Sing “Fair Harvard” for me…

I readily admit to being one of the least supportive alumni when it comes to my alma mater’s athletics, but I’m going to pretend that’s not true and take a moment to gloat over my many friends who went to the University of Eastern Western Central Michigan: Harvard 62, Michigan 51. Attaboy, Tommy!

Pork loin, bread and butter pudding, and cookies.

So I finally made the bread-and-butter pudding recipe in Kevin Dundon’s Full on Irish cookbook, and I can report that (a) the recipe works and (b) the finished product is just like the version at his Raglan Road restaurant. (Without the raisins. I despise raisins.) My only modification was to cook the pudding in a bain marie, since it’s really just bread in a custard and I always cook my custards in a water bath to minimize the chance of curdling. I made a half-recipe, so I checked the custard after 20 minutes and pulled it at 25 (the full recipe calls for 30-35 minutes, but it’s always a good idea to keep an eye on custards). The cookbook includes recipes for both the crème anglaise and the butterscotch sauce that are served alongside the dessert at Raglan Road. Just be prepared for a lot of whisking.

Those of you who live near a Trader Joes and have any sort of affinity for chocolate need to go try their new Dark Chocolate Stars cookies. It’s a non-pareil wrapped around a star-shaped crunchy shortbread cookie. I just ate seven inside of a minute. The store nearest me sold out its first shipment inside of a day.

I haven’t posted any original recipes yet, mostly because I never think to do it, but I made a roasted pork loin the other night that was easy and came out particularly good. The brining is optional, but pork is so lean that I always brine it before cooking.

For the brine:

2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
2 Tbsp kosher salt (about 1.5 of table salt)
1 Tbsp brown sugar
2-3 whole cloves
Pinch whole black peppercorns
A piece of a sprig of rosemary (about 2″ long)

Bring all ingredients to a boil in a saucepan. Chill with about a dozen ice cubes.

For the meat:

1 pork loin (mine was 1.5 pounds), any strings removed
Small handfuls of fresh parsley and thyme
Needles from 1 sprig of rosemary (save the stem)
3-4 sage leaves
2 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
1-2 tsp kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Olive oil
2 sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into ¾” cubes

  1. If brining, put the pork in the brine in a zip-top bag for at least one hour before cooking. Dry thoroughly with paper towels after removing from the brine.
  2. Preheat the oven to 350°.
  3. Chop all of the herbs and combine in a measuring cup with the salt, garlic, and ground black pepper to taste.
  4. Cover with just enough olive oil to make a paste and rub all over the pork.
  5. Remove the rack from a small roasting pan and cover the bottom with the sweet potato cubes. Add the stem from the rosemary and any left over thyme sprigs.
  6. Sit the pork on the sweet potatoes (fatty side up) and roast until the pork reaches the desired internal temperature – about 135° for medium, 145° for well-done – stirring the sweet potatoes occasionally to ensure even coating with the oil and juices. A 1.5 pound loin took 1 hour to reach 145°.
  7. Remove the pork from the oven and cover with foil on the counter. Allow to rest 5-10 minutes before carving.


A Handful of Dust.

Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust starts out as another great Waugh black comedy, detailing the gradual decay and eventual end of the marriage between Tony and Brenda Last, an upper-class couple who can barely afford to live on the outsized estate they own, paralleling the end of an era in British society. But the last thirty-odd pages prove a grave disappointment for anyone wrapped up in the plot.

An odd sequence of events puts John Beaver, a social parasite who does the luncheon circuit but has little money of his own, at the Lasts’ house for a weekend, where Brenda, bored with her stale marriage and disconnected emotionally from her son, John Andrew, develops a bizarre obsession with Beaver, eventually conning her husband into getting her a flat in London so she can pursue the affair. She detaches so much from her home life that when her son dies in a freak horse-riding accident and she is told that “John is dead,” she bursts into tears, only to recover when she hears it was “John Andrew,” saying, “Thank God.” A few days later, she insists on a divorce, leading to the novel’s funniest passage, the attempt to create evidence of infidelity to justify the divorce request.

The decline in English morality was a regular theme in Waugh’s work, cropping up here in the ease with which Brenda cheats on her husband and forgets her son, as well as in a few offhand references to other affairs and peccadilloes among their gossiping social set. Waugh’s own marriage had ended badly shortly before he wrote the novel, but he spews almost equal venom at the husband as he does at the faithless wife.

But the novel’s resolution falls flat, working on a metaphorical level but deflating like a balloon with a rusty nail through it on a straight plot level. The end of Tony’s plot line is macabre, but it’s also a bit contradictory – Tony finally grows a pair in his dealings with Brenda, but turns back into a sniveling git once in Brazil, almost a case of character undevelopment – and it’s also more of an infinite loop than an ending. (It’s also oddly similar to Stephen King’s Misery, so much so that it seems improbable that King was unfamiliar with Waugh’s book.) Brenda’s fate is mentioned in passing as we see the Lasts’ cousins taking over the estate, which means that neither of the main characters gets a fully realized conclusion. So while A Handful of Dust works as a comedy, as a novel, it’s short of the mark.

Disney’s Enchanted: Parody or love-letter?

Great and even-handed article in the New York Times (go figure!) on The Line Between Homage and Parody at Disney (ESPN’s parent company), focusing on the new movie, Enchanted. One bit jumped out at me:

Because Disney’s characters are so well known, tweaking them even slightly could result in indelible damage. A decade ago, Disney updated the birds in the Enchanted Tiki Room attraction at Walt Disney World and still hasn’t heard the end of it.

Count me in that group – the new Tiki Room, featuring Iago from Aladdin, is beyond annoying, and of course by changing the attraction, they eliminated the nostalgia angle for those of us who went there as kids.

But that aside, I generally enjoy a little self-parody. House had a scene earlier this season where Dr. House is using the janitor as a sounding board, and the janitor says out of nowhere, “It’s lupus,” a reference to the fact that that disease is suggested – and, until last week, is wrong – in every single episode. If you can make fun of yourself, you can show viewers/readers that you don’t take yourself too seriously.

As for whether the Princess Line was a good idea or not – well, aside from the cited $4 billion in revenues, ask me when my daughter is four or so. I think my wife already made her an appointment at the Bippity Boppity Boutique for sometime in 2010.

Um, Bob…

This is priceless: Minnesota Twins should trade stars for Boston Red Sox’s cheap youth.

The article itself is bad enough – there’s a reason I don’t do “these two teams should make this trade!” columns – but here’s the doozy: Writer Bob Sansevere – a sportswriter for the St. Paul Pioneer Press since 1984 – says that the Twins should trade (among others) Carlos Silva to the Red Sox. Which would be a brilliant idea, if Silva hadn’t declared free agency about a month ago. But hey, don’t be afraid to keep track of the 25 players on your one local major league team, Bob.

(Hat tip to River Ave. Blues for sending the link.)

EDIT: FJM weighs in, and as usual, they’re funnier than I am.

The Sheltering Sky.

Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky, another entrant in the TIME 100 (and on the Modern Library 100 as well), is a strange psychological novel in a fantastic setting with interesting side characters, but it ultimately falls short because the two central characters are so very uninteresting.

The Sheltering Sky tracks the breakdowns – one physical, one mental – of Port Moresby and his wife, Kit, as they travel into the Sahara with a friend, Tunner. Kit Moresby is neurotic to an extreme, while Port is alienated from almost everything in his life.
Yet both find their downward spirals hastened by bad choices – not just bad, but stupid and unrealistic as well. It’s clear from the start that their marriage is doomed, but it’s doomed because the thinly drawn characters have no emotional intersection, so the reader is left watching each of their demises at a distance. And when one or the other (usually Port) attempts to offer some deep philosophizing, it reads as hollow, as if the character is speaking the author’s words rather than his or her own.

The shame of it is that Bowles dropped these two-dimensional beings into a wonderful three-dimensional world. His various fictional Saharan towns and oases are richly detailed, some evoking beautiful villages under blue skies, others ominous with their narrow streets and unfriendly denizens. The handful of side characters – a comical mother-and-son due named Lyle, various French colonial administrators with their own troubles and biases, a Jewish shopkeeper in the oasis where Port takes ill – are all sketched with greater clarity and depth than the two nitwits at the story’s center.

I’d love to say that this novel, Bowles’ first, represented a fine first effort upon which he’d likely improve with future works, but every evaluation of his canon lists this novel as his finest, so if you don’t care for The Sheltering Sky, you might wish to follow my example and skip the rest of Bowles’ writings.

Thanksgiving eats & random thoughts.

Thanksgiving at Chez Law is a simple affair. My in-laws came for the holiday, and my mother-in-law started asking about a pumpkin pie (not on my menu) two or three days prior to their arrival. My father-in-law likes pumpkin pie, but also likes apple pie, which I had already made, and I wasn’t about to make two desserts for four people plus a toddler. My mother-in-law explained, “I just have this thing about not wanting anyone to be disappointed,” which is how we ended up with eleven dishes for eight people in 2004. My response to her philosophy? “I don’t give a shit if anyone’s disappointed, so I tend have a lot less stress on holidays.”

The menu: turkey, dressing, sweet potatoes, green-bean casserole, Irish soda bread, cranberry sauce, apple pie.

I always use Alton Brown’s roasted turkey recipe – half an hour at 500 degrees to brown the outside, then drop the oven to 350 with foil over the breast until the white meat is 159 degrees and the thigh hits 170. I brined it the night before using his brine recipe (same link), but instead of allspice berries and candied ginger, I use whole cloves and a pinch of whole mustard seed. I filled the cavity with half an apple, half an onion, two sage leaves, and two rosemary sprigs. The turkey took about 2:20 to cook, longer than I expected, but aside from the deepest part of the drumsticks, every bit of meat was still moist and juicy, and the white meat (usually pretty bland) had a nice flavor that didn’t require help from gravy. Speaking of which, I had plenty of pan drippings for a simple gravy – deglazed with a mixture of sherry (Amontillado!) and cognac, with a little chopped celery and rosemary in the pan, then boosted with homemade chicken stock and thickened with a flour/butter paste. It was very dark and strongly flavored, but delicious.

EDIT: One thing worth mentioning about AB’s cooking method is that during the first half-hour, the oil from the outside of the bird and some of the rendered fat from the bird itself run off and hit the bottom of the pan, which is at 500 degrees, so it smokes. While not good for the smoke alarm, it does end up briefly smoking the bird, so the turkey gets a little pink smoke ring all over the meat, and the drumsticks in particular have a texture a lot like a fully smoked turkey leg. Definitely good eats.

For dressing, I always use Joy of Cooking’s basic bread stuffing recipe, just adding one cup of chopped red bell pepper for flavor and color:

The keys here are always starting with a good-quality bread – I used the fresh Italian bread from Whole Foods, but any artisan bread would be fine – and using fresh herbs and, if you can, homemade chicken stock to moisten it. I grow parsley, sage, and thyme in my tiny backyard, so I had all three fresh and available, and I grind the cloves and grate the nutmeg fresh as well.

The sweet potatoes were another AB recipe, chipotle mashed sweet potatoes, kicked up with 2 Tbsp of brown sugar and about 1 Tbsp of cream:

I melt the cream and butter together in a small saucepan and dissolve the salt and brown sugar in it, just as I would do for mashed potatoes. You should never add cold butter or cream to hot potatoes of any sort, and using them to dissolve the salt and sugar helps distribute the seasonings more evenly throughout the mash.

The green bean casserole was, sadly, the one from the back of the can, because my wife insists on it:

I did throw about a half-teaspoon of hot sauce in there; it doesn’t make the finished dish spicy, but it adds an undertone of heat that I like and that no one complains about.

I make my own cranberry sauce; cranberries are very high in pectin and they gel pretty quickly. The rough rule of thumb is eight cups of fresh whole cranberries, three cups of sugar, and two and a half cups of water. I kick it up a few notches (sorry) by going with 1¾ cups of water, ½ cup of rum,

For bread, I skipped my usual sponge bread and made the white Irish soda bread recipe from Kevin Dundon’s Full on Irish cookbook:

Great texture, perhaps a bit too much buttermilk flavor for my tastes, so next time I might play with it and try a baking powder/milk combo instead of baking soda/buttermilk. Raglan Road, the Downtown Disney restaurant about which I raved earlier this month, is Dundon’s creation, and they serve a brown soda bread there (recipe also in that cookbook) that’s outstanding.

For dessert, I had already prepared and frozen an apple pie, using apples we picked ourselves in late September. You can prepare and freeze an unbaked pie without too much extra work – I have another one in the freezer for Christmas – and it allows you to get the fruit into the pie while it’s still in season. Baking is simple: don’t cut steam vents or glaze before freezing; glaze before baking; bake 10 minutes at 425°, then cut vents and bake 20 minutes more; then drop to 350° and bake until thick juices bubble up through the vents, about another hour. Anyway, the pie was a bit of a disappointment, as the flavor was bland. I think I used too little salt in the crust, although its texture was perfect (it’s the lattice-dough recipe from Baking Illustrated), and the filling probably needed a bit more lemon juice both for tartness and to emphasize the contrast with the sweetness. Apples are always a bit unpredictable in their sweet/tart ratio, and I missed this one a bit. Anyway, the obligatory picture, although the damn thing fell down between slicing and picture-taking:

I can’t emphasize enough how good that dough recipe is, though. Working with it is very easy, as it doesn’t tear or crack, and it’s flaky and tender when it’s baked.

One last hit is the beverage – every year, we make cranberry daiquiris (don’t laugh, they’re about 60% rum) based on a recipe that I could swear was in Bon Appetit but that has disappeared from Since they seem to have lost interest, here’s my take on the recipe:

Dissolve 1/2 cup sugar in 1/2 cup water in medium saucepan over medium heat. Add 1 cinnamon stick, two or three whole cloves, and 1/2 teaspoon grated orange peel; bring to boil. Mix in 1/2 cup cranberries and cook until cranberries begin to pop. Cool; discard cinnamon. Pour mixture into jar; add 1/2 cup light rum. Refrigerate until fully chilled. Strain syrup into pitcher; reserve cranberries. Add 6 tablespoons each dark rum, light rum, orange juice, and lemon juice to pitcher. Chill. Serve over ice; garnish with reserved cranberries.

I use Gosling’s Black Seal rum for the dark rum and squeeze the orange and lemon juices myself. They’re very good and potent for a fruity drink, and I’m not ashamed to admit that I like the demon rum.

A few random observations from the holiday:

• Love the AFLAC commercial using the Rudolph characters. Unfortunately, OfficeMax scooped them a few years ago with their Rubberband man spoof, which was almost as funny as the making-of video.

• More props to TIAA-CREF for using Bob Mould’s “See a Little Light,” one of my favorite songs ever in any genre, in their “Power of” commercial.
• Shouldn’t Les Miles be named Fewer Miles? Does Michigan really want to hire a coach whose own name is a grammatical error?

Wide Sargasso Sea.

Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea isn’t just on the TIME 100; it’s one of 25 books to appear on that list, the Modern Library’s list of the 100 best novels of the 20th century, and the Radcliffe Publishing Course’s rival list. (Others include 1984, An American Tragedy, Lolita, and The Great Gatsby, all of which are also in The Novel 100, as well as another recent read for me, All the King’s Men.) What makes Wide Sargasso Sea unusual for any of these lists is its genre: It’s a prequel to a classic novel written by someone else – Charlotte Brontë’s gothic romance, Jane Eyre .

Rhys (née Ella Williams) apparently connected with a minor and almost stock character in Brontë’s book, Antoinette Bertha Cosway. Rhys was also a Caribbean-born woman sent to England at the brink of adulthood, only to find her hopes of a paradisiacal England like the one she found in literature dashed by a change in fortune, the death of her father, forcing her to abandon her studies and find work. She was haunted by Antoinette’s character, saying, “I was convinced that Charlotte Brontë must have had something against the West Indies, and I was angry about it.” So she wrote.

The prequel comprises three sections, with the third just a short look at Antoinette’s life in England. The first two depict her childhood with a mother who is going insane (although Rhys leaves it vague whether it’s due to genetics or circumstance) and then her somewhat rushed marriage to a confident young Englishman who is seduced by Antoinette’s beauty as well as by her substantial dowry, an inheritance from her mother’s second husband. Antoinette herself is anxious, depressed, and submissive, looking for some vein of independence but finding herself always chained to the people and places around her.

Wide Sargasso Sea is short and its main theme is straightforward – Rhys emphasizes the imbalance she sees in interpersonal relationships, primarily romantic ones, with parallels in master/slave relationships. It is almost a feminist tract in response to the Victorian sensibility of Brontë’s work, although Jane herself was a strong character with an independent streak; think of it more as Rhys’ response to Brontë’s treatment of Antoinette (known as Bertha in Jane Eyre) as a helpless creature, more her husband’s ward than wife. Rhys also employs one of the more obvious symbols (fire) I’ve come across in any literary work, one that would be a great example for teaching literature students about symbolism and how it can be integrated into a novel in a way that is unobtrusive yet still powerful.

As an exploration of an underdeveloped character in another novel, Wide Sargasso Sea is profound and thought-provoking, opening the door to broader questions of how the dominant/submissive dynamic permeates many romantic relationships. Without Jane Eyre to hold it up, however, it’s an unfinished novella that trails off without a proper ending to its linear plot. If you haven’t read Jane Eyre, you certainly should, as it’s one of the greatest novels ever written in the English language and appears on The Novel 100, but also because it opens the door not just to Wide Sargasso Sea and to the amazing world introduced in Jasper Fforde’s hilarious book The Eyre Affair.

Speaking of lists, this book pushes me past the halfway point on the TIME 100 list, to 50 7/12, since I’m seven books into Anthony Powell’s twelve-volume A Dance to the Music of Time. Anyway, I hope you all have a safe, happy, and (most importantly) delicious Thanksgiving. If all goes well and I have time to take some pictures tomorrow, I’ll have some food pr0n on the site over the weekend.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, another entrant in the TIME 100, is a wonderfully terse novel, or perhaps novella, that manages to pack a ridiculous amount of detail and emotion into its 130-odd pages.

TPoMJB is a comedy of manners set over a novel of ideas, or more accurately of ideology. Miss Jean Brodie is an independent-minded teacher at an all-girls school between the wars, and she chooses six girls from her class of ten-year-olds to be the “Brodie Set,” singled out allegedly for their unique personalities, but more apparently for Miss Brodie’s gratification of her own ego and the imitiation of some of her own religious ideals. Miss Brodie teaches the girls what she believes is important, often running afoul of the private school’s authorities and other teachers, and lets the Brodie Set see or hear glimpses of her personal life, including her aborted affair with a married co-worker – whose Catholic faith she subsequently denigrates, as she blames it for the end of their tryst – and longer-running affair with another co-worker. Yet Miss Brodie is not the enlightened teacher of a Dead Poets Society, instead blaming the one “stupid” girl in the Brodie Set, Mary, for almost everything that goes wrong, and never hesitating to point out the failings of her other chosen charges.

The story itself covers the time from the selection of the Brodie Set to Miss Brodie’s downfall when one of her charges – the identify of whom is the only real “spoiler” plot element of the book – betrays her to the school’s headmistress. Underlying that story, however, is a tripartite battle of ideas: Miss Brodie’s Calvinist beliefs against the Roman Catholic beliefs of her paramous Mr. Lloyd, with a non-religious ideology, fascism, entering the fray over the course of the book as fascism itself rises to prominence and then becomes a threat in Europe.

Spark employs a brisk, matter-of-fact style, and she plays with time by never really establishing a “present” time, jumping back and forth in an anecdote-drive story. She reveals future plot elements with almost offhand comments early in the text, such as telling us that Mary dies in a fire or that Rose eventually becomes known for sex, then giving the reader more details at later points. It’s an unusual style, but effective in keeping things moving while also keeping the reader a bit off balance. And if you don’t like it, at least it’s over quickly.

New ESPN column.

If you don’t read my ESPN articles through an RSS reader, you’ll probably miss my most recent column, which isn’t linked anywhere on the baseball page at the moment. The article lists ten guys who are currently out of favor or simply out of luck with their current teams, making them likely trade targets for this offseason.

Also, due to the holiday and the attendant cooking obligations (I haven’t even made the cranberry sauce yet, so I’m behind schedule), there will be no KlawChat next week. The next chat will be November 29th.