Thursday, April 21, 2011

La, la, la lemons

I am self-medicating with lemons in the absence of over due rhubarb and trilliums. Walking the dog hunkered into hat, coat and gloves, eyes fastened on flower beds covered in brown leaves, skeletal trees on every side I feel confused. Is it spring or is it autumn? When I’m planting bulbs in the fall, perhaps morbidly, I often think how it is like burying little skulls – though is there a more hopeful activity than planting flowers in the anticipation of spring?

When life hands you lemons, runs the ironically saccharine saw, make lemonade. Ever the contrarian, I make risotto. Lemon risotto is a nice starter or accompaniment to pan fried sole or schnitzel. Most recently I made a main dish of it, topping it with chunks of chicken which I lightly floured, sautéed in butter and oil, then deglazed the pan with lemon juice and tossed the chicken with the reduced juice. This took place while the risotto rested prior to serving. I garnished it all with sage leaves I’d fried in the butter and oil before the cooking the chicken.

Doing the chicken this way was a great way to finish up the lemons I’d shorn of their zest for muffins and the risotto. You make this risotto by cooking the Arborio rice in butter and olive oil with a finely chopped shallot or two. Now comes the stirring. It takes about five cups of warmed chicken stock to a cup and a half of rice added a ladle full at a time. Stir, stir, stir, and once your stock is incorporated take the risotto off the heat and add about a teaspoon of finely grated lemon zest, finely chopped sage and mint – surprise – a couple tablespoons of lemon juice, parmesan to taste, a little knob of butter, cover and let it rest for five minute during which you can salivate, prepare the chicken as described above, pour a glass of wine . . . look out the window in the hopes of crocus.

Lost in Shadow
Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind is a labyrinth of book. At first glance it seems to be an off shoot of magic realism with a nod to Edgar Allan Poe. But things are not quite what they seem. In an interview with Eleanor Wachtel, Zafon explained that the inspiration for his Cemetery of Forgotten Books was a bookstore outside Los Angeles housed in an old hangar without electricity. Patrons are encouraged to bring their own flashlight.

Longing and loss unite the characters along a shared thread, Julian Carax, the author of the book within the book, The Shadow of the Wind. In picking it Daniel is committing to keeping it alive for future generations, as his father, a second hand book dealer explains. Soon afterwards Daniel finds himself living events in his chosen tome, including being pursued by a disfigured man who smells of burnt paper, Lain Coubert, who may be the devil himself.

The first two thirds are delightful, but I began to weary in the home stretch. One of the hardest things to convey in writing and in life is why one person loves another. Not only was I dizzy from repeated pirouettes of plot, I became credulous about the “why” I was to believe that eventually virtually everyone, except his arch enemy, were prepared to make heroic sacrifices for the illusive Julian Carax.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Making a Mess of Lasagne

Lasagne can be problematic. There was a time when a potluck supper was invariably a fugue on layered noodles. I remember a quintessentially Canadian experience, when I planned an elaborate dinner starting with a vegetable lasagne appetizer, which I prepared in advance – including homemade noodles – and froze. Having baked and served it up to my six guests, I sat down to join them and discovered it was STILL frozen in the middle, none of my hyper polite guests had said a word.

I have also made a wonderful chicken lasagne from a Lidia Bastianich recipe from an ancient Food & Wine magazine. It was great and as my Italian ex-mother-in-law would have said, "lotsa work."

And yet, what is more satisfying than lasagne? I’ll tell you, skillet lasagne. Why bother with all that careful layering when it’s all going to end up, jumbled up, in the same place? I have Cook’s Illustrated to thank for this one, and I recommend their The Best 30-Minute Recipe cookbook heartily. I have given it to several people and heard only good things about the results.

Because I had a hard time getting vegetables into my houseguest, my mother, I had to get a little sneaky. I scaled back the meat and stirred in a bag of baby spinach, which wilted down to discrete perfection. An excellent dinner, full stop – should I say colon?

Ghostly parallels

Susan Hill’s novella The Woman in Black is for many the gold standard in contemporary ghost stories. It is a thoroughly convincing period piece set in a remote house with a secret and terrible past. If I were a minor character within it I’d tell you it’s a “ripping good yarn.”

Hill, who also writes detective novels, which I haven’t yet sampled, has a second haunting novella The Man in the Picture, but I’m not sure I can judge it fairly. This one is set in Cambridge and like its companion it has an interesting, amiable and intelligent narrator, and the parallels continue to the point where I felt I was reading a variation on a theme. Now if I’d never laid eyes on The Woman in Black, something tells me I would have thoroughly enjoyed it.