kitchen creativity

I've been a bit stuck with my writing for the last, oh, couple of years - for reasons I'll get into in another post (real soon) - but in the meantime, my creativity has found other outlets, primarily cooking.

So I've decided to include the occasional food post here

A few notes about the way I cook...I improvise a lot. I take risks. I experiment. I play. When I tell you I can't give you a recipe, it's true. Not only do I rarely know how much I used of any ingredient, I often don't remember every ingredient I used. When I want to try a new dish, I research and find about a dozen recipes. I see what they have in common, and what items and amounts vary - and go from there. I also have enough experience to have a very good idea of how certain flavors will play together, or how changing the amounts of ingredients will effect the texture.

Recently I did a brisket, slow cooked for about 18 hours. Yes, that's right, 18 hours. Brisket is tricky - and the only way to really get it tender is to use a whole one (around 10-12 pounds), with the fat cap on (yes, that's just what it sounds like - a good inch or more of fat on the top of the whole thing) and cook it as slowly as you can manage while keeping it as moist as possible (the fat cap helps with this.) I made a rub that I liked, and thankfully have some left over so I'll use it again: salt, black pepper, smoked hot paprika, sweet paprika, dry mustard, cumin, cinnamon (and maybe some other things I've forgotten).

But the thing I was most happy with was the sauce. It was a Dr. Pepper Citrus BBQ. Where I got that notion, I'm not sure. I saw a recipe for a mop sauce (that is, a thin BBQ sauce you mop onto the meat while it cooks) that used root beer, and Dr. Pepper just has a little more complex flavor - so I thought I'd try it. I added the juice of a couple of oranges, some of the dry rub seasoning, a fair amount of liquid smoke (pecan), a little cider vinegar, a little ketchup, and some honey. I simmered it, letting it cook down a bit - and when it was time to baste, I took some of the drippings out of the pan and mixed them into the sauce before using it to baste. The resulting sauce was complex, a little smoky, a little tangy (without being too vinegary - which shuts down the taste buds), a little sweet (but not cloying.) I have no idea if I can repeat that sauce, but I'll definitely play with it again. I'd like to try a thicker version with more citrus on some chicken.

Last night my sister and I shared a Lamb and Apricot tagine. I made something similar a couple of months ago, using dried apricots. This time I used fresh, and you'd never even realize they were the same dish. I used lamb neck this time, too, which is much leaner (and way cheaper) than the shanks I used last time, so the flavor was more mild, not as gamey. If you're going to stew the meat, then a cut like neck is fine - the meat falls off the bone, is tender, the marrow contributes to the dish, and if you have dogs they will appreciate it.

I'd started the tagine over a week ago - because I'd picked up the lamb, not realizing how long the brisket would last us - and had it in a container in the fridge. I wasn't sure if it'd still be good, but when I pried open the top and got a bright whiff of fresh apricot - I knew it was all good. (A cold fridge and air-tight container makes a huge difference.)

For those who aren't familiar with the term: a tagine is a stew, traditionally cooked in a ceramic pot with a high conical top. the word actually describes the vessel, but is applied to the dishes made in it as well. It's designed to cook on a low fire, and works best in a modern kitchen on a stove top. The high cone captures the moisture, allows it to condensate, and drip back into the food. Moroccan tagines are generally made with a cheap cut of meat (often lamb or chicken), a few veggies, some fruit and maybe honey - plus a complex blend of spices.

I'm in love with the Moroccan spice blend Ras el Hanout. Like curry, there are as many variations as there are cooks - and some of the ingredients often used in Morocco are illegal here (like Spanish Fly) - but it's still a wonderous thing. The one I bought from World Market includes not only "warm" aromatic spices like cinnamon, cardamom, turmeric, black pepper and ginger, but rosebuds and lavender. My mother used to refer to cooking as alchemy, and all I need to do open the container and smell this in order to believe there's some kind of magic here.

So - this tagine, I threw together the following: lamb neck, ras el hanout, salt, the juice of a lemon plus the rind, a little honey, red wine, a couple handfuls of baby carrots, and a can of diced tomatoes. I used some mint I'd grown, but I have no talent for gardening and the mint somehow managed to have almost no flavor - so it had no noticeable impact in the dish. (Last time I made the tagine, with dried apricots and lamb shank, the mint played beautifully off of the tomatoes.) When it was all done, I felt like it still needed something - so when I re-heated it last night, I added garbanzos and more ras el hanout and red wine.

This dish was a real joy. The brightness of the apricots and tomatoes balanced the heaviness of the lamb, and the spices wafted off of it, filling the room with the smell.

Good food, especially when I am involved in it from conception, to production, to consumption, to be transported to a realm of pure sensuality.

Right now, I've let my weight climb up alarmingly, and my sister's having health problems related to her weight and diet - so most of my posts on cooking will focus on healthy foods. Whole grains, small amounts of processed carbohydrates, lots of legumes and beans, lots of veggies and fruits, and lean meats of all kinds. I'll be using these posts as a way to keep myself excited about cooking healthy, and remembering that tea-smoked salmon with a wasabi vinaigrette can be as sensual and fulfilling as brisket burnt ends.

Golden Ages of Cinema

It's generally accepted that the '30s and '40s were the golden age for cinema, and that more great films were made in 1969 than in any other year.

But In a recent blog, Earl Pomerantz says

1939. The Oscar winner was Gone With the Wind, the nominees – among others – The Wizard of Oz (Dr. M’s favorite), Stagecoach, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and Ninotchka, leaving no room fo Beau Geste, Gunga Din, Young Mr. Lincoln and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Not the mention The Thin Man. May I have your comparable list of any other year? Or any era, beyond the Thirties and Forties, where, by the way, the movie business was just as passionately committed to making a profit?

This was my response:


All the President's Men
Bound for Glory
Marathon Man
The Omen
Taxi Driver

That's a pretty good list - and there are comparable ones from every year from 1969 to 1979 (with some stellar films in '67 and '68 as well.)

And of course, 1939 also included Hitler - Beast of Berlin, Barricade, Bachelor Mother, Boys' Reformatory, Andy Hardy Gets Spring Fever, and Daughter of the Tong.

Every year has good and bad films.

Though, I do admit, the balance has been off for a while - I think it's cyclical. Film improves every time it's threatened by new technology. In the '30s - there were over 40 million radios in use in homes in the US. To compete with radio shows, the movies had to be better. In the 60's TVs had proliferated - and in the 70's, with the advent of the VCR, movies had to shine a little more to compete with videos.

I think we're about due for another golden age, as "new media" becomes more prominent and studios realize that to compete with DVRs and the Internet, they don't need to make more expensive movies - just better ones.


(I left out The Man Who Fell to Earth (one of my favorite movies), and a handful of other favorites)

I get frustrated with the kind of nostalgia that says things were better once and they'll never be that great again because it's all ruined. It reminds me of the nostalgia for a fake-perfect America that conservatives use, an imagined 1950s where everything was Leave it to Beaver and there were no poor people, or shell-shocked vets, and women never minded not being able to divorce their alcoholic husbands, or to work as something other than a secretary or waitress when they were widowed.

There were a lot of great movies in 1939, and in 1976 - but every year has amazing films, groundbreaking work, and every year has schlock. Indiana Jones, this year, is schlock. But did you see Iron Man? Critically acclaimed movies thus far this year include: Reprise, Priceless, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, The Visitor, and The Counterfeiters - and we're not even close to "Oscar season."