’s helped open up the world again to its author who once felt his walls closing in.

Over the past few months I’ve come to the conclusion that, not only is it time to realize my little dream and find the strength to push out those walls in both my life and in my writing, it’s time to start dreaming on a slightly larger scale.  To hell (for the moment) with my living room.

So I am writing a book.

It’s an overwhelming thing to take on such a project. I’ve been fortunate enough to have other offers over the past couple of years, but I never felt ready, so I’ve always politely declined. I still don’t feel completely prepared for the adventure, but then does one ever feel ready for such things? Do people typically have children only when they feel ready or do they just do it? (Please don’t answer that.)

I may not feel completely ready for my own literary baby, but I have recently discovered that I am pregnant with its possibility. And I am very glad to let people know that I will no longer tolerate being called a book(ish) virgin.

There is no due date as yet, but I have put myself in a specialist’s care. He’s helped deliver the spawn of people like Mollie Katzen, Augusten Burroughs, and Jackie Collins, so I feel I am in good hands. Thank you, Dr. Troha of Folio Literary Agency.

10440938_10152457716129824_1548761307530597636_nWe don’t know the sex yet, but I’ve already picked out a name: Martyrs in The Kitchen. It will be a cookbook, but I believe (as all parents do) that it will be a very special one. It will be a book of recipes based on the fascinating lives and horrifying deaths of Catholic saints and martyrs.

I’ve always wondered why Saint Patrick, Saint Valentine, and Saint Nicholas get all the attention when there are so many other saints worthy of celebration. And bribing with good food and drink. For many who read food blogs, cooking is a near-sacred act in itself, so why not take things one step further and curry favor with one of God’s Elect while you’re at it? There’s a saint to help you with (or protect you from) nearly everything.

Girlfriend afflicted with toothache? Prepare her a three-course soft foods dinner with the help of St. Apollonia, the patron saint of dentists (who had her teeth knocked out under torture). Terrified of artillery fire where you live?  Why not call on the holy patroness designated to protect you from such things and have one of St. Barbara’s French 75 cocktails to help calm your nerves. Suffer from venereal disease? Make St. Fiacre’s delicious Spotted Dick for dessert, and he may just intercede on your behalf. It’s what he does.

And if you’ve been honoring St. Barbara a little too frequently, you can always turn to St. Bibiana, the patron saint of hangovers. Or to St. Monica, patroness of alcoholics, if it comes to that.

Martyrs in The Kitchen will be filled with dozens of saintly recipes and anecdotes. And each saint comes with his or her very own Feast Day, which means you’ll know precisely which day to hold your St. Lawrence barbecue (August 10th).

There’s no due date as yet, but I promise to send out announcements as soon as we’re certain.

I’ve already enlisted the aid of St. Francis de Sales, to aid me in my writing, St. Expeditius  to help me avoid procrastination, and St. Timothy to protect me from food poisoning as I develop the recipes, but I hope that I can count on my readers to keep me in their prayers as well.

And, if you are so inclined, wish me luck as I take this Great Leap Forward into the scary, unknown world of publishing. I know it’s going to be very tough, but I have the feeling that’s it’s also going to be a lot of fun. I think my dreams just started to get a little bit bigger.

Sadly, so did my belly. But now if anyone remarks on the fact that I’ve gained a little bit of weight, I’ll just tell them it’s because I’m a little bit pregnant. I may or may not tell them with what.

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Animal Queendom

hummingbird-246114_640I’m not certain if my sister simply has a thing for animals, or if they have a thing for her. Whatever the case, the feeling seems to be exceptionally mutual. More than one animal has wandered onto our property and refused to budge. And I’m certain Lori had something to do with their permanent loitering.

Any dog that was deemed mine (or any one else’s) ultimately became hers. She didn’t bribe them with extra food or give them any extra attention– it was just a simple, animal preference. Creatures just gravitate to her sphere. Trying to get a dog to sleep with me became an exercise in futility. They would humor me by allowing a few minutes of cuddling, then invariably tire of it, hop off the bed, and beg me to open my door so that they might be allowed to get some peace and quiet in my sister’s room.

Even her rat adored her. Whereas mine seemed eternally annoyed with me as I tried to get it to speak or find its way through a Lincoln Log maze, Lori’s would insist upon showering with her, jumping at the shower curtain until she finally managed to slide down the porcelain and bathe at my sister’s feet.

snow-bird-11-500x375Her powers are positively weird. I swear I once saw a bird land on her finger, as if she were a slightly butch Snow White. Or a slightly femme St. Francis of Assisi, I haven’t decided which.

Her passions have always run to the animal, rather than the human. There was a brief flirtation with horses, like many little girls have, which included a stint at equestrian camp. But maintaining a pony is a very expensive prospect, no matter how much fun they are to brush and put make-up on. She moved on.

For brief while, we kept hamsters, which were difficult to develop any true affection for, thanks to their depressing (or blessed) habit of dying abruptly. My brother wisely refused to become emotionally attached to them, naming each one in succession “Samantha” so that, every time one was found expired under a pile of cedar shavings in the Habitrail, a new one could be obtained the same day and we could all pretend that nothing at all had happened. Not even my sister could do anything about extending their life spans. Soon afterwards, she proclaimed that rats were much nicer and smarter than our current rodents-of-choice and the House of Hamsters died out with Samantha V or VI. Or VII. We lost count. And interest.

JawsIn 1975, she became obsessed with Great White Sharks, thanks to a certain film, which fueled my nightmares but seemed to fill her dreams. Owning one was out of the question. Not so much because we had no place for a Great White, but because she understood that they tend to die in captivity and therefore would not be happy in a suburban Orange County swimming pool. Which we didn’t have, so there would be the added burden of convincing our bachelor neighbor to keep one in his, which would have been difficult. He liked to swim in the nude. So she contented herself by mounting shark jaws on her wall, wearing a shark tooth pendant, and painting them to decorate her walls, her Pee-Chee folders, and her Easter eggs. Had she ever met a shark in its own habitat, I am fairly certain it would never attack, but rather, ask for a cuddle.

Her obsession with these apex predators ended suddenly in the Summer of 1977, when the film Star Wars altered her life forever, but that’s another story entirely.

J&J Baby ShampooIn terms of animal cruelty, she has always been decidedly against it. When I was three, Lori branded me a murderer when she discovered me poking at our lifeless goldfish as it floated atop its clouded, foamy water. I’d decided it looked hungry and fed it Lucky Charms, which it seemed rather pleased about. It was when I added milk that things began to go wrong. Trying to clean up my mess by adding a capful of Johnson & Johnson Baby Shampoo more or less sealed its fate.

No more tears indeed.

Today, her tastes fly toward the avian. On a recent visit home, as we stood in our back yard one afternoon, she pointed out every bird in the sky, describing each species as they perched or flew overhead. And, like any back yard gossip, she proceeded to tell me about all the bird goings-on in the neighborhood. Who fights with whom, who’s having babies, who just got a satellite dish. But there is a particular family of bird she seems to care more about than any other : the one of the humming variety, Trochilidae. And, of course, she’d be the first to correct me by saying that hummingbirds don’t hum. And she would be right, as usual. She’s always right about such things.

nestHer hummingbird feeder, after months of trail and error, has found its ideal home on a small branch of the avocado tree which hangs over from our neighbor’s fence. She feels its location provides enough shade, protection, and privacy for them to feed in peace. The hummingbirds, which she seems to know individually, all appear to agree. So much so that two of them decided to make their nests there this year.

She showed me one of them. When she pointed out the bits of broken egg shell hanging off the side, she assured me that nothing bad had happened, but rather that the baby had recently hatched.

She’s spent so much time observing these creatures that she knows just about everything that went into the making of these nests: spider webs, grass, dryer lint, dog hair, saliva, feathers. She could even identify the neighborhood dog from which the hair derived. I was impressed, but then she’s always had an eye for detail.

We’re so different, she and I. Creatures flock to her and thrive, whereas I can barely keep a houseplant alive. I’m good at reading people, she’s good at reading animals. I’m cynical and sarcastic, she’s not. At all. Based on her interests, she’s more Dr. Doolittle-meets-Dr. Who. In a way, we balance each other out.

I haven’t the faintest idea how long this current episode of what I like to think of as Lori’s Animal Queendom will last, but I hope there are many more seasons to come. I can’t wait to see what creatures catch her fancy next.

I just hope to God it isn’t leeches. It would be excrementally difficult to come up with an appropriate recipe for them. Although I have to admit the idea of a tres leeches cake is intriguing.

IMG_4891

Hummingbird Cake

Today, of all things, just happens to be my sister’s birthday, so I decided to bake her a special cake. Sadly, she lives five hundred miles away*, so I had to have other people eat it for her. But I can assure her that it was a very good one.

Terrified at the thought of being left alone in my apartment with a three-layered confection, I sliced it into quarters and gave one hunk to my friend across the street who runs a rather risqué breakfast place. He wound up feeding forkfuls of it to his guests as he sat on their laps. Another big hunk went to my godchildren, who wound up asking for seconds.

So, Lori, rest assured that this cake was damned good. I ate the rest of it myself. I did that for you because my love for you is unselfish. The recipe is from my friend Elise’s site, written Steve-Anna Stephens, which is I name I am very much intrigued by. My cake doesn’t look as pretty as hers does, but that’s because I’m a terrible cake decorator.

And, before you read any further, I just want you to know that no real hummingbirds were harmed in the making of this cake. Or not many, anyway.

Oh, and Happy Birthday.

Makes one three-layer cake, which can feed a good 15 people or about 22,500 hummingbirds.

Again, I should note that this recipe is adapted from Simply Recipes.

Ingredients

For the cake:

• 3 cups of all-purpose flour
• 2 teaspoons baking powder
• 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
• 1 teaspoon of salt
• 1 teaspoon of ground cinnamon
• 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg (fresh is really best)
• 1 teaspoon of ground, desiccated hummingbird (for vegetarians, use imitation)
• 1 cup of canola oil
• 3 hens eggs or 145 hummingbirds eggs (organic)
• 2 cups sugar
• 8 ounces of crushed, canned pineapple, with juice
• 2 cups mashed, very ripe banana (you really must think ahead on these things). About 4. • 1 cup finely chopped pecans (do this by hand, please)

For the frosting:

• 1 pound cream cheese, softened
• 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened just like the cream cheese.
• 2 pounds of powdered sugar (yes, that is correct). That’s typically two whole packages.
• 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract
• 2 tablespoons of bourbon (this is a Southern cake, after all)
• 1 cup of pecans: chopped, toasted, praniléed, macraméed, etc. for decoration.

Preparation:

1. Preheat your oven to 350°F. Coat 3 9-inch round cake pans with a thin layer of softened butter, place a 9-inch circle of parchment paper at the bottom of each pan, butter them as well, then dust the buttery pans with flour, shaking off any excess with an upside down tap over the sink.

2. In a large bowl, whisk together all the dry ingredients (except the sugar): flour, salt, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg, and hummingbird. (Note: If using hummingbird paste, add that to the wet ingredients.)

3. In a separate bowl, whisk together the oil,  sugar, and eggs together until very well combined. Then add the mashed bananas )which give one a heightened sense of well-being if mashed through one’s clean fingers), crushed pineapple (which do not), vanilla extract, and 1 cup of chopped pecans. Stir to integrate. Don’t beat them.

4. Using a wooden spoon, rubber spatula, or other handy spanking tool, fold the wet ingredients into the dry ones, and keep folding until all of the ingredients are just combined. You will regret over-mixing. I don’t know why, but I promise you will.

5. Divide the batter evenly among your three prepared cake pans. I put mine on a digital kitchen scale to ensure evenness. If you don’t have a kitchen scale, you should really think about getting one.

6. Bake for about 25 to 30 minutes on the center rack of your oven, checking on the cakes periodically somewhere after minute #15. Are there hot spots in your oven? Move the cakes around accordingly. They’re done when the sides of the cake begins to pull away from the pan and a toothpick inserted in their centers comes out clean. Remove the cakes from the oven.

7. Let the cakes cool on a wire rack for at least 10 minutes before attempting to remove them from their pans. Run a knife around the edges to loosen. If you’ve done the parchment circle trick, you will have absolutely no problem removing the cakes. If you somehow do have a problem, it’s yours, not mine.

To make the cream cheese frosting:

1. Combine the softened butter and cream cheese in the bowl of an electric mixer until they are thoroughly creamed and pleasantly fluffy. With the mixer on slow speed to avoid a choking, powdery mess in your kitchen, slowly add the powdered sugar. I drape a clean kitchen towel half way over my mixer to minimize the mess even further. When it’s all incorporated, add the vanilla extract and the bourbon, making certain to taste the latter at least two to three times to ensure quality before adding. Beat until the frosting is light and frothy, which is a sign that said frosting is begging you to stop the beating.

2. I’m not telling you how to frost a god damned cake. If you really need help in this department, I suggest you visit the Simply Recipes page for guidance. She has infinitely more patience with such things than I.

3. Serve to your loved ones. If your loved ones cannot be there to share it with you. serve it to your liked ones.

*I have the feeling Lori may know the precise mileage between Anaheim and San Francisco and will soon correct me on my error, but I’m used to that– she’s my older sister. And she’s much smarter than I am by a mile**.

**She’ll probably correct that mileage assessment, too.

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Jeeves and Worcestershire

L&PI need a man.

Not in the way you’re probably thinking, although that would be nice, too.

No, I need a valet. A gentleman’s personal gentleman. A grooming, babysitting, problem-solving factotum.

I need someone in my life to take care of me, since I seem increasingly unable to do the job myself these days. So I’m hiring.

I need someone to run me a hot bath and bring me a cold martini as I marinate. Someone to lay out my clothes just so– hoodie brushed, cargo pants neatly creased, and lo-tops shined– their soles free of any hint of gum or feces. Someone to subtly criticize my facial hair. Someone with infallible judgement. Someone to unravel my unwanted social entanglements. To bring me herring when I need it. Someone to cure my hangovers instantly.

In other words, I need a Jeeves.

CarryOnJeevesSadly, I live in a one-bedroom apartment. Where would I keep him? In the closet? Not in this day and age. I don’t have a butler’s pantry, but even if I did, it’s no place for a valet. The couch is out of the question because it’s only a loveseat and, which I’d like our relationship to be congenial, I’m certain we’d both prefer to keep it professional. I’m afraid I could only hire the services of an outcall gentleman’s personal gentleman.

Except that I’m no gentleman. Oh, my manners are generally shipshape (with occasional lapses), but I’m not a gentleman in the traditional sense of the word. The pedigree was bred out of my family generations ago and my private income amounts to what coins inhabit the little silver dish that sits on top of my dresser. Which needs dusting.

So I must accept the fact that my income has about as much chance of keeping pace with my needs as an asthmatic tortoise does against a whippet who breakfasts on amphetamines.  I couldn’t afford to keep a Jeeves, no matter how much I promised to pet him and walk him and feed him.

But if you know of a gentleman’s personal gentleman who does pro bono work, please contact me.

 Jeeves’s Little Preparation

Hangover Cure

One thing I’ll miss most of all about the Jeeves I will never have is his ability to float into a room noiselessly “like a healing zephyr”, knowing instantly what I need. Chiefly, his hangover cure, the effects of which are described by his employer, Bertam Wooster:

For a moment I felt as if somebody had touched off a bomb inside the old bean and was strolling down my throat with a lighted torch, and then everything seemed suddenly to get all right. The sun shone in through the window; birds twittered in the tree-tops; and, generally speaking, hope dawned once more.

Anything which causes hope to dawn once more is a must-have recipe in my book. The only trouble with this little preparation is that there is no recipe. Merely a few, tantalizing hints as to its ingredients:

It is the Worcester Sauce that gives it its colour. The raw egg makes it nutritious. The red pepper gives it its bite. Gentlemen have told me they have found it extremely invigorating after a late evening.

Was that it? Egg yolk and a few shakes of Lea & Perrins and tabasco? I tried it. It felt more like someone strolling down my throat with a stale dish rag than a lighted torch. There had to be more to it than that. I scrutinized Stephen Fry in his turn as the television incarnation of Jeeves. He added a few generous glugs of brandy to the mixture. On the third viewing, I noticed a tin of ground cinnamon on the table. I added them to the mix. And a pinch of salt. It was a definite improvement, but I couldn’t be certain if this was what Jeeves had intended.

In fact, I couldn’t be certain if it cured hangovers at all because I wasn’t hungover at the time of drinking. But I can tell you I put in enough brandy to ensure a future one.

The truth is, no one but a gentleman’s personal gentleman can be certain. When Wooster asked for more details of the recipe, Jeeves demurred: “I’m sorry, sir. I’m not at liberty to divulge the ingredients, sir.”

Secrets of the guild and all that.

So the next time I find myself in bed with my head rotted through after an evening of heavy supping with the lads, I’ll more than likely be too wrecked to make this secret, restorative beverage. Rather, I’ll make a little preparation of my own–two parts aspirin to one part water– then crawl back under the covers and try to figure out a way to make enough money to afford a Jeeves of my own.

 

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