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Sunday, February 28, 2010

Southern Indian Cabbage


Also called Dakshini Band Gobi
2 Tbs. olive oil
1/8 tsp. asafetida
1 tsp. black mustard seeds
1 tsp. urad dal
5-6 fenugreek seeds
1/4 tsp. red chili flakes
10 fresh curry leaves
1/2 head green cabbage, shredded
1 tsp. salt
In a large wide pan, heat oil over medium high heat (I like olive oil but canola or peanut oil is traditional). Add asafetida, then mustard seeds and urad dal (you can use chana dal--which I did last night--or yellow split peas), then red chili flakes and fennugreek seeds after the mustard seeds start to pop and the dal takes on another color--all of this happens fast, so spices should be pre-measured.The put in curry leaves (can substitute basil, which I did last night after I couldn't find the 'fresh' curry leaves in the freezer), then the cabbage. Stir about every minute or so and cook on low for about 8-10 minutes--cabbage should be wilted, not cooked through. You can add water or a little white wine to deglaze the pan if that becomes a problem. Add salt at the end. I made this for a large dinner (I made two heads of cabbage as one of three vegetable side dishes for about 50 people, and it was gone, gone, gone).
There are a fair number of ingredients in this that may not be in the average cupboard, but they are very easily attainable in an Asian market--I live in a community of 60,000 and I have at least 4 places I can get these ingredients locally. Additionally, all are available by mail. This recipe is adapted from Madhur Jaffrey's 'World Vegetarian', which is a little uneven as a cookbook--unusual for her--but this recipe worked like a charm.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Hamantaschen


2/3 c. butter
2 c. flour
1/2 c. sugar
1 tsp. baking powder
a pinch of salt
1 tsp. vanilla
1 egg
Put the first five ingredients in the food processor bowl. Pulse til butter is incorporated. Add vanilla and egg. pulse until dough is rolling around in the bowl. May need to add more flour.
Cut into 4 parts. Roll out to 1/8" thick, cut out 3" circles. Put a dab of jam in the center of each cookie. I like to use jam that is well beyond it's best-if-used-by date--a little bit dried up is good. I also like compotes, because they tend to be a bit thicker. The European jams tend to be a little thicker as well. This year I failed to prepare for Purim properly by stocking up on perfect fillings, so I used what I had on hand that best fit my criteria--huckleberry jam, fig compote, orange marmalade, and apricot jam this year (all well aged on our pantry shelf). Fold up three sides of cookies to make a pilgrim-like hat. Bake in a 375 degree oven for 12 minutes.
I only make these once a year, but this year I made 24 dozen. I am hosting the Purim dinner, and I really want enough hamantaschen for everyone. My third son and I spent an entire afternoon, he making the dough and taking the cookies out of the oven, and I rolling out the dough, then cutting and shaping the cookies. We shared putting them away and taste testing each jam type. I liked the fig the best, and Abe liked the huckleberry.
This recipe is adapted from Joan Nathan's 'Jewish Holiday Kitchen', available for almost nothing on Amazon, and the source of some of my go-to recipes for the holidays. She starts with a bit more flour than this one, but I have a cool and very dry house this time of year and stone counter-tops, so it is easy to roll out with less flour to start. This recipe is also a little bit sweeter than a European butter cookie would be--I like that sweetness, but the sugar can be reduced to 1/3 c. per recipe. The recipe makes 36 hamantaschen.

Friday, February 26, 2010

When the Food Matches the Wine


I have had two nights of excellent dining, with equally nice wine pairings to go with them. It is always nice when the two can compliment each other, and the wonderful company thrown in was nice as well. The first was a wine dinner at the Linn Street Cafe, prepared by chef Brett Smith with Southern Starz wines that was very good. All the wines retail for under $20/bottle.
The first course of this very memorable meal was:
Barely cooked scallops, thinly sliced and layered between equally thinly sliced kiwi, topped with a carrot and a candied citron, and book-ended by a macadamia nut coconut foam. The texture of the scallop-kiwi interaction was excellent, and the nuttiness of the foam was a nice contrast. The wine served was Mount Fishtail Sauvignon Blanc, 2008, from Marlbourough, New Zealand--the wine was more herbal than grassy, and was a good pairing with the dish.

The second course was a series of mushrooms that were served with two slices of smoked duck and a slice of Wisconsin Parmesan, with a marjoram-sherry-pancetta vinaigrette that made the dish sparkle. The duck was divine. The wine paired with it was Edgebason Pepper Pot, 2008 from Stellenbosch, South Africa. I thought the wine was delicious, but my husband thought that it sparkled with the food but was not as good alone. It is a combination of Syrah, Mourvedre, and Tannat grapes.

The third course was the best one of the night. A glazed pork belly (prepared in a sousvide), topped with poached apple and a cherry-vanilla gastrique, and rutabaga gnocchi. The pork belly was fall apart tender and suffused with spices and flavors that were easy to savor. The sousvide cooking technique is not one that we have tried, and neither had the chef done much of it, but he had just purchased a counter-top home model and was having fun with it.
Michael Ruhlman has a blog entry on it: http://blog.ruhlman.com/2009/12/the-sous-vide-supreme.html
Somethinig worth considering. The wine pairing was also the best of the night: Reilly's Old Bushvine Grenache, 2006, from Clare Valley, Australia.

The fourth course was good but not memorable. A lamb loin with bone marrow flan (rich and delicious, with just an inch square-sized piece, which was enough) and brussel sprouts. The lamb was unexciting, and under-flavored compared to the vibrancy of the rest of the meal. The course was served with a Goulart Reserva Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, 2007, from Mendoza, Argentina that was excellent, both with the lamb, and all on it's own.

We closed with a chocolate cake (dry crumb, not intensely chocolate--I could have gone for moister and chocolatier), topped with olive oil ice cream, blood orange-thyme sugar, and raspberry syrup and an almond tuile on the side. The ice cream was devine, and the tuile was the right combination of caramel chewiness and nuttiness. It went perfectly with both the ice cream and the cake. The sugar was a lovely contrast to the other sweet flavors. The wine pairing was R. L. Buller Tawny Port from Victoria, Australia. it was the least well paired wine, and a bit sweet for dessert, but would have been nice on it's own.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Story of Esther

Esther is a Biblical figure, and there a book in the Bible named after her. She was a Jewish slave in Persia about 470 B.C. and was adopted by her uncle after the loss of her parents. She was a very beautiful woman, so lovely that she captured the king's heart and became queen. From this influential position she risked her life to save her people from destruction. The presentation below is coordinated with some beautiful historical artwork, and gives her story the attention that it deserves.
The story begins with King Ahasuerus (Xerxes I, 485-464 B.C.), of Persia. Towards the end of a long party, he drunkenly requested that his beautiful wife, Vashti, appear before the populace and officials wearing nothing but her crown.
Vashti disobeys the order, and refuses to appear. In response, the king divorces her.
"But Queen Vashti refused to come at the royal order.. At this the king's wrath flared up, and he burned with fury." [Est 2:12, NAB]

"Let an irrevocable royal decree be issued by him.. forbidding Vashti to come into the presence of King Ahasuerus and authorizing the king to give her royal dignity to one more worthy than she." [Est 2:19, NAB]
MARC CHAGALL
Ahasuerus Sends Vashti Away
1960; Mourlot 251
Color lithograph
Galerie Art Chrudim, Czechoslovakia
Ahasuerus was thus left without a wife. In pursuit of a new one, many pretty girls were taken into his harem, and among them was Esther. After a year's preparation there was held a beauty contest, and he liked Esther the most.
"The King loved Esther more than all other women, and of all the virgins she won his favor and benevolence." [Est 2:17, NAB]
Esther was orphaned at an early age, and had been adopted by and brought up in the family of her older cousin Mordecai. He, like many other Jews, was a captive of Persia. Esther's Jewish hertitage was unknown to Ahasuerus.

"[Mordecai] was foster father to Hadassah, that is, Esther, his cousin; for she had lost both her father and mother. The girl was beautifully formed and lovely to behold. On the death of her father and mother, Mordecai had taken her as his own daughter." [Est 2:7, NAB]
ANDREA DEL CASTAGNO
Queen Esther
c. 1450; Fresco transferred to wood
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence
Soon thereafter king Ahasuerus appointed one Haman his first minister. Mordecai was among the spectators at the palace gates when the new first minister was entering the palace; everyone bowed, but Mordecai refused. Haman was infuriated and plotted to kill not only Mordecai, but all the Jews in Persia. Unknown to Haman, in his decree to destroy the Jews he had also ordered the death of the king's wife.

"We hereby decree that all those who are indicated to you in the letters of Haman, who is in charge of the administration and is a second father to us, shall, together with their wives and children, be utterly destroyed by the swords of their enemies, without any pity or mercy, on the fourteenth day of the twelfth month, Adar, of the current year." [Esther 3B:6, NAB]
REMBRANDT
Haman Sets Forth to Honour Mordecai
c. 1665; Canvas
Hermitage, Leningrad
Then the terrible decree was issued, Mordecai applied to Esther for help.
"Do not imagine that because you are in the king's palace, you alone of all the Jews will escape" [Est 4:13, NAB]
"..I will go to the king, contrary to the law. If I perish, I perish!" [Est 4:16, NAB]
The law in Persia stated that, "any man or woman who goes to the king in his inner court without being summoned, suffers the automatic penalty of death, unless the king extends to him the golden scepter, thus sparing his life." [Esther 4:11, NAB].

"'What is it, Esther?' he said to her. 'I am your brother. Take courage! You shall not die because of this general decree of ours. Come near!' Raising his golden scepter, he touched her neck with it, embraced her, and said, 'Speak to me.'
She replied, 'I saw you, my lord, as an angel of God, and my heart was troubled with fear of your majesty. For you are awesome, my lord, though your glance is full of kindness.'
As she said this, she fainted." [Est 4D:9-15, NAB]
PETER PAUL RUBENS
Esther Before Ahasuerus
1620; (medium?)
Akademie der bildenden Kunste, Vienna.
Esther in her turn asked the king to make a banquet and invite Haman, who at first was much pleased with the queen's attention. But during the banquet his delight turned to dread when Esther revealed her Jewish origin and told the king about Haman's plan to kill her people.
"'If I have found favor with you, O king, and if it pleases your majesty, I ask that my life be spared, and I beg that you spare the lives of my people. For my people and I have been delivered to destruction, slaughter, and extinction. If we were to be sold into slavery I would remain silent, but as it is, the enemy will be unable to compensate for the harm done to the king.'
'Who and where,' said King Ahasuerus to Queen Esther, 'is the man who has dared to do this?'
Esther replied, 'The enemy oppressing us is this wicked Haman.'" [Esther 6:3-6, NAB]
The angered king left the banquet room to consider the question, and Haman threw himself on the couch next to Esther, pleading with her to have mercy on him. When the king returned, in addition to Haman's decree effectively ordering his wife Esther to death, it looked like Haman was now attempting to violate her. The king's temper flew, and Haman was dead momentarily.

"Harbona, one of the eunichs who attended the king, said, 'At the house of Haman stands a gibbet fifty cubits high.' The king answered, 'Hang him on it.' So they hanged Haman on the gibbet which he had made ready for Mordecai, and the anger of the king abated." [Est 7:9-10, NAB]
MICHAELANGELO
The Punishment of Haman
1508-1512; Fresco
Sistine Chapel, Vatican
The Jewish population was saved, and the holiday of Purim was established as a memorial to this triumph.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Art of Condolence


I have been struggling with what to say. The child of a colleague has undergone neurosurgery, and at least initially post-operatively, is quite impaired. Something to say usually comes naturally for me. Then again, so does thinking deep thoughts about how and when and what to say. In the end, this time I have come up short.The situation is complicated by the fact that I have been in these shoes myself, so my first thoughts were about what was not helpful to me rather than what was. People who asked about my "problem" drove me crazy (and I was already not myself)--this is not a problem, this is a catastrophe! So my first approach was to acknowledge that, and move on with words of wisdom. I did get some of those from those around me, and they were appreciated in the initial period of shock, but became gold once the full measure of what I faced was before me.
The most valuable lesson I learned came from more of an acquaintance than a friend. Her youngest daughter was born with a genetic disorder that is both rare and fatal. She took 2 years off from work to live with, nurture and care for, and then bury her daughter. She had sinced moved away from our community, but was back in town when we got out of the hospital, and she insisted on bringing over a meal. It was the wisest thing I received the whole year, and one of the nicest meals (especially when you consider that she cooked it in a friend's kitchen and had to purchase Tupperware to bring it to our house). In addition to the meal, she included a nice flowering potted plant, and a letter about what she had learned from her experience with her child. She warned me that we would quickly become the expert on our child's illness--that our investment in finding solutions for him would be so much greater than anyone on his treatment team. She warned us this is not always well-recieved by the professionals, and that we needed to develop useful ways to interact with them, so as to get the most from them, as well as the opportunities we could engineer. Everything she predicted--the truths, the pitfalls, the solutions, and the challenges--all came to pass, and I have thanked her a thousand times since for her wisdom and for sharing it. So this may be my second step towards showing condolences.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Coco Avant Chanel


Directed by Anne Fontaine and based upon the book by Edmonde Charles-Roux, Coco Before Chanel is a biographical tale of Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel which is just that, before she founded her empire. So for those who are more intrigued about the fashion world and the impact Chanel has on it, then this is not the movie you're looking for, as it firmly dwells on Coco as a person, and her romantic dalliances with two men who played significant roles in her life, be it in support of her daily sustenance, or inspiring her love, believing in her, and providing the means for her desire to make a name for herself.
The film dedicated plenty of time in Coco's awakening to the French high life of the time, since she insinuated herself as the mistress of rich playboy Etienne Balsan (Benoit Poelvoorde), who rescued her from poverty and whose riches afforded to her access to the slacker lifestyles of the rich and famous. The audience gets reminded time and again of how stifling a woman's place in high society was at the turn of the century, made worse by the restrictive clothing like corsets, frills, and lace from the neck right down to sweeping the floors. Coco's disdain for constraint, combined with her penchant for freedom from social norms led to bold designs that did not conform, starting from her hats, which provided her some attention and notoriety.
As Coco Chanel, Audrey Tautou epitomizes that level of elegance, vulnerability with a rebellious streak to do things differently. Her petiteness and somewhat boyish cut figure probably suited the role really well as the initial designs by Coco were those inspired by menswear, though you only get glimpses of her design genius from short montages scattered throughout, and from some scenes which show her working at a tailor shop.

Coco is a woman who did, finally, fall in love, with a man who saw her vast talent and her iron resolve as the keys to being a great success. Sadly, he dies (but not before he has financed her beginning), and Chanel never really recovers.
Though it is not a movie about fashion but rather the making of a designer, the clothes here are the star of the show, from the fashions of societal norms in both directions of the rich-poor spectrum, to Coco Chanel's designs with her menswear inspired pieces, and the glamour-chic pieces only making it through in a parting shot at the finale. The opulently designed clothes of that era stand in stark contrast to the Chanel pieces, which celebrates sheer beauty and elegance in their simplicity, and probably from there, stamping its mark on the fashion industry.

Monday, February 22, 2010

XXI Winter Olympics


My brother's Facebook status yesterday was:
"Watching the Olympics on TV while simultaneously watching the Olympics on the Internet. It's probably a good thing the Olympics are only two weeks."
This beautifully sums up the Kline-Woodman household's relationship to the Winter Olympics in Vancouver. With the exception of a lack of mention of excessive use of the DVR. We all re-learn the rules for sports we never follow, we groan appropriately at the wobbly landing on a triple lutz. We converse knowledgably about Evan Lysacek's victory over Evgeni Plushenko--his athleticism and artistry are superior, despite his lack of a quadruple jump. We compare twizzling between ice dancing pairs (some of it was truly spectacular). We think that Shaun White is a little arrogant in an interview where he characterized his technique as vastly superior to his peers--until we saw him. It may be arrogant, but it is also true. Wow, he really was leaps and bounds better than them.

What are our favorites? The less popular the sport, the more we seem to enjoy it. It is the learning of rules and then appreciating the event as a result that appeals to us, and the less we know about it to begin with, the more we appreciate acquiring knowledge about it. Biathalon is an example--we do not require the commentator to follow the action. When I commented that the American Tim Burke was in the medal hunt until the third shooting, the response was "Well, that is the first standing shoot." As opposed to "What is the Biathalon again?" Similarly popular is curling. When I commented on the Swede's overthinking their strategy in the US vs. Sweden match, to the point where they were in danger of not finishing their throws in the alloted 73 minutes, no one asked what I meant. Did we get it in the house, that is what they wanted to know. The love of obscurity abounds at my house this week.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Reflections on Rome


There is a lot to reflect on, but first I am going to start by focusing on the food. One thing that we did was to really think about what we wanted to be eating, what we wanted to get out of the trip. Food is not always such a central part of why we are going someplace, and after this trip, I think that might have been a mistake (good thing I finally figured that out). Many guidebooks are arranged so that there are sights described, and then places you might eat nearby, but the guidebooks that do this routinely (Lonely Planet, Rough Guide) are often times more interested in getting a reasonable meal rather than a memorable one. My husband did an exceptional job of researching places to eat and then patiently located them, first on the map, and then in real life. The only mediocre meals we had were those that strayed from his detailed preparations.
The beauty of the internet in the travel planning scenario is that it is possible to do extensive research on a place prior to going there, and the pay off is really many fold. First, we had meals that were worth the trip. I have always thought the idea of "Paris for dinner" was absurd, but when you have a meal that the combination of location, quality, and uniqueness make you think "this alone is worth it", and it didn't cost the earth, that is something to strive for in every meal when traveling. Web research, a good map, and access to transportation can make it a reality. I enjoy the occasional over-the-top meal, but not nearly as much as I enjoyed my week in Rome, which was a series of excellent but affordable meals. Now that I am home, and once the Olympics are not occupying every moment that I am not working, sleeping, or exercising,
I want to get to one of the benefits of travel at our house--making some food that reminds us of the trip.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

John Pizzarelli


This show was one of the more unusual musical events that I have been to. First it was very intimate. The Grand Opera in Dubuque is a gorgeously remodeled venue that has seating for 622. So intimate in that way, but also because the performer acted much like someone who was a dinner guest who pulls out his guitar afterwards and proceeds to play a few songs. So he plays a couple of songs, backed up by a competent trio that includes his brother, Martin Pizzarelli, on bass, and a very good pianist and drummer--three people who probably wouldn't have been in your living room, and if you exclude Rock Band, we don't actually have a drum set. Then he takes some time to talk about the songs he just played, who wrote them, maybe some of the context around the song, who sang it, and maybe how they came to find the song.

So this was part concert--with an emphasis on the music of Duke Ellington, Rogers and his two frequent collaborators--Hall or Hammerstein, many of them easily recognized, and part history lesson. There were several twists that I got, and probably an equal number that I didn't. In addition to all the back story, Pizzarelli "updates" the words of some songs, and in others where he feels the lyrics don't make very much sense, he changes them, adds a pre-story so that you can see where the song came from, or tells more so you can see where it went. It is very clever, very funny, and very pleasant. I am definitely checking out his radio show, Radio Deluxe. He is a find.

Finally, a word about the theater itself. It was one of the nicest theaters I have been in. It was built in 1890 in the Richardsonian architecture style. This is a style of Romanesque Revival architecture named after architect Henry Hobson Richardson, whose masterpiece is Trinity Church, Boston (1872–77), designated a National Historic Landmark. Richardson first used elements of the style in his Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane in Buffalo, New York, designed in 1870. This very free revival style incorporates 11th and 12th century southern French, Spanish and Italian Romanesque characteristics. In other words, kind of a mish mash, but in this case it works. The facade is impressive, and the inside is very pretty, but it is also quite intimate, in both feel and size. A really lovely place to see music.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Baked Pasta


I came home from Rome with several new ideas to implement in the kitchen. Most of them relate to pasta, and one of them was to become far better at making baked pasta dishes. I am reknowned for my macaroni and cheese, which is noodles in a bechamel sauve with cheese--then baked. The beauty of it is that it can be made well in advance of cooking it, it doubles and triples and quadruples beautifully, and so it can be made for a crowd. If I use upscale cheese, like fontina and gruyere, and top it with panko it can be quite a nice dish at a buffet where some will take it as a side dish, but children and vegetarians can make it a meal. Many of the memorable pasta dishes from Rome are things where the pasta must be cooked in conjunction with the meal--they can't sit around for minutes, much less days, and so while tasty, are really for making for family.

I was making dinner for the synagogue, and decided to make baked pasta--one with the traditional red sauce and ricotta filling, and another with a bechamel sauce and sauteed vegetables. Bechamel sauces in Italy had a much stronger fresh nutmeg flavor than I have been using, so I grated an entire nutmeg into my sauce, and it was at the level of a Roman sauce. I used the Barilla lasagna noodles, which require no boiling, and while you need to be aware they will absorb some moisture, you don't need to overly compensate with sauce. The resulting dish has a noodle that is not overcooked, and it is easy to assemble as well. I made full sized aluminum pan-sized dishes, which weighed about 10 pounds each. Hefty, in other words. I baked the dishes for 2 hours at 350 (the first hour covered and the second uncovered)--this was good, but they could have baked longer--perfect for a meal where you are not exactly sure when it will start. There was room for improvement, but both were an excellent start to having some good make ahead pasta options.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Rome Travel Aids


I read through about 40 travel guides in preparation for my trip to Rome, and these are the ones I recommend bringing along. The Rick Steve's Rome is available in an ebook edition, which is at this point not a particularly easy medium to navigate in, but then you don't even have to bring the book. This is the book that has a no nonsense approach to the major sites--he has a free podcast for the Colloseum, the Roman Ruins, the Vatican, and the Palladeum, each about 30 minutes and worth listening to at some point, if not actually on the site. There are no restaurant pearls here, so you need to do something different related to eating, but this can be your only sites guide book. He does cover using the Metro and bus system, with enough information that you could do it without additional help, but for extensive bus travel, buying a bus map at a newspaper stand seemed like it would be wise. We couldn't fins an on-line source for this.

The Frommer's 24 Walks in Rome is icing on the cake. An addition to the Rick Steve's. We didn't do many of the actual walks, but I did pick out sites to see from this, and designed my own walks to them--the book has some good restaurant recommendations for the neighborhoods where it leaves you at walks end, and details how to get to and from the walk on public transport. Many of the churches included have famous paintings or sculptures, and as they don't charge admission is a fun budget approach to the treasures of Rome.

The absolute best map we had was the Streetwise Rome map. We have been reasonably happy with this series in other cities (Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Athens to name a few) but we have found that in some cities the scope of the map is too small. Not so here. The map has outstanding readability, which is critical because there are sections of the city where the street names change every block. and each block is marked in that case, which is not true of other maps. It is waterproof, and folds and unfolds easily. You can have it in your hands at all times, which is often where you find you need it.

In terms of food recommendations, the Fodor's guide books are reliable. They do have their rome recommendations on line, and we printed them off and carried them with us. So the actual book is not essential. The other thing I would highly recommend is reading through Frank Bruni's articles on dining in Rome. Before he was the restaurant critic for the New York Times, he was the Rome bureau chief, and he has some excellent choices for where to eat.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy


This is a very long, sumptuously written book about not just Anna, but her interconnected family and the state of Russian society and culture in the late 19th century. It gives a very clear picture of what might have contributed to the Russian Revolution beyond the behaviour of the Tzars themselves. It was originally published in parts, and came out over a 4 year period of time, which increases both it's length, and the retreading of common ground between parts--originally, people were reading it over a very protracted period of time, and might forget who was who. Which is a danger, for me, with any Russian novel. Everyone has at least three or four different names, some of them similar and some of them not, and all of them appear to be related to each other, which is initially the only way (for me) to figure out we in fact are talking about the same person.
I loved the story, but found the lead character singularly unlikable. She is the literary classic example of borderline personality disorder. She is a black and white thinker, someone who thrives on chaos, which if it doesn't exist, she creates it. She has tremendous strengths as a person--she is creative, smart, hard working, and charming--but they are all neutralized by her crushing personality disorder. I would love to see the character enter therapy and see how the story would change.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Lost in Austen


'Lost in Austen' is a four-part 2008 British television series for the ITV network, written by Guy Andrews as a fantasy adaptation of Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. Loosely following the plot of Austen's novel, it sees a modern girl, Amanda Price, somehow transported into the events of the book via a portal located in her bathroom.
Amanda loves Austen--for all the right reasons really. She loves the manners, the attention to details that the characters have, and that things matter. Appearances and rules are important to Amanda. He love interest is someone who lacks all of these qualities and she has struggled with what to do--should she stay or should she go. Enter Elizabeth Bennet. Right out of Amanda's favorite Austen novel. Through the looking glass-okay, not really. But through a door in the bathroom wall, which is a link from Amanda's flat in Hammersmith to the early 19th century home of the Bennet's, of Pride and Prejudice fame. Elizabeth choses to stay in Amanda's world and Amanda is left to cope with Elizabeth's--she tries valiantly to ensure that all the relationships that are supposed to come to fruition in the novel do, and of course it all goes horribly wrong, until, in the end, it all goes very right. Some sticklers for the original story, or who cannot suspend belief long enough to allow the tenets of the new story to take hold may be appalled. But I loved it.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Rome: The Sistine Chapel


Wow. This has been called the best thing ever created by one artist. The ceiling was painted over a 4 year period (1508-1512) and the Judgement Day painting over the altar was added much later. I can't say that I am qualified to comment on the veracity of that, but I cannot offer up a rebuttal. We stumbled upon a great way to see it without crowds. We booked a reservation on line, and while Monday is not recommended (many other museums are closed so increased chance of crowds), we did not have big troubles with an 8:00 am reservation. The galleries do not open until 8:30 or 9:00, so the guards will guide you towards the Sistine Chapel, which was practically empty (being amongst the first people in does have it's advantages).

The ceiling was painted almost entirely by Michaelagelo, a reluctant painter who was persuaded to do the job by Pope Julius II, the 'warrior pope' who also commissioned the rebuilding of St. Peter's Basilica as a symbol of the power of the papacy (it was the Inquisition, after all--did people really need convincing? Apparently so). By some combination of persuation and threats--probably more of the later than the former, given his nickname--Julius got Michelangelo to under take the project. The book 'Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling' by Ross King is a surprisingly interesting retelling of the story--I highly recommend it. Julius' vision was for the twelve apostles, but Michelangelo had grander ideas.

He painted nine scenes from the Book of Genesis down the center of the ceiling, then the twelve people who prophesied or represented some aspect of the coming of the messiah. Of those twelve, seven were Prophets of Israel and were male. The remaining five were prophets of the Classical World, called Sibyls and were female. The prophet Jonah is placed above the altar and Zechariah at the further end, with the other male and female figures alternate down each side. In the four corners, Michelangelo painted four scenes from Biblical stories that are associated with the salvation of Israel: Moses, Esther, David and Judith.

We spent almost an hour gazing at the amazing work, almost alone, and it was spectacular.
To get tickets, use this web-site, and the 4 Euro charge above the admission price is well worth the expense, even in the off season--by 10 am the chapel was packed with hundreds of people, and unbearable.
http://biglietteriamusei.vatican.va/musei/tickets/

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Roman Fountains


The Trevi Fountain is probably the best known Roman fountain, after Fellini memorialized it in 'La Dolce Vita'. It is a more modern fountain than many of the famous Bernini fountains (I love his fountains in the Piazza Navona--they are symbolic and spectacular in equal parts), but he did have a hand in the designing of the current fountain. The way the fountain is situated is his idea--the rest is the work of other designers who came after him.
I did not realize that the location is a very old one. The aqueduct bringing the water into the city was submerged, and the site was a public bathing house, starting in 19 BC. The Aqua Virgo served Rome for 400 years and it's destruction was the coup de grĂ¢ce for the urban life of late classical Rome came when the Goth besiegers in 537/38 broke the aqueducts. Medieval Romans were reduced to drawing water from polluted wells and the Tiber River, which was also used as a sewer. All good things must end, it appears.

The modest fountain at the foot of the Spanish Steps was completed by Bernini's father in 1629. Please note the house to the right of the steps. The great Romantic poet John Keats died there at the painfully young age of 25 in 1821. Today it houses a museum dedicated to Keats and Shelley, and there are a few English establishments on the block. The fountain is quaint by Rome standards, but very elegant, and both these fountains are exquisite at night. One of the people who previously stayed in the apartment we rented recommends seeing everything that you can at night, and I would agree with that sentiment.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Art and Rome: The Gallery Borghese


We traveled to the Borghese Gallery today--which requires not just a ticket, but a reservation. Which would be irritating if you didn't know it, or couldn't get one, but keeps the crowds to a minimum and turns out to be a good thing (although I thought it might have been contrived that we could not go when we wanted, which was 10 am--9 am or 11 am. Ah well, that turned out to be for the best anyway. The Gallery is a bit far, and to get there on time, which is essential, it was better to reserve a bit later than we initially thought. It turns out they knew best.

This is an art gallery that was built as such. Cardinal Borghese, the nephew of Pope Borghese, was much more of a lover of the arts than a religious man (the cardinal thing was more for power than religion). He built the gallery around his art collection, and it is really pretty impressive. Both the ground and first floor have high ceilings and they are all painted (did he have Sistene Chapel envy?). Which makes viewing a bit challenging. All the craning upward, room after room, left me kind of dizzy. I am not sure is I have an intolerance of that much magnificence, or some kind of insufficiency whereby hyper-extending my neck allows little to no blood to get to my brain. Either way, the 2 hour limit in the gallery was not a constraint on our enjoyment. Nor did it appear that they actually enforced it. Joel was pleased that we were tapped to go in early, and I was pleased to leave after a second viewing of the things we like best. One thing I was struck by--there is so much there that I think I could go back tomorrow and the next day and wonder at the things I missed on the first visit. Even a second run through, I saw thtings I would have sworn were not there just an hour before.

I have included my three favorite pieces that I saw today--The Titian 'Sacred and Profane Love', both for the relative brightness and the levity of the painting amidst a sea of reigiousity as much as my enjoyment of it, and the two Bernini sculptures ths I was impressed with, both of which he did in his 20's. Although in some ways, the sculpture he carved of two children milking a goat at age eleven is the most impressive, these were done by a young man with a well honed talent. 'David' is said to be a self-portrait (so not a modest man, in either sense of the word). But perhaps modesty would be false, as Berrnini is said to have invented the baroque style, that he had a hand in not just the rendering of it but in it's architecture. He created an age. And there are a startling number of examples of it here in one place. Not to be missed. The gallery is in a beautiful location, well worth walking around in order to regain one's balance after so much ceiling-gazing, and Al Ceppo, a wonderful Roman restaurant, is nearby on Via Panama, north of the Villa Borghese.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Rome: The Colloseum and Snow


We feel vaguely guilty. Did we bring the snow? Our lunch waiter swears it has not snowed since 1986, but here we are, on our first real day of sightseeing in Rome, and it is definitely snowing. Not just a flurry. A show-stopping snow. We were hustled out of the Colosseum after a bit over an hour inside because snow accumulation had made the ancient wonder a bit treacherous, and by afternoon they had still not reopened the Roman Forum and Palatino. We had to be content to walk the hills around it, glimpsing inside at various opportunities.
The Colosseum is much like other Roman amphitheaters that we visited in Provence (the Orange amphitheater being the best restored) and in Israel. The architectural genius of the Romans is impressive in those places, but this is an order of magnitude more so. I listened to the Rick Steve podcast while wandering around, and found it did not enhance my enjoyment to think of slaying lions and tigers and bears there, much less all the human deaths that occurred.

The Romans controlled the ever expanding masses of people, poor and otherwise with what was called Bread and Circus--no shortage of food, and increasingly brutal entertainment--which apparently worked for them. Shiver. Having watched some end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it movies this past month, it is sobering to think of going back to that time. I think we should pay attention to Roman plumbing techniques, just in case we have to rebuilt cities without the benefit of modern equipment, and making sure everyone gets fed seems appropriate, but the rest of it is unsettling.
Escaping the snow into the metro, we went from the Colosseum to the Spanish Steps and came out to not exactly sunshine, but precipitation had ceased to fall from the sky, or at least what little fell was in the form of rain. I gazed upon the stairs and thought of Keats and romantic poetry. Too bad he came to Rome to die instead of to write, otherwise we might have some fine poetry to read at the foot of the spectacular stairs.
The Palladeum was a spectacular indoor dome (though nothing like the Hagia Sophia), but the Trevi Fountain was a gorgeous fountain, spectacular even in comparison to many other fountains in the city.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

An Education


I watched this movie on my flight to Frankfurt, and was very pleasantly surprised by it. In scope, it is a small movie, unlike many of the Oscar nominees for Best Picture. It is a cautionary tale mostly to parents. A true con artist gains the confidence of a 16 year old school girl, her parents, and the audience. We can see that he is lying to the girl and her parents, but just how badly he is lying is something that takes us all in. The chorus, the one who is filling us all in on the real score is Helen, the least savvy amongst us. She is a well-dressed pretty face, and what she lacks in education and guile, she makes up for in her kindness to Jenny, and therefore we are endeared to her, and everything she says comes to be true--and more.
But the part that is hard for parents to swallow is that the con artist has the parents completely on the line, and Jenny points this out--she is a young school girl taken in by an older man--an age old story. What is their excuse? Jane Austen had a thing or two to say on this point, and Jenny's experience a decade later with her school mistress is not markedly different from the Britain at the time of Austen.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Creamy Polenta


We are Rome bound! But just before leaving we managed to make yet another delicious Italian dish that we had forgotten how much we love it. Polenta--it is a versatile side dish, which can have great mouth feel without all the fat. This is adapted from Cook's Illustrated March-April issue has a great recipe that does not require much in the way of stirring.

Creamy Polenta

7 1/2 c. chicken stock
1 1/2 c. course polenta
pinch of baking powder
2 Tbs. butter
1 c. parmesan cheese
Boil stock in a heavy covered pot. Add polenta and pinch of baking soda, stir, let boil another minute, stir again, turn to lowest possible heat, cover. After 5 minutes, stir quickly and cover again. Should still be bubbling but not as much. Cook another 25 minutes. Stir, add butter and parmesan, turn off heat. Cover another 5 minutes, stir and serve.
Can be served topped with vegetables, a simple tomato sauce, both, or something else. Delicious!

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Lit by Mary Karr


Mary Karr, who is impossibly thin and good looking despite her despotic lifestyle of yore, has written a book where it is possible to laugh out loud at some of the saddest revelations about a life revolving around alcohol until it is almost too late to rescue the good parts of it. In her defense, her parents saddles her with addictive genes and a childhood where she never once managed to feature in their top ten most important things in their lives. Her mother is the very picture of narcissism, wrapped in an alcoholic stupor with the bow of entitlement to finish off the package. Her father is going going gone, leaving his off spring to pick up the pieces of their lives and then to cope with their mother.
That said, the author started in a hole and kept on digging. For quite awhile. And she was an excellent digger. As noted above, she was born with good genes in the natural beauty arena, which she does not dwell on, but she also was bright enough and charming enough to have a good education, a good job, and a good man. She didn't spend enough time working on herself in a serious way--despite lots of therapy, which really entailed her running the show rather than the therapist.
It is not until she has a child and is getting up and drinking one to nine drinks to get up and out that she begins to call it a problem. From start to finish this is a gritty, ribald, hilarious, heart-breaking, hopeful tale of crawling out of that hole and back into the world of those who think life is worth living. Don't miss it. Ignore the swearin, or get into it, but this is a good one.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Love Soup by Anna Thomas


It has been over thirty years since I bought my first Anna Thomas cookbook. Vegetarian Epicure, published in 1972 when the author was still in college, was my first cookbook when I was in college. My signature dish, macaroni and cheese, comes from this cookbook, and while many women in America may have had Julia Childs teach them to make a bechamel sauce, Anna Thomas taught me. Vegetarian Epicure and The Moosewood Cookbook are two cookbooks from my youth that still receive active use today, along with my 1975 edition of The Joy of Cooking. So it was with great anticipation that I opened this cookbook.

I have been making soup on a regular basis over the past decade, and recently make one to two a week--it is my usual lunch, along with a salad. I have focused heavily on grain, bean, and vegetable soups, and benefited greatly from my spouse's passion for making stock. My favorite two soup cookbooks are Deborah Madison's 'Vegetable Soups' and Moosewood's 'Daily Specials'. I have sought out another resource and rejected several, including some by highly regarded authors, be cause they do not augment what I already have.

This cookbook is a perfect addition to make a threesome--it has menu suggestions (like the 'Daily Specials' cookbook) and the focus is on healthy soups--there are a number of soups here that are intriguing and not present in my other two favorites--pictured here is the mung bean soup. I have had dried mung beans in my pantry for decades, but used them only to make sprouts. Thomas' recipe include details on how to cook them, as well as how they should appear. The only thing missing from this that I would add is pictures. I include a picture of the heirloom tomato salad--it represents the simple approach to soup and salad encompassed in this welcome new soup cookbook.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Methland by Nick Reding


This was a really hard book for me to start. I have lived in Iowa throughout the methamphetamine epidemic. We are third in amphetamine arrests in the nation--by total number, not per capita. I have taken care of countless addicts. I have had repair people in my house obviously tweaking while trouble-shooting the problem they were called to fix--often not successfully. I get it. But I am very thankful that I picked this book up and read it rather than assuming that I knew it's contents before I started. In many ways, I had not given the roots of the problem much thought, so I missed some of the complexity within. But start it I did, and I got rapidly caught up in the story, thinking about the interconnectedness of problems we face, both as a rural state, and as a country. I smile when people start off the conversation "the problem is...." because of course that isn't the whole problem at all, it is only part of the problem. Poverty, opportunity, education, class divisions and difference, these all play a role in what happened. There is a bigger picture to look at as well, and Reding tries to get us to look at it all--the close up as well as the 30,000 foot view.

The book focuses on methamphetamine in Iowa in general and in Oelwein, IA specifically, but there is a message that we should all take to heart and think about the responsibility we bear in the overall problem. The contributions to drugs in general and meth in particular being an attractive nuisance are in many communities--but why did this take place in rural America? The role of Big Agra and Big Pharma, mixed with illegal immigrants in rural America and smuggling through the southern border, are real. They are not overblown in the telling, and they each have a role. The recession is another factor--economic hard times seem to hit farm economies first.
Reding does a great job of sympathetically portraying the people who have been personally devestated by methamphetamine addiction, juxtaposed against those who face just the realities of rural Iowa life. The best in Oelwein is pretty hard. The worst is hideous. Reding does a masterful job of portraying people who have robbed their parents, poisoned their kids, and blown up their homes not as monsters, but as people. Mistakes were made. There is someone for everyone to relate to in the story. We do not pull back to an entirely moral stance, but rather have more of a "but for the grace of God go I" reaction to at least someone in the story. There are no real solutions put forward, but there is some hope offered--mixed with caution that we really need to think in a bigger and better and more connected way. The author demonstrates the value in carefully unfolding the factors that got us here and studying them. The book encourages us to look for the places that share these risk factors because it is unlikely to have gone away.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

University of Iowa Dance Marathon


The 16th University of Iowa Dance marathon weekend, and our family's 8th Dance Marathon, is upon us. Sigh. On the upside, this is an incredible fundraising machine. There is the event itself, which is a twenty-four hour extravaganza of college students, childhood cancer survivors, and their families, all trying to put their best foot forward in the fight against something awful. Almost better than that is the group of college kids who do service projects at the Iowa Children's Hospital throughout the year, all in the name of Dance marathon, which provides what money has trouble buying, which is enthusiastic youth for the inpatient unit. Ethan was hospitalized at Boston Children's Hospital a couple years ago for neurosurgery to remove a radiation-related problem, and he commented on how much more poorly equipped the pediatirc unit was in every way compared to the amenities at the Iowa Children's Hospital. His hypothesis was that this was a public institution whereas the Iowa Children's Hospital was a private one--actually, the opposite is true, and in great part, the luxury he noticed and benefited from was provided by Dance Marathon dollars and volunteerism.


The sadness stems from the very fact that we are a Dance Marathon family. That we have a dog in the fight against childhood cancer. Luckily, the sadness I have around this event is not shared by my family. Not at all. They commune with their fellow childhood cancer survivor and their sibling friends, Best Buy provides an incredible game room, local food puurveyors provide snacks and meals, and it is an all out party for them. It is also a chance to commune with those who know what life threatening illness can do to a family, and celebrate that what they have at the end of it all. Not all bad. There is a little good as well.
This year, I have a dancer! Abe is dancing, and will be the first Kline boy to do so. He has done an excellent fund raising job, and is still accepting support, should you be so moved: http://www.kidsmiracles.org/abekline
Go Abe!