Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Bread and Jam, Part II: Not Just for the New Year Round Challah


I've been baking challah for years and years. It may have even been the first bread I learned to bake, but I can't really remember since it's been so long. It's a great first bread to bake, in any case, because the eggs and the oil make the dough easy to work with, and the braided loaf always looks very impressive. Even though these days I'm more likely to make no-knead bread or buy a loaf from the excellent Hungry Ghost bakery in Northampton, I still like to make challah every once in awhile.

Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, is often such a time. Though I am completely and utterly unobservant in terms of any kind of formal religion, I do find myself occasionally partaking in Jewish food traditions (including being incredibly picky about bagels). It also so happened that this year Rosh Hashana was early and just a few days before my birthday. So, it seemed like baking a loaf of round challah to welcome the Jewish new year and my new year both was the right thing to do.

I didn't even have to ponder recipe possibilities--I returned to my standby of many, many years, Racheli's Deluxe Challah from Mollie Katzen's Still Life with Menu. It's not that I haven't tried other challah recipes, but I always find myself returning to Racheli's challah. This time, however, I fiddled a bit. One of the recipes I'd tried a few years ago was the challah from Peter Reinhart's The Bread Baker's Apprentice, which is a fabulous book. Several of my favorite breads are in here, but I have to admit, I was underwhelmed by the challah. It was richer than Racheli's challah but not any better. Where Peter Reinhart is helpful, though, is that he writes his recipes for instant yeast, which is the kind of yeast that you can mix right in with the flour without proofing. I've been a convert to this method for some years and wanted to use it for the challah.

The other thing about the Katzen recipe is that it makes two "substantial" loaves. And when Mollie Katzen says substantial, she's not kidding. Once, in the year or two after college, I got a letter from my friend Ann, who'd been my cooking partner when we lived in a coop our senior year at Amherst. I'd taught her to bake challah, and this may have been the first time she'd made it on her own. In any case, she sent a note to say that she'd made a challah "as big as a skateboard." I laughed, but I wasn't, actually, surprised.

So, I decided to use Racheli's challah as my base recipe, but reduce the recipe to make one big loaf rather than two and adjust it for instant yeast. All easily done. What was less easily done was figuring out how to make a round and braided loaf of challah, as opposed to just a round or braided one. I'd turned a regular braid into a round one, and I'd made a round one without braids, but I'd never done round and braided at the same time. For instructions, I turned to this website, which has detailed instructions and clear photos. (Given my above-mentioned state of non-religiosity, I do appreciate the irony of using the Chabad website, which I would have absolutely no reason to look at otherwise, for instructions. Still, it does the trick, in this case, and that's what matters.) Even with the clear pictures, though, I'll admit I had to unbraid it approximately 17 times before I had the AHA moment and figured out what to do. Still, what I ended up with was gorgeous. I documented my efforts, but I'd advise looking at the other website's photos for actual instructions.





Somehow, though, the one substantial loaf I made vanished mysteriously after just a few days, and I wondered if I should have stuck to the original recipe in the first place. In any case, whatever shape you make it, this is delicious challah. Delicious dipped in honey for the new year or slathered with peanut butter and homemade peach jam (which I just happened to have a supply of) with a cup of tea in the morning or with cheese on top and dipped into tomato soup at lunchtime. It's also delicious stale, as French toast. All in all, a challah for all seasons. And a belated happy new year to all.

p.s. It disappeared so quickly that by the time I realized that I wanted to take a bread and jam photo, given the title of this post, it was all gone.

p.p.s. I realize the two middle photos look similar. But after you follow the instructions (17 times until they make sense, or just once) and finally have your round braided loaf and it looks like the loaf on the left, you have to flip it over, and then it looks more properly braided, as in the one on the right.

Racheli's Deluxe Challah
Adapted from Mollie Katzen's Still Life with Menu, with help from Peter Reinhart

4- 4 1/2 cups all-purpose or bread flour (Challah traditionally uses all white flour, but I slipped in a cup of white whole wheat instead of 1 cup of all-purpose flour.)
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 1/2 teaspoons instant yeast
2 tablespoons sugar
2 eggs (keep one aside for the egg wash at the end)
2 tbsp. vegetable oil
approx. 1 1/4 cup water
1 cup raisins (optional)
poppy and/or sesame seeds for sprinkling on top

In large bowl (or bowl of standing mixer), combine 4 cups flour, yeast, salt and sugar. In separate bowl, lightly whisk together eggs, vegetable oil and water. Add wet ingredients to dry ingredients.

If you have a standing mixer, you can start with the paddle and move to the dough hook once the liquids have been incorporated. Knead with dough hook for 5-8 minutes, adding small amounts of flour if the dough is still sticky. If you're making it without a mixer, stir in the bowl until the dough is too stiff and then turn out onto a floured board and knead for 5-10 minutes until dough is smooth and not sticky.

Oil a clean bowl and the top of the dough. Place the dough in the bowl, cover with clean tea towel and place in a warm and draft free place to rise until doubled , 1.5-2 hours.

Punch down the dough, return to the floured surface and divide into four sections. Let rest for 5 minutes. Knead each quarter for several minutes and then roll into a long rope, about 1.5 inches in diameter. Make the ropes as long as you can manage, at least 12 inches each.

Follow the instructions on this page for turning those 4 ropes of dough into a gorgeous round braided loaf. I did the braiding on a piece of parchment paper, which makes the transfer to a baking sheet easy.

Place the loaf, on its piece of parchment paper (or a Silpat) on a baking sheet. Cover with the tea towel, return to a warm spot and allow it to rise for about 45 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 350. When the dough is ready to go into the oven, beat the second egg and brush it over your loaves. Sprinkle with poppy and/or sesame seeds, and bake for 35-45 minutes. The bread will give off a hollow sound when thumped the bottom, when it is done and look gorgeously brown. Remove from the baking sheet and cool on a rack. Enjoy.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Return of Corduroy Mansions!

Just a quickie here to report that the third installment of Alexander McCall Smith's Corduroy Mansions series--this one titled "A Conspiracy of Friends"--started THIS WEEK! The past two years, I didn't hear about it until it was well underway. This year, though, my plan is to listen to it as a true serial novel, 1 episode a day, 5 days a week until mid-December.

Of course, four episodes have been broadcast already and I haven't listened to any of them yet, but still. At least I only have 4 episodes to catch up on rather than 40.

On the main Corduroy Mansions page on the Telegraph website you can find links to the audio downloads as well as the page links, if you want to read rather than listen. (You can also download the episodes as podcasts on iTunes.) There's also an interview with Alexander McCall Smith and other Corduroy Mansions-related links.

I have to admit, I don't like Corduroy Mansions quite as much as I like the 44 Scotland Street series, if only because there's not a character quite as endearing as Bertie, the bedraggled 6 year old prodigy, nor as odious as Irene, Bertie's overbearing mother (though Oedipus Snark, the awful MP, comes close). Still, I love the idea of a serial novel and I love the idea of little snippets of a story to take me through the fall. And so Corduroy Mansions, book three, here I come.

p.s. I wrote about Corduroy Mansions, book one, in November 2008 and Corduroy Mansions, book two, in November 2009. I have to admit that it is only because I "liked" Corduroy Mansions on Facebook that I am writing about part three in September rather than in November. Facebook does have its uses, I'll admit. (I wouldn't have gotten so many happy birthday messages without it, for one!)

p.p.s. The book version of the first Corduroy Mansions book came out in the U.S. this summer and was reviewed in, among other places, The Washington Post, and on NPR.


Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Bread and Jam, Part I: Peach Freezer Jam

I should be a person who cans.

It makes sense. I knit, I garden, I bake. I even live in an old farmhouse with a canning cupboard in the basement, out of which I extracted many glass Ball jars (empty, thankfully) when I moved in. Canning should be the obvious next step.

It's not the labor I'm opposed to, or the special equipment. In an ideal world, I can totally envision myself putting up jars and jars of tomato sauce and peaches and jam. The problem, in this less-than-ideal world, is space. As in, I have no space to keep those jars and jars that I might wish to can. My kitchen is somewhat lacking in shelf space as it is. I've tried to make up for this with a set of Ikea shelves, although these now list rather alarmingly to one side, so full of cookbooks and pantry items they are. And that canning cupboard in the basement - - it's blocked by empty boxes and miscellaneous junk. Alas. Someday, in my ideal world--or even maybe in the real one--I will move the junk, toss the boxes and clear out the cupboard. Then, I will buy myself an enormous pot in which to sterilize jars and whatever else I need, and I will learn how to can.

For now, there's the freezer.

Not long ago, I read a blog post titled something like "Five Reasons Why I Don't Have a Second Freezer." And I thought instantly, that I could write a blog post singing the praises of my basement freezer. I'll spare you that. Suffice it to say that buying an upright freezer for my basement was something I was looking forward to well before I moved into this house. And for someone who schleps bagels home from New York and grows multitudes of tomatoes but doesn't like them raw and likes to make ice cream with a rather bulky Kitchen Aid Mixer attachment that needs to stay frozen, a second freezer is a no-brainer. It is also the answer to the canning dilemma.

Each year, in the late summer and early fall, I make vats of tomato sauce to freeze and eat throughout the winter. I freeze ratatouille and soup. A quart of last night's Caldo Verde, made with the bounty of kale from a colleague's garden, is already in the freezer for later. I take the freezer into account with most of my cooking projects. I would not want to do without it.

Still, the one thing that still tempts me about canning is jam. I love the image of those lovely colored jars on the shelves, the jammy goodness restorative in the middle of a New England winter. Somehow, jam in the freezer doesn't have the same appeal. Or, it didn't used to, at least.

I tried my first batch of freezer jam a year ago. That one called for pectin, and I may have over cooked it, as it ended up slightly firmer than I would have liked. I was thinking about giving it another go when I looked in Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything, in which I found a recipe for low-sugar jam, meant for either immediate eating or the freezer. Bittman's recipe didn't require pectin--just fruit, sugar and lemon juice. I was intrigued.


I started with peach seconds from the farmers' market. I figured that since I was just going to be mushing them up anyway, they didn't need to be pristine. They wouldn't win any beauty contests, but they didn't have to. Once they'd been blanched and chopped up, they just looked peachy rather than mushy.



I mashed them up with the potato masher, added the sugar and lemon juice and let it bubble and boil, while I puttered around the kitchen doing other things. (You need to be in the vicinity to give the jam a stir every few minutes so it doesn't burn.) Bittman says the jam should take 30 minutes to cook down. Mine took more like an hour, but still. It was an easy hour, and by then, the jam looked jam-like rather than sauce-like. I tried it plain and on toast, with butter and peanut butter, and except for lacking the decorative feel of canned jam, it's serving the purpose admirably.

I've since made a second batch, and while the canning cupboard remains empty, the freezer is filling up. There could be worse ways to begin the fall.



Peach Freezer Jam
Adapted from Mark Bittman, How to Cook Everything

6 cups peaches, blanched and roughly chopped
1 1/2 - 2 cups sugar, more or less
2 tsp. lemon juice

  1. Place the fruit in a large saucepan and crush lightly with a fork or potato masher. Add 1 1/2 cups sugar and the lemon juice. Turn heat to medium high.
  2. Cook, stirring almost constantly, until the sugar dissolves and the mixture liquefies. Taste, and add more sugar, if necessary. You may want 2 cups or more, total.
  3. Turn the heat to low and cook, stirring occasionally, until the fruit has broken down and the mixture is thick, 15 - 30 minutes. Taste and add more sugar or lemon juice if necessary, then cool and refrigerate or freeze.
A few things: I used between 4-5 cups of peaches and scaled the sugar down accordingly. 1 cup of sugar for 4 cups of peaches was more than enough. I didn't want it any sweeter.

Bittman says that 6 cups of peaches makes 3 pints of jam. Even though I used fewer peaches, I didn't have anything close to 3 pints.

Still, even in its limited quantities, the jam is lovely and worth making. I look forward to eating it on my toast in February.

Monday, August 30, 2010

First Sentences

Quite recently, I discovered a little piece of paper that had once hung on my wall during the years in which I was writing my endless (but sadly unpublished) novel. It comes from Michael Ondaatje's wonderful novel, In the Skin of a Lion, and it goes like this:

"The first sentence of every novel should be: 'Trust me, this will take time, but there is order here, very faint, very human.'"

In an odd coincidence, just a few days ago, I was Facebook-friended by someone I'd just met (and liked) in real life, and when I went to her page, I found the very same quote. How weird is that?

I was thinking of it today when I received in the mail from the awesome Awesome Books, two British novels, Barbara Trapido's new novel, Sex and Stravinsky, which I talked about wanting to read a few months ago, and Paul Murray's novel Skippy Dies, which I was intrigued by due to many positive reviews, including this one on British writer Clare Dudman's blog, Keeper of the Snails.

I'm looking forward to both of them, and it turns out that they both have good first (or first and second) sentences.

"Josh meets Caroline in a shared student house in London. The time is late 1970s so everyone in the house looks hideous. That's everyone except for Caroline, but she doesn't live there. Not yet."



"Skippy and Ruprecht are having a doughnut-eating race one evening when Skippy turns purple and falls off his chair."


I suspect I'll read the Trapido first, since I've been waiting for her new novel for 7 years, but Skippy Dies is also tempting, even though we already know the ramifications of that first sentence.

p.s. A brief plug--I've ordered from Awesome Books a couple of times before, through Alibris, when I've wanted British books that aren't available in the US. (Skippy Dies, I should note, has an American edition that's just appearing now.) Their shipping costs are reasonable, the books are in good shape, and they've come quickly. I'll definitely use them again.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Meatless Mondays: Easy Summer Tomato Soup


And this year, there were tomatoes.

Anyone who read my blog last summer knows this was not the case a year ago. (Exhibit A: Sauce for a Sad Tomato Season) But despite scattered reports of blight in the area, my garden escaped. And under the endless weeks of hot sun and too little water, the tomatoes produced and produced again. I have 16 plants this year, 12 at the community garden and 4 at home, 8 plum tomatoes and 8 regular tomatoes of mixed varieties. I grow no cherry tomatoes because, since I don't eat raw tomatoes, there's no point. For the past few weeks, I've been using tomatoes steadily and still giving them away generously without feeling any sense of panic. I think the bulk of the production may even still be to come, as the plum tomatoes at the garden have ripened more slowly than the others. (That might be wishful thinking, but there's no shortage of tomatoes at the farmers' market either, which is reassuring.)

Yesterday, a chilly, rainy night here, I made a double batch of my standard summer tomato soup. I discovered the recipe some years ago in Cooking Light. It was in the column where someone sends in a recipe that contains a pound of butter and a pint of heavy cream and asks for a lighter version. I don't remember what the original recipe called for, in terms of fat, but I know that the lighter version is delicious, with no cream or butter in it at all. (It does contain low fat cream cheese and milk; in case you were hoping that it's both virtuous and dairy-free, it's not.)

This was my second batch of soup this season. A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of entertaining my British cousin Mim, her husband Tim and their kids (who are named not Jim and Kim but rather Dan and Ros). They were here for lunch, and I wanted to make something kid-friendly that also used ample amounts of local produce. The menu I ended up with included this tomato soup, eggplant Parmesan and blueberry crumble bars. It is true that Ros consumed a large plate of blueberry crumble bars, ending up with blueberry on her nose and eyebrow, but I was even more pleased by how much Dan loved the soup, which he called "super" and complimented multiple times as he worked his way through his bowl. I was even more touched last week when I got an email from Mim--they're back home in London now--saying that Dan was interested in learning to cook, and for his first attempt, he wanted to make tomato soup and could I send the recipe. I'm not sure praise comes higher than that!


A few notes: If you have a food mill, this is the time to use it. (I have an old Foley one from my grandmother's house, and it is one of my favorite kitchen utensils, up there with my immersion blender.) Using a food mill means that you don't have to worry about peeling and seeding the tomatoes ahead of time. With sauce, I rarely peel and seed tomatoes, whether or not it's going through the food mill. But with soup, texture seems more of an issue--I'd rather not be spitting out bits of skin and seed from each sip. I also take the extra step of adding the basil after it's gone through the food mill and then using the immersion blender to chop it up, so that the soup will have bits of basil in it. (Not much basil is left, once it goes through the food mill.) It's an extra step, but since the soup is so easy to make, it seems worth it. The original recipe calls for 4 ounces--half a package--of 1/3-less-fat cream cheese. I've used less than that, and it still tastes good, so you can go lower if you'd like, though the original amount isn't excessive, by any means.

One last note--I discovered last year that this soup is also an excellent candidate for freezing. I've already frozen part of yesterday's large pot (without the milk--I'll add that once I defrost it), and I plan to freeze more. (I usually make a double batch since the recipe is easily multiplied.) This soup is a pleasure when the sun is hot and the days are long. It's even more so once fall or, especially, winter has arrived. And while I now have a dependable winter tomato soup recipe, I'm still partial to the summer version. What could be nicer than a bowl of soup that hearkens back to August days when the zinnias are in full bloom and the tomatoes bountiful and blight-free?



Tomato-Basil Soup
Adapted from Cooking Light, July 2000

Ingredients
  • 4 cups chopped tomatoes (about 4 large), peeled and seeded if you're not going to use a food mill
  • 4 cups tomato juice (I use whatever I can find, sometimes Campbell's, sometimes organic from Whole Foods. I usually don't use low-sodium juice, but you can.)
  • 1/3 cup fresh basil leaves
  • 1 cup 1% low-fat milk
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
  • 2-4 ounces 1/3-less-fat cream cheese, softened
  • Basil leaves, thinly sliced (optional)

Preparation

Bring tomatoes and juice to a boil in a large saucepan. Reduce heat; simmer, uncovered, 30 minutes.

If the tomatoes haven't been peeled and seeded, run tomato mixture through a food mill to get rid of skins and seeds. Return to pot, add basil, and use an immersion blender to process until smooth. (Obviously, you can do this in a regular blender or food processor as well; but in my role as an immersion blender evangelist, I'll say that it's much easier to do it right in the pot with the immersion blender, rather than transferring hot (red) liquid back and forth.) Add softened cream cheese, whisking for several minutes. Then add milk, salt, and pepper and cook over medium heat until thick (about 5 minutes). Ladle soup into individual bowls; garnish with sliced basil, if desired.

NOTE: Refrigerate remaining soup in an airtight container for up to 1 week. The soup can also be frozen. I freeze it after I've added the cream cheese but before I've added the milk. You can also freeze just the tomato/juice combo and add both dairy products once it's defrosted. Just make a note to yourself about what you have or haven't included.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Meatless Mondays: Height-of-Summer Ratatouille


A few years ago, I realized that I didn't have a go-to ratatouille recipe. So, I began to investigate, looking up recipes in cookbooks and food blogs. Many of the recipes I found called for cooking each vegetable individually, wiping the pan out in between. Others called for baking the ratatouille rather than making it on the stove. As I pored through the recipes, I began to realize that I didn't actually want a lightly cooked ratatouille, with each vegetable maintaining its texture and individual flavor (see Smitten Kitchen for a gorgeous example). I didn't really want to turn on my oven either. What I wanted, actually, was sludge.

Not literal sludge, of course, but I wanted a savory tomato-y stew, with the flavors melded into a medley of high summer. I wanted ratatouille that I could sprinkle with Parmesan and eat over cous cous or heap onto a slice of thick bread. I wanted ratatouille that could double as a thick pasta sauce, if necessary. With summer vegetables at their height of flavor and plentiful, to boot, I didn't really want to treat them delicately, at least not right then.

The one recipe I found that seemed suitable for my purposes was in Nigella Lawson's How to Eat. This is a cookbook I tend to look through more than cook from, but no matter. What I liked about her recipe was that it didn't call for any complicated procedures. It also referenced Elizabeth David, which seemed like a good sign.

In the years since, I've continued to use Nigella's recipe as a template, but I've remained flexible about exact amounts and cooking times. The one thing that's been consistent is that I've added the vegetables one at a time to the pot, starting with the onions and ending with the tomatoes. I also probably cook it longer than Nigella recommends, since after all what I'm aiming for is my delicious vegetable sludge, which tastes even better after it's sat for a day and given the flavors time to meld.

High summer is a fleeting time, I know, but I've decided that it's long enough for several different kinds of ratatouille. I'm tempted by Deborah Madison's version, which contains caramelized onions and roasted red peppers, and by Mark Bittman's baked version (from How to Cook Everything), especially once it cools down a bit and turning the oven on won't cause the kitchen to become an inferno. In the meantime, though, I have already stowed some of my sludgy version in the basement freezer. I know it will cheer me up immeasurably once the plentiful eggplants and tomatoes in my garden are only a sweet summery memory.

(I've noticed that ratatouille is much more photogenic in its raw form (above) than cooked. Ah well.)

Ratatouille
(loosely adapted from Nigella Lawson's How to Eat)

Please note that the amounts really are flexible, depending on your taste and what's available.

Ingredients:

  • 2 medium onions, sliced
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 large or 2 medium globe eggplants, sliced or cubed
  • 4- 5 smallish zucchini and/or yellow squash, halved and sliced
  • 3 large sweet red peppers
  • 4 large tomatoes
  • 2-6 tbsps olive oil (Nigella recommends more, but I usually don't use more than a few tablespoons)
  • 1/2 to 1 tsp ground coriander or coriander seed (I skipped this)
  • fresh basil and/or fresh parsley

Instructions

  • Slice the onions into thin half-moons
  • Mince garlic
  • Chop eggplant and zucchini into slices or small chunks
  • Cut the peppers in half, remove cores & seeds, cut into thin strips
  • Skin tomatoes by plunging into boiled water for a few minutes & then slipping the skins off. Halve them scoop out seeds & cut into chunks (I skipped this step and just chopped the tomatoes up.)
  • Cook in this order: onions first, then eggplant, zucchini, garlic, peppers and finally tomatoes
  • Heat the oil in a thick bottomed wide pan
  • Cook the onions until soft but not brown
  • Add the eggplant and cook several minutes until they start to shrink down and then add the squash,
  • Continue on like this with the peppers and garlic (add more oil as needed)
  • Cover the pan & cook gently for 40 mins, checking to make sure the bottom isn't sticking. Stir as needed.
  • Add the tomatoes, coriander (if using), salt & pepper
  • Cook for another 30-40 minutes until all vegetables are soft but not mushy
  • Stir in the basil or parsley
  • Eat, preferably at room temperature. Ratatouille keeps well in the fridge for up to 5 days; it also freezes well.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

A few things


So, it turns out that if I blog every day in May, it means I don't blog at all in July. Hmm.

I didn't mean to take a summer break, but I guess I did. It's not that I have a great excuse either, although I'd like to blame it on the heat and humidity sucking all coherent thought from my brain. The next post I'd planned to write was the second part of my summer reading series . . . except that I haven't read much this summer. I did listen to the two most recent Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes mysteries, The Language of Bees and The God of the Hive, as well as the very charming Major Pettigrew's Last Stand. I liked The God of the Hive more than The Language of Bees, but they are all part of one story, so you really need to read/listen to both. Just yesterday, I gave in to peer pressure--or popular reading pressure, or something--and began the audio book of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. (So far, so good.)

Meanwhile, I'm not sure what to do with all my previously ambitious summer reading plans, which have gone by the wayside for reasons I can't quite understand. Last summer, I was sick for most of my break and thus needed ample amounts of comfort reading--my summer reading consisted almost entirely of a re-read of the entire Harry Potter series and nearly all of Noel Streatfeild's "Shoes" books. This summer, I feel just fine, but all the books I'd lined up to read have remained unread. Still, I have a few more weeks before I go back to work, so there's still some time. A library copy of Tom Rachman's The Imperfectionists, which received staggeringly positive reviews in the New York Times Book Review AND the daily NYT a few months ago, is now in my hands, so that's first on the list. I also have a library copy of Josh Kilmer-Purcell's The Bucolic Plague, which also received a good NYT review (especially the bit where the reviewer was laughing so hard while reading it on the train that her seatmate demanded that she read aloud the bit that was so funny). And Emily, just returned from a few weeks in the UK, is going to lend me her copy of One Day, which she devoured, she said, and which seems ideal summer reading for someone who hasn't read much this summer.

One thing I've done while not reading (and not cooking much of anything) is spend several days up at Lonesome Lake Hut, near Franconia, NH. (The photo above is a view of Franconia Ridge in the clouds from the hut.) Lonesome Lake is one of the 8 mountain huts run by the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC), which are run as "full-service" huts in the summer, meaning that guests can stay overnight and are fed breakfast and dinner. The huts are run by mostly college-age hut "croos," and many years ago, I aspired to be one. Alas, my hut career was cut short by a terribly timed broken leg (just days before I was supposed to head up to Mizpah Spring hut for the summer). My consolation prize, after a miserable summer, was getting to be the fall caretaker at Lonesome Lake. The hut is less than 2 miles from the road, making it a relatively easy hike for someone with a still gimpy leg. As the caretaker, I didn't have to cook for anyone, but I kept the hut tidy, greeted guests and attempted not to clock the guest who kept putting his feet in the oven with a cast iron frying pan. (Yes, it was cold, but still.)

This time, Alex, his friend Charlie Kellogg and I went in for about 48 hours, while the croo got to go off on a joint set of days off. (Usually, they go one at a time.) The hut was thankfully not full, and while there were moments of stress--the vast quantities of leftover lasagna, the sound of my pan of gingerbread hitting the floor--it was mostly lots of fun. (For a view of our trip, with an emphasis on flora, fauna and cool underwater photos of the lake, see Alex's rather exhaustive blog post here.)

One highlight for me was baking bread two days in a row and remembering how easy it is, even with no Kitchen Aid mixer dough hook in sight. Another was an unexpected reunion with a friend of a friend. It took us about 17 seconds to make the connection that had met at her wedding 5 years ago. She was there with her family, and we gabbed happily whenever we had a moment. Even more heartening was the message she sent after she came home, that her family liked us better than the actual croo (who were there their second night at the hut). I was quite tickled by that.

Still, hut crooing is definitely not a job for the middle-aged. There was not a single chair with a back on it in the entire hut, and I could feel it. I also felt terrible having to tell day trippers who were up that it cost about $100 a person, not $100 a room, to stay there. Yikes.

On the way home, Alex and I stopped at Slick's for ice cream. Things to know if you ever happen to be near Woodsville, NH, and in the mood for ice cream.
  1. The ice cream is delicious. Alex and I both got Grapenut (hard to find outside of NH, so I always feel compelled to get it when it's around), but there were a number of other tempting flavors.
  2. The servings are GARGANTUAN. A small is 3 scoops (for $1.75!). A large is 5. Be prepared. Although it wasn't explicitly listed, they will make "baby" cones, which seemed to be a more reasonable 2 scoops. I think if you have an actual baby with you, you might have to ask for a newborn cone.
I have no idea when I'll get back to Woodsville, but I'm already thinking about my next visit to Slick's.

In the meantime, there's always my local ice cream joint, Mt. Tom's, and even closer to home, my own ice cream maker, as yet unused this summer. That will definitely need to be remedied.

And now that the heat has abated a bit, I've made tentative forays back into my kitchen. I feel like I spent most of July consuming nothing but fresh lime sodas made with ginger simple syrup (highly recommended!). But in the past week or two, I've made eggplant and summer vegetable gratin and my first peach-blueberry crumble of the summer. The plan is to have another recipe, heavy on summer vegetables, up here soon.

Til then, keep your fingers crossed that my tomatoes--so far looking unblemished and plentiful--stay healthy long enough to give me the boatloads of tomatoes I will then grumble about. I hope to be so lucky.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Summer Reading: Part I

In last Sunday's New York Times Book Review, the last page was called "Summer Shares," in which 8 writers were asked about "random literary encounters," e.g. books they found in the place they were staying and read instead of the books they actually brought with them.

This made me remember 2 random literary encounters of my own, one good and one less good. Neither occurred while I was staying at a friend's summer house, but I think they count anyway.

1) Spring, 2000, Udaipur, Rajasthan, India.

I was directing a study abroad program based in Jaipur that year, and each semester, we visited the lovely city of Udaipur, most famous for Lake Pichhola and the Lake Palace Hotel in the midst of it.


Needless to say, we did not stay at the Lake Palace Hotel. But while the students stayed at a cheap but cheerful hotel a way from the lake, my co-director and I were given the option of staying at Rang Niwas Palace Hotel, which, despite the story I'm about to tell, I highly recommend. It's not as grand as the Lake Palace, and not on the lake, but the owners are lovely people, and the grounds and hotel both are peaceful and pretty. (The top photo is the view of my balcony when I stayed there in 2006.) Apparently, in years past, the whole program had stayed at Rang Niwas and had also helped finance its renovation. After the renovation and the subsequent raise in rates, however, the program was priced out of staying there. As a consolation prize, the program's directors were given a discounted rate whenever the program was in Udaipur and were housed in the guest room in the private wing of the hotel rather than in the main section. My co-director had been based in Udaipur while doing dissertation research, so he and his wife chose to stay with a friend in town. (This was fine with me, as my polite name for his wife was the "bitch queen from hell.") Both semesters, I was lucky enough to have a friend with me for our stay in Udaipur, Abby in the fall, and Bill in the spring. Both semesters, however, I was also unlucky enough to get just about as sick as I've ever been in India, and sick in the extremely unpleasant stomach sort of way. I was convinced it was because someone in the kitchen was not washing his hands, but as neither Abby nor Bill got sick, that might not have been it.

From Udaipur, our students spent several days in a rural village called Oghna. The second semester, they left for Oghna exactly when I was so sick, so I couldn't join them for a few days. Bill, alas, had left for Varanasi, so it was just me left in the room in the private section of the hotel, still feeling too queasy to eat much of anything but over the worst of it, so starting to get bored. One day, I crept out of bed to look at the bookshelves in the hallway. On them, I found a fat Maeve Binchy novel. I'd read a couple of Binchy novels in the past and thought she would serve the purpose--keeping me distracted and reasonably diverted while I lay in bed and sipped 7-Up and nibbled on cream crackers. The novel was Firefly Summer, and I read and read and read. There was the small village in Ireland. There was the American who wanted to build an upscale hotel on the ruins of an old estate. There was tragedy, family drama, romance, and more tragedy. At some point, when I was a few hundred pages in, I realized that I wasn't exactly sure what was going on. Things in the novel had taken a rather surprising turn. When I looked back to see if I'd skimmed over some key details, I discovered that a full 60 pages were missing from the middle of the book . . . and I had read another 30 or so past that before I noticed anything was wrong. Whoops.

I did recover from my dreadful illness, of course, and six years later, the next time I went to Udaipur, I returned to Rang Niwas. The family was as lovely as ever, remembered me, and gave me a deluxe room for the price of a standard one. The cook with dirty hands was nowhere in sight, and I enjoyed my stay there without even the merest hint of indigestion. Since I was no longer staying in the private wing, however, I never got to check whether the accidentally abbreviated Maeve Binchy novel was still there.

2) Summer 2001, near Portsmouth, New Hampshire

That first study abroad experience did not end well, as I lost my job in an administrative reshuffling that involved the active collusion of my colleague who turned out to be a rat. (Soon thereafter, his marriage to the bitch queen from hell fell apart, which was only fitting.) A year later, however, I was offered a job in Varanasi with a different program. This one was much smaller than the first, and our orientation occurred at the program director's house in New Hampshire. While my first study abroad orientation had involved directors from programs all over the world, this one was tiny, just my one American colleague and one Indian colleague. (Our Australian colleague didn't make it.) I didn't know then, that my American colleague would drive me up the wall or that our boss would get fired by his boss partway through the program, leaving us in the middle like children of divorcing parents. More significantly, I didn't know that I would get involved with Alex a few weeks later or that the twin towers would fall on my 35th birthday. Those few days in New Hampshire that summer are still emblematic to me as Before.

I was sleeping in the room of the director's house that doubled as his novelist wife's study and his prayer room. So, in addition to the desk, there were bookcases and a shrine with many statues of the Buddha in it. I was sleeping on an air mattress on the floor, which gave me a perfect view of the lower shelves of her bookcases. And there, on the shelves, I saw Dodie Smith's novel I Capture the Castle. I'd never heard of I Capture the Castle--though I read the book version of Smith's 101 Dalmations when I was a kid--but the book had blurbs from JK Rowling and Susan Isaacs (two writers I usually don't think of together), and it looked intriguing.

I Capture the Castle turned out to be the perfect book to read during those long days of pseudo-bonding and orientating. By the end of each day, all I wanted was to curl up on my air mattress and read the words of Cassandra Mortmain, the book's narrator, one of two daughters of a once famous blocked writer now living in a falling apart castle--"a crumbling ruin surrounded by a sea of mud," Cassandra's sister Rose calls it--and waiting for something to happen. This being fiction, something does happen. Two American brothers appear and turn out to have inherited the castle. One--or perhaps the other--falls in love with Rose, and things proceed apace.

I Capture the Castle, I eventually learned, had been a bestseller when it came out in the late 1940s but had gone out of print and fallen out of fashion. Thankfully, someone rescued it and reissued it. Eventually, it even got its own movie version, with "thinking woman's crumpet" Bill Nighy as the father with writer's block and Tara Fitzgerald as Topaz, his artist's model wife who liked to commune with nature wearing nothing but her rain boots.

Almost a year later, Alex and I went to a wedding in Maine, and on the way home, we stopped in Bridgton, Maine, where we ate an excellent breakfast, collected a container of grapenut pudding for the road and paid a visit to Bridgton Books, where I found a copy of I Capture the Castle--hardcover, gray, dingy and published in 1948--for $4.50. I snatched it up eagerly. There is a rather large stain on the front cover, right above a small drawing of the castle and tower, but I don't care.

When I take it out, I still think of myself lying on the air mattress at night, reading the paperback version with the Isaacs and Rowling blurbs, enjoying my foray back into 40s England and life in a ruined castle. Like Cassandra Mortmain, I was waiting for something to happen, and I didn't yet know how soon it would.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Meatless Mondays: Pasta with Creamed Chard and Spring Onions

I've long acknowledged my admiration and appreciation for Deb Perelman and her blog Smitten Kitchen. It's been the source for a number of excellent recipes that I've made over and over again. But even if I hadn't been grateful to her for leading me to an easy recipe for pretzel rolls or granola bars or the numerous other things I've made but haven't written about, I would be a fan forever for this single recipe for pasta with creamed chard and spring onions.

It's not that it's an extravagant recipe; the beauty is that it isn't. It's easy to make and delicious to eat. And it came from the kind of kitchen inspiration I aspire to. Occasionally, my fooling around will turn out a dish that goes into my regular rotation--see the early summer orzo (nearly in season again!) or my accidental eggplant Parmesan--but it's something I'd like to do more. Deb describes this as a recipe she invented based on what was in her refrigerator, though it's also based on her creamed spinach recipe. And the method is not unrelated to the cream of spinach soup I've been making for more than 20 years.

Basically, you wilt some chard (or spinach), saute some green onions and then make a roux. Add the chard to the roux, and the roux to the pasta, and you have dinner. What I love about this recipe--beyond its ease and deliciousness--is its flexibility. I've made it 3 times now, and each time, I've used a different combination of onions and garlic. When there were new green onions at the farmers market, I used those. When I only had a few left and wanted to make the pasta again, I added a couple of leeks I had in the fridge. Yesterday, I had to use supermarket leeks and scallions, but I had a bunch of green garlic from the farmers market, so I added some of that. The first 2 times, I used supermarket chard, and yesterday, I used the first chard of the season from the farmers market. Each combo has been equally tasty.



You can also be flexible with the dairy and make this as decadent or lean as you'd like. I cut the butter and flour in Deb's recipe down a bit (she used 3 tablespoons each, I used 1-2 tablespoons), but you could use the full amount without weighing the dish down. I've mostly used 2% milk, but you could go down to 1% or up to whole milk or half and half or even cream. The recipe is adaptable enough for any of this, so you don't have to stress about what you do or don't have at that moment in the fridge. As long as you have some kind of greens, some kind of green onions and some kind of dairy product, you're good to go.



And perhaps I'll give myself a summer challenge of cooking more based on what's available in the house (because of what struck me at the farmers market or because of what's ripe in the garden) rather than buying things specifically for a certain recipe. But in the meantime, I'm happy to take advantage of Deb's experimenting--I haven't yet been disappointed with the results.

Pasta with Creamed Chard and Spring Onions
Adapted from Smitten Kitchen

1 1-pound bunch Swiss chard, thick stems removed and leaves sliced into ribbons

4-5 spring onions, leeks or green garlic, or some combination thereof, ends trimmed, white and some green parts sliced into thin coins

1 - 2 tablespoons butter

1 - 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1 3/4 cups milk

1/4 cup grated Parmesan, plus more to taste

approx. 1/2 pound pasta--I like something on the shorter and chunkier side with this

Salt and pepper

Wash the chard and place it in a large pot over high heat. Cook, covered, with just the water clinging to leaves, stirring occasionally, until wilted, about 6 minutes.

Press or squeeze out the excess liquid. (I do this in a strainer with a spoon, though once it's cool enough, I also squeeze it by hand.)

Wipe out the large pot so you can use it again. Heat milk or cream--You can do this on the stove, but I usually just put the milk in a Pyrex measuring cup in the microwave for a few minutes. While it's heating, cook onion and garlic, if using, in butter in your wiped-out large pot over moderately low heat, stirring occasionally, until softened, about six minutes. Whisk in flour and cook roux, whisking, about three minutes. Add warm milk or cream in a slow stream, whisking constantly to prevent lumps, and simmer, whisking, until thickened, three to four minutes. Stir in 1/4 cup Parmesan. Stir in chard, then salt and pepper to taste and cook, stirring, until heated through.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Blogathon is Contagious!

So, on June 1, the very day after the May blogathon came to its blessed close, Ms. Hannah Hart Sullivan, with no previous knowledge of the blogathon whatsoever, decided to pay some attention to her blog--Noted and Well-Fed--and blog every day in the month of June. My only conclusion is that the blogathon is somehow contagious.

And although Hannah is now a grown up editorial assistant in NYC, I have a long lasting soft spot for her as I first met her when she was not quite 5 in my first year in grad school at the University of Oregon. Her fabulous mother--Ms. Sarah Hart, now proprietor/chocolate maker extraordinaire of Alma Chocolate in Portland--was in one of my classes, and I spent most of the semester thinking how cool she was and wishing she were my friend. It was one of the highlights of that semester when I found out that she was thinking the same thing! Almost 20 years later, most of it spent on opposite coasts, we're still friends.

Next year, I'm going to encourage Hannah to blog with the gang in May, if she's feeling so inspired, but in the meantime, go pay her a visit. I am already eying her blueberry muffin recipe . . .

p.s. the above photo is from June, 1992 and was made digital by Sarah's low-tech method of holding it up to the photo booth on my Mac and taking a picture of it. Therefore, the picture is backwards, but it's still all of us in our 18-years-younger versions.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Thoughts on 31 Days of Blogging

So, Blogathon #2 is at an end, and I would be lying if I said I wasn't relieved. It was a slog at times, no doubt. But like last year, I'm glad I chose to participate and delighted I was able to finish. I didn't do a round up post last year, but I'm going to follow the lead of several other blogathon participants and finish the month off this way. Tracy Doerr started it, and others who have followed include Jen Walker at My Morning Chocolate, Barb Freda at Babette Feasts and Kathy Murray at Out and Employed. Blogathon Coordinator Extraordinaire Michelle Rafter will include a link to all of them on her WordCount blog later this week.

So, here are a few things I learned/discovered/realized in these 31 days of blogging:

1.) Externally imposed deadlines work: I knew this about myself before and know it even better now. I work infinitely better with a deadline or some externally imposed structure. Why, otherwise, is it that I barely posted at all in April and then managed to do it every single day in May? Not that I would try to blog every day year round or anything insane like that, but I want to remember that taking up challenges like this works.

2.) It's much more fun when you have company: The camaraderie and feeling of being part of a larger group embarking on the same challenge was very helpful. The #blog2010 hashtag on Twitter helped with this as well as a Google group set up for blogathon participants. I enjoyed visiting new blogs and found some I really enjoyed, and, of course, I enjoyed having blogathon visitors at my blog. (Please come back once this is over!) I'd also like to do more guest posts. (Thanks, Lisa!)'

3.) Carry your camera with you every day: This is something I don't usually do but am planning to continue to do in the months ahead. In India, I always have my camera with me because I'm never sure what I might see. I'd like to have the same attitude here. Even in sleepy Western Mass., there are still surprises. (See the brief appearance of the AMHESRT sign and the sad toppling of a massive tree.) Even more locally, lovely things can happen in my own backyard. Having the camera handy makes documenting things (and blogging about them) much easier.

4.) Planning ahead helps . . . : At the beginning of the blogathon, I mapped out the month. That's not to say that I mapped a month of posts out ahead of time. (I can't imagine being that organized.) But I plotted out the first week of posts (even though I didn't post them all on the exact day planned), and I made a list of ideas in the categories I usually write about (food, gardening, books). As the month progressed, I moved ideas into the calendar and added new ones up top. I didn't write about every idea I had at the beginning, but I wrote about many of them, and having ideas in the queue, as it were, made it more manageable. I also kept some partially written posts on hand, some of which I finished and posted and some of which I didn't.

5.) But still leave room for happenstance: In my normal blogging life, I do this too much. I wait for things to inspire a post rather than planning it out ahead of time. But during this month, I realized that I would never post everyday if I left it to chance (that's where the planning ahead comes in). On the other hand, when things occurred, I wanted to be able to take advantage of them. I hadn't planned to write again on my love for the Delhi Metro. But when the NY Times ran a story on it, the timing was perfect to update and edit an earlier post about it.

6.) Have fallback categories of posts for when you need them: I don't think I would have made it through the blogathon without my various signs of the day, photos of the day, sentence of the day, poem of the day, etc, not to mention the always fun Wordles. On the one hand, these are probably less necessary when there isn't the pressure to post every day. On the other, I was delighted to have a reason to share the Infant Jesus Cement Blocks sign that otherwise is only seen by those standing in front of my refrigerator. And the chance to spread some Elizabeth Bishop love around can never be a bad thing, I don't think.

I think that's it for the moment. It's a sunny afternoon, and the garden awaits. I won't be back tomorrow, I can say with some certainty. But I'm hoping this stint of daily blogging will help me settle on a more regular posting schedule, so please check back in later this week. I promise not to vanish.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Poem of the Day

So, it's the next to last day of the blogathon, and the Sunday of a holiday weekend to boot, all of which seems to mean--I don't have much (anything?) to say. More organized bloggers than myself will have pre-written posts for these last few days, so as not to be in this predicament, but I didn't manage to do that.

So, today's post will have to be a poem, and one not written by me. Instead, I return to my beloved Elizabeth Bishop. This is from the earlier version of her Complete Poems, the one published in 1969. (A second edition of the Complete Poems came out after her death in 1979.) Apologies to any Bishop purists--the blog software isn't letting me space it exactly as she had towards the end.

And because this is one of my favorite pictures of EB, I'm going to use it again:


Under the Window: Ouro Preto

For Lilli Correia de Araujo

The conversations are simple: about food,
or, "When my mother combs my hair it hurts."
"Women." "Women!" Women in red dresses

and plastic sandals, carrying their almost
invisible babies--muffled to the eyes
in all the heat--unwrap them, lower them,

and give them drinks of water lovingly
from dirty hands, here where there used to be
a fountain, here where all the world still stops.

The water used to run out of the mouths
of three green soapstone faces. (One face laughed
and one face cried; the middle one just looked.

Patched up with plaster, they're in the museum.)
It runs now from a single iron pipe,
a strong and ropy stream. "Cold." "Cold as ice,"

all have agreed for several centuries.
Donkeys agree, and dogs, and the neat little
bottle-green swallows dare to dip and taste.

Here comes that old man with the stick and sack,
meandering again. He stops and fumbles.
He finally gets out his enamelled mug.

Here comes some laundry tied up in a sheet,
all on its own, three feet above the ground.
Oh, no--a small black boy is underneath.

Six donkeys come behind their "godmother"
--the one who wears a fringe of orange wool
with wooly balls over her eyes, and bells.

They veer toward the water as a matter
of course, until the drover's mare trots up,
her whiplash-blinded eye on the off side.

A big new truck, Mercedes-Benz, arrives
to overawe them all. The body's painted
with throbbing rosebuds and the bumper says

HERE AM I FOR WHOM YOU HAVE BEEN WAITING.
The driver and assistant driver wash
their faces, necks, and chests. They wash their feet,

their shoes, and put them back together again.
Meanwhile, another, older truck grinds up
in a blue cloud of burning oil. It has

a syphilitic nose. Nevertheless,
its gallant driver tells the passersby
NOT MUCH MONEY BUT IT IS AMUSING.

"She's been in labor now two days." "Transistors
cost much too much." "For lunch we took advantage
of the poor duck the dog decapitated."

The seven ages of man are talkative
and soiled and thirsty.
Oil has seeped into
the margins of the ditch of standing water

and flashes or looks upward brokenly,
like bits of mirror--no, more blue than that:
like tatters of the Morpho butterfly.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Sweet Mary's Rhubarb Oatmeal Bars


Earlier this month, during the first group blog day about our favorite blogs, I mentioned that I was rather in a rut when it came to food blogs. Not that my favorite food blogs aren't worth visiting often, but I was beginning to realize that I wasn't straying too far from them, which really is a loss, given the quantity and quality of food blogs around these days.

So, one thing the blogathon has done is broaden my horizons. First, it led me to Jen Walker's My Morning Chocolate, and Jen, in turn, led me to Sweet Mary, who, in turn, led me to these rhubarb oatmeal bars, which I made a few days ago.

Clearly, I enjoy cooking with rhubarb (see 2008's Rhubarb Season, 2009's Rhubarb Redux and this year's Rhubarb Roundup), but again, I was in a bit of a rut, falling back on my favorite rhubarb-ginger-lemon combination. And, to be honest, only the fact that I still had no crystallized ginger in the house kept me from using that combo again in these bars. (That has been remedied since I made these.) I decided, instead, for this first time, just to follow the recipe and (mostly) not fiddle with it. It was instructive--I learned a new tasty rhubarb combination--and also inspiring--even as I was making the recipe, I was thinking of ways to tweak it.

This recipe shares some traits with the blueberry crumble bars we all fell in love with last summer. There is an oatmeal bottom and a fruity filling. This time, however, the topping is not a separate thing but more of the bottom layer sprinkled across the top, simplifying the recipe and the dishwashing both. I couldn't resist a single tweak and added some chopped walnuts to the topping. Mary uses orange juice and orange zest, along with vanilla and some powdered ginger, to flavor the rhubarb, and it's a nice combination. There's a citrus tang, but it's not quite as tart as the lemon/crystallized ginger combo. I have to admit, though, that next time I probably will try them using crystallized ginger and lemon zest, just for the hell of it.

The dough, which you mix with an electric mixer rather than by hand, is rather stiff, and I had to actively press it into the pan. I probably used slightly more than half of the dough for the bottom and the rest on top.



The rhubarb bars were bubbling and crumbly when they came out of the oven. I let them cool in the pan before I tried to cut them.

I have two brief stories about the response to these rhubarb bars. I brought the bulk of them to the office barbecue. When I offered one to a chocolate-loving colleague, she said, "No, I don't care for rhubarb." But later, in the kitchen when we were putting things away, someone else was taking a rhubarb bar home, and my rhubarb-disliking colleague was milling around looking for something to take. I jokingly pointed out that she'd spurned my rhubarb bars, and she said, "Okay fine, I'll take one little taste." She cut off a tiny piece, ate it, and paused. "These are really good," she said. "Do you mind if I take some home?"

Since I had still had some left (this barbecue was very well stocked with food, including the largest cookie platter I've ever seen), I left a few for Alex in his fridge. When I asked how he'd liked them, he said, "I hated them. Don't give me anymore." And then he went on and on about how much he hated them. This is not like Alex, and it seemed that perhaps he was protesting a bit too much, that maybe this was more about his propensity to eat too many rhubarb bars than about the rhubarb bars themselves. That became clear last night when he said, "Those rhubarb bars I hated? Do you have any left?"



Rhubarb Oatmeal Bars
barely adapted from Sweet Mary


1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened (1 stick)

1 cup packed brown sugar

1 1/2 cups all purpose flour

1/2 tsp salt

1/2 tsp baking soda

1 1/2 cups old fashioned oats

1/4 cup water

1/2 cup walnuts (optional)

Filling:

3 cups chopped rhubarb (1/2 inch pieces)

3/4 to 1 cup sugar (I used 1 cup, but 3/4 is also fine)

2 tablespoons cornstarch

1/2 tsp vanilla

1/2 tsp ginger

1 tablespoon orange zest

3 tablespoons orange juice

1/4 cup water

Heat oven to 350. Grease a 13x9-inch baking pan with butter or non-stick spray. (I lined the bottom with parchment paper and lightly sprayed that.)

Make filling first.

Combine all ingredients in a medium saucepan over medium high heat. Dissolve sugar and bring to a boil, stirring occasionally. Reduce heat to low. Cook until rhubarb has broken down and mixture has thickened a bit. The mixture should be like syrup (meaning not entirely liquid and not as thick as jam). This will take about 10 to 15 minutes. Keep in mind that the mixture will thicken as it cools, too. Cool for about 10 minutes.

While the filling cools, make the crust.

Whisk flour, salt, and baking soda together in a medium bowl.

Cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy in the bowl of a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Add flour mixture and mix until fully incorporated. Add the oats and 1/4 cup water. Mix until crumbly.

Firmly pat half of this mixture into the greased baking pan.

Then, add the rhubarb mixture. Spread evenly over the crumble mixture.

Sprinkle the remaining crumb mixture on top of the rhubarb. I added a half cup of walnuts to the top as well.

Bake at 350 for 25 minutes until it starts to brown. Cool. Cut into bars.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Sign of the Day

If I had gotten my act together earlier (read: if I had either figured out how to use the new scanner at work or asked Alex to scan it earlier), I would have submitted this sign to the recent New York Times slide show of strange signs from abroad. Alas, I missed the deadline so will have to share here instead. This was taken in Nepal in 1990, on a trek with my friend Annie along a small part of the Annapurna Circuit. (There was a piece in the NYT not long ago about the road being built around the Annapurna Circuit, which just made me sadder and sadder as I read it.) Apologies that it's a bit dark--it must have been dusk when I took it. Click to see more clearly. Happy Friday!

Thursday, May 27, 2010

A Big Storm Knocked it Over

This is the second time during this blogathon that I was glad to have my camera with me as I left the Amherst gym. This poor toppled tree went down last night in perhaps the windiest, wildest storm we've had in years. (For reference sake, this is just down the hill from where the "AMHESRT" sign appeared briefly a few weeks ago.)

I went to sleep at about 11:15 p.m. and was woken up by the phone (Alex) at 11:30 p.m. Right when we were hanging up, the wind was picking up, and all of a sudden, the curtains in my bedroom streamed into the room horizontally, and my door slammed shut, startling both me and the cats. Intense thunder and lightning followed, and then, eventually, rain. The power flickered on and off. I closed the windows part way so that the curtains would calm down. The door slammed again. Even though I'd been asleep and wanted to be asleep again, I felt like I needed to stay awake until I was sure a tree didn't fall on my house.

When I woke up, aside from some small branches scattered on the driveway and across the yard, there was no damage. Greenfield, I heard, was under a state of emergency. Schools were closed, main roads were blocked, and people were asked to stay inside until things were clear. I went to work in Amherst as usual, and the trip over was uneventful until I saw the end of the street my office is on blocked off with pylons. Then I noticed that the parking lot was nearly empty and the building open but dark. When I went in, I found only my boss and his assistant, who looked at me, puzzled, and said, "Didn't I call you?" The power lines at the end of the street were down, and the electricity company couldn't say exactly when they'd be back up. Later in the day, I did some errands and saw more road crews, more closed roads and more trees down. That tree at Amherst, though, was the biggest one. The bottom of it was taller than me. I don't even want to think about how old it was. I was impressed that the grounds crew had managed to keep the driveway open:

All day long, everywhere I went, I heard people talking about the storm, what they'd been doing when the wind started blowing and the trees started falling.

If I were more organized, I would end this with a quote from the book that gave this post its title, the late, lamented Laurie Colwin's last (but not best) novel. Instead, I'll end with a quote from what is definitely not A.S. Byatt's last but might be her best novel, Possession, which also ends with a dramatic storm involving toppled trees and downed wires:
In the morning, the whole world had a strange new smell. It was the smell of the aftermath, a green smell, a smell of shredded leaves and oozing resin, of crushed wood and splashed sap, a tart smell, which bore some relation to the smell of bitten apples. It was the smell of death and destruction and it smelled fresh and lively and hopeful.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Tarquin Hall's The Case of the Missing Servant

When I saw the novel The Case of the Missing Servant by Tarquin Hall at the library, I was torn. Obviously, I like mysteries and I like books set in India, but still, the concept made me nervous, partly because I feel slightly protective about books written about India--I want them to be good, and I worry that they might not be. It turns out that I had no reason at all to worry about this one. Hall has written an extremely entertaining novel, and his knowledge of India, and the way that tradition and modernity mingle and contradict each other, is extensive. He's also great with details and dialogue both; he has the rhythms and peculiarities of Indian-English sentences down perfectly.

Hall's detective is Vish Puri, proprietor of the Most Private Investigators, Ltd. Puri--known as Chubby to his family and friends--is a plump, rumpled, middle-aged Punjabi with a penchant for pakoras and a soft spot for safari suits and nicknames. (His assistants are known only as Handbrake, Face Cream and Flush.) Much of his business is taken up with routine matrimonial investigations, but when an honest (and seemingly innocent) Jaipur lawyer is accused of the murder of one of his housemaids, Puri takes the case.

While I enjoyed the mystery part of the story, I almost enjoyed more the details, especially of how Puri runs his business. I can't exactly say how realistic it is, but after reading/listening to many mysteries where the private investigator doesn't engage in anything wilder than a snack-food fueled stake out or the occasional car chase, I loved the complexity of Puri's operations. I love the idea, for example, that in his office (above Bahrisons book shop in Khan Market, where I've bought many books over the years) is a room with 9 phone lines, devoted solely to incoming calls from cases. Tending to the lines is a member of an amateur dramatic society from Greater Kailash who enjoys the job because it gives her time to knit in between answering the phones in different voices and (supposedly) from different locations. In another scene, Puri meets the proprietor of one of Delhi's most comprehensive costume shops. The old man outfits Puri as a Sikh, complete with turban and whiskers, but also supplies costumes for some of his assistants, including a fake mangled hand for one posing as a beggar.

Several reviews I read compared this to Alexander McCall Smith's No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency novels, and it's true that both feature charming detectives in exotic locales. But in Puri, Tarquin Hall has created an endearing detective all his own. If the comparison gets him a wider readership, then I'm all for it, but the book is entertaining enough on its own not to need any coattails.

As with most mysteries, I listened to this one as an audio book, and I thought that Sam Dastor did a fabulous job narrating. Some of his inflections were so spot on that I thought of all of my various Delhi friends who speak exactly like that. The paper copy of the book, however, contains a glossary, which apparently includes definitions of all of the yummy food that Puri eats throughout the novel. (I don't know, however, if it includes all the Hindi swears that are in the book. I was pleased that I recognized at least a few. )

The next book in the series comes out in just a few weeks--The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing--and I'm already looking forward to it. I'll be happy to be back in Vish Puri's Delhi--in which I see enough of my Delhi to make me homesick--anytime.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

A few garden updates

I should have more for you, after yesterday's haiku break, but we're experiencing a mini heat wave, and I'm finding it hard to think. I'm having trouble with this whiplash weather in general. A week ago today, I was wearing a sweater and my favorite pair of raisin-colored J.Crew cords, which I had already put away and then taken back out multiple times once it became clear that the path to spring wasn't going to be particularly straightforward this year. Now, I'm in shorts and a tank top, with the fans on full force. I tell myself that at least I'm not wearing a black fur coat like the cats, but it's not much comfort.

But, hot weather or no, things are happening in the garden, some with my help and some on their own. I'd been worried about my asparagus, since not much seemed to be happening. But now, many (though not all) of the crowns are sprouting tiny shoots including these, the world's smallest, grass-sized asparagus spears:

And my paths in the community garden are expanding!


That, I obviously had something to do with. They're not done--I'm maybe 3/4 of the way--but it's getting there. And even though I kind of miss the wild abandon of the garden in years past, it is much easier to navigate without the weed-covered non-paths. (Ask me how it's doing in August, as that will be the real test.) And if you notice that weed-free expanse on the other side of the pea fence (my poor peas, who do not like this weather at all), that is the work of Alex, who spent a chunk of Sunday out there with his mattock, hacking away at the weeds and, especially, the pernicious roots of the comfrey. Comfrey may have many medicinal uses, but it's hell to get out once it gets into the garden. If one tiny bit of root is left, a new plant will emerge, and the new plants are huge. As I recall, Alex hacked up the comfrey last year, and this year, where there had been one or two plants, four showed up (not to mention another four in the compost which I dug out last week). I hope this will the end of them, but I'm not feeling all that hopeful. (We did not put the roots back into the compost, I should add. They went into the dumpster, as I think I would be considered a garden menace if I put comfrey roots in the communal compost.)

Anyway, with all the attention I've been paying to the paths and the asparagus bed at home, I haven't actually planted much yet (minus the greens the neighbor's cat slept on). It's supposed to cool off by the weekend, and I'm looking forward to doing some traditional Memorial Day weekend planting. More on that to come.