Beth Eats + Drinks Imports.

Beth and her husband Bob moved to Prague in 2008; I miss her terribly but am glad she’s gone since hearing about life in the Czech Republic is fascinating.  Here’s what she wrote about her food diary:

I realized how many things I eat (well, drink — all my tea and coffee) I brought from the States… but that’s just because I was just there. Usually it’s less of a mix, more Czech. I’m trying hard to be healthy (8 servings fruit & veggies etc).

6.23 am: Trader Joe’s French roast (imported in my suitcase).  Small black cup for me, giant beermug full for Bob.

7.02 am: Second cup.

8.38 am: Cottage cheese, one cup. Water.

10.09 am: Pot of decaf peppermint tea, honey.

11.58 am: Big salad with greens (Vogerlsalat, not sure what that is), tomatoes, green onions, shredded carrot, and awesome homemade dressing (tahini/lemon juice/garlic/soy sauce/sesame oil/honey)

1.50 pm: 1 cup coconut chai, peanut butter lollipop (spoonful of pb).

6.04 pm: Bob is out for tennis and beer, so I’m on my own. It’s chicken and broccoli, and water.

Moist + Tender Chicken Breasts, from the kitchn

2-4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, of even thickness
Salt and pepper
¼ cup flour
Handful of herbs (optional)
Olive oil and butter

If you have a little time before cooking dinner, lightly salt and pepper the chicken breasts. It’s great if you can do this the night before, but it’s not necessary.

  1. Mix about a half teaspoon of salt in with the flour along with a little pepper. Chop the herbs finely, if using, and mix in as well.  Dredge both sides of the chicken lightly in the flour.
  2. Heat a large heavy skillet (with a lid) over medium high heat, with a little olive oil and about half a tablespoon of butter. Quickly sear both sides of the chicken breast until just faintly golden; you don’t want the insides to cook much at all.
  3. Cover tightly and turn the heat down very low. Cook for 10 minutes without lifting the lid. Remove from the heat and let sit for another 10 minutes, still tightly covered.
  4. Remove lid and serve. There is usually just enough chicken fat, along with pan juices, to make a simple sauce, too.

Garlicky Sesame-Cured Broccoli Salad, from The New York Times
Makes six to eight side-dish servings

1 ½ teaspoons red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon kosher salt, more to taste
2 heads broccoli, 1 pound each, cut into bite-size florets
¾ cup extra virgin olive oil
4 fat garlic cloves, minced
2 teaspoons cumin seeds
2 teaspoons roasted (Asian) sesame oil
Large pinch crushed red pepper flakes.

  1. In a large bowl, stir together the vinegar and salt. Add broccoli and toss to combine.
  2. In a large skillet, heat olive oil until hot, but not smoking. Add garlic and cumin and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Stir in sesame oil and pepper flakes. Pour mixture over broccoli and toss well. Let sit for at least 1 hour at room temperature, and up to 48 (chill it if you want to keep it for more than 2 hours). Adjust seasonings (it may need more salt) and serve.
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A Hot Dinner.

I’m one of those people who can’t stand the heat.  In fact, the other day when Keith and I were talking about  a trip to Machu Picchu, he looked and me and said, “I don’t know if Machu Picchu would be a good vacation for you.”

“Why,” I asked, “because I’m not fit?”

“No.”

“Because I’d have to dip myself in DEET?”

“You hate being hot,” Keith said.

It’s true.  Though the temperatures have dropped by twenty degrees yesterday, the past few days here in Boston have been scorchers, and I’ve spent every free second sitting irritably in front of a fan, moving as little as I can get away with.  Of course, the last thing I wanted to do Wednesday night was cook.  I wanted a dinner that took as little effort as possible, which is why I decided to roast a chicken.

I know it sounds crazy, jacking up the temperature in the kitchen with the heat from the oven, but as long as you hang out in another room with a fan and a cold drink while the meal cooks, it’s fine.  You won’t even notice the few extra degrees, and when you pull this bird out of the oven and take a look at its crispy gorgeous, there’s a chance you might forget about the sweat collecting in the small of your back.  And once you take a bite of the tender meat, you’ll see that there was nothing to complain about at all.

Oh, and I’m sorry for the picturelessness of this post.  The heat makes me hungry too.

Five-Spice Roast Chicken, from Bon Appétit
Makes four portions

4 garlic cloves, pressed
2 tablespoons coarse kosher salt
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon Chinese five-spice powder*
1 cut-up chicken (8 pieces; about 3 ½ pounds)
1 large onion, peeled, cut into 16 wedges

  1. Combine garlic, salt, olive oil, and Chinese five-spice powder in large bowl. Add chicken pieces; turn to coat. Cover and chill at least 1 hour or overnight.
  2. Preheat oven to 425°. Arrange onion wedges in 13x9x2-inch roasting pan. Arrange chicken, skin side up, atop onions. Roast until chicken is cooked through, basting occasionally with pan juices, about 50 minutes. Remove chicken from oven and let rest 10 minutes. Arrange chicken and onions on platter and serve.

Farm City — The Education of an Urban Farmer by Novella Carpenter.

I’m many things, but when it all boils down to it, I’m not much of a doer — at least, not in the sense that Novella Carpenter is a doer.  The woman keeps bees and pigs, slaughters her own poultry and game, transforms an abandoned lot into a small farm, Dumpster dives and makes her own salumi.

I guess when I think about it that way, everyone looks like a slacker.

In her book Farm City — The Education of an Urban Farmer, Ms. Carpenter and her boyfriend Bill have just moved from Seattle to what just might be one of Oakland’s most dangerous neighborhoods.  It’s called GhostTown and it was so named “for all its long-abandoned businesses, condemned houses, and overgrown lots… And through the vacant streets rolled GhostTown tumbleweeds: the lost hairpieces of prostitutes.  Tumbleweaves.”

And so, in this honest and wry and funny voice, Ms. Carpenter describes how she turned “a 4,500-foot square lot filled with four-foot-tall weeds” into a place where “scarlet runner beans wound through the chain-link fence and were heavy with furry green beans.  Huge squash rolled on vines.  Malabar spinach, a heat-loving variety, twined up a trellis.  Apples were ripening on the tree.  Blood-red beet stems sprouted next to bushy basil plants.  Eight varieties of tomatoes ripened in various beds.  A stand of corn rustled in the corner.”

If planting, maintaining and harvesting her own produce isn’t enough, Ms. Carpenter also bottles her own honey and raises animals that will make their way to her dinner table, oftentimes dying by her hands.  Rest easy; Farm City is neither a gardening book nor a gruesome tale of butchery.  Instead it’s a contemplative, often laugh-out-loud story about how a woman in Oakland became — amidst graffiti, gunshots and gangs — a farmer.

The meat of the story (ha ha) is spent on Ms. Carpenter’s animals; the book is divided into thirds, each section named after a protein: turkey, rabbit and pig.  And, with the exception of the pig, Ms. Carpenter kills them herself.  She takes no pleasure in this.  In fact, she lies awake in bed the night before killing her turkey — named Harold; his partner Maude was fallen by neighborhood dogs — dreading the day that lies ahead of her and worrying that she’ll somehow mess it all up, causing her bird undue pain.  In the morning, she picks Harold up (“he liked being held”) and her mind turns to faith:

The !Kung people, a hunter-gatherer tribe in Africa, ask forgiveness of an animal’s spirit.  Budiansky tells us, “They don’t pretend there is no ethical cost, or guilt even, inherent in the act of killing the animal.”  With this in mind, I whispered into Harold’s ear my thanks and asked for forgiveness.  … Pantheism had mostly eluded me.  But to hold Harold, this amazing living creature, and to know that his life force would be transferred to me in the form of food, felt sacred.

What I appreciated is that Ms. Carpenter takes what should be the most difficult task — to do, to write, to read — and steadfastly continues her story, honestly describing what she felt (literally and figuratively) throughout the entire process, up to the moment when she serves the meat.  “The bounty,” she writes of her pigs, “had been overwhelming… We had hosted six dinner parties over the past few months, one featuring banana-leaf-wrapped pork loin, another with pork tacos from slow-roasted spareribs.  We even hosted a sausage-making party.”

This, in a way, is what Farm City is truly about — not just the making of food, whether from a seed or a rabbit, but the enjoyment of that food.  Even if you have to get a little blood-splattered and bee-stung to do it.

Marcella Craves Coffee.

Marcella and I have been friends since we were unceremoniously lumped together as roommates our freshman year of college… meaning we know a lot of each other’s dirty little food secrets, such as who was addicted to maraschino cherries, who chewed bagels too loudly and who forced who to make many a late-night White Hen run for more Breyers Mint Chocolate Chip.

9.15 am: The plan was to have cup of espresso, skim milk and Torani sugar-free hazelnut syrup. It’s my tragic version of an at-home latte. Realized I had no milk. Decided to return library books while out.

9.35 am: No parking spots anywhere.

10.05 am: Espresso concoction, finally. Slice of banana bread that I’d baked before going to bed last night.

11.55 am: Another espresso concoction. I am working on a cookbook project right now even though I don’t frequently cook (though I often toast things).  Lemon cake.  Greens and beans.  FEED ME.

1.00 pm: Campbell’s tomato soup and oyster crackers.

3.00 pm: Anjou pear. Pre-run snack.

4.50 pm: Iced mango mandarin green tea on my way to a meeting. Served in one of those red plastic party cups.

7.12 pm: A few handfuls of sliced almonds.

7.45 pm: More almonds.

8.10 pm — 10.15 pm: A Hoegaarden at my favorite bar, where my sister and I shared a yummy pizza topped with buffalo chicken, sweet and sour sauce, jalapeno peppers and mozzarella cheese. It’s a menu item and a complete success. Seriously. Switched to Lake Placid IPA, then had one more.

The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist.

Before I start into this book, I have to warn you — if you haven’t yet read Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go and you want to, click away from this page.  I’m not trying to pull a Lemony Snicket here; I just don’t want to ruin the novel because it may be impossible for me to discuss The Unit without giving away key points in Ishiguro’s work.

Last chance…

No?

Here I go.

Dorritt Weger, a freelance writer and novelist, has no responsibilities aside from taking care of herself and her dog.  She has little contact with her family, no spouse, and — most importantly — no children.  Parents holding jobs that contribute to the economy are considered assets to society, while Dorritt, on her fiftieth birthday, has become “dispensable.”

In Ninni Homlqvist’s eerie Sweden, turning fifty is the end of the line for most women, which is why Dorritt has packed her life into a bag, given away her beloved dog and allowed herself to be taken to the Second Reserve Bank Unit for Biological Material.  There, she will live in relative luxury in her fully-furnished apartment, select from a smörgåsbord* of catered meals, take as many items out of the library as she wants, use the state-of-the-art fitness facilities, shop at high-end boutiques, relax in a garden carefully cultivated to resemble Giverny and have unlimited access to the arts — all for free.  In exchange, all she has to do is finally contribute to the community and to do her duty as a dispensable: participate in drug trials, be a guinea pig in psychological experiments and donate her organs to more-valued people.

What’s creepily interesting about The Unit is that the case of the missing fifty-year-old women isn’t a mystery, it’s law — and a well-established one at that.  Men, lucky for them, aren’t collected and deposited into units until their sixtieth birthday, as they generally are still able to father children up to that age.  Dorritt and her contemporaries have had most of their adult lives to find spouses, be employed in socially-significant positions and have babies, so of course the question is, Why haven’t they?

Dorritt, to her credit, has tried — kind of.  Her long-time lover refuses to leave his spouse, but that’s the most of her efforts to sidestep legalities.  She says herself, “I still regarded the future with optimism.  I still believed and hoped that it wasn’t too late to have a child.  Or to at least start earning money from my profession and become financially secure, or find a partner, someone who would love me and want to live with me.  Almost to the very end I had hopes…”

And so she arrives at the Unit, where Dorritt finally finds herself in the company of people just like her — artists, authors, musicians… all dispensable, and all of whom are incredibly candid about their future.  When Dorritt makes her first “donation,” a kidney, she and the other dispensables literally compare scars.  There’s no childish glee in this, no matter how childish the act — I want to be absolutely clear.  Part of what makes The Unit so irresistable is what Ms. Holmqvist does with Dorritt’s first person narration.  She makes her protagonist completely honest: Dorritt discusses her regrets, her unabashed love for her dog, her reactions to watching her friends go into the operating room, all with unwavering frankness.

This candidness also applies when Dorritt, for the first time in her life, falls in love with a fellow dispensable.  Of course, it’s obvious that this relationship is not going to last; there’s no special treatment awarded to senior citizens who have suddenly found their perfect partners, which is what makes it all so much more bittersweet.

Like Mr. Ishiguro, Ms. Holmqvist tackles dark and heavy topics (often the same ones) and still creates an atmosphere that is not desolate.  There are moments of what even might be called happiness, though, obviously, they don’t last.  What does, however, is a sense of awaiting the inevitable — which brings me to the other reason why I found The Unit irresistable: the reader knows exactly what is going to happen, and yet he or she is still kept waiting, fists clenched and breath held.  Mr. Ishiguro accomplishes something similar, but does so while leaving the reader questioning what really is taking place beyond the narrator’s scope in Never Let Me Go.  Ms. Holmqvist, on the other hand, shows her hand from practically page one and achieves the same effect.  If that’s not compelling, I don’t know what is.

There’s so much more that I could discuss with you about The Unit, but as just as I said when I wrote about Never Let Me Go, it’s impossible to address without giving away the surprises that Ms. Holmqvist has waiting.  So pick up a copy of the book and get back to me when you’ve finished reading it.  I’ve got so much to say.

* Get it?  Because it’s a Swedish book? I’m so clever.
psychological

Stephanie Eats Out.

I thought it would be fitting to post Stephanie’s food diary today, since she’s leaving for Italy and adventure in about seven hours.   (It’s okay to be envious of her two months abroad.  You won’t be the only one feeling that way.)  Buono viaggio…

Oh, and what Stephanie ate is kind of unusual because she doesn’t usually buy all of her meals out.

10.00 – 11.00 am: I drank four glasses of juice – two glasses of Welch’s apple juice and two glasses of Dole orange strawberry banana juice. My body must have been craving the vitamin C.

3.00 pm: Because it was an hour wait at Stone Park for brunch, I deliberated between the shrimp and grits and what I ultimately decided to order: scrambled eggs, short rib hash, potatoes, wheat toast with butter and apricot marmalade, two glasses of water and a Bloody Mary, garnished with a lime, celery, and the largest caper I have ever eaten.

4.00 pm: I drank a large iced coffee that didn’t quite hit the spot. There wasn’t enough ice in the cup.

4.30 pm: I ate a vegan carrot muffin with not-vegan cream cheese frosting while I sat at Prospect Park.

5.30 pm: I drank a small pot of chai tea with honey at Tea Lounge.

8.30 pm: For dinner, I ordered take-out from China One. I ate General Tso’s chicken with broccoli, pork fried rice and an eggroll.

10.30ish: For a late-night treat, I ate two rice crispy treats that Jasmine made with chocolate, cashews and a dash of curry.

Dinner at Russell House Tavern.

My cousin Niki’s in town from the Philippines for a month, and since she’s a cook this means we’ll likely be eating out a lot while she’s here.  Last night we met up at Russell House Tavern in Harvard Square, and let me tell you that you should stop reading right now and get yourself over there.

It’s busy and loud at the restaurant, but don’t let that stop you from enjoying your food — especially if you get the crispy soft-poached egg ($7.00) off of the small plates menu.  Don’t pay any attention to the spare, boring-sounding description (“Pecorino aïoli, toasted brioche, house pancetta”).  Honestly, those words do nothing for this dish.  Maybe it should instead say something like “absolutely amazing, will make you want to order thirds, trust me.”

I’m really not being ridiculous here.  The sous-chef is a friend of Niki’s, and after introductions and hellos, we pummeled him with questions about this dish.  Apparently the egg is poached at a precise temperature — I think he said 140° — for something like forty-five minutes before it is breaded and deep-fried.  (Yes, you read that correctly.  Breaded and deep-fried.)  The egg is then placed on a small mound of greens and encircled with a creamy ring of aïoli that just about knocked me out of my chair.  Though the restaurant has only been open for barely over a month, the egg is already considered to be its signature dish.

After such a start, I guess it would be natural to have doubts as to whether other menu items could possibly stand next to that fantastic egg but I’m here to assure you that you have nothing to worry about.  I made a meal of small plates and appetizers — some of which I grudgingly shared — but the very reasonably-priced dinner menu has options that include pizzas, sandwiches and steak frites.  It’s an American gastropub after all, and though I can’t speak for its British predecessors, I don’t think they’d have any objection to Russell House sharing the category.

In addition to the egg (oh, that egg), we ordered the spinach gratin ($9.00) and charcuterie board ($10.00) to share.  I never have anything negative to say about charcuterie, and I dare anyone to try to do that regarding the chicken liver pâté, the smoky pork rillettes and the anise-flavored terrine that I tried to keep for myself.  The gratin was nothing to complain about either; its blue cheese base went so well with the sesame-zahtar flatbreads we spooned the spinach onto.

The one dish I didn’t share was the steak tartare ($10.00), which is probably because I’m just a greedy person at my core.  What I really liked about the tartare was, aside from its tenderness and delicate flavor, that the beef was chopped rather than ground.  Otherwise, I feel as though I’m eating a raw hamburger.

One last thing and then I’ll let you go: make sure to have a safe way to get home because when you see the beer/wine/cocktail list you are going to want to try one of everything.  I don’t advise that, but I do suggest you get the Battle of Trafalgar (which is worth its price of $9.00 and more).  It’s dangerously good, and should be since it’s made with Pimm’s, St. Germain and honey.  If you’re not a mixed drink kind of person, the beer selection will probably make you happy.  I know I was pleased to see Goose Island Matilda, my favorite beer from my trip to Chicago, on the roster.

I can’t stress enough how much I think Russell House Tavern is affordably-priced.  The portions, even on the small plates, are generous (though I’ve got to say that no one at my table ordered an entrée, so I can’t truthfully comment on that).  Gigantic salads passed us, we couldn’t finish the gratin, Keith took half a pizza home.   I truly think that the menu is comparable in value-for-money to Garden at the Cellar, which is one of my favorite places to eat in the area, and if Russell House proves to be consistent both will be competing for a place in my heart.  Or stomach.  Whichever.

So what are you waiting for?  Go already.

Russell House Tavern
14 JFK Street
Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138
617.500.3055
russellhousecambridge.com

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