Sunday, October 24, 2010

Col Cooks: Fig and Almond Bread

Reading The Map of Love made me realize I had no idea what Egyptian food was like. The book richly describes many aspects of life in a haremlek, but neglects to describe the food created in Egyptian kitchens in much detail. Maybe that’s because the author, Ahdaf Soueif, is herself Egyptian, and doesn’t think of the cuisine as exotic. But I kept thinking about being a new bride in a completely different culture, and I wondered what the aromas and flavors of an Egyptian home would be like, which resulted in a few hours of really fascinating Internet research (another thing I really like to do when I ought to be grading). The ingredients were wandering through my head when I realized I needed to make a dish for a party, and I came up with a quick bread that included the flavors of a traditional Egyptian dessert, fig and honey cakes.

Map of Love Fig and Almond Bread

2 c. flour
½ c. sugar
1 ½ t. baking powder
½ t. baking soda
½ t. salt
½ t. cinnamon
4 T. butter
½ c. apple juice
¼ c. honey
½ t. almond extract
1 egg
8 figs (cut into about 8 pieces each)
½ c. toasted slivered almonds

1. Preheat oven to 350 F.
2. Mix dry ingredients in a food processor. Cut butter into the flour by pulsing, just until no chunks of butter can be seen. Place mixture in a mixing bowl.
3. Combine juice, honey, almond extract and egg. Stir into dry ingredients with a spatula, just until everything is moist. Fold in the figs and toasted almonds.
4. Pour batter into a 9 x 5 loaf pan. Bake for about an hour, turning the temperature down to 325 at 45 minutes (to keep the top from getting too dark), until a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out clean.
5. Cool on a wire rack for 15 minutes before removing from pan.

Weekend Cooking is hosted by Beth Fish Reads and is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, fabulous quotations, photographs.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Elementary, my dear Mummy-ji: The Case of the Missing Servant

The only thing that will clear Vish Puri’s client of murder is a task that would daunt Sherlock Holmes himself: find one woman with an unknown last name on the whole of the Indian sub-continent. But then Sherlock Holmes could never have imagined the exhaustive knowledge India’s most private investigator has of the country’s customs, cultures and people. Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Missing Servant, the first of the Vish Puri mysteries, introduces readers to the amazing deductive powers of the detective known to his friends as “Chubby,” along with the characters and technologies that make his business a success.

Puri is a traditional man living in a changing world, modern-day New Delhi. But that’s not to say that he’s out of touch. The description of his office evokes his respect for the past and the present:
The room’s focal point, however, was the shrine in the far corner. Two portraits hung above it, both of the draped in strings of fresh marigolds. The first was a likeness of Puri’s guru, the philosopher-statesman, Chanakya, who lived three hundred years before Christ and founded the arts of espionage and investigation. The second was a photograph of the detective’s late father, Om Chander Puri, posing in his police uniform on the day in 1963 when he was made a detective. (p. 14)

In fact, Hall’s genius is in his understanding that while the façade of India is transforming, the soul of the country remains very much the same. Puri capitalizes on both his knowledge of New India – BPOs, love marriages, real estate millionaires – and his intimate understanding of the old – the Arthashastra, hijras, tribal societies – to solve his cases.

Along with Puri, whose mustaches and self-satisfaction reminded me of Hercule Poirot, Hall offers up a cast of offbeat and mostly likeable characters, including Facecream, the agency’s intrepid female operative, Rinku, the slightly shady best friend from Puri’s youth, and Mummy-ji, the detective’s indomitable, sleuthing mother. I imagine these characters will take on even greater roles as the series develops.

From my reading of the first book in each series, I would say that there are a lot of similarities between the Vish Puri mysteries and those of another British ex-pat writing about murder and mayhem in a former colony, namely Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. Both series feature detectives working in traditional, polyglot societies that are in a state of rapid development. Both series are written by men who clearly have an intimate knowledge of the culture, although they are not members of it. Both shy away from vogue goriness and focus on the cerebral aspects of detective work. I have enjoyed the first books in both of these series, and would recommend them to mystery lovers (especially lovers of old-style mysteries), and those who love to read books about other cultures.

But honestly, the cultural scholar in me wonders about how well these cultural observers are doing. How would an Indian react to Vish Puri or a Botswanan to Precious Ramotswe? Have these characters been “Anglicized for my protection?” That’s what I can’t know. (As a New Yorker, I sense “outsider” as soon as an author has a “Brooklynite” put ketchup on a hot dog – for god’s sake, who would do such a thing? The author must be from Kansas, I think.) So I’d love to hear from anyone in India or Africa that has read these books. How well have the outsiders captured the cultures for those of us who can only dream of going to such places? It doesn’t make the mysteries any less enjoyable, but it would be nice to know.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Read A Myth: In which our heroine takes on another challenge and hopes you will join her, because it looks like fun!

All I can say is thanks, Bellezza dear!

Having already committed (emotionally, at least) to two 2011 challenges (Beth Fish Reads' What's in a Name 4, because version 3 was my first-ever challenge, and Black Sheep Dances' Eastern European Challenge, which hasn't even been announced yet but sounds so interesting I can't wait to join), I had decided I was going to eschew other challenges and chart my own reading course come January 1.

Not so fast! Yesterday, Bellezza announced she was joining the Read A Myth Challenge. She was so excited I had to investigate. An entire year to read a flexible number of books, based on the myths from cultures of your choice! Academic literature is encouraged. The button features Artemis, my daughter's favorite goddess (and her Halloween costume, as it turns out). I started to do a little research and suddenly the possibilities were amazing - in a fit of enthusiasm I signed on the dotted line!

Here's where my list stands so far:

The Penelopiad, Margaret Atwood
Prince of Ayodha, Ashkor Banker
Psyche in a Dress,Francesca Lia Block
The Firebrand, Marion Zimmer Bradley
The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, Roberto Calasso
Goddess of Yesterday, Caroline Cooney
Runemarks, Joanne Harris

I'll need one more to reach Level 4, but I'm assuming I'll get plenty of ideas as others begin to log their books! Maybe something based on the myths of Egypt?

If you have any suggestions, let me know.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Princess Bride: Milestone 2

Okay, now we're getting somewhere!

* Spoiler Alert -- If you haven't read The Princess Bride, or seen the movie, you probably don't want to read further*

In this week's reading, "The Announcement," Buttercup is engaged to the (I think pretty evil) Prince Humperdinck, taught to be a princess (but that isn't one of the "good parts," so Goldman claims to have cut it out), kidnapped by Vizzini, Inigo and Fezzik (who plan to kill her on the Guilder frontier), and liberated from her kidnappers by the even-more-frightening Man in Black.

The Man in Black, it turns out, is Westley, who has returned to Florin as the Dread Pirate Roberts to save Buttercup. The dialogue in this section is wonderful, as Westley takes on each of the members of the villianous trio, besting Inigo at swordplay, besting Fezzik in brute strength, and besting Vizzini at a battle of wits. So funny. So clever. So quick. This section reminded me why I loved the movie so much in the first place.

But it's even better than that, because this section offers something the movie didn't - the backstory on two of literature's most endearing felons: Inigo and Fezzik. We come to understand how these men turned to a life of crime, which actually matters, because reconciling the characters at the beginning of the story (where they conspire to murder Buttercup) and at the end (where they ultimately join forces with the Man in Black) has always been a weakness of the story as far as I was concerned.

And then comes the Fire Swamp - again, the book helps us understand how Westley comes to make the tactical error of wandering into it, even as we know his considerable skills will get him and Buttercup through. The end of the reading is sad, as Humperdinck bundles Buttercup back to Florin, and Westley is taken prisoner by the evil Count Rugen.

With this week's reading, Goldman has made good on his title promise of "true love and high adventure." I am hooked, and eager to read on!

Thanks again to Chris at Chrisbookarama for hosting this readalong!

The Woman in White and The Thirteenth Tale: Twin Peril Reviews

This was a doppelganger kind of peril week, reading-wise.

I finally finished Wilkie Collins’ Gothic novel classic, The Woman in White. And since Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale is actually an homage to Wilkie Collins –the text mentions The Woman in White more than once – I thought it would be fun to put my reviews of these two Gothic novels together. (Get it? Twin reviews? Doppelgangers? Nice device for catching up on the reviewing, right?)

Let’s start at the beginning, because Collins’ novel is seminal to the Gothic literature genre. The Woman in White uses multiple narrators – akin to “witnesses” at a trial – to tell the strange story of the wealthy and beautiful Laura Fairlie of Limmeridge House. She and her “body double,” Anne Catherick, both have the unfortunate luck to wind up in the path of the handsome but evil Sir Percival Glyde, who somehow extracted a promise for Laura’s hand in marriage from her dying father. Walter Hartright (no subtlety there, as he is the one with the “true heart”), Laura’s drawing master and would-be lover, leaves Limmeridge at her half-sister Marian’s urging when the unwanted engagement takes place. When Laura Fairlie’s death is announced, and Anne Catherick is “returned” to the private insane asylum from which Hartright unwittingly helped her escape at the beginning of the novel, Hartright and Marian must use all their intellect and resources to untangle the web of lies and blackmails that have put Limmeridge in Glyde’s grubby paws.

There is a reason that The Woman in White has become a Gothic archetype: it’s a great mystery. But it suffers, over time, like so many Victorian novels, from both its sheer length and the bland, intellectually unfettered beauty of the main character. (The smart girl in the novel, half-sister Marian Holcombe, is described as having a great figure, but an ugly, “dark” face, apparently just so the reader won’t be confused as to who the actual "golden girl" love interest will eventually be.)

On the other hand, Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale is Gothic novel for the 21st century, far more sexual, far more brutal than Collins’ Victorian offering. The novel tells the story of the peculiar inhabitants of Angelfield, including the eerily connected identical twins (there are those doppelgangers again), Adeline and Emmeline, who live in squalor despite their wealth in order to keep the world from encroaching on their bizarre existence. Minor biographer Margaret Lea is commissioned by the famous author Vida Winter – who was once known as Adeline March – to tell “the truth” about Angelfield, finally. But it turns out that “the truth” is the hardest thing for Vida to reveal – or even understand.

What makes this novel so very different is the strength and ingenuity of the female characters. Vida is a force of nature, bombastic and opinionated, but ultimately still vulnerable:

Politeness, now there’s a poor man’s virtue if ever there was one. What’s so admirable about inoffensiveness, I should like to know. After all, it’s easily achieved. One needs no particular talent to be polite. On the contrary, being nice is what’s left when you’ve failed at everything else.” (pg. 45)

Not exactly Laura Fairlie, even in her dotage, is she?

The Thirteenth Tale has a wonderful and wicked set of characters, from biographer Margaret Lea, the narrator, to The Missus, the housekeeper who holds the Angelfield family together by a thread, to the twins, the mild, nurturing Emmeline and selfish, impulsive Adeline. Vida reveals her story in fits and starts, violently twisting her way toward “the truth.” It gives the reader a good, creepy, modern day dose of peril, while staying true to its Gothic roots. Even though I’m usually a purist, I actually preferred the homage in this case. I would recommend either novel to readers looking for a sensationalist, suspense-filled diversion. But for readers who get antsy with the weight of serialized Victorian novels, I say head directly for The Thirteenth Tale . You're far more likely to stick with it, and the goosebumps will be worth it!

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Cheerleading for Team Simile

Today is the Dewey 24 Hour Readathon! I knew my daughter-shuttling life would be too hectic to spend a day reading, so I signed up to cheer. (Seriously, it's all about the pom-poms!) This time the Cheering Teams are divided into literary terms. I'm on Team Simile -- although I definitely would have thought I belonged on Team Irony :-)

I'll be heading to as many Team Simile blogs as I can throughout the day, and tweeting to the Twitter-verse (I'm @ Col_Reads), cheering on the valiant readers! I wish everyone a day of Good Words!

Monday, October 4, 2010

Col Cooks: Tortilla Española

How do you make 7 eggs, an onion and a pound of potatoes into a light dinner? Or an upscale, vegetarian appetizer? Or a nifty, thrifty potluck takealong? All the same answer: make a tortilla. A couple of my friends asked for the recipe after I brought a tortilla to a friend's picnic, and posted a picture of said tortilla on my Facebook site. So here it is.

Basically, a tortilla is a fried potato omelette, the ultimate Spanish abuelita meal. It's easy enough to make, but it takes some patience and requires just a little bit of technique -that's why the ingredient list is short but the directions seem long. Once you master the basics, you'll be making it all the time, varying the recipe based on what you have floating around the fridge. And bonus, it's as good at room temperature as they are fresh out of the pan, so it's a perfect do-ahead company munch.

Tortilla Española

1/4 cup + 6 tablespoons olive oil
1 pound red potatoes, scrubbed but not peeled
1 large Spanish onion
7 large eggs
Salt & pepper
Parsley, if you want to go nuts and garnish
  1. Slice the potatoes and onions very thinly (using a mandoline or the slicer attachment on your food processor is the way to go here, if you have the equipment).

  2. Place 6 tablespoons oil into a saute pan that will just fit all the onions (they are going to reduce a bunch, so don't worry if it looks like too much for the pan at first). Saute slowly, on medium to low heat, until the onions are carmelized, about 20 minutes. (You will probably need to reduce the heat as the onions develop color -- you don't want to burn them.)

  3. Meantime, place the 1/4 cup of oil into a large skillet, and heat to medium. Fry the potato slices in batches, until the edges are golden brown. (If some of them stick together, don't worry about it, but you don't want clumps of potatoes -- you want them to be cooked through, with the edges just crisping.) Remove the potatoes with a slotted spoon, and drain on paper towels. Continue until all the potatoes are fried.

  4. Whisk the eggs well, so that the yolks are completely combined with the whites.

  5. Combine carmelized onions, fried potatoes and egg mixture in a large mixing bowl. Add salt and pepper. Mix well, until the potatoes are competely coated in egg.

  6. Reheat the skillet in which the potatoes were cooked -- if the bottom is not covered with oil, add a bit, and put over medium heat. Add the egg mixture, spreading out to create an even layer. Reduce the heat to low. Cook for about 5 minutes, partially covered with a large pot cover, until bottom is golden brown.

  7. Now for the tricky part. Take a large, oiled, flat platter, place it over the top of the skillet, and QUICKLY flip the omelette onto the platter. Replace the skillet on the burner, and slide the omelette back into the pan, uncooked side down.

  8. Cook on low until the bottom is cooked golden brown, about another 5 minutes. Loosen omelette and slide onto a serving platter. Let set for at least 5 minutes before cutting into wedges - but you can also let it cool completely. Garnish with a bit of parsley if you want to be fancy!

Saturday, October 2, 2010

The Princess Bride: Milestone 1

One of my reading goals for the fall was to join a readalong. Reading is lonely business -- unless of course you're reading to someone else -- and I thought it might be fun to participate in an ongoing discussion. So I couldn't believe my luck when I stumbled onto an announcement that Chrisbookarama was hosting a readalong of The Princess Bride, a book I had never read, but based on a movie that I love more everytime I see it.

Which is why it came as quite a shock when I had some trouble getting into the book.

You see, I wasn't really prepared for the Introduction. I was all ready for true love and high adventure, and what I got was altogether different: William Goldman's "mockumentary" explanation of how he came to write both the book and the movie. Actually, the story is a pretty good one, albeit a little self-indulgent on Goldman's part, I think. I just hadn't anticipated it.

But once I got to Chapter 1 The Bride, the book delivered on the movie's promise. That's especially true because without the time constraints of a movie, Goldman has a lot more time to develop the characters. Buttercup, in particular, seems like a much more substantial character in the book, as when she declares her love for Westley, and he slams the door in her face.

"Chalk it up to experience, old girl, and get on with the morning. Buttercup stood, made her bed, changed her clothes, combed her hair, smiled, and burst out again in a fit of weeping. Because there was a limit to just how much you could lie to yourself."

The other characters are also more fleshed out -- Humperdinck, in particular, appears more villianous than in the movie, where Count Rugen appeared to be the "brains" of the operation. Now that the high adventure has begun, I am eager to read on. I'm also eager to hear everyone else's thoughts, especially about the way Goldman "inserts" himself into the text. Thanks to Chrisbookarama for hosting this readalong!

Next stop, Guilder!