Archive for September, 2012

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September 27, 2012: Zen Through the Mountain

September 27, 2012

Digging through my bookshelf the other night looking for something to read, I found a terribly old, very thin, volume called “The Ronin” by William Dale Jennings. Mmmm…a book written by a Westerner based on a Zen story. This is one that should have been a good read for me. I remember starting this a long time ago, but I could not remember why I never finished it.

The term “ronin” applies to a masterless samurai. A warrior outside the code of bushido, the law of ethics that true samurai lived their life by. Bushido is analogous to the Western “chivalry” the code of ethics of Western knights.

The Story
The ronin of this book is truly an outlaw in every way. Literally, his immoral and sadistic behavior is “outside the law.” At the start of this story, the ronin is the worst of men, as he commits just about every form of violence that can be done to his fellow-man. The ronin behaves this way because he is naturally prone to violence, but mostly because he fears no consequences for his actions. To make matters worse, the victims of the ronin are mostly innocents or opponents weaker than him. He terrorizes village after village until three youths, newly trained by an elder sword master, impetuously challenge the ronin and are mercilessly slaughtered by him. As the ronin goes on, he finds a lesser kingdom, ruled by a weak overlord and insinuates himself as the lord’s vassal. The ronin then proceeds to kill his lord, steal his wife away, and leave the lord and lady’s young son an orphan. The ronin and the lady live a mean existence outside the law and society, shunned by even the lowest levels of class. The former lady becomes a miserly prostitute to support them. The ronin eventually sickens of her company and he abandons her. He also is sickened of his own company, throws away his sword and searches for a better way to live. He comes upon a group of travelers struggling on a narrow mountain path, and after rescuing them, decides to dig a path through the mountain to prevent such dangers to other travelers. As the life and behavior of the ronin is changing, the young son of the lord and lady has grown to learn of the shame and crimes of the ronin against his parents and goes in search of a someone who would train him as a sword duelist in order to wreak revenge on the ronin. The young man finds the very same sword-master that trained the young men vanquished by the ronin in the beginning. After a period of long training, the young man follows the trail of the ronin, estimates the time it should take for the ronin to finish burrowing through the mountain, and plans to return in time to take the ronin’s hands just before he is able to finish his task.

The Analysis
It was easy to see why, long ago I stopped reading “The Ronin.” I was so disgusted in the brutish and violent behavior of the main character in the beginning of the book and I could not imagine such awful actions ever being redeemed. I guess I needed my main characters to be noble, polished, and free of flaws, back then. I also tend to read far too fast. I was reading “The Ronin” as if it were pulp, which indeed, in its first couple of chapters, essentially IS pulp. What my earlier self failed to realize that any book based on a Zen story probably has more than what appears on the surface. Also, racing through a book on Zen is antithetical. This time reading, I thought the violent beginning was perhaps like a movie plot to hook the reader (how close I was, here, I could not imagine) and then to slowly spoon feed the better ideas later on. My patience, this reading, revealed a commentary on many human values worth addressing: the wages of sin; the value of service; how we are able to change but must ultimately accept the incontrovertible nature of our being; as well as generosity, good parenting, a life of service, heroism, justice, vengeance, money, and religion. Jennings is able to interject a small measure of humor: watching the ronin dangle on the line he has trapped himself with, as well as the student/teacher relationship between the son and the swordsman (which seems cliché these days, as the Swordsman out-Miyagis Mr. Miyagi, in his “wax-on/wax-off” moments…but this was written well before all versions of “The Karate Kid”…and might possibly have been an influence.) I also found a great deal of delicious symbolism in the book, which in itself warrants a rereading.

“The Ronin” is not an easy book. It has the most abrupt and unexpected endings I have ever remember reading (which makes me think, that perhaps, this too, is a Zen-like move, necessitating a rereading.) In addition to the ending, Jennings writing is generally confusing to the Western mind, which tends to like concepts spelled out. For example:

“Seeing that the fear had returned, he began to practice kendo in his mind. He spent hours in moveless meditation, hours in practice as he slept, and the untouched sword upon the tokonoma rack never left his hands by day or night.”

The Author
William Dale Jennings has studied martial arts: Tai Chi in China, Judo and Aikido in Japan, so understands this concept of practicing a movement without moving, as much of Asian martial arts is ultimately a “mind over matter” exercise, stressing a heightened pre-awareness of one’s movements. This is just one example of the tonal shift needed for the Western mind to understand this book. Another, as my earlier self failed to realize, is to slow down and think, while reading it. Jennings has also studied the Cha-no-yu (Japanese tea ceremony) and Zen, with Rinzai-Zen master Nyogen Senzaki. Jennings based “The Ronin” on Senzaki’s stories from “Zen Flesh, Zen Bones.” Finding out that Jennings was a writer for Hollywood made me research what he may have done. It was a surprise to find he was the writer for “The Cowboys” one of my favorite John Wayne films of my childhood, making William Dale Jennings a true “East meets West” author if there ever was one!

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September 24, 2012: Mom’s Stuffed Peppers

September 24, 2012

Celts love the number three. Whether it’s trefoils, triskelions, or triads, three is that magic number that pops up all over Celtic culture and art since before recorded history. Because my Celtic side comes through my mom, I thought I would round off my trio of tributes to her cooking with my variation of the dish that she made that was my favorite.

You can find stuffed pepper recipes wherever peppers are grown, and they grow most places on earth, making stuffed peppers one of the most universal human dishes. Mom made hers with ground beef, but my store sells a soy product called “soyrizo” that I like, which is a vegetarian variation of chorizo (the Portuguese sausage.)

 

Mom’s Stuffed Peppers:
Wash and slice the very top of two peppers, core and discard seeds, wash inside and dry on a paper towel. Dice pepper top around stem. Dice 1/4 Vidalia onion, one small medium-hot red pepper, and 1 clove garlic and cook over low-medium heat in 3 Tblsp. corn oil for about 2  minutes in medium pot. While veggies are cooking, wash 1/2C. basamati and 1/8C.brown rice well and drain. Add 3oz. of the soyrizo to the veggies and cook for another 2 minutes. Add dashes of ground pepper, oregano, chili powder, and a small bay leaf. Add rice to pot and cook for yet another 2 minutes. Add 2C. veggie broth, bring to a boil, stirring occasionally. Cover, reduce heat, and simmer until rice is almost dry, stirring once and while. Stuff peppers with rice/veggie/sorizo until about 7/8th full. Put in an oiled shallow pan with extra stuffing on the side. Top with grated pepper-jack and parmesan cheeses and a few flakes of red pepper. Bake at 325°F for 1 hour. Give peppers a quick shot under the broiler (low in the oven for more control) until browned. Serve.

“What are the three welcomes of a good chef? Not hard to tell…plenty, kindliness, and art”  -Celtic Triad

 

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September 22, 2012: Mom’s Spaghetti Squash

September 22, 2012

Here is the other recipe mom surprised her kids with once: spaghetti squash. Not only was she thinking healthy, and easy to prepare, but it also was quite an unusual dish that intrigued us all! When she told us that this bright yellow veggie, looking like a cross between a melon and a squash would yield noodle-like threads when she was done, we were a bit skeptical! She was smart and did warn us that it would only look like spaghetti, but would taste like squash.

Spaghetti Squash:
Half squash with a sharp chef knife. Scoop out seeds and pulp in the center of both halves (save seeds to roast with a bit of shoyu…they taste like pumpkin seeds.) Brush a little veggie oil on top of squash and sprinkle with a dash of ground pepper, sal de mer, and a few hot pepper flakes and bake (skin side down on  a cookie sheet) at 325°F for about 1/2 hour. Flake the squash with a fork to get a spaghettti-like texture and separate from the rind. I like it just like this with a pat of butter thrown in, but from here you can do a million variations: top with cheese and broil a bit; mix with tomato sauce for a healthier spaghetti; mix with other veggies; toss with a little more oil and feta cheese cubes, grape tomatoes, olives…the sky’s the limit!

Healthy, inexpensive, easy to prepare, versatile, interesting, and kinda fun. Thanks mom, for looking after your extremely fussy brood for so long, and for really achieving many more successes than failures (‘tho we would never admit it.) I do believe that food that we make is a subtle incarnation of our love for the ones we cook for. We chefs take what we learned from the loving teachers we have had, and pass that on to the others, that we, in turn care about. To turn a phrase: it is love that is a dish best served warm.

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September 20, 2012: Mom’s Baked Eggplant

September 20, 2012

I had hinted that my last article, the review of “Toast” (2010) that the film influenced me in a way that I never expected. Before I ever saw the movie, I was reading the jacket cover of the DVD, just before going to bed. My first thought was that I was going to like the film (I did.) Reading that the film was about a mother who found challenges in the kitchen, made me think of my own mom’s cooking.

As just about all my sisters are superior chefs, we have this family joke that we all became good cooks in self-defense, due to our mom’s bad cooking. Without a doubt, poor lady, she had a number of disasters. In particular, mom’s pigs feet is imbedded in my mind as the absolute worst and most disgusting food I have ever eaten. The scene from “Toast” where Nigel flings away his mother’s sandwiches? That was me. I used to dread Monday Meatloaf, not so much as the meatloaf wasn’t good, it actually was very tasty right out of the oven. It’s just that I knew I was doomed to several days of my mom’s awful meatloaf sandwiches for lunch, sandwiches that I promptly chucked into the wastebasket at lunch!

The reality was that mom was trying to please the tastes of nine different, very particular, and refined tastes, which any chef will tell you, is just about an impossibility! Mom actually did a fine job introducing unique dishes to our diet. We all really loved her pizza and beef and veggie soup, and she did an excellent job on anything she baked.

I can’t really say, with any certainty, where these ideas come from, but all I know is that going to bed, that night after reading the DVD jacket, I was thinking of my mom’s cooking and I woke up remembering two pretty unique recipes of my her’s. Baked Eggplant is the first one.

Mom’s Baked Eggplant:
Skin 1 medium eggplant and save skins for soup stock. Dice eggplant, wash, salt well, let sit for 20 minutes, wash again, and let dry out a couple of minutes. This will remove some of the inherit bitterness of the eggplant (this makes 2.5C. eggplant.)   Cube .5C. wheat bread, add 1-2 Tblsp. butter to a pan and toast croutons over medium heat, turning often with spices (ground pepper, Herbs de Provence, and French Thyme.) You want the croutons to be just a bit toasted, as it will be further baked with the eggplant. Mixed croutons with eggplant. Butter individual Pryex bowls and add bread/eggplant. Top with dabs of butter, a sprinkling of panko and a dash of red pepper flakes. Bake at 350°F for about 15 minutes. Zap with the broiler to get extra toasting on top.

There is a saying that we all grow in response to our parents. I think it’s quite possible that both the good and the bad dishes my mom made helped shape most of her children into wonderful chefs.

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September 17, 2012: “Toast” (2010)

September 17, 2012

I take it for granted that most of the movies in the DVD collection at the library have been found to have some flaw by the people who donated them. Probably the most common reason for donating them is to make room for the new DVD purchases. Still, these movies must have been found lacking in some way, by the donators. So, I play this game that I call “find the flaw” as I view them.

I was thrilled to find a new-ish “indie-foodie” (my most favorite category of cinema) in the library’s collection called “Toast” (2010) by director S.J. Clarkson, a biography about early life of British food writer Nigel Slater.

Poor Nigel has a rough childhood. He has an inherit sensitivity to, and desire for, fine food, but is condemned to have a mother (although very sweet and caring) that has absolutely no clue how to prepare even the most simple dish. His voice over, states what every child knows, “When you are deprived of something, it just makes you all the more hungry for it.” It doesn’t help that his father has a very surly nature, “Not a sweet man, despite a very sweet tooth.” Mr. Slater is clearly not getting much sugar (both literal and metaphoric) from his wife, probably exacerbating his surliness. With Nigel’s pleading, his mother tries to make the dishes he craves, usually with disastrous results. Her default dish after these failures is toast, which oddly, despite its simplicity, Nigel finds satisfying, “No matter how bad things get, it’s hard not to love someone who has made you toast.” Nigel pleads with his mom to teach him to make mince-pie for Christmas, but she is ill and it is a race against time…a race that ultimately is lost.

Enter Mrs. Potter (Helena Bonham Carter) first as a cleaner but who slowly wins over the father with her very good cooking skills, earthiness and attractiveness. Dad finally has all the sugar he wants, but Nigel finds her “common” and can’t stand her. He can’t help but admit that she is a superior chef, but that just starts a rivalry between the two over the father’s affections with food as the weapon selected by the duelists.

I loved the setup of “Toast” as period piece about food and personalities and it certainly has some very fine moments. I loved the “tossing the mom’s sandwich” scene (something I have been guilty of, with my mom’s sandwiches.) The “grade school milk line” and the “food-porn” scenes I found to be just hilarious! “Toast” has a few very well-rounded and interesting side characters. I liked Nigel’s advising childhood friend and the young gardener Josh, who both sets the tone of the value of a life well-spent and explains the love of a garden in way that I have never heard before. The big surprise in acting came from child actor Oscar Kennedy as the young Nigel. In contrast, Freddie Highmore, himself having been a very good child actor, phones in his performance as the teen-age Nigel. Helena Bonham Carter does a superb job playing an unlikeable character (or is she…truly unlikable?) After viewing…feel free to talk amidst yourselves.

I found “Toast” to be very frustrating in one aspect. My group of friends’ nickname for this kind of film is an “effin-pint-o’-stiffy” after one of us saw “Trainspotting” a number of years ago. Our friend said that because of the accents, those were the only words she could make out in the entire film! I question any filmmaker, these days, not including subtitles! I want to catch every nuance of the spoken word of a film. A film with rich accents and period or colloquial words needs to be subtitled!

Where “Toast” absolutely shines is its use of the idea of food creation as expression of ones soul. Even amongst the characters that don’t have the skill to express themselves this way, somehow give meaning to this…and those that have it to the extreme, do not always choose to express their soul in the right way.

“Toast” also influenced me in a way that I never expected…but that is for another day…another article.

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September 15, 2012: Green Tea Rice Porridge

September 15, 2012

Here is an interesting, yet simple variation to short-grained rice dish: green tea rice porridge. This is traditionally served in Japan for breakfast or for a snack.

Green Tea Rice Porridge:

Boil water. Steep 1 Tblsp. green leaf tea in 2C. H2O for 5 minutes and filer out tea leaves. In 1/2C. H2O, add 1/2 Tsp. macha powdered tea and whisk. Add tea to 1C. sushi rice (do NOT wash rice as the starch is necessary for the porridge.) Bring to a boil, reduce heat to simmer, cover. Gently stir occasionally. After the rice has absorbed the H2O, remove from heat. Add 1/2Tsp mirin and stir. Serve in individual bowls. Top with a dribble of sesame oil and serve with shoyu.

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September 13, 2012: Summer Punch

September 13, 2012

Here in New England we’ve already had a couple of cold-ish nights, a sure sign that there is more cold not too far down the road. So this recipe may be coming a tad late, as it is a perfect thirst quencher for a hot day, and just different enough to make it interesting.

My sweet neighbor Cindy, has been feeding me fresh veggies from her garden for a couple of weeks now, and they all have been very appreciated. The fresh beans, tomatoes, squash, and the latest…cucumbers, have been just delicious! Cindy gave me a couple of cukes the other day, but only after I had picked up a few from the reduced produce rack, so I had to come up with a way to use them so that none went to waste. I came up with not one, but two slightly odd (but delicious) recipes. Summer Punch is a mix of lemon, apple, and cucumber juices. The Cucumber “Pudding” was, at first, just a way of using the part of the cucumber not used for the punch, but I ended up liking this recipe perhaps even more than the punch recipe.

Summer Punch:
Skin two medium cucumbers, slice in half and de-seed with small spoon and put the seeds/pulp in a sieve with a bowl underneath. Lightly crush seeds/pulp with a pestle and let drain as you finely grate the rest of cucumbers in another bowl. Discard seeds and pulp and add the grated cukes to the sieve to get a total of about 1/2C. cucumber juice. To cucumber juice, add 1Tblsp. lemon juice and 1.5C. unsweetened apple juice. Serve with ice and a slice of lemon.

Cucumber “Pudding:”
With the pulp (NOT the seeded pulp…the pulp from the flesh of the cukes) left over after the juices for the Summer Punch have been drained, add an equal amount of your favorite yogurt. Plain is fine, lemon…even better. The best buy for yogurt today was…stay with me…bannana…and I thought it was just fantastic! Add a sprinkle of cardamon and serve right away. The crunch of the fresh cukes is a wonderful texture, and I got the feeling that if left too long in the yogurt, the cukes would get too mushy.

Two recipes for the price of one. Thank you Cindy, for all the fresh food, for the inspiration to these healthy recipes and for keeping the “price” near to zip!

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