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Friday, February 22, 2013

Celebrating Sesame Seeds

Today I'm celebrating something very small. Sesame seeds. I love the things. I'm always happy to encounter them, whether in 'benne candy' (those oblong rectangles of solidified honey full of sesame seeds that I always try to suck on and end up crunching), sesame chicken or hamburger rolls. I think it's part of the human condition to chase sesame seeds across our plates, lick our fingers, catch the seeds, and bring them to our mouths.

This is a scene from a story I'm working on. It takes place in Egypt, God save the mark, and the two people are sitting in a plain, dockside tavern and discussing something very serious over a lunch of bread and, perhaps, some fish:

     "There is that." Intef reached for the jar of beer. "I can send troops over tomorrow, but it will be in a rush."
     Seti frowned and sat back, absently chasing sesame seeds with a fingertip.  "That might be a good thing," he said after he licked the seeds off. "As soon as it can be arranged at any rate. Space is limited there - best to set up an encampment."
     "That may take some time,' Intef said.
     "That's what I am afraid of." He looked for more seeds and then shrugged. "And that is why I am uneasy." He hooked the gold pendant from beneath his tunic, slipped it over his head, took the ring from the cord and handed it to Intef. "If I need the forces at once I will send to you. This ring is the token I will use. It does not matter who carries it: the request will be coming straight from me."

They could easily be sitting in McDonald's chasing sesame seeds across their plates.

There is not a lot that sesame can't improve in any form. (Toasted) sesame oil adds a lot of flavor, sprinkle a handful in a dish and it adds looks and taste:

I'm going to have a toasted sesame bagel for breakfast, and I'm going to chase all the seeds.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Cooking Off the Cuff - Chicken Al'Italia

Escape to Tuscany in Winter?  Yes!
We all need comfort food, especially in the dull days of February (August, if you live in the antipodes).  It comes in various forms.  For me, rice pudding with raisins fits the bill very nicely.  Hot tea with milk.  Homemade cookies.  Roast chicken...

My sister, a very creative cook, came up with the perfect dish for winter.  I was visiting her and she came out with a bowl holding a medium-sized helping of Angel hair pasta.  She had ladled over that a rich red sauce containing chunks of chicken with capers and bocconcini, the chicken having been browned, and all of it (but the pasta) baked in a medium oven.

Of course I had to have the recipe, and she gave it to me.  Sort of.  She had just thrown things together as seemed right.  It was.  She's good at such things.

I decided I wanted some of that tonight, so I assembled the ingredients, got the cookware out, turned on the oven, and got to work.  And then I thought 'Why not share?'  So I am.  Here is the recipe for the newly named Pollo Al'Italia:

Naturally, you need your ingredients.  Since it's 'Pollo', you need chicken.  I suppose you could use chicken pieces with skin, but I use chicken breast, cut into chunks.  That's the hard part.  The rest is easy.

You assemble what you need:
Olive oil, the stronger the better.  Wondra flour (or any flour that's a little grainy).  You need Italian herbs (basil, oregano and, sometimes rosemary).  Ground Parmesan or Romano cheese, capers (I prefer the larger ones.  Large or small they brighten things), good canned tomatoes, Fresh mozzarella, red wine.  Garlic. In other words, the usual suspects.  Don't forget salt and pepper.

You'll need a deep pan for sauteing, one that will go gracefully into the oven.  A smaller bowl for the seasoned flour, a pot for pasta water, a sharp knife with a respectable blade to deal with the chicken.   Pot holders.

Turn the oven on to 375.  Cut any ickies out of the chicken (those sinews that always like to show up in my chicken), trim the chicken, and throw any pieces you don't plan to use into a pot of water.  Put it on to simmer.  Put enough olive oil in your saute pan to cover the bottom and turn the heat to medium.

Mix a cup of flour (do get Wondra; it's best for this purpose) with 1/4 cup finely grated cheese.  Add sat, pepper, Italian herbs and garlic and mix well.  You can add some red pepper flakes.  To release the flavor, rub it between your palms.  Now toss the chunked chicken into the seasoned flour, coating it well.  Shake off the excess.  Put the bowl of seasoned flour somewhere that your biggest cooking fans (the dog and the cats) wont be likely to encounter it.

Put the chicken in the pan (enjoy the sound of sizzling) and brown it on all sides.  I tend to be a little fussy about turning things,  Browning is good, and the more you brown your meat, within reason, the better it will taste.  Don't forget to turn the chicken so it browns evenly.  This seals in the juices, makes a nice crust, and allows you to turn to the various salivating humans and say, "It'll be done when I'm good and ready!

Now is the time to get out the tomatoes - this is not the time to buy the cheapest in the store.  Open the can and pour the juice into the pan.  Then, using a stick blender, slightly blend the tomatoes and then pour in the wine - about half a cup. I prefer to use a cabernet or a zinfandel.  They are a little more full-bodied than a Merlot.  I like Merlots. They are charming, easygoing wines, and it's hard to find one that is bad, but for this application they lack oomph. 
Now pour the wine/tomato mixture over the chicken and dot the whole with boccocini. If you can't find that, fresh mozzarella diced into larger chunks does just fine. It looks pretty good right now, but waiting never goes amiss. Into the oven it goes - 375 degrees for half an hour. This gives you a chance to clean the cooking area, cut up the ooky chicken and simmer it for the pets. You can snatch a glass of wine - any of that Zin or Cabernet left. Then you rememer the pasta and hurry off to put water on for it.  The pasta cooks for five minutes (you ARE using angel hair right?
Dish up the pasta - not too much, and don't forget to set some aside to eat with butter (not the fake stuff) garlic and cheese).  That taken care of,  you take the chicken out of the oven, smell the warm scents of cheese and tomato and wine all together with garlic, oregano, basil...  The balls of bocconcini have sunk into the sauce, but they are there.  The chicken is tender, not dry, all the flavors are blended. All you need to do is wait until the next day, giving it a chance to sit, to mingle, to mellow as tomato-based dishes always do.  Tell the family, the dog, the cats (there's nothing here they can't eat unless you put some onion in) that they need to wait a day for everything to mellow.

Who am I kidding?  Dish it up, dig in and enjoy it.  And thank my sister, who invented the recipe!

Friday, February 8, 2013

Small Celebrations - A Wonderful Invention

We're celebrating the small things weekly. This week I'm celebrating a wonderful invention that has saved the world a lot of pain. What is is? Well, let's not get ahead of ourselves.

We have, here, a photo of tea cups, as the Chinese used them: They certainly are pretty - I love the color, but in one way you could say that they're lacking. Still, this is the shape of teacups over the course of millennia. Even in eighteenth century England, when tea really took off. Here's a depiction, by Hogarth, of a family in which two members are enjoying a cuppa. Looks just a little awkward, doesn't it?
It is awkward. I've burned my fingers, slopped hot beverages on my lap, scowled at a high level of nearly boiling water and shaken my head.
Awkwardness doesn't count for much if you are dealing with a fad, which Tea has always been, not that I'm complaining. I drink a cup or two in the morning. Strong, hot, laced with milk. I love the stuff.
But, you see, I am the beneficiary - along with most tea and coffee and hot beverage drinkers - of an invention that revolutionized the drinking of hot things. The Cup Handle. the invention that is this week's small wonder. Here is a sample in all its European glory (though I did see samples produced by the Chinese):
Look at it. It's elegant, balanced, decorative - and practical. You won't be putting those burned fingers in your mouth and wincing. I never realized how wonderful this was until I thought about it (and went to a top-notch Vietnamese restaurant that had the old style cups, ending up with my fingers in my mouth, eyeing the elegant white porcelain cups with raised eyebrows). Yes, they're a great invention, and they are this week's small triumph.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Eternity and Poetry

I was a poet at one time.  Actually, I still am - to a degree.  I spent a college weekend reading six plays by Shakespeare and ended up walking around thinking in Iambic Pentameter.  It isn't hard.  Conversational English falls into it without a lot of effort.  In fact, it lends itself very readily to blogging -

It tickles me, to think that I may yet
Ape the Bard, and let my verses fly
Through this strange blog thing, there to smite the eye
Of th'unwary visitor come by
To pause and find refreshment in this spot.
But wilt thou find such rest?  - I fear thou'llt not!
But shalt run screaming through the teaming web
(But soft! Dear reader, didst thou notice that
Two rhymes I did cram in that one short line??
Harrow and alack!  The knack is back!!!)

-------   But I digress   -------  

Alas! What can I do to shake this curse
That turns my maunderings into wretched verse?

The answer is, of course, to take pity on everyone and get back on track.

I started to say that I wrote a lot of villanelles and sonnets, Shakespearean and Spenserian, and I still do, more from a sense of humor.  I wrote a sonnet about the ABNA (Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award) contest that's going on right now.  I'll post it at the bottom of this post if anyone is hardy enough to want to read it.  Look for the asterisks.  ***

The Bard, with beard, wishing he had a laptop
But anyhow, I was looking for one of my poems to put in a blog post about Richard III.  It was published in the spring of my Junior year in college, when I was  on the editorial board of an award-winning literary magazine put out by the University.  No, it did not win any awards during my watch.

I had been fascinated by Richard III.  I thought he had been the victim of a really dirty smear job. The treatment he received - his body and his reputation both - were disgraceful.  From what I could see, he had been an admirable man.  I had written a series of poems about him, told from the points of view of various people - Henry VII, his nephews who died in the Tower, his brother Edward...  I thought they were pretty good, and so did the folks on the magazine.  They were published.

I graduated, lost my copies, didn't have a computer (no one had a computer then), the poems were lost.  One day a while back I stumbled across the digital archives of my university - and the publication was there. Well!  That was good to know.  I filed that bit of information away.

Statue of Richard III in Leicester
Today I sat down to write about Richard III.  I was planning on opening with the advertisement of the City of York after Richard's death, in which, in the teeth of the new king, they described Richard's death as foul murder.  I remembered the first two lines of Richard III's poem:

It grieves my soul to be maligned thus,
So spurned, so scorned by all who know of me
But know me not...

Potentially harmless, I'd say.  I buckled down, located the digital archive, pulled up the poem - and grabbed my chin as it bounced off the floor.  The poem was terrible.  Dreadful.  So full of posturing and artsiness, I wanted to squirm.  And that monstrosity was out there under my name  for anyone to see until the stars grew cold or computers rose up in revolt.  It would fit right in - it was revolting!

You have to write really good poetry to call yourself a poet, because the bad stuff - like Dame Edith Sitwell's work - is truly, truly atrocious and stays with you.  I am  not happy to see that garbage of mine out there, but it's digital and digital is nearly eternal.

Think about it.

...and now my ABNA Shakespearean sonnet:

Facepalm from Trajan's Column, Rome
***  That I had thought to join this festival
of writers of all sorts, both good and ill
Poetasters, posers - scribblers all
Upon these boards -alas! - our guts to spill!

Exhaustion dims the mem'ries of the pain-
we greet The Knight's thread: "All about the pitch!"
We throw ourselves into the fray again -
And learn, alas, the striving's still a --
(hm. Insert a word that rhymes with 'pitch' that might be deleted by Amazon)

Two weeks remain, and now the questions come -
What? How? When? Where? Does anybody KNOW???
"Read FAQs?" some cry, "Why, that's just DUMB!"
But then they do, and shout "Oh no! Oh, WOE!!"

Squeals of outrage - how the feathers fly!
What genre? What word count? What should I choose??
Some shriek ''Tis so unfair to me! O Why??'
While the vet'rans soothe their souls with shots of booze.

The scramble starts, the shrieks at morn's first light!
The dread day dawns, clock-watchers pitch their books -
While others, red-eyed, snatch a last rewrite -
"Cheats!" "Wretches!" "Fudgers!" "Ay me!" "I've been rooked!"

All this takes place - but why? Ah! Who can say?
We chase our stars and even kneel to pray -
That some of us be crown'd by Amazon
And say to all the rest "Get hence! Begone!"

Friday, February 1, 2013

Celebrating Small Things

I'm celebrating the small things - the little victories, the moments that make you catch your breath, smile and move on. I remember an advertisement for something - I forget what it was (canned beans? frankfurters? does it matter?) that included a song that went:
Simple pleasures are the best -
All the little things that make you smile and crow!
All the things you know...
Life's simple pleasures are the best...
Are the best in all the world.
Simple pleasures are the best.

This is a blog hop - weekly for now - suggested by VikLit (you'll like her blog!) as a way to commemorate our little victories week to week.

This week I'm celebrating finally getting on a schedule of regularly scooping my cats' litterboxes. 

(Please accept my apologies for making you spit coffee over your screens.  I assure you it was not intentional.)   But you see, scooping cat litter is my idea of the sort of thing you are forced to do in the Gulag.   I always feel like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, weeping copious tears into his beard - I don't have one, so must make do with my bathrobe - as he maneuvers the slotted scoop under the clumps, grimacing at the smell and wailing in dismay as his hand shakes and he drops a load of damp crumblies all over his bare toes.  Why his toes are bare at the Gulag is beyond me, but mine are bare when I scoop litter, so I will extend the comparison.

But this week - finally - I said 'If it's worth doing it's worth doing well!', rolled up my sleeves, assembled a large plastic bucket, lined it with trash bags and started scooping.  I'm not sure my cats believe I'm really doing it on a regular basis.  One - the big, old fellow, black with white whiskers - went tearing out of the room, bug-eyed.

THAT is my small thing to celebrate.  Where's the caviar?  (Did they offer that in the Gulag?  No - probably vodka and pickles.  Nasty ones.)

As I said, this is a blog hop - go visit these other fun blogs - and it might be safe to sip your coffee now...