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.