Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Squid Cooks: Stir-Fried Beef with Basil and Chiles

As cooking goes, stir-fries are in my wheelhouse.  I can't say I learned too much about cooking growing up - nor can I say I pursued the discipline with deliberate intent - but my parents did teach me how to make a stir-fry.  Timing is everything and beef is especially forgiving because it doesn't matter if it's a little underdone.  My recipe for this dish came from Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything: The Basics.

One thing that's new for me with this recipe, though, is making my own sauce.  In the past, I've always used pre-bottled.  Just as with the meat, timing - in effect, when to add what - is the key.  The recipe suggests but does not require a 30 minute marinade.  I skipped it because I was hungry.  I'll try that next time - of course, I think I may have said the same thing the last time I made it.

The reviews were solid.  Daughter ate it, happily.  She didn't have seconds but I did.  The heat was mild.  Good leftovers for the next day's lunch, too - an important consideration in family meal planning.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

The Cephalopod Coffeehouse: February 2018 Blog List

Greetings to all!  I hope you'll join us for the next installment of the Cephalopod Coffeehouse, an online gathering of bloggers who love books.  The next meeting is set for Friday, February 23rd.  If you're interested, please sign on to the link list at the end of this post.

The idea is simple: on the last Friday of each month, post about the best book you've finished over the past month while visiting other bloggers doing the same.  In this way, we'll all have the opportunity to share our thoughts with other enthusiastic readers.  Please join us:

Friday, January 26, 2018

Cephalopod Coffeehouse: January 2018

Welcome one and all to the Cephalopod Coffeehouse, a cozy gathering of book lovers, meeting to discuss their thoughts regarding the works they enjoyed most over the previous month.  Pull up a chair, order your cappuccino and join in the fun.  If you wish to add your own review to the conversation, please sign on to the link list at the end of my post.

Title: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
Author: John le Carré
via Amazon
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was John le Carré's third novel and his international breakthrough.  George Smiley is back, though this time in a supporting role.  The story focuses instead on Alec Leamas, a longtime Berlin operative now burned out and eager to get out of the game.  The British Secret Service has one more job for him: a chance for revenge against his nemesis.

Given its stature within the genre, my expectations for the book were high.  I am pleased to say they were met.  The Spy Who Came in from the Cold takes all of the glitzy romance out of the espionage game.  Long gone are Bond's clever gadgets, exotic locations and supermodel lovers.  Le Carré's world is gritty, grungy and a lot more real.  Death, pain, betrayal and humiliation are all cold bureaucratic necessities.  So are tedium, detachment and loneliness.  In much the way GoodFellas did for mobsters, le Carré's novels reveal spooks to be more like your next-door neighbors than celluloid demigods.  Leamas's tale is entirely believable, which is exactly why it's so terrifying.

Parallels with The Night Manager, a more recent le Carré work (review here), are really interesting.  The two stories follow similar narrative patterns - a desire for revenge, the building of a cover, a complicating entanglement with a woman, etc.  The basic structure is close enough that one wonders if the author deliberately created an updated, more glamorous (more Bondish?) version of his masterpiece.

Please join us and share your own review of your best read from the past month.  This month's link list is below.  I'll keep it open until the end of the day.  I'll post February's tomorrow.  Meetings are the last Friday of each month.  Next gathering is February 23rd.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Squid Cooks: Oven-Seared Lamb Chops

With my wife out of town, the cooking is left to me.  As discussed in previous posts, I am a functional cook.  I know how to make a few things and would not starve left to my own devices.  My wife is the artist.  Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything: The Basics has recently been my go-to cookbook for learning more of the culinary fundamentals. 

The standards for lamb are high at our house.  Lebanese food is one of the primary influences on my wife's cooking.  Bittman's recipe is simple: preheat the oven, rub the lamb chops with garlic and cook.  They took a little longer than the book suggested but that is to be expected in our oven.  Daughter was pleased, said it reminded her of Mama Ayesha's in DC (see this post).  High praise, indeed.  And really, so easy - worth remembering.

Friday, January 19, 2018

A Window Above: It's All Too Much

Song: "It's All Too Much"
Writer: George Harrison
Original Release: January 13, 1969
Band: The Beatles
Album: Yellow Submarine

Given the enormous fame of the Beatles, a fame that renews itself with rediscovery by each successive generation, few if any of their songs qualify as under-appreciated deep tracks.  One could easily put together an album-length list of timeless masterpieces that were never even released as singles during the band's initial run.  Such a list would certainly hold its own against the best work of nearly any other band in the world.  And yet, there remain a few fringe classics.  "It's All Too Much" is one of my favorites among them.

The Yellow Submarine album was one of the band's weaker sellers, one of very few to fail to top the charts in either the UK or the US, usually both.  The original LP only contained six "Beatles" songs, two of them re-releases.  The entire second side was orchestral theme music from the movie.  I think it's fair to say that, in general, the new songs were not the band's best material, indeed castoffs from the Sgt. Pepper sessions.  But "It's All Too Much" is a hidden gem.

"It's All Too Much" is one of the trippiest of all the Beatles' trippy songs and its featured scene in Yellow Submarine is one of the highlights of the film.  Harrison wrote the song in 1967 as a celebration of his experiences with LSD, though by the time of the movie's release, he had disavowed the drug in favor of transcendental meditation.  The Hammond organ is meant to mimic the harmonium used in Indian classical music.  To me, the song's one glaring flaw is the fact that it's too long: 6:28.  But initially, it was longer, a full eight minutes.  So, I am grateful for the merciful edits.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

On the Coffee Table: William Finnegan

Title: Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life
Author: William Finnegan
via Goodreads
It's already been a great month of reading for me.  I've given both of my last two reads five-star ratings at Goodreads, a big deal.  I'm overly generous with four-star ratings but I make up for it by being stingy with fives.  To encounter two within a couple weeks of each other is exciting.  This book is one.  I'll be sharing the other later this month.

Barbarian Days is, much as the subtitle suggests, a surfing memoir.  For William Finnegan, a longtime writer for the New Yorker, catching waves has been a lifelong obsession that has taken him all over the world. It's a book that inspires envy for me, the envy of those who have lived more adventurous lives than I have.  But at the same time, it reminds me of how lucky I have been for the stability I have enjoyed in exchange.

My wife, who had already read the book, asked if I was feeling inspired to surf.  In truth, few sports scare me more.  Combine an irrational fear of heights with an entirely healthy fear of the ocean and the idea of throwing myself at the mercy of the latter while perched several feet in the air upon a thin piece of plastic is the food of nightmares.  However, I do envy Finnegan for finding a hobby early in life that travels well and having sufficient fearlessness at the right age to pursue such travels.  There was a time in life when I could have chosen such a path - for me, it would have been scuba rather than surfing -  and for numerous reasons both sensible and gratifying, I am glad I didn't.  But I still occasionally dream wistfully of life choices not taken and that's a big one.

I don't understand most of Finnegan's surfspeak but the poetic language he employs to describe the pleasures of the wave is highly seductive anyway.  Much of the joy of the book, though, is in his descriptions of exotic locations and his colorful surf buddies.  Finnegan presents himself as the straight-man sidekick for each of his companions.  While that might be an accurate reflection of his relationships, it would be interesting to know what all of them think of him.  There's no questioning his devotion as he writes of surfing off Long Island during an ice storm, the sort of weather that would find me huddled under a warm blanket at home.

One of the most important questions I consider when evaluating a sports book is whether or not my sports-ambivalent wife would enjoy it.  The fact that she'd already read it and recommended it is highly significant.  The Pulitzer Prize Finnegan won for the book is also a strong point in its favor.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Squid Mixes: Boulevardier

My wife found the recipe for a boulevardier at smitten kitchen, a website by Deb Perelman.  It is actually quite similar to a drink I made back in July called an old pal cocktail, also combining rye whiskey, Campari and sweet vermouth.  The proportions are oh so slightly different.  The old pal is 4:3:2 and the boulevardier is 2:1:1.  Having less Campari makes for a slightly less bitter drink which is nice.  The result is more cinnamon whereas the old pal was cranberry.  Perelman also allows for the use of bourbon rather than rye.  She isn't too fussy about combining the ingredients right in the serving glass rather than a shaker or mixing glass.  Bartending tools are fun but simplicity is nice, too.

A boulevardier is also similar to a Negroni, replacing gin with whiskey.  Paul Clarke described the difference most poetically at Serious Eats:  "A simple substitution? Hardly. The bittersweet interplay between Campari and vermouth remains, but the whiskey changes the storyline. Where the Negroni is crisp and lean, the Boulevardier is rich and intriguing."

The boulevardier was invented by Erskine Gwynne who published a magazine in Paris from 1927-32 called Boulevardier.

Friday, January 12, 2018

A Window Above: New World Symphony

Piece: Symphony No. 9 in E minor, "From the New World", op. 95, B. 178 (New World Symphony)
Composer: Antonín Dvořák
Premier: December 16, 1893, New York

I am slowly turning into my father.  Much as we might try to avoid it, becoming our parents as we age is largely inevitable.  My latest step in this steady march is my devotion to classical music radio.  I've been a classical musician for most of my life but as a consumer craving distraction from the day-to-day, I have generally preferred pop music radio platforms: Adult Alternative, Adult Hits, Classic Rock, etc.  Interestingly, it is my daughter who has pushed me in this direction.  With all of her musical involvements, she's actually become a bit of a snob (he says with beaming pride).  She will ask me to change the station when a particularly objectionable pop song comes on one of my other stations.  Classical music seems to keep both of us happy.

Fortunately, Vermont Public Radio (VPR) has an excellent classical music station.  It is now my default choice for the car and I have to admit that the switch feels like nothing short of a quality of life improvement.

Dvořák's New World Symphony has become one of my favorites in recent months.  Apart from hearing it on the radio, we also got to see it performed live at our most recent Vermont Symphony concert.  In composing the piece, the Czech master drew inspiration from both Native American and African American music as well as the wide open spaces of the American landscape.  I am especially fond of the second movement, Largo, the melodic theme based on "Goin' Home," a spiritual-like song written by one of Dvořák's pupils, William Arms Fisher.  The movement features one of the world's most famous English horn solos.

Now, if only Vermont had a jazz station...

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Squid Mixes: Kir Royale

For our second date, my wife and I watched The Philadelphia Story in her New York apartment and drank kirs.  The movie has been a part of our family holiday traditions ever since (see review here), though we have not had kirs along with it quite so faithfully.  We spent Christmas week in Montreal so, as a continuation of our Advent explorations, we picked up a bottle of creme de cassis, a delicious black currant liqueur, from Quebec.  It seemed as good an excuse as any to experiment with kirs.
The kir royale combines cassis with champagne, whereas the regular kir features white wine.  I got my recipe from The New York Bartender's Guide.  As noted in previous posts, this guide often produces unusually strong drinks.  The recipe calls for 2 oz. of cassis, quite a lot.  It also calls for stirring after combining the ingredients so you lose the pretty cassis at the bottom effect one often sees.  Mind you, it was still yummy but too strong and not bubbly enough for my wife's tastes.  Next time, I think I'll try the recipe on the back of the bottle which calls for significantly less cassis, added after the wine/champagne and allowed to sit at the bottom without stirring.

Friday, January 5, 2018

A Window Above: Friday I'm in Love

Song: "Friday I'm in Love"
Writers: Perry Bamonte, Boris Williams, Simon Gallup, Robert Smith and Porl Thompson
Original Release: April 21, 1992
Band: The Cure
Album: Wish

I tend to be behind the times in my musical tastes.  I was unimpressed by U2, for instance, when the Joshua Tree album was first released but I became a big fan several years later.  My favorite band, The Beatles, broke up three years before I was born.  Even now, most of the music I listen to was written by dead people, much of it centuries ago.

The Cure is another example.  In truth, I was highly dismissive of the entire British alternative genre in the '80s.  I wrote of my attitude towards The Smiths in this post.  Whiny songs about clinical depression set to electronic keyboards?  No thanks. 

My feelings about The Cure changed when we moved to Vermont in the early aughts.  The area's Adult Alternative station was and still is The Point: WNCS, 104.7 based in Montpelier.  At the time, they played The Cure a lot.  It annoyed me in the beginning but in time, the band grew on me, this song in particular.  After all, I was a beginning teacher.  What's not to love about Friday?

This new love came at a cost.  The station also played The Grateful Dead a lot.  I was never a Dead fan but considered them mostly innocuous.  The Point drove me to hate them.  And so it goes.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

On the Coffee Table: Sarah J. Maas

Title: Throne of Glass
Author: Sarah J. Maas
via Amazon
The Throne of Glass series is our daughter's current favorite.  She even has a TofG-themed iPhone case.  She is devoted to fantasy in general and given that the story is led by a booty-kicking female protagonist, her interest is not surprising. 

I was frustrated with the book in the beginning.  Maas employs a detail-dump approach whenever she
introduces a new character or setting.  I get that imagery is important to a lot of readers.  I just prefer a bit more subtlety.  Throne of Glass is rarely subtle.

Despite my early misgivings, I got caught up in the story.  Celaena Sardothien was the most notorious assassin in the kingdom until she was captured and sent away to a slave camp.  One day, the crown prince springs her out of her misery with the promise that if she wins a competition back at the castle, she will eventually gain her freedom.  Meanwhile, there is a mysterious evil afoot.  The other competitors are being gruesomely murdered, one by one.

There aren't a lot of plot twists.  Pretty much everyone turns out to be who you expect them to be.  The most interesting narrative developments come in the evolving relationships between characters.  The people don't change much but the way they see each other does.  Celaena herself is a bit puzzling: an effective but not entirely cold-hearted killer.  There's romance along the way, too: a love triangle between Celaena, the prince (Dorian) and the captain of the guard (Chaol).

Even with the lack of subtlety, there is occasional elegance in the language.  The story is absorbing and it reads quickly.  The world building is admirable: languages, races, religions.  Overall, I'd rate the book above Percy Jackson but below Diana Wynne Jones's Howl series.  Daughter tells me the second book is better so I'm intrigued.  After all, I don't even know the saga well enough to understand the quote on her phone case yet.  There's a TV show in production, too, air date TBD.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

On the Coffee Table: French Milk

Title: French Milk
Writer and Artist: Lucy Knisley
via Amazon
French Milk is Knisley's self-illustrated travel diary of the six weeks she and her mother spent living in Paris.  This was my second dip into Knisley's work, having read Relish a few years ago (see here).  Interspersed with her drawings are photographs, often of the same subjects which makes for interesting side-by-side comparisons.  Knisley's art represents simplified and somewhat idealized versions of reality.

I was a little disappointed in this book.  Lots of shopping and eating - okay, I can't say I really mind the eating as I myself do plenty of writing about eating.  But I guess I was hoping for deeper cultural insights whereas most of Knisley's material is about... herself.  The blurb on the back cover promises a personal look at the mother-daughter relationship but I'm not sure we really got much of that either.  Perhaps it is honest and realistic.  It's just not what I wanted. 

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Squid Mixes: Rum Swizzle

The rum swizzle is considered by some to be the national drink of Bermuda, though others claim it is the dark 'n' stormy.  My recipe, from The New York Bartender's Guide, combines dark rum with lime juice, Angostura bitters, sugar and sparkling water.  Drinks described as swizzles date as far back as the mid-18th century.  The swizzle stick was named for the beverage.

For us, the drink was a vehicle for the Mad River First Run Rum we got as part of our Advent adventures (see here).  The lime juice supplies most of the flavor but the rum does bring a pleasant warmth to the party.