SILENCE HAS A NAME - Poetry Chapbook and CD, with Music by Mark Hanley

Monday, September 27, 2010

What's the Matter with Caesar?

Next time you order an "award-winning" salad at a mall restaurant, no matter how cool the restaurant name may seem or how much of the moment, don't expect award-winning taste. You probably won't get it.

As you've probably gathered by now, I'm particularly hopeful about getting good food when I dine out. And I have my compulsions and likes.  Sunday afternoon, we went out to a place called Papa razzi -- because I like the name -- and I felt compelled to order their "award winning "Caesar, over and above some very fine sounding pasta dishes and other combos that might have attracted a vegetarian like me.

I wasn't that hungry. And I wanted the salad, a variety that I particularly like, and to see what made it so special.

I do love Caesars. I get a masochistic thrill out of ordering a pile of Romaine leaves tossed with sprinkles of cheese and crumbs of bread that usually runs me about eight bucks a plate. But here's the real reason I order Caesars. It's one of those supremely simple dishes that really can be exquisitely made. As the story goes with eggs with me, I'm also in search of the perfect Caesar. It's a love thing.

When I lived in Connecticut, I had a girlfriend with whom I used to lunch two or three times a week, and it was always Caesar. Seems like we enjoyed some mighty fine ones up and down Fairfield County, in Greenwich, New Canaan, Westport and Weston in the late 1990s, and maybe that stint with Caesars spoiled me with the dish for good. I didn't eat out as often as my pal did, but whenever we went for our pedis and manis together, we went for our Caesars too.

The best Caesars I've had seemed casual enough, until you pop a leaf of lettuce in your mouth. You can see there's dressing, and its taste is definitive and refreshing -- and the crunch of croutons, satisfying. Afterwards, you feel like you've had a meal.

The Caesar I had at Papa razzi yesterday did not make my top 10 list or even come close. It was pretty forgettable. And that in itself is a sin for a dish so simple.

Although they were crispy, the leaves tasted like water and it was that rather than the flavor of dressing that seeped into my mouth. Secondly, the anchovy dressing didn't taste remotely like anchovies -- more like a thimbleful of lightly peppered mayonaisse.  And the salad was topped with thin slivers of oily crackers so painful to bite and so awkward, that with each chew, I felt I was massacring the lining inside my cheeks. The only good part of the salad was the decent parmesan.

The three unforgiveables with salad are: yellowy leaves, watery leaves and an unappetizing appearance. This Caesar looked well enough, but it wasn't savory.

I'm glad I wasn't that hungry.

I'm not going to review the place from which my Caesar came. I loathe reviews. Who the eff is anybody to walk in anywhere and start tearing down what in some cases has taken somebody or a group of people a lifetime to create. But I am going to suggest that any joint that opts to write "award-winning" next to the Caesar on its menu better make sure it not only presents an eye-catching fancy, but a salad that tastes as good as it looks!

But here's what I have to say to the cooks at Papa razzi's. Make a decent dressing for chrissakes -- get water off the leaves and get some croutons or chips that are not only incredibly tasty, but crumble easily. A Caesar should be a work of art with a unique and memorable combination of tastes! Tart, crunchy and delightful.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

A Passion for Politics and People

        James Dette has created a colorful and authentic portrait in Rollmops, A Novel of Local Politics, in the process demonstrating a keen ear for dialogue and the details that make up diverse characters. In Hoboken politician, Johnny Kavanaugh, Dette has created a familiar protagonist whose folly and trials, the reader eagerly follows.  Anyone who's ever attended a council meeting or been involved with local politics, will recognize the humor and classic elements of this scene:

       "'Of course,' came a voice from the rear. 'The realtors are going to cash in.' There was a murmur of agreement accompanied by the tapping of the president's pencil.
       'Please,' said Maurice. 'Everyone will have a chance to speak. Mr. Davidson, please get to the point.' He wanted to avoid a long speech supporting the project.
       'Thank you. I will.' Sensing the mood of the audience, Davidson said, 'I just want to object to the Councilman Kavanaugh's characterization of the developers as greedy.'
        Without waiting for Maurice's recognition, Johnny responded, 'As my mother would say, Mr. Davidson, 'Those developers would skin a gnat for its tallow.'"
        Dette is currently at work on a novel titled, The Tree in Calle Sulaco, set in the mid 1960s that will combine politics and love, American oil interests and indigenous rights; its climax "portends events in Latin America for decades to come," Dette has written. According to Dette, his work for the American Institute for Free Labor Development in Ecuador "provided the grist for this novel."

        He resides in Weehawken, New Jersey, and has published travel articles, commentaries and opinion pieces for such venues as The New York Times, Street News and The Record. Rollmops is his first novel and is available through Full Court Press and Amazon.com.

Arya's Double Cheese and Veggie OMelet

           This is of course the perfect meal to enjoy with a cup of steaming espresso on a Saturday or Sunday morning.

           As most of you who read my blog know, I've been on a quest to create the perfect omelet. This one is as close as I've come. The ingredients: four scrambled eggs, sauteed portobello mushrooms with a bit of fresh garlic and a dash of tamari sauteed in olive oil; mozzarella cheese, Hungarian paprika --it has a duskier flavor than the usual variety -- fresh spinach leaves, sprinklings of parmesan and pepper.

          It works!
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Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Where's That Decent Veggie Burger?

I was at a diner last night with some friends and felt compelled to order yet again one of those meals I know will leave me feeling empty, despite how it looks on the menu. Veggie burgers always look appetizing, but rarely taste as well as they look.

I know this, and yet I am driven to keep trying.

What is it about a veggie burger? I can't tell you how many kinds I've tried, and how rarely I have actually enjoyed one. I've tasted the cardboard type, the hockey puck variety, the kind that crumbles at the touch, and the kind that tastes like a cross between your cat's dry food and your dog's canned food.

The best veggie burger I ever had was in a little shop in Boardman, Ohio, called The Flaming Ice Cube. The burger was juicy, fat, delicious. It still crumbled, but The Flaming Ice Cube's variety is as close to perfection as they come.

I do know vegetarian burgers are the only kind for me. The last time I had a McDonald's burger, I was 20 and the thing I ate, made of horse meat or something like it, sat in my gut for about three days. I knew then that I simply couldn't do cheap burgers any more. It would be a while before I'd go vegetarian, but I still love burgers and I'm still looking for a vegetarian one that will do.

I looked up a few recipes to see what's going on. Part of the challenge is getting the food binder right. Some binder ingredients -- like brown rice and seitan -- can feel like lead. The answer is to boil or steam the seitan before adding it to the mix. Lighter binders can be made using egg whites, lentils and bread crumbs.

Here are some standard ingredients for those of you who want to try putting together your own veggie burger: brown lentils and brown rice, dried thyme and dry mustard, eggs, garlic, black pepper, parsley, mushrooms, onion, shredded beets, carrots and zucchini and textured veggie protein, tomato paste and soy sauce or Tamari.

Personally, I prefer Tamari. It's like a rich soy sauce, without wheat., and I use it on everything. My favorite salad dressing is a blend of tamari and olive oil. I season stir fry dishes and soups with tamari; I've even used it on eggs. I've used it on everything but drinks, although I can actually fathom adding it like tabasco to some late night wild concoction. I could even add it to Diet Coke, for an extra sweet zing!

The next time I make my own veggie burger at home, I'm going to add Tamari and coke to the mix. If it doesn't work, I'm going to toss chopped garlic, onions, peppers, seitan, lentils, tomato paste, tamari and a splash of coca cola into a pan and get down with some sloppy joes!

Monday, September 6, 2010

A Nightmare Turns to Hope

Lost No More, A Mother's Spiritual Journey Through Her Son's Addiction, by Marilyn Burns M.S., L.P.C.C. and Christopher Burns is the most compelling memoir on the subject of drug addiction and its effect on loved ones that I've read. It's no-holds barred and gut-wrenching, and the reader won't be spared. But at the end of the grueling feelings and processes, after the last page is turned, the reader also finds she has gained illumination and understanding about the devastation of the disease and the power that hope and faith can have in combatting it. One marvels at the courage it took to write this story, which turns out to be a one-of-a-kind primer on how to survive the unfathomable -- the loss of a child through drug abuse.

Most of the popular memoirs on drug and alcohol abuse such as Elizabeth Wurtzel's Prozac Nation, and Augusten Burroughs's Dry, were written by addicts and alcoholics who survived their periods of insanity and could recount them, looking back with wry humor and wisdom. Chris Burns did not survive his addiction, but it is clear his spirit lives on, and his mother, Marilyn, a mental health counselor, makes a valiant effort channeling it and her attempts to save her son, for the reader. A single mother who raised two sons on her own, she never let up trying to support and understand her son's multiple problems, which included ADD/ADHD and addiction to opiates.

After years of struggling with addiction, Chris succumbed from a heart attack induced by drugs in April 2007 at the age of 23. Anyone who has suffered from addiction or has been impacted by the disease knows that no amount of brilliant effort or consistent love can prevent the addict from using, unless he himself makes that choice. At the same time, it is deeply poignant to realize as one reads excerpts from Chris's letters to his mother, how much he wanted to stop abusing drugs and to become the healthy, happy young man he believed he was meant to be and how aware he was of the perils of his disease. This cautionary tale seems doubly tragic when one realizes how much Chris loved his mother and family and how much he wanted to survive addiction.

According to recent statistics, opiate use is up among youth across the U.S. Last month, the online version of University of Washington News reported that in 2009, 160 out of 253 deaths from drug overdoses in King County were from opiates. By comparison, in 1997, there were only 21 prescription-type opiate deaths in that county. A recent online post by Addiction Recovery Legal Services (ARL), a Web site dedicated to helping to families of addicts, states that "five people in Florida die every day as a direct result of prescription drug overdoses, including from hydrocodone (e.g. vicodin) and oxycodone (e.g. oxycontin)." At one point in his journey with drug abuse, Chris was in Florida, trying, but failing to get his life underway. One of the most powerful moments in the book occurs as Marilyn describes an instinctive search she makes of her son's apartment, a search that confirms her worst fears, leading as it does to the discovery, on her birthday no less, that her son is using heroin.

Lost No More is as much a story of harrowing loss as it is of relentless hope. While there is no longer hope for Chris's recovery from drugs, it is clear his spirit and power of love live on through his mother's words, his memory and the lessons of his experience.

Lost No More is available through http://www.amazon.com/, and additional information on the book can be accessed via http://www.lostnomore.us/.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Paris Ahoy!

"It's amazing how you can make the right decision for all the wrong reasons," Elizabeth Bard, Lunch in Paris

You can argue the opposite, which is truer to the way I've lived: It's amazing how you can make the wrong decision for all the right reasons. But let's not live with regret. Je ne regret rien! It's nasty, and one has to forgive oneself for making mistakes, gargantuan as they may sometimes feel. We're human after all, just hungry humans browsing the bookstores of life and art and time.

Speaking of which, while perusing the Food & Cooking section at my local Borders today, I realized I've had enough of reading about famous chefs whose faces and names have been played out by the media. I wonder whether these stars still take a slow or mindful approach to cuisine, or if they ever did. Or whether they're dominated by anything besides the need to make a bigger buck. And so, today, I went searching for the new name, an author I did not know that might have something fresh to tell me about the art of cooking and a place I'd like to visit -- in this case, visit once more.

Elizabeth Bard's Lunch in Paris, A Love Story with Recipes is pithy and delightful, immediately engrossing. If you love falling in love, enjoy romantic tales, have visited or wish to see Paris and dine on fabulous, rich, simple food, you'll want to pluck this off the shelf. Bard's adventures launch with her fateful first date, lunch with Gwendal, a Frenchman doing Ph.D. research on how to archive film and video on the Internet. Elizabeth and Gwendal proceed to his apartment to have tea and make love. The rest of the story is about the recipes Bard encounters as her romance with Paris and Gwendal unfold.

Gwendal introduces her to simple, yet provocative dishes: "Student" Charlotte, or Charlotte Aux Abricots (Ladyfingers), Pasta a la Gwendal, with minced vegetables olive oil, garlic and onion. Over the next months and years, Paris unfurls recipes and magic. There are infinite varieties of croissants, yogurt cakes, and of course chocolate desserts like chocolate souffle cake. There are lively descriptions of sidestreet cafes and delicate and insouciant meals. The experience of spending weekends with Gwendal, season after season, leads to the inevitable moment when Bard finds herself standing in her clod-hopper high school sneakers with the man of her dreams on a wintry Parisian street as he affirms simply and unequivically that he loves her and wants to marry her.

Parisian fare plays an important role through Bard's courtship and marriage, but after the melt-in-your mouth meats and fancy desserts, it all comes down to cheese. You can't talk about food in France without mentioning cheese. Among other things, the wedding party gets to relish a peppery Salers, goat cheese, and comte, which is a bit like sweetened Parmesan.

Bard, an ex-pat, awakens the reader to a Paris of dreams, where one encounters not only a variety of intriguing dishes, all of which seems to include, pepper, garlic, olive oil and butter, those staples of fine cuisine, but a unique assortment of friends too -- like the refined Katherine, the devlish Kekla, and the emphatically French, Axelle.

Lunch in Paris reminded me of a simple maxim that has held true for me over the years, that people who pay attention to the kinds of food they prepare and serve at home, who go out of their way to please and to surprise, also pay attention to the art of love. It only stands to reason that in the city of love, there is also extraordinary food.