Food and Recipes

Food I either made or bought that has to do with each individual book!

Voulez-vous Manger Avec Moi Ce Soir, Monsieur le Empereur?: Chicken Dinner Napoleon-Style

The world of food is one of limitless potential for creativity and innovation, yet it’s common to find that any given person’s favorite dish is a simple one, though they may harbor a weakness for pot au feu or Puebla mole. Napoleon, for example, fancied himself the predestined emperor of the world, and so could have eaten any number of delicacies at any time of the day or night. But no, his favorite dish, at least according to The Passion by Jeanette Winterson, was a simple roast chicken. “[He] had such a passion for chicken that he kept his chefs working around the clock. What a kitchen that was, with birds in every state of undress; some still cold and slung over hooks, some turning slowly on the spit, but most in wasted piles because the Emperor was busy” (3). I have to agree with him on this even if I’m not quite on board with the whole world domination schtick. For this dinner, I made roast chicken the main course and focus of the meal, and then took advantage of some artistic liberties to fill in the rest. Luckily for me, I was not preparing this meal in a soggy, miserable army camp on the banks of the English Channel like poor Henri, but instead was in one of my favorite places in the world: my grandmother’s house on the California Central Coast, in Cambria. But hey, you gotta give a girl points for effort.

It was one of those serendipitous weekends when things just come together on their own. My grandmother called me to say she and her boyfriend would be going up to Cambria for the weekend and couldn’t I come to? It happened that I could (there aren’t many things I wouldn’t move around in order to go to Cambria with her). Then, even more luckily, my dad was able to come up as well. I figured one of my book dinners would be a fun way to celebrate being able to come together so spur of the moment-like, even though so much of The Passion is about being separated from the places and people you love. But one big theme in this novel is taking advantage of the present as its the only point in time you have any control over whatsoever.

It’s hard to remember that this day will never come again. That the time is now and the place is here and that there are no second chances at a single moment (19).

I only recently learned how to make roast chicken from my new chef roommate, so for once I was able to make something without a recipe. It’s amazingly simple. Just salt it, put some thyme on it, tie it up like some Sadeian submissive, and roast for 45 minutes.

DSC_0001While that was in the oven, I prepared the side dish of sweet potatoes and fennel, sprinkled with olive oil, salt & pepper, and herbs de provence. I love this dish. It’s so freakin’ easy and the fennel and sweet potatoes complement each other so well. It’s instant comfort food.

DSC_0015While I did that, my dad (one perk of making dinner for others is sometimes they help!) blanched and peeled peaches from Cambria’s Farmer’s Market for a cobbler. Like I mentioned, roast chicken was the only thing actually mentioned in The Passion but I figured that sticking with simple, country fare with basic ingredients was still appropriate.

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One of the things I love most about making food with fresh ingredients is the naturally vivid colors of certain ingredients like sweet potatoes or peaches. At a loss for certain ingredients generally found in cobbler crust, my dad substituted granola from the local Corner Bakery. It’s one of my favorite granolas because it has macadamia and pine nuts in it, and it made an excellent topping.

DSC_0062Finally, it was time to eat. We all sat down, opened a bottle of Venetian wine, and got to it. There weren’t many instances in the novel where characters got to sit down and enjoy a meal with good company. Henri sure didn’t get to partake in the delicious chickens he roasted for Napoleon, whose appetite never waned even in the vast frozen wastelands of Russia. Even in such desolation however, Henri never lost sight of the overall goodness and beauty of life, an attitude which unfortunately makes him more of a martyr than anything else. I’ll end this entry on a happy note, though the ending of the novel was somewhere between sadness and contentment. I read this book twice, almost immediately, and loved it both times. I’m looking forward to doing more Jeanette Winterson books on this blog.

Our ancestors. Our belonging. The future is foretold from the past and the future is only possible because of the past. Without past and future, the present is partial. All time is eternally present and so all time is ours. There is no sense in forgetting and every sense in dreaming. Thus the present is made rich. Thus the present is made whole (62).

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DSC_0071P. S. Just so you understand the context when I say I had the pleasure of cooking this meal in my favorite place in the world, just check out the view from the kitchen… I mean, really.

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The Meal that Married Two Cities

How is it that time can seem to go so slowly and yet at the same time speed by faster than I can understand? I’ve been meaning to write this blog for months! Yet here I am and almost two months have passed since I wrote the review for A Tale of Two Cities. I made the meal for it weeks ago, and still haven’t written it… and the food part is the easiest part! I blame it on my current situation, in which I seem to be sub-leasing a rut with indefinable borders and a vague termination date. I have been so unmotivated lately. All I want to do is sleep or do things like watch marathons of Netflix shows. I need to stop worrying about things I can’t control, stop fretting that so much of my time is spent doing things I don’t enjoy and make time for the things I do, like this blog. If I’ve learned anything in the past 25 years, it’s that I always get out of the ruts I find myself in, after a time.

I originally wanted to do the meal for this book on July 13th, Bastille Day, but I couldn’t think of what to make.  It is difficult to do a food portion on a book whose focus is very much on poverty and the lack of food. In my bibliocentric sense of justice, I couldn’t reconcile the story with my desire to eat escargot and moules mariniéres. So instead I stuck to the story. Since the story takes place in both Paris and London, I thought I’d have representatives of both cuisines. London provided the main course: an adaptation of the mutton pies that were being hawked during Darnay’s trial for espionage at the beginning of the book, as if it were a fair or celebration. That’s one thing I’ve never understood about my species: the ability to be entertained by the suffering of one of their own, in this case the unfair trial and possible execution of an innocent man. But that’s a topic for another day. For the pie, I used a recipe from a blog called Righteous Bacon, although this was a lamb pie instead of mutton. The only other time I’ve ever cooked lamb is for The Corrections dinner, but I have found it to be a difficult meat to work with, as it can easily be overcooked. It was also my first meat pie, and I think more practice is definitely in order. In the end, it tasted good, but the crust was a little undercooked and the lamb a little overdone. The guinness gave it a nice flavor and the beautiful vegetables I got from Good Eggs* were nice and crunchy. The dough was from a bakery called Three Babes Bakeshop.

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To represent Paris, there was an abundance of fresh French bread and wine.

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I know, my pictures this time are pretty dark. I really  need to take another photography class. Also, it’s really hard to simultaneously cook and take passable pictures of your cooking. Maybe I should “hire” (which means of course, pay in food) someone to take pictures while I cook. That would be a dream.

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I also need to invest in a pie dish, since I think the round metal cylinder thing did not flatter my pie, and it needed some flattering. For dessert, I took some artistic liberties. The only sweetness in the whole book is the hot chocolate that Monseigneur indulges in which, while it is a great little scene, did not make me want to do as the aristocrats did. This following quote will show you just how decadent the rich were in the book and just how sarcastic Dickens was in his representation of them.

“It was impossible for Monseigneur to dispense with one of these attendants on the chocolate and hold his high place under the admiring Heavens. Deep would have been the blot upon his escutcheon if his chocolate had been ignobly waited on by only three men; he must have died of two” (128).

So in order to distance myself from the selfish wantonness of Monseigneur, I decided to make a strawberry shortcake. Specifically French? Not so much. But, I added blueberries to make it a tricolour dessert matching the French flag and the symbol of the revolution. I found it to be very fitting… and tasty.

DSC_0203All in all, it was a good dinner and I hope to continue doing this blog for as long as I enjoy doing it and you enjoy reading it, emotional ruts be damned. Next up, from revolutionary France to Napoleon’s reign, Jeannette Winterson’s The Passion.

*Good Eggs is this wonderful site where you can order produce and other goodies from local businesses and farms, and everything in season. They deliver for a very reasonable fee or you can pick it up at varying locations throughout the week. I highly recommend it! Never before have I found myself window shopping for food!

 

High Tea in the Heart of San Francisco’s Tenderloin

When I think of where I grew up, I mostly think of a then-small town in Southern California called San Juan Capistrano. Thinking back on it, it feels small, but only in comparison to the suburban sprawl which has now metastasized into the majority of Orange County. These days it seems like there is no end, no noticeable barrier between cities. Los Angeles slides into Long Beach which then engulfs Garden Grove etc., etc. The point is that my understanding of what it’s like to live in a small, isolated town is extremely limited. I’ve never lived anywhere surrounded by country, nor had such an intimate relationship with my neighbors that I was privy to the goings on in everyone else’s lives. I have known no Middlemarch. And yet, the idea of stagnation that I discussed in the last entry is one with which I feel some familiarity. Orange County has never been my favorite place. Parts of it are breathtakingly beautiful, the weather is nigh on unbeatable, and the presence of my family is not to be overlooked, but I’ve always felt thwarted by it. To a large degree, Orange County is a place where affluent people go to become more like one another. It’s like a devolution into a specific and unimaginative mold, and I’ve never felt the pull to join the herd. Instead, I remember spending my adolescent years feeling contained, thinking that if I could only get some space, meet some people who felt like I did, that I would be able to grow. Then, I graduated high school and moved to San Francisco, a place that resists inertness like an opposing magnet. San Francisco, overflowing with fecundity, the absolute antithesis to stagnation. Thank god.

What I love about San Francisco is that there is never a lack of new things to do or see or, and this is important, eat. All of the “regular” cultural cuisines are represented, from Chinese to Mexican to Italian, but there are also many lesser known ones like Eritrean, Burmese, and Senegalese. Almost anything you’re craving, you can find, even something that will connect you to 19th century England. In Middlemarch, George Eliot was much more concerned with the inner turmoil of each of her characters than she was with what they were eating. In fact, she mentions food no more than a few times in the whole clunking thing, and nothing sounded like a good entry for this blog. So instead I fell back on some assumptions: Middlemarch is a town in England, and the characters are all very English, so they must drink lots of tea and I bet they eat finger sandwiches and scones with Devonshire cream. You with me?

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Well, once again, San Francisco came through, this time in the form of Leland’s Tea in the Tenderloin. I believe that the feeling of stagnation is one we all experience, but I also believe that most of its power comes from our own isolation. The problem is that feelings like this, or depression, make us abhor our solitude and yet sap our motivation to seek the company of others, perhaps because it is exactly the presence of friends and loved ones which is the best remedy to stagnation. They bring that breath of fresh air that smells of a world outside our sordid little self-made island and remind us that it is within our own power to free ourselves, once again giving ourselves the freedom to grow. I think this may be one of the reasons why tea time was such an important custom in England. If people outside of one’s normal sphere of domestic existence were present, this social event alleviated both boredom and restlessness, at least for a time. Perhaps that’s why Dorothea and Mr. Casaubon seemed so unable to overcome their individual and mutual stagnation: they very rarely, especially Mr. Casaubon, sought the company of others. Even Dorothea, who was social and friendly by nature, felt that her place was by her husband’s side, and so rarely left her home without him. It wasn’t until his death that she began to feel the enlivening currents of fresh air entering to disperse the stale air of her confinement.

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I am exceedingly grateful for the people I have in my life at this point. The friends that accompanied me on this book-nerd inspired outing are just the kind of people that everyone should have around them whenever they find themselves stuck, whether it be emotionally or intellectually and especially physically, like Artax in The Neverending Story. It is in large part thanks to my friends and family that I have had the motivation to get even this far on this blog and it will be largely with their help that I continue on.

Boats in Champagne Currents, Borne Back into the Roaring Past

Man, it takes a long time to plan a party. As I’m sure Gatsby would agree, if you’re going to have a party, you might as well do it right or else, well, what’s the point? If there’s one thing to say about Jay Gatsby, it is that he never went halfway on anything. If he wanted something to happen, he threw his whole self into its attainment. If some of his dreams didn’t come off as he planned, it was never for lack of trying.

Have you wondered if I’m ever coming back? Well, here I am (I’ve missed you, too) and this month is going to be chock-full of booknerdish indulgence to make up for my long absence. In my last post, I talked about the role of Nick Carraway, the narrator in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and how his role as observer, and the idea of “being observed” in general, helped make the story and the characters into the unforgettable classic they are. And what but the hope of being observed and appreciated is the point of dressing up for a themed party? So sit back, grab a glass of champagne (it doesn’t matter what time of day it is, we are going back to the Roaring 20’s after all), and relive the “Gatsby Glitterati Party” with me.

The reason it took so long for me to actually have this party was that I had a hard time finding somewhere to throw it. I love my apartment in the Outer Sunset district of San Francisco, but it is tiny, and I would imagine could probably fit in one of the closets of Gatsby’s mansion, with room to spare. I played with the idea of having the party at a bar that was kind of speakeasy-esque, like Comstock Saloon or Bourbon + Branch, but as it was a costume party, I wanted people to feel comfortable and, since most of us had to buy costumes, to not have to fork over 10 bucks a pop, not including tip, for the costly (but delicious) cocktails these places sling. Instead I appealed to several friends, but for one reason or another, I just kept finding myself at dead ends. Finally, my friend Adri, whose apartment is slightly bigger than mine and might fit into one of Gatsby’s bathrooms, agreed to host, and just like that, it was on. Having had the idea for this party in my head for quite a while, I had already been collecting parts of my costume, so I was able to save my money for the other accoutrements of a good party, namely booze.

The menu was simple, as food is not an important part of this novel, although alcohol is. The only food mentioned, in fact, was a quick list of food on display at one of Gatsby’s parties which included spiced ham, turkey, and tea cake, and later on the cold fried chicken lying untouched on the table in the emotionally charged silence between Daisy and Tom the night that Myrtle is killed, when Nick spies on them through the window at Gatsby’s insistence. But since it was a simple party, I thought that the spiced ham or turkey would be overkill, so I stuck with the tea cake, which was based on a recipe from the blog COUKiNE. I ended up making a few last minute changes to the recipe when I realized I hadn’t bought all of the ingredients, but it actually came out really yummy. Other than having to substitute whole-wheat flour for regular, I also changed the apple for unsweetened shredded coconut, which gave it a more subtle sweetness (which is not something that can be said about any of the leading ladies of this story; in fact, there’s very little subtlety to any of the characters, with the exception of Nick, of course). Oh, a warning: most of these pictures are terrible, because I forgot to take them until after I’d already had several mint juleps, and consequently did not feel like messing with trivial things like focus and exposure…

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Speaking of mint juleps, a refreshing, bourbon-heavy cocktail I’d never tried before, I borrowed the recipe from the blog Pixelated Crumb. Unlike most cocktails I’ve made for these events in the past, this one required a little more foresight. The night before the party, I went out and bought mint to make the simple syrup. When it was finished, I realized that the recipe must have been for a maximum of three people, and since any one person who attended the party is capable of drinking for three, I figured I should probably make more. To the store for more mint and back again, and I had my simple syrup, which I then bottled in Mason jars and refrigerated. Once the syrup is made, the prep of the drink is very easy: an ounce of syrup, two ounces of bourbon (I went for Bulleit, my current go-to), a few leaves of mint, and ice. Voilá, eat your heart out. Careful though, like the Southern regions this drink comes from, it’s sweet when you first meet, but will knock you on your ass if you’re not careful.

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As I’m sure you can imagine, after a few of these the party was in full swing (no pun intended). Actually, it was in full Charleston, which we all learned with the help of a YouTube video which I will attach at the bottom in case you’d like to learn as well. If you’ve ever hosted a costume party, you’ll remember that there are always people that go all out and then there are those who don’t even try. But because I have awesome friends, all the costumes were great. Here are some of my favorite pictures, accompanied by a few choice quotes from the novel:

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Daisy was popular in Chicago, as you know. They moved with a fast crowd, all of them young and rich and wild, but she came out with an absolutely perfect reputation. Perhaps because she doesn’t drink. It’s a great advantage not to drink among hard drinking people. You can hold your tongue and, moreover, you can time any little irregularity of your own so that everybody else is so blind that they don’t see or care (75).

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Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter–tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther….(154).

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Being in Adri’s apartment building, overlooking the quiet Outer Richmond district, reminded me of a scene from the book when Nick goes with Tom to meet Myrtle in the city: “…high over the city our line of yellow windows must have contributed their share of human secrecy to the casual watcher in the darkening streets, and I was him too, looking up and wondering. I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life” (44). While wrapped up in the sudden excitement and vitality of our own lives, its easy to ignore or forget the fact that uninvolved parties are observing you. What a strange thing it would be to see ourselves from an objective point of view! If only  Gatsby or Myrtle or Daisy had been able to step outside of themselves, even for a moment, and see their actions and their lives from a casual observer’s standpoint, how different a story it might have been, and yet, it wouldn’t have been the same story that takes a firmer hold on my heart each time I read it. That is what it truly means to be a classic work of literature, to be able to bring to light different emotions and insights each time it is read. Great stories do not cease to grow once the final period has been placed, but continue to become larger and more complex versions of themselves each time they are read and enjoyed.

If you’ve read The Great Gatsby before, I hope these last couple entries have caused you to reexamine your feelings about it, maybe even tempted you to pick it up again. It is a story that will never cease to enthrall, especially in the context of the society we live in today.

Now that you’re done reading, throw back the rest of your champagne, get on your feet…and Charleston.

 

Next up: Middlemarch, a daunting read about which I have no idea what to write, and, for the food portion, a tea service! Stay tuned.

A Feast Fit for a Hobbit…and Smeagol Too!

It was a rainy day in San Francisco. It had been raining on and off for days, but the rain still felt fresh and new, like a portent of things soon to be born. And though the skyscrapers and subways of my city are a far cry from the ivory walls of Minas Tirith or the rural pace and comfort of Shire life, there seemed to be a sort of synchronicity in the air between life here on this planet in the 21st century and that of the Third Age of Middle Earth. It may have had something to do with the fact that my roommate and I were at the Farmer’s Market at the Ferry Building, scouting for things that hobbits like to eat. We found honeycombs and dried fruits, and cheeses with ingredients like apricots, caramelized onions, pistachios and wild mushrooms. I also bought grape leaves to substitute for the mallorn leaves that lembas is wrapped in. For those of you who aren’t quite as nerdy as I am, lembas is a bread-like food made by the Elves of Lothlórien that is known to be extremely filling and nutritious. Samwise and Frodo subsist on it during their entire trek from Rauros Falls to Orodruin, or Mount Doom, in Mordor. That night, I semi-dried the grape leaves and then, the next morning, I wrapped them around some vaguely lembas-shaped crackers. I thought they looked quite authentic:

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And then, once they were wrapped and presented on a plate with some pistachio-encrusted goat cheese, the effect was complete.

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The next morning, before Frodo Fest started for the elevensies meal, I went to my local bakery and bought a freshly-baked loaf of sourdough. I considered baking my own bread, but then I opted to bake something else instead, and since the sourdough at Devil’s Teeth bakery is sooo good, it wasn’t a loss by any count. DSC_0018

In addition to the cheeses and honeycomb, I bought some smoked salmon. Unlike everything else, this wasn’t expressly mentioned in The Lord of the Rings but there was a certain character whom I thought would have definitely enjoyed it, though he wouldn’t have touched the lembas. Not sure who it could be? Let me give you a hint:

Alive without breath;

as cold as death;

never thirsting, ever drinking;

clad in mail, never clinking.

Drowns on dry land,

thinks an island

is a mountain;

thinks a fountain

is a puff of air.

So sleek, so fair!

What a joy to meet!

We only wish

to catch a fish,

so juicy-sweet!

Yesss, you gots it, my precious! Gollum! Gollum! I thought that Gollum should have a place at Frodo Fest considering that he was, once, something like a hobbit. Poor Sméagol.

Though for this meal I mostly bought everything, I did make one thing that I thought might very well be found in a hobbit’s pantry or at Bilbo’s eleventy-first birthday party. It was a blackberry goat cheese tart, and the recipe came from the blog Pastry Affair.

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With a little honey drizzled over it and some basil leaves sprinkled on top, this tart was the perfect bit of sweetness to top off our rustic Shire-meal. And, although we stuck to tea as many of us had had rough nights the night before and eleven seemed very early, I had bought a beer called Le Fin du Monde and Barefoot wine. You know, because hobbits are always barefoot so as to be light on their feet. Duh. Unfortunately, the only thing lacking that would be sorely missed at any hobbit repast was Longbottom Leaf. But other than that, I think Frodo Fest was a success, and at least one person recognized the lembas for what it was.

And so, here ends my second, but hardly my last, journey through Middle Earth. That is, until I read The Hobbit. But for the next entry, I’m moving back into our world and the Roaring 20’s with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Thanks for reading!

After All, an African Safari is Not Irio and Ugali

In lieu of the fact that I was actually in Kenya after having read Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Petals of Blood, I’ve decided to mix it up this time. Instead of the usual food entry, I’m just going to talk a little about my experience in Kenya, and the food I had there. Let me just make one thing clear here, as I don’t know if I did so in the review part. I am insanely grateful that I was given the chance to go to Kenya and Tanzania. I am also hyper-aware of the fact that the majority of the population of the world will never get that chance and that I was afforded a once in a lifetime opportunity to witness wild animals in their natural habitat. I do not in any way want to seem jaded or unappreciative. However, part of traveling is observing the world around you. Not just the pretty, heartwarming, jaw-dropping parts, but also the sad, ugly parts that you may wish weren’t there. The fact that I may be critical about the tourist industry in Kenya doesn’t mean that I think it is wholly a bad thing. There is no black and white, bad or good. I am just being observant.

So, with that out of the way, my main disappointment of the trip was the food. I was hoping for some authentic Kenyan and Tanzanian food, and what I got was a vaguely American, vaguely African (for some faux-authentic spice) mediocre stream of never-ending buffets. And though I was able to try some of the food mentioned in the novel, I feel as though I tried a diluted form of it. It was part of the buffet so that tourists could say oooh, look! African food! and then move on to the french fries and duck l’orange (no joke). Nevertheless, here is what I was able to try:

Irio and ugali:

Irio is the one in the front, which consists of mashed peas, corn, and potatoes, which is exactly what it tastes like.

Ugali is the white cake-like thing in the back with gravy on it. I had so given up on finding any authentic food at these buffets that I stopped taking my camera. Of course, that’s when they turned up so I was forced to use an iPhone camera. Ugali is a dish made of maize flour cooked with water until it has a doughy consistency. It’s the most common starch staple in the Kenyan diet, and is usually eaten with gravy. It doesn’t have much taste on its own, which I guess is why gravy is necessary. The reason I grouped these together is because in Petals of Blood, when the police come to take Munira in for questioning they say, “Are you Mr Munira?….Ah, yes. We try to be very sure. Murder, after all, is not irio or ugali” (2), meaning, since these two foods are probably the most commonplace of all Kenyan cuisine, that murder in Ilmorog is no common thing.

Tusker Beer:

Ah, Tusker. After a long, hot day of bumping around in a Land Rover from dawn till dusk, there is nothing better. A crisp and refreshing lager, it is probably the most popular beer in Kenya and gets its name from, you guessed it, this guy:

Serengeti Beer:

This one isn’t mentioned in the book, but I thought I should include it since it’s also a popular beer in Kenya, and because then I could add this picture:

Millet Porridge:

Millet is an essential grain in Kenya as shown in Petals of Blood, when, while drinking Theng’eta, a powerful semi-hallucinogenic homemade alcohol which, as far as I can tell, is purely fictional, the drinkers say “Millet, power of God!” This porridge tasted pretty much exactly the same as Cream of Wheat, which I happen to like.

Roast Goat Meat and Githeri:

Goat meat is the most common meat among the Masai people, at least, and tastes similar to lamb, but with a stronger flavor. Githeri is simply a mix of maize and kidney beans.

Yum, goat! This was taken in a small Masai village outside of the Ngorogoro Crater.

And that is the extent of what I was able to eat in Kenya. If you had asked me before my trip if I could ever possibly get sick of buffets, I would have laughed in your face. But after two straight weeks of exclusively five-course meals and buffets, I almost (note: almost) hope I never see another buffet again.

One day, I hope to be able to return to Kenya and travel around it in the way I like best: by meeting people, seeing how they actually live, eating authentic food, and simply observing their daily life. Watching it pass by outside the windows of my truck was not enough. Going to the one Masai village that we did go to, where they are paid to accept tourists, thereby taking away somewhat from the authenticity, was not enough. I want more. But for now, I will be content with the memories that I have of witnessing Nature in her truest form. I’ll close this entry by showing a few more pictures that I took that have something to do with the story.

In Kenya, parents often warn their children that if they don’t behave, hyenas might come and carry them off. Look at those teeth…I’m pretty sure that would have scared me into obedience.

On Munira’s obsession with Wanja:

“I am lost…we are all lost…but she is… She must be… my wild-eyed lioness…. What was done was done… and it was for you, my moonlight lioness…” (251).

And now we come to the end of what, for me at least, has been the most epic entry yet. I traveled to the other side of the world and back, and through it was able to understand a story in a more intense way than ever before. African literature is a canon that commonly gets passed over. I myself have only read one other book by an African author, Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga, which I will also cover one day in this blog. It’s a grievous oversight. So if you have never read any literature by a Kenyan author, or any African author, Petals of Blood is a good place to start. I promise you’ll be thinking about it long after you finish. Africa has a way of staying with you.

 Oh yea, and just remember… Eat or you are eaten!

*All pictures taken in the Masai Mara game reserve, Kenya, unless otherwise noted.

A Far More Pleasant Repast than Ever Heathcliff Had

One of the things I enjoy most about this whole endeavor is that it brings my friends together to enjoy some (usually) good food, sometimes food that they’re not familiar with, like the venison stew from The Last of the Mohicans dinner, or the court bouillon from The Awakening. When everyone always seems so busy and friendships sometimes fall to the wayside to make way for the less fun aspects of life, a small dinner between good friends is a blessing. And, had it not been for the damn pudding, it would have been an easy dinner to make, as well as a pleasant one. I should have known it was more trouble than it was worth when I found myself halving and de-seeding twelve ounces of cranberries the day before I even tried to make the pudding. I didn’t even know cranberries had seeds. But that’s what I love about cooking. If you try to make something new, you’re almost guaranteed to learn something new. What’s life for if not to continually learn new things and become better?

For the Wuthering Heights dinner, I was forced to use some artistic license, since the book failed to mention many specific foods other than hot applesauce (boring) and goose (a little excessive). So instead, I just imagined what they were eating in Heathcliff’s little hovel of discontent or in the slightly (and I mean slightly) more pleasant Linton household. What I came up with were the following dishes:

Mulled Wine (from Zoom Yummy)

Caramelized Carrots (from What’s For Dinner?)

Roasted Parsnip Puree (from Inspired Taste)

Herb-Roasted Cornish Game Hens (from Le Petit Pierogi)

And, what was supposed to be my pièce de résistance but turned out to be a pièce du merde: Cranberry Christmas Pudding (from A Couple Cooks)

All I can say is, in the end, it mostly worked. Overall, it was probably my most disaster-riddled dinner so far. I burned the carrots (next time I think I’ll either put foil in the pan or olive oil), the food processor I “borrowed” from the cafe started leaking cream everywhere, and my timing was all off. The entree was ready way before the sides were, the wine was done in the middle of dinner, and the pudding…well, I’ll just get to that later. Plus, I’ve never had to stuff anything’s cavity before. It didn’t really help that my veggie roommate was pretending to dry heave as I propped open the hen’s…nether regions…and stuffed them full of lemon and herbs. It’s not a very dignified way to go, is it?

Another slight setback was the fact that I didn’t have nearly as many cooking utensils as I thought I did. That’s one of the problems of moving a lot; things just tend to get lost along the way. So I found myself without a vegetable peeler for the parsnips. Not a huge problem, but I did find myself peeling parsnips with a small knife and imagining that this is what my great-grandmother Gladys must have done. Sometimes you forget that you don’t actually need most of the fancy kitchen gadgets you can get nowadays.

As any cook knows, there’s almost never a big dinner without some setbacks. But when everything was finally ready and we sat down, it was all pretty delicious. The mulled wine was really good, and it would be great for a cold night, especially because cooking the wine actually seems to make it more alcohol-forward. Game hen tastes pretty much exactly like chicken, but it’s kind of fun to have your own little mini-fowl on your plate.

The pureed parsnips were Suzu’s favorite till he realized, due to sudden ominous rumblings in his lacto-sensitive tummy, that there was dairy in them (oops!).  They looked like slightly less solid mashed potatoes, but tasted sweeter, more like carrots.

The carrots themselves were loaded with butter and onions, so even though each carrot sported a charred backside, they still tasted as good as anything covered in butter tastes. I was happy with it, in short. I was happy that I was with a group of friends that hadn’t been all together in too long, and so I probably would have been happy no matter what.

The only damper on the whole night was that damn pudding.

I don’t know what exactly the problem was. Maybe it was simply that it was a different kind of dessert than I had ever tried to make before. I’ve never steamed anything in my life. It probably didn’t help that I didn’t have an actual steamer, but a makeshift one made up of a stock pot and a cake pan. Next time I make it (because I’ll never admit to failure), I think I’ll invest in a steamer. Whatever the problem, however, it was a disaster from start to finish.

So here’s what happened: Like I said, I halved and de-seeded almost a pound of frozen cranberries, which took just as long as you’d think. The next day, I mixed the flour and dark molasses (which took me about 45 minutes to find in Safeway since it wasn’t in baking supplies but next to the syrup…) and everything else, poured it into the pan, set the pan on top of a smaller dish inside of the stock pot that already had water in it, and then tried to pour more water in so that, as the directions instructed, the water reached halfway up the cake pan. So far, so good. And then… the water started boiling… and it submerged the fucking thing. Excuse my French. I burned my hands trying to get it out of the water, decided a little water probably wouldn’t hurt it, and tried again. This time the water didn’t boil over, but I did have to keep adding more. Two and a half hours later, it still wasn’t even close to done, but we had already finished dinner, and were ready to go out for a friend’s birthday. I added a little bit more water…and it boiled over again. So, I threw up my hands and admitted defeat. You can’t always win when you’re experimenting with cooking. And maybe it’s fitting. My pudding was just as unsuccessful as the love story of Heathcliff and Catherine, but at least, unlike Heathcliff, I didn’t force everyone to share in my failure. And at least in my case, the good far outweighed the bad.

Next up: Petals of Blood by Ngugi wa Thiongo, a Kenyan author who was imprisoned for writing this book. I’m hoping to be able to do the food portion while I’m IN Kenya in a few weeks. I really can’t tell you how excited I am. I’ll stop talking now :)

Putting the Lamb in Lambert

And we’re back, after a very extended commercial break, sponsored by Work Yourself to Death! and my personal fave, Homelessness (it’s the new Black). But I’m still here, safe and sound and not yet on the streets, and at home, at the very least, in my writing again. It’s funny how you can have your life almost totally together, but the absence of one thing (in my case, a house) can make you feel like you’re on the edge looking over into realities you’d rather not experience. I imagine this is how Enid Lambert felt in The Corrections. She has her life together, a life that had always been predictable and steady, until she realizes that her husband, Albert, is slowly losing his mental faculties to Parkinson’s, and even though she tries to pretend that everything is fine, beneath the surface she’s cracking. It’s an awful feeling. I can completely understand why it was so important to her to get her children to come home for Christmas. There are moments in life when you find yourself grasping at flotsam in order to keep your head above water.

But enough about that. I’ll get through this, as I always do, for better or worse. In the meantime, I think I’ll just keep reading through my list. Who knows where I’ll be when I finally finish?

So for the dinner on The Corrections I made a dinner that was part New York haute-cuisine, part down-home Midwest, minus the jello mold. My dad was visiting in between ski trips in Tahoe and Mammoth (yea I know, he’s got a hard life, right?) and we decided to make this dinner as a thank you to the girls who have been letting me couch-crash for the past two months. My dad also volunteered to help me pay for the ingredients, which was awesome. So here’s the menu:

Green Bean Salad from pip & ebby

Acorn Squash with Cranberry and Walnut Glaze from live love pasta

Twice-Baked Potatoes from Center Cut Cook

Garlic-Encrusted Rack of Lamb from Amuse Bouche

And finally, Coffee Cake from Baking Glory.

Now, considering that I had to work that day and I hadn’t gone shopping yet and I had to wait for my friend to get home because she had the key and the fact that all my roommates go to bed around 9:30 to 10:00 on weekdays because they wake up early for work, this was a big enterprise. I didn’t end up actually cooking until about 7, so I had my work cut out for me if I was going to make all that before the roommates fell asleep while rubbing their hungry bellies. Having my dad there was a lifesaver. And it didn’t hurt to have Gary Lambert’s go-to drink, a dirty  martini, at hand either.

I’d never worked with lamb before, having only acquired a taste for it in the last couple years when I was bartending next to a Greek restaurant at the Sawdust Art Festival in Laguna Beach. Both their lamb burger and the lamb stew was to die for. Aside from the price, which was a little extravagant, though not as bad as the venison for The Last of the Mohicans dinner and probably made more so by the fact that we were shopping at Whole Foods, the lamb was really easy to prepare. Just toss some ingredients in the food processor, or blender in my case, rub the result all over the rack of lamb, and roast. The only important thing to remember if you’re ever preparing lamb is to have a meat thermometer, because it’s really easy to go from too rare to overcooked in mere minutes.

 Actually, other than the time it took to prepare everything, the menu was really easy. Nothing complicated or overly time-consuming to speak of. And it all came out really good. The acorn squash was tender and juicy, the potatoes were bursting with flavor (probably all the bacon and sour cream), and the lamb wasn’t too rare, but rather the perfect temperature and just the right amount of garlic.

It was all ready by about 9, and I could already tell that the girls were getting tired so I was happy that I finished when I did. They were even able to stay awake for the coffee cake at the end, which was amazing straight out of the oven.

I’m really glad I was able to do something to show my gratitude to them, even though it doesn’t even begin to equal what they’ve given me. But there’s my dinner, overdue maybe, but done nevertheless. Maybe my next book, Wuthering Heights, will remind me just how far I really am from the insanity I feel from not being able to find a place to live. Until then, thanks for staying tuned.

Sabotage and Semi-Suffocation: A Creole FishFest

One part of the United States that has always intrigued my imagination is the South. From a juvenile fascination with slavery to a vague desire to know what it is about Mardi Gras which makes girls shed their clothing to a trendy new ritual of True Blood on Sunday nights, there is something incredibly alluring and foreign about those southern states. Reading The Awakening gave me a chance to travel to New Orleans, if only with my taste buds, and I must say it was a trip worth taking.

I said in the review that I was probably going to have to improvise a little, but I was mistaken. In the scene where Edna is at dinner on Grand Isle and learns that Robert is leaving for Mexico, she disinterestedly picks at her court bouillon, which is only described as flaky. When I looked it up, I only found descriptions of what seemed to be glorified chicken stock, so I almost decided to forget about it. But then, almost at the bottom of the page, I saw something that said Creole court bouillon. Jackpot. Just like Creole French is only a distant relative of standard French, Creole court bouillon shares only the basics with its french cousin. Instead of boring old chicken stock, it’s an amazingly flavorful sauce served over either red snapper or red fish and rice. Thank you Nola Cuisine for providing me with an amazing recipe and guiding me through my first Creole cooking experience!

I took advantage of my dad’s kitchen once again, considering that his is the most well-stocked kitchen I have access to and I was feeling a little daunted considering I have never eaten Creole food, let alone cooked it or even seen anyone cook it. I was also hoping for a little help from Dad in the julienne-ing, deglazing madness, and I got it…and then some.

Here’s where the sabotage comes in. The sauce calls for a thickening agent, in this case, either roux or slurry. Roux is a lard-based thickener common in Creole cooking, and slurry is a simple mixture of corn starch and water. I opted for the latter. So while I was haphazardly slinging hot sauce and random (not so random, but I’m trying to sound debonair here) spices into the then watery sauce, I asked my dad to get the slurry ready. The recipe instructs to add the slurry little by little, and this was my saving grace. When I added the first little bit of what I thought was corn starch and water, there was an immediate reaction and the sauce started bubbling violently. I practically had to duck and cover. Then my dad says, “It’s almost like I gave you baking soda instead of— Oh, crap!” Apparently, he is really jealous of my cooking prowess and was looking for a way to sabotage my dinner. He gave me BAKING SODA instead of corn starch! It really could have blown up in my face! In the end though, it really was only a very little, and it did alter the taste, but only slightly. I think I’ll have to make it again one day, sans baking soda, to see if it made a big difference or not. This is my sauce post-sabotage:

I have heard that Creole cooking is known for its vivid colors, and now I know it’s true. I’m just happy that it survived, because that was a lot of work and without it, the dinner would have been lackluster at best. But with it, the dish looked really pretty! It almost looked like I knew how to plate food and make it so beautiful you almost don’t want to eat it. Almost.

I haven’t eaten much red snapper in my day, but it was really good: mild-flavored, flaky, buttery, non-fishy goodness. The sauce definitely had a bite to it, but the rice mellowed it out a bit. When preparing the fish, I put some thyme sprigs and lemon slices into slits I made in the filets. The recipe called for whole fish, but I felt kind of sheepish asking the guys at Santa Monica Seafood to descale, gut, de-bone, and de-fin 4 fish while they had perfectly good filets already prepared. So instead of putting the thyme and lemon in the cavity, we slit open the filets. The recipe never said to remove the sprigs, so I didn’t, and thus almost killed my grandmother when she swallowed one of the sprigs and almost suffocated. Luckily, she survived, though I did have to listen to my cousin telling everyone that I was trying to chip away at the Crowley fortune by taking out the matriarch for the rest of the dinner. Ha ha ha.

For dessert, I wanted to make a cake mentioned specifically in the novel, but I couldn’t find a recipe which looked trustworthy for what was only referred to as silver and gold cake. It must be a vintage recipe or something, but in any case, we made beignets, which cannot be considered a loss by any count. Although they weren’t made from scratch, they were made from a box that came directly from one of the most famous beignet producers in the U.S.: Café du Monde.

I let my dad take over the beignets, as you can see. I was busy drinking champagne, but I definitely helped in the eating. You can always depend on me to be there for the eating. They didn’t look like beignets usually look, all round and fluffy and cloud-like, but they tasted great nevertheless, especially covered in powdered sugar and honey.

If only Edna had been able to see the truth clearly, I don’t think she ever would have committed suicide. The truth being, of course, that with food this good, who needs a man?

Stay tuned for italian food from Don’t Move by Margaret Mazzantini. Ciao!

Phallic Freudian Feasts…Oh My!

In a book chock-full of psychoanalysts, feminine sexual liberation, and promiscuous sex, it’s no wonder that all the foodstuffs were in the shapes of sexual organs. Let alone the fact that most German food just feels so…masculine. From oysters to thick sausages to lieberknodel (breaded balls of calf’s liver) to yeasty German beer, it’s obvious that the food in Fear of Flying is meant to remind the reader of the conflicts and themes of the novel itself. No food is innocent, no knockwurst without it’s implicit Freudian allusion. Even without the use of some of Freud’s favorite phrases like “womb envy,” the presence of the notorious German analyst is everywhere. In fact, it’s through Freud and the science that he gave birth to that we truly get to know our protagonist, Isadora Wing, as she’s constantly analyzing herself through her many psychologists’ eyes.

Barring some obscure German recipes which I didn’t think anyone would eat anyway, I decided on the menu as follows: firstly (and arguably most importantly), German beer! I also bought a bottle of German white wine, which was characteristically sweet. The main course was knockwurst with sauerkraut, and the dessert was a homemade buche de noel, or, Yule Log.

Now, this entry is a little unique because, as opposed to making most of the meal, I bought most of this one. I went to this awesome German market in Costa Mesa called The Globe where they have everything from blood and tongue sausage to Kinder chocolates. I always love to find new places in my vicinity that I have never noticed before. So, I bought the knockwurst (similar to a polish sausage), some homemade sauerkraut, and some buns, as well as the wine and beer, which my friend Gustavo picked out, as he was visiting from Mexico and attempting to try every kind of beer he could get his hands on.

I did, however, make the buche de noel from scratch. I was a little worried because it was one of those things where you have to beat the eggs just right, which always makes me nervous, but it turned out to be so easy! I didn’t even have to buy anything, except instant coffee! It was all right out of my cupboard! The recipe came from the blog Eat, Live, Run:

One thing that always kind of annoys me about cooking is that my food never looks nearly as beautiful as it looks in the picture. I’ve been practicing though, and I think I’m getting better, but I’m proud to say that in this case, I was pretty damn happy with the way it came out and how it looked! And the mocha buttercream frosting was to die for, as you can tell from Gustavo’s bogarting of the mixing spoons.

Whenever I’m beating eggs until they form soft peaks, I can’t help but be grateful for my electric mixer, which produces said peaks within seconds. I can only imagine how much longer it would take to beat the eggs by hand. Maybe bakers past had exceptionally strong biceps on their beating arms?

If you’ve never seen a buche de noel before, it gets its name because of its shape, and of course, for the simple reason that it’s traditionally served around Christmas time. The best part about making this cake is that you don’t have to cut fancy shapes out of it in order to attain it’s log-like form. You simply let it cool, frost one side with the chocolate whipped cream, and then…roll!

Pretty, isn’t it? Next time, I just have to make sure to roll it tighter. This is about as pretty as it gets, unfortunately. I had a little left over frosting and decided to make leaves, but I made the hole in the bag too big, so it wasn’t as pretty as it looked in my head. But it never is, is it? However, the taste was out of this world. It was moist and spongy like an angel food cake, but the mocha buttercream on the outside was velvety and delicious. I could of licked all the frosting right off this puppy, easy.

So the buche de noel was definitely the crowning glory of the Fear of Flying feast, but the knockwurst and saeurkraut and beer and all the rest was equally satisfying. And so ends book #3 of my 1,001 Epicurean Nights. God, this is fun.

Next up, I’m reading one of my all-time favorite books again. I mentioned it in the book review, but I think Kate Chopin’s The Awakening is Fear of Flying, only written seventy-four years before. Both female heroines strive for the same independence and sexual satisfaction that is frowned on in their societies, but because the seventies were much more sex-friendly than the Victorian age, Isadora was much more successful than poor Edna. But I won’t give any more away! Stay tuned and thanks for reading :D