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a little piece of paper that had once hung on my wall during the years in which I was writing my endless (but sadly unpublished) novel.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

  • 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)


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.)

(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.


  • 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


  • 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.