My new culinary hero

I bought the household a cookbook for Christmas.

This was (is) part of the household’s new year’s resolutions, which include eating better and other nerdier ones which we’ll get to later.

The cookbook is Mark Bittman’s How To Cook Everything, and two months out I think I can safely say it’s been a great purchase.  In that time, I have learned from this book:

  • How to make chicken stock.  This alone is an invaluable piece of information, and Bittman is correct – it’s totally addictive once you learn how much better homemade stock is than canned.
  • How to wash and prepare a leek.  Who knew that the best way to really get them clean was to slice them almost in half lengthwise and fan them out?  (Well, he did, obviously.)
  • How to core a cabbage.
  • How to make popcorn on the stove.
  • How to prepare risotto.
  • How to roast your own red peppers.
  • And probably a lot of other things I am forgetting about.

It’s light on pictures, except for the informative line drawings used to demonstrate the various cooking techniques – but you know what?  I’m fine with that, and this is coming from someone who typically prefers her cookbooks liberally laced with nigh-pornographic food photography.  This is a practical book that is full of practical advice, and while it may not have as many pretty pictures as other cookbooks I have known, it DOES have a heaping helping of useful tables, ideas and suggestions for modifying recipes, and (most important of all) a good index in the back.

Bittman’s writing style is breezy, easy to follow, and has just a touch of humor in it that makes recipes for even food that scares most people (like risotto) seem less intimidating.  When an instruction comes up that might seem bizarre to a novice chef like myself, he actually tends to take the time to explain why it is that, for example, you don’t bother to peel the onion you’re putting in your chicken stock.  It’s like having a kitchen mentor that hangs about comfortably within range if you need to ask a question without being dogmatic or intrusive.

And with two thousand recipes, if you can’t find something to add to your repertoire in here, you’re probably not trying hard enough.

This one’s a winner, folks.  Consider it next time you’re hitting up the cookbook section.

Judging a fake by its cover

Well, MY week’s been crazy busy.  How about yours?

I can’t tell you what part of the busy-ness is in reference to except that it involves reviewing and will eventually be online somewhere else, I hope.  But even aside from that, I’ve had an ill relative to tend, and of course about a million job applications to fill out, it seems.

Still.  That is no fun to talk about.  Let me share something actually interesting instead.

This article about an exhibit on fakes and forgeries in art is fascinating (can’t remember where I picked it up, unfortunately; apologies to misplaced link person!)  I am particularly intrigued by the author’s comments on why we think fakes and forgeries are cool: they appeal to some deep-seated inner something or other in us all that suggests that when you get right down to it, art is a scam.

Of course, this had me contemplating other recent forgery furors, such as all that business about Obama’s birth certificate…I wonder if the same principle applies?  Perhaps some of those people who believed he wasn’t really American-born clung so tenuously to that belief for the same reason…it spoke to some inner instinct that told them the entire political system was nonsense, a scam, a fraud.

(I shall refrain from offering my own opinions on said political system, however.)

On another hand, Naomi found this very interesting little survey about book covers and their impact on book purchases.  I’ll wait while you go have a look.

Intriguing, no?  Looks like a lot of people do judge books by their covers, proverbs aside.

Then again…Is there really anything wrong with that?  These days, when there are so many books to choose from…how do you make sure yours gets noticed?  You put a striking cover on it, that’s how.

More importantly, though, I am finding that I agree with the comments that a good cover should really try to capture visually the essence of the book.  No wonder the survey-takers felt that cliches were offputting; they don’t really tell you much, do they, about what kind of story you’re in for?

I have to admit I’m as much of a sucker for a well-designed cover as anyone, though I’ll put the book back if whatever’s inside doesn’t sound interesting.  I’ll have to try the reverse some time – go pick up covers I find really UNattractive and see if what’s inside will motivate me to buy the book anyway…

The Oz Project

Lately, I have been finding myself with the urge to…revisit.  I am sure there is a more elegant way of saying this.  Probably in French, which has also given us such fantastic idioms as “l’esprit de escalier” – which means literally “the spirit of the staircase, I believe.  What does it mean?  “That thing that happens when you’ve been having an impassioned discussion with someone and you leave and then, just as you’re on your way out, the perfect thing to say occurs to you.”

So perhaps if any language has a pithy phrase for “the powerful urge to revisit things you have known and loved” it is probably French.  I would call it nostalgia, but it is a little more than that: it isn’t so much that I want to get back to some lost age as that I want to revisit these things with new eyes, get to know them afresh – or perhaps “reintroduce myself to them” is a better way of putting it.

This feeling has manifested in my life in several ways lately.  I find myself craving to pick old favorite films from the video store instead of new ones; I think of things I haven’t eaten or read or done in years and years and suddenly feel I want to experience them all over again.

The other day I was telling someone about a passage from one of the Oz books that really creeped me out as a child.  In Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz, the titular characters, along with a talking horse, a talking cat, and a farm boy, are drawn deep into the bowels of the earth in an earthquake and have all sorts of bizarre adventures while trying to find their way back to the surface world.  One of the places they visit is the kingdom of the Mangaboos, beautiful but cruel people who are vegetable through and through: there they meet a sorcerous party who essentially challenges the Wizard to a magic duel.

The Wizard, of course, is a humbug magician – all of his magic is tricks and show (at least at that time – he does get significantly more legitimately magic-capable later in the series).  So it is him and a pair of kerosene lamps and a theatrical trick sword against a real magician, who is slowly trying to kill him by stopping him from breathing.  As a little kid this was thrilling to me in a very nasty sort of way, and it clearly left an impression.

The series continues, of course, so it’s not much of a spoiler to say that Dorothy and the Wizard and their companions get out alive.  But as I was recounting this episode, I thought:

  1. Damn, that series was weird, when I think about it.
  2. I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t be able to get away with some of those things in books for kids these days – at least not kids who were the age I was when I was reading the Oz books.  (I started with The Wizard of Oz when I was four.)
  3. …You know what?  I really want to read that series again.

And, being the big nerd that I am, I then went on to think to myself: Wouldn’t it be cool if while I was reading it I did some research on the time and place the books were from?

I mean, I remember how saturated the Oz books seemed to be with what I think of as that turn-of-the-century “Oh, my goodness. The future is so expansive!  Progress will make everyone’s lives better!” optimism.  (Perhaps that is just my memory playing tricks.)  And I wonder how much the world of the early 1900s had to do with the land of living paper dolls, for example.  Were they popular then?

My inner child wants to revisit the series because it’s been such a long time, and because my memories of it are fond.  My inner adult has suddenly realized that it’s probably a lot stranger than I thought it was at the time, and is keen to go back and have a look.  Maybe both of us will learn something, whether about ourselves or about the early 1900s or something else entirely unexpected.

So, it is decided.  We will go back, and have a look.  I have gone to the library’s website and placed some books on hold, and retrieved the first four of the books from storage.

I feel rather like an archaeologist preparing for a dig.  Do I have all the permits?  A suitable Local Guide?  It is exciting and slightly daunting at the same time.

Anyway.  More on this as it develops.  Probably slowly.  After all, there will be a lot of reading to do.