23 July 2010

Book Club

I spent the last few weeks in the company of Philip Carey, the affable, conflicted, introspective protagonist  of W. Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage. What an incredible time I had with him. I journeyed with him as he past from boyhood to teenager to young man. He took me to Heidelberg, Paris, the Norfolk coast, and London. I had a great time and when 600 pages later I had say good-bye I felt sad. Philip had become a dear friend and parting from him left a void in my life. I miss him.

Last night I met up with my book group and we discussed Of Human Bondage, among other things (get a group of like-minded women together and you know what happens ..!!). We met at Jen's place where she served us refreshing margaritas made with tequila, cointreau, and lemon juice, blended with ice. For dinner we had superb Mexican - freshly made tortillas (from a neighborhood restaurant), beans, an assortment of chopped, fresh greens, and an excellent salsa. We were all in high spirits, and bursting with enthusiasm for our book. Everyone, except Jen, found the book a most satisfying read. I've always been a great fan of Maughm, and never could understand why the literary critics had given him short shrift. Reading the book with a writer's eye now, I could see the weaknesses.

Maugham is a fantastic storyteller and his protagonists are compelling, complex, and very likeable. What I find most endearing about his protagonists is their humanness, their fallibilities, and the constant internal conflict they go through. I immediately identify with them. Last night we all shared how we were like Phillip Carey in Of Human Bondage. 

I enjoyed seeing London in the late 19th century through Philip's experiences. What I found striking was the state of poverty in which the majority of Londoners lived.

The major weakness of the book is that it is overwritten. It needed some good editing, and that would've pared the book down to about 400 pages. Maugham didn't have the finesse with words that other highly respected English writers had like Thomas Hardy and DH Lawrence. His sentences don't have a lyrical or poetic quality. He tends to both show and tell - and he does an awful lot of telling. Philip was constantly telling us how he was feeling - sad, happy, nervous, shy, you name it. And one other weakness I found was when he went into detail about something that did nothing for the plot. For example when he took art classes in Paris he went into great detail describing the classes. He did the same when he was in medical school. Not necessary!!

But, these weaknesses are minor. They didn't bother me or take away from my enjoyment. I am so glad we chose this book which I had to get out of a dusty old shelf. The pages were yellow and smelled musty. I want to reread Cakes and Ale now.

21 July 2010

Picnic Dinner

Picnic dinners on warm summer evenings. The main venue for the Music Academy of the West's events is Hahn Hall, a Spanish Colonial building set in exquisitely landscaped grounds in Montecito. We've been attending their outstanding concerts - opera highlights on Monday night - and we usually take along a picnic dinner which allows us to enjoy the gardens in the early evening. So, I've been preparing fare worthy of the classy venue and classy events. Our summer garden has been my main inspiration for meals this summer.
Growing in mindboggling abundance right now are summer squashes. I have become quite the expert on zuchini dishes! Our picnic menu on Monday night was the following: aubergine caviar, homemade bread rolls, heirloom tomatoes and basil, and zucchini fritters. For dessert we had apricot cobbler. A Santa Ynez Pinot Noir went beautifully with this sumptuous meal.

At the farmer's market I couldn't resist the young, bright purple, firm eggplants. To  make the caviar I roasted the eggplants (while the bread rolls were baking). When they were soft I scooped out the pulp into a bowl and added the following ingredients: some olive oil, yogurt, a large clove of garlic, lemon juice, some chopped flat leaf Italian parsley and some fresh basil. I blended these with a hand blender and added salt and freshly ground pepper. This spread on still warm bread rolls is extremely satisfying.
The zucchini fritters accompanied by sweet, juicy tomatoes and basil made for one heck of a main course. I'll post the recipe one of these fine days.

16 July 2010

Need to rant ...

On May 2 I was rear-ended on the LA freeway. Mine was the middle car in a 5 car collision. Traffic had come to a standstill and some idiot wasn't paying attention, etc., etc. The car that hit me was a BMW and it pushed me into a BMW in front of me. Thus began a chain of events that have caused us no end of frustration, anger, and bitterness. Fortunately nobody was injured. I was also fortunate that my car's engine seemed fine and I was able to get home safely, despite my state of shock. The back was all banged up and it was so disheartening to see our beautiful black Honda Civic in that state.

So ... the first step was to contact the insurance company of the driver who caused the accident (AAA). They asked us to take the car to a car body shop (they specified the place) and get a quote. After several phone calls AAA sent us a check for the amount quoted ($5,100) about two weeks later. That could have been the end of the saga, but in fact it was the beginning. When the shop started work on the car they realized the damage was worse than they had thought. They contacted AAA and told them the bill was going to be an additional $1,500! AAA called us (Daryl, since he is the legal owner) and informed us that since the car's value was less than the bill from the shop they were going to write off the car. Daryl was seized by a paroxysm of fits. He informed the agent that this Honda Civic was an HX, a model that couldn't be replaced, and assigning a value was ridiculous. Anyway, it was all out of our hands at that point. We had to make a decision. Either kiss our beloved car goodbye and get a new one, or fork out the extra money to get it repaired. I wanted to look into getting a new car. I felt bitter about paying $1500 to get our car back to the state it was before an accident caused by an idiot. Daryl managed to persuade me that we should get the car repaired and so we asked the shop to complete the work. While this was happening we received a packet of stuff from AAA. Turned out that once they wrote the car off we were no longer the owners of the car. We had to "buy" back the car from AAA for $750. We had to send the license plates and registration to DMV. We had to then register the car at DMV as if we were new owners. But before we could do that we had to take the car for a brakes and light inspection which cost $100. Can you believe this outrage???

The car is back. It looks beautiful again and drives very smoothly. It's a pretty unique car with a gas mileage about the same as hybrids. Daryl didn't think it was ecologically responsible to scrap a car which has more "green" features than just about any other car out there. But, OMG, doing the right thing can be a gigantic challenge!

14 July 2010


Yesterday was a sizzler. Even sitting in the garden late in the day chugging iced cold Island Brew Pale Ale did little to cool us down. Only meaningless conversation was possible (the end of the World Cup adding to the challenge). In fact the only sensible thing I did was to make a smaaklike (I turn to foreign languages when I can't think of a creative adjective) gazpacho. The tomatoes in my garden are turning red and tend to be the basis for my dishes now. Here's how I made the gazpacho: I used a cucumber, 3 perfect tomatoes (still warm from the sun), a bunch of parsely (from my garden), 2 garlic cloves, a small red onion, some basil leaves, some olive oil, juice of a lemon, salt and black peppper. These ingredients went into the food processor and were blended until smooth. I added vegetable juice to get the sort of medium consistency of a soup. At serving time I dribbled more olive oil over the soup. A crusty bread (the Tuscan type) is a perfect accompaniment. On a warm evening, this soup is an absolute delight to the tastebuds. I swear!

Btw, I cannot prepare meals without music. I always create a playlist that sort of goes with my mood and the type of dish. Beethoven's String Quartet Opus 18 in B Flat Major worked really well for this recipe!

I'll sign off in Julia Child fashion (even though she is not my hero!). Bon Appetit!

13 July 2010

I Love Apricot Tart

In Santa Barbara, grey and socked in by fog most of this summer, the sun shines generously today. What a delight to awaken to a clear blue sky and start the day at the pool. A swim, a soak in the bubbling jacuzzi, and then a drenching sweat in the steam room. I feel so lucky that I can do this for about two summer months. I haven't thought much about teaching and the state of education ever since I said goodbye to my third graders on June 3. Mainly because I immediately got on a plane and did New York. The city in early summer was at its best - perfect temperatures and full of energy. It instantly cleansed my mind of the rather challenging year I had just completed.

Last school year I was so unhappy with all the pressures we teachers had to deal with that I seriously wondered if I wanted to continue in this profession. I had sweet students and I miss them. If I had the freedom to be creative and to spend more time engaging the kids in learning rather than in testing, testing, testing, draining their creativity, it would have been an altogether different experience. I am so tired of the obsession with test scores and the pressure to teach to the tests. It's agony.

Anyway, it's summer vacation, and I love having all this free time. The school year had been so intense and I felt like I was constantly on the go. And now I just want to do fun stuff.
One fun thing Daryl and I did last week was the Music Academy of the West's Friday picnic concert. We met up with our friends, Stephen and Jaqueline Simons. I made calzones and a salad. They brought a superb smooth red wine and apricot tart, or rather tarte aux abricot (Jacqueline is French). The gardens around Hahn Hall in Montecito are gorgeous - a perfect setting for our feast. When I told the Simons Apricot Tart was my favorite dessert they invited me to raid their bountiful apricot tree the next day.

After our dinner we were treated to another feast. A delightful selection of pieces - Chopin and Liszt - by very talented young people made for a perfect evening.

The next day I went to the Simons' place and picked apricots. Back home I got to work making tarts. Here is my recipe, which I guarantee, you'll love.

You'll need about 4 cups of apricots, shortcrust pastry, frangipane, and a glaze made from peach preserve.

First you make a shortcrust pastry. Rub a stick of butter into 1 1/2 cups flour and a pinch of salt. When you have something that looks like breadcrumbs add a little water and make into a soft dough.
Preheat oven to 425 degrees F.

Next make the frangipane. Blend a cup of almonds, an egg, 4 tablespoons butter and 1/2 cup sugar. You will end up with a paste that looks like marzipan.

Stone and slice the apricots. Sprinkle a tablespoon of flour and toss.

Divide the dough in half, and roll out two circles for the crust. Place each crust on a greased pie pan. Bake blind for 10 minutes in preheated oven (425 degrees).

When dough comes out, let if cool. Lower oven temp to 350 degrees. Spread frangipane over crusts. Arrange apricot slices over this. Bake for about 25 minutes.
The last thing to do is make a glaze by heating preserve. When tarts are out of oven, pour glaze over the apricots.

Serve at room temperature or cold.

06 July 2010

I say cilantro, you say coriander!

Waves of relief cascade through me. I just scanned the Mail and Guardian headlines, and phew (!), nothing horrible has happened in South Africa as the World Cup goes into its final week. After three weeks of tension and obsessively visiting the M&G website, I think I can relax now. When those millions of tourists return to their homes, instead of badmouthing SA, they are going to rave about the "gawe mense" and the lekker braais and amazing service and the stunning beauty, etc., etc. Ja-nee, for a month South Africans get to experience how it could be if they didn't have to design their lives around crime prevention.

Btw the funniest story I read in the M&G was about the convoy of Dutch supporters who had driven all the way from Holland, through the African continent to South Africa to support their team, but because they hadn't expected the Netherlands to reach the finals, they scheduled an early departure. They have left already!!!

I'm loving my carefree days at home. I go to the pool every morning for a swim, and then I relax in the jacuzzi, chitchatting with strangers, and wishing summer would never end. It's so wonderful to have time to read the paper and have lunch with friends and to work in the garden and to make lovely meals.

As you know, I like cooking with the seasons. In winter lentils and dried legumes feature prominently in my dishes, which are mainly complex stews, curries, and soups. But in summer, I go crazy at the farmer's markets and my refrigerator always has way too many vegetables. My repertoire isn't exactly huge, I have to say. Mainly because there are some things I am extremely fond of and can have them again and again. Basil pesto, heirloom tomatoes, grilled asparagus, tender green beans - steamed and tossed in butter, mustard, and toasted almond flakes.

Last week I broke from my tradition and made a rice dish that Daryl loved. This dish materialized because my refrigerator was unusually empty. All I could see were a bunch of cilantro (fresh coriander), a big carrot, and a couple broccoli heads. I opened the freezer and found a box of soy chicken strips. My brain went to work trying to figure out how to put this all together into a yummy dish. This is what I came up with:

I boiled 2 cups of brown rice.
Then I made a cilantro pesto. I got out my food processor and put in the following ingredients: the bunch of cilantro, 2 green chilis (from my garden), 2 cloves garlic, 1/4 cup walnuts, juice of a lemon, 1/2 cup canola oil, some salt. Blend until you get a paste.

I peeled and cubed the carrot and steamed it. The broccoli went into the steamer after a bit. I sauteed the soy chicken strips. When the rice was ready I stirred in the pesto and added the veggies, which were still a little crunchy, and soy chicken.
And that's it! A simple, healthy, but delicious dish, which is also vegan.