Saturday, February 27, 2010

Winter Holiday

It's been a very snowy winter many places on the East coast. For better or for worse, my part of Western Mass. is not one of those places. (Every big storm that’s hit further south or east (or west) has mostly managed to miss us.) The most time I’ve spent in the snow has been when I’ve been shoveling it off my driveway. My new snowshoes are still in their bag, and I’ve only used my x-country skis once, and for that, I had to drive halfway to the Berkshires to find (almost) enough snow to ski on. (Admittedly, that was a few weeks ago, and now I wouldn’t have to go so far, after the cumulative effect of this week’s storms.) Still, I felt the need to read about a real winter, of sudden blizzards and frozen lakes with homey houseboats conveniently frozen into them, of skates and sleds and semaphore. In other words, I had to dig out Winter Holiday, by Arthur Ransome, fourth in the Swallows and Amazons series and the only one of his novels set in winter.

I have to add that I was not alone in this impulse. A few days later, I went to look at my friend Mo's blog, Loving the Tasmanian Devil, and saw that she'd written a long and thoughtful post called a Happy Confluence of Winter Books about two of her favorite winter books, one of which is Carol Ryrie Brink's Winter Cottage. I had never heard of Winter Cottage and had to put it on my library list immediately.

But back to Arthur Ransome. I didn't grow up reading the Swallows and Amazons books. For those not in the know, they're a beloved series of British children's books, written mostly in the 1930s and 40s, set mostly in the Lake District of England and featuring several families of intrepid adventurers who sail and camp and have adventures. The first I heard of them was in college, when I discovered my friend and next door neighbor, Ann, reading Swallows and Amazons, the first in the series, which she did, I learned, whenever she was stressed out. Some years later, looking at her bookshelves, I found one of the later books of the series, with the inscription, “For Ann on her 23rd birthday,” which made me laugh.

Perhaps incongruously, I read my first Swallows and Amazons book in Delhi in 1994. I belonged to many libraries during that long stay, one of which was the American Embassy library, where there was a 15 rupee sale shelf. More often than I'd imagined, decent books turned up on the 15 rupee shelf, and I snatched them up. One summer day, a battered copy of Swallows and Amazons was there, and I bought it. I did not read it right then, however. I remembered Ann's use of Swallows and Amazons as comfort reading, and I saved it for when I might need it. (I knew the time would come, and it did.) In the years since then, I've read a number of the others, and along with Swallows and Amazons, my favorite is Winter Holiday.

The book involves 3 groups of siblings: the Walkers (aka the Swallows), the Blacketts (the Amazons) and the Callums (the D's) who all end up, mostly parentless (except for Mrs. Blackett), in the Lake District during their winter holiday. It is one of the coldest winters on record, and as more and more of the long lake begins to freeze, the children hope to be able to mount an expedition to the north pole (aka the end of the lake). Due to a fortunately timed case of the mumps and subsequent quarantine that keeps them at the lake for an additional month, their wish is granted.

One thing that’s appealing about the book is how well the kids take advantage of winter. They skate daily on a frozen pond and on the lake itself, they take wild sled rides down the hill onto the lake, they spend time in an igloo they’ve constructed and even manage to rescue a sheep stranded on a cliff. Eventually, they take possession of the Blackett sisters’ Uncle Jim’s houseboat that’s been frozen into the lake, renaming it the Fram, after the boat in Nansen’s arctic expedition in the 1890s, systematically eating their way through all of his stores and readying themselves for their own version of polar exploration, a trip to their own north pole, which turns out to be more than they bargained for and also the adventure that they desperately wanted.

By the end of the book, it is abundantly clear that Nancy Blackett’s pronouncement about winter that serves as the book's epigraph—“Dark at tea-time and sleeping indoors: nothing ever happens in the winter holidays.”—is absolutely false. And for those of us who may never build an igloo, enjoy a frozen houseboat or mount an expedition to any pole at all, it’s a true pleasure to go along with them.

I can’t write about Arthur Ransome without noting that he was recently the subject of a major biography—The Last Englishman: The Double Life of Arthur Ransome—in which it turns out that he was a spy for Britain and also so close to the Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution that he was nearly prosecuted for treason. I read two fascinating reviews of the book in the Guardian and in the Times of London, but I have to admit that I can't decide how much I actually want to know about his real life. Sometimes, at least, it's best to stick with the fiction.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Meatless Mondays: Pasta with Roasted Butternut Squash and Greens

It seems that almost everything I make these days involves butternut squash or chard. A few weeks ago, it was Roasted Butternut Squash Risotto. Then, it was my favorite chard and onion torta from Deborah Madison. This past week, just to liven things up, I made something with both, the pasta with roasted butternut squash and greens from The Splendid Table's How to Eat Supper. I mentioned this pasta the first time I wrote about a recipe from this book (the wonderful soup with fresh greens and alphabets), and I've made it numerous times since then, but somehow, I'm not getting around to writing about it til now.

No matter. Despite our lack of snow in western New England, it remains winter here, and fresh vegetables are not in abundant supply. Still, it's possible to get nice-looking, even local, butternut squash and chard (though this is less likely to be local). This pasta dish is nice because it's delicious, first of all, and relatively quick (more about that in a minute) but mostly because it's a nice change from my usual pasta with a tomato-related sauce.

Lynne Rosetto Kasper said that this dish takes 10 minutes to prep. I think she either has a sous chef or she is deluded. I can't figure out how she can possibly prep this dish in 10 minutes when peeling and chopping (or even just chopping) several pounds of butternut squash is involved, not to mention washing and chopping the chard, not to mention the onions and garlic. Anyway, even with the longer than anticipated prep, this is a relatively speedy dinner to make. (Just make sure you allot more than 10 minutes for it.) Although I usually don't buy pre-peeled or chopped vegetables, I make an exception here. A local store (Atkin's Farm, home of the cider doughnut) sells bags of peeled butternut squash, and when I want to make this pasta, that's what I buy. Then it's just a matter of chopping it, which is much quicker.

The sequence is this. Make sure you pre-heat the oven with the pan in it. (I've forgotten this more than once.) While the pre-heating is going on, you combine all of your chopped vegetables in a bowl:

Then, toss with olive oil, salt and pepper, brown sugar and herbs. When the oven is pre-heated and the pan hot enough, spread the vegetables on the hot pan. Make sure you keep an eye on the vegetables while they're cooking, and don't worry if the quantities look enormous. They cook down substantially while in the oven.

You can cook the pasta while the vegetables are in the oven, so everything can be ready to combine as soon as the vegetables are ready. Once they're done, it's just a matter of mixing with the half and half and the cheese and adding more salt and pepper to taste.

One more thing I should note--this full recipe makes a lot of pasta. Really, like a lot. So, good for dinner for 6 people (and some leftover), less good for 1 or 2 people who don't want to be eating this every day for a week. When I made this last, I used a 2 1/2 pound squash, 1 supermarket bunch of chard and about 3/4 pound of pasta. (I didn't fiddle much with the rest of the amounts.) This provided me with one dinner and 2 lunches early in the week and dinner for Alex and me later in the week. We both looked at our empty plates regretfully, and it seemed better to want more than to feel oppressed by the leftovers. No matter the quantity, though, I do highly recommend making this pasta. Soon enough, there will be lovely spring dishes on the menu, so we might as well appreciate an excellent winter dish like this while we can.

Pasta with Roasted Butternut Squash and Greens

Adapted from The Splendid Table's How to Eat Supper

5 quarts salted water in a 6-quart pot

Roasted Vegetables:
3 to 3-1/2 pounds butternut squash, peeled, seeded, and cut into bite-sized chunks
1 medium to large onion, cut into 1-inch chunks
2 big handfuls greens; Kasper suggests escarole or curly endive or spring mix, I use chard; all should be washed, dried and torn or chopped into small pieces
1/3 tight-packed cup fresh basil leaves, torn, if available, or 1 tsp. dried
16 large fresh sage leaves, torn, or 1 tbsp. dried
5 large garlic cloves, coarse chopped
1/3 cup good-tasting extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 tight-packed tablespoon brown sugar (light or dark)
Salt and fresh-ground black pepper

Pasta and Finish:
1 pound bow-tie pasta (see above)
1/2 cup half-and-half
1 to 1-1/2 cups (about 6 ounces) shredded Asiago cheese (I've used Manchego, Gruyere and Pecorino Romano, all to good effect)

1. Slip one large or two smaller shallow sheet pans into the oven. Preheat the oven to 450°F. Bring the salted water to a boil.

2. In a big bowl, toss together all the ingredients for the roasted vegetables. Be generous with the salt and pepper.

3. Pull out the oven rack holding the sheet pan. Taking care not to burn yourself, turn the squash blend onto the hot sheet pan and spread it out. Bake for 25 minutes, or until the squash is tender, turning the vegetables two or three times during roasting.

4. As the squash becomes tender, drop the pasta into the boiling water and cook it until tender, but with some firmness to the bite. Drain in a colander.

5. Once the squash is tender, turn on the broiler to caramelize it. Watch the vegetables closely, turning the pieces often. Anticipate about 5 minutes under the broiler. You want crusty brown edges on the squash and wilted, almost crisp greens.

6. Scrape everything into a serving bowl. Add the half-and-half, hot pasta, and 1 cup of the cheese. Toss to blend, tasting for salt and pepper. Add more cheese if desired. Serve hot.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Slings and Arrows: A Heartfelt Plug

Slings and Arrows has been on the edge of my consciousness for years. Canadian, yeah, Shakespeare, yeah, funny, yeah, whatever. I always meant to watch it and never got around to it. But late in the fall, I ran into a friend at the library, and we were recommending DVDs to each other. I told her about the 2005 Bleak House (the one with Gillian Anderson as Lady Dedlock), and she reminded me about Slings and Arrows. I'm not sure why this time it clicked, but it did.

And now that I've finished all three all-too-brief seasons, I really can't recommend it more highly. The show ran in Canada from 2003-06 and then was on the Sundance Channel here a few years ago. I suspect it still pops up on cable occasionally. It's set at the fictional New Burbage Theatre Festival and covers three seasons there, during which Shakespeare's three great tragedies are performed: Hamlet in the first season (with a Hollywood action star as Hamlet), MacBeth in the second (with a pompous blowhard as MacBeth) and King Lear in the third (with an aged, ailing and possibly addicted actor as Lear). Meanwhile, the business manager falls under the sway of an American corporate sponsor in the first season, a lunatic PR guy in the second season and a really bad musical in the third. I loved all three seasons, with perhaps a slight preference for the first as my favorite, though the second was maybe the funniest and the third the most moving.

The show is beautifully written and acted, complex, funny and just all around fabulous. The main character is the theater's artistic director, Geoffrey Tennant (played by the cute and wonderful Paul Gross), who had once been a star actor at the theater before having a nervous breakdown in the middle of Hamlet. (He was playing Hamlet and jumped into Ophelia's grave and wouldn't get out.) When the theater's artistic director--and Geoffrey's former mentor and friend--Oliver Welles, is killed ("run over by a pig truck") at the end of the first episode, Geoffrey is asked to take over. Oliver, however, doesn't go away. His ghost, only visible to Geoffrey (and one other key character, later on), plays a major role throughout the series. He and Geoffrey bicker constantly, alarming all who see Geoffrey engaged in what seems to them to be one-sided arguments with the air.

The acting is wonderful all around, from the main characters--Geoffrey; Oliver; Richard Smith-Jones, the clueless business manager; Anna, his able assistant; Ellen, the festival's leading lady and diva--to the minor ones (Nahum, the Nigerian janitor; Frank and Cyril, the two older gay guys who play many of the minor roles; Maria, the ever-harried stage manager). The occasional big name actor shows up (Rachel McAdams in season 1, Sarah Polley in season 3), although I should re-phrase that to mean bigger name in the US, as many members of the cast are very well-known in Canada. But the writing is also wonderful. And even though each season stands on its own, the three seasons work together as a whole. I read somewhere that the show was conceived of as a 3 season show. (Each season contains 6 episodes of 45 minutes; all three seasons, 13.5 hours in all, equal about one regular TV season in the US.) This becomes clear at the end, when there is a real sense of closure. The ending is bittersweet, but the show ends the way it should end, the way it's been set up to end. And throughout the last few episodes, there are moments that hark back both to earlier seasons--Oliver providing for Geoffrey in King Lear what Geoffrey had provided for his leading men in Hamlet and MacBeth--and to earlier moments in that season (the ever present Bolivian musicians' role in the storm scene in King Lear was just fabulous). One thing I should note is that each season takes a bit of time to warm up. You may not be hooked after the first episode or two. But be patient. Once the story is set up, it's hard to stop watching. And the last two episodes of each season are so well done that I felt that I had no choice but to watch them again, immediately.

I could go on and on. But really, the thing I most want to say is Watch This. I'm not in theater, I haven't read Shakespeare since college, I don't have any personal reasons for enjoying this. But I loved it. It's probably the best TV I've seen since The Wire, and it's much less stressful. (I had rather disturbing dreams while I was watching The Wire, which is probably why I still haven't watched the last 2 seasons.) For a very brief taste, here's a link to a YouTube clip from the first season, the lovely Geoffrey trying to coach his truly terrible Ophelia. And meanwhile, though I'm sad not to be able to watch it for the first time, I have no doubt that it will hold up to repeated viewings, and even having just finished watching it, I'm already looking forward to the next time.