Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Latkes Controversy

I have a list of other things/recipes I want to blog about, but I wanted to write quickly about a post that turned up in yesterday's Well health blog at the NY Times written by Tara Parker-Pope. Her post was called "Rethinking the Latke," and she offers up some alternatives to the traditional latkes--using zucchini, baking them in the oven and that sort of thing. I'm not opposed at all to trying to make things healthier, esp. things I make and eat often, but man, this column bugged me. It didn't start well, given that her second sentence is, "But for people who are health-conscious year round, it’s hard to imagine ingesting fried potatoes, no matter what the occasion." Um, no, that's not actually true. It's not hard for me to imagine ingesting fried potatoes. It's not even hard for me to actually ingest fried potatoes. From reading the (many) comments, this isn't true for many of her other readers either.

Parker-Pope responded to many of the comments, gamely initially, then seemingly more defensively, then resignedly. She argued that eating fried food bothers her stomach, so she wants a lighter version, which is fine, but she also tried to say that eating even one meal like latkes A YEAR could harm you. (Apparently, she's going to blog more about this.) I'm sorry, but I find this ridiculous, even if there is a scientific study to back it up.

Just last week, I was having a long conversation with my friend Andy (with whom I am going to India in exactly a week!), and we were talking about all the Indian snacks we're going to eat when we're there. He was talking about chaat (a delicious mixture of potatoes, chickpeas, little fried things, tamarind, yogurt sauce and other tasty morsels), and I was talking about chole bhatura, which is a plate of spicy chick peas with fried bread. I told him how whenever I'm in Delhi, I make a special trip to the Bengali Sweet House in Bengali Market to eat their chole bhatura, washed down by a large glass of freshly made pineapple-pomegranite juice. (I've been doing this now for 14 years.) And how whenever I tell this to my friends in Delhi who I stay with--2 thin, yoga-doing fellows--they both start to moan. "Oh, it's so heavy," one of them will groan. "It gives me the burn," the other will chime in. And I will have to point out that it is a meal I eat once a year, at most, and I haven't suffered from it yet. And if I'm feeling mean, I will remind Sunil of how he came with me to the Bengali Sweet House a few years back and attempted to order only juice. He lasted until my plate of chole bhatura arrived, and then his resolve weakened, and he took a bite, and then he gave in entirely and ordered his own. It may have given him "the burn," but he certainly seemed to enjoy it. (Last time I was there, I realized a side benefit of a large chole bhatura lunch, in addition to its deliciousness--I decided to walk off my fullness, so I walked from Bengali Market up to the New Delhi Railway Station, where I had to buy a ticket, and back to, and then around, Connaught Place. I felt quite energetic, and I didn't need a snack (a rare occurrence). Sometimes the fact that Indians often don't eat dinner til 10 p.m. (or later) leaves me feeling like I might have to gnaw my arm off, but that day, I was just fine. Chole Bhatura as energy food! There's a new angle.)

Back to Tara Parker-Pope. I think she was surprised by how strongly her commenters felt. She thought she was offering up healthy alternatives, while many readers took it as sacrilege. (Given that the point of Chanukah is to celebrate the miracle of the oil, it seems ironic to try to take the oil away from latkes.) I cut the amounts of butter and oil down in nearly everything I make with no problem, so that's not really the issue, but I guess her tone is what bothered me. I've had too many experiences with self-righteous eaters over the years, and my patience for it is minimal at this point.

My favorite comment came almost at the very end of the long list of comments: "I am kind of thinking people didn’t want to rethink the latke." Nicely stated.

Meanwhile, in happier news, Deb at Smitten Kitchen has updated her post on latkes here. There is no mention of lighter latkes or using less oil for health reasons, though she does point out that using cast iron meant that she could, in fact, use less oil. She also writes a sentence that might make Tara Parker-Pope have to lie down with a cold compress on her forehead: "Finally, if you think that latkes are just for Hanukkah, with all due respect, you’re totally missing out. I have yet to see a better “bed” to rest your poached or fried egg upon; home fries, latkes distant, black sheep of a cousin, just weep with jealousy in their presence."

I made Deb's latkes over Thanksgiving, and we ate them with Melissa Clark's fish cakes for some all around fried goodness. Her new post makes me want to make them again. I even bought some cheesecloth yesterday in preparation.

Of course, this means that I will be eating latkes more than once a year. But I have to say that latkes followed by chole bhatura seems like some pretty good winter eating to me. I'll report back on how my arteries feel about it.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Those skinny peanut wafers . . .

aren't half bad either. Just ask a certain unnamed boyfriend who managed to consume approximately (okay, exactly) 7 of them last night, both as a pre-dinner snack and as dessert. They didn't spread out as much as I expected them too, but their flavor is definitely reminiscent of peanut brittle (which I love and which I eat a lot of when I'm in India). I'd recommend putting as many nuts as will fit on top of the cookies. (I was too delicate with my peanut sprinkling, which is why I suggest this.) Maida Heatter recommended honey-roasted, but I wasn't crazy about the flavor of the ones I bought, and I like the extra bit of saltiness that the roasted peanuts add.

These were very easy to make and relatively speedy, especially compared to biscotti. (2 batches down and 1 to go for this week's biscotti needs. I have to blanch more almonds before I can make the next batch of biscotti, though, and I'm not looking forward to it. Would I rather blanch almonds or work on my quarterly proofing project? That's a good question. I think I need a cookie while I ponder. )

Skinny Peanut Wafers
from Maida Heatter's Brand New Book of Great Cookies

4 ounces (1 cup) salted peanuts
plus optional additional peanuts to use as topping
1 cup granulated sugar
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup sifted unbleached flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 egg graded "large"
2 tablespoons milk

Adjust an oven rack to the center of the oven (these will be baked only one sheet at a time). Preheat oven to 400 degrees. If you have cookie sheets with only one raised rim, these are best for this recipe; otherwise, use any cookie sheet turned upside down. Line cookie sheets with aluminum foil, shiny side up. (Do not use heavy-weight foil-the cookies won't bake well.) Set aside.

Place the 1 cup of peanuts in the bowl of a food processor fitted with a metal chopping blade. Add a few tablespoons of the sugar (reserve remaining sugar). Briefly pulse the machine 10 times to chop the nuts into coarse pieces; some will be powdery, some coarse, some still whole-OK. Set aside.

Melt the butter in a small pan over moderate heat; set aside.

Sift together the flour and soda; set aside.

Place the egg, milk, melted butter, and the reserved sugar in the small bowl of an electric mixer and beat until mixed. Add the sifted dry ingredients and the chopped peanuts and beat again until mixed. Transfer to a shallow bowl for ease in handling.

Spray a foil-lined sheet with Pam or some other non-stick spray. (I used easy release tin foil, and it worked just fine.)

Place the dough by slightly rounded tablespoonfuls (not heaping) on the prepared sheet, placing the mounds 3 inches apart (I place 6 on a 12 by 15-1/2 inch sheet). Try to keep the shapes neat. Top each cookie with a few of the optional peanuts, or with as many as you can fit on the top of each cookie.

Bake one sheet at a time. After 5 minutes, reverse the sheet front to back. The cookies will rise up, spread out, and then flatten into very thin wafers with bumpy tops; they will spread out to 3-1/2 to -4-1/2 inches in diameter. Total baking time is about 8 minutes. The cookies should bake until they are golden brown.

Remove from the oven. If the cookies have run into each other cut them apart immediately, while very hot. Cool on the sheet for a minute or two. Then slide the foil off the sheet. Let the cookies stand until they are firm enough to be removed. Then it will be easy to peel the foil away from the backs.

As soon as they are cool store in an airtight container.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

My Annual Biscotti Gesture

The first biscotti were an accident of timing.

It was December, 1995, and Maida Heatter's Brand New Book of Great Cookies had just been published. The NY Times had published a recipe from it, and then it made the annual round up of the year's best cookbooks. (You can read the rave here.) That summer, I had moved to Northampton, after a year and a half in India, and at the time of my move, I had no job, no money, no place to live and a broken heart. By December, I had a place to live, at least, and sort of a job, but still not much money and my heart had not mended. But even though I was feeling generally glum, I wanted to be able to do something for the holidays, and so I decided to give Maida Heatter's biscotti a try.

Little did I know then that it would become an annual event. But here it is, 13 years later, and I'm still making the biscotti. And all these years later, I'm still making the same recipes. I've branched out over the years--sometimes I make lemon cranberry, for example, and this year, I'm pondering the possibility of maple biscotti (I can't decide whether that's a good idea or not). But I always make Maida Heatter's chocolate chip almond biscotti, her bittersweet chocolate biscotti and her gingerful biscotti. In recent years, I've added chocolate to the ginger biscotti, and while they were delicous before, they are even more delicious now. If I ever get ambitious enough, I may figure out how to dip the ginger biscotti in chocolate, but for now, I'm content to throw a ground up chocolate bar in the batter and enjoy.

The book, unfortunately, is out of print. Every year, I take it out of the library, and I know that at least some of the stains on the pages are from me. I've photocopied the recipes, of course, and you can find them online, but I always like to have the book on hand, for inspiration. (This year, for example, I'm thinking I might make some skinny peanut wafers in addition to the biscotti, just for the hell of it.) (I'm also thinking I should just buy the damn book already.)

A few words on the process. Biscotti are not hard to make, but they're time consuming. Maida Heatter makes you do lots of steps, and she is a bit bossy, but it's totally worth it. You need to be around to switch the baking sheets in the oven at the appointed times and to slice the loaves while they're still hot. The bittersweet chocolate and ginger biscotti both have very wet dough, and you need to wrap them in plastic and freeze them for at least an hour before you bake them. This actually makes them more convenient to make, since you can, as I just did, do the first steps on one day and bake them another day.

The other thing about these biscotti is that there is no butter in them. The dough is held together with eggs and sometimes some honey or perhaps some liquor. This means that the dough can be harder to work with while you're making them, but the finished biscotti are very hard and crunchy, ideal for dipping. It also means that they last for a really long time, so you can make them pretty far ahead of time if you need to.

If you can find blanched whole almonds in the store, go for it. I found them once, at Trader Joe's, and never since. (You can get blanched almond pieces, but one of the pleasures of the biscotti is the chunks of whole almond, so you need whole ones for the best effect.) Although I hate blanching the almonds--my fingers get all wrinkly, and it's boring, to boot--I consider it part of the gift.

This link to the Fresh Loaf website conveniently has the recipes for both the bittersweet chocolate and chocolate chip almond biscotti right next to each other, saving me a lot of typing.

I am posting my version of the chocolate ginger biscotti, partly because last year, these were more highly praised than anything I'd ever made before. I'd sent some to a friend, and the ginger ones were almost instantly purloined by her husband, who was then in the midst of writing a large book. According to my friend, he not only said, "I am certain that I can write more intelligently while eating these," he seemed to truly believe it.

I can't promise you will write more intelligently, but you never know. And even if you don't, you will at least have some delicious biscotti to eat while you're working on it.

Chocolate Ginger(ful) Biscotti

Adapted from Maida Heatter's Brand-New Book of Great Cookies.
  • 4 ounces (1 loosely packed cup) crystallized ginger
  • 7 ounces (1 1/4 cups) blanched (skinned) or unblanched whole almonds
  • 3 cups sifted unbleached flour
  • 3/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 3/4 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 1/4 teaspoons finely and freshly ground white pepper (or 3/4 to 1 teaspoon packaged ground white pepper)*
  • 1 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground mustard powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 3 eggs graded "large"
  • 1/2 cup mild honey
  • 1 bar good semi-sweet or bittersweet chocolate

Cut ginger into thin slivers and then crosswise to make pieces about the size of small green peas; set aside. (I like the little crystallized ginger discs from Trader Joe's--very easy to chop.)

Toast the almonds in a shallow pan in a 350 degree Farhenheit oven for 12 to 15 minutes, until lightly colored, stirring once during toasting. Set aside to cool.

Break chocolate into pieces, then chop in food processor until it's mostly fine, though some small chunks are okay.

Into a large bowl strain or sift together - just to mix - the flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, pepper, ground ginger, cinnamon, mustard, cloves, and sugar. Stir in the crystallized ginger, then the nuts. Add chocolate. In a small bowl beat the eggs and honey to mix and add to the dry ingredients. Stir until the dry ingredients are completely moistened.

Place two 18 to 20 inch lengths of plastic wrap on a work surface. You will form two strips of dough, one on each piece of plastic wrap. Spoon half of the dough by heaping tablespoonfuls in the middle - down the length - of each piece of plastic wrap, to form strips about 13 inches long. Flatten the tops slightly by dipping a large spoon into water and pressing down on the dough with the wet spoon. Rewet the spoon often.

Lift the two long sides of one piece of plastic wrap, bring the sides together on top of the dough, and, with your hands, press on the plastic wrap to smooth the dough and shape it into an even strip about 13 to 14 inches long, 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 inches wide, and about 3/4 inch thick (no thicker). Shape both strips and place them on a cookie sheet.

Place the cookie sheet with the strips of dough in the freezer for at least an hour or until firm enough to unwrap (or as much longer as you wish).

To bake, adjust two racks to divide the oven into thirds and preheat oven to 300 degrees. Line two large cookie sheets with baking parchment or aluminum foil, shiny side up. (If you have a Silpat, this is the perfect time to use it.)

To transfer the strips of dough to the sheets, open the two long sides of plastic wrap on top of one strip of dough and turn the dough upside down onto the lined cookie sheet, placing it diagonally on the sheet. Slowly peel off the plastic wrap. Repeat with the second strip of dough and the second cookie sheet.

Bake for 50 minutes, reversing the sheets top to bottom and front to back once during the baking to insure even baking. These will turn quite dark during baking.

Then reduce the temperature to 275 degrees and remove the sheets from the oven. Immediately - carefully and gently - peel the parchment or foil away from the backs of the strips and place them on a large cutting board top down. Slice the strips while they are still hot. Use a pot holder or a folded towel to hold a strip in place. Use a serrated French bread knife. Slice on an angle; the sharper the angle, the longer the cookies, and the more difficult it will be to slice them very thin- but you can do it, and they will be gorgeous. Cut them about 1/4 to 1/3 inch wide.

Place the slices on a cut side, touching each other, on the cookie sheets. Bake at 275 degrees for about 25 minutes.

Reverse the sheets top to bottom and front to back once during baking. Bake just until dry. (You have to cool one to know if it is crisp). Do not overbake.

When done, cool and then store in an airtight container.

*Confession: While Maida Heatter discusses the importance of that white pepper in this recipe . . . I have actually never used it. They're still delicious. So if you don't have any white pepper on hand, don't despair.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

On Audio Books: Part I (Mysteries)

After my post on Corduroy Mansions a few weeks ago, Robin Aronson, over at Local or Express?, said she was interested in hearing more about audio books. (She envisions herself listening while knitting, which seems like a fine plan to me. I do sometimes listen while knitting, though I'm more likely to listen while in the car, at the gym or in the kitchen chopping vegetables.) There are many things I don't know much about or don't spend a lot of time thinking about--(to wit, Alex's question the other day while reading the Sunday NY Times: "If you were Obama, what would you do first?" Me, looking blankly at him, "I have no idea. That's why I don't want to be president.")--but, over the years, I've spent a lot of time thinking about--or at least listening to--audio books. (I realize that may make me sound rather shallow. Oh well.)

I re-discovered the pleasure of being read to in college, when I worked in the White Mountains for the Appalachian Mountain Club. One winter, I hiked up to visit a friend who was the winter caretaker at Carter Notch Hut, and I discovered that he was a regular listener of "The Radio Reader," a program out of Michigan State University. (Amazingly, the Web site says that it's been around in some form or another since 1936. That's longevity.) For the few days I was there, I listened with him to a bio of Katharine Hepburn. And the next year, when I was a hut caretaker myself, I made sure to find the station that carried "The Radio Reader" so I could listen again.

Some years later, in 1994, I was living in New Delhi. That was the year that the Internet really became a part of people's lives in the US, but it wasn't yet part of life in India. During the summer, monsoon season, most of my friends were away, and I spent a lot of time in my very hot apartment. (Why I was too stubborn to get an air conditioner--or even a swamp cooler--I can no longer recall.) I had a little shortwave radio, and I listened to it a lot that summer. You can imagine my excitement when I discovered "Off the Shelf," from the BBC World Service, a program like "The Radio Reader," where someone read a book in 15 or 30 minute installments. I have such a vivid image of myself lying on the floor of my bedroom, directly beneath the fan, wearing the (hussy) shorts and tank top I couldn't wear outside my apartment, listening to Rebecca over the course of many muggy evenings. (That it was an abridged version was the only thing I didn't like. When I started listening to books on tape a few years later, I listened to the unabridged version because it didn't feel like the shorter one counted.)

There's my segue to my list. I only listen to unabridged books, even for things that are really, really long, even if the author approved the cuts. So far, 12 years and counting, there have been no exceptions.

Another thing to pay attention to is the reader. These fall into categories. There are readers who make their livings reading audio books. There are actors (many, but not all, British) who also read audio books. And every once in awhile, a writer reads his or her own book. Generally, the professional readers and the actors do a better job, just because it's more of a performance (which turns out to kind of matter), but one true exception is Charles Frazier reading Cold Mountain. He's not a fancy reader, but listening to it really reminded me of how fundamental it is to have people tell us stories. (It's also a book I'm not sure I would have enjoyed reading, but I liked listening to it a lot.)

I've probably listened to hundreds of audio books over the past 12 years, so it would be hard to name them all. I do have some recommendations, though, and I can sort them, generally, by category. I'm going to start with mysteries, just because I listen to a lot of them. I like reading mysteries anyway, but one thing I learned early on is that I really need something with a plot, or at least a strong narrative. (While I might like to read ethereal, beautifully written meditations on love and loss, I do not like to listen to them. Give me a plot line any day.) I also like mysteries because usually they are written in series form, and that means that if you find a series you like, there will be lots of books to listen to.

So, if you're an audio book novice and like mysteries, here are a few to start with:

  • Donna Leon's Guido Brunetti mysteries--set in Venice and featuring Commissario Guido Brunetti, these are thoughtful, literate, well-written books. Brunetti is a wonderful character, as is his English professor/Henry James loving wife Paola. They will also make you hungry, as Brunetti is a serious eater who tries to make it home for lunch every day to eat whatever delights Paola has produced. I'm a fan, usually, of starting at the beginning, so even though the series gets better as it goes along, start with the first one, Death at La Fenice. The earlier books are read by Anna Fields (the stage name of Kate Fleming, who, very sadly, drowned in a freak storm a few years ago), and the later ones by David Colacci.
  • Martha Grimes' Richard Jury series. I didn't follow my own rule with these and ended up listening to one of the later ones first. It's a long series, more than 20 books now, and the earliest ones aren't available on CD (or even tape, in some cases.) Still, listening to book number 17 made me want to go back and find the rest. It's possible to read these not in order (as I discovered), though it makes more sense if you do. Although Grimes is American, Jury is a Scotland Yard inspector, and he is often assisted in his investigations by his aristocratic friend Melrose Plant (officially an Earl til he gave up his title, though he still lives in serious comfort). The books are all named after pubs that play a role in each case. As in any long series, they're not all equally good, but Jury is always compelling, and Grimes is especially good at writing wise-beyond-their-years children (which is probably why they turn up in so many of her books). The earlier books are narrated by Davina Porter and the later ones by John Lee. (Both good readers, with a slight edge to Lee, I think.)
  • I also recently listened to Martha Grimes' standalone mystery Foul Matter, set in the world of NY publishing, and it is very, very funny. Laugh out loud funny, especially if you know anything at all about how publishing works. Highly recommended.
  • Margaret Maron's Deborah Knott series. Set in fictional Colleton County, North Carolina and with a feisty judge as the main character. Very occasionally a bit sappy, but the main characters are solid, and the series is topical. CJ Critt narrates the whole series (now up to book 14). Start with the first, Bootlegger's Daughter.
  • Years ago, when I first discovered Elizabeth Peters' Amelia Peabody series, I was delighted. The author (whose real name is Barbara Mertz) has a degree in Egyptology, so it made sense that her main characters--the know-it-all Amelia Peabody and her dashing archeologist husband Emerson--were Egyptologists as well. The first few books in the series were quite charming, but as the series moved along, and the extended Emerson family grew larger, the series got more and more convoluted, and I had a hard time keeping track of what was going on.
  • Audio books to the rescue. On a whim, I decided to listen to one of the later books, and all of a sudden it made sense. The narrator of all of the books is Barbara Rosenblat, who's a star in the world of audio books. Listen to the early books (the first is Crocodile on the Sandbank, in which the outspoken spinster Amelia annoys Radcliffe Emerson so much that he has no choice but to marry her) because they're fun, and if you listen to them in order, you may even be able to keep track of all of the Peabody-Emerson's many friends and relations.
  • Barbara Rosenblat also narrates Peters' much shorter Vicky Bliss series. (Vicky is an art historian with a notorious art thief for a lover--only in fiction.) After a 14 year hiatus, Peters has just come out with the 6th Vicky Bliss novel called Laughter of the Dead Kings. (I'm waiting for it from the library, so I can't report how the series has weathered after such a long gap.) I listened to the first five in my early days of audio book listening, and I enjoyed all of them, but the fifth in the series, Night Train to Memphis, is particularly a hoot. (Don't expect a lot of realism, but they're fun to listen to.)
I'm going to end this installment here and write about other kinds of audio books another time.

Meanwhile, after listening to the first 60 installments of Corduroy Mansions all in a row, I'm now all caught up and have to listen to one episode at a time, like everyone else. A very different listening experience, but still interesting. But now I have all kinds of unanswered questions. What will Berthea say when she learns that Terence has bought a Porsche? What is Barbara going to do to get her revenge on the odious Oedipus Snark? Why did Freddie de la Hay (former sniffer dog at Heathrow Airport) get so excited about the painting in Eddie's wardrobe? We will all just have to wait to find out.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Fish cakes, Fish cakes

As soon as I started thinking about this post, that "Fish Heads" song came into my head. (You know, "Fish heads, fish heads, roly poly fish heads. Fish heads, fish heads, eat them up, yum." That one. Thanks to the wonder of YouTube, you can even watch it here. )

For a person who's been mostly a vegetarian for much of her life, I'm perhaps a bit fonder of fish cakes than I should be. They're so hard to resist though--all neat and crisp and compact. I've often ordered them in restaurants, but I only started cooking my own fish cakes in the past 4 or 5 years.

First, I was a devotee of this Amanda Hesser recipe, first published in the NY Times magazine in 2004. These are definitely tasty, and I made them with cod as well as with other white fish. I haven't made them in awhile, but I'd like to again.

Last year, everyone I knew was making these salmon cakes from Not Eating Out in New York, and while I enjoyed them, there was a bit too much mayonnaise in them for my taste, and I never succeeded in not having them fall apart in the pan.

So, I have a history of falling for fish cakes, and it had been a year or so since I'd last made them. So when I saw Melissa Clark's column in the NY Times food section a few weeks ago, I knew I had my next fish cake project before me. Her column was about using leftover mashed potatoes from Thanksgiving, and the potatoes serve as the base for these salmon cakes. She mixes them with salmon, spinach, bread crumbs, and eggs, makes them into patties, chills them and then fries them in a little bit of oil.

I made these last week, pre-Thanksgiving. Alex had made an early Thanksgiving dinner for his daughters but somehow never got around to making the mashed potatoes. Still, he'd peeled and cooked the potatoes and had them sitting in cold water, and he kindly donated them to the salmon cake experiment. (He was repaid in salmon cakes, of course.)

I was also glad that, on a whim, I had bought a little bag of panko at the store. I'd never used panko before, and I can no longer remember what inspired me to buy some, but when I was getting ready to make the salmon cakes (and didn't want to run out to the store again), I was glad I had.

These are quite easy to make, though you do you have to think ahead so that you have your salmon cooked, your potatoes mashed and your spinach thawed. You mix it all together in one sticky mess along with the eggs and bread crumbs.

And then you set up your dipping station--a bowl of flour, a bowl of beaten egg, a bowl of bread crumbs or panko.

And then you take a spoonful of the fish/potato/spinach mixture and make it into a patty, which you then dip first in the flour, then in the egg and finally in the bread crumbs.

After they've chilled in the refrigerator for a half hour or so, you can fry them up in a bit of olive oil. I think the panko helps them not absorb as much oil, but a blotting with a paper towel is advised.

I'd forgotten to buy dill at the grocery store, so I skipped Melissa's suggested garlicky dill cream, though it sounded delicious, and just ate them with tartar sauce out of a jar. (A travesty, I know.)

Next time, I might add something oniony to the mix--maybe some chopped green onions or a bit of shallot. That was the only thing missing, I thought. Otherwise, it's a very nice combo, and the texture is great.

My one warning is that this makes a BIG batch of fish cakes. I believed Melissa when she said this would make 12 patties, and I made a full batch. I ended up with 17 patties, which was more than I'd bargained for. I became the fish cake fairy and brought them to work to give to colleagues to have for their dinners. Next time, unless I'm planning a fish cake party, I'm going to make half a batch instead. I also kept the uncooked ones in the fridge, and we ate them over the course of the week. If you cook them ahead of time, you can just reheat them in the toaster oven, and they still taste good, but I made most of them fresh. One last shot of the plethora of fish cakes, even after I'd cooked the first batch . . .

Still, I think these are definitely worth making fresh mashed potatoes for, and I'm adding them to my fish cake repertoire.

Potato, Salmon and Spinach Patties With Garlicky Dill Cream

from Melissa Clark's "A Good Appetite" column in the New York Times

Time: 45 minutes plus at least 30 minutes’ chilling


10 ounces frozen chopped spinach, thawed

2 cups mashed potatoes, chilled

8 ounces cooked salmon fillet, flaked

2 1/2 cups panko or bread crumbs

4 large eggs

2 teaspoons kosher salt

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

3/4 cup all-purpose flour


2 garlic cloves, finely chopped

1/2 teaspoon salt, more to taste

1 cup sour cream or Greek yogurt

1/4 cup chopped fresh dill

Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Olive or vegetable oil for frying.

1. Squeeze as much water from spinach as possible. Place in a bowl and add potatoes, salmon, 1 cup panko, 2 eggs, salt and pepper; mix well to combine.

2. Place remaining bread crumbs in a wide, shallow bowl. Place remaining eggs in a second bowl and beat lightly. Place flour in a third bowl.

3. Form spinach mixture into 3-inch patties, about 3/4-inch thick. Dip each patty into flour, tapping off excess, then the egg, letting excess drip into bowl. Coat evenly with panko crumbs. Transfer patties to a large baking sheet. Cover with plastic wrap and chill for at least 30 minutes and up to 4 hours.

4. Meanwhile, make dill cream: In a mortar and pestle or with the back of a knife, mash garlic and salt together to make a paste. Stir it into the sour cream or yogurt. Add dill and pepper. Taste and adjust seasonings, if necessary. Chill until ready to serve.

5. Heat 1/4-inch oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat; if using olive oil, you don’t need to use good extra virgin oil. Cook patties in batches, turning once halfway through, until golden and cooked through, about 3 minutes a side. Transfer to a paper towel-lined plate to drain. Serve hot, with a dollop of dill cream.

Yield: 12 patties (or, actually, more like 16 or 17, unless you make them really big)

Monday, November 24, 2008

Corduroy Mansions (with brief notes on Sri Lanka)

I've been listening to audio books--first on tape, then on CD, now on my iPod--regularly for about 12 years now and have a good sense of what I like to listen to (which is not necessarily the same as what I might like to read). Over the years, there have been many series, and readers, I've enjoyed greatly, many of which, it turns out, are sort of old-school and British. There's the charming Ian Carmichael reading all of Dorothy Sayers Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries, for one. He actually played Wimsey in a 70's BBC version of the books, but I liked listening to him read better, since he's great at doing all the voices. Another favorite is Prunella Scales reading EF Benson's Lucia series. (Actually, Geraldine McEwan, who played Lucia in the BBC version, reads a couple and Prunella Scales, who played Mapp, reads the others. They're both good, though I think I have a slight preference for Prunella Scales.) And, of course, I've already documented my love of Patrick Tull's performances of Patrick O'Brian's complete Aubrey/Maturin series.

A more recent find is all the various series of Alexander McCall Smith, famous initially for his No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency books. I enjoyed reading the first few of those, but then, for some reason, I stopped reading them and started listening to his other series, which include Isabel Dalhousie/Sunday Philosophy Club series and the 44 Scotland Street Series. He originally started writing 44 Scotland Street as a serial novel in a Scottish newspaper--it involves many short chapters centering around the lives of a motley group of people who live at that address in Edinburgh. The short chapters translate particular well to audio, and they've been really fun to listen to. I am looking forward to the newest installment, The World According to Bertie, which was just published in the US. (Bertie is one of his best creations--a precocious six-year-old with a mother, Irene, who spouts Melanie Klein and forces Bertie to go to yoga and psychotherapy and Italian and saxophone lessons and who insists that he audition for the Edinburgh Teenage Orchestra, despite the fact that he is, after all, only six. Bertie getting left behind in Paris, on the Edinburgh Teenage Orchestra's tour, is one of the highlights of the previous book, Love Over Scotland.)

But all of this is a very long introduction. What I mean to say is that Alexander McCall Smith is writing yet another serial novel right at this very moment. This one, however, is an online novel. It's called Corduroy Mansions and is being published on the web site of the British Newspaper, The Telegraph. It's also available by podcast. I just discovered it and have downloaded the first 50 chapters, which are all that have been written so far. (He's writing a new chapter each weekday for 20 weeks, for a total of 100 chapters.) It's similar to Scotland Street, in that it involves the residents of the titular Corduroy Mansions, the nickname of a building in London. There's William the wine merchant and his feckless son, Eddie; the mysterious Sri Lankan, Mr. Wickramsinghe; the smarmy MP, Oedipus Snark (and his mother, Berthea, who is writing her son's unauthorized biography); a dog named Freddie de la Haye who's been trained to be a vegetarian and insist that he be buckled into a seatbelt in the back of cabs; and many others.

So far, it's been quite engaging and enjoyable. Plus, it's not too often that you get to listen to (or read) something that the author is still writing. McCall Smith says that he stays about 20 chapters ahead of the reader, which would make him about 3/4 of the way through now, while the readers are only halfway there. It's interesting to know that all of these threads of stories he's thrown out could be tied together in a multitude of ways and that the fates of the characters have not yet been decided. I have no idea where it's going--and I haven't even been introduced to all the characters yet, 20 + chapters in--but I'm certainly interested to find out.

On a separate (but related) note, when I was in Sri Lanka last January, I stayed for a few nights in the lovely city of Galle. (I stayed in the delightful Lady Hill Hotel, where I was treated like a VIP because my friend Sonia is a regular there. It was like she was a rock star or something. "You are the friend of Sonia Gomez?" people kept asking. Sonia laughed and laughed when I told her this.) I didn't spend as much time in Galle as I would have liked, mostly because there were beautiful beaches just a few miles down the coast, but it is charming little city. A few weeks after I was there, the Galle Literary Festival took place, and as it happens, Alexander McCall Smith was one of the participants. I knew this at the time because I saw his name on the poster, but he must have been influenced by his stay there because Galle keeps turning up in his books. Mr Wickramasinghe, one of the residents of Corduroy Mansions, is a native of Galle; and in the latest Isabel Dalhousie novel, The Comforts of a Muddy Saturday, which I also just listened to, Isabel's niece Kat goes off on a vacation to Sri Lanka and ends up in . . . Galle. Kat even specifically mentions Taprobane Island, this tiny island immediately off the coast of Weligama, south of Galle, where there's a beautiful villa, once owned by Paul Bowles, and now a very fancy hotel. At least he only had Kat have lunch there (which may or not be possible in real life); to stay overnight (which involves renting the whole place) costs $2200/night in Dec/Jan. Yikes.

For the hell of it, I am including two photos, one of the view from the roof of the Lady Hill and one of the lovely beach at Mirissa--one of the reasons I didn't spend as much time in Galle as Alexander McCall Smith did. I hope to return to Galle on another trip. In the meantime, I'm going to keep listening to Corduroy Mansions and encourage you to do the same!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Leftover Experiment

So, earlier last week, I made a very large pot of soup. It was good soup, to be sure. An adaptation of the Farmhouse Minestrone in Lynne Rosetto Kasper and Sally Swift's book How to Eat Supper. (I said last week I was having a flirtation with it, and I still am.) It's a hearty soup--with vegetable stock and tomatoes, onions, carrots, and celery, chard and zucchini, cannellini beans and parmesan. For the hell of it, I added some orzo too. And I happily ate the soup for lunch and dinner and lunch again. And I didn't make much of a dent in the pot. (I usually count on Alex to help make a dent, but he was lax in his soup eating this time.)

On Sunday, the large container of soup was staring rather balefully at me from the fridge, and I was worried that I might end up wasting it, if I didn't start eating a lot of it, and quickly.

And then I remembered.

One of the great things about this cookbook is the number of variations offered. And on the very next page, after the soup recipe, was this one: "Tuscan Baked Minestrone with Garlic Bread (Ribollita)."

Ribollita is a classic Tuscan soup--basically bean and vegetable soup with bread. If you google it, you will find many, many variations. But this one turns it from a soup into a sort of casserole.

You take some stale bread, rub it with garlic and tear it into bite-sized pieces, then spread it on the bottom of a casserole dish. After drizzling that with some olive oil, you pour the soup on top of it and add some parmesan. Then you let it sit in the fridge over night. The next day, take it out and bring it to room temperature, then cook it, covered with foil, in a 375 oven for 40 minutes, then uncovered for another 5-10 minutes.

I have to be honest and say that I didn't know what to expect. It certainly seemed possible that it might not be very good. Baked leftover soup and stale bread? Hard to say whether it's a good idea or not.

But I should have trusted that Lynne Rosetto Kasper wouldn't steer me wrong. (Why else did I take her book The Italian Country Table out of the library every single fall for about 8 years in a row, simply for her multitude of tomato sauce recipes? After 8 years, I gave up . . . and just bought the damn thing.) I should have known that if she said that turning soup into a sort of casserole would be a good thing, it would be.

The resulting dish was savory and cheesy and tomato-y and good. The bread had soaked up all the liquid and was tasty rather than mushy. The orzo, though not traditional, was a nice addition. It turned out to be a fine way to use up a large container of soup I wasn't going to finish eating and 1/3 of a loaf of good bread that was too stale to eat (and, alas, probably even too stale to turn into bread crumbs.)

The only bad thing about this dish--it's not very photogenic. It would not be the thing you'd want to serve to impress someone with your prowess in making lovely food. It is, after all, leftover soup and stale bread dumped in a casserole together, and it looks like that. The taste, however, is more than the sum of its parts. Still, I brought my camera downstairs to take a picture and then changed my mind. A picture would not make anyone more likely to make it, and it's a dish I would encourage people to make.

Next time I make too much minestrone, I'm keeping this in mind. Or maybe, next time I make minestrone, I'll make too much on purpose so I can make this too.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Soup Season

Admittedly, I eat soup year round. Asparagus soup in the spring, corn chowder and tomato soup in the summer. But in the winter, I eat soup all the time. Maybe not every day, but close to it. Because I don't go in to work on Mondays, I often make a big pot of soup (and sometimes a loaf of no-knead bread) on Monday afternoon and then dip into it for lunches and dinners during the week.

For the past two years, my soup cookbook of choice has been Deborah Madison's soup cookbook--officially titled Vegetable Soups from Deborah Madison's Kitchen, though I've also relied on her recipes from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone (especially the lentil minestrone) and The Savory Way (especially the white bean soup with pasta and potatoes), along with very old standards like Mollie Katzen's spinach soup from the original Moosewood. And I don't think Deborah Madison's primacy in my kitchen is really being challenged.

Still, for the past few months, I've been having a flirtation with a different cookbook--The Splendid Table's How to Eat Supper by Lynne Rosetto Kasper and Sally Swift. (I'm linking the Splendid Table website rather than the Amazon link for the book, just because there's lots of stuff to look at there, including recipes.) What is interesting to me is that I haven't actually cooked that many things from the book, but I'm still sure that it's a keeper. In fact, I've only cooked three--an oven omelet with chard and green apple, pasta with roasted squash and greens, and the soup I'm going to write about. But I've made the soup and the omelet twice, and I'll certainly make the pasta again. Anyway, what I'm saying is that so far, I'm three for three with this cookbook, which doesn't always happen.

My one caveat is that it definitely takes me longer to make things than the book says it will. (The first time I made the oven omelet, I didn't start til after 8 p.m. and didn't eat until almost 10 p.m.--admittedly, it was my fault for not reading through the recipe to the "bake in the oven for 45 minutes" part, but the prep also took longer than indicated.)

Several of the soup recipes in the Splendid Table book call for either homemade stock or Cheater's Homemade Broth, which is basically canned chicken or vegetable broth doctored up with some vegetables, aromatics, wine and tomatoes. The first time I made this soup, I tried the Cheater's broth and the second time, I made vegetable stock from scratch, but included the wine and tomatoes, which I usually don't do. It was equally delicious both times. It seems like a time/money decision to me. It seemed a little silly to me to spend more than $6 on 6 cans of College Inn garden vegetable broth (which they recommended), when I still needed to chop vegetables and cook it up for half an hour, especially since stock is a great use for the not-so-pretty vegetables I always have in my fridge. Then again, I have a schedule where I can spend part of a Monday afternoon making vegetable stock, and not everyone does. The soup will be delicious either way.

The other secret to this soup, though it's not actually in the recipe, is parmesan rinds. I put one in the stock and another one in the soup, and it really adds another layer of flavor. I was horrified, however, to go to Whole Foods last week and ask for parmesan rinds and discover they were now charging $10 a pound for them. This seemed ridiculous to me, especially since they're throwing at least some of them out. On the one hand, they're trying to present themselves as a place to shop that won't break your budget, and on the other, they're trying to get you other ways. I would like to boycott (and can for the moment because I still have some parmesan rinds in my fridge) but am not sure where else I can find them. This will take some thought.

Anyway, the fabulous soup is very simple and very good and just the thing for late fall/early winter. The chard and chickpeas make it good for you, and the cheese and pasta make it filling and delicious. Alex slurped up the last bowl of this last night, but I already know I'll be making it again soon.

Soup of Fresh Greens and Alphabets
Adapted from The Splendid Table's How to Eat Supper
by Lynne Rosetto Kasper and Sally Swift

8 cups (double recipe) Cheater's Homemade Broth or canned chicken or vegetable broth or homemade chicken or vegetable stock

1/2 cup dry white wine

1 cup canned whole tomatoes, crushed with your hands. (Don't use canned crushed tomatoes.)

2 large garlic cloves, minced

1 medium to large onion, minced

1 15-oz. can chickpeas, rinsed and drained

2 large handfuls escarole or curly endive leaves (or Swiss chard or kale), fine chopped (2 1/2 to 3 cups)

1/2 tight-packed cup fresh basil leaves, fine chopped

1/2 cup tiny pasta (alphabets, orzo, or stars)

Salt and fresh ground black pepper

Freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

1. In a 6-quart pot combine the broth, wine and tomatoes. Simmer, uncovered, for 5 minutes. Add the garlic, onion, chickpeas, greens and basil. Simmer, partially covered, for 20 minutes.

2. Stir in the pasta and simmer, partially covered, for 6 minutes or until the pasta is tender. Taste the soup for seasoning, adding salt and pepper as needed. Serve hot, passing the cheese at the table.

My notes:

* I decided to add an extra step and saute the onions and garlic in a bit of olive oil first. You can either do the broth, wine and tomatoes in a separate pot and add it to the sauteed onions and garlic or just add it on top of them.

*I'm not a big fan of tomato pieces in things, so I used my immersion blender on the can of whole tomatoes I used and basically added tomato puree to the soup. I also used a whole can, rather than just a cup, so as to avoid the dreaded container of leftover tomatoes I will forget to use syndrome.

*The first time I made this, I was able to add some of the last fresh basil from my garden. The second time, the basil was gone, so I threw in some dried basil instead--still delicious.

*Swiss chard is my go-to green vegetable, so that's what I used and probably will continue to use

*Don't forget to add the parmesan rind while the soup is cooking, even though you may have to later fish it out of someone's bowl.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

This morning, we don't have to apologize to the rest of the world

In 2004, it felt like the only good thing that came out of the election was that "Sorry, Everybody" website, where people held up signs of apology for having re-elected GW Bush.

This morning, we have nothing to apologize for (except for those in the state of California who voted to write discrimination into their state constitution). We can be proud and thrilled and delighted, and the world can feel that way along with us. What a change.

The only time I remember feeling remotely like this was in 1992, the day after Bill Clinton was elected. Then, I was mostly happy to have a pro-choice president and one who wouldn't trash the environment. I'm still glad about those things now, but after 8 years of what we've had, I'm happy for more reasons than I can name. The thought of someone smart, curious, calm, thoughtful and forward-looking in the White House is amazing. It's going to take awhile to get out of the ditch Bush/Cheney dug us into, but at least we won't be digging further down.

The added bonus is that Sarah Palin will go back to Alaska, and, if there is justice, we won't have to hear her opinions on anything else ever again.

Democracy in action is a pretty amazing thing to be a part of.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Pre-election field trip

Saturday was a nearly impromptu day away in Boston. I say nearly because I didn't know til Friday afternoon that it would happen, and given that we had to leave before 7 a.m. on Sat., it feels like it counts as spur of the moment.

Alex had a training thing for work in Waltham that went from 8:30 - 2:30. So while he was there, I went to visit my little nieces (and brother and s-i-l) in Cambridge. (Josie had been a ladybug for Halloween, and Madeleine a witch, and they impressed me with their reading/writing/drawing/spelling/piano-playing skills as only 5- and 7-year-olds can.)

At 2:30, I went to Waltham to meet Alex, and since we were nearby (and since 3 p.m. was a bit early for dinner) we decided to visit the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park. I'd been there once before, a year or so ago on a work field trip.

I have to say that my plan, when I started this post, was to write about how going to art museums reminds me in a very strong way that I'm not a visual artist. But, you know, it's the day before the election, and I don't want to admit how much time I've spent over the past few weeks reading political blogs and poll sites . (Nate Silver, I'm very grateful to you for all you've done and think you should win some kind of public service award. Still, I'll be glad to ignore you and your site for awhile after Nov. 5. Just because, you know, I need a little break.) Needless to say, I've been a bit distracted.

Anyway, the main exhibit was called "Drawn to Detail" and had many drawings with teeny tiny motifs. I have to say that some of them gave me a bit of a headache just looking at them and I wondered how tightly wound those artists had to be to focus so intently. There was a cool set of glass bottles with images inside and drawings done in candle smoke inside the bottles. There was a spider web kind of string sculpture that was interesting.

And there was one piece I really liked--of course, it was the one with the clearest story. It was by an artist named Jessica Rosner and called "The Diary Project." She lost a diary from when she was young and out of the blue, 14 years later, it was returned to her by a stranger. When she got it back, she decided to use each page of the lost and found diary as the basis for a new piece of art. At the DeCordova, all the pages were displayed on one wall as a whole. I liked some of the pages individually, and I liked the patchwork quilt effect of the whole thing. And, as a former diary keeper, I liked the story and the way she made visual the words she'd written all those years ago. I love the deep blue on page on the left, and I laughed when I saw the one at right close up; I even recognized the phrasing of some of those rejection letters.

Afterwards, we wandered around in the sculpture park and looked at sculptures and dying plants and turning leaves.

We saw two identical twin toddlers with red hair named Calvin and Dennis. (No photo, alas. This double headed sculpture will have to represent them.)

And we briefly befriended a little girl named Julia and her mom at the exhibit called "The Musical Fence." Julia was greatly enjoying herself, racing back and forth running a stick along the sculpture (which sounded like a xylophone, only deeper). But after awhile, she offered us her sticks so we could try too. And I enjoyed myself too.

After that, we headed back to Inman Square for Indian food at Punjabi Dhaba.

It's certainly not the best Indian food I've had in the US, by any means, but it's decent and cheap, and they do lots of things right. Alex ate lamb, and I ate shahi paneer, and we both ate samosas and naan and rice and drank mango lassis. I brought home an alu paratha, for old time's sake, to eat with yogurt. (When I lived in Jaipur, the only time I've ever had someone to cook for me in India, Jaimala used to make me delicious alu parathas on nights when I was too tired to decide what to eat and she was too tired to cook anything extravagant. I ate them with homemade curd, and their deliciousness can not be replicated. Still, an alu paratha on occasion, even one not made by Jaimala, does the heart good, if not the waistline.) (When I was in India in January, I made the mistake of watching while Ram Singh, Sunil's cook, made parathas, and I got to see in somewhat horrifying detail exactly how much ghee he used.) One of my favorite things about Punjabi Dhaba is that they sell tiny containers of dessert. (They used to cost $1 and now are up to $1.25.) After a heavy Indian meal, I usually don't want a lot of dessert, but their tiny containers of kheer are just the thing. The crowds waxed and waned while we were there, while the TV in the corner blasted bhangra and Hindi music video clips. The people watching and the food were both very satisfying. Plus, I like it that there's a clock on the wall set to Indian standard time.

And only 24 hours now til maybe we can all concentrate again. Or, maybe, 48 hours, with the second day built in for frequent sighs of relief alternating with expressions of jubilant celebration.

And, to make sure I give credit where credit is due, Alex took a bunch of the pictures above (only because his camera battery died and he was using mine) including the first two of Julia and the musical fence and the ones of Punjabi Dhaba. You can find some truly wonderful photos of his at his blog, Photographing America. (End of public service announcement.)

Everybody go vote tomorrow!!

Monday, October 27, 2008

There is hope, yet, for my asparagus

Way back in April, in my earliest days of blogging, I wrote about my sad asparagus bed and how it was too wet and how all my effort at digging the bed seemed to be for naught, since the few stalks of asparagus that appeared were spindly and sad. As a reminder, here's how sad the asparagus bed was:

The status quo remained for the summer, except that my asparagus bed became extremely weedy as well as sad and wet.

But just a week or so ago, I was talking to a colleague (known to me as "the other Sue," though I am sure I'm known as the same thing to her) who mentioned that a lovely Tibetan fellow--the friend of another colleague--had come that weekend and dug a bed out of her lawn quickly and efficiently. At first, I just said, "Wow, that's great," but when I actually thought about what she was saying, it became clear that this might be a solution to my asparagus bed dilemma. (The dilemma being, the current bed clearly isn't working, but what were the chances I would actually dig a new bed out of my lawn?)

This morning, just after 9 a.m., the lovely Tibetan arrived at my door. I showed him the sad asparagus bed. I showed him the spot next to the rest of my garden where I thought a bed could go. About 2 hours later, voila. It's a thing of loveliness, though I suppose it could look like the grave of a very large person, if you thought too much about it. As a bonus, you can see my Japanese maple tree in all its splendor.

I'm just delighted. And after that, he fixed the broken step at the bottom of the basement stairs. It had been rotting anyway, but a visit from two small children who were galumphing down the stairs in pursuit of the cats led to its ultimate demise. It's been covered, somewhat haphazardly, with two pieces of plywood, but now it's covered with a double layer of plywood that exactly fits the space and is actually nailed down. (In this, I am fortunate that Alex stores his circular saw in my garage; otherwise, this would not have been possible on such short notice.)

So, all and all, an excellent way to spend $75. Next weekend I'm going to buy a couple of bales of straw, and one of them will cover up the new bed as well as wherever it is I end up planting the garlic. (And I'm planting extra this year because of my newfound love for green garlic.) The other will go to the community garden, where I spent a lot of time this warm and sunny weekend cleaning up my very, very, very messy plot. I'm going to plant some garlic there too and plot my future there. I had a bit of a garden epiphany in September, right before I hurt my leg, which I'll write more about another time. As always, it's sad for garden season to end, but I have a lot to think about for the winter, and as soon as spring arrives, I can plant another round of asparagus and hope the second time is the charm.


So, I'm going to skip right over the fact that I've been a dreadful blogger of late and just move on.

In case anyone was worried, I am delighted to report that the wood has now all been moved, including, amazingly, some by me. (Yes, Alex helped too.)

The evidence:


There is also a little pile outside the front door, covered with a tarp, and in the garage are the remains of the original 5 cords I bought in late 2004, right after I moved in. (I know, what was I thinking, getting 5 cords of wood at once, especially delivered in December. But it was late in the season, so there weren't a lot of options, and the place I got it from had a 4 cord minimum for delivery, and I thought my tenants would take some. In other words--it seemed like a good idea at the time.) I may move some over from the garage as I use the wood off the porch, but I think I'm good to get through the winter, and that's a relief.

Now, if only my leaves would somehow rake themselves . . .

On another note, I read at Amherst last Monday night as part of a larger memorial for David Foster Wallace. It was a really nice event, overall, with a very multi-layered portrait of him emerging. The other folks who spoke/read were 3 of his friends from college, 2 professors, the visiting writer at Amherst and a woman who graduated from Amherst but was a colleague of Dave's at Pomona for the past three years. They recorded it, and you can hear it online here:
Amherst Memorial Service for DFW. I start at about 13 minutes in.

I'm working on the post I've been meaning to write for the past few months, practically, so hopefully that will be up soon, and hopefully I'll reform my sluggish blogging ways.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Laid Up

So, I had a little accident yesterday. My lovely cottage tenant left at the beginning of September, and he sold me his cordwood. He'd gotten it late last year, and the only place he found that would deliver it had a 3 cord minimum. The cottage is little, and 3 cords is a lot of wood. Its arrival last fall was a drama in and of itself--the delivery guy dumped it on the driveway, which I said was fine as long as it didn't block anything. (I also said, 3 cords is really a lot of wood.) It was both impressive and scary to see that much wood on my driveway. Early in the morning, my tenant started moving it, load by load, up the hill. He had already started by the time I got up. By the time I got home from work that evening, the driveway was clear, as if 3 cords of wood hadn't been dumped there that morning. Sometime in the early afternoon, he told me later, a friend came with a second wheelbarrow and helped him. But all in all, between the two of them, it took more than 11 hours to get the 3 cords of wood from the driveway to the cottage.

What he didn't use spent the winter neatly stacked and protected by a tarp, so I was excited when he offered me to sell it to me, especially because I kept reading about a cordwood shortage. (We couldn't estimate exactly, but we guessed there was a generous 2 cords left.) I was very sad he'd decided to move, but the wood seemed like the silver lining to his departure. And in August, I started bringing it down. Nearly every day, for the past month, I've been carting it down to the house. While I was impressed with his 11 hour- all-day-wood- moving extravaganza, I had no intention of repeating it. I figured that if I brought down a wheelbarrow load or two a day, by the time the new tenant was in at the end of September, I'd have the pile moved. And I've been making progress. Probably, at this point, I've moved 3/4 of the pile, and my front porch is nearly full. On Saturday, I had my best day yet and moved 6 wheelbarrow loads.

I put in as much wood as will fit in the wheelbarrow--somewhere between 15 and 25 logs, depending on the size. So, the wheelbarrow is heavy and sometimes unwieldy to maneuver. But I've been lifting weights for years now, and I figure that the point of having muscles is to be able to use them in real life.

So, maybe I was getting a little bit cavalier with the heavy loads of wood, the backwards trip down the hill by the cottage til I got to the point where I could turn the wheelbarrow around. Maybe it's that I'd spent a lot of the day inside on the couch trying to work and wasn't properly warmed up. Maybe it's that I was distracted by the sudden swarm of mosquitoes that greeted me up there and wasn't watching where I was going. Maybe it was just a freak occurrence. Maybe I just took a bad step.

Whatever it was, I felt something ping, or perhaps pop, in my right calf, and I had to sit down right where I was, swearing loudly and steadily. It reminded me all too much of the day I broke my leg when I was 19, except that that day, I was by myself on a mountain trail in a thunderstorm rather than in easy sight of my house. I managed to get up and limp inside, but, also reminiscent of the day I broke my leg, after I'd walked just a little ways--yesterday, I just made it into the kitchen--I felt like I was going to faint. (I should add that it was clear to me that my leg was broken when I fell, given that my foot didn't feel attached to my leg in the usual way. The walking I tried to do was after the first rescue party had arrived, and my leg had been splinted and I was on crutches.) Yesterday wasn't nearly that dramatic. I managed not to faint, and I grabbed the phone, collapsed into a dining room chair, and called Alex.

So, that's how we ended up spending our Sunday night in the emergency room (other people occupying the waiting room included 3 buddies of a college guy who did something to his ankle and a teenager with whooping cough). We waited, talked to a nurse, got fast-tracked to a room, got un-fast-tracked because there wasn't a room for us, waited some more, waited in a different room, and finally, after about 2 hours, we saw, in rapid succession, a nurse, a doctor and another nurse. I didn't need x-rays, as it turns out. The doc said he could tell by the way I couldn't put any weight on it and the way I yelped when he touched a certain part of my calf that I had torn my gastroc muscle. Apparently, it's a common injury among the "middle-aged." Ouch. It turns out that it's also called "tennis leg," though when I googled it later, it turns out that people did the same thing doing other equally dumb or innocuous tasks--taking out the garbage and tripping over a step, lunging the wrong way in fencing class, doing an agility class with a dog.

After 2 1/2 hours, I was sent home with a set of crutches, a prescription for Vicodin and an ice pack, with instructions to rest it, ice it, elevate it and take painkillers as needed. We also learned the interesting fact that one of the nurses has a 27 pound cat. That's two Chayas in one cat. That's a cat the size of a toddler. I'm still contemplating it. (And feeling slightly bad that I call Chaya a big lug and say that if he were a boy, he'd have to wear husky jeans.) Alex and I managed to find an open Chinese restaurant, and in negotiating the trip from the car to the restaurant and back, I immediately remembered how much I hate crutches.

So, today was day one of being housebound. (I can't drive, and given that I'm supposed to elevate and ice my leg for at least 20 minutes every 2 hours, going to work didn't seem like an option if I did work Mondays.) It turns out that little New England farmhouses with one bathroom on the second floor are not ideal for people on crutches. (And just yesterday afternoon I'd been thinking longingly of the day that maybe I can put an addition on the house, an addition that would include a downstairs bathroom, among other things.) Emily brought the boys over for a visit in the late afternoon, and while Emily kindly performed a short list of tasks more easily done while not on crutches, the boys entertained me--Jamie sang and Tommy wanted to talk about "Star Wars," which he's added to his list of obsessions which already include the Revolutionary War period and Ancient Egypt, this despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that he's not allowed to see the movie til he's 8. Or maybe 7 1/2.

I'm not sure how long this state of affairs is going to last. I couldn't get an appointment with the orthopedist til next week, which is annoying. I may call every day to ask about cancellations, and maybe they'll be so annoyed with me that they'll find a slot. I think I need to rest and ice and elevate for at least another day, but I still don't know if I can drive after that. Plus, my new office, which I adore, is on the third floor, and in the few weeks I've been up there, I've found myself running up and down the stairs fairly frequently, which is definitely not possible now. I'm not in terrible pain, which is good, but I also definitely don't want to put any weight on my foot yet.

So, I've entered a state of gimpiness for the forseeable future. I'm trying to think of how productive I'll be able to be, since most of my time today has been spent on the couch with the computer on my lap. All those blog posts I've written in my head may actually make it to the screen (not to mention the freelance work I'm being paid to do). I'm trying not to think about losing all those hard-earned muscles. And I'm also trying not to think about the 1/4 of the woodpile that still needs to travel down to the house, propelled by someone other than me.

I think it's time for a Vicodin.

Friday, September 19, 2008

DFW, addendum.

Before I return to the mundane and talk about tomatoes and potatoes and other garden produce, I wanted to say that there's a really lovely tribute page up to DFW at McSweeneys. And I'm not just saying that because they put up an excerpt of my post below. It's a really nice assortment of remembrances, from people who knew Dave in many different contexts, and I'm honored to be included. And among the many tributes to him, I found one written by someone else who was in the class. Maybe she didn't have a crush on him, but she confirmed that he taught us specifically about "further" and "farther," which must mean that I still messed them up after that.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

In Memoriam--David Foster Wallace

I just saw the news that David Foster Wallace killed himself. I'm stunned and shaken and sad, but I can't say that I'm entirely surprised.

I knew him a long time ago, and I didn't know him well. He was my teacher, at Amherst, in the fall of 1987. I was back at school after a year off, a year in which I'd contemplated leaving and transferring to Oberlin. But that spring, when I was trying to figure out what to do, my dad sent me a clip from the Wall Street Journal called something like "Whiz Kid Writes Wacky First Novel," about DFW's first book, The Broom of the System, which he'd originally written as his senior thesis at Amherst. (One of two theses, I later learned. He'd double-majored in English and Philosophy and written honors theses in both departments (basically unheard of), graduating with a double summa cum laude (even more unheard of). ) I didn't decide to go back to Amherst because of him, but when I got back, I found out that he was teaching that semester, a single creative writing class. I immediately applied to get in.

It's been 21 years, and I still remember that class vividly. DFW was about 25. He had long hair and always came to class with a tennis racket and sometimes cookies. He had us take breaks so he could smoke. We loved him. I can pretty safely say that all of the women in the class (and possibly some of the men) had crushes on him. I bonded with someone, who later became a good friend, because she was the only person in the class with a bigger crush on him than me. He was goofy and charming and cute and unlike any other teacher I'd ever had. But that's not why I remember the class so clearly. He was a wonderful teacher, even at 25, even just out of grad school. He was tough in workshop but not mean. He made me look at writers I'd already discovered on my own--like Lorrie Moore--in a new way, and he introduced me to writers I probably never would have discovered on my own, like Lee K. Abbott, whose story, "Living Alone in Iota," remains a life favorite. He had us read a Stephen King story about a possessed laundry machine ("The Mangler") in conjunction with a prize-winning short story told from the point of view of a dead body ("Poor Boy") to illustrate the differences between literary and genre fiction. There were other tangible things. I used to confuse "further" and "farther," and, apparently, I did it quite often. In one of my stories, I'd confused them yet again, and in the margins, he'd written, simply, "I hate you." I've never confused them since. He once left me a note, postponing a meeting, excusing himself by saying, "I'm so hungry I'm going to fall over." While I was irritated that he wasn't there, I immediately adopted that sentence and have been saying it ever since.

Mostly, he was the first person who really made me think I could be a writer. I'd applied to the class with a (clearly autobiographical) short story I'd written the semester before I left for my year off, a story called "At Charlie's House." On the basis of that story, he let me in to the class. But when I wanted to talk to him more about the story, he told me that, in truth, it wasn't actually a very good story. But that I could write that story told him that I could write better stories. "I don't know what's going on with you and that Charlie guy," I remember him saying. He advised me to move on. I can't say I did that entirely where "Charlie" was concerned, but I put the story away, and I tried to write better ones.

It didn't happen all at once, but at some point during the semester, it just clicked. I worked harder for him than I had for any other professor in any other college class. Writing fiction was the only thing I'd ever done that frustrated me that much but that I still wanted to do. It was a revelation. The second story I handed in--about a mother and daughter on a ferry to Alaska--was 20 pages, the longest story anyone had handed in at that point. I was very apologetic about making everyone read 20 pages, but he told me it wasn't long enough. If I really wanted everyone to be on that ferry with me, I needed more detail. I gave him detail. I took the whole thing apart and put it back together again. My revision was 40 pages long, and he kindly agreed to read another draft even after he'd gone. The final version was closer to 60 pages, no longer really a story at all. That story won me a prize at Amherst--which astonished me--and it got my senior creative writing thesis proposal accepted. I can't say that he made me a writer, because I probably would have figured it out some other way, further on in time. But I definitely know it wouldn't have happened the way it happened if it hadn't been for him, if he hadn't been so smart and so tough, if he hadn't challenged me the way he did, if he hadn't pushed me to challenge myself.

We stayed in touch for a few years after that--somewhere, in a box in my basement, are the few postcards and letters I got in those pre-email days. One letter arrived when I was in India for the first time, a letter he wrote mostly to tell me that he'd sent in my letters of recommendation for grad school. He told me other things, though, like that he was in a halfway house for drug rehabilitation. It was a strangely intimate letter from a former teacher to a former student, especially since I hadn't known he had any issues with drugs. He told me that he wasn't much of a traveler, so he was impressed with my bravery about going to India. He signed it Love, but with his full name. Love, David Foster Wallace.

I haven't seen him or talked to him in more than 20 years. I always thought that if he ever came to read at Amherst, I'd go see him, but that never happened. But when I wrote above that I wasn't entirely surprised to hear that he'd killed himself, it goes back that far. I often said, at the time, and since, that he was the smartest person I'd ever met. I think that's probably still true, and it's probably true for a lot of other people--that he was the smartest person they'd ever met. Even at 21, I could tell that it was the kind of smart that made you strange, that it was too much. Even then, we got glimpses of another side of him.

At some point, I stopped reading his fiction. One of his gifts as a teacher was that he kept his own writing separate from our writing (not that, realistically, any of us could have written like him anyway). I read The Broom of the System, I read Girl with Curious Hair. I read his later essays with great delight--I still have fond memories of reading his essay about going to the Illinois State Fair while I was in Delhi in 94-95, and along with everyone else, I adored his cruise ship piece--but Infinite Jest was too much for me, though my brother loved it and gave me a copy, hoping we could talk about it. Still, even as I strayed from him as a reader, I've followed his career from afar. A few years ago, I met his parents at an Amherst reunion, and I told them he'd been my teacher all those years ago. I told them how important he'd been to me.

I don't know anything about the present tense of his life or what drove him to kill himself. I'm sad for his parents and his wife and his sister, for his friends and all of his other students, for everyone else he encouraged with his intensity and with his smartness and his humor. And selfishly, I'm sad for myself. For the past 21 years, since the fall of 1987, I've thought that when the time came that I published my own book, that I'd send him a copy with thanks, that I'd tell him, all these years later, how much he'd influenced me. He was there at the beginning for me, and in addition to all the zillion other reasons I'm sad he's gone, I'm sad that he won't be there anymore along the way.