Saturday, May 18, 2013

Face: Sherman Alexie’s Native American haibun

In his introduction to the translation by Cid Corman and Kamaike Susumu of Basho’s Back Roads to Far Towns (oku-no-hosomichi), Robert Hass describes haibun as a prose poem combined with thematically-related haiku, and he offers Basho’s book as the defining example. The last in a series of five poetic diaries, the book describes a journey that Basho took through the mountains of northern Japan, lasting nine months and covering 1,500 miles. Hass argues that it was in this volume that Basho “refined and sharpened” the haibun form. (Today, the on-line journal contemporary haibun online is dedicated to English-language haibun based on Basho’s model.)

Sherman Alexie’s poetry collection Face includes a range of different types of poems, with several that may be viewed as particularly imaginative extensions of the haibun concept, but cast in a completely different form and cultural context. A specific example is the poem “Tuxedo with Eagle Feathers,” consisting of four prose poems, alternating with four sonnets. All of these components are thematically linked, and Alexie’s sonnets are organized like the Shakespearean model as three quatrains, with a concluding couplet, but his rhyme schemes are a novel mix of styles. Specifically, in their book Strong Measures, Phillip Dacey and David Jauss define the following sonnet types, based on their rhyme schemes:

Shakespearean sonnet: abab cdcd efef gg

Hybrid sonnet: abba cddc effe gg

Couplet sonnet: aabb ccdd eeff gg

Alexie’s sonnets – both the sonnet components of this poem and other examples in his collection – mix these styles. For example, the first sonnet in “Tuxedo with Eagle Feathers” has the following rhyme scheme:

abab cddc eeff gg

while the second mixes these styles differently, as:

abba ccdd efef gg

Another poem from Face that pushes the haibun concept further is “Vilify,” a villanelle with 14 numbered footnotes. The villanelle itself is somewhat unusual in the length of its lines: the first has 23 syllables, more than twice as long as the traditional iambic pentameter’s 10 syllables. And while the use of footnotes in poems is not unprecedented, this is most commonly done in translations to provide cultural or historical context. For example, many of the translations in 100 Tang Poems, a collection of Chinese poems written between roughly 640 and 900 AD, include brief footnotes for precisely this purpose. In Alexie’s poem, however, the footnotes become an essential ingredient: the 19 lines of the villanelle itself occupy just over a page, while the footnotes go on for nine more pages, including passages of dialogue and Alexie’s commentary on everything from the history of the villanelle form to a list of the twelve U.S. Presidents who owned slaves. These prose excursions are natural for Alexie, who has also published a number of prose volumes, including The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. This is a collection of 22 short stories that you have to love for their titles alone, which include, in addition to one with the book’s title, one called “The Approximate Size of My Favorite Tumor,” and another one simply titled “A Good Story.”  (That said, the stories do live up to their titles.)

My favorite poem from Face is “Comedy Is Simply a Funny Way of Being Serious.” Here, Alexie pushes the “poem with footnotes” to new creative heights I never could have imagined before reading this example of the form. The poem itself consists of two seven-line monorhyme stanzas. In an era where free verse remains the dominant poetic style, monorhyme is unusual enough by itself: every line concludes with the same end rhyme. The poem’s footnotes are numbered and each one takes the form of a rhymed couplet. Most unusual of all, however, are the sub-footnotes: the numbered footnotes cite lettered sub-footnotes, and together these form a sonnet.

For a very long time, poets have been advised to “study the masters,” and while this is excellent advice, it does raise the question “who are the masters?” In some specific cases, there are fairly clear answers: for haiku, one of the obvious masters is Basho. For example, in his book, Matsuo Basho, Makoto Ueda argues that:

“… if one poet is to be singled out as the greatest contributor to the development of haiku literature, there will be little question about the choice: it has to be Matsuo Basho.”

Similarly, since his name is attached to one of the standard sonnet forms, Shakespeare is a clear master of this form. Where it becomes much more difficult is the identification of contemporary masters. Based on a first – but careful – reading of Face, I believe I have found in Sherman Alexie a master worthy of study.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Repairing Poetry

I recently finished reading The Poetry Home Repair Manual, a short little book (paperback, about 160 pages) by Ted Kooser, the U.S. Poet Laureate from 2004 through 2006. The book was published in 2005 and the biographical blurb also describes the author as a professor of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and – reminiscent of Wallace Stevens – a retired insurance executive. The subtitle of the book is Practical Advice for Beginning Poets, and while I don’t consider myself a “beginning poet” exactly, there are certainly things I can do better, and Kooser’s book offers a number of useful suggestions and observations. In fact, the opening sentence of the book is:

“Most of a poet’s education is self-education, and most of what you’ll learn you’ll teach yourself through reading and writing poems,”
but he goes on to note that “the craft of careful writing and meticulous revision can be taught,” and it is his pointers on some of these topics that I find valuable.

The first chapter addresses a few key preliminaries (things like, “You’ll never be able to make a living writing poems,” on page 1, followed by “We teach ourselves to write the kinds of poems we like to read” – italics his – on page 9). These points are perhaps obvious enough on reflection, but they are also both important and all too easy to forget from time to time. More generally, Kooser’s philosophy of poetry is summarized in the following statement from the book’s introduction (on page xi):

“Poetry is communication and every word I’ve written here subscribes to that belief.”

He reinforces this point of view with his second chapter, entitled “Writing for Others,” where his focus is on making poems comprehensible, emphasizing that if readers can’t understand anything in your poems, they are unlikely to read them. In fact, this view is somewhat controversial, and Kooser hints as much, also noting in the book’s introduction that:

“If you’ve gotten the impression from teachers or from reading contemporary poetry that poets don’t need to write with a sense of somebody out there who might read what they’ve written, this book is not for you.”

He expands on this point on page 2, arguing that “some poets go out of their way to make their poems difficult if not downright discouraging.” It is certainly true in many of the creative arts – and perhaps nowhere more so than in some types of modern music – that certain schools of thought place a very high value on abstraction. When I was much younger, I was greatly intrigued by the theory behind Arnold Schoenberg’s twelve tone technique of musical composition, particularly in some of it’s combinations with mathematical notions like group theory. Ultimately, though, however much I wanted to like the results, I never heard a piece of music built on these intellectually exciting ideas that actually sounded good to me. To some extent, this is a matter of taste, but even Schoenberg recognized that the more abstract the work, the more difficult the communication of ideas – in his case, musical ideas, but the same holds true for poetry where the term “communication” can be much more literal. In his book, Style and Idea, Schoenberg expresses the view that “to lay claim to one’s interest, a thing must be worth saying, and it must not yet have been said.” He immediately goes on to say that:

“Here is the greatest difficulty for any listener, even if he is musically educated: the way I construct my melodies, themes, and whole movements offers the present-day perceptive faculty a challenge that cannot yet be met at a first hearing.”

This comment is the first thing Schoenberg says at the beginning of a section headed “Repetition,” where he argues, next, that repetition helps greatly in understanding music, and finally, that he himself went to considerable lengths to avoid ever repeating anything. Analogous observations may be made about poetry: classical, formal poetry (e.g., Shakespeare’s sonnets) exhibited considerable repetition, of various types: end-rhymes (the repetition of final consonants and their preceding vowel sounds at the ends of lines), meter (e.g., iambic pentameter, where each line consists of five repeated iambic feet), and in some cases repeated lines (e.g., in forms like the villanelle or the pantoum). As the practice of poetry has moved away from these forms, some of it has followed Schoenberg’s aesthetic direction, greatly reducing repetition and emphasizing abstraction.

Billy Collins was U.S. Poet Laureate before Ted Kooser, and he edited the anthology Poetry 180 during his tenure.  In the introduction to this book, Collins discusses an article he read in a high school student newspaper where the young editor offered the following assessment of modern poetry:

“Whenever I read a modern poem, it’s like my brother has his foot on the back of my neck in the swimming pool.”

At least partially in response to this critique, Collins assembled an anthology of what he describes as “short, clear, contemporary poems which any listener could basically ‘get’ on first hearing.” The first poem in the collection is his own, entitled “Introduction to Poetry,” and the second is “Selecting a Reader,” a very funny thirteen-line poem by Ted Kooser.

The third chapter of Kooser’s book is “First Impressions,” where he suggests that “the titles and first lines of your poem represent the hand you extend in friendship toward your reader.” Building on this view, he urges particular care in selecting these elements, noting that:

“Opening lines set up expectations and possibilities. For example, if a poem begins with three lines of strict iambic pentameter, a reader will be disconcerted if that forceful rhythm is abandoned in the fourth line. If you rhyme the first stanza of a poem, the reader will wonder why you didn’t rhyme the second and the third.”

Subsequent chapters offer detailed advice on other aspects of writing poems, including examples that illustrate how the placement of accented syllables in a line can influence its pace, practical advice on rhyme, a brief discussion of the key differences between prose poems and more traditional lined verse, and a chapter on the differences in impact of metaphors and similes. Probably my favorite chapters are “Working with Detail” (Chapter 9) and “Controlling Effects through Careful Choices” (Chapter 10). In the chapter on detail, Kooser emphasizes “the value of unexpected, unpredictable detail,” noting that these are the details that lend the greatest realism to a description, precisely because they are unexpected. In Chapter 10, Kooser emphasizes the distinct roles and utilities of different parts of speech, noting for example, that carefully selected, specific and unexpected adjectives can be extremely effective in clarifying and enhancing nouns, while the use of adverbs can usually be avoided through careful verb choices. This chapter also emphasizes the impact of word placement – beginning, middle, or end of the line – repeating several simple examples with different placements of the same words to illustrate the sometimes considerable impact placement can have on tone, pacing, and comprehensibility.

All in all, I liked Ted Kooser’s little book quite a lot, and I plan to re-read it from time to time. That said, his book isn’t for everyone, as Kooser himself notes. His poetry tends to be narrative and concrete, and this style doesn’t appeal to everybody. If your taste runs more to the highly abstract – language poetry, for example – you might find something like the University of California's excellent four-volume series Poems for the Millennium more to your liking. Even so, Kooser’s book contains a number of useful, practical nuggets of advice, suggestions that are particularly valuable for the beginning poet, but also worthy of consideration by “more seasoned” poets encumbered by larger piles of rejection letters.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

What do you do with sea beans?

A couple of years ago, while visiting friends and relatives in San Francisco, I first heard about sea beans. According to The Food Lover's Companion, sea beans are also known as salicornia, sea pickle, glasswort, or marsh samphire, and according to Margaret Wittenberg’s New Good Food, they are collected fresh during the summer from salt marshes and tidal waters along both the Pacific and Atlantic coasts. Fresh sea beans recently became available at our local Whole Foods Market, so after wondering about them for a long time, I finally got to taste them. Eaten raw by themselves or in a salad, sea beans are noticeably salty, with a slight fishiness; reading between the lines a bit in the “samphire” entry in The Food Lover’s Companion, it appears that both of these characteristics are enhanced on cooking: “When cooked, salicornia tends to taste quite salty and fishy.”

Not surprisingly, there is no entry for sea beans in my favorite flavor pairing book, The Flavor Bible, by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg, but because “salty and fishy” is a description that applies about equally well to anchovies, I looked at the anchovy pairings. Page and Dornenburg’s highest recommendations are for olive oil and garlic, with capers, Parmesan cheese, parsley, and pasta also strongly recommended, followed by red pepper flakes somewhat further down on their list. In fact, these are exactly the ingredients for the relatively simple recipe Midnight Pasta with Garlic, Anchovy, Capers and Red Pepper offered by The New York Times a few months ago. In the recipe given here, I simply substituted the sea beans for the anchovies. Also, the Times recipe calls for ½ pound spaghetti, and I substituted about the same amount of conchiglie, a large elbow-shaped pasta.

Page and Dornenburg’s top two anchovy-paired ingredients – olive oil and garlic – constitute the defining ingredients for the simple, classic Italian pasta sauce “aglio e olio.” Not surprisingly, then, the above recipe is not so different from that given in the Dishesfrommykitchen blog post for “Aglio e olio (with sea bean, asparagus and broccolini),” which also calls for olive oil, garlic, red chili flakes, Parmesan cheese and either parsley or basil. The primary difference between this dish and mine is that I didn’t include the other vegetables, allowing the sea bean flavor to come through more strongly.  Since I love anchovies, this seemed like a good idea; if you don’t, you might prefer the original version with the other vegetables added, although I must say that while the saltiness of the sea beans was quite pronounced, I found that the seafood notes took a distinct back seat.  In fact, my wife, who doesn't like anchovies, tasted the dish and rendered the verdict “not fishy.” On the whole, I found the dish really delicious.

Just as their flavor pairing book didn’t mention sea beans, neither did Dornenburg and Page’s wine-pairing book, What to Drink with What You Eat. Again, substituting “anchovies” for “sea beans,” I was led to recommendations of a rose or dry sherry as the first choice, followed by Muscadet or Sauvignon Blanc. As I was pondering this question – I have a 2010 Basa Verdejo Rueda, a Spanish wine described as “like Sauvignon Blanc in a white tuxedo” – I also happened to go to a wine tasting at Toast, one of my favorite local wine stores. There, I was introduced to Vallformosa Lavina Blanco, a deliciously crisp white wine that is highly recommended with seafood of all kinds. In the end, I had it with a glass of each. After careful consideration, I think the somewhat more acidic Rueda stood up to the saltiness of the sea beans and the red pepper flakes much better than the lighter Lavina Blanco did.

Conchiglie with sea beans, garlic, capers and red pepper


½ pound conchiglie or other pasta

3 Tbs extra virgin olive oil

4 cloves of garlic, chopped

1 small bunch (about 2 oz.) of sea beans, rinsed

1 Tbs capers, rinsed and chopped

½ tsp red pepper flakes

2 Tbs. chopped fresh parsely

Grated Parmesan cheese


1. Cook the pasta according to the package directions in salted water until al dente.

2. While the pasta is cooking, heat the olive oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add the garlic and cook about a minute. Then, stir in the sea beans, capers, and red pepper flakes and sauté briefly (less than a minute). Remove from heat.

3. Drain the pasta and return it to the pot. Stir in the sauce mixture, mix thoroughly, sprinkle on the parsely and top with grated Parmesan.

4. Serve immediately with a Sauvignon Blanc or other seafood-friendly white wine.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

A Most Entertaining Evening

On February 8, I attended an event at the Mark Twain House featuring Denis Horgan, a long-time columnist with the Hartford Courant who is now offering his thoughts on life, liberty, and the pursuit of whatever we pursue online. He has also turned his hand to fiction, and the event at the Mark Twain House included a reception beforehand with wine and some very nice munchies, and a book signing afterwards (the museum gift shop conveniently had copies of his latest short story collection Ninety-Eight Point Six...and Other Stories). I bought a copy that night and haven’t finished reading it yet, but based on the short story he read excerpts from – “The English Aisle,” which I have since read myself – I think I will really like the collection. I had expected the evening to consist mostly of Denis reading from one or more of his works, and I was initially a bit disappointed that it wasn’t that way, but my disappointment quickly abated. Instead, he gave a fascinating talk about his life (he was, for example, born in a taxi in Boston during a Thanksgiving snowstorm) and his somewhat complicated path to becoming a writer, a path that life seemed intent on deflecting him from (for example, during his long newspaper career, those in charge kept wanting him to edit and manage, and it took some persuasion on his part to be allowed to continue writing columns).

Among many other things, Denis discussed the motivation for – and obstacles to – what was originally intended as a novel but ultimately became his recent short story collection (he gives a more detailed account of this in the Preface of Ninety-Eight Point Six). Several of these stories deal with different aspects of identity, and the motivation for them was a real-life identity theft. As is often the case, the truth is stranger than fiction here, because the young woman whose identity was stolen had an extremely difficult time convincing anyone to take the problem seriously: the person who had stolen her identity hadn’t done anything bad with it – she got a job, paid her bills and filed her income taxes (this prompted a letter from the IRS to the original owner of the identity about the two conflicting tax returns she had filed). The story reminded me of an incident from a novel (I believe it was Peter Mayle’s Hotel Pastis, but I can’t find my copy just at the moment, so I’m not absolutely certain), where the protagonist’s significant other had had her credit card stolen, but he waited six months to report it because the thief was spending so much less than she was.

It is clear, both from the two stories of Horgan’s that I have read so far and from the things he talked about at the Mark Twain House, that his years in journalism have served him well, honing his eye for the details that convey so much about his characters. For example, in one of his stories, “The Sound of Shadows,” the main character (Patrick) is trying to straighten out his stolen identity after the IRS has called him about his duplicate tax filing (“Frankly, we don’t care who you are so long as you follow the rules, and the rules say one return from one person not two returns from one person or no returns from any person. Do you see that simple symmetry? It is elegant. Smooth. …”). One of the things he does is call the Social Security offices, where he is ultimately able to speak to an actual person, but it isn’t much help:

“No, you are just mistaken. Because it cannot happen, therefore it did not happen. That’s only logical, isn’t it? How can something happen that cannot happen? …”

This incident is particularly hilarious to me because my wife experienced almost exactly the same conversation when we lived in Switzerland, but in a very different context. We were guests of the university I was visiting, and they provided us with a superbly furnished apartment, one that included everything from bed linens (ironed and folded) to salt and pepper shakers. And a checklist. When the housing people stopped by to collect the checklist, my wife noted that the teaspoons didn’t match, as several of them were a different style from the others, with “SwissAir” stamped on the back. The housing guy was nearly speechless, able only to mumble over and over again, “This is not possible. It is not possible.” After a few moments, he was able to regain his composure enough to collect the offensively “impossible” SwissAir spoons, take them away, and replace them with a new, complete set of “possible” spoons.

As I said, I haven’t finished reading Denis Horgan’s collection of short stories yet, but the two samples I have read so far have left me howling with laughter in places, so I plan to finish it soon and will have more to say about it then.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Margaret Wittenberg’s New Good Food

I recently received a copy of New Good Food by Margaret Wittenberg as a gift, a book that I have admired for some time now, thumbing through display copies when the chance presented itself. As she notes in the book’s introduction, the author is a vice president of Whole Foods Market, so it is not surprising that I discovered it at our local Whole Foods, or that the store carries many of the less common food items she discusses. She begins the book by describing herself as “an intuitive cook” who can visualize how different ingredients play together in terms of flavor, texture, and presentation. She goes on to say (on page ix):

“Although some of my knack is likely innate, much of it I developed through experience, by cooking, observing, listening, and reading.”

The intent of her book is clear: to share this information with others, focusing on a wide range of ingredients that may be very traditional, but not all in the same culture. In just under 300 pages, this book is organized into 13 un-numbered chapters, with the following titles:

• Fruits and Vegetables

• Grains

• Whole Grain and Specialty Flours

• Breads

• Pasta and Noodles

• Beans, Peas, and Lentils

• Nuts and Seeds

• Culinary Oils

• Meat, Poultry, and Eggs

• Dairy Products

• Seafood

• Essential Seasonings

• Sweeteners

Each chapter begins with some general discussion of the topic at hand (for example, the Grains chapter includes a discussion of how much whole grain to prepare: 1 cup of uncooked grain is said to typically feed 2 to 4 people) and most of the chapters conclude with an “Exploring” section that gives brief descriptions of a wide range of ingredient varieties. For example, the section on “Exploring Pasta and Noodles” covers both the familiar, like Italian-style dried pasta, and the more exotic, like pastas made from Jerusalem artichokes, quinoa, and spelt. These descriptions range from a couple of sentences to about half a page. One of the really intriguing short descriptions is that of lotus root soba, a Japanese noodle that is characterized as having “a delicious nutty flavor and aroma similar to that of freshly cooked lotus root.”

One of the most interesting chapters is the penultimate one on “Essential Seasonings,” whose title left me expecting a discussion of spices. While the chapter does begin with four pages on salt, this is not followed by discussions of other “standard” flavoring ingredients like pepper, nutmeg, or tarragon, but instead goes into reasonably detailed treatments of miso, tamari and shoyu, umeboshi plums, and a variety of sea vegetables, including Irish moss, kombu, and sea beans. Besides describing these unusual edibles, the book gives brief but useful cooking instructions. To cook sea lettuce, for example, the book notes that “it’s best to combine it with other ingredients to minimize its slightly bitter taste.” Some of what I regard as more standard “seasoning ingredients” are discussed in the book, but mostly in the earlier chapter on “Fruits and Vegetables,” which devotes about a page and a half to fresh herbs and about four and a half pages to peppers, including tables describing both fresh and dried peppers.

In general, I like this book a lot, in part because of the range of unusual new (to me) foods it describes, including everything from lotus root (which I have seen but haven’t yet had the opportunity to taste) to edible flowers (nasturtiums are described as “sweet, mustardlike”), from teff (a gluten-free whole grain with extremely small seeds) to Tongues of Fire (an Italian bean, said to be a good addition to pasta dishes and soups), from birch syrup (really, from birch trees) to broccoflower (a cross between broccoli and cauliflower; I’m familiar with this one from when I lived in Switzerland: it’s delicious). Just reading through the descriptions makes me hungry and most curious. For example, the umeboshi plums I mentioned above are “made from sour, unripe fruits of the ume tree, which is native to China.” The description (on page 231) goes on to say that these fruits are closer to apricots than to plums (pluots, anyone?) and that their preparation is fairly intricate: they are pickled in sea salt for about a month, dried in the sun, other ingredients are added (dark red shiso leaves), they continue to soak, then they are finally aged in barrels for about a year. In addition, the brine from the plums is sold as umeboshi vinegar to be used as a condiment. Somehow, I have to find these things and try them.

The one potential shortcoming of the book – and this isn’t really a fault of the book, but just part of the challenge of exploring new tastes – is that my favorite flavor pairing book, The Flavor Bible by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg doesn’t have anything to say about a lot of the intriguing ingredients in New Good Food. In some cases, there are enough “near matches” that this isn’t a problem: while The Flavor Bible doesn’t have an entry for “broccoflower,” it does list both “broccoli” and “cauliflower,” so it shouldn’t be too difficult to look for compatible ingredients common to both lists and try them (for example, cheese is highly recommended for both, especially cheddar, Parmesan or goat cheese, as are unsalted butter, garlic, and lemon juice). The more challenging cases are things like sea beans and umeboshi plums, although a careful reading of both books does come to the rescue here. Specifically, in her chapter on “Essential Seasonings,” one reason that Wittenberg includes so many unexpected (to me, at least) “non-spice” flavorings is that she begins the chapter with a discussion of umami. This “fifth flavor” – in addition to the “standard four” many of us learned in school: sweet, salty, sour, and bitter – is commonly associated with things like mushrooms, ripe tomatoes, and cured ham. To this list, Wittenberg adds “sea vegetables, soy sauce, and miso,” and her chapter emphasizes “umami flavoring ingredients.” This provides the needed link to The Flavor Bible, which has an entry on “umami” (page 355), listing everything from anchovies to walnuts, including some of my favorite flavors of all time: aged Gruyere, clams, Asian fish sauce, lobster, oysters, pork, potatoes, sardines, meat-based sauces, dry-aged, grilled steaks, and truffles. (Now, I have definitely got to find some umeboshi plums to try …).

Finally, it is important to note that, while the flavor pairings are less extensive than those given in The Flavor Bible, Wittenberg’s book does include recommended pairings in many of her descriptions. For example, in her description of the gluten-free grain Job’s Tears, Wittenberg recommends ginger, parsley, onions and chives as flavor enhancers. Similarly, it’s good to know that Jacob’s Cattle Beans make “the basis for a simple salad when combined with fresh herbs and a splash of olive oil.” Hmm,…how about rau ram (Vietnamese coriander), the fresh herb described on page 17 as having a “spicy taste and aroma similar to those of lemon and coriander”?

It is clear that this is going to be a fun manuscript to munch my way through.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Brazilian eggplant ratatouille

Recently, a local farm stand had Brazilian eggplants. These were a completely new discovery for me, so much so that I had absolutely no idea what they were when I first saw them. As the photograph below illustrates, they are a beautiful red vegetable, not much larger than an egg (at first, I thought they were some kind of pepper). Someone at the farm stand who was familiar with them told me that they were milder than regular eggplants, and they worked very well in ratatouille.

None of my hardcopy culinary references had anything to say about Brazilian eggplants, and a brief Internet search didn’t really turn up a lot, either, although one “near miss” actually worked out extremely well. This was the recipe for “eggplant and tomato salad” described in Rea Frey's blog Clean Convenient Cuisine.  Her January 14, 2011 post describes the Brazilian-themed Texas de Brazil restaurant chain that grew out of a restaurant in Brazil, formed a U.S. partnership in Dallas, and now has a number of other U.S. locations, including one in Chicago. The post gives a recipe that calls for one large regular eggplant, but we prepared a variation using five Brazilian eggplants instead. We also added some shallots and modified the spices slighlty, replacing the regular paprika in the original recipe with Szeged Hungarian hot paprika. I call the end result ratatouille here because it seems consistent with the definition of this classic French dish given in Sharon Tyler Herbst's Food Lover's Companion:

“A popular dish from the French region of Provence that combines eggplant, tomatoes, onions, bell peppers, zucchini, garlic and herbs – all simmered in olive oil.”

She also notes that “the vegetables can vary according to the cook,” and this recipe does that, basically omitting the zucchini and bell peppers. The result was delicious and provided an excellent accompaniment to a three-egg omelet made with Irish bacon, sautéed baby bok choy, and grated Fontina cheese. We served it with a Smoking Loon Chardonnay and it made a fabulous dinner.


- 5 Brazilian eggplants (approximately one pound in total)

- 1 15 ounce can whole tomatoes

- 1 large shallot, chopped

- 4 garlic cloves, chopped

- 1/3 cup cilantro, chopped

- 1 tablespoon Hungarian hot paprika

- 1 tablespoon ground cumin

- 1 tablespoon cayenne pepper

- kosher salt and ground black pepper to taste


- Cut the Brazilian eggplants into cubes, about one inch, and let it rest in a colander for 30 minutes (this is a suggestion given in Rea Frey's post, from Evandro Caregnato, Culinary Director of Texas de Brazil, who notes that it improves the taste of the dish by eliminating some of the eggplant's bitter liquids).

- Heat the olive oil in a large pan and cook the shallots until they are translucent. Then add the garlic and cook until it is soft.

- Chop the whole tomatoes in large pieces and mix them, along with their liquid, into the pan with the shallots and garlic. Add the eggplant cubes, cilantro, Hungarian paprika, cumin, cayenne pepper, ground black pepper and kosher salt.

- Cover and simmer 20 to 30 minutes, until the eggplant is soft, checking periodically and adding water if necessary to keep the vegetables from burning.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Discovering callaloo

Recently, callaloo appeared at our local Whole Foods Market: a leafy green, similar in appearance to Swiss chard, the name alone seemed reason enough to try it. So, we bought a bunch, washed it, removed the thick stalks, tore the leaves into small pieces, and sautéed them in olive oil and garlic. Instantly, they became my wife’s favorite green of all time, and I would have to agree that they were about the best greens I have ever tasted.

Wanting to know more about this newly discovered culinary treasure, I turned first to my two favorite sources of information about unusual edibles. According to Sharon Tyler Herbst’s Food Lover's Companion, The (Barron's Cooking Guide) 3rd Edition, the term callaloo refers to either “the large, edible green leaves of the taro root,” or to “a Caribbean soup made with callaloo greens,” along with a bunch of other ingredients. She also notes that callaloo greens are “popular in the Caribbean islands cooked as one would prepare turnip or collard greens.” In The Penguin Companion to Food, Alan Davidson suggests that the term callaloo applies to a wider range of greens, including in addition to taro, the leaves of various species of malanga, amaranth, and pokeweed, among others.

In The Complete Book of Caribbean Cooking, Elisabeth Lambert Ortiz gives five different recipes for the soup, with three different spellings depending on where it originates: three different recipes for Le Calalou from Gaudaloupe, Martinique, and Haiti; one for Callau from St. Lucia; and finally one for Callaloo from Trinidad. All of these recipes call for their namesake green, along with about ten or so other ingredients, and they all sound delicious to me. Unfortunately, the one other ingredient that all five of these recipes have in common is okra, which my wife absolutely detests. So, it is unlikely that we will be trying the soup any time in the near future.

Because callaloo isn’t commonly available, Ortiz recommends Swiss chard, fresh spinach, or Chinese spinach as possible substitutes. Of course, if callaloo is available, we can reverse her recommendations and substitute callaloo for these other greens. This is essentially what we did the first time we cooked it, finding the sautéed callaloo described at the beginning of this post an excellent accompaniment to grilled salmon. Also, although she doesn’t mention callaloo, Aliza Green has a chapter on “Greens for Cooking” in her book, Starting with Ingredients, where she offers the following points of advice. First, she notes that greens are typically fairly strongly flavored, motivating two common cooking techniques: first, slow cooking is popular both to tenderize them and to mellow out their flavor, and second, they are often paired with garlic, hot peppers, vinegar, or smoked meats that stand up well and balance out their flavor. With callaloo, we found that garlic, salt and pepper worked extremely well, but I am salivating over the thought of adding red pepper flakes and/or a nice smoky bacon. Aliza Green also notes that when cooking with greens – including spinach, which she covers in a whole separate chapter of her book – “a lot goes but a little way:” these greens tend to cook down a lot, so it is important to start with what may look like a much larger bunch than you need. In their book, The Flavor Bible: The Essential Guide to Culinary Creativity, Based on the Wisdom of America's Most Imaginative Chefs, Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg don’t mention callaloo, either, but they do devote the better part of two pages to greens, both in general and specific types like collard greens and turnip greens. Their highest recommendations for pairing go to garlic, olive oil, and various kinds of cheese (especially grated Asiago, Jack, or Parmesan), but they also give bacon and other smoked meats consistently high marks.

Finally, when it comes to pairing greens with wine, Dornenburg and Page’s other book, What to Drink with What You Eat: The Definitive Guide to Pairing Food with Wine, Beer, Spirits, Coffee, Tea - Even Water - Based on Expert Advice from America's Best Sommeliers consistently recommends in favor of white wines – especially Sauvignon Blanc – and against reds. Since they also recommend Sauvignon Blanc with garlic and seafood (especially poached or lightly grilled), that’s what we served the night we had our sautéed callaloo with grilled salmon.  It made for one of those meals that linger pleasantly on the tastebuds but, sadly, don't leave anything behind to munch on later.