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Monday, January 30, 2012

Sunday Meal: Soupe a l'Oignon Gratinée

I made soupe a l’oignon gratinée yesterday, commonly known in English as French onion soup.  It’s a very time-consuming recipe, especially if you make your own broth which I did of course.  I have some great stock I made with gallina in my freezer but I wanted to make this broth using meat. I had been thinking about this dish for weeks but circumstances conspired against actually making it until yesterday. It’s hard for any dish to live up to that kind of expectation and my version didn’t actually blow me away but then again, I can’t say that I have had better, even in France.

To go along with it I made a recipe that I stole from my new favorite bar in the neighborhood, Bar Casa Morrut, Calle Maestro José Serrano 4. Pepe makes some great food in this place and it’s very inexpensive.  One of my favorite tapas at his place is chicken livers fried in bay leaves and garlic.  I hadn’t eaten liver of any sort for a long time as I am the only person that I know who actually eats the stuff. Most of my friends here can’t even stand the smell of it cooking which is a shame because my butcher has wonderful liver, both pork and beef. The chicken livers I bought at the supermarket, higaditos y menudillos (little livers and giblets). I had to look up the word “menudillos” and then I had to look up “giblets” in English. From the online Oxford dictionary:

plural noun
  • the liver, heart, gizzard, and neck of a chicken or other fowl, usually removed before the bird is cooked, and often used to make gravy, stuffing, or soup.

·         Middle English (in the sense 'an inessential appendage', later 'garbage, offal'): from Old French gibelet 'game bird stew', probably from gibier 'birds or mammals hunted for sport'

I never knew. I thought "giblets" was something specific. In the case of the ones I bought from my supermarket they mean hearts. Now I know. "Mollejas" or gizzards are another item people cook with abundantly here in Spain.  All this is generally something most people in America throw away, although it’s more likely they never see it in the first place as it is removed before their chicken is neatly packaged in plastic. I have always been rather old-school in my eating habits and to say that I don’t shy away from strange foods would be an understatement. But it goes way beyond me trying to be macho; I actually like offal, as it is sometimes called.

Bar Casa Morrut Chicken Livers and Giblets

Simply fry the livers in hot olive oil with bay leaves, garlic, ad a pinch of salt. I threw in a finely chopped onion just because I had one on hand.  I made a sandwich with the liver on some amazing bread I buy at the local bakery, chapata con aceitunas y romero. If the French soup didn’t blow me away the simple sandwich certainly did the trick.

Monday, January 23, 2012

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

The only thing I have to say about Jonathan Franzen’s highly successful novel, The Corrections, is to say that reading it is like being forced to listen to a really boring old man tell boring stories, an old man who seemingly hasn’t had a single interesting observation in his entire life, or at least not capable of relating an interesting experience.  To add to this tedium, imagine that you are in a really boring situation while being a captive audience to the old man; perhaps you are waiting to renew your driver’s license.  I walked out of Franzen’s literary DMV at around page 100 (I should explain that DMV stands for Department of Motor Vehicles, a government agency not quite cheery enough to be described as Orwellian).

And of course there is a character in the book who is a writer and also a bit about academia, the two most boring and over-used themes in modern American literature. Note to writers: if you are writing about writers or college professors you need to quit your easy job in academia and get out and fucking find something to write about. Contrast the story of this piece of crap novel with Alone in Berlin which I recently wrote about here.I found myself literally shouting at The Corrections. Why the fuck should I care what kind of paper something is typed on or that the coffee can in which the wife suspects her husband is storing his own piss is from the Yuban brand? I just see this as frivolous detail.

This is the first thing that I have read by the author.  In a Guardian article about ten rules for writing, I thought that Franzen had the weakest examples.

1 The reader is a friend, not an adversary, not a spectator.
- More like the reader is a creative writing graduate student interested in clever word play simply for its own sake.

2 Fiction that isn't an author's personal adventure into the frightening or the unknown isn't worth writing for anything but money.
- I don't understand this at all. I can't say that I have ever liked or respected a novel because it was "an author's personal adventure into the frightening or the unknown".

3 Never use the word "then" as a ¬conjunction – we have "and" for this purpose. Substituting "then" is the lazy or tone-deaf writer's non-solution to the problem of too many "ands" on the page.
- He has a problem with the word "then" for fuck's sake. I care much more about the scope of a novel than the language.

4 Write in the third person unless a really distinctive first-person voice offers itself irresistibly.
- Many of my favorite books are in the first person. How the fuck can he even say this?

5 When information becomes free and universally accessible, voluminous research for a novel is devalued along with it.
- So writers shouldn't bother with research simply because it’s easier than it was?

6 The most purely autobiographical fiction requires pure invention. Nobody ever wrote a more autobiographical story than "The Metamorphosis".
-Does anyone know what the hell he is talking about?

7 You see more sitting still than chasing after.
- Zola would have disagreed. He went out and worked for his stories, discovered them. Zola's observation in Germinal about the horses in the mines being brought down as colts and living their entire lives underground is something you couldn't invent sitting behind your computer.

8 It's doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.
-He may actually have a point with this one.

9 Interesting verbs are seldom very interesting.

10 You have to love before you can be relentless.
-No fucking idea what this means.

In every one of these "rules" it sounds to me the Franzen is trying to be super-clever which is what his writing sounds like to me, a trivial story wrapped up in 24 karat prose.

 Compare Franzen's silly rules with the straight-forward advice offered by Elmore Leonard:

7 Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly. Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apos­trophes, you won't be able to stop.

Or how about this priceless tip from Will Self:

3 Always carry a notebook. And I mean always. The short-term memory only retains information for three minutes; unless it is committed to paper you can lose an idea for ever.

I actually learned that one a long time ago from my younger brother and I have followed his rule ever since.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Because You Have to Eat Every Day!

A very simple dish I came up with after cooking a few pieces of chicken the other day and adding some white wine. I was thinking about adding the lemon juice to beaten eggs and add them to the sauce like with Avgolemono soup. Maybe next time. I cut up the chicken as I do when making paella and freeze the parts that I leave out like the back, the wing tips, drumstick tips, and the breastbone. I de-bone the thighs as well as the breast as this just makes the dish a bit more elegant and easier to eat. I used my ginormous new pot for this dish even though it barely fits on my diminutive stove.  
Lemon Chicken Pasta


1 Whole Chicken
2 Zucchinis
3-4 Garlic cloves
1 Glass White Wine
1 Cup Chicken Stock
2 Lemons (juiced)
3 Tbsp. Butter
Penne Pasta
3 Bay Leaves
Parmesan Cheese
Salt, pepper

First slice the zucchini and sauté it in olive oi,l adding a bit of salt. Take it out of the pot and add more oil, the bay leaves, and turn up the heat.

Cut the chicken into small pieces and partially debone it. Cover chicken with flour.  Fry the chicken pieces and brown well.  Deglazed the pan with the wine. Next add the stock and check for seasoning.  Add the lemon juice to taste.  Then add the cooked zucchini. Simmer for a few minutes and then add the cooked penne but make sure it is VERY al dente as it will continue to cook in the sauce. Add Parmesan to individual servings.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Jerking Off on Facebook

Flesh-eating Pigeons?
This is the crap I write when nothing else occurs to me:

Last week I cut my knuckle slicing ham. Today I pulled off the scab when I was sitting on a bench in a downtown plaza and tried to feed it to a pigeon.  I wanted to prove my theory that these pests would gladly devour human flesh given the slightest opportunity. He didn’t eat it but probably just because he didn’t see it.

How to Freak Out Your Neighbors #708

I was waiting for the elevator with my bike which I keep in the apartment. The little old woman from the floor below me walked in so I gave her the elevator and said I’d wait. I told her that we could fit in together along with my bike but we should probably get married first; it'd be like sharing a sleeping bag. I don’t think that my humor translates well (and I realize that I am being very generous with the definition of the word “humor”). I hope they don’t sell pepper spray in Spain.
Urban Aphorism #19

If you are talking on your cell phone and exercising you aren't multi-tasking; you are doing two things half-assed at the same time. Big difference.

Note to Self: Stop Eating!

I won't go so far as to say that I'm fat but I put on a pair of jeans the other day that I should only wear when I am at my fittest. When I bent over to tie my shoes I felt like I was going to pass out. I had to come up for air between shoes like a pearl diver going down twice for a big score.

From 22JAN12:

Leo Messi is so good that he often makes his opponents look foolish.  In his final goal tonight against Málaga—to complete yet another hat trick—he ran down 70% of the pitch and shot past the goalie with what was all but an impossible angle.  The people in the bar where I was watching the game positively burst out laughing, as if Messi had hit the goalie in the face with a pie. You half-expect to hear that Harlem Globetrotter music every time he touches that ball.

P.S. Two humor-free draws for Valencia CF and Levante UD.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Believing Doesn't Make It So

I saw a tourist wearing a "Jesus is Lord" t-shirt...a grown man.  Why not wear one that says "Santa Claus is Coming" instead? Just because I bought a "World's Greatest Grandma" t-shirt at a thrift store in Seattle, and just because I wear it once in a while doesn't mean it's true. 

Monday, January 16, 2012

My Big Fat Technology-Obsessed Life

or Rat Racer Rejects Restricting Rules Regarding Regimented Routine

I’m not playing by the man’s rules any more. I’m fed up with coloring inside the lines; I’m sick of following the herd; I’ve had it with a life of doing what everyone else expects of me and burying my own hopes and dreams under six feet of petty bourgeois trivialities. It’s time for me to take control of my own life and turn off the autopilot. The hour has come for me to fly solo. Take this life and shove it; I ain’t living here no more. Of course I’m paraphrasing a grammatically-challenged country western song but the sentiment is highly appropriate.  Note to self: quickly determine exactly where and how I will live.

Just look at this place that I call my life. I can’t believe that I am killing myself with work just so that I can have the right kind of cell phone for a person of my stature—whatever my stature is supposed to be. All that I know is that my old cell phone made me feel embarrassed when I used it in public. Everyone knows that there are only 2-3 acceptable brands of cell phones and that all others make you look like a complete failure. Every time you use one of those off-brand model you may as well just hang a sign around your neck that screams out to the world, “I can’t afford an iPhone!”  

Studies point out that these devices are just a more efficient way to waste time and that they systematically shorten our attention spans. I could probably come up with a joke about diminished attention spans but most of you wouldn’t bother to read it if it ran over two sentences.  I’m going to take my new phone and throw it off the next bridge that I happen upon, but first I’ll post about it on Facebook and Twitter.

“Time-saving devices” is the description they used to pin on technology, at least back when a toaster was considered a scientific advancement. You don’t hear that too much these days and few would go so far as to suggest that an MP3 player saves time or contributes anything in the way of enhancing our well-being. More and more it’s like we’ve all turned into Stephen Hawking types who are confined to wheelchairs and forced to communicate via keyboards, although he probably gets out of the house more than the average American teenager.  Our over-dependence on tech gadgetry is more a reflection of our overall level of laziness than our desire to be more productive.  I mean, seriously, does anyone use a remote control because they want to save time?

In a nutshell I think that it’s safe to say that we are all running frantically on the treadmill of life just to be able to spend an increasingly larger percentage of our lives doing doodly-squat. If you need further proof of this assertion let me point out that I just wasted time Googling “doodly-squat” and found that “diddly-squat” is also acceptable.

If I run like hell I can still make the 08:15 bus and be at work a little after nine. Maybe no one will even notice that I’m a couple minutes late.  I can only pray.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada

Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Yet another fascinating perspective from WWII; this time it comes in the form of a novel based on an actual couple who resist the Nazis in their own, almost monumentally pathetic, way: they write little anti-Nazi postcards and leave them in the stairwells of buildings, “postcards that no one read, that no one wanted to read, that plunged everyone who found them into embarrassment or dread.” The fact that the couple got away with their petty rebellion for so long indicates that it wasn’t just a simple form of suicide on their part; they thought that they were actually harming the Nazi state.

And yet this absurdly miniscule bit or disobedience was enough to throw the Gestapo in a paroxysm of paranoia. Imagine if the Nazis had been faced with a direct slap to the face of their legitimacy. Imagine if someone had stood up in that Munich beer hall and screamed out, “Look at the ridiculous moustache on that stupid little creep.” Christ, the game might have been up before it even got off the ground. But of course that didn’t happen and soon enough they had created such a level of terror and mistrust among the German people that just about everyone was paralyzed, unable to act out even the most basic of human decencies.

Even such a futile and desperately ineffective act of defiance as this was punishable by death in the insane and paranoid world of Nazi Germany. The novel describes brilliantly the level of fear that existed at all levels of that society. The only people who weren’t afraid were completely psychotic. The old couple wasn’t acting out of heroism; it was simply a desperate attempt to hang on to at least a shred of humanity.

The story is sort of like that parable of a hurricane beginning with the flapping of the wings of a butterfly. The postcards didn’t have the effect the couple imagined, that of a wider rebellion among the German people, but the novel describes how many of the cards brought great hardship upon people and further inflamed the terror in which most citizens were practically drowning.

The translation of this book is a bit of a botched job that, at times, made it difficult to follow the thread of the story. It was full of bizarre words and expressions. I have an easier time reading books in Spanish or French. It certainly deserves a better English interpretation. At the very least the translation needs to be modernized as there are a lot of silly words that are no longer in the English lexicon (and some that were perhaps never a part of the language).

Poppet? Gawp? Crook? Scarper? Porkies? Argy-bargy? Sozzled?

P.S. This is the first book that I have read in English in well over a year. I found it totally by accident at a place here in Valencia that sells books for .50€ on Thursdays (this place is a secret and even a Gestapo interrogation couldn’t beat it out of me). I had never heard of the book or the author before but the blurb on the back cover was enough to separate me from my half a euro. It turns out this was a tremendous bit of luck for me, a diamond in the rough.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

The Death of Fast Food

Cold War Era Food
Over the hurried, inexorable, and giddy gallop towards the modern era Americans were convinced by advertisers that cooking was just not worth the effort. We were too busy to cook. We had better things to do with our precious “free time.” We were given time-saving choices when it came to meals so there was no longer any reason to “slave over a hot stove” (I’m almost certain that expression was created by advertisers).  I can’t remember what was supposed to be so thrilling in our lives that didn’t allow us to prepare our own food but it must have been wonderful.

Things are changing in the mentality of modern Americans. Cooking shows air 24 hours a day. Chefs are celebrities.  As I have often said, internet sites like YouTube have cooking video instructions coming out of their ears so the Italian grandmother you never had is available to walk you through even the most harrowingly complicated menus. If you have any doubt concerning this tectonic shift of attitudes I propose that you do a Google search of any sort of food that comes to mind.  Ironically, in a search for chicken pot pie*—the former gold standard of crap, pre-prepared food—the first things to come up in the queue are home-made versions.

*The chicken pot pie was a fantastic idea on paper but its execution was nearly that—an execution—for millions of American children during the 1960’s. The chicken pot pie was an individual serving of chicken-related matter (mostly ears, feet, and chicken toe nails) that was wrapped in a pie crust and housed in an aluminum alloy pie pan.

The pies came frozen from the super market and took approximately one school term to defrost. To serve you simply placed the chicken pot pie in the oven at 1,900 degrees at the beginning of the Tom & Jerry cartoons around 3 in the afternoon and the pie would be done later that evening during Green Acres. Chicken pot pies were delicious, so I have been told. The problem was that they took so long to cook that you would be practically fainting from hunger by the time they were ready. I’m sure I’m not the only kid who completely scorched his entire digestive track eating a pot pie while it was bubbling hot. It was like eating chicken-flavored lava.

Friday, January 06, 2012

Paella is Pronounced "Pa-ay-ya" for F#@X's Sake

After looking at some cooking videos on YouTube I think I am going to start a terrorist organization called “Stop Calling Paella ‘Pa-el-la,’ Please!” Do these same English speakers call pizza “piz-za?” My Spanish accent needs a lot of work but this mispronunciation borders on a racial slur.

P.S. Gordon Ramsey is always hopping around like he had to take an evil piss about an hour ago and is now in the early stages of wetting his pantaloons. For my money he is the absolute worst of the celebrity chefs. I saw an episode of his show where he goes in and bails out a failing restaurant. They are failing because they don't deserve to succeed. It's like helping out a wounded animal on the Serengeti, it goes against the natural selection process.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Arroz de Setas - Mushroom Paella

Welcome to my kitchen. This dish turned out rather well because I used stock from cocido which I made a couple days before.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Study Hard So You Can Be Rude in Spanish, Too

Keys my ass you bigga sheet!
I wouldn’t call it an advantage but one thing about attaining a fairly high level of fluency in Spanish is that now I can get snippy with people who piss me off. Before I was stoic and patient, now I have the linguistic luxury of being bitchy. Before you know it I’ll be a full-blown asshole (just like I was in English?). In my defense all that I can say is that I have never consciously worked to improve my Spanish for the sole purpose of berating someone who gets on my nerves. I suppose that I could try being conversant in the language and a decent person. I’ll give a few examples and let others decide if I’m being too touchy.

I sat down just now in my corner bar and there is some old guy working who is here in the mornings. I have been coming to this bar regularly for about two and a half years so unless he suffers from recurrent amnesia he should recognize me from the last time I came in which was fucking yesterday. He was sitting on the terrace talking with one of his home boys and I took a seat inside. It would have been virtually impossible for him not to notice that I walked in as he was sitting directly in front of the door. I sat down, turned on my computer, went to the restroom, came back, checked my email, sent a text on my phone, et cetera, et cetera for over ten minutes.  I don’t really come here for the food or drink as it basically serves as a satellite office for me so I don’t really give a shit if I get served or not—and I’m certainly never in a hurry—but this just seemed like a complete lack of respect.  

Another customer walked in and the old barkeep hopped up like it was the owner of the place and he shuffled quickly behind the bar to serve the new customer. Then he walked around the bar—right past me—to clean off some dishes. As he walked back behind the bar I looked straight at him in an attempt to make eye contact. He was a meter away but evidently I was invisible to him. I tried to get his attention by saying “excuse me” but nothing doing. Finally I stood up and walked over to the bar in front of him. I didn’t say anything at first and he still didn’t bother to ask me what I wanted so I told him with extremely exaggerated politeness that when he could, if it were at all possible, it would be stupendous if he could find the time to make me a café con leche. He is too dim-witted to pick up on my heavy sarcasm but it made me feel better. Does that make me an asshole?

I was in a news kiosk last Friday and I explained to the middle-age couple working there that I was looking for the books by Mario Vargas Llosa that El País newspaper has been selling every other Friday. The old guy just looked at me like I was from another fucking planet and started whining that he didn’t know what I was talking about when I cut him off very abruptly. I asked him, “Excuse me. Do you work here? I have been buying these books in this very shop for the past month or so.”  The woman—obviously with more sense—knew what I was talking about and I just turned my back on the man while I talked with her.

Sometimes I get annoyed with people who ask me to repeat something extremely simple. I just think to myself, “What the fuck did you think I said when I ordered a cortado?” Even the worst Spanish pronunciation shouldn’t be confusing to someone who works in a café and hears this word about a million times a day. I asked a young girl one time if she spoke Spanish because I could repeat the order in English or French or Arabic or Greek.