Soup and Salad, December

The longest, although perhaps not coldest, night of the year has passed. And tonight, as my daughter and I prepare our fête de Noël, we’ll be supping on soup and salad. As Brother Victor-Antoine d’Avila points out (borrowing from Shakespeare’s perfect Christmas-tide play, Twelfth Night) “Soup sought is good, but given unsought better.”

SOUP

Long ago, when I was stranded in a village in Central Africa, a construction manager from France made what I have since called Soupe de Monsieur Espellac, a simple vegetable soup of onions, potatoes, turnips, and carrots, sautéed with plenty of butter and then cooked in plain salted water. Add another dollop of butter when serving, along with a scraping of pepper, and there you have it. When I moved to NYC in the mid-1970s, my neighbors dubbed it Root Soup. And now, thanks to Brother Victor-Antoine, I can also call it St. Nicholas Soup. The good Brother adds cabbage, purées the cooked vegetables, and tops with croutons, but it is essentially the same. For M Espellac’s sake, I made two versions, as you can see from the photos. Both delicious, both without croutons (I’m feeling lazy these days).

St. Nicholas Soup was the only obviously holiday-ish recipe in this chapter. Plenty of soups with beans or heavy doses of garlic, several from Italy, even a Beer Soup, but I skipped them all, choosing Acorn Squash Soup (below) for my second featured recipe. I’ll say it now — not worth the effort of peeling and chopping this very hard gourd (go with butternut or, better still, honeynut squash). Simmer the chopped squash with onions, celery and rice, blend when squash is soft enough, add milk and seasonings, then garnish with parsley.

I probably overdid things with the parsley, but once I start cutting, it’s difficult to stop.

SALAD

As with the soups, nothing in this chapter seemed to shout “HOLIDAY DISH”. Honestly, very little shouted “TRY ME” either. There was a bean salad from South America, but the recipe included hard-boiled eggs, which have already made several appearances this year. A Stuffed Avocado Salad looked appealing, but I didn’t have all the ingredients at hand so will mark it for later. I finally settled on the Indian Curried Lentil Salad and the Orange and Avocado Salad, the latter almost festive with its heavy dose of citrus.

Avocados and oranges actually work well together, especially with a spicy vinaigrette (this one was spiked with Tobasco sauce). The greens are endives, whose bitterness are balanced by the sweet oranges and oh-so-satisfying avocados.

Marinate the oranges in the dressing for at least 2 hours, then mix in the avocados, endives and scallions (the last of which, I must confess, I omitted — still not liking anything more than a hint of raw onion), and serve immediately.

Add toast, and this Orange and Avocado Salad could be a lovely light lunch, any time of the year.

The Indian Curried Lentil Salad is quite simple: cooked lentils, mixed with chopped cucumbers, celery, and onion (the merest suggestion of red onion, in my case). I had half a tomato, so added that for some color.

The “curry” is in the dressing: curry powder, cumin, and chili — although if I make this again, I’ll be much more serious about the heat, upping everything to intensify that flavor. And, because I had no cilantro (too lazy again to go out), I used parsley. Cilantro would improve the flavor. I shall have to try this recipe again.

And that brings an end to this year of cooking by the month. Thanks for joining me on this adventure.

I wish each of you a wonderful holiday season, full of joy and laughter, with lovely memories to think back on and much to look forward to in the coming year.

Two-handed cooking: one spoon for stirring, and the other for tasting. Also, turban or toque? What’s your go-to hat when cooking?
Posted in Am reading, Cooking, NOT a food blog, Reading the Year, Soup and salad | Tagged | 6 Comments

December brings the sleet

Chill December brings the sleet, 
Blazing fire, and Christmas treat.

These days, “Blazing fire” might sometimes be the best “Christmas treat”. I have still one more post about the soups and salads made this month, but this is my final post for the books of history and memoir.

Peter Mayle’s year ends well, with his wife’s trick to get the workmen back to finish the construction, which had been on hold for three months. She suggested they “invite the builders to a party to celebrate the end of the job.” Genius, as Mayle points out:

The intuitive cunning of this suggestion was based on two assumptions. First, that the wives, who never saw the work that their husbands did in other people’s houses, would be so curious that they would find the invitation irresistible. And second, that no wife would want her husband to be the one not to have finished his part of the work. This would cause loss of face among the other wives and public embarrassment, followed by some ugly recriminations in the car on the way home.

The day after the invitations are issued, the builders return, finishing their work the evening before the party, which, by Mayle’s account, is a success, with enough champagne and food to satisfy everyone.

While the work is in progress, Mayle and his wife drive to a nearby Christmas market to catch a bit of local holiday spirit. They spot a Santa Claus: “Dressed in baggy red bouclé trousers, a Rolling Stones T-shirt, red fur-trimmed pixie hat, and false beard, he came weaving toward us…. It looked from a distance as though his beard was on fire, but as he came closer we saw the stub of a Gauloise among the whiskers. He lurched past in a cloud of Calvados fumes…”

Christmas Day, the Mayles squeeze into a packed restaurant to enjoy a seasonally appropriate feast. All is well in Provence.

Dorothy Hartley mentions holiday feasts in her December chapter, but most of it is devoted to rural housing and furnishings in medieval England. Even the most impoverished man could build a shelter in a day, then expand and strengthen it to accommodate his family in just a few more days. Whether constructed of wood or mud, these huts could keep out the cold, and even if a storm destroyed a hut, it was quickly replaced. A rural peasant’s most important belongings would be a pot for cooking and a knife for cutting. Whatever was made of wood or straw, leather or wool, could be replaced.

Some tidbits from Hartley: §Wooded districts had rectangular dwellings, reed and clay areas had round dwellings. § “A hen dropped down from the top cleared a short chimney very quickly.” § Peasants often ate healthier food than did royalty, because their cooking methods retained more of the nutrients, and their ingredients included more vegetables. § “It was not a king but a peasant who first put mint sauce to mutton, and combined the aromas of sage and onions.”

Interestingly, the mid-17th century plagues revealed to the poor that “they were better off in the country than in town” [italics in the original]. As Hartley explains, “in spite of the rebellion against the new ‘enclosures’, England was not yet too crowded for them to live on the land and off the land, as their forebears had done.” [italics in the original]

For Gladys Taber in her house in the Connecticut countryside, December brings the first real snows, which her dogs enjoy even more than she does (they don’t have to shovel out the car). The bitter cold discourages outdoor adventures, yet on one freezing night she and two friends drive to Savin Rock, on Long Island Sound, for dinner and a walk through the empty amusement park before heading home.

The ocean was black and the wind was like a sheet of ice. The strip of amusement places was a ghostly, shabby sight. We were the only living beings in sight. “It’s not like this in summer,” Willie said. By the time we got home, the wind had died and it was at least less painful to breathe. Some people, I reflected, would stay at home by the fire on such a night, but they would miss a lot. It is the people who give in to winter that have a dull time!

I’ve said too little about Taber’s style. Her chapters are essentially collected thoughts on a wide range of topics, some recurring (such as the state of the world, the afterlife, dogs, nature), and others inspired by errands, conversations, and the never-ending run of household tasks. December’s topics: snow, flee to Florida?, excursion to Savin Rock, inconvenient snow, long winter evenings, morning vs night people, up early to see a sunrise, her dad an early riser (she isn’t), avoiding morning coffee parties, meals, calories, thinness and dieting, Jackie Kennedy as style-setter, couture, shorter days and less sunlight, prep for winter storms, battery-powered radios, cooking without electricity, the bad winter of 1960-61, nature’s power, Christmas trees, decorating for Christmas, superhighways and other signs of progress, living slow, noticing each day’s gifts … I’m only half-way through the chapter, but you get the point.

Yet there are so many lovely moments. About planting your own Christmas trees: “This is a curious fact–if you plant a tree, you are not going to cut it down. You argue that it had better grow another year or two. Then it is doing so well–and is such a fine tree–why not leave it longer?” In response to another planned highway: “Something is wrong, I think, with our sense of values. Why must we speed up? Why do we hurry faster and faster? What do we gain? Do we accomplish more by the hours we presumably save by hurrying?” And finally: “…in this [Christmas] season it is well to reassert that the hope of mankind rests in faith. As a man thinketh, so he is. Nothing much happens unless you believe in it and believing there is hope for the world is a way to move toward it.”

I will leave you with that final thought. Happy holidays to everyone, and best wishes for the coming year. Keep reading, keep thinking, keep believing.

Edward Shenton, Illustrator, The Stillmeadow Road (1962)
Posted in Am reading, History, Memoir, Reading the Year | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Soup and Salad, November

I know people who say, “When I make a recipe for the first time, I follow it exactly.”

Very admirable, I think to myself. I should try that. If a new recipe appeals to me, I should trust the chef and do exactly as they say.

I generally don’t garnish my dishes with flowers.

I bring this up because I found myself making notes for changes to one of this month’s recipes before trying the unadulterated original. Wrote the changes into my cookbook, in ink. It started with substituting canned beans for dried beans (soaking beans overnight calls for plan-ahead preparedness, and I’m rarely that much in advance of my meals). Using canned instead of dried beans meant a quicker cooking time — already my usual approach with Brother Victor-Antoine’s soup recipes, because his simmering times often result in undifferentiated mush. Since I’m cooking for one, I made only 1/4th of the recipe, which meant I had to reduce amounts for all the ingredients. Yet it’s ridiculous to consider adding a quarter stalk of celery to a soup — just go ahead and bung in the whole thing, well-chopped. Not sauté the onions, leek, and garlic? Nope. Bouillon cube? I would prefer not to. And so on.

I can see I won’t have to say much about my first recipe. You’ve probably already figured out most of it.

SOUP

I appreciate the vegetarian focus of Brother Victor-Antoine d’Avila-Latourrette’s recipes. While his soups occasionally call for bouillon or broth, this can easily be vegetable instead of chicken or beef. Even plain water will often do, if fresh herbs are available. Eggs make frequent appearances, but I don’t mind this, since my eggs come straight from the farmer, whose chickens are cage-free and allowed to graze outside. For November, I made his White Bean Soup and Zuppa alla Pavese (Bread Soup from Pavia, a city in northern Italy). Each looked like easy soups, good and hot for a chilly autumn evening.

White Bean Soup offers no surprises. Sauté vegetables, add broth and beans, simmer until done, add chopped greens for final 3 minutes. Serve hot, garnished with grated parmesan. It wouldn’t hurt to add some chili flakes early on, or perhaps some smoked paprika at the end, but all-in-all a tasty soup. Must amend my notes to use 2 cans of beans rather than just one. (Chef friends: what’s the dried beans to canned beans substitution ratio?)

If I make the Zuppa alla Pavese again, it’ll be for breakfast. Imagine bread fried in herbed butter topped with a poached egg and then garnished with a ladle of piping hot broth. OK, perhaps that last step doesn’t sound appetizing, but in fact this recipe surprised me. I’d seen something like this before, but this is my first time making it myself, and it’s a good cold-weather alternative to oatmeal. (Expert tip — make additional fried bread to serve on the side.)

I know the Zuppa alla Pavese looks a bit like the White Bean Soup (and many of the other soups I’ve featured this year) but that’s the thing about Brother Victor-Antoine. Because he uses lots of greens (spinach, kale, parsley, etc.) and thin broths, I quickly noticed a sameness about the recipes. Not boring, because I can eat the same soup everyday for a week and not mind it (it’s great to not have to pull out the big soup pot every single day–just heat up what I need in a small sauce pan and be on my way). What’s more, if traditional ingredients like beef, pork and chicken are off the menu, all that’s left is lots and lots of vegetables. Bonus: these all cook up really fast.

SALAD

Cider press?

More room for variety in salads, you’d think, since lettuces come into their own here. But, as with soups, there are only just so many vegetables. (Especially if certain popular veggies are not actual options. Take, for example, beets. Please, take them all! And remove the asparagus while you’re at it.)

I found a couple of winners from November’s selections, but both are also riffs on earlier recipes — again, the echo effect of certain elements. I’d be willing to serve either Mediterranean Lentil and Rice Salad or St. Andrew “The First Called” Salad to guests, but many of the ingredients you’ve seen before, so don’t worry if some of this sounds like going over familiar territory. It is.

What’s new about St. Andrew “The First Called” Salad is the dressing. I’ll start by listing the ingredients: fresh spinach, canned tuna, mushroom, avocado, hard-boiled egg. The dressing is where this salad steps out of the ordinary column: a normal lemon-juice vinaigrette, but when made with chili sauce, mustard, horseradish, and paprika to spike the flavors, it becomes “French Deluxe Dressing”. (Another expert tip — if your tuna comes canned in oil, use that oil in the dressing.)

I’m certain there are, among my readers, those who would send all canned tuna to hell’s kitchen (not the NYC neighborhood, which offers some really good restaurants, but the real one where the maitre d’ makes you wait a week for the table by the toilets, the waiters sniff non-stop, the kitchen crew is only Poppie from Seinfeld — look it up — and the owner … well, it matters not who the owner is. It’s already as bad as can be.) If you’re one of those, omit the tuna. It’s the dressing that you ought to try, and it goes well with a vegan version of this salad, or on avocados alone. I’d be willing to try it on a carrot-cabbage slaw.

Mediterranean Lentil and Rice Salad, on the other hand, should have no doubters out there. I took a chance and didn’t halve or quarter the recipe — made the whole thing, so that I could see how it lasted over a few days. So far, so good, and I do like the lentil-rice combo.

Use the black-ish French lentils for this dish, although green ones will do. The recipe calls for long-grain white rice, but I used short-grain brown, whose chewy texture I prefer. But any plain rice should work.

The other ingredients include grape tomatoes, diced cucumber, minced red onion, and chopped black olives. For dressing, another vinaigrette, this one with both red wine vinegar and lemon juice, mustard, and a dash each of sugar and thyme.

I served mine on a bed of lettuce, for which you could substitute kale, arugula, spinach, or any other uncooked greens. I still have some spinach from the other salad, so I’m going to try that next.

That’s all for November. Happy reading and eating to all! And, as before, if you see something you’d like to make, let me know and I’ll send along a screen shot of the recipe.

Medieval raconteur. The audience member raising his hand is trying to point out that the same thing happened to him, but the speaker isn’t having it.
Posted in Am reading, NOT a food blog, Reading the Year, Soup and salad | Tagged | 1 Comment

November Brings the Blast

Dull November brings the blast, 
Then the leaves are whirling fast. 

 “Dull November” is exactly right. It’s a long slog from Witch Week to Thanksgiving, with just a fleeting interlude of political excitement, here in the U.S., on Election Day. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I rarely regret the passing of this month, with autumn’s glorious colors disappearing and the days growing noticeably shorter. Not even that extra hour of sleep over the first full weekend of the month, as the clocks in the northern hemisphere fall back, can atone for the bleakness ahead. But at least it isn’t February!

Not just because I’m in recovery after #WitchWeek2022 will this be a short post. The three authors discussed here have done me a favor in keeping their November chapters calm and quiet.

Dark-eyed junco, Connecticut Audubon Society, photo by Scott Kruitbosch, https://www.ctaudubon.org/2010/12/unique-juncos/

In Connecticut, Gladys Taber sets the mood for us:

Now in November, the leaves spread cloth of gold and red on the ground. The open fields take on a cinnamon tone and the wild blackberry canes in the swamp are frosted purple The colors fade slowly to sober hues. The rain falls with a determination in long leaden lines, and when it stops water drips from the eaves.

Winter birds arrive, such as the junco in the photograph, which Taber considers her “weather forecast for they appear suddenly when it will be bitter.” Chickadees, bluejays and woodpeckers are other winter arrivals, and Taber’s descriptions make me want to walk the woods of Washington Heights and Inwood (there are at least three) with binoculars and see what avian residents I can spot before the trails become too muddy to hike.

Down in Provence, Peter Mayle and his neighbors prepare for the cold months of late autumn and winter, blown in on the wild Mistral that surprises visitors with its sudden icy gusts. One important task throughout wine country is trimming back the vines and clearing the cuttings before the worst of the rough weather arrives. This practice offers Mayle an opportunity to admire the ingenuity of the French “peasant”, who

is reluctant to discard anything, because he knows that one day the bald tractor tire, the chipped scythe, the broken hoe, and the transmission salvaged from the 1949 Renault van will serve him well and save him from disturbing the contents of that deep, dark pocket where he keeps his money.

When the Mistral comes, the best one can do is hunker down and hope that damage is kept to a just a few tree limbs brought down, or a tile or two blown off the roof.

Lastly, Dorothy Hartley spends much of her November chapter discussing medieval drovers, for November was the month when anyone with too many animals to overwinter would begin sending them to market. This involved a long trek, one more complicated than this city gal would have thought, for several reasons. First, and most obviously, the herds couldn’t comprise mixed animals, because cows, sheep, pigs, and geese all travel at different speeds. The animals also required different routes, and started at different times of the day. Cows, for instance, couldn’t start to move before early afternoon, after they’ve fed and then chewed their cud for a good long while. “Low feeders” had to follow “high feeders.” There might be delays, such as the need to shoe lamed cattle, and the best speed anyone could hope for was about 10 miles per day.

A borkel marks the holes for stitching leather

Along the various routes, and especially at the end points (not just in London, but any town or city with a large market), one could find various tradesmen offering services as needed: smiths, butchers, tanners, leather-workers, and saddlers. You can imagine the stink around the abattoirs and tanneries, which were usually located down river from the wealthiest landowners and city dwellers.

As an aside, Hartley points out how a smith could remove styes from children’s eyes.

The little ones were sent to ask him to do it, and he’d say, ‘Just wait till I’ve done this horseshoe”, and the child would push close to watch, close to the heat and the steam, and blink hard, every time the great hammer came down with a bang — till in half an hour the smith would wipe his hands, and look, and smile (for the stye had burst and wept itself away).

I wish there were magical smiths who could so easily cure other problems with no loss to anyone. I suppose I’ll just have to write that story myself.

That’s it for November. December will be here soon. Happy reading, everyone!

Posted in Am reading, History, Memoir, Reading the Year | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

#WitchWeek2022 Wrap Up

NYC Mural by Magda Love. Photo by Lizzie Ross.

Another successful #WitchWeek2022.

Before I send you along to Calmgrove’s blog, to read his wrap-up and learn the theme for #WitchWeek2023, I just want to give my own bit of thanks to all who contributed: guest bloggers, our readers, not to forget the fantasy authors who keep writing such wonderful books.

Also, to Lory Hess, for starting this whole thing to begin with, and to Chris for being such a wonderful co-host.

Keep reading, everyone!

Now you may head over to Calmgrove.

(PS: Learn more about Magda Love at her website.)

Posted in Diversity, Fantasy, Witch Week | Tagged | 5 Comments

#WitchWeek2022 Day 6

“Pimp My Piragua”, by Miguel Luciano. Museum of the City of New York. Food in New York exhibit, October 2022. Photo by Lizzie Ross.

The season for the piragua (syrup flavored shaved ice) has ended, but I couldn’t resist using this photo today, because my second guest post for #WitchWeek2022 includes a tip-of-the-hat to piraguas (sold from carts similar to but not as fancy as this one).

You may be wondering what piraguas have to do with Witch Week. I can only send you to Calmgrove’s blog, where my post takes you around the world of fantasy in, well, about 8 minutes, depending on your reading speed. The piraguas come in at the end.

Armchair travel is not so bad, right?

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#WitchWeek2022 Day 5

“Ancestor”, by Bharti Kher, Central Park, NYC, 2022.
Photo by Lizzie Ross.

I shouldn’t be astonished by the confluence of events in my life in NYC, but here’s the latest surprise.

“Ancestor,” Bharti Kher’s magical statue, recently installed at the southern end of Central Park in NYC, awaited me as I walked across Manhattan, planning these Witch Week posts and wondering how I’d illustrate them. Finding this was my reward for walking instead of taking the cross-town bus.

And so, what better image to tempt you to visit Calmgrove’s blog, where Mallika Ramachandra (one of the participants in the discussion yesterday of Black Water Sister) takes a turn as guest blogger. She reviews a 19th century classic of Indian literature, Chandrakanta, by Devaki Nandan Khatri.

And a huge thank you to the New York Council on the Arts/Public Art Fund and to other foundations for their commitment to making art available to all.

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#WitchWeek2022 Day 4

Te Ahi Kā, by Riki Manual. Christchurch, NZ.
Photo by Lizzie Ross

Ah! It’s the middle of Witch Week. That generally means it’s time for the Witch Week Read-Along Discussion.

This year, Chris and I found ourselves in a sea of interested participants, and so we have a small crowd sharing their ideas about Zen Cho’s Black Water Sister.

Two of the six participants are first-timers, and it’s doubly exciting that one (Daphne Lee, our guest blogger on 31 October) is from Malaysia, and the other (Mallika Ramachandran, our guest blogger for tomorrow) is from India.

Other participants you’ll know from past Witch Week celebrations: Jean Leek (from Howling Frog Books), and Lory Hess, the creator and former host of Witch Week, who now blogs at Entering the Enchanted Castle.

If you’ve read Cho’s novel, please come and join the discussion with your own comments at the end. If you haven’t read it, perhaps our discussion will inspire you to do so.

The edited discussion waits for you at Calmgrove, so what’s holding you back? You’re just one click away.

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#WitchWeek2022 Day 3

“Thunderbirds”, by Norval Morrisseau (Bingwi Neyaashi Anishinaabe), Black Sheep Gallery, Nova Scotia.
Photo by Lizzie Ross (White).

Another day, another invitation to join #WitchWeek2022.

Today, my own post at Calmgrove introduces you to four books by Native American and First Nation authors from the US and Canada, none like any of the others. Humor and horror stand side-by-side in these worlds, which should surprise no reader.

But before you head to my Witch Week post, please take a few minutes to read Joy Harjo’s short poem, “American Sunrise“, which the Poetry Foundation has made available online. If you don’t know Harjo’s work, this poem gets you off to a good start.

Poetry first, and then fantasy. Not a bad combo.

Enjoy!

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#WitchWeek2022 Day 2

Spirit Returned from the World of the Dead Mask, Fang (Gabon), Seattle Art Museum. Photo by Lizzie Ross.

November already!

Well, at least you have this week to enjoy an international tour of fantasy books and authors, thanks to #WitchWeek2022. Then a few days to recover. Then the speedy tumble through various holidays to the end of the year.

Let’s just focus on today, then, shall we?

For this second day of Witch Week, Chris starts his post with a quote from Dracula. He goes on to give us an in-depth review of Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s The Deathless Girls, about Romani (or Traveller) twin sisters caught up in a world similar to the almost medieval Transylvania depicted by Bram Stoker in 1897.

It’s a perfect book to feature today, the Day of the Dead.

So, find your way over to Calmgrove, where you can learn more about Hargrave’s novel.

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