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Thursday, October 23, 2014

A Replacement Life by Boris Fishman

According to other reviewers, this author has written a book that parallels his own.  He is a Russian immigrant who works as a writer in New York, a place that is not as Russian as some (I had no idea, but there is a city in North Dakota where about 1 in 5 residents are Russian Americans) but more so than most.

Slava has left his South Brooklyn home behind, but not the family that he grew up with there.  The book opens with the death of his grandmother and the hatching of a plan to write up fake accounts of maltreatment at the hands of the Germans during WWII in order to get restitution.  The problem is that while the Germans perpetrated a war that changed everyone of that generation's life in Russia, very few if any of them had been interned in German camps.  Therefore they did not qualify for restitution.  Slava sees the great injustice in these rules.  The Germans can afford to pay.  People have suffered and are poor.  So he spends hours upon hours writing up phony accounts of their treatment.  It is not made up at all, except for where it happened.  When he gets caught he is of two minds.  To tell or not to tell.  Read it and find out which way his wind blows.  This is a very good first effort at a novel.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

I Don't Want to Be a Man (1918)

More of the Lubitsch silent movies from his German period.  This one stars Ossi Oswalda (the actress and the role have the same name) as a rambunctious young woman who is a bane for her uncle.  The movie opens with her smoking cigarettes and playing poker.  What to do?  The uncle turns her care over to a guardian who promises to take her in hand.

That sets Ossi's teeth on edge and she decides to pose as a man for an evening out.  During her time as a cross dresser she discovers that there are a number of downsides to the cultural expectations of men.  She decides that in the end she is happier with her life as a woman.  In the meantime, she has a little tryst with her guardian--we know and Ossi knows that she is actually a woman, but the guardian does not know that the man he thinks he is kissing is actually a woman.  Very risque indeed.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Ike's Vietnamese Fish Sauce Chicken Wings

On a recent trip to Portland, these wings were a memorable highlight.  Andy Ricker, the chef at Pok Pok got the recipe from Ich Truong and they are spectacular.

  • 8 garlic cloves, peeled
  • 1 tsp kosher salt
  • 1/4 cup warm water
  • 1/2 cup Vietnamese fish sauce (Ricker recommends Phu Quoc or Three Crabs brand)
  • 1/2 cup superfine sugar
  • 2 lbs medium-size chicken wings (about 12), split at the joint
  • Vegetable oil (for frying)
  • 1 cup rice flour
  • 1/4 cup tempura batter mix (Ricker recommends Gogi brand)
  • 1/4 cup water
  • Optional: 1–2 tsp naam phrik khao soi (roasted chile paste, for “spicy wings”)
(1) CHOP garlic finely, sprinkle salt, and chop together for about 15 more seconds.
(2) SCRAPE into a small bowl, add warm water, and let sit for a few minutes. (3) POUR through a fine sieve set over a bowl, and use the back of a spoon to stir and smoosh garlic against the sieve, reserving leftover garlic. (4) ADD fish sauce and sugar to bowl and stir until dissolved. (5) PLACE chicken wings in a separate large bowl, add 1/2 cup of fish sauce mixture (reserve the rest in the refrigerator), and toss well. (6) COVER and refrigerate wings for at least four hours, or overnight, tossing every hour or so. 
(1) HEAT 3/4-inch vegetable oil in a small pan over high heat and add reserved garlic.
(2) REDUCE heat to medium-low, fry until garlic is lightly golden brown, about 5 minutes, and transfer to paper towels to drain (set aside until final cooking stage).
(3) TRANSFER wings from refrigerator to a colander in the sink and let drain for 15 minutes.
(4) STIR together rice flour and tempura mix in a large bowl and toss wings until coated well.
(5) POUR enough oil into a wok or dutch oven to completely submerge the wings, about 2 inches, and bring oil to 325 degrees (measure with a candy thermometer).
(6) FRY wings in two batches, gently knocking them against the bowl before adding to the oil.
(7) COOK each batch until evenly golden brown, about 10–12 minutes, prodding every few minutes.
(8) TRANSFER wings to paper towels to drain. 
(1) ADD 1/4 cup water to the reserved fish sauce mixture.
(2) COMBINE 1/4 cup of the water–fish sauce mixture and half the chile paste (if you are using it), bring to a full boil in a nonstick wok, and reduce for about 45 seconds.
(3) ADD half the wings and toss every 15 seconds, until a caramelized glaze coats the wings, about 1 minute.
(4) ADD 1 tbsp of the fried garlic, toss well, and cook about 30 seconds longer.
(5) RINSE and wipe out wok, and repeat with the next batch of wings.
(6) SERVE wings with pickled vegetables, cucumber spears, and herb sprigs.

Monday, October 20, 2014

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

I loved this book, which was  short listed for the Booker Prize this year.  A word of warning, though.  My husband, who admittedly is not a huge fan of the books on the aforementioned short list, did not love this book.  So you are officially forewarned this did not receive the spouse medal of approval.

Rosemary is largely looking back on her life, beginning in 1970's Indiana and going forward into the present by the end.  She is largely mourning the loss of her sister Fern, and the loss of her brother as a result of that.  Fern is an unusual sibling (I am not going to spoil this, so if you manage to not read other reviews of this book you might get to see things through Rosemary's eyes rather than judging her too early in the story), but she was no less a sibling to Rosemary than if she had been completely ordinary.  In some ways, it her differentness made it harder for her siblings to move beyond her loss.  The story is about ignoring grief and then turning 180 degrees and embracing it, building your life around what happened and moving forward in that way.

There is a lot to think about in this book, which is deceptively light and whimsically packaged.  It is a cautionary tale of unintended consequences and how to go about doing the best you can with what the past has dealt you.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Lunchbox (2014)

In one of the reviews that I read this movie was compared to an Ernst Lubitsch film "Shop Around the Corner"--which is ironic, because in my quest to maintain my liberal education I have been watching all the films that my son's film class watches, and this semester it is all about Lubitsch, a director I had literally never heard about six months ago.

The story is set in Mumbai, which has what I have come to know is a famously efficient and accurate lunch box delivery service througout the city.  Workers can contracat with a lunch box service or home cooks can prepare lunches for loved ones that will be delivered warm at lunch time.  The food in this movie makes it worth the watch--I would love for a cookbook to come out covering how to make all these delectable dishes!

The story is that Ila (Ninrat Kaur) is neglected by her spouse.  She is desperate to reconnect with him, and her helpful and meddling neighbor suggests she cook him an extra special lunch, which she does.  The lunch box comes back clean, like he licked the plate, but he says nothing to her that evening.  When she questions him a bit further, she begins to realize that the lunch went to someone else.  That someone is Saajan (played by Irrfan Kahn), a widowed man who lives a solitary existence both at work and at home.  Instead of correcting the error, they start a correspondence, notes within the lunchbox, which leads them to a place neither of them thought they were going to.  they got on the wrong train but ended up at the right station.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Harissa Marinated Chicken with Grapefruit Sauce

This is another adaptation from Ottolenghi/Tamimi, who are masters of blending flavors--this one can marinate overnight, or a couple of nights, and then it is an easy weeknight dinner to finish off.  Delicious!

8-10 BLSL chicken thighs and/or breasts


1 red pepper
¼ tsp coriander seeds
¼ tsp cumin seeds
¼ tsp caraway seeds
½ tbsp olive oil
1 small red onion, roughly chopped
3 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
2 mild fresh red chillies, seeded and roughly chopped
1 dried red chilli, seeded and roughly chopped
1/2 tbsp tomato puree
2 tbsp lemon juice
1/2 tsp salt
1 Tbsp Greek yogurt

Grapefruit Sauce:
2/3 cup  pink grapefruit juice
1/2 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
2/3 cup maple syrup
1/4 tsp salt
a pinch ground cinnamon
1 star anise

First make the marinade for the chicken. Blister the skin off the pepper by holding it over a flame and letting it char, then peel it.  Saute the olive oil and add the seeds and stir, then add the red onion and the garlic and saute until soft.  Put all the marinade ingredients in a blender until very smooth texture is achieved.
To marinate the chicken, rub the marinade all over the chicken thighs. Put into a gallon sized bag, seal, and refrigerate overnight.
The next day make the sauce. The sauce makes the dish. Do not skip the sauce! It makes a great sauce for fish or pork, too.
Preheat the oven to 425. Lay out the chicken, well spaced, on a lined baking sheet and place in the hot oven. After 5 minutes, reduce the oven temperature to 350 and cook for another 12-15 minutes, until the chicken is almost cooked. Then, place it under the broiler for 2-3 minutes to give it extra color and cook it through completely.
Meanwhile, place all the sauce ingredients in a small pan and bring to a light simmer. Simmer for about 20 min in a Windsor pan if you have one, or until reduced to a third.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Secrecy by Rupert Thomson

This falls into the genre of fictional stories with a historical setting that is largely accurate.  Zummo is an artist who does inspired human renditions in wax.  He has a checkered past and secrets to hide, but he is both an excellent craftsman and an unparalleled artist.  Florence seduces him with a commission to do his greatest work, but also poses a greater danger. An air of menace infects the city around the time of Dante's exile.  The Medici court is the culprit, and there Zummo makes an enemy of sinister Dominican Padre Stufa. Strict laws governing sexual propriety are enforced, and Zummo is not one to follow the Catholic edicts.  Nor is Stufa, but he is a do as I say not as I do kind of tyrant. Jews like Zummo are banished to a ghetto. People are arrested and tortured on hearsay. It is a city of shadows, watchful eyes, and whispering tongues.

It is in this atmosphere that the Grand Duke's asks Zummo to produce a secret commission: he wants the sculptor to make him a lifesize figure of a beautiful young woman, modeled his wife who has left him and whom he mourns.  Zummo throws himself into the commission and in the midst of it he meets arresting young woman.  She turns out to be more than just a convenient model for the Grand Dutchess who has flown the coop, she has a spot within the story. This is light but entertaining, especially if you love Florence and it's art.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Design for Living (1933)

This movie, which is much less well known than Lubitsch's 'Ninotchka', is in my opinion a far funner movie to watch.  And in the romantic comedy genre, enjoyment is the name of the game.  The movie script is a very loose adaptation of Noel Coward's popular stage play, but Lubitsch and his writer, Ben Hecht used only one line from the original play. Really, they kept the idea intact, which is a long term menage a tois between two men who are very good friends and a woman who loves them both and cannot choose between them.

Gina (Miriam Hopkins) meets George (Gary Cooper) and Tom (Frederic March) on a train.  She is working as an illustrator for advertising and they are a struggling painter and play write, respectively.  Max, Gina's boss, is clearly over the moon about her, but she is much more attracted to the two handsome strangers she has met.  She has a go with each of them, and even after that, she still cannot decide, so they decide to swear off sex and work on their careers.  Which is wildly successful in terms of fame and fortune, but they are still stuck, with Gina unable to choose between the two friends. 

The movie is witty and fun, and risque for the time, I would think.  They talk about sex and sleep in big beds, so there is no hiding what is going on--it predates the Production Code by a couple of years, which made prudishness the law, which may explain how it manages to look much more modern than other older movies, and just shows that sex has always sold well.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Marinated Sweet and Sour Fish

 This is another Ottolenghi inspired dish--my husband is on a roll!  The thing about this is that you make it ahead of time and let the flavor blend and grow--but do not serve it cold. The flavors are flat and the curry tastes too sharp. And so I recommend it be served at what would be room temperature in the Mediterranean, which is somewhere between 85 to 95 degrees.

3 tbsp olive oil
2 medium onions, peeled and cut into 1cm slices
1 tbsp coriander seeds
3-4 peppers sliced
6 garlic cloves, crushed
3 bay leaves
2 tomatoes, chopped
1½ tbsp curry powder
1½ tbsp sugar
3 tbsp cider vinegar
Salt and black pepper
1 lb. Halibut
Seasoned flour, for dusting
1 large egg, beaten
1/4 cup chopped coriander

Heat two tablespoons of oil in a large sauté pan. Add the onions and coriander seeds, and cook on medium heat for three minutes, stirring often. Add the peppers, cook for five minutes, then add the garlic, bay, tomatoes and curry powder. Cook for eight minutes, stirring occasionally, then add the sugar, vinegar, a teaspoon of salt and some black pepper, and cook for five minutes.
Heat the remaining oil in another frying pan. Dip the fish first in flour and then in egg, and fry for three minutes, turning once. Transfer the fish to the pepper pan and add 1/2 c. water, so it's just coated by the vegetables and some liquid.
Cover and cook for 10-12 minutes, until the fish is cooked, then remove and leave to come to room temperature. The fish can be served at this point, but it's better after a day or two in the fridge. Serve garnished with coriander.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgramage by Haruki Murakami

I love this author, who has the sparse and beautiful art of story telling embedded in his bones.  He is my odds on favorite to win the Nobel Prize in the not too distant future.  His work is consistent, mesmerizing and prolific.  The great news about this book is that is short, wonderful and not too densely written.  So if you have yet to discover this author, start here.  The book is far more concisely written than the rambling title would suggest.

Henry David Thoreau said that 'Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.' Tsukuru is an engineer who narrowly escapes this fate.  He led a charmed existence in high school, with a group of four fellow students, two men and two women, who fulfilled almost all the needs that a high school student could desire.  There was a sexual tension that kept them from forming boy-girl relationships, but other than sexual intimacy, they shared everything with each other.  Tsukuru was the only one of the group who left their hometown to go to college, and during that time the group ostracized him for reasons that escaped him.  The break caused him suicidal grief, but eventually he found the will to live and continued his life as planned in Tokyo.

Tsukuru gets involved with a woman who he thinks might be 'the one', but she holds him at arm's length, saying there is something that keeps him from throwing himself completely into a relationship, and she thinks it is this now ancient shunning that he endured.  She insists that he go to each of the members of his former group and unravel what went so wrong.  While she might be meddling into his life in the way of a psychotherapist, she does help him find each of his former gang and one by one he manages to piece together what happens.  It is cathartic for him and in the end he is able to feel and express love for what he hopes will be his life partner.  A compact and splendid tale.