Thursday, March 17, 2011

Reason 5,198

Reason 5,198 I enjoy living in Boston:

Nowhere else I have lived (with the exception of a term studying abroad in Oxford) ever pops up in books I'm reading. I love that little shock of recognition when I realize that I know where that character is walking or what shop they're talking about, especially when I didn't realize before that moment where the events were set. I like thinking that authors enjoyed their time here sufficiently to set their works here even when they've since moved on.

I just finished a book (guess what it is) that referenced the YMCA on Mass Ave, the Christian Science Mapparium further down Mass Ave, what I assume is Redbones in Davis Square (where else in Davis would you eat pulled pork?), what I assume is Dali near Inman Square (I don't know, are there more Spanish restaurants with a boar's head grinning down at you from over the bar?), Filene's Basement and the no-dividers dressing room thereof, walking over the Charles via various bridges, someone meeting her husband at Alewife Station after work, Cardullo's in Harvard Square (though I kind of doubt there was no other place to buy bay leaves and cloves, even if those were more exotic in the seventies or whenever this was set), going to Central Square for Indian food, walking around from Downtown Crossing to Park Street, some lawyer guy working down near State Street, etc. Of course, Filene's is now a giant crater, but I did experience that dressing room before it went.

It's just so weird, because if you read the story without being familiar with the setting, you wouldn't feel like you were missing anything, and you wouldn't be. Being familiar with the location isn't at all necessary for reading the story, but somehow it's nice to have that anchor and to envision the characters intersecting with your daily life.


Actually I'm kind of split on this. The last book I read that was set here (36 Arguments for the Existence of God) kind of annoyed me because it seemed very in-grouppy, chummy, like if you got the references you were in the right crowd (and most of them seemed very specifically pointed at Harvard and the professorial circle, so I did not). Plus it was so unnecessarily detailed, describing the exact path characters drove, that it almost interfered with the story because I couldn't help but visualize it and try to figure out exactly where the person's house was that they were going to. That one very definitely referenced Dali, though, which made me feel all in-grouppy for a bit.

Then there was The Handmaid's Tale, which I had read long before I moved here and never really noticed the setting, but then when I reread it shortly after moving here I realized (with a much more unpleasant shock) that the building where one of their ceremonies took place, by the river, where a "banner covers the building's former name, some dead president they shot" was probably the JFK School of Government, so then I paid more attention to where they were were walking and going. Everything else was similarly obscured, but it's still very clearly the Harvard Square area. It ended up kind of freaking me out since it brought the creepiness of the story home to my lovely liberal and decidedly not theocratic Cambridge. I went to a reading of hers last year and she said she enjoys setting her terrible stories in Cambridge (apparently Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood are as well, though I didn't notice as much when reading them).

OK, my first sentence wasn't entirely true. Murder in Coweta County does in fact take place in the county I spent half of my childhood (though, if I remember correctly, only barely mentions my town), and The Whisper of the River by Ferrol Sams does indeed take place not only in the town but at the very college where I went. But that was the whole point in reading both of them, not something to stumble over and be delighted about. Plus, The Whisper of the River is based on his life, I think, and reading about him having sex on top of the administration building was just kind of gross.

(The book I just finished was Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri.)

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Recipe Roundup (Jan-Mar 2011)

Things I've made/eaten lately:

I was ill-prepared for International Pancake Day, but the plethora of pancake options that flooded my consciousness resulted in my treating myself to these lovely Lemon-Ricotta Pancakes for my birthday breakfast a few days later. Nice and fluffy and a step up from your normal, boring pancake. The blueberry sauce stained my bottom lip, though, so I spent the first few hours of my day worrying people would think I'd already been drinking red wine.

Pesto mac and goat cheese! Delicious, obviously. I always forget how awesome panko is. What's great about this recipe is it's mostly stove-top (so it's quick!) but still ends up with a nice crust liked baked mac and cheeses. If only I could ever use the broiler without charring the top of whatever I'm cooking... I really ought to lie flat on my stomach staring into the broiler and watch it the entire time. I halved the recipe since it's just me and I didn't want to die of fatty dairy overload or anything by trying to eat the whole thing within a week.

I've been trying to find ways to use tuna fish that don't make me gag (so, not tuna salad or sandwiches) so I can finally use up the canned tuna that's been in my pantry since I rescued it from a former roommate who was going to throw it out. I'd made a pasta dish or two that were OK but nothing special. Then for some reason I decided I thought tuna would go well with black beans. (Which I actually had never willingly eaten before, so I'm not sure how I came to that decision...though it may have had something to do with the facts that they're neighbors in my pantry and I'm trying to use stuff up.) So I Googled a bit and decided this Southwest Tuna and Black Beans fit the bill. I used it as filling for soft tacos, and I was surprised to discover I liked it even though I don't really like any of the things in it (except lime). I was somewhat bewildered at the store since the various fresh peppers were clearly mislabeled and I'm not terribly familiar with them. I'm pretty sure I didn't actually end up with an Anaheim, but whatever I got instead seemed to work fine.

Lentils are a thing I'm trying to eat more of. Super-healthy, super-cheap, long shelf life, probably a better idea for protein than stuffing my face with cheese all the time... I also recently remembered I had not yet used the crock pot another previous roommate gave me when he bought a bigger one. I needed to do something to break it in, so I gave this Sweet and Spicy Lentil Chili from Fresh from the Vegetarian Slow Cooker a try (see page 118; it won't stay there for some reason). I was not such a fan of this. I've just not had terribly good luck with lentils. The last thing I used them in was a soup that wasn't terribly exciting either. The spices in this are good, but I guess fundamentally I just don't like that much tomato (right, so chili probably isn't that great an idea...). I ended up freezing most of it once I realized there was no way I would eat it all (it claims to serve four to six, but at least I would definitely not want to eat more than like 1/12 of this at once). So it's lurking, waiting for me to suck it up and give it another go-round.

This Slow-Baked Beans with Kale casserole was another disappointment, but I'm not entirely sure it was the recipe's fault. My beans never got anywhere close to "creamy." Maybe I'll give it another try but using canned beans instead. I'd been thinking I was going to use dry over canned since they're cheaper and the extra effort really isn't that much, but I don't know, for the relatively small price differential the ease of cans probably make it worth it. (In other news, kale is only 96 cents for a big bunch. I guess I had never noticed its price before, but that's kind of amazing, especially given the whole "healthy food costs more" argument.)

Growing up I thought I hated soup (and probably did), but this winter that's one of the things I've been working on. It helps that I'm always cold in winter in Boston so warm liquidy food sounds much more appealing these days. Right now this is my soup obsession, except I make it with kale instead of escarole. I'm actually not sure I've ever consumed escarole, so maybe I should give it a try as written sometime. I keep forgetting to actually put the Parmesan on, which obviously means I'm not missing it. Then Martha Rose Shulman at the NYT had several "soups with grains" recipes that I gave a try. I made the Garlic Soup with Quinoa and Snap Peas (scroll down) and Wild Rice and Mushroom Soup. I had really high hopes for the mushroom soup, and it was good but not as good as I wanted it to be, especially reheated. (This was my first experience with dried porcini, though, so it was a learning experience.) I liked the one with snap peas a lot, though. It's basically an egg drop soup, and it's oddly satisfying (not in the sense of filling, though the quinoa helps with that, just that I felt a sense of satisfaction eating itsomething about dredging the quinoa up or I love garlic, although it's not as dominant as the way the title is phrased would make you think).

Then there's the fancy grits that I'm pretty much obsessed with. The jalapeƱo keeps it from being boring, the goat cheese makes it rich and creamy, and the mushrooms are all earthy and satisfyingly umami-y. The perfect meal for a cold, wet, cranky day. I halve it, but the first time I made it I ended up eating all of it that night (which is well enough because I can't imagine it reheats terribly well).

And my latest obsession... Last week I ate at Not Your Average Joe's for the first time in a while and they had this new crusted portobello thing (with or without chickenI'm not sure why anyone would really need the chicken, though). It was pretty much amazing, so two nights later I set out to replicate it. (Yes, I was that impatient.) I'm not sure what they used to encrust their mushrooms, but I used a mixture of ground pecans and Parmesan cheese, and it was even better (plus then I got to feel all virtuous for finally using part of the pecan meal or whatever my aunt gave me some time ago). So: Israeli couscous with some herbs or pesto or something topped with the mushrooms (NYAJ didn't slice them, but I did and recommend that, then dip in egg, then coat in the nut/cheese mixture or breadcrumbs or whatever, then fry), topped with a handful of arugula and some goat cheese. They also had a tomato sauce kind of around the side and on the couscous that I didn't bother adding; it's good with or without. I then made this the next night as well. And ate more pecan-fried mushrooms for brunch this morning. So yes, that's three and a half times in one week. There are two more portobello caps in my fridge, so it may just happen again...

Pardon the not-terribly-exciting picture and my entire lack of artistry with the cheese. (Oh, and I used orzo since it's also something I'm trying to use up, but Israeli couscous was much better.)