The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Hot Pepper Chutney

It took me an alarmingly long time to finish reading Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. I’m usually a really quick reader and have to remind myself to slow down and savor– but this time I naturally did just that. I didn’t want the book to end– and sometimes it seemed like it never would!

With the last of my Amazon credits, I bought the newest Murakami, with its pretty cover, for a steal. There have been excerpts of it in The New Yorker, so I wanted my memories of those to get dusty before I delved into the book properly. Do you ever do that? I can’t remember which author it was now, but not too long ago I eagerly picked up a new collection only to find that I’d read most of it in pieces and it didn’t feel like I was reading anything new at all! It’s funny how in music, I like that. With reading, I don’t. Anyway, so I wanted to forget the pieces of Murakami I’d read in the magazine, so I thought I’d read the one book that everybody else seemed to have read but me. Seriously, if anyone ever wanted to label me a hipster, I’m pretty sure I could stymie them by pointing out that I just finished reading The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle this month and so couldn’t possibly be fashionable enough to be a hipster– if they existed, because I really don’t think they actually do. I think they are an imaginary group of people invented by people who are terrified that somebody might be trendier than them. [Related: I just Googled “what is a wind up bird” because isn’t it supposed to be a real bird, too? And there are So Many Tattoos. So many.]

I loved the detailed density of the book, and the squishy plot, and all the World War II passages interspersed in teeny tiny italics. That font made me need bifocals even more than I already do. I hardly ever use the font-changing function on my Kindle, but now I see why it exists. I read this book in paperback form, though, and I’m glad I did. I like the Kindle better for things I suspect I might not want to read again. The classics, however, I still like to hold in my hot little hands.

I identified with jobless Toru and the way he passed his time before things got really crazy– though my favorite character by far was May Kasahara. I didn’t find her particularly morbid, as many reviewers have. Does that mean that I’m morbid, too? It probably does. Sometimes, when I’m doing something in the kitchen, I pause and look around and think, “How many of these things will outlive me? What will somebody else be using from my kitchen sixty years from now?” It sure makes you look at your forks and mugs in a new way, I’ll tell you that.

Also, the way Toru passed through the well wall and reality and time– I loved that. It felt so real, even more real than the bits that were supposed to be in the present reality. Perhaps it was just that those moments felt so much more intense, and my brain was on high alert trying to make sense of it all, and so it felt more real. At any rate, this is the sort of book I’ll reread, so I’m glad a got a paper copy. I ordered from Amazon, used, and it ended up coming from a little place in Berkeley, and the book itself was stamped all over as having come from the discard pile at the Berkeley Public Library! I like getting used books– especially used library books, since then I can see where they were read– and I like imagining who read the book before me. Were they at home? On the toilet? In a cafe? Did they have cats? Did they hate the book or like it? Sometimes I get more out of used books than new– though the smell of a new book is pretty aesthetically pleasing too.

Just for kicks, here is an interview with Murakami in The Paris Review. I love all of those interviews, and if you don’t read them occasionally, you should.

In other news, I don’t know if you know this, but I can finish off a jar of hot pepper jelly within a week, the whole time bemoaning the fact that it is not spicy enough. To fix this, I made myself some Hot Pepper Chutney. It was fan-freaking-tastic. I winged it with the contents of my CSA box that I needed to use up, so the measurements are a little funky (as always).

Hot Pepper Chutney

1 pint plums, pitted and chopped

1 shallot, diced

2 serranos, deseeded to taste, diced

1/2 a yellow bell or Spanish pepper

an equal or slightly less than equal weight of sugar

dash curry powder

star anise

3 cardamom pods

3 cloves

juice of one lime

(depending on the juiciness of your plums, you may need a splash of water)

Let it all simmer for about twenty minutes, cool slightly, then pour into a waiting jar. I should probably get all technical about boiling jars and stuff, but I usually just make one jar at a time and eat it up fairly quickly, so I don’t. Also: I let mine simmer too long while I talked on the phone with my mom, so it’s almost like candy and I have to melt it in the microwave to scoop to out. So let that be a lesson to you! Don’t talk on the phone while you’re trying to make a chutney.

From Wikimedia Commons: Community Gardening- Wartime Food Production at Rowney Green, Worcestershire, England, UK, 1943 Members of the Women's Institute hard at work making jam in the Peace Hall (an army hut converted into a village hall) at Rowney Green, Worcestershire. Labelling the jam jars in the foreground are Mrs Lee (left) and Mrs Dodd. Weighing the fruit in the centre of the photograph is Mrs Nutting. Another WI member can be seen behind her, also hard at work. The fruit was provided by people in the village, from their own gardens, and the sugar came from the government. According to the original caption, this centre has made nearly a ton and three-quarters of jam in the three seasons since the scheme began.
From Wikimedia Commons: Community Gardening- Wartime Food Production at Rowney Green, Worcestershire, England, UK, 1943
Members of the Women’s Institute hard at work making jam in the Peace Hall (an army hut converted into a village hall) at Rowney Green, Worcestershire. Labelling the jam jars in the foreground are Mrs Lee (left) and Mrs Dodd. Weighing the fruit in the centre of the photograph is Mrs Nutting. Another WI member can be seen behind her, also hard at work. The fruit was provided by people in the village, from their own gardens, and the sugar came from the government. According to the original caption, this centre has made nearly a ton and three-quarters of jam in the three seasons since the scheme began.

The Anti-Crab Cake

I really don’t like crab cakes. Perhaps it’s because I’ve never had one from the East Coast or something, or maybe if I lived in Maine I’d be all over them. I don’t like crab (tell me they don’t look like spiders), and I only like mayonnaise in specific situations (on fries!) so crab cakes don’t fill me with excitement.


But, we were low on protein things in the pantry and fridge last night and I spied a lone can of canned salmon. We also had steamed potatoes in the refrigerator (my kid likes mashed potatoes for lunch). Hm. I wondered if that could be made into a  crabless croquette or something? My knowledge of croquettes is minimal, but I knew bread crumbs and potatoes and fish were involved, and I had all three of those things. Of course, I realized as my creations were cooking that I was supposed to put the bread crumbs on the OUTSIDE. Still, they turned out fantastically even though they could have turned out epically nasty, and here is the recipe.

Sorry, no pictures, because we ate them too quickly and it was dark by the time they were done. Also, the name. Salmon balls sounds like a dirty joke, but so far that’s the best name a Twitter-quaintance has come up with.

Salmon Balls

1 can pink salmon

1 large cooked white potato, peeled

1 cup panko breadcrumbs

2 eggs

garlic powder, to taste

dill, to taste

Old Bay seasoning, to taste

salt and pepper, to taste

Mash all of it together really well, and if it is dry (depends on the potato, I think) perhaps add a teensy amount of water. Shape into 1.5 inch balls, dredge in flour, and fry up in a hot pan with olive oil. I sprinkled some red pepper (I’ve got two HUGE jars I meant to use for kimchi, but haven’t made the kimchi…) on top and they combined with the oil to give a nice golden hue to the whole shebang.

To go with, I made some capellini, and added a dollop of cilantro pesto to each plate. Oh! Also, I made a tomato salad that we ended up mixing into the pasta since I forgot to set out salad bowls.

Tomato Salad

3 ripe tomatoes, in 1 inch chunks

2 T olive oil

1 T balsamic vinegar

1 good pinch oregano

1 good pinch mint

Salt and pepper (again, I used red), to taste

Mix it all up and let it sit a few minutes so the flavors can meld.


Onward Ho!

So, Food Riot is no more, which makes me sad not just because I enjoyed writing for it, but because I genuinely enjoyed reading it, all of it, on a regular basis. I mean, that’s why I applied in the first place! But all things must come to an end, and I did get something out of it. A few things, actually.

I can say that I did it. I wrote for a blog and had an audience of strangers for a little while, and it was a good experience. I got to meet (well, not IRL, but virtually) other people who share an interest in food, cooking, books, and sometimes books about food, or who enjoyed pondering about food. That was a happy experience in itself.

Even more lasting, I got back in the saddle when it comes to having a deadline. I NEED a deadline. Wednesdays were my deadline in this case, and I developed a writing schedule for myself. Fridays and Saturdays were days to brainstorm and scribble snatches of ideas onto paper. Sundays and Mondays were for outlining or writing a first paragraph, or doing a little research. Mondays and Tuesdays were for writing the article properly, and Wednesdays were for transferring it into the Food Riot format and finding links or pictures to go with it. The articles were due at the end of business day their time (East Coast), which for me was two in the afternoon(West Coast).

Another thing I am grateful for is that the legitimacy of writing for someone else let me make time to write. “Oh, I’m sorry, I’ve got an article due Wednesday,” I would say, and then I would actually make time for myself to write! Instead of feeling guilty about my little hobby (which I went to school for and have a degree in, yet is still a hobby in my brain) I made time and sat my ass in the chair, my guilt-free ass, and wrote. I think that might be the biggest benefit of all. I got to take myself seriously! For a minute.

The trick now is to keep taking myself seriously, right? Right.

So, I’m going to keep the Wednesday deadline, but for myself. Thursdays and Fridays are for brainstorming and scribbling down ideas. Saturdays through Tuesdays are for hardcore, sitting my ass in the chair and writing, and Wednesdays are for typing it up. I can’t let this experience go to waste. If I let my schedule go, it will be as if I’d never been on board the Food Riot train in the first place.

In other news, I finally got around to reading a book Luke got me for Christmas. I’d started reading the first chapter immediately, but then set it down on a stack of violin cases and forgot about it. The other day I was folding laundry (near the violin cases– they are the sizes too tiny for The Babyhead now) and there it was.

Maurizio De Giovanni’s Everyone in Their Place  is marketed as a noir, and it is a noir, but also has a supernatural veil to it. Commissario has the ability to see the last thirty seconds or so of a victim’s life, replayed over and over, as though life’s a glitchy  VHS tape. The scenes in which his ability, called The Deed, is revealed in his childhood are riveting, and I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by mentioning it, since it happens so early on and is explained rather early on, too.

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The mystery itself is straightforward. There is a death and many suspects, in a home where there are many entrances and exits. It’s almost like an English Country House mystery, but it’s Italian. I don’t expect a whole lot of surprises here. But what is interesting is the interspersing of first person point of view narrative from, I’m assuming, the killer. This isn’t uncommon anymore, but it’s written in such a way that it holds my interest and I try to figure out who it is, searching the paragraphs for clues, and it escapes cliché in the process.

The only speck of supernaturalism is in the victim replaying her last moments to the Commissario whenever he is in the house– I see dead people!– but I wonder if there will be more of a display towards the end of the book, just as there was more about it in the beginning of the book. I wouldn’t mind. I would welcome it, in fact. I’m not sure if it’s the translation or the original, but some of the best writing comes from these odd little scenes. They’re effectively creepy, in a grotesque and harrowing sort of way.

Only time will tell!

Egg Cups or Bust

All in all, I think I can safely say that it is all the fault of PBS. I started watching Masterpiece Theater and Mystery! at an early age, when Alastair Cooke and Vincent Price were the respective hosts. I even named one of my teddy bears Alastair. When you’ve been watching British shows for that long, there are going to be some repercussions, and in my case one of those repercussions was a teapot obsession. I mean, those people are always taking breaks for tea.

But I lived in a tiny, 750 square foot house, and so my passion for teapots could only go so far, because I was running out of room. I moved on to teacups.

I didn’t go for the precious porcelain teacups. No, I collected the well-used ones with chips, or the ones that looked like something someone’s grandmother would use if she also happened to live in a cottage. I had a whole imaginary world attached to these teapots and teacups, and knew that my world and an actual Britain were two very different things. I liked both pots and cups to be a little sturdy and preferably blue and white and Wedgewood-ish.

This obsession had a better shelf life, and when I got married I even registered for Denby, because it’s one of those quintessential British brands and the Wedgewood selections that year looked a little frou-frou. Twelve years later, and I’m still not tired of my Denby pattern, so good on me!

But I couldn’t go on collecting teacups, because I already had quite a lot of teapots, and teacups and saucers also take up a lot of display space– especially when you are a new married, sharing your apartment space with someone’s guitars and pedal boards, and amps big enough to use as table extensions (I did take a larger one and stick it next to the kitchen table, then toss a pretty tablecloth over the whole deal).

Well, go gung-ho for egg cups, obviously.

I had always thought they were cute, I won’t lie, and I even had a favorite few that I used for soft boiled eggs, but once I had reached teacup saturation, I started scouring secondhand shops and Cost Plus for egg cups instead.

They are the perfect foodie thing to collect. Small, food-related, and not very easy to find. I have most of the newer kinds of egg cups, so I focus on antiques now, just to purposefully slow my habit down. Also, I like to actually use my collection, so I try to buy designs that are not so precious or delicate that I will be afraid to use them.

My very favorite egg cup is one that does double duty, since it has a cup sized for chicken eggs and another for what I’m assuming are goose eggs. Who even eats those anymore? It’s very plain but has an attractive craquelure, and says Grindley England on it.

Anglophilia can take many forms. Observe Eggs-hibit A: the egg cup.
Anglophilia can take many forms. Observe Eggs-hibit A: the egg cup.

A collection that isn’t used is not, in my opinion, very interesting. Part of the fun for me is admiring the thing (in this case, an egg cup) while I am using it. I like to think about who used it before me, and what their day must have been like after breakfast. Was it a girl, like me? Was she a WREN, or a factory worker? Did she have a boyfriend or solve mysteries or have high tea at the Savoy? Probably none of these things, but they were fun scenarios to imagine while I was poking toast soldiers into a soft boiled egg.


Beyond Kebabs

Most of the time, if you mention Armenian food, people conjure up images of lula kebabs and pilaf. And while I can’t go too long without lula (Beef? Lamb? Hello, the best of both possible worlds!) Armenian food does not end there. The next time you have a chance, venture into your local Armenian (or in some cases Middle Eastern) market and add some new staples to your pantry and refrigerator!

Until you have tried Armenian string cheese, you have not lived. We can’t keep it more than a day or two, because it gets ravenously snacked on as soon as it hits the refrigerator. It is a little saltier and a tad denser than the more familiar mozzarella variety, and black caraway (or nigella sativa) seeds are embedded within and permeate the entire cheese with their unique, herbal, almost oniony flavor. My husband likes to put it in grilled cheese sandwiches, or in pita with tomatoes and cucumbers– but my favorite way to devour it is simply to rip it off into ropy chunks and eat it straight.

There was a lot more cheese on this plate before I started taking pictures of it.
There was a lot more cheese on this plate before I started taking pictures of it.

There is an Easter bread that sometimes can be found during other times of the year, and if you are a fan of panettone, pan dulce or Greek Easter bread (tsoureki), you might also be a future fan of choreg. It has a faintly sweet, eggy dough speckled with nigella seeds, is braided, and then brushed with egg yolks for a pretty finish. If you see a bag of it, BUY IT. They look a bit like dinner rolls, but are so much better. Also, they make a really kickass bread pudding if substituted for the usual boring bread. Trust me on this.

One of my husband’s work friends knows he has a weakness for cured meats, so she brought him some basturma. I could see why this might not be to everyone’s taste– it is air-cured and still a raw pink, and while not hot-spicy does retain an herbal flavor from the cumin paste that was rubbed on it as it dried. I’m an adventurous eater, but it took me a few bites to rid myself of what I thought it should taste like, versus what it actually did taste like. I also found that I liked it better if I went ahead and pan fried it like prosciutto or if I put it on pizza. We have gone back to get more, but go when it isn’t too busy, because it takes a while to get shaved off and it’s rather intimidating to have a line of impatient Armenian grandmothers behind you.

I absolutely love that a basturma GIF exists! Photo credit: Nevit Dilmen
I absolutely love that a basturma GIF exists! Photo credit: Nevit Dilmen

The latest new thing we tried was also a present from our friend: Tarragon soda. What? I’ve got a history of putting tarragon on chicken, but that’s about it. It never ever occurred to me that it would be a soda flavor. But we tried it and liked it! Well, my daughter didn’t like it, but she doesn’t like Torani’s orgeat syrup either, and that is almost exactly what tarragon soda tastes like. That, or a virgin ouzo. I checked the ingredients– all natural tarragon flavor. Go figure!

As a Greek-American who lives in a city with no Greek restaurants or markets, it’s a relief to have Armenian markets to get some Greek standbys– loukoum, dried mint, rose and orange blossom water, and halvah– but it is only lately that I’ve come to appreciate the diasporic nature of Armenian food. Sometimes it is really Russian, sometimes more Turkish, sometimes pan-Middle Eastern– and I think it gets overlooked, blended into a general idea of what a Middle Eastern or Mediterranean cuisine should be instead of appreciated for what it is. Kind of like my reaction to basturma. It looks like prosciutto jerky, so I expected basturma to taste like that. When it didn’t, my tastebuds rebelled– for a moment– then acclimated, then craved.

We are lucky, most Americans, to live in cities where there are little markets tucked into shopping centers that carry food from cultures not our own. Why not branch out? Why not take a peek into another culture through cuisine, like a tiny, armchair version of Anthony Bourdain?

Nix the Mixer

I own a fair amount of kitchen appliances. I have a pressure cooker, a crock pot, an immersion blender, one of those food processor and blender combos, a snow cone machine (which I use all the time, surprisingly), and even a cotton candy maker. But there is one appliance I will never purchase: a hand mixer.

I just don’t understand them. I mean, I get how to use them. You plug them in and mix away. I get that. What I don’t understand is why.

A few years ago, a fellow baking friend was jonesing to make cookies and there was something wrong with her hand mixer. Could she use mine, maybe? I sent her a picture of mine.

This mixer has never failed me.
This mixer has never failed me.

And so the truth came out, and it was that I have never owned a hand mixer. All those endless batches of cookies were stirred by a lone wooden spoon. I simply haven’t encountered a recipe I couldn’t handle with either my trusty wooden spoon, a balloon whisk, an egg beater, or some combination of the three.

Here are my four main reasons.

1. The only things hand mixers truly are useful for can be accomplished by other means. I admit, getting egg whites to stiff peaks is a veritable pain in the ass, even with a balloon whisk or an egg beater– but it’s not something I do very often. Whipped cream, however, is super easy using a jar and some heavy whipping cream (just shake it, shake it, Salome). Other than egg whites and whipped cream, is there another reason for a hand mixer I’m missing?

2. Hand mixers are noisy. Baking is something I do to relax. After a stressful day, a batch of lavender honey shortbread cookies fixes all the wrongs I have encountered. It’s right up there with yoga and foot massages. I don’t think the baking experience could possibly be as relaxing if it started out with metal beaters banging against the inside of a bowl. Hand mixers are just one more noisy thing, like coffee grinders and blenders. If there were such a thing as a silent blender, you’d buy it, wouldn’t you? But a blender does something that I can’t accomplish in any other way, so there’s no other option, really. I do, however, have silent options for hand mixers.

3. They are not as easy to clean. My grandmother had a hand mixer once, and before it broke (how often does a spoon inexplicably break?) we used it, and it was my job to wash off the beaters. It’s like washing off two whisks, and whisks are jerks when you are trying to clean them. Just when you think you are done– just kidding! They will still have goop stuck in some tiny crevice that you only see after it has dried on like glue.

4. When I’m done mixing batter or cookie dough, I usually ask my daughter, “Do you want to lick the spoon?” and she comes running from wherever she was in the house, ready to lick not only the spoon but the bowl, too. Would she react the same way if I called out, “Do you want to lick the beaters?” I mean, that just sounds weird, right?

When my husband and I were getting married and registering at Williams-Sonoma a dozen years ago, it didn’t occur to me for a millisecond to register for a hand mixer– though I am still sore that nobody got me the kitchen torch I did register for. You are probably thinking, “Just go buy a kitchen torch for $30, Jessica!” but all those ramekins I did receive are busy doing other things, and while a massive crème brûlée in a pie plate is enticing, I really don’t know what else I would do with a kitchen torch. Actually, the more I think about it, the more this seems like a really good argument for buying a kitchen torch after all.

But a hand mixer? No, thank you.

In Which I am Judging Your Store-Bought Spreads

Spoiler alert: I’m about to get a bit judgmental.

Whenever I see store-bought hummus at somebody else’s house, I am always a bit surprised. If the person says they love hummus, I know there must be multiple containers of it lurking in their refrigerator or recycling bin. The usual store-bought hummus costs about $3, sometimes more– multiply that by the number of hummus-lovers in the household, and well, that gets expensive quickly!

If you have basic pantry staples and make your own, you will save a lot of money, the hummus will taste better because there are no weird non-olive oils or stabilizers in it, and you will– this is important– have a virtually unending supply of the stuff. Yeah. That got your attention, didn’t it? Okay, I’ll admit that tahini may not be a pantry staple for everyone (yet) but a little goes a long way, and you don’t have to buy it very often. That’s my only caveat. Budget Bytes has a great hummus recipe, plus variations on the theme, and she even does a price breakdown.

Guacamole is another exorbitantly priced dip, usually costing $3-5 (for a ridiculously small container, if you ask me). There’s never enough guac at a party! At its most basic, mash up some avocados and mix in a tablespoon of salsa. But if you want to get more involved, you can’t go wrong with a Rick Bayless recipe.

When I make a gift basket for someone, I like to include a jar of tapenade. Store-bought, they usually have pretty labels and rather decorative jars. For gift giving, that’s fine– but for home use, making your own is much more affordable. I usually just toss some black olives, a clove of garlic, and some olive oil in a food processor and call it a day, but there are so many variations that it’s kind of silly to actually buy it at the store. I like this one, because it’s inspired by Ancient Cretans. Let’s put a little history on our crackers!

Pesto is another pricey example of something quick and simple that is better made at home. You can use nice oil and it’s fresh! This David Lebovitz recipe is superb, but don’t be afraid to leave out the pine nuts or even use a mix of different herbs. It’s one of those things that you can’t mess up.

The last money saver is sweet. Frosting. If you don’t have a food processor or blender, then hummus, tapenade, and pesto are admittedly difficult. But frosting? There’s just no excuse. The only equipment you need is a spoon and a bowl. One of the great joys of life is that magical mixture of sugar and butter, and that’s really all frosting is. If you make it yourself, not only is it cheaper, but there are no preservatives and barring a bizarre kitchen catastrophe, it will taste better than any canned frosting available.

I will probably never understand why anyone would buy any of these things on a regular basis. I’m sure I have a few friends and family members who would be chafed by that statement! But really, none of these spreads take more than ten minutes to make, and they are all cheaper made at home. Is there really any reason not to? What are your homemade money savers?