Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Wednesday Review: Claire Dederer's Poser

I realize that it may not be fair to begin a post about Claire Dederer's memoir Poser by talking about Elizabeth Gilbert, but so be it. That's what I'm going to do. And I'm not the first person to have done so. Janet Maslin, for one, talks about Eat, Pray, Love in her daily NY Times review of Poser, as do Judith Shulevitz and Emily Bazelon in their interesting conversation about Poser over at Slate. Poser has a prominent blurb by Elizabeth Gilbert on its back cover, and it is the only blurb on the home page of Dederer's website. (The short version--Gilbert loved the book.)

So, Gilbert. Last fall, I had a somewhat ridiculous conversation with friends in which one of them wondered aloud whether Eat, Pray, Love was the worst book ever written. I was incredulous. Because really, if you think Eat, Pray, Love is the worst book ever written, you haven't read nearly enough bad books. I am the first to admit, I liked Eat, Pray, Love, and I don't think it's a bad book at all. I read it soon after it was published; I bought it in hardcover, in fact. I was interested in the India section, of course, but I'd read Elizabeth Gilbert's work previously and knew she could write. Maybe I liked it because I read it before it became a cultural phenomenon, but mostly I liked it because Gilbert is a very good writer. I found her a witty and self-deprecating narrator, and what remains with me, four or five years later, are her meditations on what it means when you make choices that take you out of the mainstream. Gilbert may now be a married, world-famous gazillionaire, but she wasn't when she wrote this book. The crisis precipitating Gilbert's year-long journey was the breakup of her first marriage, in part because she didn't want children. Whatever you think of her pasta-eating in Italy, meditating in India and finding love in Bali, she remains a clear observer of her own life, and there are things to take from it. At least there were for me. Here is Gilbert thinking of the difference between her own life choices and her sister's.

Virginia Woolf wrote, ‘Across the broad continent of a woman’s life falls the shadow of a sword.’ On one side of that sword, she said, there lies convention and tradition and order, where ‘all is correct.’ But on the other side of that sword, if you’re crazy enough to cross it and choose a life that does not follow convention, ‘all is confusion. Nothing follows a regular course.’ Her argument was that the crossing of the shadow of that sword may bring a far more interesting existence to a woman, but you can bet it will also be more perilous.

In Dederer's book, the person who chooses to cross the shadow of the sword is not Dederer--who is married and the mother of a baby daughter when the book opens--but her mother, who, at the age of 32, when Dederer was 6 and her brother 8, took up with a hippie named Larry . . . while continuing to remain married to Dederer's father. Dederer's mother moved in with Larry, mostly taking the kids with her, while simultaneously trying to pretend that nothing had really changed, as evidenced by the fact that the parents were still married. When the book opens, Dederer's brother Dave, now a doting father and husband himself, wants nothing more than for his parents to divorce already. "He sent middle-of-the-night e-mail pleas to my parents, on which he CC'ed me. . . . 'It's time for a divorce,' he would write. Or, 'My birthday is coming. For my gift I would like a divorce.'"

Poser is structured, as the subtitle indicates, around Dederer's study of yoga, which begins when she throws her back out when her daughter is a baby. That each chapter is named for a yoga pose and uses that pose as a means to explore her life could have been a gimmick, but in this book, it's not. And honestly, I don't have a problem with finding a structure on which to hang your memoir. Writing a memoir is a hard enough task--figuring out a way to tell the stories you want to tell is a challenge, and if yoga poses work as your unifying structure, that's fine with me.

Poser follows Dederer from yoga class to yoga class, and backwards and forwards in her own life. In response to both her own childhood and to the expectations of the liberal Seattle circles in which she travels, she decides that the way that she will approach motherhood is by being perfect. And not only perfect but also good. As you might imagine, this doesn't work all that well or make her particularly happy. It frays her marriage and leaves her constantly anxious. As Poser moves along, we see Dederer have a second child, move to Boulder and back to Washington state and go through multiple forms of yoga. What Dederer has in common with Elizabeth Gilbert is her self-deprecating sense of humor and her willingness not to let herself off the hook. She is good company, and it's hard not to root for her--not just in her attempts to do handstands and complicated yoga sequences--but in her life as a writer, mother and wife.

I am of Dederer's demographic (born a year earlier) but not a parent or a yoga doer, despite all the time I've spent in the land of yoga. Still, Dederer's voice is one that is familiar to me, and it's one I enjoyed spending time with. Judith Warner may gripe in the New York Times magazine about Poser being part of the "burgeoning literature of postboomer-female midlife crisis," but I think she's just being churlish. Sure, I'd be glad to read Dederer on any number of subjects, but in Poser, she does a fine job of turning her critic's eye on herself, and for me, that made for a very good read.

(For a good interview with Dederer, see this blog post. I knew I liked Dederer when she mentions E.F. Benson's Lucia books in Poser. I liked her even more when she said that Laurie Colwin was her favorite writer.)

Monday, July 11, 2011

July Recipe Roundup

Today, I did something I don't usually do, which is make two different but related meals for lunch and for dinner. It was mostly because I was home with time to cook and because I spent about $30 on vegetables at the farmers' market on Saturday and was determined to use at least some of them before they'd been languishing in the fridge for too long.

I've written about both of these recipes before, but they are both so good and so perfect for the season, that I wanted to put them in the spotlight again.

The first dish--my lunch, as it were--is early summer orzo, a recipe I mostly made up. It's a mix of vegetables diced into tiny pieces, sauteed in olive oil and then combined with a minimal amount of orzo. I usually make it in the sweet spot of early summer, when both peas and corn are available. I combine these with summer squash, onions, garlic, basil and toasted pine nuts. The key is to have everything cut the same size (i.e., the size of a pea or corn kernel or pine nut or piece of orzo) so that each bite has a little bit of everything in it. The other key is to add the orzo to the vegetables rather than the other way around--this way, the orzo is incorporated into the vegetables rather than the vegetables serving as a complement to the pasta. You could make this with many different vegetable combinations, but I'm partial to the early summer one. Then again, I was amazed that shell peas were still available on Saturday, and I can't imagine we'll see too many more of them after this week's mini heat wave, so I can see making this pea-less, out of necessity. Sprinkle some Parmesan if you like, and you're set for lunch, dinner or a snack. It is equally delicious re-heated.

Here's the recipe, from June 2009: Early Summer Orzo

The second recipe comes from a Mark Bittman "Minimalist" column from the summer of 2004, his Pasta with Corn, Zucchini and Tomatoes. I have been making this dish every summer since then, which I think is the definition of a keeper. So, in the early evening, after I'd come inside sweaty and grubby from mowing the lawn and watering the garden, I found myself, once again, chopping onions and garlic, dicing squash and cutting corn off of the cob. And the sauteing starts off the same way. The key difference here is the tomatoes. Tomatoes wouldn't work in the first recipe because they fall apart, and there, you're looking for intact bits. With this recipe, soupy is fine. You add the tomatoes around the time you put the water for the pasta in, and by the time the pasta is cooked, the tomatoes have broken down, and you have a delicious smelling pan of vegetables on the stove, waiting to be dumped upon the hot pasta. This dish might not be quite as pretty as the other one, but it's equally delicious.

Here's the recipe, from July 2008: Pasta with Corn, Zucchini and Tomatoes

Now, I have two different kinds of leftovers to eat this week, and while the chard and lettuce are still in my fridge, waiting for their turn, I can feel somewhat satisfied that most, if not all, of those vegetables I schlepped home so hopefully on Saturday are going to end up in my stomach rather than in the compost.


Tuesday, July 5, 2011

It's a Pie Party! Blueberry Crumble Pie

So, first I made a pie crust (documented here), and then I made pie. Because even though as recently as a few months ago I was scared of pie crust, I wanted to be part of the pie party.

My friend Gina Hyams has just come out with a book called Pie Contest in a Box, and so she's made me think about pie more than I usually do. And then I read about Shauna Ahern, aka Gluten-free Girl, having an internet pie party. Apparently, thousands of people are making pies and many of them are blogging about it today. How could I resist?

I had to contemplate what kind of pie to make. Strawberries are almost gone here, and blueberries and peaches are not yet in season, though they will be soon. Rather than using non-local fruit, I decided to go for the local but frozen option--the blueberries still in my freezer from last summer's annual blueberry picking expedition.

I scoped out some recipes and relied mostly on a combination of Mark Bittman and King Arthur Flour. I decided that, despite my newfound comfort level with pie crust, I didn't want to make a 2-crusted pie. And given my love for peach-blueberry crumble and for blueberry crumble bars, it made sense to make a blueberry crumble pie.

I tossed the blueberries with sugar, cornstarch, lemon zest, lemon juice and a dash of nutmeg. I made my standard crumble topping from oats, flour, brown sugar, melted butter and walnuts. I topped one with the other and baked. Delicious smells wafted from the oven.

What I didn't do was wait to cut it. It was after 9 p.m., and Alex was lying on the couch, sleepy and waiting for his pie. The King Arthur Flour Baking Book said "Hold your horses." (Really.) Don't even think of cutting that pie until it's cool. But reader, I cut it. I waited until the vanilla ice cream was sufficiently soft, and then I cut it.

And lo, it was wet. Yes, my blueberry pie had turned into blueberry pie soup.

But you know, between the blueberries and lemon, the oats and walnuts, the vanilla ice cream melting in rivulets across the plate, it didn't really matter.

There was pie, and it was good.

Blueberry Crumble Pie
loosely adapted from Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything, with
additional help from The King Arthur Flour Baking Book

1 9 inch pie crust (I used Melissa Clark's all-butter Perfect Pie Crust.)

5 cups blueberries, fresh or frozen, picked over, rinsed and dried
1/2 - 1 cup sugar, depending on your preferences and the sweetness of your berries
2 tbsp. corn starch
Pinch nutmeg and/or cinnamon
Grated zest of 1 lemon
1 tbsp. lemon juice
Dash of salt

Crumble Topping
1 cup whole rolled oats
1/2 cup flour
3 tbsp. brown sugar
4 tbsp. melted butter
1/3 - 1/2 cup walnuts (optional)
pinch salt

Note: I did not bake my pie crust ahead of time. None of the recipes I looked at called for it. However, given the soupiness of the fruit, I probably would blind bake it next time. The outside of the crust was nicely crispy, but the bottom was soggy. That might just be the way of fruit pies, but I'm going to experiment.

Preheat oven to 450.

If desired, partially blind bake pie shell. Good instructions for doing so here: Blind Baking a Pie Crust

For filling, toss blueberries with sugar, corn starch, lemon zest, lemon juice, nutmeg and salt.

Pile berries into crust.

Combine oats, flour, brown sugar, salt, nuts (if using) and melted butter. Distribute over blueberries and pat into place.

Place pie pan on baking sheet (in case of drips). Bake at 450 F for 10 minutes and then reduce heat to 350 F and bake for another 40-50 minutes. (I baked mine for another 45.) Cool on a rack for as long as you can stand it (longer is, indeed, better). Serve with vanilla ice cream or whipped cream.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Freedom from Fear of Pie Crusts

For a long time, I thought the world was split between bread people and pie people. Not bread and pie eaters, but bread and pie makers. Either you weren't scared of yeast and made bread or you weren't scared of the crust and made pie. I was a bread person, no question. I'd been baking bread since I was a teenager and laughed in the face of yeast fear.

Pie, on the other hand, scared me. It was the crust, of course. That delicate balance between flour and fat. How would I know when the butter was mixed in correctly? What if I put too much water in? What about the endless sticking and the attempts to put the sticky sad crust into a pie plate. By the time the crust was done, I was too stressed out to enjoy it.

So, I just didn't make pie. Occasionally I'd buy a supermarket crust for a quiche. But more often, I found alternatives for quiche and stuck with cookie crusts for pie.

I have Melissa Clark to thank for my conversion. Or maybe conversion isn't the right word. But I think I can safely say that I am no longer afraid of pie crusts, and I give Melissa Clark my gratitude. It was her perfect pie crust recipe in In the Kitchen with A Good Appetite that helped me face my fear and overcome it. Melissa's recipe was the start, but there were several other simple things that made this possible.

First, the chopper.

If you mix the flour and butter in a mini-chopper or food processor, you don't really have to think about pastry blenders or wonder about when the ingredients are mixed enough. A few whirls, and it's done. And when you add the cold water, a tablespoon at a time, it becomes clearly apparent when the dough is sticking together.

The second crucial piece is the plastic wrap.

I use this method when I bake biscotti--you spoon the wet and too soft batter onto a length of plastic wrap, which allows you to mold it into a shape that you can freeze until it's hard enough to work with. So it is with pie crust. You dump the messy, sticky mass of flour/butter/water onto the plastic wrap, and in moments, you have a nice round disk all ready to chill.

The last crucial item is the Silpat.

I used to try to roll out pie crusts on a cutting board, and it was frustration incarnate. But from the start of my getting-over-my-fear-of-pie-crust attempts, I realized I needed to change that. I put my Silpat on the dining room table, so there was room to work, with some flour handy nearby.

The marble rolling pin was a gift from my friend Derick 20 years ago. Why Derick decided he should send me a marble rolling pin in the mail from Boston to Eugene, Oregon, I have no idea, but 20 years have now passed, and while the rolling pin has lost its handles, it still works beautifully.

Because the dough is chilled, you can roll it out before it gets sticky. I put a bit of flour down on the Silpat, added a bit more as I was working and turned the dough over a few times. Rolling a pie crust out on a floured Silpat is not stressful, it turns out. Just when you wonder whether the dough is warming up, it's big enough for your pie. Voila.

This is maybe the fourth or fifth crust I've made since I discovered Melissa's recipe and the method documented here, and I've made 2 in the past 2 weeks! Unthinkable even a year ago.

Not that losing my fear of pie crusts is going to make me scared of yeast. I'm just going to have to widen my view of the world just a little bit, now that I am a person who can not only make bread, but also pie.

All-Butter Perfect Pie Crust
from Melissa Clark's In the Kitchen with a Good Appetite

Time: 15 minutes plus one hour's chilling

1 1/4cups all-purpose flour

1/4 teaspoon salt

8-10 tablespoons unsalted butter, preferably a high-fat, European-style butter like Plugra, chilled and cut into 1/2-inch pieces (Clark's recipe calls for 10 tablespoons; my crusts have been plenty buttery with 8.)

2 to 5 tablespoons ice water (I seem to always need 5.)

1. In a food processor, briefly pulse together the flour and salt. Add butter and pulse until mixture forms chickpea-size pieces (3 to 5 one-second pulses). Add ice water 1 tablespoon at a time, and pulse until mixture is just moist enough to hold together.

2. Form dough into a ball, wrap with plastic and flatten into a disk. Refrigerate at least 1 hour before rolling out and baking.

Yield: One 9-inch single pie crust. Recipe can be doubled for a double crust; divide dough into two balls and form two disks before chilling.