Sunday, January 8, 2017

The Wizard of Oz, Alphabetized--Yes, Really

I just discovered something truly amazing. It’s a remix/scrambling of the classic 1939 film version of The Wizard of Oz, so that every single word of dialogue and song is arranged alphabetically. Yes, it sounds weird, and it is. But it’s also incredibly wonderful (one of the re-occurring words in the film). And beautiful. And utterly fascinating.

The project (entitled of Oz The Wizard—the title, alphabetized) was the brainchild and creation of Matt Bucy, probably best known as co-producer and cinematographer of the fan fiction series, Star Trek Continues. (You can read about Matt and his Oz project, as well as watch the amazing film, here.)

The other night, Robin, my sister Laura (who told us about the project), and I sat down after dinner to view the movie, thinking we’d check it out for ten or fifteen minutes, be somewhat amused, and then switch to Mozart in the Jungle. But no. We were mesmerized and ended up watching until the very end. (Oddly, we all thought the movie seemed shorter in this rearranged version, even though they are, of course, the exact same length.)

The most obvious effect of the alphabetization is to highlight the specific words used in the screenplay and lyrics. And, not surprisingly, the first one to appear—“a”—appears a whole lot. As do “the,” “you,” “of,” and any number of pronouns, articles, and prepositions. But these also flash by quickly, as they are throwaway words in the dialogue. It’s the other words, which the actors draw out and give emphasis to, that are more interesting.

As a writer, I was fascinated by the way this project showcases language and syntax—for instance, the frequency of certain words is made obvious by their being grouped together. Take the word “just.” Now, we writers are continually told to limit our use of this word, but as I watched of Oz The Wizard, it became clear that “just” occurs many, many times in the film. Yet it’s never jumped out at me when watching the movie in its original format. This is because that’s the way folks speak; we use the word all the time. So maybe it is okay not to get too stressed about using “just” in my own books (especially in dialogue).

In addition, certain colorful words that appear only once—generally spoken by either the Wizard or the Cowardly Lion—stand out ever so much more in this version of the film, isolated as they are, and made the three of us howl with glee. (The last word of the film, uttered by the Lion, was especially fun. But I won’t give it away here, other than to tell you it begins with a Z.)

And then there are the repeated words from the songs: “somewhere,” “wizard,” “Oz,” “follow,” “yellow,” “road,” “dead,” you get the idea. When spliced so they appear all together in quick succession, they end up creating their own new little songs, which are wonderfully melodic. (The “dead” song was particularly chipper, which we found amusing.)

Oh, and the way the editor, Bucy, groups the sounds (arf!, ahhh, sigh, ai!) is good fun, as well. (I love, love, the Toto scenes all strung together.)

In addition, watching the film cut up in this strange, new way, I found myself drawn to artistic and technical aspects of the film I’d never really noticed before: the beautifully rendered woods in the background during the snow scene; the shape and color of the walls and towers surrounding the City of Oz.

Finally, because you are seeing each different word chronologically each time it appears in the film, you are, in effect, watching mini versions of the entire story over and over again, especially with words that occur many times. Yet each mini version gives a slightly different narrative—kind of like a G-rated Rashomon in Technicolor.

I don’t believe this concept would have worked with any other movie. The Wizard of Oz is so ingrained in our collective consciousness that most Americans (of a certain age, at least) have the script virtually memorized. So, for example, when the frame of the Tin Man saying “heart” flashes by, we know immediately where it belongs in the whole and why it’s important.

It’s funny, but watching of Oz The Wizard in a way gave deeper meaning to the original film. By providing an entirely new way of seeing it, the project made me think about the movie in an entirely new way. But I guess that’s what good art is all about.

So thank you Matt Bucy, for this truly original and mind-opening project!

Friday, December 9, 2016

Turkey Tikka Masala

I have to admit to a bit of an addiction to Chicken Tikka Masala. Its creamy, savory, spicy (did I mention the cream?) flavor truly wows my tastebuds, and I order the dish pretty much every time I go out for Indian food. But according to most accounts, this dish isn’t authentic Indian cuisine at all—it was invented in Great Britain, perhaps even Scotland. (See here for a fascinating history of the dish.) A few years ago, the British Foreign Secretary even declared Chicken Tikka Masala to be the national dish of Great Britain.

“Tikka” refers to the bite-size morsels the chicken is cut into (as opposed to the bone-in leg and thigh pieces traditionally roasted in Tandoor ovens). And “masala” simply means “spice” in Hindi, and is the word commonly used to refer to blends of spices used in cooking. The masala in this case is the spice-flavored sauce.

Because of my love of this Anglo-Indian dish, I was excited to see a recipe for it using leftover Thanksgiving turkey in the New York Times a couple weeks back. (The recipe is here.) So I made it.

my end result, served with rice, cucumber raita, and chutney

Now, not many of you probably still have turkey left over from the holiday, but perhaps you froze some. If not, leftover roast chicken (or one of those grocery store rotisserie birds) will work just as well.

The Marinade

The first thing to do is cut up your cooked turkey or chicken into 1” cubes (4 cups of meat), and get it marinating. Here is my turkey, along with the mortar and pestle I use to crush spices I’ve roasted in a small cast iron skillet.

cubed turkey and coriander seeds

Mix together your spices in a medium sized bowl: 2 t each, garam masala, ground coriander, ground cumin; 1 T paprika or chili powder; 4 t turmeric or curry powder; 1 t salt; 6 med. garlic cloves, crushed; and 4 t finely-chopped ginger:

Then blend the spices with 1 cup yogurt, toss it with the cubed meat, cover and let chill for at least 4 hours, or overnight:

The Sauce

Next, prepare the sauce. SautĂ© a thinly-sliced large onion in 3 T vegetable oil along with more spices: 6 crushed cardamom pods, 1 bay leaf, ½ t red pepper flakes, and a pinch of salt.

Cook the onion mixture over medium heat, stirring occasionally so it doesn’t burn, until brown and soft, about 10 minutes. Then, make a space in the middle of the pan, add another T of oil and let it get hot, then toss in 4 cloves crushed garlic, 2 T finely-chopped ginger, and 2 finely-chopped serrano chili peppers (I omitted the peppers, because Robin doesn’t do spicy food):

Let the garlic and ginger sizzle (like Paris, in the summer) for a few seconds and then mix it into the onions. Now add 2 T tomato paste and a large can (28 oz.) of tomatoes along with its juice (crush them with your hands, first):

Bring the sauce to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for about 10 minutes, until the liquid is mostly gone. Now it’s time for the cream! Hurrah! Pour in 2 cups heavy cream (yum!),

and then add ¾ cup coarsely-chopped cilantro. (Be sure to save some sprigs for the garnish.)

Season to taste with more salt, if needed (the recipe calls for 1½ t salt here, but if your bird was brined or salted, be careful how much you add), and then simmer the sauce over low heat, stirring occasionally, till it thickens—about 40 minutes.

Let it cool down, discard the bay leaf, and then blend the sauce. A hand-held mixer (the kind you stick into the pot) is best, but it can also be done in batches in a regular blender.

all blended and smooth

Broil the Turkey/Chicken

Now for the finish: Line a large roasting pan with foil and lay the turkey pieces in a single layer upon it. (Add any remaining marinade in the bowl to the sauce. Since you’re using pre-cooked poultry, no worries about salmonella!)

Broil on high until the turkey starts to blacken in spots. (Keep an eye on it, as it can go from perfect to burnt-to-a-crisp in a flash!) No need to turn the meat over, though you may need to rotate the roasting pan once.

Dump the broiled meat into the sauce and reheat it till warmed through. Add the juice of one lemon and stir into sauce. Serve over steamed rice with cilantro garnish. (See photo at top of post for my results.)

This may all seem like a lot of work—and Indian food, though not complicated to make, can be labor intensive—but this recipe made enough for three meals for Robin and me. Gonna make it again, for sure!

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Roasted Red Pepper Soup

My last blog post showed how to preserve all those red peppers you may have harvested this year from your late-summer garden, by roasting them and jarring them in olive oil.

Today I’ll show you just how simple it is to make a robust soup from those peppers (which would make an excellent first course for Thanksgiving!).

Take the jarred peppers from the fridge and let them come up to room temperature, so the olive oil becomes liquid. Then remove the roasted peppers from the jar, leaving the oil behind. (The red-hued olive oil is tasty, and can be used as a dipping sauce for bread, or to flavor potatoes, salads, or any number of things.)

Place the peppers in a large pot and pour in chicken stock (vegetable or turkey stock would work well, too). For two small jars of peppers, I used about two quarts of stock:

a trippy photo of my stock and roasted peppers in the pot
(the glistening is from the olive oil that was on the peppers)

Bring the stock and peppers to a simmer, and then let cool down enough that you can blend them. I used a hand-held blender—the kind you stick into the pot and turn on. (Just make sure to keep it submerged, or you’ll have red splatter all over your kitchen and folks will think it’s a murder scene.) But you could also pour it into a regular blender, in batches.

Next, if (like me) you didn’t peel your peppers after roasting, you’ll need to strain the skins out:

Then pour the blended and strained soup back into your pot, reheat, and add whipping cream. I used about a pint:

looks like an alien planet

Here it is with the cream mixed in:

That’s it. Easy-peasy, no? Just season with salt and pepper to taste, serve with a dollop of yogurt and chopped chives, and voilĂ ! (See top photo.)

Friday, November 4, 2016

What To Do With a Peck of Peppers

If you were lucky enough to have planted a vegetable garden last summer, you may—like me—have an overabundance of red bell peppers sitting in your fridge right about now. Now, I love red peppers. That’s why I planted them. But there’s no way I’ll be able to eat them all before they go bad, no matter how many stir fries, fajitas, or Thai curries I prepare over the next few weeks. I therefore needed a way to preserve them.

halved and seeded and ready to bake

Red peppers are at their best when they’ve been roasted, so that was what I decided to do with this year’s harvest. I halved and seeded them, tossed them with olive oil, and laid them out on a roasting pan. (Place them on foil or parchment paper, because the burnt pepper pyuck is a pain to clean off the pan.)

I then roasted them in a hot oven (450° F) for about 20-25 minutes—rotating the pan as needed so they roasted evenly—until the skins were starting to blacken.

Here's a close-up: 

Make sure to keep an eye on them as they roast,
as they can go from light brown to black in no time!

As you can see, the peppers shrink some as they cook. Dump the peppers into a bowl and cover it with plastic wrap, to let the them steam. Once they had cooled, the skins should slide off easily. If not, you can scrape the meat off the skins with a butter knife. (Or, if you’re lazy like me, leave the skins on. They add more smoky flavor to the peppers, and will add fiber to your diet!)

I then placed them in glass jars and poured olive oil on top, enough to cover the peppers. They’ll keep for weeks in the refrigerator (though the olive oil will congeal and turn cloudy as it hardens).

I’m going to use the peppers for a roasted pepper soup this weekend. In my next post I’ll show you what I did, and give you the results.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

The Pleasures of the Table

In my never-ending study of food and cooking, I’ve been dipping into the writings of the 19th century French essayist Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, in particular, his Physiology of Taste (a delightful translation by M.F.K. Fisher).

Now, I love to throw dinner parties, so I was particularly interested in the chapter in his treatise dedicated to “the Pleasures of the Table.” “This pleasure,” Brillat-Savarin says, “can be savored almost to the full whenever the four following conditions are met with: food at least passable, good wine, agreeable companions, and enough time.”

“The Professor” (as M.F.K. Fisher refers to him) then goes on to query, “[b] can one possibly assemble, in this year of grace 1825, a meal which will meet all the conditions necessary to attain the ultimate in the pleasures of the table?” In response to this question, he provides us with a list of rules:

I am about to answer that question. Draw near, Reader, and pay heed: it is Gasterea, the loveliest of the muses, who inspires me; I shall speak more clearly than an oracle, and my precepts will live throughout the centuries.

“Let the number of guests be no more than twelve, so that conversation may always remain general;

“Let them be so chosen that their professions will be varied, their tastes analogous, and that there such points of contact that the odious formality of introductions will not be needed;

“Let the dining room be more than amply lighted, the linen of dazzling cleanliness, and the temperature maintained at from sixty to sixty-eight degrees Farenheit;

“Let the gentlemen be witty without pretension, and the ladies charming without too much coquetry;

“Let the dishes be of exquisite quality, but limited in their number, and the wines of the first rank also, each according to its degree;

“Let the progression of the former be from the most substantial to the lightest, and of the latter from the simplest wines to the headiest;

“Let the tempo of eating be moderate, the dinner being the last affair of the day: the guests should behave like travelers who must arrive together at the same destination;

“Let the coffee be piping hot, and the liqueurs of the host’s especial choice;

“Let the drawing room which awaits the diners be large enough to hold a card table for those who cannot do without it, with enough space left for after-dinner conversations;

“Let the guests be disciplined by the restraints of polite society and animated by the hope that the evening will not pass without its rewarding pleasures;

“Let the tea be not too strong, the toast artfully buttered, and the punch made with care;

“Let the leavetakings not begin before eleven o’clock, but by midnight let every guest be home and abed.”

If anyone has attended a party combining all these virtues, he can boast that he has known perfection, and for each one of them which has been forgotten or ignored he will have experienced the less delight.

Although nearly two centuries have now passed since the Professor’s time, I believe that he is right: Most of his precepts do indeed still live on—and hold true perhaps even more so now, in this era of instantaneous satisfaction of ones desires (think cell phones, laptops, fast food), than they did in the 19th century.

We could all stand to learn from the Professor, and take more time to sit down with friends at the table and pass a leisurely evening in animated conversation whilst savoring a homemade meal (not to mention that buttered toast and punch which follow!).

On another topic, I have just revamped my author website, so feel free to check it out!

Friday, August 19, 2016

Cover Reveal—A Measure of Murder

I’ve had to keep this under my toque for the past month, but am now finally at liberty to reveal the cover for the second in my Sally Solari Mystery series, entitled A Measure of Murder:

Here’s a taste of the new book:

Sally Solari is busy juggling work at her family’s Italian restaurant, Solari’s, and helping Javier plan the autumn menu for the restaurant she’s just inherited, Gauguin. Complicating this already hectic schedule, Sally joins her ex-boyfriend Eric’s chorus, which is performing a newly discovered version of her favorite composition, the Mozart Requiem. But then, at the first rehearsal, a tenor falls to his death on the church courtyard—and his soprano girlfriend is sure it wasn’t an accident.

Now Sally's back on another murder case mixed in with a dash of revenge, a pinch of peril, and a suspicious stack of sheet music. And while tensions in the chorus heat up, so does the kitchen at Gauguin—set aflame right as Sally starts getting too close to the truth. Can Sally catch the killer before she’s burnt to a crisp, or will the case grow as cold as yesterday’s leftovers?

In a stew of suspects and restaurateurs, trouble boils over in the second in Leslie Karst’s tasty and tantalizing Sally Solari mystery series, A Measure of Murder.

A Measure of Murder is scheduled for release February 14, 2017, and yes, it’s already available for pre-order on Amazon!

Friday, July 15, 2016

When is a Fruit a Vegetable?

I think about food a lot, probably because I seem to be perpetually hungry (the result, no doubt, of the increasing need to limit my caloric intake, since the older I get the less efficiently my body is able to burn those calories).

Recently, my food thoughts turned to the question, what exactly is the “official” difference between a vegetable and a fruit? You know the problem: A bell pepper is the fruiting part of the plant, is brightly colored, has seeds, and looks like a fruit. So why is it referred to as a vegetable?

this one clearly has “fruiting” parts

A search on the web reveals numerous articles on the subject of “fruit vs. vegetable.” (See, e.g., here.) Certain plant foods are easy to classify: The non-seed-bearing parts—e.g., the leaves, stem, root—are almost (but see below) always vegetables, both in the botanical and culinary worlds.

definitely vegetables

The confusion arises with regard to the seed-bearing parts of plants. For instance, the flowers, if eaten before they produce seeds, are classified as vegetables. Thus, cauliflower and broccoli are vegetables, even though they would go to seed if left uncut.

cauli and romanesco

There are, in fact, two different definitions for “fruit”: the scientific one, and the culinary one. In botany, a fruit is simply the seed-bearing part of any plant. Thus, green beans are fruit in scientific terms.

In culinary terms, however, a botanical fruit is only a “fruit” if it is sweet. Harold McGee offers up this definition of culinary fruits in his wonderful treatise, On Food and Cooking:

Culinary fruits are distinguished from vegetables by one important characteristic: they’re among the few things we eat that we’re meant to eat. Many plants have engineered their fruits to appeal to the animal senses, so that animals will eat them and disperse the seeds within. These fruits are the natural world’s soft drinks and candies, flashily packaged in bright colors, and test-marketed through millions of years of natural selection.

natural selection meets human tinkering in a fruit

[Culinary fruits] tend to have a higher sugar content, to satisfy the innate liking for sweetness shared by all animals. They have a pronounced and complex aroma, which may involve several hundred different chemicals, far more than any other natural ingredient. [Ed. note: the genome of the pinot noir grape was sequenced a few years back, revealing that it has more genes in its DNA than the human genome.]

not pinot noir, but still complex

And they soften themselves to an appealingly tender, moist consistency. By contrast, the plant foods that we treat as vegetables remain firm, have either a very mild flavor—green beans and potatoes—or else an excessively strong one—onions and cabbage—and therefore require the craft of the cook to make them palatable.

sweet and soft mangoes

Sounds simple, non? But wait—there’s a hitch. Turns out that there are some seed-bearing parts of plants that are not sweet, but which are nevertheless often classified as fruits in the culinary world. The avocado, for example, is considered a fruit by many cooks. (See, e.g. here.) Perhaps this is because it is sometimes used in desserts, such as avocado pie.

the first avocado from my tree

And that’s not all. There are non-seed-bearing plant parts that are considered fruits by many cooks, such as rhubarb (see, e.g., here.) This is no doubt because, although it isn’t sweet, rhubarb is used as a fruit in making desserts.

And then sometimes it takes the U.S. Supreme Court to decide whether the plant part is a fruit or vegetable. (Yep, I’m an ex-lawyer, as is my protagonist, Sally Solari.) In Nix v. Hedden (1893), the court observed that tomatoes are “usually served at a dinner in, with, or after the soup, fish, or meat, which constitute the principal part of the repast, and not, like fruits, generally as dessert.” Thus, the court determined, the tomato was a vegetable, and subject to the Tariff Act.

So, how do you cooks and non-cooks out there define fruits and vegetables? Do share any amusing stories you might have on this conundrum! 

sometimes fruits and veg go well together, too!