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Books, Music, Movies, and more

Portrait of a bookshelf

Ideal Bookshelf 6, GW by Jane Mount
Ideal Bookshelf 6, GW by Jane Mount

At first I thought they were just some random, thematically similar books painted together, but when I thought of it as a person’s “portrait” (idealized or otherwise) it took on another dimension.

For a while, I’ve been documenting people’s bookshelves as a form of portraiture; you can actually learn a lot about folks by their books’ covers. Now, I’m working on a series of “ideal” bookshelves: sets of favorites—mine or someone else’s—amalgamated in a picture, even if they don’t usually live on shelves anywhere near each other.

It does give me pause, wondering whether a sight like that, books grouped together on a shelf, will one day appear as quaint as a shelf full of records, cassettes, or VHS tapes—after having finally been obsoleted by the Kindle, the iPad, their descendants.

Kindle on a bookshelf
I didn’t know where else to put it by Andre Torrez

Beirut – Nantes

Beirut – Nantes

Well it’s been a long time, long time now
Since I’ve seen you smile
And I’ll gamble away my fright
And I’ll gamble away my time
And in a year, or a year, or so
This will slip into the sea
But it’s been a long time, long time now
Since I’ve seen you smile

Nobody raise your voices
Just another night in Nantes
Nobody raise your voices
Just another night in Nantes

Well it’s been a long time, long time now
Since I’ve seen you smile
And I’ll gamble away my fright
And I’ll gamble away my time
And in a year, or a year, or so
This will slip into the sea
But it’s been a long time, long time now
Since I’ve seen you smile

(audio from La Blogotheque, song from The Flying Club Cup)

Chili without spices

Chef Paul Prudhomme's Seasoned AmericaOne of the first cookbooks that really taught me there was more to cooking than combining a few off-the-self ingredients was Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Seasoned America. Published in 1991, he reinterpreted a broad range of American melting-pot cuisines and “kicked them up a notch” (a few years before Emeril entered the scene). Not only did he emphasize cooking with homemade stocks, something that many home cooks today still see as extravagant, but all of his recipes had two lists of ingredients, the spices and then everything else.

Suddenly visions of a Justin/Paul project dance in my head. Web developer by day, renegade cajun by night. 365 days. 160 recipes. Moving along…

In Seasoned America I learned that chili could be made with cubes of beef (instead of ground) and without beans (remember, I grew up in the Northeast). His “seasoning mix” for Texas Red calls for two types of ground chili peppers (guajillo and arbol), dried sweet basil, garlic powder, onion powder, paprika, black pepper, cayenne paper, ground cumin, dry mustard, thyme, nutmeg, and cinnamon. As a budding teenage cook, I thought this was awesome. The more complex, the better.

Which brings me to this post. I’ve heard rumors that it’s possible to create a chili without any spices at all. Or tomatoes. Just chilies and meat. “That’s how they did it in the old days.” Except 99% of the chili recipes out there call for half a dozen dry spices. I want to make a chili with as many fresh, local, natural ingredients as I can. A chili without spices. Chile con carne sin especias? Let’s call it California Red.

So I did some research, specifically on the chilis, and then compared the ingredients across recipes, settling on a typical San Antonio style. Then I Justin-ified it. I’m not quite sure how the final dish will turn out, as I’ve not yet made it, but it looks good on paper. And I cheated a little. The recipe calls for cumin seeds, which is technically a spice. But one which requires toasting and grinding, which by my logic, elevates it.

California Red: a chili without spices

Combine all ingredients and simmer for 3 hours. Thicken before serving using a mixture of a 1/4 cup flour and 1/4 water.

Chili without spices, aka California Red
The finished product, garnished with sharp white cheddar

An excerpt from Milk: The Surprising Story of Milk Through the Ages

Cover of 'Milk: The Surprising Story of Milk Through the Ages'
Milk: The Surprising Story of Milk Through the Ages

Homogenization disrupted the chemical structure of the milkfat so drastically as to release a torrent of enzymes that promptly turned raw milk rancid. Even when dairy chemists learned to sidestep rancidity by combining the steps of pasteurizing (which inactivated the enzymes) and homogenizing, there remained the age-old consumer habit of judging milk by its richness—i.e., the thickness of the cream layer on top. When packaging in glass bottles came in toward the start of the twentieth century, one of its advantages from a buyer’s point of view was the plainly visible ‘creamline.’ The fact that homogenized milk in glass tended to acquire an unpleasant oxidized flavor on exposure to light more rapidly than creamline milk was another strike against it.

As a result, until shortly after World War II few people saw any reason to want homogenized milk. Milk for drinking was almost without exception available in only two degrees of richness: with or without all the original fat. Skim milk, or what was left when the cream was separated for other purposes, was the ugly sister. Health experts warned mothers that it was paltry stuff, deficient in crucial nutrients. (Most states required that it be fortified with vitamin A to replace the fat-soluble beta-carotene that disappeared along with the cream; this step is still mandatory for fat-free and most reduced-fat milk.) At the nation’s creameries skim milk was an unvalued by-product, often dumped for lack of any profitable use.

As early as the late 1930s a few dairy processors had been trying to win people over to homogenized milk. The turning point came with a postwar shift to opaque or cardboard containers in place of returnable milk bottles. This in turn accompanied another shift away from home delivery and toward supermarket purchases of milk. Consumers and supermarket managers adored the convenience of throwaway packaging, Milk processors and distributors loved the fact that cardboard couldn’t be seen through, which incidentally solved the oxidation problem. It was the perfect moment for abolishing creamline milk and substituting a product whose appearance had previously weighed against it.

A few notes from A Year and A Pig in Provence

I just finished reading two similarly titled books, A Year in Provence, and A Pig in Provence. The former is a bestselling classic of travel literature, chronicling the events that comprise the life of a British couple’s first year after relocating to the Provencal countryside. The latter is more of a food memoir, the story of how Provence left an indelible mark on one woman and her family’s culinary traditions.

Book covers for A Year in Provence and A Pig in Provence

A Year was published in 1989, and each chapter concerns a single month from January through December 1987. A Pig was published in 2007, but concerns events primarily from the 1970s. So in a way, they are both rooted in the past, pre-dating even Stephanie’s experience growing up there.

It’s probably not a coincidence that I decided to read these books before embarking on my third trip to France next week. I’m not someone who likes to read up on a place before thrusting myself into it, but since I’ve already had the opportunity to travel there twice, I felt like it was safe to read the perspectives from a few other “outsiders” like myself. What follows are a few of my notes, food-focused, of things that were new to me.

A Year in Provence

Everyone drinks marc. What the heck is marc? Even Stephanie didn’t know. I finally looked it up and discovered that marc is the French word for brandy made from grape skins. To us, it’s better known as the Italian grappa or the French eau-de-vie.

At one point they go to a butcher to get veal for a stew called pebronata. Again Stephanie gave me blank stare. A quick search turns up that it’s a braised veal or pork ragout with peppers and tomatoes. Sounds tasty.

They say the best olive oil is from Maussane-les-Alpilles from the Coopérative Oléicole de la Vallée des Baux. Turns out we drove right through this area during our first trip, when we visited Baux-en-Provence. I think we might even have picked up some oil from a boutique in Baux.

A Pig in Provence

There was a lot of pork offal happening in this book. I’m going to have to keep my eyes open for caillettes, basically organ meat burgers, and pied-et-paquets, tripe “raviolis” in tomato sauce. These are not things I would normally pursue, but given the loving way in which they were described, if I saw either of them on a menu, I’d have to go for it.

There was a lot of discussion of mushroom foraging, centering around three varieties in particular. Chanterelles most everyone has heard of, but cèpes and sanguins I didn’t know. Turns out most Americans know cèpes by their Italian name, porcinis, but I’m unfamiliar with sanguins in any language. Apparently they are known here as saffron milk caps or red pine mushrooms.

Reading this book really made me want to try a real bouillabaisse with rouille. Apparently in Marseilles.

Stephanie’s dad made soupe au pistou (pesto vegetable soup) for us once, but I’d like to have it again. French pistou is essentially Italian pesto without the pine nuts, and optionally gruyere along with or instead of parmesan.

Stephanie’s never had brandade de morue, a pureed salt cod gratin, but it sounds just crazy enough that I’d like to try to make it sometime.

Finally, I think it’s time I get over my lifelong aversion to mayonnaise-like sauces and make a homemade aioli.